Over the 10 years since Felicia Suzanne's opened Downtown, chef Felicia Willett has nurtured a culture in her kitchen that prizes local sources of produce and shuns the industrial influence in American dining.
The restaurant's website includes a list of more than 20 area farms that provide its vegetables, fruit, dairy products, chicken and pork, as well as nuts and flowers.
Sitting at a table in Felicia Suzanne's, a diner absorbs a sense of Willett's wholesome Arkansas upbringing in a family that took food seriously — she has described her teen years as an apprenticeship in food nerd-dom — as well as the discipline she learned while working eight years under Emeril Lagasse, who first came to fame at Commander's Palace and whose influence seems most apparent in Willett's ease with Louisiana Creole traditions.
The current menu is a beautifully edited collection of dishes that have a decade's worth of fans — the smoked salmon deviled eggs (which were on the menu when Willett presided in the kitchen Monday night at the James Beard House in New York) and barbecue oysters that top the list of starters, for instance — and some that should have an equally ardent following.
The Tasso shrimp are perfectly turned out in a cream sauce with the piquant addition of the peppery ham and a triangle of jalapeño cornbread that has the alluring consistency of shortbread. The pepper warms the tongue, but it's not overwhelming. The fried chicken livers have a subtle effect on the senses as well: Buttermilk sweetens the crunchy batter, and the earthy livers benefit from the Cajun influence of five-pepper jelly. (This year, Willett began packaging the pepper jelly, along with tomato jam, chow-chow and bread-and-butter pickles to sell at Flo's Online.)
Another longstanding favorite of Willett's fans, and an unqualified success, is the Classic Creole Turtle Soup, the meat of the terrapin delivered in a well-knit brown stew in which common ingredients — onions, garlic, tomatoes — get a magical lift from cayenne and the alcoholic bite of sherry.
The current entree list is topped by shrimp and grits and dominated by fish, which require intense oversight and are mostly done to perfection here. The wild salmon is pepper crusted; the redfish is pecan crusted; the Maine scallops have a chorizo crust. They have fanciful and well-executed companions — sweet corn etouffee with the salmon, pumpkin risotto with the scallops. The trout almondine was a tad dry one night and the pumpkin risotto was soupy, but these were mishaps that could be categorized as trouble in paradise.
The standout among our dishes was the Colorado rack of lamb with a potato gratin. Clearly these excellent roasted chops have a sound provenance; they would have been delicious without a gilding of Creole reduction. A gratin can be a damp and leaden casserole, but this goat-cheese version is an airy confection of cream and cheese layers with just the loamy taste of potato to bring it down to earth.
The perfect side order with the lamb are the straightforward fried green tomatoes. They show up on the menu with bacon and lettuce in a salad and stacked in the crab ravigote, but have them as a simple plate with remoulade.
If your server offers you the fried pie with a warm chocolate center, take him up on it. Ours was topped with a dream-inspiring pumpkin cheesecake gelato.
The restaurant anchors a corner of Brinkley Plaza's ground floor, facing the mall on Main. It's a cavernous space reclaimed from its days as part of Lowenstein's department store and can seem slightly overwhelming on a weeknight when the crowd is sparse. On two recent weekend nights when every table was occupied and there wasn't an empty seat at the bar, the atmosphere was crackling and the location seemed inspired.
Address: 80 Monroe, at the corner of Main.
Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, opens at 5 p.m.; Friday lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Reviewer’s choice: Buttermilk fried chicken livers ($10); Creole turtle soup ($9); chorizo-encrusted Maine scallops ($28); roasted Colorado lamb chops ($33); fried green tomatoes ($5.50).
Alcohol: Full bar, excellent wine list.
Poor: Zero stars
Good: One star
Very Good: Two stars
Excellent: Three stars
Extraordinary: Four stars