On a Friday night at the end of March, with the incursion on Baghdad just a sandstorm away, you couldn't have gauged the state of international affairs from the dining room at Kelsey's. Here, even with wall-to-wall carpeting, the birthday serenades, the swells of group laughter and the clink of toasting beer bottles overwhelmed the most thunderous thoughts of a world in crisis mode. Providing a comfortable space in which a community can gather, gripe and giggle together may be the most useful role a restaurant can play during uneasy times, regardless of how the food tastes.
This is a good thing for Kelsey's because taste seemed to be hovering just out of the kitchen's reach on this particular Friday night.
Given Kelsey's several unimpeachable attributes, it's fair to proceed with the good news first. Late in 2001, Daniel Benn and Michael Marcyn purchased the decade-old business from founding owners Randy and Ina Barlow (Barlow is now the chef at Red Maple in Gretna). They adhered to the restaurant's original layout, but, beginning with the exterior's neon lemon finish, they converted the pleasantly sedate, white-tablecloth space into a carnival of designs, textures and colors. The more eccentric flourishes, such as a ceiling of pastel tutu gauze in the women's restroom and geometric ornaments hovering like spacecraft in the main dining room, are shabby chic; together with original artwork on every wall, flickering oil lamps on every table and diaphanous curtains on every window, they create a relaxed, arty space that's no fun to leave. When served bitter onion soup, burnt bread pudding and smelly crawfish tails, I continued to eat, hoping the next bite would yield flavors similarly rich with forethought.
However disappointing the food, there is one server (Kelsey's adherents know the one) whose sparkle keeps evenings flowing with more gusto than a bottle of champagne. As a bottled water alternative, he offers guests "house water," a brand that's been called "sink water" and "Mississippi water" by lesser gentlemen around town. Clearing four appetizer plates, this server can rundown the 10 ingredients of a bouillabaisse broth in the order in which they are used, and when asked to describe the Rosenblum Zinfandel, he provides unaffected lessons on the Zinfandel varietal with paint-by-numbers clarity. Kelsey's wine list is a boon in itself, composed of some obscure, some fine, but mostly plain terrific selections. The above-mentioned server points out the bargains at the rear of the list, which is how a crisp Spanish Albarino saved my spirits for $20 on that Friday evening in March.
I've actually eaten at Kelsey's three times since owner Daniel Benn grew weary of replacing chefs and took over the kitchen late last November, saying, "When you own a joint, it's hard to give up total control of that part of the restaurant." While any educated cook could relate to this sentiment, and while appearances suggest that Kelsey's clientele has swelled during recent months, the stagnating mediocrity of the food may suggest that running a sizable restaurant and managing its kitchen is nearly impossible for one person to do well. Tuna steaks tend to over-cook, cream sauces don't reduce long enough, pumpkin is left out of pumpkin creme brulee, old fish scraps find space on an $18 entree and salt becomes optional. A Caesar salad, perfect in its basic lemon, anchovy, Parmesan and garlic components, was the one flawless dish I tried.
Diners who are still curious -- and the reservation book suggests that many are -- should try the signature, still-plump grilled oysters with Stilton cheese; I found the Stilton and raw garlic overwhelming, but one friend wished I would let him order more. Dark-roux gumbos, the ingredients of which change nightly, are also worthwhile as long as you're open to mussels, whole cipollini onions and mushrooms in your gumbo. When they're fried long enough, tangy fried green tomatoes provide a nice counterpoint to rich crawfish cakes and bravely spicy remoulade sauce. Salmon served with pecan-rice, crabmeat and brown butter needs only for the crabmeat not to frizzle under too much heat, and the Eggplant Kelsey (one-third of a fried eggplant, its fruit cooked to custard) stuffed with fried oysters, shrimp, salmon and mahi mahi is probably wonderful when the fish is fresh. Finally, an unburned white chocolate and berry bread pudding made the grade one evening when a semi-sweet chocolate torte that was harder to cut than a frozen candy bar did not.
From its menu, which blends traditional New Orleans ideals and fresh ideas, Kelsey's reads like a prized neighborhood restaurant that's upscale but not ostentatious, as unique as it is proverbial; its atmosphere and service are commensurable with the highest expectations. Benn has the menu, the space and the customers necessary to see him through the current clatter of unrealized taste potential, which should afford him plenty of time now to focus on the recipes.