The canary-yellow building with chartreuse trim at the corner of Magazine and Austerlitz streets stands as a beacon to hungry locals looking for an emotionally uplifting setting where they can sample innovative takes on Louisiana cuisine.
"We are the brightest building in the world," says Daniel Benn, who along with business partner Michal Marcyn bought the 10-year-old restaurant and opened the renovated version Dec 1, 2001. "From the floors to the ceiling, everything is new" in terms of decor. "We changed almost everything to be more progressive. There was a market out there that was not being tapped." Workers painted the two main dining rooms downstairs a light lemon yellow and covered the windows with graceful sheer panels with a touch of color for an effect the owners characterize as "eclectic, elegant and casual." The walls are decorated with paintings, masks, stained-glass and other artworks all created by local artists. The bar sports horizontal slat board panel walls and a red ceiling, with a black-topped bar and light flagstone floor.
Upstairs is a large double dining room with a patio area in the back and an abbreviated balcony in the front. That space is available for private parties, business presentations, rehearsal dinners, cocktail parties and even small weddings.
The restaurant's facelift also included the menu, with new chef Roberto Bustillo, formerly of the Ritz-Carlton, adding his personal touch to dish offerings while maintaining other items that had become Kelsey's standards over the past decade.
"Our style is progressive Louisiana cuisine," Benn says. "Seventy-five to 80 percent is made with local produce -- fish, crawfish tails, vegetables -- but then we'll add Southern Comfort to the South Louisiana duck. It's all got a definite Louisiana influence."
Along with old favorites such as Kelsey's BBQ Shrimp, prepared New Orleans-style and served over grilled crostini, customers will find new delectables such as Danny's Grilled Oysters, named for owner Benn and featuring a half-dozen oysters on the half-shell grilled with Stilton cheese, fresh garlic and herbs. Benn came up with that now-popular dish after he found himself with an abundance of Stilton cheese following a party. Such collaborations also account for some of the specials diners are offered during lunch and dinner.
Most of the menu remains constant, Benn says, but the chef does offer daily soup, po-boy and pasta specials that change according to the produce available. Non-changing soup offerings include a roasted chicken and andouille gumbo at lunch and dinner and a corn and blue crab bisque at dinner.
Other menu temptations include crab and fried green tomato Napoleon: a lump crabmeat cake layered with fried green tomatoes and topped with remoulade sauce; potato-wrapped grouper with shaved fennel and basil buerre blanc; portobello Napoleon, featuring the tasty mushroom with Manchego cheese, caramelized onions and ghee; fresh Gulf fish grilled with apple mango chutney; an eggplant pirogue filled with a daily chef special; shrimp and exotic mushroom au gratin with smoked gouda cheese and more.
"A lot of people were skeptical when they heard we were changing things," Benn says. "Some of the old favorites are still on the menu, but the things that didn't move that well we changed. On the lunch menu we added sandwiches and some progressive breads ... but you can still come get the Eggplant Kelsey" a longtime favorite among regulars. Even the recipes that stayed the same have been rejuvenated, the owner says, with more contemporary and visually appealing presentations. "Food is fun when you present it well and it's pretty," he says.
The restaurant also has revamped its wine list to reflect an added emphasis on selection and variety. To complement the additions, Benn has brought in a sommelier who previously worked at NOLA and other beverage industry professionals to teach the wait staff about the nuances of wine drinking and pairing the spirits with different foods.
Part of the success of Kelsey's since its renovation has been a renewed vigor in the staff and a feeling that customers are family friends dropping by for a meal. Benn also feels at home in the restaurant, since most of his time is spent there greeting customers and overseeing operations. "It's an extension of my home," he says. "People know that if you want to see Danny, you have to come to the restaurant. But it's a good place to be; generally people are happy when they come here and they leave pleased.
"It's been amazing how people are attached to knowing (an owner) is on the premises. If they continually come in and ask for the owner and hear that you're not here, they start thinking that it's not a good place to be."
Benn admits that, except for the hectic pace during renovation, stepping into the role of restaurateur has gone rather smoothly. "We worked very hard and the staff worked very hard during the renovation," he says. "There's a lot of mutual respect. The whole transition has been fun. The two most rewarding things have been the support from the existing staff and the word-of-mouth advertising from customers."