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by MICHAEL DEPP
It’s a peculiar position to find oneself in when you’re rooting for a restaurant that you don’t really want to succeed. Such was the case for me with Sugar Magnolia, the late Lower Garden District eatery that drew me back on a number of occasions, I guiltily admit, even though the food deteriorated further (and the prices climbed higher) with each subsequent visit.
Such is the inspiring power of a good historic renovation. The restaurant was situated in an 1820 farmhouse that had long languished in a forgotten block of Magazine Street, wasting to ruin. Under the proprietors of Sugar Magnolia, its restoration was attentive and endearing. You couldn’t help but love the building with its intricate millwork, plaster murals, long expanses of exposed Irish Channel brick, and front and rear balconies, the latter offering a particular coziness.
If only such attention or consistency translated to the menu. I doubt the kitchen or wait staff was the same during each of my visits. The prices vacillated wildly, veering to the absurd at times. There was lots and lots of Texas toast.
And then there was the menu itself, written in some of the most unusual grammar I’ve ever seen and leading one to think it had been originally composed in a foreign language, then translated—badly—for English-speaking diners. The restaurant’s slogan—“Everything Delicious!”—was the purest and most jarring distillation of Sugar Magnolia’s unusual idiom. Alas, diners, even though they seemed to turn out initially in high volume, did not find things to be all so delicious, and the restaurant shuttered early last winter.
Into its stead now comes Antoinette (1910 Magazine St.), a quieter effort with a stronger sense of its own identity. Billed simply as “A French Kitchen,” the fare is as straightforward as that. Aaron Somerville, its owner/general manager, has vowed that the restaurant will remain simple, European in feel and markedly resistant to all things Creole. “You’ll never see an étouffée on the menu or gumbo—and no Creole spices,” he says.
Somerville and chef Shaun Holtgreve, a Cordon Bleu graduate, are both veterans of GW Fins, where Somerville worked the front of the house and Holtgreve was a sous chef. It’s there that both learned to embrace simplicity and chef Tenney Flynn’s philosophy of letting ingredients lead the dish, not masking flavors with elaborate or awkwardly fused distractions. Somerville also met his future investor from his early days as a waiter at Fins, and after a brief stint as general manager of ZydeQue (Fins’ sister barbecue restaurant), he felt it was time to strike out.
I first heard about Antoinette from a couple of friends who were eager to preach the gospel of its crawfish beignets, crab and crème fraîche omelets and braised pork belly. For my part, I was eager to believe that a competent restaurant had finally landed in a deserving space. As I took a brief tour with Somerville, the early signs were promising: There were no efforts to tart up the décor, only new blue globes adorning the lamps and a lighter, less claustrophobic color palette on the walls. Several tables had been removed to make room for a lounge area, complete with leather divan, near the upstairs bar. (Somerville says such areas are de rigueur at European restaurants, so diners can enjoy aperitifs or digestifs other than at their table or on a barstool.)
In addition to a Sunday brunch (which features tempting crepes stuffed with leeks and truffles; as well as housemade saucisses and shrimp), Antoinette serves lunch and dinner from Tuesday to Saturday. Both meals feature an array of tapas-like petits plats that are conducive to sharing and sampling a wider array of the menu, which is a direction I’d advise.
Among these dishes is a housemade Hudson Valley foie gras served on toasted brioche; blue crabcakes, which are mercifully free of breading filler—just a light dusting of flour over rich lump and claw meats; and the aforementioned crawfish beignets—an exception to the otherwise traditional French fare, but a highly forgivable lapse given the perfectly light éclair batter with which they’re made. There’s also a summery roasted tomato Napoleon layered with just the right amount of brie; and a smoked rabbit stew that manages to be assertive without the slightest trace of gaminess.
I’m told that small fish are making a comeback (owing perhaps to the frequent mercury warnings we keep getting because of toxically-negligent federal policies), and Antoinette’s Niçoise salad takes advantage of the trend with salty slivers of anchovies rather than the tuna diners more regularly expect.
Entrées, meanwhile, include braised duck; sautéed quails; veal sweetbreads meuniere sautéed in lemon and capers; and one of my most beloved classic French dishes, coq au vin, which is relatively hard to find in the city and is braised here with the emphatic push of house-smoked bacon. I’m told Antoinette’s has negotiated a truce with neighboring Sophie’s Ice Cream Parlor regarding hours in which the back courtyard smoker is used. Bacon fat and ice cream do not, alas, make happy bedfellows.
Antoinette’s wine list (and liquor license issues were on the cusp of being resolved when I dined there) is a mix of largely French and California vintages that are fairly priced, and more than half on the list are on offer by the glass. No bottle on the list tips the $100 mark, and there are more than a few in the $20 to $30 range for price-conscious diners.
And speaking of price, perhaps Antoinette’s greatest virtue, at least in its early days, is that it has not gone the route of other French brasseries and bistros in town where sticker shock is an unwelcome side effect of dining. “The neighborhood was used to a certain price,” Somerville says of the more soberly priced Sugar Magnolia days, adding that price points at Antoinette were set accordingly.
There have been a number of recent openings in historic and renovated spaces in recent months, and while I’m still trying to make the rounds to all of them, I can say that simple promise abounds in one particularly beautiful building. And for once, however belatedly, I can admit that everything was, in fact, pretty delicious. •