A Taste of Contemporary New Orleans

It is becoming more and more difficult in today’s homogeneous world to find places that remain unique, especially when it comes to food. This seems to be especially true in the United States. The influence of globalization is huge, but a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it allows for a greater dissemination of ideas around the world, but on the other it breeds a certain degree of conformity that has a tendency to blend disparate entities into one, ending in a bland sameness from place to place and a lack of identity. Within the United States there are few cities that have retained their truly unique character as much as New Orleans, Louisiana. Ironically, much of that unique character derives from a variety of global influences that have, over the last 400 years or so, been shaped by the local landscape, climate and culture into something special and unlike anywhere else in the world. Unfortunately, in recent decades some of that New Orleans uniqueness has begun to erode, as it too has been influenced by more national cultural entities as well as a proliferation of corporate and chain restaurants and businesses, just like practically everywhere else in the country. Still, the underlying character of the city has managed not only to persist, but to thrive. Its history, culinary and otherwise, is readily apparent, but the city enjoys a renewed vigor, as it continues to recover from the catastrophic damages of Hurricane Katrina over decade ago.

I’ve been intrigued by New Orleans ever since I first visited as a child many years ago. My enchantment grew as I  returned in the 1990’s, this time with an even greater emphasis on experiencing the food, enjoying the work of chefs like Emeril Lagasse and Susan Spicer, amongst others. Since then I’ve had numerous occasions and reasons to visit both before and especially after the hurricane, expanding my experiences to food from the likes of Scott Boswell, Donald Link, Tory McPhail, John Besh, Philip Lopez and others. In all cases, the food always provided a strong sense of place, even when it incorporated ingredients or techniques from the global pantry. The same applied to cocktails and music. I always had the sense that I was in New Orleans and not some generic place. When I was approached by my friend, Charles Grabitzky, to start putting together culinary tours, a trip to New Orleans, jumped to the head of the list. We wanted places with real character, that we could explore with local culinary experts and our guests to find the underlying soul.

When it comes to what makes the city so special, there are four clear elements that while each individually important, combine with a synergism rare in contemporary American cities. Those elements would include music, food, cocktails and the landscape/architecture of the city. Of course, each of those are derived from and defined by the people of the city. We did our best to appreciate as much of these disparate elements during our time there, both independent of each other and in combined fashion.

In front of the statue of Louis Armstrong in Treme’s Armstrong Park

Jazz is the defining musical form of New Orleans, having been invented there very early in the Twentieth Century. Though the musical form rose to great international prominence, its influence has sadly waned elsewhere. In New Orleans, however, it continues to garner the respect that it deserves. We took a Saturday morning jazz tour through the historically significant Louis Armstrong Park and the Treme neighborhood, listening to undeniably classic sounds in locations that developed them.

John “Papa” Gros at d.b.a. on Frenchman Street

On another evening we visited the music center of Frenchman Street with a visit to the area’s pioneer music venue d.b.a., where we listened to the Dr. John influenced sounds of John “Papa” Gros, before exploring the myriad other venues of the area. There aren’t too many places in the country with as ubiquitous a musical footprint as New Orleans, especially in this area, even as other parts of the city begin to claim their holds on the music scene.

The view from my room at the lovely Pontchartrain Hotel on St. Charles.

When it comes to the landscape, one is always cognizant of the role played by water in determining the contours of the city, from the mighty Mississippi to the breadth of Lake Pontchartrain to the bayous, canals and marshy areas surrounding this mostly sea-level or below burg. There are few modern high rises dotting the city, which is just as well, as the unique character of the architecture is retained in the very individualized neighborhoods, such as the Spanish wrought iron balconies of the French Quarter to the majestic splendor of The Garden District to the blue collar pride of Treme and Mid-City. New Orleans has its share of strip malls and seedy spots, but even they serve as reminders, like the many upheaved sidewalks and pock-marked roads, of the decay that incite many of its denizens and visitors to let the “bontemps roulez.” It is a strange, but real phenomenon, that in New Orleans, even its imperfections hold much charm, except, IMO, for Bourbon Street, which almost single-handedly negates much of the positive aspects of the city. Fortunately, though, that is but one small stretch, easy enough to avoid, as it has little of significant interest beyond the perversity of its Diane-Arbus inspired people-watching.

A tiki classic – the Mai Tai at Latitude 29

Ironically, one of the main things that fuels the perversity of Bourbon Street is alcohol, but unlike other parts of The French Quarter or the city as a whole, on Bourbon Street, the alcohol appears to be more about quantity than quality. Thankfully, that is far from ubiquitous in this city, which appreciates the art of alcohol, in the form of the cocktail, as much as anywhere in the country, if not the world, at least on a per capita basis. This is not a surprise though, as we learned both at The Museum of The American Cocktail within The Southern Food and Beverage Museum as well as at a cocktail demo given by the bartender extraordinaire, story teller par excellence and nonpareil cocktail historian, Chris McMillian.

Todd Price beguiling us with stories of Absinthe.

At the Museum, we enjoyed a wonderful tour led by Todd Price, an old eGullet friend, who is a lecturer in the Spanish Department at Tulane University as well as one of the premier food writers and restaurant critics in the area.

Pouring cocktails at Toups South

Along with a visit from chef Isaac Toups, we learned a lot about the role of the cocktail in New Orleans as well as the role of New orleans in the history of the cocktail. This was topped off by a couple of delicious house cocktails at Toups South, the cleverly named “Bull-E-Vardi-A” and “Porkchops and Applesauce,” both of which involved house-smoked, meat-washed booze that had been produced utilizing the original smoker from the legendary Franklin BBQ in Austin, Texas.

The legend, Chris McMillian, regaling us on the history of the cocktail in New Orleans, whilst crafting some of the best classic cocktails ever devised.

Our cocktail education was further abetted the next day by the New Orleans, nay international, cocktail treasure, Chris McMillian. Now ensconced in Revel, the mid-city bar/restaurant that he owns along with his wife, Laura Johnson McMillian, this consummate barman spun through the history of several of New Orlean’s most notable cocktails, while he and Laura made and poured them for us to try.

Brandy Crustas ready to go.

From the Brandy Crusta to the Sazerac to the Mint Julep and then the Ramos Gin Fizz and finally, his gin-based version of a French 75, we had some of the finest examples of each that I had ever experienced. Learning and education has never been so palatable!

McMillian and his “Jeez Louise.”

He even topped it off by making a creation of his own, the “Jeez Louise,” a contemporary take on the the line of cocktails that started with the Brandy Crusta and subsequently included generational favorites like the Margarita and Cosmopolitan, with each respectively substituting Tequila and Vodka for the Brandy. Utilizing the classic combination of a base spirit with orange liqueur, citrus and bitters, McMillian’s cocktail uses Italian Amaros as his base spirit, in this case, the combination of Averna and Cynar. It was well balanced and delicious, good enough, in my opinion, to deserve to be the heir to its classic predecessors. 

The elegant Chris Hannah and his French 75.

The depth and breadth of cocktails in New Orleans is astounding. It is no accident that the major international cocktail symposium, Tales of the Cocktail originated there and continues string every summer. In addition to the McMillian experience at Revel, highlights included a visit to the elegant French 75, where another of the city’s legendary barmen, Chris Hannah, made his version of the classic French 75. Hannah makes his with Cognac, while others, including McMillian, make theirs with gin as the base spirit. Unfortunately, Hannah would not be around when the majority of our group was to arrive, so Charles and I had that experience to ourselves.

Classic Daiquiris at Tujague’s

They were around, however, for a Saturday afternoon cocktail crawl that started with a choice of  a classic Daiquiri or a De La Louisiane at the  wonderfully atmospheric French Quarter gem, Tujagues… 

Gathered around and in a Plantocracy Punch

….and what may have been the single most silly and fun moments of the trip, when our group drained the monstrously large and delicious Plantocracy Punch at the fabulous Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29, which is Tiki central, not just for New Orleans, but quite possibly the world. Charles and I scoped it out earlier in the week and their Mai Tai and Navy Grog proved outstanding examples of Tiki classics.

Snowballs in April

A non-alcoholic detour to Hansen’s Sno-Bliz, was a flavorful, frozen cocktail for anyone who might prefer one sans alcohol.

The bar lineup at Cure

This provided a nice break before we finished up at Cure, the place where the modern cocktail culture was resurrected in New Orleans. 

Curried goat at Compere Lapin

All of the bars we visited include restaurants and food service in addition to the beverages. The bars mentioned already are primarily known for their cocktails, even though the food is not an afterthought. The converse is true for many of the places that we visited that are primarily known as restaurants, starting with Compere Lapin. This newish restaurant has received raves both for the cooking of Chef Nina Compton and the cocktails of Abigail Gullo. The quality of both are indeed excellent, though our experience at the restaurant the evening before our group tour officially started was marred by a well-meaning, but poorly thought out service decision on the part of the restaurant management. Despite the unfortunate result, the quality and originality of both the Caribbean-influenced New Orleans cooking and the beverages, are both very much worth experiencing.

Chef Michael Gulotta at the pass at Maypop

Michael Gulotta is a chef, who is really coming into his own. Formerly the Chef de Cuisine at the John Besh flagship restaurant, August, Gulotta opened the Vietnamese-tinged, Southeast Asian inspired, Cajun styled MoPho in a Mid-city strip mall in 2014 to rave reviews, ultimately earning a nod as a Food & Wine Best New Chef 2016. He has subsequently opened two more restaurants tieing them together as a continuum, while leaving each it’s individuality. We never made it to Tana, an Italian restaurant reflecting his own ethnic background, but we did make it to his brand-new, gloriously glitzy Maypop , located in the central business district not far from his old haunts at August.

Maypop’s sensational Squid Ink Fusilli

Maypop retains plenty of influence from the southeast Asian flavors, he enjoys so much, but combines them in an original and effective way with influences from his Italian background as well as those from New Orleans and Louisiana. His flavors popped, especially the unintuitive Squid Ink Fusilli with blue crab, chorizo, saffron coconut butter and mint, which turned out to be one of the absolute culinary highlights of the trip and a legitimate contender to make my best dishes of 2017 list at the end of the year. All of the dishes showed great, inventive flavors that united a variety of culinary cultures on individual plates, from the fried Gulf oysters emboldened by an unholy combination of Bourbon barrel soy mash aioli (???!!! – say what!?), smoked manchego cheese and spicy cucumber, that had no business being together, but created a party anyway, to a more sedate, but still stimulating Pan-roasted Amberjack in Phanaeng Curry with plantain miso, baby beets, fresh coconut and nigella, and a bewildering, but bodacious variety of other dishes that crossed our palates.

Hot Tin, the rooftop bar of the Pontchartrain Hotel

Unfortunately, we did not indulge in cocktails at Maypop, opting instead for wine given that we had just come from a welcome cocktail reception that we held at the Hot Tin rooftop bar at our base for the trip, the newly refurbished Pontchartrain Hotel.

Addictive Crispy Brussels Sprouts at MoPho.

The wines worked at Maypop, but when we ate at Mopho two nights later, we were under no such constraints and had cocktails there. The food at MoPho  showed a more overt Asian influence, but maintained its Louisiana Cajun/Creole base, leading to a cuisine that I like to call C’Asian (groan). The house cocktails maintained this theme, incorporating Asian flavors creatively and deliciously into the tequila, rye, rum and mezcal based cocktails. My “Dragon Lady” mixed Tequila, cherry liqueur, lemongrass and lime into a dangerously easy to drink and memorable melange of flavor. It’s balanced acidity was a great match for the sweet heat of many of Gulotta’s dishes including the addictive crispy brussels sprouts, the nuoc mam bathed chicken wings and a variety of other richly flavored, well balanced dishes that came our way. Gulotta’s cooking, like that of Nina Compton, combine a variety of contemporary culinary cultures of New Orleans atop the base of the cultural stew that had arrived before including native, French, African, Spanish, German, Italian and others, creating an exciting, continually evolving cuisine that is unique to the city. 

As wonderful as the contemporary cooking is combining these relatively new influences, one cannot and should not ignore the variety already inherent in the underlying base of the city’s culinary cornucopia. I fell in love with chef Alex Harrell’s cooking several years ago when he was cooking at Sylvain in the French Quarter.  Alabama born and raised, Harrell’s cooking reflects his southern roots, but with a Creole sensibility. I was saddened when what had been my all-time favorite New Orleans restaurant, Stella!, closed a few years ago, but then when I discovered that Chef Harrell would be taking over the space, I was happy, knowing that the space would be in good hands. His name for it is Angeline.

Chef Alex Harrell explaing the differences between wild and farmed Gulf oysters at Angeline.

Indeed, it is. Starting with a rainy day oyster shucking, eating and roasting workshop at the restaurant, Chef Harrell gave us real insight into his New Orleans. The Gulf oysters were plump and tasty, with a variety of flavorful toppings available, in addition to my generally favored squeeze of lemon. I’m not typically a big fan of Gulf oysters in the raw state, generally preferring brinier varieties, but these (he offered both wild and farmed oysters) were quite good. The broiled versions had even more pizzazz.

Buffalo style sweetbreads at Angeline

We returned to Angeline that same evening for dinner, though because we followed our cocktail history lesson from Chris McMillian, we went for wine rather than more cocktails. From crispy cauliflower with Mediterranean flavors to a special off-menu Buffalo Sweetbreads made per my request to delightful roasted red snapper, Harrell’s approach was assured and his dishes full of great flavor. 

Leah Chase – a New Orleans treasure

New Orleans is certainly a city of the South, and though it also incorporates many more international influences than most other areas of the region, it clearly embraces its southern heritage as well. We experienced that directly over lunch at Dooky Chase, a true classic that has been well tested by time. From their rich seafood gumbo to their superb fried chicken and more, lunch here was an experience in history as well as current deliciousness. An audience with the amazing, 94 year old Leah Chase herself was an honor and a highlight. She remains sharp as a tack with a wit I could only dream of.

Gelati at A. Brocato

Mid-city was a frequent stop for our group, as we stopped into the classic Sicilian pastry shop, A. Brocato for some gelati, cannoli, espressi and more. This made me feel that I was back in the old neighborhood in Brooklyn. Truth is that there were many parallels of southern Italian, especially Sicilian immigration to both New York and New Orleans. But for a twist of fate, my own family may have landed in The Big Easy instead of The Big Apple.

Fried shrimp po’boy

The po’boy sandwich has become as much a symbol of New Orleans food as anything in recent years and Parkway Bakery has led that charge. Their fried shrimp and fried oyster po’boys are their signatures, but they offer a wide range of sandwiches. Their popularity was very much in evidence, as the lines were long even though this can not be considered in any way, “hot, new” restaurant. They just happen to be good at what they do,

Cabbage Salad at Turkey and the Wolf

The po’boys at Parkway are very traditional, but prior to our flight home, we tried some less traditional sandwiches from a restaurant that is the “hot, new” thing, Turkey and the Wolf in The Garden District. A current James Beard Finalist for Best New Restaurant in the country, the place has a great vibe and even better food, not all of which comes as a sandwich. Their Cabbage Salad is a meal that is both satisfying and delicious. While the deviled eggs were slightly disappointing, everything else was totally on the mark, featuring full, bold flavors and plenty of visual appeal to go along with them.

Toby Rodriguez making boudin in Lafayette

New Orleans is certainly associated with the cuisine of the rest of the state of Louisiana, which is generally described as Cajun, having largely derived from the influence of the French Acadians, who had been expelled from Nova Scotia by the British and who had settled in Louisiana several centuries ago, maintaining many of the old traditions, culinary and otherwise that they took with them from Acadia. What I had not known prior to this trip was that Cajuns include ethnic groups beyond the French Acadians, and that these ethnic groups, from the Germans to the Spanish and others, greatly influenced the development of Cajun cuisine.The German settlers were particularly influential in the development of Cajun charcuterie.Getting out of New Orleans and exploring and tasting Cajun country is essential for getting a handle on the entire culinary patrimony of the region and we did just that on a beautiful day, driving up to Lafayette to meet Toby Rodriguez, the man  who Anthony Bourdain went to when he wanted to experience an authentic Cajun boucherie for No Reservations.

I had originally intended for our group to take part in a boucherie, but after a discussion with Toby, quickly realized that we could not possibly do it in the time that we had and do it justice (keep your calendar open for November 2018, when we are planning a trip Louisiana with a Toby Rodriguez boucherie as the focal point). Instead, we chose a project that was more time friendly, a workshop to make the Cajun classic Boudin Blanc, a forcemeat sausage featuring pork shoulder, liver, rice and plenty of spice.

We arrived in lafayette, at Toby’s new project, the venerable Acadian Superette, a longstanding market and restaurant, that Toby had only just taken over. Rodriguez is an ardent traditionalist, who has also taught at Slow Food University in Italy and been a delegate to Terra Madre. We participated in the entire process of making boudin, in fact the very first boudin made by Toby at his new business. It was a fun and fascinating process that spanned the bulk of the day.

Crawfish Etouffé on the stove at Acadian Superette

There was down time while the stuffing was boiling, but this time didn’t go to waste, especially as it occurred around lunchtime. We were famished! The first thing to assuage our hunger was Toby’s incredible crawfish etouffé, which may have been the single most delicious thing I ate over the entire trip. It was rich and deep with tons of crawfish and an astounding shellfish flavor.

Crawfish Boil from Hawk’s

That was not the end of our crawfish though, as we had arranged for Megan Arceneaux from Hawk’s Restaurant in nearby Rayne to come to the site and do a traditional crawfish boil for us. She brought 60 pounds of live and kicking, freshly purged crawfish and took us through the entire process, sharing everything but the makeup of the restaurant’s proprietary spice blend. 

Delicious little monsters

The spice level was initially lip-numbing, but after a bit that aspect faded as we continued chowing down on the rich, buttery tails and claw meat, not to mention the corn on the cob and boiled potatoes that typically accompany the Lilliputian crustaceans. It was a feast as we plowed through about fifty of the 60 pounds laid out for us. The remainder did not go to waste, as we donated it to curious locals.

Stuffing the boudin

It was a fabulous experience on a glorious day, but we still had a bit more to try before heading back to New Orleans. We had to sample the boudin! The flavor was amazing with a nice spice level, enough liver to give it body and true porkiness. The rice added heft and texture, but, like with a real boucherie, ideally we would have had a second day to taste the final product after a full night of refrigerated curing to give snap to the natural casings.

We finished the group portion of our trip with a visit to a Creole classic, Brigtsen’s, run by the Paul Prudhomme disciple Frank Brigtsen and his wife. Brigtsen was in the kitchen at K-Paul, when Prudhomme first came up with his legendary Blackened Redfish dish in the 70’s. That dish was such a hit that it was copied to the point of almost driving the redfish species to extinction. Fortunately, the species has recovered since. Nevertheless, it was not on our menu at Brigtsen’s.

Instead, we chose between dishes like his excellent Filé Gumbo with rabbit and andouille sausage, New Orleans BBQ Shrimp, Broiled Drum with crabmeat crust and lemon crabmeat sauce, Blackened Yellow Fin Tuna, Smoked Pork Chop with andouille sweet potato hash, and deboned Roast Duck with dirty rice and tart dried cherry sauce.

Roast Duck at Brigtsen’s

I had the gumbo and the duck and both were superb. The duck was particularly good, roasted through, yet moist and brimming with umami. Fittingly, I waddled out of the restaurant, an appropriate way to bring this culinary tour to an official close.

The overriding theme that we  explored was the depth and breadth of the uniqueness of the New Orleans culinary landscape. It is a city that has digested influences from all over the world and created a multi-faceted cuisine that is representative of the city, much of it tied together by ingredients, but also a sense of creativity and a willingness to coalesce disparate ingredients into a synergistic whole. This was exemplified throughout our visit, whether from the classic New Orleans, French and Spanish influenced Creole cooking of Brigtsen and Harrell, to the African influences in the food of Dooky Chase and Compere Lapin to the Italian and Asian mashup of Maypop and MoPho to the Cajun composites in Lafayette. This kind of blending has always occurred throughout the history of the city, seen in its people, its architecture and in its music. The very definition of the word “creole” is confusing and a product of the geography where it is used, but most definitions that I have seen, convey a mixing of cultures and peoples to varying degrees and specificities. Over the course of its long and varied history “mixing” has always been an essential part of the city’s fabric, intentionally or otherwise. It is this very mixing that has enriched the City of New Orleans and made it the very special and unique American city that it is. Laissez les bon temps roulez! 

 


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