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"Mr. Tanenbaum spent $3 million redoing this place," chirped the perky young waitress, gesturing expansively around the neo-Creole palace called Lagniappe.
I believed her. My jaw had swung loose on its hinges as I passed beneath the lowered faux-alabaster ceilings of the bar, where outsize murals of Ingres' Odalisque and a storm-tossed Napoleon Bonaparte loom, campy and sly. I had gawked shamelessly at the stylized, gingerbread-laden columns that stake out the huge dining room. I had goggled at the checked French sailors' caps that turn the kitchen crew into Gilbert and Sullivan characters. This was New Orleans by way of Disneyland and Vegas; and it was a long, long way from Don's, the down-to-earth Louisiana seafood spot that held forth here for l7 years.
Lagniappe's eye-poppingness is attributable to Randall Walker -- the Kirksey-Myers architect whose work, including the zoomy new Mesa, seems to be everywhere of late -- and to Richard and Glenna Tanenbaum, the ever-more-theatrical Houston restaurateurs. The Tanenbaums began climbing the local dining totem pole at La Porte's Monument Inn, then launched the Atchafalaya restaurants and sold them to Ninfa Laurenzo. Next they engineered some large-scale flops at the old Junior League (Bobaloo, Ricardo's Bobaloo, Bubba and Luigi's) before striking pay dirt again with their urban-kicker dancehall, the Post Oak Ranch. Now they're free to indulge in the kind of prestige project that one suspects they've wanted to do all along.
To that end, they've spent a small fortune on voluptuous flooring of pale, antique pine; on a sea of marble tables and curvaceous bentwood chairs; on a high-profile chef whose last posting was at a French restaurant in Seattle. One look at Angus McIntosh's menu sent my jaw off its hinges again: this document, billed as "contemporary Creole," makes the trend-happy Mesa menu that I marveled over recently look positively restrained. To read the McIntosh bill of fare is to take a breathless jog through the wilder realms of the New American culinary landscape.
"Strawberry shrimp piquante!" I squeaked disbelievingly to the Lafayette Aesthete. "Raspberry beet sauce!" "Creole mustard soy creme fra”che!"
"Frizzled leeks, indeed," he snorted in reply. "And look," he said, pointing out the Fenneled Duck Salad, "they've made fennel into a verb." We ordered it for laughs, but the salad turned out to be an engaging metaphor for the restaurant: lively, fun to eat, amusingly oversold. Yeah, the advertised grilled figs and charred fennel were largely undetectable in the raspberry vinaigrette, but the dressing itself -- fearlessly tart, rich with fruit -- lent bounce to curly endive, rare strips of duck breast, spiced nuts, fresh pear and the goat cheese of which Monsieur McIntosh is so demonstrably fond.
Like many of Lag-niappe's ferociously contrived dishes, it tasted more serious than it read -- under that giddily faddish surface lurks surprising substance.
Given these wonderfully exaggerated surroundings, it is fitting that the nuttier-sounding dishes come off better than the relatively normal ones. Creole mustard soy creme fra”che actually gives a disciplined, martial-arts kick to shrimp-and-crawfish dumplings, plump and gingery inside their crimped wrappers of translucent rice paper. But a warm shrimp remoulade that tasted like zilch made my Lafayette friend screw up his face in disgust; where he comes from, bland remoulade is a punishable offense. And the potent musky/smoky flavors of Lagniappe's duck-and-andouille gumbo fought a losing battle against its goopy, cornstarch-thick texture. Go directly to jail, do not pass go, do not collect $200.
Unleash this kitchen on sweet-potato crusted snapper with one of McIntosh's offbeat vinaigrettes, though, and stand back: the dish is a clever riff on Veracruzana-style fish, its gently sauteed snapper and browned tracery of sweet-potato shreds set off by a brisk dressing of pickled okra and fresh tomato. Redfish Baton Rouge is even more exciting, lightly floured, perfectly sauteed, and moored in an unorthodox pool of the tart and mellow red-wine butter sauce called beurre rouge. A strip of cayenne-spiked cream snakes down the center for the sheer, excessive hell of it. For years I've mourned the salmon in Beaujolais butter that Bruce Auden once did at Charley's 517, back before we lost him to San Antonio; now I don't have to miss it anymore.
Angus McIntosh, an Army brat who actually has done time in Louisiana despite his spectacularly un-Louisianan name, has a very New Orleans taste for pernod, the anise-flavored liqueur. It shows up to great effect in the curious "oyster pastries" that prove to be more of an assemblage than a dish: crisp triangles of puff pastry here; briefly sauteed oysters in a quiet red-onion beurre blanc over there; a small heap of greens to one side, anise-scented and pleasantly bitter. The whole does not exceed the sum of its parts, but those parts are awfully good.
Pernod also lends a haunting note to McIntosh's Creole noisettes of lamb, rosy medalions fitted out with a garlic-and-basil-spiked dice of fresh tomato; even one night's grease-sodden wild rice cakes, meant to serve as a platform, couldn't keep this from being one of the
more winning lamb dishes in town. (At $23.95, it's among the most expensive dishes on the menu; most entrees hover in the $12 to $16 range, while first courses go for $6 to $9.)