Marie Laveau’s
American/Eclectic — Casual
Entrées: $5-$10
Breakfast and Lunch
9 Magnolia Road, West Ashley
766-7837

The shuttering of Liberty Café, the venerable old Avondale chop house occupying the corner of Highway 17 and Magnolia Road, brought tears to more than one eye. There was something endearing about the eclectic scent of greasy, outdoor burger smoke and worn rubber that wafted across the Gerald’s Tires parking lot — a touch of irreverence befitting a restaurant founded on defiant libertarianism. It seems appropriate that such an establishment be financially steamrolled by free market capitalism — a noble death if there ever was one. Happily, the changes that brought the demise of Liberty (and presumably a stiff inflation of the rent) have also ensured that wealthy interlopers seeking to cash in on the chic scruffiness of the area are quickly shown the door, as evidenced by Avondale Station’s recent closing.

Anyone clued in to the Charleston scene realized long ago that the Avondale area has been transformed; this budding little commercial mecca now seems to be the spot for aspiring hipsters and hooligans. What it lacks in “beautiful people” from downtown it makes up for in raw, day-glo originality. Small purveyors, from the rowdy Junk and Jive to the effervescent Poe Studio, hawk stylish trinkets and useful trash to a diverse crowd that overflows from this bohemian enclave. What better place to celebrate New Orleans, that other purveyor of unorthodox, heretical excellence?

With exactly that notion in mind, Marie Laveau’s has exploded onto the landscape. “Laveau’s,” as I predict it will come to be known, plies its trade with the visual aplomb of an electric Kool-Aid acid test, an anarchic aesthetic, as if Jasper Johns was having nightmares of rabid chickens. Visually represented by a silhouetted rooster and named for the voodoo queen of New Orleans, they serve a breakfast and lunch menu that would make any storm-displaced Creole feel almost at home.

The place vibrates with a wonderful oddity and vigor; pajama-clad waitresses pour robust chicory coffee while beatniks dine alongside local politicos. Flamboyant original artwork hangs alongside homespun rooster kitsch; riots of colored, quilt-like blobs smatter the ceiling like giant psychedelic mushrooms flattened against the acoustic tile. This assault on the senses makes one wondrously ponder if perhaps they have slipped beyond the rabbit hole, joining some surreal tea party set in a postmodern remembrance of New Orleans’ vernacular, awaiting Alice while munching on a muffelatta.

This creative flavor is superb, but restaurants must ultimately combine that with food, and in this respect, Marie Laveau’s more than excels. Dishes are a step above the average railroad diner — they receive the detailed attention of a fine dining establishment. Where one might reasonably expect an acceptable plate of grits and eggs, perhaps adorned with little jelly packets and butter pats, Laveau’s delivers delicious homemade cornbread, steaming with the char of a black skillet and accompanied with pure, lip-smacking cane syrup. Fanciful dishes fly out of the somewhat open kitchen in a rapid-fire succession of scrumptious omelets, crêpes, sandwiches, salads, and entrées, each bringing a New Orleans flair and flavor rarely reproduced outside the Crescent City.

Duck confit makes a prominent appearance on the menu, starring in numerous dishes. The “Duck Club Sandwich” ($8.25), a thing of profound beauty, generously layers confit between substantial grilled bread and smoked cheddar cheese, reinforced with extra-thick slabs of crispy fried bacon, dripping with succulent fat (one can never have too much fat in a confit sandwich). The “Duck Confit, Andouille Sausage, and Cinnamon Apples Crêpes” ($8.50) will have you pounding the table in delight, relishing a bellyful of stupefying goodness.

Other dishes assault the senses without such a full frontal attack. The “Holy Trinity of Seafood Cakes” ($7.50) offers a study in elegant contrast. Shrimp, crawfish, and crab cakes, each escorted by a respective tartar sauce or aioli and surrounding a lightly dressed nest of mesclun, are perfectly prepared — light and moist with a crunchy exterior that shatters effortlessly beneath the fork, contrasting beautifully with the crisp chill of the greens. “Grillades and Grits,” served at Sunday brunch, plates luxurious chunks of braised veal, bathed in Creole-style tomato gravy, over steaming, creamy grits. Each quivering morsel threatens to disintegrate with tenderness, held together by only a thread of connective tissue.

This is not to say that Laveau’s could not be improved. Despite the authentic New Orleans style, “Marie’s French Market Beignets” (4 for $2.50) fail to impress. Acceptable perhaps, but to anyone having had the pleasure of munching such delicacies in the French Quarter itself, they will not measure up. In comparison to the cloud-like delicacies served at legendary haunts like the Café Du Monde, Laveau’s version seems more like an undersized elephant ear at the county fair, overly chewy and toothsome, with little of the sugary success that made them famous — a forgivable fault, if beignets were not such a legendary symbol of the establishment’s cultural style.

Despite this shortcoming, Marie Laveau’s already enjoys overwhelming success. Crowds are consistently bulging the doors on weekend mornings and a table can sometimes require a 20-to-30-minute wait, which seems strangely palatable as one is treated to the passing parade of the sidewalk crowd. The departure of Liberty Café left a nostalgic hole in the heart of the Avondale district, but none should fret. While Marie Laveau’s walks to its own beat, it emits a melody in perfect tune with the adjacent panorama.