In one of the greatest (though far from the largest or diverse) food cities on earth, New Orleans is great first and foremost because of its truly one-of-a-kind spirit and verve. It’s sensual magic envelops me every visit, haunting me when I’m away. This translates to its cuisine – truly unique, historically formed from an array of cultures that give Nola its character, coalescing into unmatched cuisines of Creole and Cajun. In keeping with the rest of the country, there’s a renaissance of mid-range, urban-chic, smart restaurants alongside the eternal classics in a city that reveres the past while celebrating like no other.
This visit, I was disappointed in the more casual French Quarter offering, Restaurant Stanley, from Stella! Chef Scott Boswell, though scenically situated on Jackson Square. Even Korean barbeque beef Poor (Po) Boy ($15.50) was oddly bland, tasting as if little actual Asian influence (or heart) went into it, but rather as if a generic chain restaurant attempted it.
Another letdown, particularly after the long cab ride out to the Black Pearl neighborhood, was Dante’s Kitchen. Though in a charming cottage on a sleepy, residential block across the street from long-beloved Brigsten’s, dishes were hit and miss, while ambitious-sounding cocktails ($9.50), like The Nose Knows (Steinhager gin, Genepi, Velvet Falernum, lemon, Chamomile tea) or Monocle (roasted peanut bourbon, Carpano Antica, Apfel liqueur, ginger liqueur, cane vinegar, flamed lemon peel), sadly ended up tasting as muddled and confused as they sounded (or in the case of the Monocle, lacked any peanut taste whatsoever). Similarly, a classic Italian panzanella salad ($9) was rather lifeless compared to countless versions I’ve had at home, around the US and Italy, while shrimp and grits ($10) or a boudin rouge sausage ($12) with peach mustard likewise paled in comparison to versions I’ve had throughout the South.
This visit, highlights were plenty, however. Here they are (and here are the standouts in drink):
ROOT, CBD (Central Business District)
Root is one of New Orleans’ great restaurants, though only open since the end of 2011. Executive Chef/Proprietor Phillip L. Lopez best marries the fresh invention I’m used to at home and the vegetable-forward, Scandinavian wave of recent years with the regional cuisine of Louisiana. His dishes are imaginative and of fine dining quality, comparable with some of the great restaurants in major cities.
Traditional, seaweed-based Welsh laverbread can be topped with juniper cured duck prosciutto ($9), mojama (filleted salt-cured tuna), and other unusual selections from their house charcuterie ($10 each) program. Partnered with pickled yellow tomatoes, pickled kumquat mostarda, corn, pepper chow chow and pumpkin mustard in a little squeeze tube, it’s an interactive delight. Another playful turn on the ever-ubiquitous deviled eggs is Louisiana pickled shrimp ($16) served in an egg-holder platter with pockets of whipped truffled salt cod-egg yolk mousse, remoulade, lemon pickles, charred artichokes and shrimp-stuffed deviled eggs in each egg holder.
ROOT vegetable salad ($12) is a prime example of Chef Lopez’ savvy cooking sensibilities. Heirloom carrots and charred fennel sit over vegetable ash and smoked rutabaga purees for earthiness, brightened by pickled celery root and lemon verbena thyme vinaigrette. I felt right back in SF with this one. “Fish & Chips” ($13) iss a Nola-meets-UK mash-up of brown cornflake-battered black cod accompanied by traditional malt vinegar and Cornish salt given proper London flair from baby pepper and corn piccalilli (an Indian pickle relish), sauce gribiche (mayo, egg, mustard, oil-based) and black garlic sauce.
The creative fun continues with a bergamot-coriander “scented” lobster dog ($15) in a honey brioche bun, perky with celery root slaw, charred cucumber relish and smoked peach mustard. Desserts are likewise brilliant and internationally-influenced. African amarula carrot cake ($10) turns carrot cake on its head with African spices, sitting next to carrot coriander ice cream, accented by black sesame praline, charred carrot marshmallow, celeriac crema and carrot “crunchies”. It may be my favorite carrot cake reinterpretation of all time and a blessedly savory dessert.
Likewise, Indian Falooda ($10) makes traditional vermicelli noodles out of blueberry, layered with lemon thyme sorbet and sweet basil seeds, all doused in geranium milk.
Innovation wouldn’t matter if it didn’t taste wonderful. At Root it does, making it the kind of restaurant that is both cosmopolitan and authentically local. I can hardly wait to visit their tasting menu only, 16-seat Square Root, opening this year.
KILLER PO BOYS in back bar at Erin Rose, French Quarter
In the back of beloved dive bar, Erin Rose, cash only, all-day Killer Po Boys popped up over a year ago. It’s definitely hipster po boys but among the countless, legendary, traditional po boy joints around New Orleans, I love seeing something this playful and funky in the mix. Not to mention boozy. Among a number of daily offerings, it might be coriander lime Gulf shrimp po boys, taking a tip from bahn mi and loaded with marinated radish, carrot, cucumber and cilantro. Another it might a “Dark & Stormy” pork belly po boy ($9.17), glazed in rum ginger, zippy with lime slaw and garlic aioli. Don’t forget Jameson grilled cheese ($6.42) on Wildflower whole grain bread.
GALATOIRE’S, French Quarter
Since my first visit to New Orleans, I spend each visit plugging away at various greats in regional categories: I always check off another couple legendary po boy joints around the city, and I always enjoy one classic, jazz brunch, complete with Cafe Brulot: bracing, black coffee, brandy and orange liqueur usually marked by cinnamon sticks and an orange spiked with cloves. A bowl of the drink is typically flamed tableside, sometimes directly on the table, other times on a cart.
Charmingly retaining the jacket-required stance since its opening days in 1905, Galatoire’s is about as good as it gets in terms of classic New Orleans brunch. Though they don’t offer the roving jazz trios I love at Arnaud’s and Commander’s Palace, our wonderful waiter, Scott (tradition is, you ask for the same waiter on every return visit), flamed a bowl of Cafe Brulot tableside and attended to us with warm care.
Whether traditional crabmeat sardou ($26) or sweet potato cheesecake ($8), it’s pricey and old school, and the food won’t exactly wow… but it’s Old World elegance done right and rarely found in the US anymore and thus worth an occasional splurge.
COQUETTE, Irish Channel
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One of my all-time favorite restaurants in Nola, Coquette is “the whole package”: heartwarming service, in a historic building, serving fine cocktails and contemporary New Orleans cuisine interpreted by Chef/Owner Michael Stoltzfus and Pastry Chef Zak Miller, sourcing mostly from farms and fisherman in Louisiana and Mississippi.
The food is freshly inventive, of a quality that would make a statement in larger food cities, meaning it is forward thinking while very much expressing its region. For example, cubes of raw yellowfin tuna, cantaloupe and country ham ($13) get texture and playfulness from a smattering of popcorn.
Similarly tongue-in-cheek, piles of Louisiana crabmeat ($13) over a stone slab are drizzled in remoulade sauce, accented by sweet corn and boiled eggs with potato chips draped over the spread. An entree might be a flaky Hog snapper ($30) surrounded by chanterelles, roasted okra, sweet corn and a creamy dose of buttermilk sauce.
Miller’s desserts are a happy mix of savory-sweet or refreshing, keeping pace with the savory menu, as in the case of compressed watermelon sprinkled with basil and icy lime granite, dramatic with pop rocks, or a silky rectangle of chocolate pudding partnered with sea salt ice cream in andouille (yes, sausage) caramel sauce ($10).
On the cocktail front ($8-11), I sampled four, all well made and gratifying without being complicated or fussy. They do lovely things with mezcal, while their St. James Sour is a beauty of Legendre Herbsaint, lemon, egg white and bitters perfected by root beer extract – a sort of root beer absinthe sour. Fantastic.
ATCHAFALAYA, Irish Channel
Tucked off a residential street in the Irish Channel, Atchafalaya is an unexpected delight. Executive Chef Christopher Lynch sources from local farms, ranches and fisheries, crafting New Orleans cuisine with a fresh eye.
In the summer, the trendy combo of compressed watermelon and burrata cheese in their watermelon “Caprese” Salad ($14) is given added “oomph” with slices of Prosciutto di Parma, smoked almonds and a drizzle of sweet saba.
Free form crab ravioli ($17) is a pleasure of a pasta sheet wrapped around crab, shiitake mushrooms and spinach, heavily doused in mascarpone citrus buerre blanc (a butter-rich sauce).
Their shrimp & grits ($26) with giant, head-on Gulf shrimp, andouille sausage and smoked tomatoes, is the kind of soulful shrimp & grits dish that makes it hard to love most versions outside of the South. With a Middle Eastern touch, Two Run Farms lamb meatballs ($31) get a dose of Southern soul over fluffy Israeli couscous drizzled in cucumber raita and a seasonally-changing chutney.
PECHE, CBD (Central Business District)
Beloved New Orleans Chef Donald Link (of Herbsaint and Cochon, to name a few) opened Peche in 2013, a priority during my 2013 visit.
The spacious seafood “temple” (a casual, comfortable sprawl) did not disappoint. Daily changing whole fish, oysters, and raw bar offerings, like a crudo-like cut of tuna in tomato water, fennel, corn, parsley, chili flakes ($9), can be light and delicate (meaning, you may need to order a few small plates to fill up), but flavors are bright, fresh and in the Southern tradition, comforting. A seafood salad ($8) of raw mahi mahi and shrimp is perked up with mint and avocado, while Gulf crab claws ($12) benefit from whispers of Thai food with a chili and mint, plus pickled cioppolini onions. Finish with a tart Key lime pie ($8) in buttermilk whipped cream.
DOMENICA, CBD (Central Business District)
Spacious and elegant, a longtime favorite Nola chef, John Besh’s Domenica is not exactly revolutionary in its modern Italian cuisine with a touch of Southern flair. But it always churns out a gratifying lunch or dinner, doing the genre proud.
Wood-fired Bolzano Pizze ($13) is a hearty-yet-elegant white pizza laden with tender, roasted pork shoulder, fennel, bacon and sweet onions. Squid ink tagliolini topped with blue crab ($18/large $26) is silky with a touch of umami flavor, while fried Tuscan kale in lemon and Parmigiano reggiano ($7) may be ubiquitous, but makes the healthy delicious.
In a spacious brick building in a sleepy corner of the Bywater district, Mariza (from the owners of beloved Iris in the Quarter) is not exactly on par with the countless great modern Italian, Neapolitan pizza-influenced spots around the country that have been trending continuously for over a decade. In fact, as a crudo fanatic, I found red snapper crudo ($12) graced with heirloom cucumber and mint rather lackluster. Similarly, green tagliatelle pasta dotted with guanciale, red onion, olives, pickled peppers ($8/14) somehow lacked verve.
Cocktails in general also disappointed (like an imprecise mix of gin, Lillet Blanc, Meyer lemon, orange bitters and Grand Marnier in Right Side of the Tracks) except in the case of the simplest, an Italian Kiss ($9). A simple blend of sweet and dry vermouth (in this case, Contratto Vermouth Bianco & Rosso) on the rocks, refreshing and clean, was lovely.
On the food side, a straightforward, gratifying pizza of sweet-savory red sauce and fresh mozzarella ($10) marked by fennel and arugula likewise was the strong point, best paired with the Italian Kiss.