The facade of 417 Royal St. remains a candy-colored pink stucco. The local crowd is still well-heeled and out-of-town visitors continually line up to have breakfast at the French Quarter institution. But the new Brennan's, which current owners Ralph Brennan and Terry White opened last November, is distinct from its previous renowned iteration, exhibiting modern Creole fare in a fresh, elegant setting.
Following a yearlong, multi-million-dollar renovation, the historic building — which dates to 1795 — maintains an Old World, opulent theme upstairs. The downstairs dining rooms — one of which boasts whimsical paintings of 19th-century parade floats from the Krewe of Proteus — and the aviary-themed Roost bar with its bird decals and eggshell-colored tables, are bright and colorful, giving the restaurant a refreshing new look and contemporary feel.
Service is friendly, prompt and, most impor- tant, knowledgeable. The kitchen, under the helm of James Beard Award-nominee Slade Rushing, is a similarly well-oiled machine. The dishes exhibit the talents of a team well-versed in classical techniques while paying tribute to the Spanish and French influences present in Creole cooking. Octopus a la Creole is reminiscent of a Catalan fish stew, a thick, tomato-heavy soup featuring Mediterranean seafood. Here, chunks of octopus, San Marzano tomatoes, cubes of smoky chaurice sausage and Spanish olives are served with thick pieces of grilled bread and topped generously with parsley. The stew is deeply smoky and satisfying — a cold-weather dish that somehow feels appropriate year-round.
An excellent dish of roasted duck exemplifies the Vietnamese influence present in contemporary New Orleans cooking. The breast is coated in a dark brown palm sugar glaze and roasted until crispy, and the outer layer of caramelized fat gives way to juicy dark meat. A steamed rutabaga cake is studded with tiny morsels of slow-cooked duck leg and is crispy on the outside and creamy and deeply savory on the inside. The only flaw in the dish is a side of Vietnamese mustard greens that was too salty.
Duck also appears on the breakfast menu, where the meat is enveloped in a dark, rich duck jus and served with slow-cooked Vidalia onions and caramelized potatoes. A duck egg tops the hash and when broken, it oozes into the crispy, caramelized crevices.
When Rushing took over the kitchen, he promised a lighter, healthier take on traditional Creole and Southern fare, and that is evident in several dishes.
Razor-thin slices of cucumber are disguised as cannelloni and serve as the vessel for lump crabmeat tossed in chive remoulade. The roulade is drizzled with a light mustard oil and topped with microgreens and thin shallots, which add a nice bit of fat and crunch to a clean and light dish.
Rushing's mahi mahi a la plancha wouldn't feel out of place at a spa: The firm, white fish is grilled and nestled atop a bed of haricots vert and confit grape tomatoes. A generous portion of jumbo lump crabmeat and lemon butter sauce add just the right amount of decadence and flavor.
Despite the many new additions to the menu, Brennan's most classic dishes — emblematic of its contributions to Creole cuisine — endure. Eggs Sardou and eggs Hussarde with their respective choron and marchand de vin sauces, are served for breakfast.
Thick, dark-roux seafood gumbo is chock full of plump oysters, crab, shrimp and andouille sausage. The soup is heavy on seafood and light on okra, giving the dish the inimitable taste of the sea.
Any brunch or evening can — and should — end with bananas Foster. Servers still shower guests with anecdotes about the iconic dish while standing tableside, entertaining diners while the butter browns and the bananas caramelize before finishing off the signature dessert with a splash of rum that ignites into flames before burning off, leaving the dining room adrift in the intoxicating smell of caramelized sugar and brown butter.