It was a thrown-together weekend as a result of a speaking engagement for my Texan. Upon hearing that complimentary Jackson Square apartment accommodations were offered as an incentive, two Southwest tickets were promptly purchased. Boarding dead-last onto the flight I ended up sitting snug between two male strangers who spent most of the flight trying to convince me to go into pharmaceutical sales, making it painfully obvious that my New York edge must have softened considerably since my move to Dallas. A glass of wine made this realization slightly more tolerable but I was grateful when the discussion turned to the much more pleasant topic of the cannibal nature of the alligators in the swamps we were soaring over upon arrival in New Orleans.
This was my second visit to the city and my first visit post-Katrina. Although we would be attending a conference, we also had three dinner reservations; at a classic New Orleans institution, a brand new seafood restaurant from one of New Orleans’s most beloved local chefs, and a contemporary Cajun spot with an award-winning chef. My Texan, a graduate of Tulane University, also had a few casual sentimental favorites in mind for other meals, so we knew we were prepared to eat well. We were still not prepared for what ensued in the Crescent City this past weekend.
We were staying in one of the Lower Pontalba Apartments. Built in the 1840’s, they are the oldest apartments in the country. Through a heavy door on Rue St. Ann we walked down a cool hallway and up two long flights of curving wooden stairs. Through another door on the top floor we entered our beautiful temporary home. I walked through the front rooms to the heavy drapes, pulled them and aside, opened the windows, and walked out onto the balcony overlooking Jackson Square. To my left was Cafe du Monde; to my right was St. Louis Cathedral. It was a gorgeous evening and music drifted up from the square below. It could not have been more perfect.
After making the obligatory appearance at the welcome reception of our conference, we joined friends for the first of our NOLA dinners, at the “Grand Dame of New Orleans old line restaurants,” Galatoire’s. Apparently not much has changed here since its founding in 1905 and that was fine with me. At a big table in the elegant second floor dining room of this Bourbon Street institution, I dined on Oysters Rockefeller, Pompano Crabmeat Yvonne, and bread pudding. I ate as much as I could but had to throw in the proverbial towel after only a few bites of the dessert. I was discretely informed that this would not be the best bread pudding that I would have over the weekend but I couldn’t imagine this was true.
After dinner we joined the festivities on Bourbon Street, with a front row seat at the Piano Bar at Pat O’Brien’s (they played a lot of Southern fight songs that I did not recognize) and sang karaoke at The Cat’s Meow (too many songs that I did recognize) late into the evening. On our way home we came across a Lucky Dog hot dog stand, another New Orleans institution and, as I was told, a must-try at 2am. Not one to shy away from something new, I agreed to a chili dog with mustard. My Texan took one bite and I finished the rest, which he was not happy about. But I agree that at 2 a.m. after an evening on Bourbon Street a Lucky Dog chili dog is the best food on the planet.
Amazingly I felt great the next morning (thanks due, I believe, to the chili dog) but a late hangover breakfast was in order. This had already been planned and I was led to Mother’s on Poydras Street, home of the “World’s Best Baked Ham.” We waited in a long line, were pushed aside and yelled at, waited even longer for our food, and it was completely worth it. We split a Ralph, which is a Ferdi with cheese. A Ferdi is a po’ boy with the aforementioned ham, roast beef, “debris”, gravy, shredded cabbage, sliced pickle, creole & yellow mustard and mayo, served on soft New Orleans French bread. Also on our table: grits with debris and gravy, biscuits, gumbo, coffee , a spicy Bloody Mary, and indeed the best bread pudding in New Orleans. Debris, I learned, is “the roast beef that falls into the gravy while baking in the oven.” And I ate it, all of it. At the conference luncheon shortly thereafter (I happily pushed aside the hotel catering salad) our table companions found my 2am snack story highly amusing. But whether foie gras at La Tour D’Argent or a chili dog on Bourbon Street, “good food” is food that you enjoy and I stand by it! After presentations and meetings we strolled along the Mississippi, dodging the ESPN crews setting up for Final Four events and marveling at the gorgeous weather we were blessed with.
We perked up with the requisite coffee and sinfully good beignets at the adorable Cafe du Monde and managed to avoid most of the flying powdered sugar (word to the wise- do not wear black here). Climbing up the steps we ran into Dickie V and took a few tourist pictures in front of the Cathedral before walking to LaFitte’s Blacksmith Shop, a bar on Bourbon Street in a structure built in the 1720’s and used as a smuggling base, for pints of Abita before dinner.
Borgne is the newest restaurant by New Orleans golden boy John Besh. I had met him in New York a few months ago and have cooked a few of his recipes, and was looking forward to finally eating his food. The hosts were sweet, the bartender Kyle was thoroughly knowledgeable and passionate about the restaurant, and the food was good. Located in the Hyatt Regency Hotel in the Central Business District, it at least lacked the Bourbon Street tourist crowd. The other guests at the bar were locals, which was refreshing, but at 7:30 on a Friday night the dining room was only half full. And they could have fit twice as many tables in there.
I am so sorry to say that the ambiance was disappointing. It felt like a cafeteria, or part of the hotel that serves the breakfast buffet to families with screaming kids. After our experience at the bar, where Kyle helped me settle on the classic New Orleans cocktail Sazerac (cognac, whiskey, Herbsaint, and bitters, considered the oldest American cocktail) and chatted with us about his favorite menu items, we expected better service at the table than what we got.
The theme, casual coastal Louisiana cuisine, had so much potential and although it did come through in the menu and a few design elements, like the cage column of oyster shells and the chalkboards, it was otherwise absent. I kept feeling like I was missing something even though I kept actively searching. The table and chair choices were uninspiring, and with the doors to the kitchen and bathrooms and the server station all exposed to the majority of the room, there really were no good tables. I was frustrated and I can not recommend it if you care about ambiance. But the Louisiana oysters on the half shell (a thicker, creamier version of the bivalve molluscs than I am used to) were presented beautifully and the black drum with brown butter, pecans, and jumbo lump crab (also recommended by Kyle) was absolutely exquisite. I hope to try one of his more traditional restaurants the next time I am in town to see if I fare better.
A cab ride later and we were “on the hippy side of town,” Faubourg Mariginy, to watch the legendary Ellis Marsalis play at the Snug Harbor jazz club. This was more like it. Dark and crowded and filled to the brim, this place was everything I had hoped it would be. After the show we took a pedicab through the drizzle to meet up with some friends back on Bourbon Street, which had become even more blue and red, before heading home. On the way we stopped for another chili dog. I am not ashamed.
Saturday morning’s breakfast was at the new location of Camillia Grill on the corner of Chartres and Toulouse. It looks like an old 50’s diner and the line is out the door, but once again this is totally worth it. Our waiter, Penut (used to be Peanut, he says, but now that he’s got money he upgraded to “Pe-Noo”), worked at the original location for 30 years and is now part owner of the slightly larger French Quarter version. He also, we learned, went to the same New Orleans high school as my Texan’s father. We had coffee and split orders of grits and a chili cheese omelet with fries. This was the unhealthiest I have ever eaten in my life but it was euphoric. I also had a Bloody Mary that may have been nothing more than ice, vodka, and a lot of Tobasco sauce. What the service lacked in precision it made up for in personality; this place was a blast and it was fun being surrounded by the unofficial (and maybe some official) cheering squads of the four teams playing that night.
We caught the don’t-say-trolley-it’s-a-street-car up St. Charles, the old oaks and pecan trees along the way still dripping with beads of all colors, leftover from the recent Mardi Gras festivities. My Texan pointed out his old apartment and fraternity house and a few key landmarks along the way to stop #43 in the Riverbend section of Uptown, home of Cooter Brown’s Tavern and Oyster Bar. This was dark, dingy, and sticky, with pool tables and over 400 brands of domestic and imported beers, 40 of them on tap. The oysters and po’ boys looked amazing but I was still hurting from that chili cheese omelet (did I really eat that?) so I tried an Abita Purple Haze instead and we sat outside at a picnic table with more basketball fans in town for the games. The street car ride back to the French Quarter was amusing; the car filled up quickly with basketball fans who may still have been drunk from the night before, everyone was decked out in the most outrageous combinations of their teams’ colors, and nobody was shy about where they were visiting from. But at every stop that we passed, there were larger crowds more disappointed than the last that they wouldn’t be able to board. We tried to tell them through the windows that they best start walking; the cars behind us weren’t likely to have any room either. The two of us sat comfortably in our seat, thankful that neither had packed any blue or red for the weekend.
We had a mission when we arrived back from our jaunt uptown: my very first crawfish experience. (I am new to the South!) Where better to try these little mud bugs than in New Orleans? Having had allergic reactions to some shellfish in the past I was nervous but still willing. Unfortunately we were back in the tourist areas and it was explained to us that the majority of the crowd that day- from Kansas, Kentucky, and Ohio- were not spicy food fans, so this wasn’t to be as authentic as we’d hoped. But we strolled around until we found J’s Seafood Dock in the French Market, with their bin of oysters on ice and a big pot of steamed crawfish just pulled out of their hot watery grave. This would do. We grabbed some beers, plopped ourselves down on the stools, pulled a few paper towels off the roll, and ordered up some crawfish and oysters. After a quick tutorial and a couple of bites, I didn’t care if I was allergic. Thankfully my skin stayed welt-free and I could eat my share before rolling away for some more French Market shopping. Another successful new experience was under my belt and I was giddy. We stopped at Tropical Isle for one hand grenade to split (because have you ever had one of these? Good lord.) before heading back to the apartment to pack.
Our last reservation was at Cochon, a Cajun restaurant in the cool warehouse district that makes frequent appearances on top 10 lists for New Orleans and held the number twenty spot on The Daily Meal’s 101 Best Restaurants in America for 2012. Executive Chef (and CEO) Donald Link was also recently chosen as a finalist in the James Beard Foundation Awards Outstanding Chef U.S. category. I had high hopes and wasn’t disappointed. The decor was a beautiful combination of provincial and modern, with an exposed kitchen and bare wood furnishings. It reminded me Wyle Dufresne’s WD-50 in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, but with much more room and light (of course). The food was nothing like it though, and rightfully so. This was, as NYT’s Sam Sifton said it best, “big flavors that lie at the intersection of urban New Orleans and rustic Cajun country.” Our delightful server explained the difference between Creole and Cajun cuisines and had a special ginger beer cocktail made for me.We dined on wood-fired oysters, fried boudin with pickled peppers, soft-shell crab, and finished with a chocolate pecan tart with salted caramel before heading to the airport for our flight home.
Cochon, it should be noted, means pig. How wonderfully appropriate for the last meal in our impromptu food tour of NOLA. Supposedly an unidentified French Quarter policeman ate 32 Lucky Dogs in one night in 1998 but I’m still impressed that I had two over the course of 48 hours. Suffice it to say you will be able to find me on the Katy Trail over the next three months trying to burn off the calories that I consumed on this trip. It will take at least that long, but it was worth it.
Jayne is new to Dallas and discovering the city with a voracious appetite. You can follow her discoveries @JaynieMarie on Twitter, Foursquare, and Pinterest, and on her website A Moveable Appetency.