Anthony McDonald is a charmer. The second time you walk into his and his fiancée's restaurant, Marcela's Cookery, he'll not only remember your name, he'll also conjure up the name of your companion the first time—even if it's days later and that companion is nowhere in sight. If you think you can go to Marcela's Cookery without Anthony learning your name—if you think you're the kind of person who wants to be left alone while they eat—you're wrong. Anthony gets right up to the border of too-close-for-Seattle-comfort, warms up that heart of yours, and brings you with him (in spirit only, unfortunately) back to New Orleans, where he's from.
Lunchtime already has regulars. Anthony bedecks each woman with a strand of Mardi Gras beads; it's Southern-style hospitality, political correctness be damned. In discussing the astounding rainbow-colored mural at the back of the restaurant, Anthony explains it's meant to represent "all walks of life"—with depictions of a bellhop, a surgeon, a fireman, etc.—saying in closing, "I don't know what the chicks are doin'." Anthony can get away with this. The accent helps. In fact, one of the women is clearly a chef, another an angel with notably prominent nipples. (Like I said: astounding. Also, everyone in the mural has a big glass of wine, including the surgeon in his facemask and scrubs. Health care, New Orleans–style! Let the good times roll.)
The aesthetically sensitive may prefer to face the huge window looking out onto James Street; the mural might fairly be described as violently festive. And while the decor's a little hodge-podge—a strange collection of sticks, vases stuck to walls, a mini-TV on a table in the back—it's a marvelous old-fashioned Pioneer Square room. The high ceilings, exposed brick and stone, and the great architectural bones feel right for Anthony and his New Orleans cuisine.
A lot of solo diners come at lunch, maybe because here you're never alone. The uptightest-looking woman in the room, if not the world—hair pulled tautly back, severe eyeglasses, an expression of strain—tapped her toe to the zydeco, her face relaxing as she alternately talked to Anthony and read some pulp fiction, hoovering up a big bowl of filé gumbo ($9). It's gumbo on the soupier rather than stewier side, with perfectly not-overcooked shrimp; with a dash or two of Tabasco, it's ready to go. The étouffée ($13.50, $1 more at dinner) is also brothy; it's green-brown thin rather than golden-brown thick. There's debate about which consistency is correct, whether you start with an enriching roux or not. This version tastes vegetal (like the celery, green pepper, and onion that are the Cajun/Creole mirepoix), and the butter's separated in a sheen, and the crawfish are a little tough.
Marcela's fried food and sandwiches, though, are undebatably good stuff. The breading—used on appetizers of bite-sized shrimp, crawfish, alligator, and more, and on seafood for poor boys—is ungreasy, with the slightest bit of cornmeal, maybe a whisper of cayenne. It's not at all salty, letting flavors live. The breaded alligator bits are dense but flaky, a mild-flavored novelty ($7.50). House-made cocktail sauce makes you remember that cocktail sauce is a fine, spicy idea. The fried oyster poor boy ($11.50), on a squishy French roll with toasted edges, is real-deal and real good. The oysters taste fresh; they're flown in from the Gulf of Mexico. In another antilocal move that ought to drive food-trendsters around the bend, Anthony has commissioned the bread especially—from Lois at the Greenwood Safeway. She also makes the Italian-style round loaves for the muffuletta ($8.50 for a quarter, which is like one regular sandwich), while Anthony makes the olive salad, with tiny bits of cauliflower snuck in. It's a good muffuletta, if compact; a little more of the thin-sliced ham, salami, and provolone wouldn't hurt.
Dinner's fancier than you might expect, with Anthony gallantly combing the crumbs off your white tablecloth and bringing fingerbowls. Fingerbowls are necessary after the "barbeque" prawns Antoine ($10.95), or prawns bathing in hot butter with tons of black pepper and bread for sopping. (Some say this dish is more authentically an emulsion of butter with prawn pan-juices, achieving a thicker, richer texture. If this was meant to be an emulsion, it broke. Regardless: delicious.) A sampler dinner ($24.95) is multicourse: mixed greens with a thick layer of blue cheese/red wine dressing; a cup of gumbo; a few crab-stuffed prawns, supertasty with crunchy green pepper and scallion bits; spicy-roasted Potatoes Ya-Ya; excellent blackened snapper; an afterthought of broccoli. They've just started serving duck a l'orange ($22.95), which Anthony says is the best in the world—"The French invented it; we perfected it." When he says "we," he means New Orleans. He struggled and struggled, he says, after Katrina, finally moving here to join his sister and mother. Marcela's has been open for three months now. Anthony loves Seattle. "I'm gonna grow old and die here," he says. "It's the best move I ever made."
Marcela's has Louisiana beers like Abita and hurricanes made with (Anthony proudly relates) the original mix imported from Pat O'Brien's French Quarter bar. (The glassware for the latter is not the traditional shape, and it tastes more like Hawaiian Punch than I remember from drinking/wearing it at a Mardi Gras parade, but it goes down very easy.) The bread pudding with whiskey sauce is awesome. Marcela (a cushy, welcoming, but background presence) is overheard describing it as made with "butter, sugar, nutmeg, raisins, [she laughs], oh, mostly butter and sugar." She doesn't cook here, nor does Anthony. In a peculiar turn of events, the chef sort of came with the restaurant; it used to be Pastiamo, owned by Pioneer Square restaurateur Luigi DeNunzio, and the kitchen's still run by his son, Micah. The recipes came from Anthony's family and brain; he and Micah went over it together until they got it right. I'm not sold on that score with regards to the étouffée (and maybe another thing or two), but overall, yes, indeed.