At one point, the work to remake the historic Brennan’s Restaurant saw the ground floor taken down to dirt and Bobcat tractors roaming freely inside. For the chefs charged with creating the culinary identity for the new restaurant, which is set to debut as soon as next week, the approach had to be a bit more delicate.

“We have to be respectful of this building, its history, what it’s meant to people through the years,” said Haley Bittermann, director of operations and corporate executive chef for the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group, which is redeveloping Brennan’s. “But at the same time, we can stick our necks out a bit and define what the new Brennan’s can be.”

That means a menu that begins with classics and the brand-name dishes for which Brennan’s was known — like eggs Hussarde, steak Stanley (a time capsule of a meal prepared with horseradish sauce and bananas), trout Nancy in lemon butter sauce and, of course, bananas Foster, the flambéed dessert famously invented here.

From there, however, it will move ahead to a more contemporary approach to Creole cuisine, one with room for yellowtail crudo, caviar with blini made from Japanese sweet potato and a hybrid of crème brûlée and bread pudding with a rye whiskey crème Anglaise. There will be seafood gumbo and turtle soup, but also a gumbo made with smoked squab, seared foie gras and Chinese celery.

“The idea is, if you want to do gumbo, let’s take it to the highest level we can,” said Slade Rushing, executive chef for the new Brennan’s.

“We’re approaching it as a new future for Brennan’s,” Rushing said. “This was a landmark restaurant, it had its run and now we’re bringing a fresh approach.”

Flavors and family ties

The new Brennan’s is emerging after a time of tumult for the restaurant, which first opened in 1956 inside a property that dates to 1795. Local restaurateur Ralph Brennan, a cousin of its former operators, and his business partner Terry White bought the Royal Street building last year at foreclosure auction.

In July, they acquired the Brennan’s Restaurant business name, logo, wine collection and recipes.

Extensive renovations to reconfigure the first floor layout, revamp the second floor private dining rooms and upgrade the kitchen, among other changes, have been underway for the past year.

Ralph Brennan said he expects to open the restaurant sometime next week, with the precise date depending on inspections and the final construction punch list. It will start with breakfast and lunch service, with dinner service to join the schedule after a week or so, he said.

Rushing, formerly co-chef at the CBD restaurant MiLa, joined Ralph Brennan’s team in June, and since then he’s been working closely with Bittermann to set the restaurant’s culinary tone, create new dishes and refine the classics. Brett Gauthier, pastry chef for the Ralph Brennan restaurant group, has been working with them on desserts, while Drew Brandwein, who was hired as beverage director for the company earlier this year, is overseeing Brennan’s wine and cocktail program.

The chefs describe the menu-building process as a collaboration, conducted mostly at the kitchen of their company’s Heritage Grill in Metairie. They started with an old Brennan’s menu and began circling the dishes they knew had to stay.

“Getting the name dictated where we started. Without it we’d be starting from scratch and you can do almost anything,” said Brennan. “But with the name, clearly we had to have breakfast.”

For eggs Benedict, a dish Rushing prepared as part of his job interview last spring, the new Brennan’s kitchen will make its own English muffins and its own Canadian bacon. For eggs Sardou, they braise the artichokes and bread them with panko and add parmesan to the spinach for another layer of flavor.

“We didn’t want to change those things too much, so this was about taking it all apart and rebuilding it again, but to the highest level,” said Rushing. “People will recognize the dishes but they’ll be fresh, handmade. That’s what’s going to make the difference.”

Bittermann said the breakfast menu, which extends to lunch and brunch hours, will focus mostly on traditional dishes. Dinner will see more of the contemporary additions the chefs have developed. One example is octopus Creole, which combines a sous-vide preparation of the seafood with a classic trinity base, tomatoes and Creole chaurice sausage.

“Our approach is Creole, with that foundation in French cuisine. As long as we start there, you can bring in other factors,” said Rushing.

Old wines, new sparkle

This balance of classic and contemporary turns up at the bar, too.

For instance, the new Brennan’s team determined that brandy milk punch — a customary “eye opener” during Brennan’s breakfast service — was an essential. But while the restaurant will serve a traditional version, it will also mix an island-inspired version made with Jamaican rum.

“Like the food, the philosophy is to keep one foot in the past and plant one in the future,” said Brandwein.

That also applies to the restaurant’s wine program, which under the previous ownership was highly regarded. Brennan’s once had upwards of 35,000 bottles, though this prestigious collection was damaged by heat in the prolonged power failure after Hurricane Katrina.

Brandwein said the restaurant’s current cellar was acquired after Katrina as former Brennan’s sommelier Harry Hill rebuilt the list. Throughout the restaurant’s turnover and renovations during the last year, Brandwein said that wine has remained under carefully monitored climate control.

Brandwein aims to build on this foundation and restore the restaurant’s cellar to its former glory. Brennan’s previously had a Wine Spectator Grand Award, the highest honor from the wine publication, and he’s out to earn that designation again for the restaurant.

“I have a three-year plan, and that’s the goal,” he said.

The restaurant will have approximately 7,500 bottles when it opens, and Brandwein predicted that number would rise quickly. He’s bringing in more prestigious bottles and also building greater diversity across the price range, including more Italian and American wines. In particular, he’s focusing on Champagne.

“I want to create the best Champagne house in the South,” he said. “Brennan’s has always been a place for celebrations, and Champagne fits right in with that.”

The wait staff is getting special training to build familiarity and confidence when recommending Champagne, and Brandwein is keen to start a new tradition of “sabering” Champagne bottles — that is, opening them with a brisk whack from a saber, following an old French army tradition.

“I want to be out in that courtyard every weekend sabering Champagne,” Brandwein said. “It’s part of asking ourselves, ‘What are people going to talk about when they leave? What are we going to do to differentiate ourselves?’ We have to build that up and run with it. You can’t just be the big pink building on the block.”

Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.