When the waiter at Commander’s Palace told me that the soft shell crabs on the menu in October were fresh and not frozen, I scoffed. Everyone knows that the season for soft shell blue crabs in the Gulf and along the Atlantic seaboard is spring and early summer! Or so I thought I knew. It turns out that when the weather is hot in the Gulf of Mexico, as it had been, the season can actually extend into the fall. This may not be widely known because there aren’t many that fit the bill and are caught. Those that are, however, tend to find their way onto the menus of the most well known and oldest restaurants in New Orleans, who have the most well-established and preferred supply lines. Commander’s fits that bill and the soft-shell crab that my wife had ordered was a true specimen. It was a giant fried crisp on the outside and served over a salad. It was indeed fresh.
New Orleans has been a food destination to varying probably for as long as the city has existed, and with its wealth of cultural influences and high quality and variety of local product, it is easy to understand why. The culinary scene here is unlike any other in the country with a highly developed regional feel and continually evolving set of influences. It also is the home of plenty of American culinary history. Commander’s Palace is a prime example of that, as despite some nods to more contemporary cooking such as a “five hour” egg special, it remains a bastion of old time Creole cooking and style that is probably as close to the classic French cooking of Careme and Escoffier, as exists in the United States. As such, it is a worthwhile destination for those seeking to step back into another culinary world that only exists like this in The Big Easy.
Creole cooking is certainly not the only traditional, old-time cooking still widely available in New Orleans at a high level. A more down home approach is located at the legendary Willie Mae’s Scotch House out near City Park. Walking through those doors, one immediately gets a sense of authentic culinary tradition. Deservedly known for their outstanding fried chicken, even better is the country fried pork chop, that is full of intense, wonderful porky and pepper flavor. No culinary visit to New Orleans is complete without a visit to this soulful mecca or its kin.¹
No city in the South has a greater Italian tradition than New Orleans with many immigrants arriving from mostly Southern Italy late in the 19th Century through the middle of the 20th. While I did not indulge in any of the more traditional Italian savory fare on this trip, I did make a stop at the venerable ice cream and pastry shop of Angelo Braccato, where the cannoli are filled to order and on a par with any that I have had in the USA.
While the old time Creole and Cajun and other ethnic cooking styles remains an important and deservedly major part of the dining scene in New Orleans, it is still only a part. Much of today’s vibrant restaurant culture comes from more contemporary approaches to food, drink and cooking. Casual, local product oriented cooking is at the forefront of today’s New Orleans dining landscape and much of that cooking is done at an extremely high level with creative approaches that honor the past while focusing on the present. No dish wowed me during this week-long visit more than the Buffalo style sweetbreads at Sylvain, an intimate and dark, small restaurant-bar combination on Chartres Street in the middle of The French Quarter. While a sucker for sweetbreads when done well, I have to admit, the idea of them done Buffalo style didn’t really excite me. Still, I couldn’t resist trying them as a small order to share amongst four of us. The sweetbreads were cut into small chunks, fried to a wonderfully crisp exterior and a heavenly soft interior – just right. What set them over the top, though, was Chef Alex Harell’s silky, savory and sumptuous buffalo sauce that was sufficiently spicy without overpowering the delicate nature of the sweetbreads. It was a tour de force that I could have kept on eating well beyond the second, larger portion that we ordered once it was apparent how divine these were. Sweetbreads, one of my favorite ingredients, don’t get better than these. My main course, Pork Milanese, was also fantastic, but in a more expected way. Chef Harell’s cooking, in a closet of a kitchen, is assured, precise and beautiful. I only wish the lighting at the tables was better to appreciate the beauty of his food all the more.²
Sylvain is certainly not the only contemporary New Orleans restaurant to be chintzy with the electric company in the name of atmosphere. Chef Justin Duvillier’s La Petite Grocery, located down Magazine Street in The Garden District, is elegant, but dark with a warm low, light that tends to flatten the colors on the plate. While his dishes may not be as attractive visually as intended, they still pop on the palate. His blue crab beignets belts out New Orleans, Louisiana like a jazz singer on Frenchman’s Street. They are delicious, as was the shellfish stew, which I had to follow.
Coquette, another dark and elegant in the modern fashion restaurant, also on Magazine Street in The Garden District, follows suit along with La Petite Grocery in the kind of ambiance it strives for. Here, I had a tasting menu that illustrated the best feature of such menus. It serves some dishes that one might not otherwise order, just based on the description of the ingredients. At Coquette, all but one of the dishes would have tempted me on a menu. That one, however, would have been overlooked at my loss. Catfish puree with rice fried with bacon and kale would not have been sufficiently enticing to even consider ordering just based upon the description, but it was outstanding, blending deep, delicious smoky and meaty flavors with a variety of well-integrated textures. It proved to be right up there as one of my favorite dishes of my trip.
One of the strengths of the regional cooking of the coastal south is, of course, the seafood and nowhere is that more evident than in New Orleans. I enjoyed standout seafood dishes in non-seafood specialist restaurants like Coquette, La Petite Grocery and the newly opened Mexican restaurant Johnny Sanchez, where the adobo-rubbed, wood-grilled shrimp was a highlight to the outstanding seafood-oriented restaurants like Peche and Borgne. In both places, the fish was fresh and cooked brilliantly with superb treatments. The whole fish at Pesce, in our case, redfish with a salsa verde, justified it’s lofty reputation. The rest of th meal, both from the sea and from the land, also proved superb.
Borgne, the seafood restaurant from John Besh, was equally superb in terms of the quality of the fish and the cooking. The black drum a la plancha with brown butter, pecans and jumbo lump crab meat was as elegant, delicious and satisfying a fish dish as I’ve had in a while and along with Pesce’s redfish, outstanding treatments of the local finned creatures.
As great as the fish can be from the gulf, I have a particular soft spot for shellfish, including shrimp, blue crabs and oysters. Gulf oysters are huge, but not my favorite kind of oyster to eat raw. For a variety of reasons, I prefer those from the colder waters of the North Atlantic or the Pacific for that purpose. Where the Gulf oysters shine, in my opinion over their larger, colder ocean cousins is when cooked either by frying, grilling or broiling. I enjoyed superb examples of the latter methods at both Borgne and the more porcine centric Cochon. As for the fried kind, they happily adorned a number of excellent brunch items at the efficient and delicious Stanley on Jackson Square.
Nowhere in the United States are shrimp more flavorful than those from the Gulf of Mexico and in New Orleans, they receive a variety of treatments appropriate to their status. From the delightful fried shrimp po’ boy at Stanley to the stupendous fried Gulf shrimp course in the tasting menu at Coquette to the afore-mentioned wood-fired grilled shrimp at Johnny Sanchez to shrimp atop a creative and delicious cauliflower paella at Cane and Table, to a sensational fried shrimp at Coquette, to the deceptively simple head-on boiled shrimp at Pesce, they were always delicious and always worth eating. None, however, were more delicious than those Sylvain chef, Alex Harrell, prepared as a take on a Southern classic with his Gulf shrimp with Hominy.
The king of meat in New Orleans owing largely to the Cajun tradition is pork and no restaurant has become more closely associated with the animal from which pork comes than Cochon, who’s name means piglet in French. While the menu at Cochon is certainly not limited to products from the pig, both there and at the neighboring Cochon Butcher, pork is the leading light. The title role is played perfectly in the deeply satisfying Louisiana Cochon with turnips, cabbage and cracklings. The pork flavor is profound in the moist and generous formed mound of pulled shoulder centering the plate. For those who enjoy the flavor and texture of good pork, this is a must and one of the best pork dishes that I have had in the United States. A mushroom salad with deep fried beef jerky and lemon vinaigrette was another superb and flavorful surprise.
Most of the cooking in New Orleans today remains the province of traditional methods and recognizably traditional styles. For the most part, Modernist methods, when utilized, remain in the background, not readily apparent. One chef, who has bucked this approach in a most unabashed fashion is Phillip L. Lopez at his original restaurant, Root, and especially at his newer Square Root, where he uses Modernist wizardry to produce an open kitchen tasting menu that, while playing off traditional New Orleans and ethnic cooking (especially from his Mexican heritage), is imbued with the sense of fun and whimsy that successfully elevates that style of cooking to another level. That his restaurant is full of enthusiastic patrons at a time when the style has been in decline elsewhere, is a testament to his approach, his team and his product. For those who enjoy this theatrical style of cooking there are a scant few places performing at as high and satisfying a level in the United States.
As special as the cuisine of New Orleans is, so are the beverage options from coffee to cocktails. For some reason, the delicious chicory laced coffee of places like Café Du Monde or Stanley, cannot, in my experience be satisfactorily reproduced elsewhere and must be enjoyed there. They are not, however, the only game in town, when it comes to enjoying coffee. Two serious and worthy beanhead spots that I experienced were Hi-Volt just off Magazine in The Garden District and Spitfire in The French Quarter. Both cafes utilize a variety of state-of-the-art approaches and top quality roasters and beans. At Hi-Volt, Counter Culture seemed to be the preferred roaster, while at Spitfire, Panther out of Miami was the one most utilized, though they did have a beans from a local roaster available. Depending upon one’s location in the city, either are great for the daily pick-me-up. A bit further afield, but another coffee shop that comes highly recommended by a coffee expert friend, is Solo. Not having any other reason to be out there, though and with a tight schedule, I failed to make that trek.
The craft beer movement is alive and well in New Orleans and the surrounding areas. One standout that I had was the Mississippi Fireant Imperial Red Ale from Southern Prohibition Brewing.
Less satisfactory on the whole during this trip was the wine service, with the notable exception of the pairings at Square Root, which were well-matched to the cuisine, interesting, delicious and relatively reasonably priced. Other pairings were relatively mundane and/or over-priced. That should not really be a surprise though, as there is no local quality wine production that I’m aware of and the taxes in Louisiana are high, which tends to be reflected in the price of wine. It’s not that good wines and pairings are not available. It is simply that relative to other parts of the country, there is no real reason for wine to stand out there.
Happily for cocktail aficionados, though, this does not apply in the least to the world of tippling. New Orleans has been and still is one of the premiere cocktail destinations in the country, if not the world. With a tradition and history dating back to the earliest days of medicinal potions and the mixing of liquorous drinks for pleasure, New Orleans has been an epicenter of contributing to the art and science of the cocktail.
A respect for the classic, both those that originated in New Orleans such as The Sazerac, Vieux Carré, Ramos Gin Fizz and others, as well as classics from elsewhere, runs throughout the cocktillian world of the city. Chris Mcmillian, currently plying his trade at Kingfish on Chartres Street, is a veritable encyclopedia of the art and a consummate story teller and historian as well as artisan. My very first order of business on arrival was to pay him a visit to enjoy his Sazerac as well as a Ramos Gin Fizz for my wife.
The Sazerac was the cocktail I had more than any other during my stay, with each sampled being superb. The most notable other than Mr. Mcmillian’s were at Cure and Bellocq, both stellar locations for cocktails and under the same ownership. They along with Cane and Table, Root Squared (located above Square Root) and Bar Tonique are outstanding locations to explore the art of the cocktail. They are certainly not the only ones, however, with restaurants like Sylvain and La Petite Grocery serving up outstanding drinks as well as a variety of other places that I simply did not have the time to experience.
The professional culinary milieu of New Orleans is dynamic and delightful, but like anywhere, a home-cooked meal cooked with love is always welcome. Getting good ingredients isn’t difficult. The Crescent City Farmers’ Market isn’t large, but it sells good product at several locations around the city on different days. This trip saw the re-opening of the latest one on Wednesday afternoons at The French market complex in the French Quarter.
I had the great good fortune of having been invited for a home-cooked dinner by some friends. It was an honor and a true treat to dine with them in their home, an ultimate comfort food feast with moist delicious pot roast, beans, rice, green beans almondine and corn bread, all home made. Home made hot sauce was used to flavor the beans over the rice and all was right with the world.
Unlike places like NYC, Chicago, San Francisco or even Charleston, there aren’t really too many restaurants that in and of themselves are reasons to travel to New Orleans. There are not, in my experience, any true destination restaurants on the scope of say, Saison in San Francisco or Atera in NYC, but then few cities in the United States truly claim that distinction. Instead, what New Orleans has is a plethora of superb dining and drinking establishments that together define a cuisine and that together make New Orleans a top dining destination. It is very easy to eat and drink very, very well in the Big Easy and to enjoy a cuisine that is truly of the place.
For all of my food and drink photos from this trip please see my Flick’r Collection.
1. According to my friend and food writer for the Times-Picayune, Todd Price, “Next Friday (Oct. 31), Willie Mae’s Grocery and Deli opens Uptown at the corner of St. Charles Avenue and Cherokee Street.” This will be an expansion of Willie Mae’s at a second location in New Orleans.
² It was announced today that Chef Alex Harrell will be leaving Sylvain to open his own restaurant in the recently vacated space of Stella!, further down Chartres Street. Stella! had been my favorite restaurant in New Orleans. I’m happy to see that a chef who’s food resonated with me will be taking over the space, a place of many special memories for me.