I have to laugh when someone compares dining at Brigtsen's to a meal at their mother's house, which happens all the time. Chef Frank Brigtsen's menu reads like a roster of hunting and fishing trophies prepared with the sort of vigor you'd use to settle a bet or silence a doubter at the camp. If mom cooked like this, she must have been hell on the wildlife.
Of course, the mom thing doesn't come from tasting the chef's blackened tuna — its ruby center glistening under a dark crust — or his roasted duck, which traces a trail of succulence from your mouth to your belly to your cortex. It comes mainly from the homey setting of the restaurant, which features several small rooms of a Riverbend shotgun, and perhaps from a service style, led by the chef's wife Marna, that practically drapes an arm around your shoulder on the way in and gives you a hug on the way out.
It has been this way for a long time at Brigtsen's, which turned 25 last year. Some of the touches are patently old-fashioned, whether they are slight, like the foil trays used for baked oysters, or more substantial, like how many dishes share the same sides (mashed potatoes here, vegetable medley there). People patronize Brigtsen's like they did in the old days too. Regulars dress for dinner, even on weekdays, and there is no dropping by for bar snacks — there's a service bar only.
Few restaurants have such a distinctly personal cuisine, or one tied so closely to both our cultural and natural heritage. It channels feelings of home, which we may yearn for particularly at this time of year, and sates hearty appetites, which awaken in the cooler weather.
It's in the bisquelike flow of oysters and artichoke gratin, the earthy landslide of flavors from the roasted quail, and the butter glistening on pecans that stud large shrimp lining a plank of redfish, bronzed from the skillet — using an arsenal of seasonings that calls to mind the amber marsh more than the blue sea.
Brigtsen's menu changes with the seasons (try the soft-shell crabs in summer), but through the years the style has been a consistent signature. The next new thing isn't here, but this kitchen shows how faithful fundamentals can be just as revelatory.
Cochon de lait is a prime example. The more this term spreads across menus, the more it simply means pulled pork, the pride of the Carolinas. But proper cochon de lait is Cajun-style roasted baby pig, and it is distinct. At Brigtsen's, it comes out very tender, imbued with garlic, bathing in a dark pork-bone pan gravy and piled in neat slices over cornbread dressing with broad curls of its own crackling. It's the real deal, and so is this modern classic Louisiana restaurant.