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Creole Connection 

Margaux's buffet operates under the old Zachary's notion that fried foods and pot cooking ought to be offered in unlimited quantities.

My first-ever meal in New Orleans, several years before I moved here, was a fried pork chop at Zachary's during a wedding rehearsal dinner. I arrived at the restaurant with suitcase in tow, a slowly recovering vegetarian from the West. I like to credit Zachary's fried pork chop with hastening my recovery; over the course of the weekend, I also knocked back half a muffaletta from Central Grocery, lamb chops sauced in brown at Commander's Palace, and rare slices of beef tenderloin from the wedding spread. A majority of ex-vegetarians will tell you that bacon was their undoing. For me, it was New Orleans, thanks first and foremost to Zachary's.

Zachary's is where Wayne Baquet ended up after half a century living and working in his family's Creole restaurants. Eddie's, which once operated in the Seventh Ward, was the Baquet Family's most storied business; Zachary's was its last. Wayne Baquet sold the restaurant to Natchez, Miss., natives Margaux and Stephanie Newman this past summer. Since then, the sisters have coined it Margaux's, applied a warm coat of oxblood paint, and imported Jordan Arace from Naples, Fla., to maintain Zachary's high Creole standards while introducing increasingly more inventions of his own.

Depending upon your previous relationship to Zachary's, everything or nothing has changed. If Wayne Baquet's calm, professorial oversight was the main comfort, then even two competent, young women won't do. But if the main draw was Zachary's solid Creole cooking, the quality of which suffered significantly on some days but never enough to repel you forever, you're liable to still feel at home at 8400 Oak St. Lunch and brunch buffets continue to operate on the notion (or is it a fact?) that fried foods and pot cooking ought to be offered in unlimited quantities; dinners remain a lottery.

The chef calls his menu French-Creole, and while his own dishes aren't recognizably Creole, he hasn't exorcised the old magic from this kitchen. The fried chicken, for example, is exquisite, the white meat always as juicy as the dark, the skin crisp all the way through, like a bag of Zapp's, and the flesh perfuse with mellow garlic flavor. You think you know this chicken after a few trips to the buffet -- it never sits long enough beneath the heat lamp to sustain damage, just a nice settling of its garlicky juices and a pleasant leathering of the skin. But then at dinner, when it emerges from the kitchen too hot to touch, its skin tight as well-done bacon and evenly tanned, you realize just how much there's still to know about this delicious bird.

Creole gumbo is another constant, and it too has several profiles. The first time I tried it, from a chafing dish on the buffet, it was mostly smoked sausage and seafood broth; I remarked at how practical an all-sausage gumbo could be. My second cup, ladled up in the kitchen, contained everything: at least two kinds of sausage, chicken, amoebae-tiny shrimp, a crab leg. Then, during Sunday brunch, it was the highly spiced chaurice -- a fresh sausage that distinguishes Creole gumbo -- that defined the opaque gumbo's character.

The results fluctuate when Arace drifts from Creole convention. One evening while devouring an exceptional spread of appetizers, four of us marveled that we had the juicy red Jazz Room all to ourselves. The autumnal carrot-jalapeno soup, the black-crusted scallops with fruity red onion confit, and the stack of expertly fried oysters and tomatoes (strangely, red tomatoes) refreshed with green onion aioli deserved a larger audience.

Salads were substantial enough to be small entrees, and the hand that made them had a delicate touch. In one, a spray of greens shimmered with a light veneer of honey-walnut vinaigrette; beside it was a whole roasted pear that had been intersected several times, paved with goat cheese, golden raisins and almonds, and then reconstructed. This was as lovely to view as it was to eat.

What a comedown, then, when the only main course we were tempted to finish was the fried chicken. Sauteed redfish came with a smoked tomato sauce so acidic and over-smoked we didn't know whether to pucker or cough. At the tip of crawfish season, the crawfish sauce blanketing a stuffed speckled trout should have tasted fresher. And, even butterflied, a bone-in pork chop had only small pockets of moisture; a spiced rum and apple sauce helped, but the theme of thick, pureed sauces grew tired and cumbersome by the end of the meal.

A luxurious, blackberry dessert soup with the warmth of mulled wine demonstrated that the chef does have other sauce skills up his starched, white coat sleeves. It can't be easy to occupy an established Creole kitchen and then set about creating an elegant dessert soup to serve alongside the already beloved, banana-flavored, fruit cocktail bread pudding. Perhaps what's most impressive at Margaux's is that the new management gets what to leave alone, especially during brunch -- the salty biscuits, the cheesy macaroni, the grillades tender as a lullaby. There's no fried pork chop, but there is bacon.

click to enlarge MARGAUX'S tries to retain much of the flavor of the old - Zachary's, while adding a few spices of its own. - DONN YOUNG
  • Donn Young
  • MARGAUX'S tries to retain much of the flavor of the old Zachary's, while adding a few spices of its own.
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