Frank Brigtsen says family dinners at Charlie's Seafood as a child during the 1950s were his very first restaurant experiences. But Brigtsen's culinary career followed quite different lines than Charlie's bedrock of boiled and fried seafood. In 1986, Brigtsen and wife Marna opened their namesake restaurant in the Riverbend, and his contemporary Creole cuisine has earned high-profile accolades, including a James Beard Foundation Award.
The Brigtsens were not looking for a second restaurant venture, but when Charlie's Seafood closed last year something clicked. Driving past the shuttered family favorite on the commute to their own restaurant began pulling at their heartstrings, and by May they signed a lease for the vintage Harahan eatery.
The Brigtsens didn't just reopen Charlie's. They have reinvigorated its casual seafood joint concept with a lighter approach, one that brings local seafood's fundamental goodness to the forefront, while still offering the old reliable dishes.
Charlie's remains a place with high chairs stacked in the corner and where customers have three choices for wine — white, red or blush. A pair of enormous boiling pots stand ready in the back room for the onset of crawfish season and for now, boiled shrimp and crabs (on the weekends) are the focal points at many tables.
Yet people familiar with the far more ambitious Brigtsen's Restaurant will find the chef's style manifest across this menu. The shrimp remoulade is essentially the same at Charlie's as at its upscale sibling. Catfish strips coated in mustard and cornmeal batter is a mainstay appetizer at Brigtsen's, and at Charlie's the same preparation becomes an entree over a dense pool of cheddar grits and a thick, tomato-base Creole sauce. The "un-fried seafood platter" with grilled drum, baked oysters and a stuffed crab is a stripped-down version of a similar combo that has anchored the Brigtsen's Restaurant menu in one form or another for years.
Brigtsen's hand in the new Charlie's also is evident in the quality of the seafood. You don't run a restaurant like Brigtsen's for 24 years without cementing good relationships with purveyors, and this chef's passion for Louisiana seafood has given him a line on outstanding local product.
The shrimp we were served during different visits could not have been more beautiful, whether they were used for the remarkable remoulade, in etouffee with thick, brown roux or crowding a beer tray, boiled in a mild, lemony seasoning. When the menu promised crabmeat, the white lumps and strands came piled as generously as pulled pork on a barbecue plate.
The restaurant's name should be fair warning that there isn't much land-based fare here. A few daily specials fill this role, like the lushly smoky white beans on Thursdays. Otherwise, non-seafood options are limited to a few appetizers, including excellent meat pies and po-boys such as the thickly-sliced roast beef version.
Fiddling with a neighborhood classic is risky business, but Frank Brigtsen's long personal history with Charlie's gave him the confidence to thoroughly recast things here. A new generation can be glad he did.