It's interesting to see what happens when a new chef takes over a kitchen. A restaurant's former reputation can linger even when there are changes or new direction.
In 2012, Annunciation openedto critical acclaim for chef Steve Manning's innovative takes on French-Creole cuisine. Manning departed in 2015 and was replaced last year by Jacob Cureton, but Annunciation doesn't quite feel like a new restaurant. There's a strong contemporary push on the menu, but parts of it straddle a line between the past and present.
The dining room still has a distinctly New Orleans charm with exposed brick and white linens creating an atmosphere that feels unassuming and timeless.
Cureton's menu features Creole and Southern influences, and a few dishes have Manning's fingerprints. Fried oysters top spinach under a blanket of melted brie — a holdover from Manning's era and a classic rendition of the decadent dish, but it needs a hint of acid or salt to make the flavors pop.
Roasted beet salad takes a more modern approach, with a third of the plate decorated with tiny dollops of beet puree. That beets and goat cheese make good bedfellows isn't news, but here a citrus segment adds a kick of acid, pecans add crunch and mint sprigs breathe a burst of freshness into the dish. The flavors are bright and lively, and the roasted beets are as sweet as candy. Tiny, melon ball-sized orbs of avocado were underripe on a recent visit, and also seemed unnecessary.
The dishes where Cureton's touch is felt most strongly are outstanding. Seared yellowfin tuna is the focus of a beautiful dish — inspired in part by the chef's travels in Asia — full of bright flavors and contrasting textures. It has become common to see tuna dishes featuring fat, steak-size planks crusted with black pepper, as if to say, "Hey, fish can be just as satisfying as a rib-eye!" Here, Cureton treats the fish more delicately. The flavor of thin sashimi-like strips of tuna is contrasted by sweet potato habanero sauce and a "steel" sauce, a mix of eel sauce and Steen's cane gastrique. The fish sits on a bed of Creole fried rice, which has the sweet, sticky feel of glutinous rice but is both savory and crispy, with an addictive umami kick.
A generously portioned chicken bonne femme arrives with the crispy skinned bird plated atop fat squares of brabant potatoes and mushrooms in an earthy pan sauce, which renders the potatoes soft and gives the dish a warming, comfort food feel. Brussels sprouts are buttery with crispy, almost caramelized edges.
For dessert, Cureton takes the classics and dial them up a notch. Butterscotch pudding is re-imagined as a velvety budino. Lemon ice-box pie tastes like a chilled lemon meringue hybrid, and an excellent banana pudding gets the creme brulee treatment, with a singed caramel shell and sugary bananas that taste like toffee.
With nods to both Creole and Southern cuisine, Annunciation is a restaurant that feels connected to the past but is inching toward contemporary cooking, exploring a New American cooking sensibility with a modern approach. It's moving in a good direction, and that may be what some restaurants need every now and then: a bit of fresh air and new life.