Curled around the happening corner of Royal and Frenchmen streets where dance clubs Rubyfruit Jungle and Velocity once lived, the Brasserie is an amalgamation of bar and restaurant. You're more likely to see customers wearing off-the-shoulder sweatshirts at the brassy-topped bar, leaving the tables to the ties. But even in the more demure, green-tea-green dining area, pint-size mojitos are served alongside free range chicken; a clean-cut crew at a table near me broke into an all-out linen napkin fight. And a parlor area with streamlined sofas, waist-high candle stands, fashion magazines you've never heard of and customers sipping purple champagne cocktails is so modish you halfway expect to see Cameron Diaz waiting to get her hair cut. Windows front the buzzing sidewalk all around the place, so that the Marigny and the Brasserie are interchangeable: as the night progresses it becomes difficult to tell on which side of the windowpane is the bigger party.
But eventually -- despite the background R&B grooves, the kiss-kissing amongst friends and whatever cocktails the bartender is shaking like a pair of maracas -- Chef Steve Zucker's food gets everyone's attention. He emigrated from Lafitte's Landing shortly before the move from Cafe to Brasserie (Cafe Marigny is slated to re-open as a coffeehouse); his notoriously adventuresome palate, while it occasionally didn't harmonize with mine, upholds the original restaurant's high standing.
Several of Zucker's plates are visually arresting in a modern arty, color-driven way. Lifting a fork to one feels like vandalism. To Zucker, a Louisiana crawfish salad is molded into a hockey puck. It stands on walnut feet under a waistline of reddish crawfish tails and a torso of mango and avocado; a swirling arrangement of green, orange and black caviars is meticulously combed on top, each egg the size of a pinhead. A chef with Zucker's eye sets a straightforward filet mignon onto a plate decorated with homemade tulip-red catsup, coffee-brown mushroom demi-glace and shimmering green herb oil. This dish could be mistaken for an artist's palette or semi-opaque stained glass. For him, dressing a Strawberry Walnut Salad seems to mean individually painting leaves of baby spinach with a pinkish strawberry gloss, and then letting them tumble into a weightless pile. He adds vinegar by etching the plate's lip with sticky balsamic.
Besides the cold wedge of cheesy potatoes served with the filet, these dishes tasted as gorgeous as they looked and as brazen as they sound. Zucker isn't a subtle cook. He has a talent for playing matchmaker with bullheaded flavors. A bittersweet chocolate brownie finds company not in mere nuts but in a peanut brittle nougat crust baked just on the delicious side of burnt. Late-night menu items, served until whenever a.m., are louder than the party. Eggs poached until their whites wrinkle and sag like a newborn's skin come with deep-fried crabcakes, creamed spinach and puckery hollandaise. A chewy sirloin steak slides around between slices of crusty bread with biting cheese, caramelized onions and the intermittent sting of a diced jalapeno.
Only three dishes lost me with their culinary flamboyance. The tuna Napoleon was an overdone mess of fish and dressings on one night, like sashimi primped for Bourbon Street. It tidied up a few weeks later, but I nonetheless had neither the intellect nor the taste it would take to understand the relationship between yellow-fin tuna, creamed spinach, mashed potatoes, sun-dried tomato cream sauce and a soggy Parmesan tuile all on one plate. Duck and andouille spring rolls were good for one oily bite but ultimately just Another Excuse to Fry Sausage. And Angels on Horseback (aka oysters brochette) will approach heaven only if they're warm next time; few things are less appetizing than cooling lard.
Demonstrating that he's capable of hitting a fine-tuned balance, Zucker drops a single salty bacon biscuit into a milky bowl of shrimp and corn bisque; he pairs delicate striped bass with springy basil potatoes and mellow saffron broth; and his lovely strawberry clafouti is little more than an unfussy baked crepe.
While this Marigny Brasserie is not for the sedate gourmand, its zest for fun and food is contagious; only a chronic bump on a log could resist infection. Employees embody the spirit. In my experience, the staff is a forgetful bunch of problem-solvers well trained in charming a good time into any conversation. When I asked one waiter how he felt about the Brasserie's new alcohol policy, he answered, "Honey, I never needed a license to have fun." Still, what a difference a block can make.