Last week I packed up light and headed south to NOLA. I was a bit worried with news of the oil spill, but determined to visit one of the best food towns of North America once again. I have not been since Katrina, and wondered what I might find.
What I found was a booming tourism, a happy recollection of old favorites, coupled with a new appreciation of a city with tremendous history and cultural tradition. I have often written about the three different ways to visit a city, alone, with friends and with a significant other. Each choice yields a specific point of view, narrows a focused experience according to maturation. On this jaunt I took my darling Michelle, no foodie, but a Chicagoan with a good palate and patience to put up with my food obsessed self.
New Orleans is still a city overrun by southerners and college students looking to party in the street, get inebriated and act juvenile. Bourbon Street, for all its fame, is the epicenter of this debauched behavior and I have never had a taste for it. In Europe, young people also party in the street, but not with the intention of getting smashed and acting ridiculous.
All one needs to do is treat this adult and young adolescent playground as the sophisticated city it also is. The jazz, architecture, and food are what make NOLA great.
The only problem with a short trip is that you can only bring one stomach, and no amount of prior training can put you on pace to eat the way you can in Nawlins.
As for the old standbys, we pulled many drive-bys. First thing in the morning we hit Mother’s for breakfast. It was as good as I remembered, but would have been better at 11 am, when some of the Creole food items are also available. Later on that afternoon we slid into the Acme Oyster bar, and must admit these were my least favorite oysters of the trip. They were gritty and served in a raucous setting, although the oyster shuckers are always a pleasure to chat with. Dinner that night was at Upperline at Prytania (not in the quarter), and the lovely owner Joann is still wielding her magical charm in the dining room. Chef Ken Smith sent over a delicious oyster roast appetizer, and the meal was pure Louisiana, from the gumbo to the etoufee and the fried green tomatoes. The meal was rounded out with gulf shrimp and duck, leaving just enough room for dessert, which in NOLA, should never be skipped. On to jazz.
NOLA is deep in jazz roots, and the choices are plenty. I like Frenchmen Street for its variety in proximity. From DBA (there is a NYC branch) to Blue Nile to Snug Harbor, take your pick. I was cool with The Spotted Cat, hosting bands that played the signature New Orleans Jazz Swing sound.
Next day brunch at Commander’s Palace, complete with jazz trio traveling from room to room, filling up on tableside bloody marys and climaxing in bread pudding soufflé. Taking the street car to the Garden District is an added treat, dropping off at Canal near the quarter for shopping and cocktails. We got waylaid at the Carousel bar in the Monteleone Hotel, a rotating service where the characters plug in and out, dealing a whirly dervish of confusion as to what exactly is spinning in the room. Time enough for a siesta and the anticipated dinner of the trip, Cochon.
Cochon is a shrine to all things swine. In house made charcuterie, and utilization of all pig parts, including ears, cheeks and intestines. Someone tipped them off that I was a chef from New York, and that resulted in a free app., a wood fired oyster roast which set the bar very high and the tone for serious eating. It’s nearly impossible not to order every app. on the list. Fried rabbit livers with pepper jelly toast next, followed by fried alligator with chili garlic oil, all outstanding flavors and composition, crazy tasty. A break ensued with a clean boucherie plate, and then back to business with a healthy rack of spicy grilled pork ribs with watermelon pickle, a meal unto itself. I wish to hog heaven I would have also ordered the fried pig ears and the paneed pork cheeks, but my stomach was eating itself. Then the biscuits arrived (there was a delay), and they were easily the best I’ve ever eaten. No wonder there was a back log.
There was an entrée on its way, Louisiana cochon with turnips, cabbage and cracklings, sort of like a pulled pork attack, but I was really craving the rabbit and dumplings, ham hock, or oyster and bacon sandwich. My darling Michelle cried for mercy, and I relented with a nice rendition of an upside down pineapple cake. I was all set to return the next day, but alas, Cochon was closed for a film shoot and would miss out on another fantastic pig out.
Off to the Sazerac Bar at the Roosevelt Hotel, waxing poetic about the Sazerac, which is quite possibly the most perfect drink ever invented. Funky horn with Kermit Ruffin at the Blue Nile. I hear he is a star on “Treme”.
Brunch at Luke’s the next day, and more dilemmas about how much to order. After some obligatory oysters and a bacon and cheese tart Alsatian style, we lavished the chicken and waffles with a tangy cane syrup, and a lump crabmeat and goat cheese omelet. Yeah Buddy.
After a ride on the Natchez with hurricane drinks in tow, we found ourselves back at Luke’s for more oysters and gulf shrimp and a bottle of bubbly. Squeezing a siesta here was not easy, but the French 75 bar served civilized cocktails in time before dinner at Nola’s, Emeril’s casual trattoria. Nola’s is a well run machine, good service, reasonable wine list and new American Creole classics on the menu, enjoyable if not altogether that memorable. We worked through a meaty duck plate and a pork chop, rendering us full and useless. More Spotted Cat and horns. NOLA, what a town.
Monday brought about a feeling of impending gloom and relief, sadness for leaving, and gladness for our stomachs. Not before I tried a tip, lunch at the Green Goddess. Tucked away in an alley on Exchange Street, the people at the double G are serious about their menu. The choices were a dizzying display of ingredients from all over the globe, intriguing and well crafted. After a fab special of watermelon soup, we shared a South Indian Savory Lentil pancake with Gulf shrimp and coconut slaw and a more normal French toast stuffed with goat cheese and orange honey. That only got my gears going as I asked to construct a dish just for me, manchego grits, boudin patty and Gulf shrimp. I asked them to call it the Mateo Blue Plate Diva Special. Man was that a dream brunch. The beer and wine list is cleverly chosen, and there are house made cocktails, a great cheese selection and desserts like the bacon sundae. This little gem is the sleeper of the trip.
I usually head to Central Grocery to take a muffelata for the plane ride home, but alas, they are closed on Mondays. Panic set in as I lamented over the places I didn’t get to try, Willie Mae’s Scotch House, Dookey Chase, and Parkway Tavern, but time was running out on my eat NOLA extravaganza.
With the unsettling taste of airline food on my tongue as the plane took off to NYC, I wondered what the effects of the oil spill would have on the price of Gulf seafood and tourism, having spoken to many cab drivers and businessmen stating that things were almost back to normal. Reading today about reports of a pervasive stench and inevitable price inflation, let’s hope the residents of NOLA can be resilient once again, and that under Obama’s leadership, Americans respond accordingly, unlike that previous administration that didn’t quite recognize how important NOLA is to American identity and culture.
Got a box of beignet mix in my bag. Probably the only thing I’ll eat for the next few mornings. I’m in NOLA state of mind.