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Commanding Presence 

Class act and hep cat George Rico has changed from his Palace guard and fashioned a seaworthy debut with RICO'S BUCKTOWN.

There are restaurants that feel so much like social clubs, where the insider vibe is so commanding that, whatever the kitchen puts from pan to plate, you want to be there. Take the front room at Clancy's, powered at lunch by several all-male tables and the cologne of Dry Sack drizzling over bowls of turtle soup; think limousines spilling figures clad in seersucker and skirts at the door of Galatoire's on Friday afternoons; imagine dusty denim squeezed flank by hip at Ye Olde College Inn's smoky, horseshoe bar. Faced with the same comrades at, say, the post office or the corner coffeehouse, you might take pains to set yourself apart, respectively asking for the spider stamps rather than the flags or ordering black coffee instead of another skinny latte. But at restaurants where having a house tab is like a second chance at being one of the cool kids, few of us wouldn't want to be part of the club.

Logic assumes that restaurants like these achieve clubhouse status in old age and that regular customers are only sanctioned members after years of devoted patronage. Then someplace like Eleven 79 comes along, where in just a month after opening, it seemed like Joseph Segreto was having his friends over for dinner.

Rico's Bucktown is like that. Just four months old, it's so packed at dinnertime that servers can expect to trip several times a night. There's hardly a bad table in the nautical-themed house, but if you're seated near the bar or the video-poker corner, where anticipant diners wait their turn, wafts of leather and perfume could squelch the flowering of your Fume Blanc. The place never seems to empty of family reunions, couples who no longer converse and 3-year-olds in blazers sticking French fries up their noses.

In the event that you've been occupied by other breaking news since September, the namesake of Rico's Bucktown is George Rico, the Honduran immigrant who worked at Commander's Palace longer than any of the Brennans have. He and his family opened Rico's with businessman Richard Colton. It's difficult to say which quality -- George Rico's hard-earned authority or his classy, room-filling presence -- is more powerful, but you can feel both from across the dining room. Perpetual nods and handshakes indicate that the tight alliances he forged as the Palace's commander are serving him well in unpretentious Bucktown.

In the midst of this clubby camaraderie and goodwill, the loneliest person in the room must be the one who wonders if, out of all the cheerful groupies, she's the only one chewing a refrigerator-cold hush puppy; the only one lamenting a fried oyster whose crunch was left behind; the only one whose mouth has become a war field for a battle between the implacable acidity and fishy flavor in one bite of crawfish etouffee; or the only one offended by al dente mashed potatoes.

I blamed myself at first. Maybe I should have avoided the Saturday-night crunch. I should have guessed that the guy in Chefwear who left before I ordered brunch was the only cook who knew that stirring lemon juice into raw egg yolk does not make a hollandaise. Then again, I made my reservations early, and I dropped $16 on that seafood Benedict. With George Rico's expertise at running a dining room (service is already spit-shined), and Chef Jermaine Worthy's experience cooking in the Commander's Palace kitchen, I can only assume that the imperfections boil down to an unbalanced pot: Rico's patronage has gotten ahead of a new kitchen's abilities. I'll wait for the paint to dry before attempting another visit.

Since the armada of cars heading to Bucktown is already a force unto itself, I can offer some endorsements with confidence. Chef Jermaine's deep-fried crabcakes are sweet as a Bach minuet inside, scaly like fried corn flakes outside and set upon a sort of creamy, sweet corn and red bell pepper macque choux. His meuniere sauce, a gutsy balance of prickly citrus and Worcestershire's dark, composting flavors, dresses pristine speckled trout like a racy negligee; lump crabmeat, a regular currency at Rico's, piles on top. A perfect medium filet mignon sticky with demi-glace is a straight shot at success, like Brett Favre playing at Lambeau Field. Gumbo is good, but turtle soup is better: a sherry-perfumed potage of pebbled turtle, egg, spinach and surface spice. And at brunch, roasted new potatoes (called "hash browns") are like potato souffles from heaven caught up in an armor of crisp and salt.

As smitten as we get by the newest, hottest restaurant openings -- with their the multimillion-dollar renovations and their studies of foie gras -- there always seems to be room off the beaten path for another modest house of chicken Pontalba, artichoke dip and bread pudding. George Rico left the Palace not only as a class act but also a hep cat, opening Rico's with a menu and a location that portend staying power. And with a following 40 years in the making, his battle is already half-won.

click to enlarge George Rico and son Julio have already been overwhelmed with a steady flow of customers at the four-month-old RICO'S BUCKTOWN. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • George Rico and son Julio have already been overwhelmed with a steady flow of customers at the four-month-old RICO'S BUCKTOWN.
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