I want to dedicate this post to the people I met while in the great city of New Orleans, you guys know who you are. The time spent sharing your hometown wouldn’t have been the same without y’all and I know Lucy and I will be seing you for Mardi Gras in the not too distant future.
New Orleans, or should I say New ‘Awlins, has restaurants a plenty, and not just your run of the mill dining establishments or national chains, like other cities of similar size across America. Not only restaurants a plenty but the diversity of cuisines on offer is expansive. During my time I sampled classical French-Creole classics such as Shrimp Ravigote Au Gratin in Antoine’s Restaurant, a fine dining institution since 1840 and the oldest family run restaurant in the United States.
Antoine’s has an unprecedented fourteen dining rooms which are all steeped in history. To name a few, the Mystery Room (played host to bootleggers during Prohibition), the Capitol Room (acquiring its name from the wooden panels used on its interior that originated from the old capitol building in nearby Louisiana capital Baton Rouge), and the Rex Room (gives recognition to The Krew of Rex whose King reigns over Mardi Gras).
Antoine’s is responsible for creating Oysters Rockefeller in 1889, a dish so rich and decadent it was named after the richest man at the time, John D. Rockefeller. Another restaurant that I have previously written words about, Atchafalaya, gives its own take on French-Creole cooking, with dishes like Shrimp and Grits, Fried Green Tomatoes, and Seafood Gumbo.
New Orleans has its fair share of high-end establishments and as we discovered these restaurants are not just for diners with bottomless pockets, but can even be experienced by those on a budget, such as yours truly. Here’s the catch, you have to be happy to dine at lunch and make your selections from a prix fixe menu. No problems there in my book. Many of these fine-dining lunch option will set you back no more than $25 for three courses, and not only does this allow you to eat at an affordable price but will open your eyes to dishes and flavour combinations that you many not necessarily choose from the a la carte menu. Some of my fondest dining memories and favourite dishes have been experienced during lunch prix fixe eating. Chef John Besh’s August is one of the restaurants that we took full advantage of the prix fixe menu, where a three course lunch will go far as to including a delicious amuse bouche of curried oats topped with truffle whipped, roasted cauliflower sabayon, presented in a delicate egg-shell, as well as a selection of confections (including house-made praline) to end your meal. Another restaurant not to be missed during any trip to New Orleans is the legendary Commander’s Palace. Not only is this Garden District favourite serving some of the best and most authentic French-Creole cooking in the city but if you make a visit during weekday lunch service you can take advantage of the best kept secret in town… 25 cent martinis.
There are two sandwich options that reign supreme in New Orleans, firstly the Po-boy, deriving its name from the oversized sandwiches that streetcar workers ate during a four month strike in 1929. With little money to their name these sandwiches were known as Poor Boys, which got shortened to Po-boy. Po-boys are submarine style sandwiches traditionally filled with roast beef or deep-fried seafood (oysters, shrimp or catfish) and packed in New Orleans style French bread, known for its crisp crust and fluffy centre. Po-boys come ‘dressed’ unless other wise stated, which means lettuce, tomato, pickle and mayonnaise. This hugely popular sandwich can be found on almost all restaurant menus, with entire establishments dedicated solely to its creation. Everyone has their favourite po-boy and for me this was not from a restaurant, and not even from a sandwich vendor, instead from an unassuming corner grocery store with a deli counter in the back. Verti Marte is located on a quiet section of Royal Street in the French Quarter away from the hustle and bustle of the restaurants, bars, hotels, art galleries, boutique stores and street performers.
Verti Marte’s menu is expansive and sits proudly above the deli counter, I’d say there are over twenty sandwich fillings to choose from, although I recommend keeping it simple and opting for the roast beef. Slabs of chuck and shoulder are simmered in stock with seasonings, herbs and vegetables until the meat falls to pieces. The meat remains simmering to absorb the juices and stock before being assembled in the pillowy French bread. The end result is an enormously satisfying taste sensation of hot, tender, melt in the mouth roast beef.
There’s no seating at Verti Marte, unless you count the USA Today newspaper dispenser out front as alfresco dining, so you’ll most likely end up sitting cross-legged on the pavement as it’s impossible to resist eating this sandwich straight away. If you do come across Verti Marte and order a roast beef, remember to arm yourself with a wad of napkins to mop the dripping juices from your forearms and chin, and order one to share as a whole is ample feeding for two. Verti Marte is open 24/7 to buy cold beer, liquor and the few tinned products that line the shelves, but the kitchen closes shop at 4am, so be sure to get your post drinking sandwich before this curfew or you’ll be sorry.
The second sandwich not to be missed when making a trip to New Orleans is the Muffuletta. The round Italian muffuletta bread is sliced in half lengthways and layered with mortadella, salami, ham, mozzarella, provolone and an olive salad (made up of chopped green and black olives, pickled carrots, cauliflower, onion, celery, capers, pepperoncini, olive oil, Italian herbs and spices).
This sandwich is brimming with classic Italian flavours and the olive salad elevates what would be a standard meat and cheese sandwich to whole new levels. Dipping freshly baked ciabatta bread into good quality extra virgin olive oil is one of my favourite appetizers on a summer day and the oil salad in this muffuletta delivers the same pleasure as it soaks deep into the bread, imparting its oily flavour. The muffuletta has its origins from Central Grocery, an old-fashioned Italian-American grocery store located in the French Quarter. Again you will find muffuletta sandwiches on many a restaurant menu but I suggest making the trip to Century Grocery for a taste of the real deal.
There are of course sweet as well as savory treats, one of those being the Beignet. Beignets are a French pastry brought to New Orleans by French colonists during the 18th century and have now become deeply rooted in Creole cooking. This sweet pastry is made by deep-frying squares of choux pastry until golden, then dusting the pastry with a mountain of powdered sugar. Café du Monde serve beignets by the thousands each day to hoards of tourists and locals, although another equally good spot to enjoy this pastry treat is Café Beignet. Beignets are traditionally eaten as a desert but in New Orleans anything goes and you’ll see many a hungover local devouring these sugary pastries with a cup of strong black chicory coffee during breakfast hours.
New Orleans wouldn’t be a true American city without paying homage to the nations favourite staple, the humble hamburger. Hamburgers, as you can imagine, grace many restaurant menus but the place that sits above most is Tru Burger. The pattys are of the thin variety, grilled to juicy medium rare perfection and dressed with lettuce, tomato, grilled onions, sliced pickle and their signature tru sauce (not too dissimilar to A1 Steak Sauce).
Although the real star of the show at Tru Burger is their veggie burgers, a thick vegetable cake formed from shredded beetroot and black-eyed beans. The exterior is crisp from its time on the flat top, and is a stark contrast to the soft, vibrant purple interior. The veggie burger is surprisingly meaty in texture and is a fine alternative to red meat. The fries are skin on and delicious, as are the jalapeño poppers (fresh jalapeño peppers stuffed with a combination of cream cheese and cheddar, dipped in batter, rolled in breadcrumbs and deep-fried to perfection). Another worthy burger joint located on the uber-hip Magazine Street is Smashburger. Although a national chain Smashburger takes prides in its use of 100% fresh, never frozen, certified Angus beef. The handcrafted patties are smashed, seared and seasoned to order on the flat top before being sandwiched between an artisan bun (either egg, multi-grain, chipotle or lettuce) with the usual selection of toppings and sauces. Smashburger has staple burgers found on each menu, like the Classic Smash and the All American Cheeseburger, but specials change from state to state. Louisiana’s special is the NOLA; creole mustard, shred leaf lettuce, fried green tomato, mayonnaise and aged swiss on an egg bun.
If you’re in the mood for food Middle Eastern food then look no further than Lebanon’s Café situated in the heart of Uptown. We sampled a range of dishes during our multiple trips including; Hummus, Baba Ganuj (a dip of baked eggplant, tahini, garlic, mint and lemon juice), Tabouleh (finely chopped parsley mixed with tomatoes, onions and cracked wheat in a lemon dressing), Falafal (ground chickpeas with onion, parsley and garlic blended with seasonings and fried to perfection), Musaha (sautéed eggplant with roasted garlic, sun-dried tomatoes and vegetables in an olive oil dressing), Vine Leaves (stuffed with basmati rice, cracked wheat and Mediterranean vegetables), and Lula Kebob (ground lamb seasoned with parsley, onions and spices before being grilled over open flame) all served with house-made flat breads. Not only is the food excellent but Lebanon’s Café has a BYOB drink policy so you can enjoy your favourite bottle with your kebab on their outdoor patio.
If we’re talking ethnic cuisine then another excellent option includes previously blogged about Pho Tau Bay on Algiers west bank, serving up delicious bowls of steam pho as well as other Vietnamese favourites like Bánh Mì and Goi Chon.
Some traditional dishes you must seek out on a first visit to New Orleans should include Jambalaya, a dish similar to the Spanish paella, and a one pot wonder consisting of rice, meat, seafood, vegetables and stock. Jambalaya is one of my favourite dishes to cook at home and for good reason.
If you’re a fan of all things pork, as I am, and you’re partial to a slice of black pudding with your English Breakfast then boudin is for you. Traditionally a French sausage with its ingredients tweaked for creole cooking. Louisiana has its Boudin Blanc (a white sausage consisting of pork and often including liver and heart, as well as cooked rice and spices) and Boudin Rouge (same principle as Boudin Blanc but with blood added), there are also crawfish, gator and shrimp varieties of these popular sausages in Louisiana. Boudin is fantastic on the barbecue, giving a charred smokiness, and eaten as an appetizer or afternoon snack with a nice cold, ice cold local beer.
A great dish to introduce you to Cajun cooking is gumbo, a smokey yet sweet, deep in flavour, robust soup. The main two varieties of gumbo are seafood or meat (usually chicken and smoked Andouille sausage) and all gumbos starts as a slowly cooked roux, always contains the ‘Holy Trinity” (diced onions, green peppers and celery) and a rich stock corresponding to the meat being used. The best gumbo I tried was in Drago’s Seafood Restaurant located in the Riverside Hilton Hotel, and if you do find yourself in Drago’s be sure not to miss their signature dish of Charboiled Oysters. Large, freshly shucked Louisiana oysters on the half shell are topped with generous amounts of melted butter, garlic, oregano and seasoning before being placed under a hot grill until bubbling, the oysters are then finished with a sprinkling of parsley, parmesan and romano cheese. The end product is outrageously good. Be sure to order a side basket of bread to mop up any of the precious garlic, buttery goodness.
As you can see food options are not limited in New Orleans and this post could stretch out for a few more pages just from the six weeks I spent cramming dish after dish into my face. There will always be institutions that have been around for generations, serving many of the same dishes their grandparents did before them, but I urge anyone visiting the city to discover their own culinary treats and try at least one of the new restaurants constantly opening in and around the city. New Orleans is a magical land of enchantment, steeped in history and tradition with beautiful 18th century French architecture in many of the downtown streets you’ll find yourself walking around. If you too wish to celebrate your life, like the people of New Orleans, then forget about your worries for a while, let down your hair, enjoy the jazz that fills the air, go find some delicious food, pour yourself a strong drink and do as the locals do. After all, the expression you’ll hear time after time leaving people’s lips from this care free city is, “laissez-faire”, or broadly speaking just let it be.