Brunch is my least favorite restaurant meal. I side with chef-author Anthony Bourdain when he writes in Kitchen Confidential, "Brunch menus are an open invitation to the cost-conscious chef, a dumping ground for the odd bits left over from Friday and Saturday nights." For obvious reasons, brunch shifts are also the most difficult to staff with conscious employees.
That said, Sugar Magnolia snagged me at brunch. There was an hour wait, but with it came newspapers, Bloody Marys as filling as short stacks and benches outside. I did fret as I waited, watching employees race to the corner store (or some hidden warehouse) to restock the kitchen with flats of eggs, pounds of butter and package after package of English muffins; I imagined that cooks so slammed would be sloppy, if not completely unraveled, by noon.
But the food was exemplary. Sugar Magnolia's French toast is a smear of cream cheese between thick, griddle-cooked slices of brioche bread -- all doused with strawberries in sugary red juices. Shrimp, andouille sausage and partly caramelized green onions fill out thin, rustic omelettes freckled with brown pan kisses. Soft grits don't require the customary 32 shakes of salt. My waitress had zero interest in pleasantries, but even from the worst seat in the house -- a drafty spot near the bathroom, the bar and the host station -- this place had it going on.
Each chair has cushioned seats, arm rests and giving rattan backs; my vote for best location is on the secluded, second-floor back balcony, amid ferns and potted ivy, night-blooming jasmine and ornate white-painted ironwork. A perfect evening back here would include oysters bordelaise: oysters fried within a solid, deeply browned batter, then married with slivered garlic, green onions and a viscous lemon-butter sauce. A double-cut pork chop with apples candied in root-beer glaze would follow. It took three of us 10 minutes to conclude that the dark, marbled chop stuffed with andouille and cornbread wasn't actually beef. For an above-perfect evening, I would mix some Johnny Cash songs into the hours of nonstop Elvis, but that's getting personal.
Campfire air from a wood-fired grill hangs upstairs between exposed brick walls, windows overlooking a rooftop garden and a misplaced fiberboard ceiling (just don't look up) -- the popularity of bulky wood-grilled burgers continually feeds this wintry aroma. The menu calls this the best burger in town, but I credit habit-forming fries that taste like clones from McDonaldland; thick slices of toasted brioche that stand in for a bun also help. Intensely buttery but somehow porous, the loaf brioche is everywhere, second in abundance only to the coarse-grained cornbread that's slicked in salted butter and served in cast-iron skillets with every meal.
The two-story 1820s structure, once split into a farmhouse and a storefront, is especially dazzling at night with its heavy ironwork, back-lighted stained glass and solid woodwork. A front balcony and two copper-topped bars buzz during happy hour, and the coziest nook is a first-floor restroom: hardly deep enough to accommodate bent knees, it's the farmhouse's original outhouse.
Sugar Magnolia's cooks are adept at salting and frying, two feats that converge with aplomb in onion rings big enough to shackle Harry Lee. A similar shield of salty batter protects fried green tomatoes, which burst with pleasant, unripe juices and support spoonfuls of simple, pink shrimp remoulade.
Bad things happen to this remoulade when December crawfish enter the picture. Out of season, crawfish everywhere suffer one of two ailments: the frozen factor or the frozen Chinese factor. Steer clear. Two pounds of steamed mussels were also funky -- not dangerous, but hardly worth $16.95. And while I mowed down the "mile-high" chocolate layer cake with its glossy fudge frosting, grandma would never serve her fresh cakes straight from the refrigerator. My waitress didn't know who baked it and didn't care to learn.
Sugar Magnolia is sweet -- New Orleans neighborhood hospitality seems to come naturally in an antique space so thoughtfully preserved -- but various glitches in food and service suggest that both sides of the house need to polish up on the finer points of fine dining.
Not that anyone else notices. Owner Steve McKenna, an original managing partner for Bravo!, happily disclosed over the phone that, eight months after opening, the business has exceeded his three-year projection. Sugar Magnolia's early triumph is due not just to the slamming brunches but also to the fact that -- two years of renovations later -- even the worst seat in the house is one of the most pleasurable neighborhood spots at any hour.