Back in my beloved New Orleans. During my annual visits, I am able to catch up on my many newcomers since the prior visit. I returned to spots like Sylvain and Café Adelaide, ordered sandwiches for my flight home from St. James Cheese Company, and in coffee, and went daily to my favorite Spitfire Coffee near the ideally-located Omni Royal Hotel, where I returned for another stay. When I moved to the mellow Maison Dupuy Hotel, I was delighted to find a fantastic new coffee newcomer also a vintage barware and bike shop just around the corner, Arrow Cafe, serving Four Barrel Coffee from SF to make me feel right at home.
Last issue, I covered the best of new bars and cocktails this year in Nola, and here are my top New Orleans meals this year from both newcomers and repeat favorites:
Tasting Menu Extraordinaire: Square Root
Square Root is easily the most exciting New Orleans’ newcomer on the dining side and the same holds true for its upstairs bar/lounge and cocktails. The historic building boasts a balcony and a wrap-around upstairs bar from which bartenders turn out impeccable cocktails, dishes and bites akin to the creative quality I love at their parent restaurant, Root. Downstairs is a 16-seat bar surrounding a live kitchen where executive chef Phillip Lopez and team turn out sophisticated, international dishes (sometimes with molecular touches) right in front of you. It’s a 12-15 course dinner ($150 per person) and changes constantly so each experience is unique.
What I appreciate most, besides occasional “wow” moments when New Orleans flavors and classic dishes are reinterpreted with a Mexican, Asian, global slant is Lopez’ vision to bring something to Nola that isn’t already here, attempting to be on par with visionary tasting menus found all over NYC, Chicago, LA or SF. There is much possibility and artistry here and I can’t wait to see how Square Root unfolds.
Oh, Those Beignets: SoBou
Since the week it opened, I’ve been drawn to SoBou for lovely Abigail Gullo’s cocktails, but the food keeps up, maybe even more than in its initial opening days.
Summer was showcased in one of my favorite regional specialties: Creole tomatoes. Akin to amazing heirloom tomatoes at home in Northern California, these juicy red, yellow and green tomatoes ($13) come from Covey Rise Farms ($13), piled high with spicy legumes (black eyed peas, etc.), grilled summer corn and arugula in sugarcane vinegar made into caviar-like pearls. But all bets are off with decadent sweet potato beignets ($12) drizzled in foie gras fondue, filled with duck confit debris and accented by chicory coffee ganache. Sigh.
Out of the Way Surprise: Treo
On a sweltering, hot day, I went well out of my way to try newcomer Treo in Mid City because the menu called to me. Cocktails were intriguing but some came in surprisingly miniscule portions (half the size of a typical cocktail), especially at $10-11 each and flavors weren’t always realized either though I loved the ingredient combination, as with Phet Nit Nawy (translates to a little bit spicy” in Thai) mixing Genepy des Alpes liqueur, Ransom dry herbal vermouth, tarragon syrup and Thai chilies. But the Southeast Asian influence is not much seen (and thus needed) in these parts.
Food was the highlight, particularly on the “pie” front. Crawfish empanadas ($8), a Spanish twist on classic crawfish pie, were a delight, while Nola’s legendary Hubig’s was the inspiration behind a fried blueberry pie ($8) accented by crème anglaise and fresh blueberries.
Even Better 1 Year In: Peche
Since I first visited Peche right when it opened last year, chef/owners Ryan Prewitt, Donald Link and Stephan Stryjewski have been garnering a heavy dose of accolades, including being named Best New Restaurant in the US at the 2014 James Beard Awards. While all that feels a bit exaggerated for the large, deafeningly noisy space, returning this year, it was clear in terms of food, Peche has come into its own.
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Over rounds of seafood, it’s a pleasure, whether ridiculously good fish sticks ($11), oozing, warm shrimp fontina croquettes ($10) or grilled corn on the cob ($5) smothered in Alabama white sauce (hell, yes!) It works best as a shared plates kind of place, particularly with whole fish specials like grilled Louisiana speckled trout ($36) with pancetta and celery or smothered catfish ($16).
Brunch Perfection: Ralph’s On The Park
Facing massive City Park in Mid City, Ralph’s On the Park is one of my favorite classic New Orleans brunches, a ritual I partake in every year (for over 7 years) at different places around the city. Though Ralph’s doesn’t have live jazz and I prefer jazz brunch when I can get it, their food is among the best brunches I’ve had in Nola and a deal at $28 for a 3-course brunch.
While sipping a classic Brandy Milk Punch ($8 – brandy, milk, simple syrup, nutmeg, vanilla extract) also a key part of my Nola brunch tradition (along with a Cafe Brulot) I start with pickled beet salad ($6.50) accented by baby arugula, red onion and creamy feta with an unusual touch of orange blossom vinegar. Fried smoked oysters ($11) are excellent in Buffalo Trace tomato jam and white remoulade sauce, while chicken & waffles ($15) are given a twist with the chicken wrapped in country ham, all in red eye gravy. Their turtle soup finished with sherry ($8) is the best I’ve ever had after trying many versions over the years.
Elegant Comfort: Herbsaint
While I might prefer other Donald Link restaurants (namely the aforementioned Peche; Cochon is wildly popular, but after a few visits over the years, I enjoy but find it overrated), the older Herbsaint turns out a number of lovely dishes, thanks to Link and Chef de Cuisine Rebcca Wilcomb. While pricey sparkling cocktails like the Herbsaint Champagne ($13) are disappointing, the wine list offers plenty of acidic, Old World whites to accompany seafood.
Jumbo lump crab ($14) is lively in watermelon gazpacho dotted with lime-jalapeno aioli. Louisiana shrimp and fish ceviche ($12) is perked up with cucumbers and pepitas. I love tender rabbit fricassee ($14) over garganelli pasta, decadent with bacon and pumpkin, the clincher being a rich Madeira sauce.
Not-Your-Average-Nola-Dive-Bar: St. Lawrence
Dive-y but not dingy, St. Lawrence is a welcome addition to the Quarter. Its open all day and night, offering affordable comfort food made with quality ingredients and the best damn boozy slushies in a neighborhood famous for bastardizing the category. Just try their bracing, delicious Pimms Cup slushies and try not to be converted.
Sip a slushie on a hot day alongside a platter of heartwarming fried chicken ($15) mashed potatoes and braised collard greens or an 8 oz. Creekstone Angus beef burger ($12) on a Kaiser bun with white cheddar ($1).
Drinks & Southern Goodness: Kingfish
Kingfish is all about bartender legend Chris McMillian and his few-but-utterly-perfect classics, included the best Suissesse ($12) a classic, creamy absinthe cocktail, here made with Herbsaint, orgeat and cream you’ll ever have.
But it’s also about fun food, my recent favorite being a top notch version of Hoppin John salad ($9) accompanied by a fried green tomato with remoulade sauce. On the entree front, shrimp gaufre ($22) is Nola-style BBQ shrimp atop a cornmeal waffle pirogue on sweet potato puree.