A new course for Atchafalaya

Atchafalaya has changed chefs, owners and aspirations many times since the first incarnation opened here, originally as Café Atchafalaya, in 1991.

It’s understandable, then, if the name conjures memories of meals from previous eras in its long history. I was still surprised to find how dining here today can sometimes bring to mind an entirely different restaurant.

This came through first in a late-summer appetizer loosely based on the notion of Caprese salad ($12), which started with a cool bar of watermelon overlaid with Serrano ham, milky dollops of burrata cheese and a topiary of soft herbs, pea shoots and edible flowers.

For an entrée, thick cuts of grilled tuna ($28) were arranged like claret-colored petals over a blend of red, black and white quinoa, the tiny, curled grains awash in a vinaigrette that made them tart as sauerkraut, cut by smoked porcini mushroom caps.

Both dishes showed a finesse and inventiveness that has not always been the forte of Atchafalaya, a restaurant known in its earliest days for Deep South comfort food and, more recently, straight-ahead upscale Creole cuisine.

But the artful precision, nuanced touches and unexpected combinations are signatures of its latest chef, Chris Lynch.

He made his name locally as chef de cuisine at Emeril’s Restaurant after Hurricane Katrina and later had a truncated tenure at Meson 923.

That Warehouse District restaurant had an impressive start when it opened in 2010, with Lynch at the helm, but proved terminally dysfunctional. In less than a year the chef parted ways with restaurant management, and before its second anniversary Meson 923 had closed.

Lynch took a hiatus from fine dining, turning up instead at Jimmy’s J’s Café, a 24-hour diner in the French Quarter.

Earlier this year he got the call from his old friend Tony Tocco. The two men had worked together much earlier in their careers at Gautreau’s Restaurant, with Lynch in the kitchen and Tocco at the front of the house.

Tocco went on to open the indispensible late-night dive Snake & Jake’s Christmas Club Lounge, and a few years ago he and his wife, Rachael Jaffe-Tocco, bought Café Atchafalaya.

They soon dropped the “café” part of its name to signal a more upscale direction.

Since Lynch has come aboard he’s been gradually working more of his own style across the menu, and much of this is in synch with where things left off during the high point of Meson 923.

Two good examples from the appetizer list are scallops ($16), with candied pumpkin seed brittle and vinaigrette imbued with foie gras, and the hamachi crudo ($16), a raw fish preparation lavishly dressed with beets, fried shallots and pistachio.

On the entrée list, a half dozen lamb meatballs ($31), all springy-textured and herb-strung, are piled over large-bore Israeli couscous in a spicy broth, like a Middle Eastern interpretation of meatballs and spaghetti, while the chicken ($24) is treated like Peking duck, with heady, multi-layered hoisin flavor on its shiny dark skin, strands of grilled green onions and a thick, ginger-spiked scallion pancake for the starch.

Order selectively from Lynch’s new dinner menu and Atchafalaya can eat like one of the more ambitious restaurants in town (and it can cost like one too). But plenty of the old hallmarks that have endeared this restaurant to its regulars over the years remain firmly in place.

Lump crabmeat is still used with abandon, and to particularly good effect with spicy remoulade over fried green tomatoes ($14). There’s still the oddball “free form crab ravioli” ($17), which is essentially a rich crab-mushroom-mascarpone dip draped with a broad sheet of pasta. Be aware that there’s scant haven for vegetarians at dinner, though the options expand a bit at lunch and brunch.

That brunch is something to behold, as much for the scene under Atchafalaya’s roof as for anything that happens on the plate. It’s an exposition of poached eggs, crabmeat and hollandaise orchestrated for surging crowds, abetted by a self-serve bloody Mary bar and urged on by jazz and blues combos squeezed into the corner by the bar.

As dinner moves up-market, brunch remains as casual as ever, and in fact it will soon be expanding.

Tocco plans to replace weekday lunch with brunch service later in November. If your bloody Mary mornings fall on Tuesdays, say, or Fridays, you should soon be in luck here.