Not the space itself, a mix of bare brick and white plaster, candle-watt lighting, bentwood chairs and crisp tablecloths. Not the food, a rendition of French-Creole cuisine nudged gently toward the contemporary. And certainly not the crowd, which appeared in droves the moment Annunciation opened for business and interact with the effusive maitre d' as if they've been coming here for decades.
This new Warehouse District restaurant seems familiar because prior to opening Annunciation, chef and co-owner Steven Manning was the chef at Clancy's for two extended hitches totaling more than 20 years. So it's not surprising that his own restaurant is essentially based on Clancy's, albeit a looser, downtown version of that Uptown Creole stalwart.
Manning transferred some of his Clancy's dishes to his new menu, most significantly the fried oysters with spinach and Brie. The melted cheese oozes out from its rinds to glaze the oysters and pool between them, and if it weren't already so familiar this irresistible appetizer would probably count as the most innovative dish at Annunciation.
There are a few discreet tweaks on the menu, including sides of bok choy and curry-scented cabbage, a bit of foie gras for the scallops and coconut milk escorting the nicely bronze-colored drum. But the main story at Annunciation remains Creole flavors prepared by a restrained hand.
You can turn back the clock with a dinner of turtle soup, shrimp etouffee and bread pudding without feeling conspicuously retro. I'm more inclined to start with a crabmeat salad, the huge lumps topped with a Green Goddess-style dressing thick with herbs but lightly applied. Then it's on to the oysters Bordelaise — if only to marvel at how fried oysters can stay crisp after being incorporated into an oily pile of spaghetti, garlic and parsley — or maybe the chicken bonne femme. That name translates to "good wife," which generally implies country-style cooking and never seems to produce the same dish in any two restaurants. From Manning's kitchen it is a soft-spoken showstopper, a juicy half bird, sauteed crisp and sitting atop a smoky, woodsy potato hash with pan gravy.
The approach is straightforward, but there's little cover when things go wrong. A homely pile of seafood risotto, for instance, contained lobster, shrimp and crabmeat but not much flavor and even less creaminess. The veal dishes, although traditionally prepared, are underwhelming.
While Annunciation has plenty of high-end restaurant company in its neighborhood, during the day it turns into something else, serving fast, bargain lunch plates for about $10. The baked fish, a great, plump length of speckled trout over oyster dressing when I tried it, wore little more than lemon and was a highly satisfying balance of elegant simplicity and local flavor. In a way, that sounds like Annunciation all over.