Change may be inevitable, but it didn't seem likely at Dick & Jenny's, even after the restaurant's founders and namesakes Jennifer and Richard Benz sold the place in 2006.
The buyers included a pair of former employees, Leigh and Will Peters, plus their friend Whiton Paine, all then in their late 20s. The chef during that transition had been sous chef in Richard Benz's kitchen for years before the handoff, and the founders even stayed on for a while to consult. More than anything though, the place already had the best endorsement for keeping business as usual — a reliably full dining room and a crowd willing to wait without reservations (now accepted for groups of five or more).
But when change came, it was with a vengeance. Between 2006 and late 2009, three chefs cycled through the kitchen. Dishes kept to the kitchen's familiar, brusque, multi-dimensional style, but they weren't as tight and didn't always gel. They remained as bold as before, but many went boldly off the rails. There were rumblings that the boozy hour-or-so wait for a table wasn't worth it anymore.
The response was to rewind a bit, and it has succeeded with chef Daniel Smith now in the kitchen. He had been a sous chef here in the past, left town for a while and was working at Juan's Flying Burrito when the new Dick & Jenny's cadre came calling.
It feels like old times again — with the kitchen producing uniquely powerful, assertive contemporary Creole cooking. Dishes have a lot going on, but at their best, get to the point with double-barrel flavor that makes a lasting impression.
The surface of grilled duck breast, for instance, glistened with pomegranate gastrique and gave an audible snap under the knife. Meaty accompaniments of alligator sausage link, a sweet potato and andouille "salad" and pot likker-dripping greens made it all seem like a one-plate feast. Another entree combined huge scallops and Gulf shrimp (the latter of such quality to make one misty over their uncertain fate due to the BP disaster) with chipotle vinaigrette as smoky as a campfire. Zapped with spicy aioli and girded by crunchy fennel, it was an exciting and unforgettable dish.
I wish the salad greens were of better quality, and I wanted more character from the lightly seared surface of a large piece of tuna, though its presentation atop a fat rice cake with a wasabi-touched soy reduction was interesting. Desserts are simple and right on, like a towering, seductively soft pistachio cake and an ice cream sandwich made with cookies so large it must be shared.
There always is something specially designed for vegetarians, like a recent layered presentation of dense risotto, spinach and alternating slabs of grilled mushroom and cool, creamy mozzarella. There also are a few bargain plates just for kids, though parents must bring the brood early if they hope to get out of Dick & Jenny's before bedtime. The lounge — equipped with an intriguing wine list — remains crowded with eager diners waiting for a table, as clear a signal as any that Dick & Jenny's is on target again.