New Orleans is like no other food town in the US, or better yet the world. An intermingling of old time traditional restaurants that execute with perfection the backbone dishes of Cajun and Creole cuisine -crawfish étouffée, gumbo des herbes, jambalaya, red beans, dirty rice, trout meunière, blackened catfish, turtle soup, shrimp remoulade, maque choux, etc. – and modern eateries that take these classic dishes to a new level, re-inventing them with flavors from around the world. It’s a town where you can find a good, no, great meal at any price point, from a hearty gumbo at a hole-in-the-wall dive to a divine piece of fish at a jackets required upscale establishment. Truly one of my favorite all-time eating destinations. So let the food adventure begin, 10 restaurants in 72 hours.
Fresh off the plane we start with oysters on the half shelf at Felix’s Restaurant and Oyster Bar at 739 Iberville Street. A no nonsense diner ambience with freshly shucked oysters. Our companion wanted sparkling wine, the perfect accompaniment, but the spacey server kindly explained that they only offer beer and hard liquor, correcting herself minutes later by clarifying that they had just stared serving wine yesterday. Our friend wondered when they had stopped serving wine and was happy to get the small bottle of Freixenet she had been ordering at Felix’s for literally decades. Aside from this minor distraction we were all more than content. The plump freshly shucked oysters hit the spot and whetted our appetite for the coming three day eating extravaganza.
Dinner at Stella located at 1032 Chartres Street. This upscale restaurant has a warm brick dining room simply decorated with crisp white table cloths. The menu is an intriguing mix of Creole favorites and Asian flavors. We started with the lobster roe farafelle served with blue crab, Canadian lobster and edamame in a cognac, soy and scallion cream sauce. A list of ingredients that at first glance might make you think this dish was the result of some sort of mystery-box challenge. But it works. A seamless blend of flavors and textures that leaves you wanting more. The second starter, a truffle risotto with English peas and caramelized black trumpet and yellow-foot mushrooms, an earthy combination that showcases the truffle essence of the dish.
Mains included a white cheddar popcorn crusted drum fish served on a bed of corn maque choux and wilted bitter greens. Again, a subtle marriage of flavors that balances the sweetness of the corn and crawfish with the bitterness of the greens. The red snapper is served on a bed of jambalaya accompanied by three plump fried oysters. A fiery, heavenly dish of bold flavors and perfectly cooked seafood.
We skipped dessert but with coffee they served a plate of scrumptious sweets (one each for each guest) – deep chocolate truffles, homemade marshmallows, cream puffs, macaroons, and my favorite, salty caramels.
Breakfast – Clover Grill, located at 900 Bourbon Street, is a no frills dive joint. The modest menu offers well executed simple breakfast items – egg, omelets and waffles, but don’t dare ask for an egg white omelet. As the sassy server exclaimed, “We don’t do healthy food here!”
For lunch our friends recommended the Gumbo Shop at 630 Saint Peter Street as having the best gumbo in NOLA. The okra sea food gumbo has that rich layered essence that comes from a good stock and a dark roux thickened with okra that has cooked so long it melts into the silky soup. As a bonus, we tried the alligator sausage appetizer, spicy and full of pork fat flavor you would never know that this was alligator.
Dinner at the best restaurant in NOLA, as some locals call Commander’s Palace. Located at 1403 Washington Avenue in the Garden District, this old time favorite was buzzing on a Wednesday evening with all of its large dining rooms filled with tourists and locals alike. For a more refined atmosphere ask for the front dining room. We were seated in the back room across the patio from the main building. A fun and animated room painted in carnival colors and with balloons tied to the chairs of all those celebrating birthdays and other special occasions. Each honored guest donned a special paper chef’s hat to complete the look.
The menu offers their own New Orleans specialties along with Haute Creole classics. We tasted the turtle soup, a rich dark roux with a distinct bitter flavor balanced by a drizzle of sweet sherry. For mains we tasted the Calvados Lacquered Mississippi Quail stuffed with smoked pork and charred jalapeño boudin over bacon braised greens and apple brandy sugarcane glaze.
The boned quail was well cooked and luscious but although the stuffing had a great smoky flavor with just a hint of heat, there was way too much of the thick gloppy paste overwhelming the tiny bird. The Crawfish Maque Choux, a sauté of local crawfish tails with toasted garlic grilled corn, tricolored peppers, okra and creole tomatoes in a crawfish sauce garnished with LA popcorn rice and crispy bacon. As decadent as the description in a dark rich roux with a complex smoky flavor.
Although dessert seemed liked an impossibility after the first two courses, it comes with the three course specials. The creole bread pudding soufflé, a specialty of the house, is served with a whisky cream table side. The light custardy soufflé, laced with subtle spice, is not too sweet and a delightful ending to an indulgent dining experience.
Camellia Grill located at 540 Chartres serves breakfast in a clean bright diner with only counter service. Unlike the Clover Grill, along with the regular breakfast choices, they offer light fluffy egg white omelets.
An elegant lunch at Galatoire’s at 209 Bourbon Street started with the seafood gumbo, house green salad and a shrimp remoulade. All superbly done. The seafood gumbo was better than that of the Gumbo House with a distinct fish stock base, more heat and better quality seafood. The shrimp remoulade was nice and mustardy without being too mayonnaisey.
For mains we all chose fish dishes – bouillabaisse, nicely cooked fish, oysters and shrimp in a flavorful broth; speckled trout covered in a shrimp étouffée; and a pompano meunière amandine.
For dessert a silky custard better known as flan in other cities.
Well executed classic dishes in a bright formal dining room, loud and lively with well-dressed locals.
The crowd at Herbsaint Bar and Grill located at 701 Saint Charles in the Warehouse District is younger and hipper than at the old traditional standbys. The menu also includes more contemporary renditions of classic flavors. After two days of gumbo and other dark roux based soups we chose the mustard salad with city ham and buttermilk dressing and the grapefruit small plate – four slices of luscious LA grapefruit topped with dollops of goat cheese, toasted pistachio, red onion slivers, torn mint, a drizzle of EVOO and a dash of sea salt.
An unbelievable marriage of salty, sweet and sour combined with creamy, crunchy and juicy textures. Mains included a homey roasted chicken with turnip mashed potatoes and earthy roasted mushrooms and a decadent Muscovy duck leg confit – crispy melt in your mouth skin encasing moist succulent dark meat accompanied by citrus infused dirty rice that imparts just the right amount of acid to cut the richness of the duck. My favorite meal of the trip!
Magnolia Cafe located at 1122 Rue Decatur Street, while offering breakfast choices at marginally higher prices than either the Clover or Camellia Grill, remains on the simple breakfast side of the breakfast / brunch divide. Basic eggs and pancakes rather than fancy brunch dishes. The sizable elongated galley interior is decorated in a retro diner’s theme and furnished with a long counter on one side and well-spaced tables on the other. The food is well prepared and tasty from a heavy use of grease and salt.
Central Grocery located at 923 Decatur Street is a bit of a stretch to be included as a restaurant but not in terms of the quality of the food. For the trip home we picked up one of their famous muffuletta sandwiches, a dinner plate sized round of Italian soft white bread filled with a generous portion of sliced deli meats and cheeses topped with their own special green olive relish. Greasy, salty and pungent it is a sandwich in a class by itself.