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A fine-dining chef revises breakfast at a reborn Uptown classic

click to enlarge Chef James Lemming gets creative with the morning meal at Coulis. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER

The Bluebird Cafe closed for good last spring, but the legacy of the popular Uptown diner lives on in countless renditions of huevos rancheros around town. The Bluebird helped popularize the Mexican breakfast classic during more than two decades in business — in the same way that Drago's sparked a wide-ranging craze for charbroiled oysters.

  So when local chef James Leeming opened his own breakfast/lunch spot last fall in the former Bluebird building, there was no question huevos rancheros would be a set piece of his menu. But Coulis is much different than the Bluebird Cafe — and so is its rendition of the dish.

  All the expected components are there, but the composition is unique. The plate is neatly split between black beans and smoky, dark tomato sauce. Tortillas rest on top, but they form a crisp pepper Jack quesadilla, while long corn chips rise dramatically from the dish like the petals of a carnivorous plant. Of course there are eggs, but these fried huevos are speckled with finely chopped green onion and drizzled with an abstract pattern of cool crema.

  Such touches are characteristic of Leeming's style. The native of Nicaragua has had a long run in local fine-dining circles, including a dozen years at Commander's Palace, where his position as saucier earned him the nickname "Coulis," a handle that still appears on his business cards. More recently he was chef at Dick & Jenny's, though he decided to develop his own place as a break from the late-night hours of the dinner shift. Coulis opened in October 2009 and caught on quickly. Weekend brunch has people waiting in line outside for tables, much like they did in the Bluebird days.

  Leeming takes a revisionist approach to breakfast standards, which must come naturally after a career at contemporary Creole's creative high end. Corned beef hash is made into patties and crisped on the grill, topped with poached eggs, hollandaise and grilled mirliton. A simple bagel is layered with thin–sliced salmon, a tangle of shoestring-cut beets and dabs of beet coulis, which add refreshing crunch and sweetness. Tenderloin medallions in onion gravy anchor the steak and eggs plate, and the French toast is enhanced with smoked sausage and caramelized apples.

  Lunch takes a backseat to breakfast and brunch at Coulis, and this part of the menu could use some work. For instance, the Cuban sandwich I tried was mystifyingly bad, combining soggy pork with suspiciously uniform ham slices on sourdough rather than the traditional crisp, chewy loaf. But Leeming's artful presentations return with chicken flautas, which balance over concentric rings of salsa and black beans and sprout an attractive blossom of avocado and carrot ribbons. The burger is basic but proved to be another lunch highlight, with its substantial hand-formed patty and seeded French roll.

  Most important, especially for those who have been waiting in line for a while, the coffee is fresh and admirably strong. After all, while the chef's creative flair sets Coulis apart, anyone serving breakfast in this town needs to start with good coffee.

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