Back in April, Simon, Simon’s dad Brian and I ate our way across the Deep South of the USA on a foodie road trip. I’ve been unusually quiet on the highlights of New Orleans – not because it didn’t blow me away, believe me, it’s up there in the best of gourmet travel – but because I was saving all my tips and tricks for a feature in Delicious Magazine (such is the pleasure of long lead times!). Now that the October issue is off the shelves, I can share some of those dizzying delights from this Southern belle, including the 10 things you simply must eat while you’re in New Orleans.
“New Orleans has the ability to knock you off your feet. It’s not the hordes on Bourbon Street or the fishbowl-sized cocktails that’ll floor you (though in large enough doses, both will do just that). Rather, it’s the antique gas lanterns that flicker throughout the French Quarter; the brass band that serenades you as you enjoy your Sunday brunch; and the intimacy of a jazz session in a back-room bar in Frenchmen Street – moments of old-world charm in a town that has seen more than its fair share of change.
While the memory of Hurricane Katrina lingers on, today you’d have to look hard to see the scars she left behind in 2005. The French Quarter has been revitalised, drawing energy from a steady stream of young chefs and restaurateurs who’ve launched pop-up po’boy stalls, taco trucks and tricked-up hotdog joints. Louisiana’s Creole and Cajun cuisines are being re-imagined, too, as top kitchens tinker with that heady blend of French, Spanish and African influences.
And yet, there’s a strident sense of history in every part of this city. Pastel terraces line the streets of the French Quarter and Treme. In the genteel Garden District, tree-lined avenues play host to refined plantation homes and soul-stirring cemeteries, their lofty vaults visible above the high fences. And for every sticky dive bar on Bourbon Street, there’s an elegant lounge serving Sazeracs and Champagne cocktails, stirred by tuxedoed barmen who look to have been plucked from the past.
Here are the top 10 dishes you must eat while in town.
1. For an introduction to contemporary Cajun fare, secure a table at Cochon (930 Tchoupitoulas St). Chefs Stephen Stryjewski and Donald Link fire up their cavernous wood-burning stove to turn out Louisiana cochon (suckling pig) with crackling, or smoked ham hock with pickled peppers. Another mod take on the bold local flavours is the fried alligator with chilli garlic mayonnaise. Pop to Cochon Butcher at the same location, for sandwiches with Carolina-style pulled pork.
2. If you’re after a more low-key take on New Orleans cuisine, make your way to the back of the Erin Rose Bar (811 Conti St), just off Bourbon Street. Pop-up-turned-permanent Killer Poboys reworks the classic po’boy with restaurant-inspired fillings including seared shrimp with radish and ‘special sauce’, or five-spice meatloaf with chilli choy sum.
3. Brunch is an institution in this town – and no short order eggs Benedict kind of affair. We’re talking three-course meals with bottomless mimosas and a live band to boot. Wherever you choose to dine, jackets for gents are expected, and booking ahead is a must. Leading the pack is Commander’s Palace (1403 Washington Ave), a grand Garden District restaurant that dates back to 1880. Kick off with a Bloody Mary, then work your way through turtle soup, coffee-glazed quail, and bread-pudding souffle. While you dine, a jazz band wanders between the dining rooms and leafy courtyard. Come midweek for two-course lunches and 25-cent martinis.
4. In the French Quarter, 96-year-old Arnaud’s (813 Bienville St) is looking mighty fine for its age. This refined dining room plays host to a Sunday jazz brunch, with Louisiana crab crakes, egg dishes slathered in butter-laden sauces and Creole classics such as shrimp with remoulade sauce. Things don’t get any lighter in the evenings, with a French-accented menu offering escargots with Pernod, and Bananas Foster for dessert – that’s bananas flambeed
with banana liqueur, dark rum and ice cream. Best to leave the car at home for this one.
5. After all of that Creole decadence, you’re going to need a break from the thick, boozy food. May we suggest a proper po’boy from Liuzza’s by the Track (1518 N Lopez St)? This dusty diner turns out crusty baguettes with fried catfish or roast beef, with sides of hand-cut fries and cups of gumbo.
6. New Orleans’ other iconic sandwich is the muffuletta, an Italian-leaning combination of salami, mortadella, provolone and a tangy olive salad. Two old-fashioned delis duel it out for top honours: Central Grocery (923 Decatur St) and Napoleon House (500 Chartres St, pictured above), where the mammoth whole muffuletta is big enough for two to share.
7. In the French Quarter, seek out the old-school delights of the Gumbo Shop (630 St Peter St), where you can take your pick of classic seafood and okra gumbo, or a hearty chicken and andouille version, both enhanced by a splash of house-made hot sauce.
8. Just around the corner, at the edge of the Mississippi River, lies Cafe du Monde (800 Decatur St), home to sugary beignet pastries that draw queues of curious tourists.
9. The lines also form early at Willy Mae’s Scotch House (2401 St Ann St), but in this case the hype is well deserved. Housed in a weatherboard shack in a down-and-dirty part of Treme, Willy Mae’s is famous for ‘America’s Best’ fried chicken and its no-frills setting. In the cafeteria-style dining room, order huge plates of crunchy, fried chicken (we’re talking half a bird), the pepper-spiked country-fried pork chop, and generous sides of macaroni and cheese. To drink, choose a sweet iced tea.
10. For an authentic crawfish boil, head to the western suburb of Metairie for lunch at The Galley Seafood Resturant (2535 Metairie Rd) or Bevi Seafood Co (4701 Airline Dr, Metairie), where cast-iron pans of piping-hot, spiced crustaceans, potatoes and cobs of corn are slammed down on the table.
This is an extract from a New Orleans Travel Guide that appeared in the October 2014 issue of Delicious Magazine.
Photography: Chris Granger