Atchafalaya may be the ultimate New Orleans restaurant, at least for the younger half of the gourmet world. The food is great, inspired by the traditional ingredients and flavors but without more than a handful of classic Creole restaurant dishes. The place is an old neighborhood joint much in need of thorough restoration. But the prices reflect that. Instead of lunch, Atchafalaya offers a first-class brunch almost every day of the week. Even the restaurant's motto--"New Orleans's Only Five-A Restaurant"--is clever. The only drawback is getting a table--never easy when you need one. [caption id="attachment_46289" align="alignnone" width="480"] Free-form crabmeat raviolo.[/caption]
Near the foot of Louisiana Avenue--neither in the Garden District nor what most people think of as Uptown--Atchafalaya cooks so much better than it looks that most first-timers leave raving about the place. Despite the name, it's only mildly Cajun in its flavors. The dishes sound vaguely familiar, but in most instances you have not had them before. The raw groceries are of fine intrinsic goodness. And the service style, the wine list, and even the bar are unexpectedly sophisticated. [caption id="attachment_37569" align="alignnone" width="400"] Fried green tomato and crabmeat.[/caption]
The building has been a neighborhood restaurant since the 1920s, most of that time as Petrossi's, a casual seafood house. It became a contemporary Creole bistro called Cafe Atchafalaya in the early 1990s. A string of owners, none of whom kept the style of his predecessor, handed the place off one after another. A memorably fine era was presided over by the late Iler Pope, who added Southern country cooking to the mix. The present Atchafalaya (they dropped the "Cafe" part in 2009) is owned by Tony Tocco and Rachael Jaffe, who are married to one another.
The restaurant's long history has bequeathed rare premises. A lofty ceiling, tile floors, an antique bar, and a short flight up steps to the building next door (an add-on somewhere along the way) create most of the look. Hanging fabric on the ceiling and a see-through wall connecting the two main rooms add further uniqueness.
It doesn't look like the kind of restaurant where you need a reservation, but you do. Take advantage of the drink-making abilities of the bartender, who is as original as the chef.