When Turkey and the Wolf opened, a couple years back and too far riverside of the Lower Garden District strip, reasonable minds had doubts. You’re going to ask someone hungry for a sandwich at the corner of Jackson and Magazine to walk three blocks away from Stein’s? The question wasn’t: Is this the best new restaurant in America (as Bon Appétit would later, game-changingly claim). It was: Is this the best sandwich shop within a quarter-mile?
Then there was the menu. What looks now like a particularly inclusive kind of mad genius from chef Mason Hereford, a deadpan deployment of fine-dining ingredients and tactics (lamb neck roti, “tacos inauthenticos” with hogs headcheese) in the service of the totally likable, seemed likely to come out either half- or overbaked. Didn’t it?
But what sounded indiscriminate turned out to be undiscriminating. Everything was the best as long as it tasted the best. One sandwich starred arugula and aged cheddar; the next teased the first with American cheese and “shrettuce.” There was no shame in admitting jarred mayo was unimprovable (if it was Duke’s), and the sandwiches also oozed confidence and technique, Hereford & Co. applying classical lessons about texture and seasoning to the likes of a fried bologna on white. The collard green melt, the planet’s least perfunctory vegetarian sandwich, remains a case study in “salt, fat, acid, heat,” pickled cherry pepper dressing clanging against creamy swiss, crunchy slaw and a field of greens—plus a third slice of rye to sop it all up. It was the food chefs wanted to eat after work, as the work itself.
And now there is Molly’s Rise and Shine, the micro-empire’s giddy new outpost, housed in a former po-boy shop at 1st Street and Magazine Street (notable midpoint of the commonwealth: Stein’s). The point here is breakfast, ostensibly, or lunch, maybe (but surely not brunch). Though another rule Hereford’s joints like to break is: what meal this is that you’re eating right now. Dinner sandwiches, afternoon pasta bowls, whirled peas on toast after you roll about of bed.
On a recent visit, on a mellow mid–Mardi Gras morning, the airy new room was in full unassuming swing. Off-menu PB&J king cake slices and fists of monkey bread were on the counter, in case the menu (labneh with “everything bagel crunchy stuff”; a middle-school bagel bite tray rebuilt with slow-cooked tomato cream cheese and fennel seeds; a soon-to-be-stunning yogurt and granola bowl, slick with carrot marmalade) somehow didn’t make you want to order everything already. We merrily added the pastries. Stevie Nicks wafted through, a shelf of Smurfs lunchboxes sat across from framed Newport ads full of athletic menthol smokers looking Alive with Pleasure! (Hereford is an archivist of 1990s glory.) A leaf blower played hand dryer in the bathroom, where wall art subtly celebrated Turkey and the Wolf’s most infamously not-useful Yelp review (2 stars, from someone who’d only seen it from the bus).
The winning food that arrived—on cafeteria tables, of course—let you think as hard as you wanted. Up for mulling deeply what makes this collard greens and grits bowl delicious? Something about the deft way the crunchy peanuts, the sharp lime, the slow-burn macha all worked into that rich grits/greens/eggs trio. Want to close your eyes and space out on the Grand Slam McMuffin sandwich with the sage pork patties and the little American flag? That, too.
The thought occurred, as Nicks wafted: If Turkey and the Wolf is Hereford’s Rumours, Molly’s Rise and Shine is his Tusk, a vibey pleasure palace that manages to seem both more playful and more adult. You wished you’d had too many at the Saint just so the place could help you feel better.
And it will. In an age in which “upscale comfort food” is hopefully aging out, Hereford is making a delightful opposite: downplayed fine food, which takes seriously the joys of McDonald’s, Doritos, soft serve, and reconstructs them as if the chef wished he had crap ingredients available but had to settle for the best. Here “upscale” as a notion is nothing to be proud of—actually it’s a little embarrassing. Molly’s dreams up an ambitious deviled egg tostada, then rather than boasting about it, shrugs off its ambition as “cotija whipped egg mousse stuff.”
While we were eating, Hereford arrived (in a ’90s-era Chicago Bulls sweatshirt) and opened his laptop in the kitchen. Moments later, a cheer from the staff; then, applause from the whole restaurant. Hereford had just found out he’d been nominated for a James Beard award for Best Chef: South, and what wasn’t there to be happy about? And what isn’t there, these days, if you want low-key great food at odd times in the Lower Garden District? There is Turkey and the Wolf. There is Stein’s Deli. There is Molly’s Rise and Shine. At the last of these—not the second—there is the “Dan Stein Breakfast,” a bagel situation tricked out with advanced deli meats. There is reason to cheer.
Molly’s Rise and Shine, 2368 Magazine St., New Orleans. (504) 302-1896. Open 8 a.m.–3 p.m. Wed–Mon; closed Tuesdays. mollysriseandshine.com.