Saturday, April 21, 2012

New Orleans

I have long felt it my duty to visit New Orleans, to check off my list a number of classic American dishes and experience one of the most unique pockets of food culture in our culinarily kaleidoscopic nation. This past winter I finally got to do just that.

Phil and I made the drive over to the Big Easy as our Christmas present to each other. Our first hour in town we stretched our legs and ambled over to Coop’s Place, a casual joint just down the street from our hotel that served all the creole and Cajun archetypes. The sampler plate seemed like a fitting way to kick off the trip: shrimp creole, rabbit and tasso jambalaya, fried chicken and red beans. Only the best red beans I’ve ever had. No big deal.

Might as well round out the meal with fried crab claws and an overflowing bowl of gumbo along with a couple bottles of ice cold Abita. Hey. Go big or go home. We came to eat, and New Orleans isn’t known for its modesty.

Our first meal was out of the way but that initial night in the French Quarter was overwhelming. So many restaurants. So many bars. So much music. So much regality and debauchery and class and tackiness and restoration and beautiful dilapidation. I had researched restaurants and bars for months but in our overwhelmed state we thought we’d take the safe route and go for the time-tested oyster run on Iberville Street. We scouted out Acme across the street but opted for the shorter line at Felix’s. Then we stood in line, in the rain, hungry, with a hundred other tourists who had the same idea we did.

And it turned out that “time-tested” translated to “tourist trap”: our roasted oysters were burnt to a crisp; the Rockefellers were musty and mushy; the tables surrounding us were full of Japanese tourists with their noses buried in travel books; the meal cost five times what we thought it was worth. 

So. Dining well in New Orleans is more challenging than taking advice from a travel guide, or stumbling into any ole place in The French Quarter, huh? I shouldn’t have been surprised.

Resolute and unwavering in my gastronomic goals, the next day we got outside the tourist zone and took a sizeable stroll to Cochon, in the warehouse district. My research had let me to this tiny empire consisting of Cochon Restaurant, oversaw by local legend Chef Link, and the more casual Cochon Butcher next door. Cochon was by all accounts youthful and fresh, offering a modern culinary take on beloved local favorites and even resurrecting traditional Cajun dishes that had fallen out of favor for one reason or another.

Cochon Butcher was bustling when we arrived for lunch, with hungry diners lined up for heavy, hearty sandwiches made with house-cured meats, locally-sourced vegetables and sauces and mustards made with the local Abita brew. It was the deli of my dreams.

I was able to check two native foods off my “must-try” list at lunch that day: the muffuletta and boudin. Apparently there are two schools of thought when it comes to the muffuletta sandwich. At Cochon the sandwich is served warm with melted cheese and a tangy housemade pickle relish on a soft round sesame bun. I didn’t get to try a cold muffulatta during the trip, but Cochon’s version was one of the best sandwiches I’ve had in recent memory.

Like everything else, Cochon’s boudin is made in-house. The sausage was soft and delicate and served barely warm and came with their signature whole grain mustard and tangy pickles.

Phil silently ate his Italian sandwich along with a side of orzo with crisp vegetables as we eavesdropped on a conversation between two local young filmmakers who were, according to them, on the verge of making it “big.” Big in the Big Easy. This felt like the real New Orleans.

We were so impressed that one evening later in the trip we returned to the warehouse district to eat at Cochon Restaurant.


The calas were the unexpected highlight of the meal. These fried cakes were a popular Creole breakfast food early in the last century and Cochon has resurrected them with a modern twist. Their griddled version contained pumpkin and was topped with a refreshing apple radish salsa.

The pork and black eyed pea gumbo knocked it out of the park. I had heard that Cochon’s chefs were master gumbo-makers. The rumors were true.

Our mains were less impressive. Phil’s Louisiana cochon over braised cabbage with cracklins (how can you eat at Cochon and not get cochon?) was over-the-top rich with nothing fresh or acidic to cut the richness. My fire-roasted redfish was dry and plain and the roasted onion accompaniment seemed out of place on the plate. We’d go with different choices next time, but the overall experience was no doubt pleasant.

For me, the culinary highlight of the trip just might have been Domilise’s Po-Boys and Bar.
I’m a sucker for dives that dish up hearty, locally-specific dishes and this joint fulfills that description without faltering even once.

Line up outside. Anxiously await your turn. Stomach growls. You’ve made it inside! You’re right in the middle of the action, two feet from frying oysters and pink shrimp and bubbling chili and long sticks of fresh bread leaning against the wall. The phone rings and rings, ignored, the cooks too focused on battering oysters and cutting bread and taking orders. It’s somehow frantic yet mellow all at once – obviously they’ve been doing this forever, as witnessed by their imperturbable attitude and effortless pace – but can’t they move faster? Please? Now it’s my turn, gotta get the lingo right, Yes I’d like mine dressed, but when and how do I pay? I peer around the room and find the table that looks closest to finishing, try to strike the perfect balance between hovering annoyance and casual nonchalance. Don’t want to look too desperate. I sure could go for an Abita for distraction, but drats, there’s no place at the bar to wait…

It’s a somewhat stressful experience, really. But that makes it all the more rewarding when you hear your order called out across the room. Truthfully one small sandwich is enough for any hungry couple to share but when you’re only in town once in who knows how long, well, that’s cause for your own personal sandwichy mess.

So we got an oyster and shrimp po’ boy, dressed. Half the sandwich had meaty fried oysters, the other was stuffed with sweet fried shrimp.

And we got a hot smoked sausage po’ boy with chili, also dressed. The chile dribbled down my arms to my elbows and dirtied my cheeks and I was just happy as punch. Domilise’s. You da man.

New Orleans is widely believed to have one of the best culinary scenes in the US, if not the world. Places like Domilise’s have contributed to that honor. However I must point out one major downfall to eating in this city: just how was I supposed to be hungry in time for our dinner reservations with those po’boy bombs sittin’ pretty in my belly?

Thank goodness for a nap and a late reservation at Herbsaint. We vowed to have a light meal. Uh huh. Sure. That worked out… not.

The chicken and Andouille gumbo was the best gumbo we had on our trip. This is what gumbo is all about – rich yet clean flavors, not too thick but not soupy either, perfect amount of heat, meat that retained its integrity without being boiled to death.

I hadn’t had one salad so far on the trip so I mixed it up with an arugula salad with creamy burrata and roasted beets.

Don’t worry – I followed my salad with spaghetti carbonara topped with a fried poached egg and crisp pancetta. You read that right – a fried poached egg. How is that even possible?! My own personal heaven is overflowing with fried poached eggs and free of dietary or caloric concerns. New Orleans is awesome and all but it certainly doesn’t fulfill the latter part of that fantasy.

Phil gobbled down his mussels then sopped up their creamy, spicy Cajun broth with pesto bruschetta and fries. We also shared a perfect bowl of dirty rice.

We broke up the long walk back to our hotel on Frenchmen Street with a cocktail here and a cocktail there before making a late night stop at Café du Monde for beignets and café au lait. I suppose a visit to this uber famous spot is something you must do once in your life, but we were unwilling to wait in the daytime lines. A middle of the night trip was just the solution.

It’s impossible to decide whether the food or the cocktails steal the show in New Orleans; please oh please don’t force me to decide. One evening, while enjoying a pre-dinner cocktail at the bar at Arnaud’s, we struck up a conversation with a local who held a degree in culinary history with a specialization in classic New Orleans cocktails. I tried to hold back my excitement – play it cool, Cari, play it cool, try not to talk using too many exclamation points – as he told us the history of the sazerac and ordered me a version of the classic cocktail the way it was originally intended – with cognac instead of rye whiskey.

He walked Phil and me through the streets and rattled off facts and tidbits about the old guard restaurants in the French Quarter, telling us tales of fourth-generation waiters and asking us to peer into a window like any other that revealed a long, narrow room stacked with bottles and bottles of wines and liquors. Only the best restaurant patrons from the oldest families had a key to this cellar, and they chose their libations at will before meals.

He led us to Pirate’s Alley where the bartender slowly dripped absinthe over sugar cubes from an octopus-like contraption. He took us to the Carousel Bar and talked about legendary writers and celebrities who stayed in the Hotel Monteleone and enjoyed drinks right where we were standing. And he recommended we cap off the night with a Pimm’s Cup and sultry jazz at Three Muses, which was right next to our hotel (we did as he instructed).

I don’t remember his name, although he paid for all our drinks that night. His hospitality was unmatched and back at the hotel, in a cocktail cloud, I thought, This is my favorite city. Ever.

In the light of day the reality that we were scheduled to return home made me sadder than I expected it would. In an effort to delay the inevitable and squeeze in one more N’awlins feast, we drove out of the French Quarter to brunch at Elizabeth’s.

It’s a pilgrimage many make, mostly for their infamous praline bacon, which I obviously had to try before leaving town.

And knowing a nap was surely in my future during the long car ride home, I ordered grillades and grits. Slow-cooked beef, stewy and rich and homey, slopped over an unconstrained pile of relaxed grits… relaxed… relax… nap… goodbye New Orleans. I'll diet until next time.

1 comment:

Starpulp said...

Yum! New Orleans is a place I need to add to my travel list! I've readso much about it on random blogs lately!