Inside, the lighting is subdued, the woodwork is dark, the ceiling curves to meet the wall, and the seating is at high-backed booths for two and larger tables with crisp, white cloths. It brings to mind an art-deco train car, and it's clear even at a quick glance, that this is a restaurant with higher aspirations than anything outside suggests.
O'Brien's is primarily a steakhouse, but the menu is both larger and more ambitious than the typical meat-and-sides repertoire. It doubles as a contemporary Creole restaurant with dishes that alternate between creative and familiar but are always heartier and more boldly seasoned than expected.
Ken Theriot opened the restaurant on St. Patrick's Day. He has operated a few casual taverns before, but O'Brien's is by far the grandest of his undertakings. West Bank native Matt Donelon is the chef, and he comes to the post after stints at Flour Power in Chalmette, Cuvée and the defunct Rene Bistrot in the CBD.
The steaks are expensive by any measure, and side dishes cost extra. For $32 to $38, you get a large, impressive steak that benefits from an admirable sense of timing over the grill. A filet ordered straight-up rare one night was meltingly tender, deep ruby red and seemingly the exact temperature of our Malbec. A filet ordered well done was butterflied on request, thoroughly cooked through, yet not at all overdone. The richly marbled Kansas City strip is much larger than most people should be able to finish in one sitting, though it's not surprising when someone leaves nothing behind but the bone.
Steaks come with salads. I was ready for something perfunctory, in the key of iceberg, but instead a plate of romaine was capped with a ball of shredded, smoked gouda and studded with hearts of palm. Soups are as thick as sauces and nearly as rich. That's to be expected with the lobster and corn bisque. A spinach and oyster soup went even further, though, with large, cornmeal-crusted fried oysters in a smooth-bodied soup liberally imbued with smoky bacon pieces.
The most interesting appetizer is a trio of grilled scallops resting on vegetable ravioli. The scallops had an uncommonly firm texture, zero grit and a delicate flavor that shined through a very assertive butter sauce with honey sweetness and black pepper bite. The potentially fatal heaviness of an artichoke cheesecake was relieved by a half-dozen large oysters scattered around it. They were lightly poached, with a shimmering, taut texture, but they still carried the smoky flavor and added a marine burst to each forkful of savory cheesecake. Crawfish boil risotto was, as advertised, redolent of all the components of a backyard boil minus the beer and screaming kids.
Roasted tomatoes and onions bulked up the liquid in a bowl of steamed mussels, which was more like a sauce piquante than broth. Beets and grilled scallops came together over mixed greens and vinaigrette with the sweet snap of pepper jelly for a salad that could easily stand in as a light entrée.
It's hard to forgo steak when you see the strips heading to neighboring tables, but after having O'Brien's mahi mahi twice, I would cross town to get it again. The huge portion was nearly the equal of a steak anyway, and it was wrapped in thin ribbons of potato that flared up into a towering nest of fried curlicues. A rich, heavily peppered sauce penetrated the meaty flakes of the thick fillet and soaked the underlying hash of roasted vegetables.
Next to this, the tuna seemed plain, even though its surface was a crusty mix of white and black sesame seeds and char marks from the grill. Some kind of sauce would have helped this dish out, but it does provide a rare light choice on the menu.
The white chocolate part of a bread pudding seemed a bit like cheating, since bone-white scrolls of chocolate were inserted into the bread pudding like candles on a birthday cake rather than baked in. But the bread pudding hardly needs that window dressing. The servings are like clumps of biscuit, and surrounding the irregular shape are sweet, cinnamon-specked croutons offering buttery crunch at each of their many ridges.
Complaints with meals here added up to a collection of quibbles: the mussels should have come with a bowl for discarded shells. We asked for more bread three times without getting any. A waiter was brusque and grabby when clearing plates one night.
There are scant fine-dining options on the West Bank, but O'Brien's looks like the one to beat. With its winning food, warm ambience and hospitality, this restaurant could go toe-to-toe with any number of restaurants in the more competitive upscale market across the river.