Kelsey's has the first two down pat. Late in 2001, Daniel Benn and Michael Marcyn purchased the decade-old business from founding owners Randy and Ina Barlow (Barlow is now the chef at Red Maple in Gretna). They adhered to the restaurant's original layout, but, beginning with the exterior's neon lemon finish, they converted the pleasantly sedate, white tablecloth space into a carnival of designs, textures and colors. The more eccentric flourishes, such as a ceiling of pastel tutu gauze in the women's restroom and geometric ornaments hovering like spacecraft in the main dining room, are shabby chic; together with original artwork, flickering oil lamps and diaphanous curtains, they create a relaxed, arty space.
The kitchen could use similar attention. Disappointments of taste -- such as bitter onion soup and burnt bread pudding, both of which I've had here -- are experienced more acutely in surroundings so rich with forethought.
Despite that, servers like Tom, who waited on me twice, can keep an evening flowing better than a fine champagne. As a bottled water alternative he offered "house water," a brand that's been called "sink water" and "Mississippi water" by lesser gentlemen around town. He reels off the dozen ingredients of bouillabaisse broth in the order in which they are used, and he gives unaffected lessons on the Zinfandel varietal with paint-by-numbers clarity. Kelsey's wine list is a boon in itself, composed of some obscure, some fine, but mostly plain terrific selections. Tom steered me toward the bargains at the rear, and consequently a crisp Spanish Albarino saved my fading spirits one night for just $20.
I've actually eaten at Kelsey's four times since owner Daniel Benn grew weary of replacing chefs and took over the kitchen late last November, saying, "When you own a joint it's hard to give up total control of that part of the restaurant." Anyone with experience in the restaurant business recognizes truth in this sentiment, though the current unreliability of Kelsey's food may argue that both running a sizable restaurant and managing its kitchen is a daunting task: many try but few achieve unvarying success.
Only the appetizers at Kelsey's provide glimpses of such possibility. Tangy fried green tomatoes provide nice counterpoint to rich crawfish cakes and bravely spicy remoulade sauce. Danny's Oysters, char-grilled just until they begin to shrivel, are topped with raw garlic and astringent Stilton cheese -- a challenging combination but a popular one. Artichoke and mirliton gratins (sometimes underseasoned) come topped with buttery crunch, and Caesar salads are perfect in their basic lemon, anchovy, Parmesan and garlic components, even though the Romaine is occasionally droopy.
Louisiana natives might take issue with calling a soup made with mussels, cipollini onions and mushrooms a gumbo, as Kelsey's menu does. Call it a soup, then: the complex, dark-roux innovations are worth trying however untraditional the ingredients.
On the other hand, several entrees were as perplexing as they were disastrous. Ordered medium but arriving overcooked, chewy and tough, a salmon fillet at lunch came with gummy yellow rice that tasted oddly like a dessert over-saturated with almond extract. Knife-resistant paneed veal and soupy cream pasta actually composed the better parts of the Veal Acadiana at dinnertime; foul-smelling crawfish tails garnished the top. Most of the Eggplant Kelsey's components were wonderful, including one-third of a fried eggplant, its fruit cooked to custard, and fried oysters and shrimp; off-tasting pieces of mahi-mahi and salmon unfortunately spoiled the dish.
A lunchtime po-boy made with plump, springtime-delicious fried softshell crab, horseradish sauce and tomatoes weeping sweetness was the one unqualified entree success that came across my table.
Dessert, often the last course to come together for a struggling kitchen, is touch and go. A white chocolate and berry bread pudding made the grade one evening, but not a semi-sweet chocolate torte that was harder to cut than a frozen candy bar. On another evening, my server assured me I was eating a pumpkin creme brulee, but it tasted like coffee.
Kelsey's menu is a unique blending of traditional New Orleans ideals and fresh ideas, and the atmosphere and the service are commensurable with the highest expectations -- all of which might be enough on certain occasions. But while it appears that Kelsey's has enjoyed a surge of popularity since Benn took over the kitchen, the quality and consistency of the food indicate that his work as a chef has only just begun.