Conjure an image of elegant decay, New Orleans-style, and what comes to mind might look a lot like Feelings Café.
Framed in faded masonry, splashed with green fronds and steeped in a 40-watt glow, Feelings Café has long been prized as much for its evocative ambience as for its French and Creole cooking. Approach its gray edifice, sit in the cloistered courtyard, have a drink in its narrow chamber of a bar and the timeless old spell is intact.
But times have changed here, and the first tipoff could be the savory panna cotta ($16). Cool and silken, it’s an appetizer by way of an edible vignette, redolent of smoked corn and dappled with bare crabmeat, shaved asparagus and salty black clusters of choupique caviar.
The gnocchi ($14) might follow, with raucously juicy strands of oxtail between crisp-edged dumplings under brittle sheets of fried kale. Or it could just be the jar of chicken liver mousse ($8) capped by rosemary-scented geleé, as apt for a shared charcuterie snack on a quick visit as for the first course at dinner.
These are all part of a new French bistro menu at Feelings Café that is modern, attuned to the seasons, often beautifully wrought and aimed squarely at the future of this historic restaurant.
Feelings Café changed hands late in 2014 for the first time in more than 30 years. The new owner, local attorney Tony Marino, brought on Rue 127 chef/owner Ray Gruezke to consult and turned the kitchen over to Brian Doyle, a chef who worked with Gruezke at both at Le Foret and Rue 127 in the past.
They reopened Feelings Café during Carnival with a plan to progress slowly, starting with a bar menu and building from there. It was a practical approach to get rolling while making renovations and a sensible one when handling change at a restaurant with strong nostalgic associations for many New Orleanians.
Feelings Café is in the vestiges of a plantation established in the 1700s, and it retains the feel of a French country house even in the midst of its increasingly busy Marigny neighborhood. From the 1980s on, the restaurant became a draw for romantic dinners and mimosa-soaked brunches, and its bar cultivated a green room feel thanks to the many local performers who frequented it.
The main dining room and bar today cut the same profile, though decades of accumulated décor has been pruned back. More changes are taking shape. A second-floor lounge will open as soon as next week with its own bar and live music. Another room is being renovated for banquets and events. By the fall, there will be a larger menu, and Feelings Café will be rechristened under a different name, completing its change into a new restaurant.
As summer rolls on, there are signs that the place is still in transition. You’ll find a limited wine list, for instance, and some dishes seem like they’re in the tryout phase, like a strangely bland batch of mussels ($11). But the defining character of the new Feelings Café kitchen is taking root, and it’s been exciting to watch it grow.
Beet salad ($9) is as beautiful as it is delicious, with roasted red nuggets set in yogurt and thin golden bundles between bitter frisee. Cured steelhead trout ($13) glistens under a dusting of powdered leeks, edged by dots of avocado purée and fat orange roe. Scallops ($14) are poached just past raw and splayed like petals.
A pesto jus coats thick cuts of pork loin ($18), along with fresh chanterelles and charred corn. Redfish ($17) curls over a lemony butter sauce between dollops of pureed sunchokes. And a textbook duck confit ($18) gives darkly succulent meat under a golden, rigid skin that crackles audibly and sticks to your teeth just a bit.
The menu isn’t groundbreaking, but it certainly signals a sea change from the old Feelings Café. Portion size is modest; prices are correspondingly (and refreshingly) midrange.
The new direction at Feelings Café is giving an old favorite new energy. And yet, the intangibles that have always animated this place still resonate. It’s the way that, even on relatively quiet nights, the restaurant can feel abuzz as people wander the narrow catwalk balcony and poke around the many nooks and chambers. And it’s the magnetism of the courtyard, which lures people outside even during a swelter. When ambience trumps the edicts of an air-conditioned New Orleans summer, you know you have something special.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.