Last summer, chef Bryan Merker celebrated the second anniversary of Nica's 320, his Southwest Boulevard restaurant, by revamping it altogether.
The interior of the building is still the same, and a few of the dishes from the previous incarnation have survived the transition, but this new restaurant — now called Lagniappe: Nica's Cajun Kitchen — is far more focused, polished and accessible than Merker's original.
Nica's 320 was a little too ambitious for its own good. It served breakfast, lunch and dinner, drawing from a complicated menu — complicated to me, anyway — that required diners to choose from mix-and-match "preparation choices" that found room for Thai, Italian, Cajun and Caribbean, among other notions. It might have made sense at, say, Walt Disney World, but for grown-ups who simply wanted a cocktail and an unfussy dinner after a long day at work, this kind of decision making could bring on a migraine. No one wants to think that hard after 6 p.m. — or before noon, for that matter.
So Merker is now shining his spotlight on a single culinary style: Lagniappe is all about New Orleans. This allows him to offer fewer but more interesting choices, including some of the best Cajun and Creole dishes in the metro.
Still, Merker is a stubborn kind of fellow, and he hasn't completely abandoned his mix-and-match ways. The entrées listed under the "Blaze and Broil" category, for example, have six sauce options that are consistent, at least, with the French, Spanish and African cuisines traditional to the Creole repertoire and the more brawny country cooking of the Louisiana Acadians.
His take on most of these classic Southern dishes is reverent. The beautifully seasoned gumbo comes loaded with chunks of andouille sausage, crabmeat, shrimp, chicken and crawfish (still tucked into their crispy shells), and conveys just the right note of peppery heat. I felt a moment's hint of burn on my tongue on the cusp of the dish's complex flavors.
The collection of small plates is more generous than is typical among starter menus. The combination called the St. Phillips Platter is easy enough to share, but I made it my own dinner one evening. It's an excellent way to sample a range of Merker's seafood without committing to any one dish. On a wooden cutting board, in a carefully composed tableau, you get a pile of silky pink smoked salmon in one corner, a heap of crawfish bits in a delicate remoulade in another, a few pieces of seared andouille here, and a little blue crab over there. (The decorative accents are edible, too: deep-magenta pickled onions, slices of kick-ass habanero pickles, wedges of grilled bread baked in-house.
The sweet-potato frites are a sublime contrast to the chewy, soggy, rubbery version of the side served at far too many local restaurants. The ones I tasted were crispy under an almost evanescent exterior, feather-light inside. Naturally, there are three dipping sauces: a punchy chili ketchup, a creamy peppercorn aioli and Merker's subtle remoulade. They're fine, but you don't need any dressing to love the fries.
Merker also operates a popular beignet joint in the City Market, and he has become a master of the yeasty, deep-fried pastry. With this in mind, I wanted to like the savory version on the starter menu here, a chewy golden square stuffed with a concoction of herbed goat cheese, bits of smoked bacon and blue crab. But the finished product was closer to a Hot Pocket than a delicacy of the French Quarter.
Instead, order the parmesan cheese grits, which arrive dappled with a sweet fig glaze, a quartet of grilled prawns and a frilly cap of tart fresh arugula. I didn't think grits could be sexy, but this dish is — and delicious, too.
Posing more choices, Merker has put two different jambalayas on the menu. At a minimum, I needed to hear why one of them is called "Drag Queen" jambalaya.
"It's a faux jambalaya," explained my server. "Instead of meat, it's made with candied jalapeño, spicy tofu and seitan."
It sounded so healthy. So I ordered the smoked, braised pork shoulder. I wasn't going to turn down meat, and I wanted to taste something that had been brined (it's a little salty) and then marinated in Midnight of the Moon cinnamon-apple moonshine. It's a richly flavored and tender hunk of pig, but the standout on that plate turned out to be some first-class au gratin potatoes, more creamy than obnoxiously cheesy.
I sampled pan-roasted Louisiana rainbow trout and found it tasty but somewhat on the stingy side. More comforting was a hefty bowl of long-simmered red beans and rice, topped with pieces of broiled andouille.
All of Merker's desserts are reassuringly soothing, particularly four puffy squares of white-chocolate bread pudding under a lavish blanket of bourbon-caramel sauce. And, of course, many variations on the beignet theme are offered here, but I prefer the fried apple fritters.
I can't quite explain Merker's artistic construction called a tartufo. The word is Italian for truffle, which is why most restaurants present it as a ball of ice cream rolled in some confection, like white chocolate, but the one here looks nothing like a truffle. It could pass as four tiny wedges of pumpernickel bread with pimento-cheese filling, but it's actually an ice-cream sandwich of white-chocolate-and-strawberry ice cream between slices of a chocolate "cookie" with an unfortunate lack of flavor. Did I mention the apple fritters?
Lagniappe proves that Merker likes risk (the peculiar tartufo comes to mind). He attempts to adhere to the integrity of the Cajun and Creole cuisine while also stubbornly sticking to his own innovations. Now that he has focused his talents on a distinctive culinary style — and now that he's doing a damn good job of it — the chef seems to have found the winning concept for his Crossroads boîte. There's nothing faux about it, except maybe that meatless jambalaya.