If you want a reminder of how Daniel Esses built a reputation for himself during a truncated stint as chef at the Bank Café, take a seat in the dining room at the Marigny Brasserie and order his nine-spice shrimp, a velvety, beguiling interpretation of New Orleans-style barbecue shrimp and the same dish he served at the now-shuttered restaurant. To get an update on what Esses has been doing since Katrina cut that earlier job short, however, find a perch at the Marigny Brasserie's bar and try smoked duck spring rolls and lobster egg rolls. Those are two of the tricks the chef picked up during his post-Katrina travels, and they make fitting introductions to the diverse and wide-ranging new menu he has installed at the Faubourg Marigny's most ambitious restaurant in the past few months. From a contemporary Creole foundation, his cuisine blends Asian, Italian and even Middle Eastern flavors into a roster of unique and creative dishes.
Esses cooked his way through New Orleans kitchens over the course of eight years, and he had a hand in forming the Savvy Gourmet back in the days when it was an itinerant cooking school. His first executive chef position came in 2005 when he was hired to open the Bank Café, where a 1920s-era bank lobby in the Marigny was turned into an exciting new contemporary Creole restaurant. The Bank reopened for a time after Katrina, but by then Esses had decided to hit the road. Back in his native New York, he worked with the dim sum chef at Buddakan NYC, an enormous, glitzy Manhattan restaurant that gets as much props for its creative Chinese cuisine as it does for its over-the-top scale and decor. Esses moved back to New Orleans earlier this year and took over the kitchen at Marigny Brasserie. Which brings us to the new spring rolls and egg rolls of Frenchmen Street.
These are among a half-dozen or so tapas-sized snacks that aren't available in the dining room but can add up to a quick, casual and memorable meal at the bar. A paper-thin, fried wrapper encases shreds of spicy duck, while flavors of ginger, soy, lemongrass and orange float through the smokiness of the tender meat. The lobster egg roll, swaddled in a thicker, bubbly, crackly wrapper, has chunks of sweet claw meat and cool bursts of cilantro, celery and cabbage all waiting for a dunk in a spicy chili sauce.
The bar treats are miniaturized four-bite specialties, but Esses' dinner menu is about big flavors, bold combinations and generous portions. That nine-spice shrimp dish, an appetizer, starts with enormous shell-on Gulf shrimp bathing in a dark, thick sauce that is smoky rather than peppery, silken rather than oily, suffused with star anise but still every bit of the mess we expect from traditional barbecue shrimp. Grilled tomatoes plump up the broth for steamed mussels and crisp fries are draped over the clattering pile of blue-black shells. Lamb meatballs are herbaceous and moist, served with both sweet tomato chutney and creamy mint sauce for alternating dips.
My favorite of the entrees is the rabbit, done in the style of a Roman saltimbocca. Pieces of rabbit tenderloin are trussed with salty, crisp proscuitto and set over yielding, fresh-tasting pappardelle noodles, enriched with what tastes like pulled and strewn bits of rabbit.
The Kurobuta pork belly braised with a pungent sweet-and-sour sauce is a contender for the most decadent dish on the menu, but that honor really must go to the hulking portion of short ribs. Melting off the bone, the texture is fatty, luscious and almost too much. The richness is mellowed by a dusting of breadcrumbs and a bed of Swiss chard that cuts through the intensity of the meat for a fresh, slightly bitter contrast.
In addition to a bouillabaisse, there are three mainstay fish options, and each one is distinctive. My favorite is the thick slab of lemonfish crusted with herbs and larded with a bit of olive-infused butter. The delicate lemon flavor of the fish shines through and its firm, dense texture is complemented by pillowy sweet potato gnocchi and oyster mushrooms. Yellowfin tuna is aromatically dusted with Moroccan spices, and an exterior edge of paprika adds unaccustomed warmth to the rare-cooked, cool meat of the fish. A sweet and spicy roasted pepper sauce served on the side tastes like pepper. The most unusual fish preparation is a Middle Eastern treatment of redfish. Its pan-fried crust of mashed chickpeas tastes just like falafel, a multi-grain salad on the side is like tabbouleh, and the sesame vinaigrette hints of tahini.
At lunch, some of the best groceries from the dinner menu get more casual treatments. The lemonfish is grilled and served in a sandwich. Debris from the short ribs and the pork belly join bits of filet in an extraordinarily rich and meaty bolognese.
What hasn't changed at the Marigny Brasserie is the elegance of the cool, airy dining room and the energy of the large bar area, where huge windows frame the action on Frenchmen Street outside. On a street that attracts all kinds, the Marigny Brasserie is its most urbane oasis.