A new restaurant looking to break into the upscale Friday lunch scene in the French Quarter has quite a job ahead of it. After all, those who partake in this ritual, and those who make a point to join in during the holidays typically have strong loyalties firmly in place.
But when the new contender for that luxurious Vieux Carre lunch outing also happens to be a grand old restaurant with its own rich history, the odds change. Those are the dynamic Broussard’s Restaurant, and the team now in charge of this landmark Conti Street restaurant, are navigating.
Broussard’s dates to 1920 and has had a number of owners through the generations. The local company Creole Cuisine Restaurant Concepts took over in 2013 and has been gradually forging a new identity here. The latest twist is Friday lunch, which was added this fall and is now entering its first holiday season.
At first glance, the menu sounds familiar, but the distinguishing details quickly make their mark. Sure, there’s an oyster po-boy, but Broussard’s version includes bacon, a smear of Rockefeller spread and a dollop of Herbsaint aioli. There’s a nice Gulf fish, but check out its dash of red pepper lacquering, along with mirliton fricassee new potatoes. And if you like fried chicken, brace yourself for its red chili glaze and served with a pineapple slaw.
It’s part of the larger campaign by general manager Chris Ycaza to bring Broussard’s back to the discussion of French Quarter dining on a level with other historic restaurants, like Antoine’s, Arnaud’s or Galatoire’s.
Ycaza comes to the task with a unique perspective, since he was general manager at Galatoire’s for a six-year stretch following Hurricane Katrina. More recently, he’s been joined at Broussard’s by executive chef Neal Swidler, an alum of Emeril’s Delmonico who later was chef at the (now defunct) pan-Asian eatery Lucky Rooster.
After testing the waters by adding brunch service, Ycaza and Swidler felt they were ready to launch Friday lunch.
“We wanted to get the brunch up and running the best we could make it and see how it went,” Ycaza said. “Just like anything, if you’re thinking about expanding a business, and the hours of operation, you want to make sure we were on strong solid footing.”
They also wanted to set the scene for long, leisurely lunches, like those that have proven so popular at Galatoire’s. But they’re approaching it on their own terms. That includes “95-cent Historical Punches,” created by Paul Gustings, head mixologist of Broussard’s Empire Bar, and also a two-course “$19.20 Menu,” which reminds diners of the restaurant’s birth year and long history in its set price.
The key is to make Broussard’s feel like a destination spot in line with the old familiar favorites while also staking out its own identity. And, while expanding its regular service hours, there’s the added dynamic of making sure the restaurant remains fine-tuned to the weddings, receptions and other events its kitchen and staff field.
Swidler relishes the challenge, hoping to walk that fine line between the atmosphere of an old-guard New Orleans restaurant and the savvy tastes he can create from his skills set.
“I am creative and like to get inspired by things and not be tied down to one concept,” Swidler said. “I definitely have a strong vision of how I want my food to be. And I had to train the staff for that.”
He also had to “economize,” as he puts it, by getting a kind of versatility out of the ingredients he works with to maximize efficiency in the kitchen without sacrificing quality in the dish being run out to the table. So that could mean taking something as benign as a fresh cucumber and working it into more than one dish — Swidler makes a cucumber slaw that can show up different places, including the remoulade.
“I’m kind of pragmatic when it come to know how much effort goes to menu changes,” Swidler said.
That pragmatism and sense of balance means the red pepper-lacquered Gulf fish and the Steen’s candied pork belly (served with red bean pancakes) will show up roughly the same way on both the lunch and dinner menus (the latter as part of the evening’s “Napoleon Prix Fixe” offering).
“It’s an opportunity to play in a playground that has a certain amount of playground apparatus,” said Swidler, chuckling at his new-found analogy.