An impressive-looking dish can pause the conversation when it arrives. The oyster log at Trenasse, however, looked like it could stop traffic.
A lacquered slab of cypress nearly as long as our four-top table, the log was like a diorama of three dozen oysters ($59). Some sizzled with garlic butter, some were prepared as Bienville or Rockefeller, others bubbled under caps of smoked Gruyere and pancetta. A clutch of fried oysters riding over the top looked as though they’d been strewn there out of whimsy. Never mind pausing the conversation. This became our conversation, even after we finished it off.
It was the presentation, the execution and the high-low balance of casual extravagance that made this spectacle of a shared appetizer so compelling, and that’s also a fitting introduction to Trenasse.
Contemporary and upscale, Trenasse evokes the gusto and spirit of Louisiana hunting camp cooking, though perhaps for the type of camp that would have a private chef and a ready supply of microgreens. The style and flavors are manifestly of Louisiana, but they’re also more modern and original than a textbook Cajun or Creole read on the subject. In this way Trenasse continues one of my favorite local dining trends of late (see Peche Seafood Grill and Borgne for comparable examples).
Trenasse comes from chef Jim Richard, who opened it in December inside the CBD’s Hotel InterContinental with the chefs Brannon Janca, Jean Pierre Guidry and Todd Misener leading the kitchen. A lifer in the business, Richard grew up in his family’s restaurants in Lafayette, later cooked around the South (including a turn as sous chef at Commander’s Palace in the 1990s) and made his name with Stinky’s Fish Camp, his popular seafood restaurant in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida. Trenasse shares some of Stinky’s menu staples (namely, that oyster log) but is the urban step up from its beach restaurant sibling.
Trenasse is a restaurant that has Sauternes and port on a wine list that is impressive throughout and also has daiquiri machines swirling behind the bar. Instead of bread, diners are greeted with cracklin and red bean butter (as if cracklin had just been calling out for a savory, buttery spread) but also has a menu where many of the entrees breach the $30 mark.
Some dishes are intricate, like appetizers of crab-stuffed squash ($16), tufted with oven-crisped Hollandaise for a dose of brown butter flavor, or grilled quail ($15) that ooze mozzarella over spicy-sweet barbecued eggplant. Other dishes are more about rural touchstones burnished by a chef’s attention, like the lushly juicy fricassee of braised rabbit and shrimp ($26) with egg noodles as thick as country dumplings. Darkly tangy frog legs ($24), coated in a lemon butter with the viscosity of Madeira sauce, show why frog is best when it tastes like itself and not like fried chicken.
“Blackboard fish,” a changing selection, make up a good chunk of the menu and are mainly left to their own merits with straightforward, grilled preparations. The whole fish (market price) is a different story. It was redfish when we tried it, crusted with Parmesan and bent into a U-shape as if leaping from the water. This fish was not jumping from waves, however, but from a base of green onion boudin, removed from its casing. The impressive presentation makes this dish look like an edible fishing trophy, though it gets better as it gets uglier — that is, as you break the fish into ever-smaller pieces and crispy-skin bits, and all of this mixes with the boudin beneath.
Letdowns come when dishes jumble too much together, like “Stinky’s stew” ($27) a mix of seafood in too demure a broth, and a flounder ($30) that is swallowed up by a sticky Brie and leek sauce.
Desserts are low-key, with homey flavors dressed up by colorful flourishes, like a Creole coffee milk cake ($11) falling into damp crumbles, and beignets to dunk in caramel foam.
Though unmistakably part of the hotel (the bar flows into the lobby), plenty of design touches, and the outgoing staff, lend character beyond the typical hotel restaurant template. Gleaming cypress tables fill the room flanked by the curving main bar and small oyster bar, a patio extends the dining room to the adjacent pedestrian mall and a mural from Emerald Coast artist Justin Gaffrey illustrates the meaning of trenasse (a Cajun word for a fisherman’s cut through a marsh).
The lunch menu takes a step back, with many entrees replaced by entree salads and po-boys. But the blackboard fish is still available, and oysters are always on, served raw, broiled, steamed or covered with ceviche.
You may need a team effort, or one exceptional appetite, to tackle the oyster log. But with these options, dedicated oyster lovers can build bivalve tasting menus at their own pace, too.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.