My beloved New Orleans, the one US city in my adult life that has been calling to me for a decade, continues to tempt me to move there or dream about a second home in its sometimes gritty, ever-atmospheric and inspired streets.
The modern wave in dining and drink finally started blossoming in Nola a few years ago and is now in full swing. I, as much as any longtime local, do not ever want to see Nola lose its historic restaurants, its Old School class, its venerable greats that have remained blessedly and staunchly unchanged with time. But I appreciate that New Orleans is now a city with a greater variety of cuisines and range in the quality of its offerings, as much as it is still Cajun-Creole central and I pray always remains so. In the best of cities, there is room for both.
The Great & Not-So-Great
Having long been a fan of the original location of Sucre, I am delighted to have the French Quarter restaurant and cafe now a staple I visited for more than one coffee, elegant pastry and cocktail hour during my recent Nola travels. The biggest disappointment this visit was Compére Lapin, where I had some of the worst service I’ve ever had in Nola, waiting 45 minutes for a table I’d reserved weeks ahead without a single update from the host I had to go over to her to ask when my reservation was expected to be ready and not so much as a drink or appetizer (and certainly no apology) was offered for our party of 4 as we sat there waiting nearly an hour for our reservation. The food and drinks had their moments (like the hamachi in coconut curry with pickled mango and trout roe) but not strong enough to make up for the loud, hectic space and service the highlights were not strong enough to counteract the hassle.
Open in 2015, St. Roch Market in St. Roch is a fantastic food hall in a restored 1875 market with some notable vendors, including Fete Au Fete’s trio of crawfish poutine, red beans & rice and shrimp and grits, and Haitian eatery, Fritai try their griot (crispy pork) with fried plantains, red rice, pickliz (spicy relish) and Creole sauce. Grab a lovely drink at the bar and make it a moveable feast around the market.
Over the past decade, I’ve made a tradition out of a different jazz brunch every time I’m in Nola. Broussard’s is easily one of my favorites, a soothing restaurant in cream tones, historic since 1920 but with a makeover some years back that also translates to fresher ingredients and presentation of old school New Orleans’ recipes. During their Sunday brunch, there is bananas foster flambeed tableside, silky Grasshopper cocktails and Brandy Milk Punch and a fantastic jazz trio roving between the tables. Everything I want in a classic Nola jazz brunch.
This summer, I visited many a great newcomer of the last year or two. Here are 8 that stand out and why:
REDS CHINESE, Bywater
For those of us in cities like San Francisco, where creative fusing of Asian cuisines was pioneered and game-changers like Mission Chinese were founded, Red’s Chinese might not seem like a necessary Nola dining choice. But besides the fact that chef Tobias Womack came from SF’s Weird Fish and NYC’s Mission Chinese, I felt right at home with his whimsical Chinese food, the spice, the playfulness of this restaurant and if I lived here, would be a regular. The space is lovably dingy and old school, at home in Nola’s Bywater. Womack nods to Mission Chinese’s Danny Bowein’s sensation of kung pao pastrami, which Bowein invented in San Francisco years back, by serving his own version at Red’s.
Eat This: There is much to love across the menu so come hungry and with friends to try a range. An old school tribute to Americanized crabmeat rangoon craw rangoons ($9) utilizes Nola’s ubiquitous crawfish, creamy and comforting packed with cream cheese and drizzled in spicy honey. Bywater eggplant ($12) is another menu standout, vibrant in Korean gochujang, chilies and plenty of garlic. But wonton-style chicken dumplings ($10), laced with ginger and chilies and dotted with fried onion, threaten to steal the entire show.
Drink This: Drinks may not be the draw but they make delightful accompaniments to the heat outside and in the food. Red’s does a fine job of going unusual with their drinks but also uncomplicated and drinkable. Salted plum soda ($10) is a joy for us salty-sweet lovers, a soda of salted plum, rum, falernum, lemon and lime. There are also daily-changing frozen Daiquiris ($9) recently I enjoyed a tart rum-forward, grapefruit Daiquiri. I’ll have another, please.
If you follow the James Beard Award wins, the countless accolades and the difficult-to-snag reservations, you know Shaya has been New Orleans “it” restaurant since it opened early 2015. More importantly, it has brought to the South the rare and wonderful option of modern Israeli cuisine, pulling from Yemen to Turkey, but made with local Gulf ingredients. In my recent visit, where I tried a good 2/3 of the menu, not everything excels or even keeps up with other greats in the same category, like Zahav in Philly or Ottolenghi in London, but the high points are high indeed.
Eat This: Getting the low points out of the way, the shakshouka, one of my favorite Middle Eastern dishes of poached eggs, chilies and tomato sauce, was surprisingly bland compared to the best versions I’ve had. So was the dry, tasteless crispy halloumi cheese ($16), despite accents of plums, beets, tarragon and almonds (as opposed to the stellar fried halloumi at the aforementioned Zahav).
But the surprises were strong: a massive hunk of wood-roasted cabbage ($12) wowed with char and complexity, almost as if it were meat and it needed to be cut with a steak knife. Accompanied by muhammara (my favorite Middle Eastern dip), tahini and hazelnuts, the cabbage was the star among everyone at our table of food and drink writers. Shaya’s flatbread is fluffy, warm goodness and a For the Table (3 for $15 or 5 for $23) round of small plates is the way to go to try a range. The chef’s grandma’s recipe of Lutenitsa (a Bulgarian puree of roasted pepper, eggplant, garlic, tomato) was the immediate standout. Vibrant with flavor, I wanted to sop up every drop.
Drink This: The drink side was where I encountered some of the lowest points, which shouldn’t be the case in a restaurant of this acclaim. The wine selection is good, with wines from Lebanon and Israel, regions known among wine geeks for excellent wine. When I asked questions about choosing bottles on their wine list, our server did not know about the wines so sent over who I assume was the sommelier. It was unnerving to find they didn’t seem sure on tasting notes or profiles of some of the wines I asked about on the menu. They steered me towards a European wine when I asked for Middle Eastern. When I restated my original request, they recommended the always excellent Chateau Musar, one of the most famed and common Lebanese wines I’ve been privileged to have a number of times. It worked beautifully but was disappointing after being told there were some special, unique Middle Eastern bottles “in the back” and they would go dig them up, to then wait until our main dishes were almost done to find out there were not and then be recommended the most obvious choice. Thankfully, there are some great bottles and glasses here IF you already go in knowing what you want to pair with your food.
After trying all cocktails on the menu without one real standout, we agreed they sounded better than they tasted, with imbalance and lack of focus marring what could have been interesting cocktail recipes. Case in point: a too sweet Spring Forward ($13), mixing chamomile bourbon, Amaro Nonino and ginger, or a muddled Meridian ($10), a mix of rum, pisco, port and a grapefruit shrub, searching for focus but tasting like a mess of unidentifiable spirits.
From the owners of Sylvain, Barrel Proof and Meauxbar (see below), Cavan just opened in February 2016, exuding Southern romance from the moment you walk up to the historic, 1881 white house. The two-story home houses a lofty dining room and downstairs bar, with dramatic chandeliers, weathered walls and antique red chairs there is also an upstairs cocktail lounge. Executive chef Ben Thibodeaux moved up from being sous chef when the restaurant opened, cooking coastal cuisine heavy on seafood, sourcing Gulf ingredients.
Eat This: As mentioned, seafood shines, particularly in scallop crudo ($11), vivid with lime, pistou and pickled red onion, even if a cold poached seafood salad ($11) was a bit underwhelming, needing more of the listed preserved lemon to brighten it up. Fried oyster toast ($12), laden with kimchee, ginger remoulade and cornmeal-fried oysters on blackened wheat toast, was another standout, as was simple but comforting butter-baked Gulf shrimp ($20), sopped up with grilled bread. Pastry chef Ruby Bloch’s desserts are another highlight, whether a tart key lime pie ($7) or pina colada ice cream sandwich ($6).
Drink This: Cocktails are fairly straightforward, whether classics (Mai Tai, Sazerac) or simple drinks (Michelada or “Common Kir” of white Burgundy wine and cremé de cassis). The wine list is solid, offering appropriate seafood pairings, like a white 2015 Ostatu Rioja ($35 a bottle).
THE CATAHOULA, CBD
Just open in June, weeks before I visited, The Catahoula is a rarity in the South: a Peruvian focused cocktail bar and restaurant (with a delightful rooftop bar) in a hip, intimate new boutique hotel. Unfortunately, I have not had a chance to eat the food (all “cold” or uncooked dishes, including ceviches, tiradito and no less than six kinds of causas) but bar manager Nathan Dalton and team ensure the space’s importance with their refined cocktail menu and pisco selection. Dalton has schooled himself properly with plenty of visits to Peru and a true passion for the subject.
Drink This: My favorite drink, the Chinguerito, feels like the ideal tribute to Peru, which I cover here at Liquor.com as a top cocktail of the month. But there is plenty to savor, including the balanced Goodbye Horses ($9), combining pisco, manzanilla sherry and Gran Classico, or a Rosé By Any Other Name ($9), essentially a clarified daiquiri with Peychauds bitters for pink color. Both are straightforward yet complex, smart and elegant.
Whimsy also defines the menu, from a house Peychauds bitters cotton candy to Coolest Kid in Class ($11), a cocktail in a juice squeeze bag with a straw, combining chamomile-infused pisco, Yellow Chartreuse, Granny Smith apple, Suze and honey. The presentation gets even more fun: the drink/juice squeeze is served in a brown paper bag with goldfish crackers and a note from “mom” (the message changes but mine said, Keep up the good work! I am so proud of you. Love, Mom). Ask the staff about the tongue-numbing Miracle Fruit ($20) or the The Miracle Berry Trip experience. It is a trip indeed.
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CARIBBEAN ROOM, Central City
Leave it to John Besh to restore the historic Caribbean Room with a $10 million renovation in the Pontchartrain Hotel, open just weeks when I dined there in July. The multi-room stunner is all rattan furniture, white tablecloths, chandeliers, tropical green, banana leaf carpeting and the dining room’s original Charles Reinike murals. It’s my kind of old school elegance: jackets are required (gentlemen, there are Billy Reid loaners if you forget), while embroidered linens and the silverware are stamped with the hotel’s name. Also in the hotel and run by the Besh Group: the Bayou Bar, Silver Whistle Cafe and Hot Tin rooftop lounge, the latter a tribute to Tennessee Williams who lived at the hotel while writing A Streetcar Named Desire. The literary bar offers a fine 270-degree view of the Mississippi River and downtown New Orleans but was unbearably mobbed and screeching-ly loud when I visited on a weekend.
Eat This: Chef Chris Lusk sticks to Creole and Caribbean influence while maintaining a fine balance between a menu that is decidedly classic and transporting to another era yet also modern rich sauces and decadence abound but with a lighter, balanced hand. I loved Louisiana blue crab ravigote ($18) is a refreshing starter, brightened by pickled relish and an acidic ravigote sauce, and rabbit and dumplings ($18) tender rabbit with lemon gnocchi, parsnips and rutabaga. Both are elegant comfort in a dish.
Drink This: The wine list is solid, laden with pricey greats (Burgundy, Bordeaux, etc.) Cocktails are good but not exceptional: the Duck Fat Sazerac ($12) sounds fantastic but as with many fat-washed cocktails I’ve had over the years, the duck fat Sazerac rye whiskey gains a very subtle texture from the fat but basically tastes like a slightly too sweet Sazerac.
MEAUXBAR, French Quarter
With new ownership since 2014, Meauxbar is the whole package and in the French Quarter, to boot. Granted, it’s on the Treme edge of the Quarter but that keeps it just tucked away from the tourist fray. The whole package refers to the quality of both the food and the cocktails, alongside welcoming service and a soothing, modern dining room.
Eat This: Executive chef John Bel turns out some inspired beauties. While I found what should have been a “slam dunk” duck fat popcorn ($4) far too salty, a “bite” of tomato crudité ($6) sang with lemon yogurt, while pickled shrimp salad ($10) accompanied by Israeli couscous, fennel, cucumber and tarragon yogurt, was a welcome refresher in the Nola heat. My favorite dish was Bel’s version of a classic: Louisiana Gulf fish amandine ($23), the fresh fish of the day crusted in almonds, partnered with popcorn rice and haricots verts. It was a perfect contrast of flaky fish and crunchy almonds. A Nola classic, yak-a-mein, is served on Sundays.
Drink This: I wrote about my favorite cocktail here, The Two Fridas, on Liquor.com, but there are some good to great showings throughout the drinks (like Evening Twilight At Acapulco with añejo tequila, Cappelletti aperitivo, lemon, strawberry, jalapeño and cacao), while there is a solid offering of mainly French (Loire Valley, Provence, Beaujolais, etc.), and a few Spanish, wines.
In a Mid-City mini-strip mall with a back patio and massive grill, Mopho has garnered accolades since it opened in 2014 for its modern Vietnamese fare and fusion Asian cuisine.
Eat This: Heavy with pho and hearty bowls, some of the best dishes aren’t Vietnamese at all, like the Mopho som tam salad ($9), a Thai salad reflecting seasonal ingredients from their farms, the traditional (peanuts and Thai chilies) mixing with the non-traditional (sweet cured sausage).
At lunch they serve playful po boys (like sloppy roast duck, $11, in banana BBQ sauce). Gulf Shrimp in turmeric curry ($17) with wok fried noodles was another mildly spicy standout.
Drink This: Cocktails seem pretty straightforward but it’s the fun they have being straightforward that I like.
There are tart Tamarind Sours and then there is the frozen Old Fashioned boba slushie. It’s still basic: bourbon (“upgrade” to Buffalo Trace bourbon for an extra $2), citrus and Peychaud’s bitters with tapioca balls/boba. But on an oppressively hot New Orleans day, the bracing slushie tastes like salvation.
With a lovely, Colonial-era feel, the two-room, elegant tavern space of Balise (which opened early 2015; SoCal born chef Justin Devillier won a James Beard Award for Best Chef: South 2016) is marked by a long bar in the front room, rustic wood floors and portrait paintings.
Eat & Drink This: Cocktails are classic and expertly executed, while dishes during my visit were a bit hit-and-miss but are done with a welcome mix of Southern heartiness and refinement. Chipped pork on toast sounded amazing (and could be) with a mountain of fried onions on top and the thick toast soaking up all that meaty jus, but it was surprisingly bland and lacking in flavor contrast (the dish was seeking some acid, some brightness). Whereas a restrained, artful beef tartare ($15) dotted with mustard seeds, horseradish and a rye-dill-oyster emulsion, showcased the kitchens possibility.