Tujague’s: A bastion of culinary history and tradition shakes loose and retools for the future.

Tujague’s, Act II

During a recent lunch at Tujague’s, a man asked his waiter if he was familiar enough with the seafood gumbo to recommend it.

“Of course,” the waiter declared. “I’ve been working here almost 30 years; it’s always been good.”

Generations of regulars have enjoyed that same level of assurance when dining at Tujague’s. The city’s second-oldest restaurant, dating to 1856, has been resolutely rooted in tradition, including many of its own making. The most significant was its menu format, a five-course, table d’hôte harkening back to dining norms of the 19th century.

These days, however, first-time visitors, lifelong patrons and even some veteran staffers are on equal footing, as New Orleans gets to know a different Tujague’s. There’s a new a la carte menu (a first for Tujague’s, with the exception of a brief stint right after Hurricane Katrina), which isn’t as radical a change as what’s on it.

An appetizer of nearly raw planks of tuna ($13) arrives over corn macque choux, for instance, and wild mushrooms and crabmeat are stuck to delicate puffs of gnocchi ($15) with a creamy garlic sauce. You can get Abita root beer glaze on your filet mignon ($24) or, at lunch, a seafood Cobb salad ($16) with neat ranks of shrimp, lump crabmeat and crumbled bacon. There’s also weekend brunch for the first time, with pain perdu ($14) given the bananas Foster treatment and fried oysters Benedict ($14).

The changes, directed by owner Mark Latter and chef Richard Bickford, have vaulted Tujague’s out from what was becoming food museum status. That sort of change is not always applauded in this city, and the extent and speed with which this old restaurant has chased modernity might have raised eyebrows, if not for the harrowing circumstances that propelled it all.

Mark’s father Steven Latter, the restaurant’s longtime proprietor and a perpetual presence under its roof, died in February. His brother owns Tujague’s Decatur Street building, and by March word had spread that he planned to sell the property to a local businessman who runs a string of French Quarter T-shirt shops. The news provoked an impassioned public response and through the spring crowds packed Tujague’s dining room and bar, as people visited for what they assumed would be their final meal or cocktail.

Behind the scenes, however, Mark Latter was negotiating with his uncle. Eventually he was able to buy the restaurant from other family members and sign a long-term lease on the building. With Tujague’s landmark location secure, he spent the summer retooling how it would face the future.

The answer started with a cosmetic overhaul, most prominently in the main dining room, a narrow, elegant space now whitewashed and lined with mirrors (and also case after case of airline-style liquor bottles from his father’s collection).

In the kitchen, he gave Bickford and his crew license to turn out specials, such as a recent seared flounder ($28) balanced over crisp, roasted Brussels sprouts on a foundation of parsnips, cream and gouda pureed as smooth as bisque. Seared scallops ($28), another special, were sweet, cool and nearly raw within, and awash with a satsuma beurre blanc.

Like other menu additions, these dishes are contemporary, if not exactly boundary-pushing. The big change is having choices, and one of those is to order as if it were still the old days. Pick an entrée, add $23 to its price and Tujague’s will present its same trademark progression of plates, in this order: shrimp remoulade, soup (or gumbo), brisket, your entrée, then dessert, usually bread pudding.

The Tujague’s set pieces showcased in the table d’hôte are unchanged. The sharp, dusky-colored remoulade is still more akin to a Carolina barbecue sauce than the glorified mayonnaise often called remoulade these days. You can still order the chicken bonne femme (pan-fried and heaped with a truly legendary dose of garlic) even though you won’t find it on any menu. The brisket is still boiled with a hamper of Creole seasonings that penetrates the very fibers of the fork-tender meat.

And at Tujague’s bar, a patina-struck, lushly atmospheric room, patrons can still get free plates of red beans and rice on Mondays for as long as the night’s vat holds out, one of the many traditions that have stuck to this place over the years. It looks like Tujague’s will have a chance to accumulate a few more as its new course unfolds.