RATING |

Marsha Brown is an avowed "steak house girl." And after owning the Philadelphia area's Ruth's Chris franchise for 15 years, she's learned the value of following a recipe.

That cookie-cutter concept may lack surprises and personality, but it has been profitable for Brown, who now has four of the popular restaurants.

But Brown is also a New Orleans girl. So when she embarked on a new project that would bear her own name, the old steak house formula needed a new twist: a homage to gumbo and "Granmere's comfort custard."

She isn't the first restaurateur, of course, to canonize her family's down-home flavors. But one taste of her eggplant Ophelia, a classic Creole dish renamed for her mother that mixes mashed eggplant with nuggets of shrimp and crab, and it's clear she plans to do this right. It isn't leaden and fishy, as seafood casseroles can be, but an airy molded tower that is surprisingly light, sweet with the pure flavor of its ingredients.

For someone who has played the corporate sure bet for so long, Marsha Brown is a considerably ambitious and personal gamble. Brown has invested $2.7 million to convert a 125-year-old stone Methodist church in New Hope into her vision of a Southern grill. And so far, with the exception of a weak wine list and some iffy service, it's paying off nicely.

The space itself is dramatic, with a great raw bar and bordello-like private room downstairs and a massive, cathedral-ceilinged upstairs dining room in the old sanctuary.

Stained-glass windows, church pew banquettes, and a towering quasi-biblical mural that Brown commissioned of a lion mauling its attackers create a mood that reminds me of the gothic places horror novelist Anne Rice has collected in New Orleans. I half expected the Queen of the Damned to arrive for dinner.

(No, that's just Brown working the room with her signature long, curly tresses.)

Despite the theatrical ambience, the menu here is rooted in comfort - some items familiar, others less so.

Brown hasn't abandoned her steak house pedigree altogether. There is the usual assortment of a la carte chops and classic sides, and for their part, they are superior to those I've tasted at various Ruth's Chris locations over the years.

The dry-aged steaks are sublimely tender, expertly cooked, and full of the subtle, complex flavors that are the hallmark of great beef. The big cowboy rib-eye is a freewheeling, almost garlicky-tasting paddle of meat.

The New York strip is equally good but more refined, with a peppery crust that gives way to a juiciness that sings. Only the prime rib was a letdown, because it was an uncharacteristically puny cut.

But what really sets Marsha Brown apart is its deft New Orleans flair. The gumbo is thickened with rich, chestnut-brown roux and filled with chunks of chicken and earthy undertones of smoked Cajun andouille sausage. The turtle soup is heartily reinforced with veal stock and lots of turtle meat.

I didn't love the crawfish-stuffed tomato Amelia, which had too much of a generic seafood-salad flavor. The "bbq" shrimp were also mildly disappointing. Pre-shelled and daintily perched over a pool of garlic butter, they couldn't compete with the messy, but more flavorful experience of peeling my own head-on shrimp at Pascal's Manale in Uptown New Orleans, where the dish was invented.

The shrimp maison was far more satisfying, its dressing of mustard- and anchovy-laced mayonnaise highlighting the delicacy of the shrimp. I also fell for the shrimp Ernie, named for Brown's father, who figured out how to balance the sweetness of coconut-crusted shrimp with the zip of cayenne.

The lollipop lamb chops were perfectly cooked, tender and meaty, served with an exotic mango chutney that countered the light dusting of blackening spice. The exceptionally juicy pork chop was topped with whiskey-soaked raisins that anointed the meat with boozy bursts of sweetness.

The crabcakes brought two broiled mounds of pure lump meat and a zingy Creole dip that cut right through the richness of the clarified butter at the bottom of the plate.

The fish dishes were equally good, whether a straightforward hunk of butter-basted ahi tuna or the perfectly fried catfish fingers, which come with a remoulade sauce that prickles but doesn't sting.

Add the assortment of winning sides - divine creamed spinach; sweet onions and peas au gratin; and wonderful fried eggplant sticks with confectioners' sugar - and Marsha Brown could be a complete package.

But some things still need work. There are 150 wines, but they are somewhat commercial and don't offer much of interest between the low-end and big-ticket bottles.

The service staff is also out of sync, mixing up reservations and struggling to pace meals evenly.

My first dinner was rushed, with the first three courses (raw bar, soup and house salad) whipped onto and off the table in a span of 15 minutes. My final meal was a case study in table abandonment, our empty water glasses left to air-dry.

The waiter managed to pop by only when we were in the midst of a tense, guess-the-secret-ingredient game in which I was greedily withholding the answer.

Marsha Brown's best dessert was the dish in question: Granmere's comfort custard, a deceptively simple dessert that requires 40 minutes of patient stirring. The homey scoop of vanilla-tinged silkiness was ribboned with an unexpected fluff of meringue, but also something with a subtle crunch and a faintly salty tinge . . .

"Saltine crackers!" our waiter chimed in, unwittingly spoiling the punch line.

Saltine crackers, indeed. But the gamble to finally sell herself is the true secret ingredient of Marsha Brown.

Contact Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.