It's not often that delicate china dishes and jackhammering men in hardhats live hospitably side-by-side. On Friday afternoon at Brennan's, however, this was the paradoxical scene. The home stretch of the legendary restaurant's yearlong, multi-million dollar renovation project at 417 Royal St. pressed forward, as an initial wave of friends and family were invited to sample items from the breakfast and lunch menu. The restaurant officially opens Tuesday, Nov. 25 with a morning ceremony.
Judging from the smiles on the faces of the staff and co-owner Ralph Brennan, everyone anticipates showing off the completely overhauled restaurant to the public.
"I really love what we've been able to do with the space," said Brennan, pointing to the new, front dining room which once housed the restaurant's kitchen. "We put in windows [in the front dining room], so you'll be able to see straight through from the street back to the courtyard. Not a lot of restaurants do that here in the French Quarter."
While the upstairs dining area remains largely the same, one of the most impressive changes is the updates to the completely remodeled bar and adjacent dining area. In a tribute to Brennan's signature rooster, the bar has an aviary theme. A weathered mirror is hand-painted with bright, colorful illustrations of peacocks, flamingos and sparrows flying about, barstools are covered in a rust-colored, ostrich-textured leather and lanterns swinging over the restaurant bar are shaped like birdcages.
"I was terrified about what the birdcages would look like when my designer told me about them," Brennan said with a laugh. "They turned out great."
The majority of the restaurant's finishing touches are being completed on the courtyard. The area will be opened up as a dining space that can seat 60, full of umbrella-topped tables and complete with a forthcoming fountain.
In addition to an aesthetic update that keeps "one foot in the past and one foot in the future," Brennan's drink program has lofty goals.
"We're aiming to become the biggest Champagne house in the South," said Beverage Director Drew Brandwein. All the restaurant's sommeliers have been trained in the (dramatic) art of sabering Champagne bottles, which will be an option for diners each Friday. While Brandwein has yet to pick out his signature saber, his plan is to visit an antique store down the street to find the perfect bottle-popping device.
In addition to fresh spins on classic cocktails — a fruity Pimm's Cup served in a wine glass, a honey liqueur-infused take on iced tea, two variations on brandy milk punch — a "build your own" Sazerac menu will be available during the dinner service, featuring four different types of bitters, absinthe and rye from which to select.
"The mole bitters we offer are really great in the Sazerac," said Brandwein. "They have the sweetness and chocolate notes that work really well."
"It's not a newer item, but the dish I'm most excited about is steak Diane. Growing up, my dad was allergic to shellfish, so it wasn't until college that I started trying that. We were a meat and potatoes kind of family." — Brennan's co-owner Ralph Brennan
The Brennan's staff discovered some diamonds in the rough during the yearlong construction process. A number of unusual bottles of liquor were discovered tucked away in the cellar and "various nooks and crannies" of the restaurant. One of these is a full 8-bottle set of the rare Courvoisier Erte collection from the late 1980s, which sells for upwards of $10,000 and has one-of-a-kind, artfully decorated bottles. Another is a vintage Usquaebach Rare blended Scotch in an unusual earthenware jug. (The bottle had been left to its own devices so long that it required special tools to remove the cork.)
Brennan's cellar currently stocks around 7,500 bottles, with the ultimate goal to tip the scales back over the 10,000 mark and receive Wine Spectator's Grand Award, an honor that had been held for years by the restaurant's previous incarnation. Located in the rear of the courtyard, the cellar is currently under construction, with the bottom floor planned to house domestic wines and the second story reserved for imported selections.
The dinner menu — which was still being tweaked late Friday afternoon by Chef Slade Rushing — will be a balance of Brennan's classics and "deconstructed" Creole flavors, some with an international flair. (Brennan noted Spanish and Vietnamese influences on the dinner menu.) While the breakfast and lunch menus will fall more on the traditional side, the dinner menu has been given more room to explore and break down the nuance of Creole flavor.
Breakfast and lunch items with non-traditional twists include New Orleans barbecue lobster, rabbit Rushing (fried Mississippi rabbit, creamed collards, eggs over easy, pickled pork jus) and an escargot omelet. While three-course breakfast, lunch and dinner options will be available, the Brennan's team is looking forward also to being the kind of restaurant for simply enjoying a drink and an appetizer.
"It's not a newer item, but the dish I'm most excited about is steak Diane," said Brennan. "Growing up, my dad was allergic to shellfish, so it wasn't until college that I started trying that. We were a meat and potatoes kind of family. I'm also excited about the filet Stanley, which is one of our signature dishes. It combines filet, banana and horseradish, which sounds different but is delicious."
There also will be 10 special guests taking up residence in the Brennan's courtyard: turtles. Much like the ducks in the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, the turtles (who are currently "summering on the West Bank") will be a whimsical addition to the restaurant's ambiance. The nine female turtles are all named after French mother sauces, and the lone male turtle's name is, appropriately, Cocktail.
Brennan's officially opens at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 25, with dinner service beginning Dec. 5.