I have to admit, today’s list is by no means an exhaustive rundown of a well-researched, thoroughly-curated gastronomical tour in The Crescent City. It’s more a result of a few concentrated evenings of eating and drinking. Clearly, not enough time to provide you with a week’s worth of exploring, but at the very least, enough information to give you a roadmap for your next visit. I’ve been to NOLA about half a dozen times – the first time, as a clueless 21 year-old on a retreat. Too much time was spent on or around Bourbon Street in the French Quarter, which would be like coming to Chicago and spending all of your time near Division and State Streets, tossing back Jello shots at the Hangge-Uppe. But over the last few years, I’ve been concentrating on the neighborhoods – the Garden District, the Marigny, Uptown – and have discovered that the true soul (and stomach) of the city lies in these off-the-beaten path establishments. Places like Mandina‘s and Casamento‘s come to mind. The New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau will probably hate to read this, but you can avoid Bourbon Street and not miss a thing.
This is such a tough one. The American cocktail – to be specific, the sazerac – was born here, so picking a place to go have a proper drink is like asking a Chicago Streets and San driver where to go get an Italian beef. I loved Bellocq, which hugs the outer rim of Lee Circle, a turnaround for most of the floats during Mardi Gras. Opened by the same team who have Cure, the specialty here are the cobblers, which are typically made with fortified wines and sherries, served in icy cold silver cups filled with crushed ice. I would also recommend the elaborate bar at SoBou, located in the Quarter (South of Bourbon) and just opened five weeks ago. A late-night stroll brought me to the Sazerac bar inside the Roosevelt Hotel, where I sipped the namesake while admiring the stunning murals of New Orleans life from 1938; then it was off to the French 75 bar adjacent to Arnaud’s, which transported me back to a Gatsby novel, or at the very least, a scene from some movie set during the Belle Epoque. Drinking in this town is a sport unto itself.
Much like Chicagoans love to debate who has the best Italian beef, the po’ boy tends to draw equal admiration and cultish obsession. The key, really, is the bread. Usually sourced from the Leidenheimer Bakery, it is at once crusty and soft; dense and light. Just thick enough to hold a sturdy battery of ingredients, such as fried Gulf shrimp or messy, gravy-soaked roast beef. Or in the case of the Surf & Turf at The Parkway Bakery and Tavern, both. I hit this favorite of mine on Monday night, and while I’ve heard Domilise’s is the other great place to grab a po’ boy, they’re only open until 7 p.m. Forget Mother’s on Poydras St. It is to po’ boys what Uno’s is to pizza.
3. John Besh
Besh is the local boy-made-good, much like Donald Link at Herbsaint and Cochon (one of my favorite restaurants in the U.S.). But Besh has managed to carve out several delicious niches. Domenica – inside the Roosevelt – is the city’s first true hard-core casual Italian, cranking out wood-burning oven pizzas and handmade pastas; Lüke is his interpretation of a Franco-German brasserie. But August is his flagship, where he truly pampers guests with local produce, meat and seafood, and dresses up classic New Orleans dishes without making them pretentious. The best example I had Tuesday night was a sauteed trout dish that arrived with a blanket of chanterelles and meaty lump crab, sitting beside a ridiculously rich pool of béarnaise sauce. It was clearly a local dish, but it wasn’t deep-fried and it was just as impressively plated as were the other dishes I tried.
4. Turtle Soup
If Gumbo is the Air Jordan in the Big Easy, turtle soup is probably Scottie Pippen. Every cafe and po’ boy shop has their own gumbo – always derived from a roux – a classic thickener of equal parts flour and fat (usually oil) – cooked slowly until it turns a deep, mahogany or chocolate color. But there are several classic establishments still offering turtle soup, which is just as beguiling. Commander’s Palace has had one on its menu for years, and since the owners also run Cafe Adelaide & the Swizzle Stick Bar in the Loews hotel, they’ve put a turtle soup on their menu too. The tiny bits of meat are smaller than ground beef, and only used sparingly in the deeply rich broth. One option that arrives with the bowl is a signature swirl of sherry; get it, your lunch will be a bit more lubricated than what you’re used to.
About 10 years ago, Calvin Trillin wrote a well-researched (and hysterical) account of the locals’ love of boudin in Cajun Country, in a widely-read New Yorker piece. There was some line about the best boudin (BOO-dan) always being consumed outside, usually leaning up against a pickup truck, or while driving down the highway with the windows open. This “sausage” is essentially dirty rice – embedded with bits of pork, liver and other porcine goodies – stuffed into a hog casing, and usually served with a creole mustard. Nearly every restaurant worth its roux offers a boudin of some kind; a few are deep-fried (SoBou) others, like the picture above, from the Windsor Court, are simply boiled. Out in the country, most tackle shops and gas stations will sell bait and boudin side by side. I’m not sure if it’s the seasonings or the quality of the pork and rice, but I’ve always loved this sausage, and have had a hard time finding it in Chicago (the Elburn Meat Market does make their own). Hopefully, if I’m lucky enough one day, I’ll take that long-postponed road trip through the bayou, just hitting every possible gas station and getting this iconic snack to go.