Casual Atmosphere, Elevated Cuisine

Dick & Jenny’s became wildly popular not long after it opened in 1999. Owners Dick and Jenny Benz caught a wave of enthusiasm for inventive food served in a casual atmosphere and rode it to success. Although the Benzes sold the restaurant in early 2006 to Whiton Paine and former employees Will and Leigh Peters, the Peters’ familiarity with the restaurant’s culture meant that not a lot changed.

The current chef is Daniel Smith; Stacy Hall serves as sous-chef. Smith got the majority of his restaurant training with the Brennan family, working at Commander’s Palace here and in Las Vegas and at Dickie Brennan’s Steak House. He worked at Dick & Jenny’s shortly after Katrina as a sous-chef for a couple of years and then left to pursue other opportunities. In November of 2009, he returned to take the position of executive chef. 

One holdover from the restaurant’s pre-Katrina days is that if you come during the most popular hours, you will almost certainly spend some time in the very casual waiting area. The building that houses Dick & Jenny’s is located in a Creole cottage that was once a grocery store, and if you can’t sit immediately, you’ll be guided to an enclosed patio behind the building proper. There is an eclectic mix of furniture back there, most of it designed for the outdoors, but all of it is serviceable if not elegant. You’re free to make the wait more tolerable by ordering a cocktail, a beer or glass of wine; I recommend you do so but that you avoid having all three. Then again, I’m not your father, am I? (If I am your father: Elliot, you’re too young to drink. Stop reading this, and do your homework, you little rapscallion.)

In a change from the past, the restaurant now accepts reservations for five or more, but when things are hopping, there’s no guarantee you’ll be seated immediately even with a reservation. That kind of thing can be an annoyance, but none of the patrons at Dick & Jenny’s seems to care. Maybe it’s because they’re used to the wait, or maybe it’s because the waiting area is so comfortable? It could be the cocktails, I suppose.

The last time I ate at Dick & Jenny’s was on a Monday evening after the second weekend of Jazz Fest. I went early, as I am wont to do, and started with an appetizer of cornmeal-crusted fried oysters served with a rémoulade sauce. The oysters were fried properly, with a crisp crust enveloping a supple oyster –– still fresh and juicy. The tart, mustardy rémoulade is held in place by a “dam” of shredded cabbage and carrot, but that mixture makes such a good slaw that you’ll find yourself breaking the dam pretty quickly to get at it.

The crisp slaw and tender oysters are a great combination, and apart from the limp mixed greens on which the oysters were placed, it all adds up to a very good example of the dish. At $9 for around 10 or so oysters, it was a good deal, too. Reasonable prices are typical of Dick & Jenny’s menu –– and the overall philosophy of the place, for that matter. It’s a neighborhood restaurant that serves folks from far beyond its own neighborhood.

There are a number of other New Orleans standards on the appetizer portion of the menu, including fried green tomatoes with two toppings: a shrimp ravigote and a less traditional chipotle crawfish sauce. You can choose an appetizer of escargots, as well, which are served in a bread bowl, flavored aggressively with garlic and folded with smoked mushrooms into a béchamel sauce.

For an entrée, I chose the seared diver scallops and Louisiana Gulf shrimp, served with a smoked jalapeño-fennel slaw, and sriracha aioli. Some of the scallops and shrimp were overcooked, possibly because they were served on an extremely hot plate, but for the most part the seafood was good. I love fresh fennel with seafood because its crisp texture matches well with the yielding shellfish and the hint of licorice that seems to complement shellfish so well is just about the only way I like that flavor. The sriracha aioli was quite spicy and a little sharp, but neither taste overwhelmed the seafood, and that was subtly done. I am not sure why the plate had to be so hot on a night where the temperatures were still in the 80s outside, but what the hell do I know? Either way, $28 was a reasonable price for the deft cooking of the multiple scallops and shrimp on the plate. I hope that the recent oil spill in the Gulf doesn’t force a rise in that price, but I wouldn’t be surprised.  

Other entrées available at the moment include a prime rib crusted with herbes de Provence and served with bacon-roasted fingerling potatoes and brussels sprouts; a Gulf seafood “BBQ” stew featuring Louisiana flounder; and pan-roasted shellfish over stone-ground grits with an Abita Amber-rosemary sauce and cilantro croutons. The grilled duck breast and alligator sausage comes over a warm sweet potato and andouille sausage salad with Southern greens and a pomegranate gastrique. You can also order a sampler of the appetizers as an entrée, which comes with the shrimp-and-tasso cheesecake, fried oysters and fried artichoke hearts. The menu at Dick & Jenny’s changes with the seasons, and the current Spring/Jazz Fest menu will be around until early June.

Desserts are more in line with the general atmosphere of the restaurant. There’s nothing avant-garde about the chocolate chip cookie ice cream sandwich sundae with chocolate sauce and a maraschino cherry, nor will the bananas Foster bread pudding or the vanilla bean crème brûlée remind you of a sophisticated pâtisserie. That said, they’re all very good, and the pistachio layer cake named for “Mario’s Mom” is in the same vein. It features bourbon whipped cream and pistachio pudding icing, and it’s sweet, children.

Dick & Jenny’s is a restaurant that shouldn’t work as well as it does. Its location at 4501 Tchoupitoulas St. is one more suited to bars or residences, and there’s not much parking on the blocks nearby. There’s a superficial incongruity between the food and the atmosphere, but it works because there’s a deeper harmony to the restaurant. The conduit between the ambition on the plate and the homey feel of the environment may be the service, which is friendly enough to suit the casual atmosphere but professional enough to merit the food.

Or it may just be that I’m over-thinking things. I tend to do that.

Either way, it’s a good restaurant.

If you’d like to dine at Dick & Jenny’s, call them at (504) 894-9880 for reservations. They’re open Monday through Thursday from 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., and on Friday through Saturday from 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.

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