Making a name for a restaurant takes a lot of work. But remaking that name once established — and particularly recasting it as something better — can be more challenging still.
That was the tall order for Tony Tocco when he bought Cafe Atchafalaya in 2009. The Uptown restaurant has seen a succession of owners, and each had a different idea of what it should be. It took a turn toward the upscale after Hurricane Katrina, but soon began a decline that would drive it nearly into the ground. Today, however, the place seems like the successful subject of one of those restaurant improvement reality shows, only without the cameras and consultants.
Tocco is a local service industry veteran who started the indispensible Uptown dive Snake & Jake's back in 1992. He had finer things in mind for his new restaurant, however. He charged chef Mark Springfloat with transforming the menu and then set about rebranding the place.
He shortened the restaurant's name to Atchafalaya and knocked on doors, asking neighbors to give the place another chance. He set up a food booth at the downtown concert series Wednesday at the Square to woo the after-hours crowd there, and he started hosting wine dinners to bring back a skeptical fine-dining crowd. He also brought in popular musicians, and today there's live music at Sunday brunch and at dinner on Sundays and Mondays.
Atchafalaya now comfortably occupies a desirable yet nebulous culinary niche, one considerably above the neighborhood restaurant but decidedly below the top tier. Consistency is a hallmark of Springfloat's straightforward, contemporary Creole menu, though cutting-edge ingenuity is not. Most meals here have been highly satisfying, though the sparks of excitement that get you planning your next visit were few. Pasta jambalaya, stuffed flounder and pork loin with mango are all good, and they're all dishes you've had countless times before.
The menu has its moments though. Shrimp and grits is almost unavoidable on local menus, but Springfloat's rendition is a standout, with a fried grits cake oozing its creamy interior into a spicy, buttery sauce akin to the base of barbecue shrimp. Another head-turner is quail stuffed with boudin, wrapped in bacon and paired with collards.
Though tight preparations are the rule, exceptions turn up, like an over-salted snapper lost in a muddle of black beans, and the crab cakes and fried green tomatoes were separate appetizers that seemed to share the same bland batter.
The salvation for the latter dish, though, was the lode of crabmeat escorting it. In fact, Atchafalaya's appetizer list reads like a crab tasting menu. Large, beautiful lumps turn up everywhere and their best turn might be over an exuberantly fresh, lightly dressed salad with cilantro, hearts of palm and peanuts.
Crab gets plenty of play at brunch too, but duck confit hash is my first choice here. The extremely popular brunch service can approach bedlam, and even those with reservations often must wait for tables. However, a self-serve bloody Mary bar helps keep antsy, hungry customers pleasantly distracted.