Stanley is like a model who is so pretty he doesn't need to be smart to succeed, but this is a smart restaurant, too, and that makes it a double threat.
Chef Scott Boswell opened the New Orleans-style diner in a coveted corner spot of the historic Lower Pontalba Building on Jackson Square. Its doors open to the tourism nexus of New Orleans, and as its older, blander peers holding down the other Pontalba corners demonstrate, that alone can ensure a healthy flow of business.
But Stanley is different. The diner is the flipside of Boswell's high-flying, haute cuisine restaurant Stella!, which shares the same Tennessee Williams literary allusion for its name. Boswell had been planning Stanley as a spinoff for years, but he opened it under harrowing circumstances in the weeks after the Hurricane Katrina levee failures. From a makeshift burger stand serving the legions of law enforcement and media types in the French Quarter during that period, Stanley quickly evolved into a full-fledged casual restaurant in the space behind Stella! It lasted about a year there, and in December 2008 reopened with a larger menu, an ice cream soda fountain and a fresh start on Jackson Square.
A chef's imprint is clear on Stanley's menu, from the ephemeral, buttery froth of Creole hollandaise over poached egg dishes to the cross-cultural oddity of the Korean barbecued beef po-boy. One reason Stanley works so well is that the culinary flourishes do not overshadow its primary role as a short-order eatery.
The burger pulls no punches. It's not too big, not too small and not too different. It's just a straightforward burger from the griddle. The Reuben is a dense, fulfilling classic on thick-cut rye. The oysters and soft-shell crabs used on po-boys and anchoring two eggs Benedict renditions are perfectly fried and vividly flavorful.
Stanley loses me where it gets zanier. The eggs Benedict po-boy sounds just crazy enough to work, but proves logistically awkward. The eggs are lightly poached, which is good, but just try squeezing the bread enough to bite in and the yolks come splashing out of the loaf along a slippery chute of ham slices. When the Korean barbecue beef po-boy resurfaced at Stanley last year, the meat was served shockingly rare and cold. Though still cool to the touch, it's now more thoroughly cooked and, as before, it's dressed with crunchy, tart but mild kimchee. The meat is exceedingly tender but gets swallowed up by the buttered French bread. I know I'd like it better in lettuce cups or over noodles, though I know that would change the po-boy concept.
Stanley's gumbo is one of my new favorites in the city. Its roux is thin, dark and intense, and it mixes the smokiness of chicken and sausage with the taut, fresh sweetness of shrimp and oysters added just before service. It's a gumbo variation I would proudly show any visitor wondering why we make such a fuss over this dish. I'm doubly glad it's at home in a restaurant many visitors are likely to find all on their own.