January 6, 2009
What I knew about New Orleans before last weekend was gleaned from the pages of a paperback Grisham novel, the tragic Katrina newsreels, scenes of Benjamin Button’s life-in-reverse, stories of Kevin’s mother’s early college days (in which beignets featured prominently) and a segment of the Martha Stewart Show during which Martha and her guest shook up a couple Sazeracs. In short, not much. Which I think is one explanation for how hard, how fast I fell for the city. Really, I’m still just catching my breath.
We chose New Orleans as our destination for this trip for a couple reasons. First, it’s one of the few great American cities where neither Kevin nor I had stuck a pin in the map. Second, the food. Mention New Orleans to someone’s who’s been and he or she is sure to rattle off a list of can’t-miss meals. Third, we hoped it might be a wee bit warmer than this tundra of a town we’re living in this winter.
In the end, reason #2 featured most prominently. We landed late Thursday morning and left late Sunday morning, which gave us nine meals—and I had to wield a very sharp scalpal to whittle our list of restaurants down to that number. So I’m sure we missed some of your favorites (we didn’t even try a poboy! I know, I know!), but it just gives us a reason to go back soon.
Unlike most dining destination-type cities, the eats in New Orleans do not emphasize the white-table clothed type restaurants, with their thick wine lists and maître d’s. Instead, the restaurants we wanted to visit traded the amuse bouche for a Solo cup brimming with a spicy Bloody Mary sucked through a straw while waiting for a table to open up (Mother’s) and swapped prim wait staffs for fist-pounding, wisecracking waiters-slash-short order cooks (Camellia Grill). Almost everywhere worth going required that you wait in a very long line on the sidewalk out front (both restaurants already mentioned and the granddaddy of them all, Cafe Du Monde). And, without fail, the meal was worth the wait.
But these restaurants co-exist with a healthy number of first class restaurants (we loved Bayona) and famous chefs (did someone say Bam?). Maybe that’s what struck me most about New Orleans—the co-existence of so many contradictions: an iconic diner next to a Cold Stone Creamery; an enchanting wrought iron front porch aglow under twinkly gas lanterns only a block away from the debauchery on Bourbon Street; the manic party unfolding around the clock in a town that was so recently ravaged; the enticing southern charm that can almost make you forget decidedly less charming chapters of the town’s history.
When you mix all of this together, like that Sazerac mixed up on Martha, you get an utterly unique, totally beguiling city—chalk full of action, patina, curious little details, and one excellent meal after another.
Flickr Photo Set: Click here for these photos, in full size, and others.
Mother’s (I recommend the gumbo, the biscuits and the Bloody Mary; I wish I’d tried the Debris Poboy)
Luke (a fun French bistro; don’t miss the onion tart if it’s still on the menu)
Cafe Du Monde (I recommend the beignets and coffee, which is a good thing because that’s all that’s on the menu)
Camellia Grill (don’t forget to order a freeze—an icy shake—for your streetcar ride back to the Quarter)
Bayona (everything, everything was spectacular, especially when eaten al fresco, in the back garden, where you can spy on chef Susan Spicer through a tiny window into the kitchen)
Eat (great biscuits here too)
NOLA (the fried chicken stopped time, just for a moment, and the gumbo was unreal)
But Where’s the Recipe? No recipe today. But, the upshot is that you’re likely to see a lot of New Orleans-inspired recipes on this site very soon: gumbo, biscuits, fried chicken and beignets are all high on the list. So y’all come back soon, now, ya hear?