How can you experience as much as you can about a city over a weekend trip? This was our challenge as we embarked on our first journey to New Orleans, arguably by all accounts we’ve heard, is one of the best culinary cities in America. Aside from a quick layover, neither of us knew much about the city aside from the recent devastation revolving around Hurricane Katrina. Our visit actually coincided almost eight years to the day (landfall was August 29, 2005) and we would have been hard pressed to guess such devastation existed in the not so distant past. But we only had 48 hours to explore so naturally, being food lovers, we decided the best way to really experience the culture and flavor of New Orleans is by devouring it’s food.
Stepping out of the air conditioned airport, the heat and humidity immediately greeted our arrival in the Crescent City, named after the bend in the Mississippi river on which the city was built. But any trepidation about the weather was quickly dashed by the warm Southern hospitality of our driver, a born and raised local who couldn’t be excited enough about our arrival to his beloved city. And he wasn’t the only stranger we met that took time to evangelize about their city, spreading their love for New Orleans to us newbies. Listening to their advice and ours readers on Facebook, we knew we couldn’t possibly do everything or eat everything, but we sure tried!
We dropped our luggage at Windsor Court, a classy and beautiful hotel with a perfect location in the central business district, and immediately crossed the street to Restaurant August for our first dinner. August celebrity chef and frequent Top Chef judge John Besh’s flagship restaurant. On any trip together, we want to single out one fancy celebratory meal and while there are many options such as Commanders Palace or Stella, we chose August because quite frankly we’re fans of his appearances on television but also to his numerous accolades in both food and humanitarian areas. August combines beautifully executed French techiniques with the freshest local ingredients. It was also our belated 2 year wedding annivarsary and we couldn’t have chosen a better location to celebrate.
After dinner, we explored the city on foot walking 10 minutes to historic Cafe Du Monde, famous for its dark roasted coffee and chicory and it’s beignet’s, the irresistible fried fritters doused in a heap of powdered sugar. Sitting in the outside patio, we took in the lively night scene at Jackson Square people watching and listening to the Jazz street performers. Then we strolled a few blocks to Bourbon St. where we were hard pressed to think it wasn’t Mardis Gras based on the number of people and party atmosphere. However tucked in amongst the bars hawking hurricanes and test tube shots is an intimate jazz club, Fritzels, where for a 1 drink minimum we enjoyed endless hours traditional jazz to relax the night away.
When traveling, breakfast is something we really enjoy because normally it’s always something shortchanged with a quick cup of coffee or pastry on the run. We wanted what the locals ate, so after a 5 minute cab ride to the Bywater district, just down river from the French Quarter and away from the touristy spots, we arrived at Elizabeth’s, a fun and quirky, but delicious local breakfast spot with a southern flare. Their signature item, candied praline bacon, salty and sweet strips of bacon begs to be eaten by hand just so you can lick your fingers and is worth the trip alone.
Other noteworthy dishes include poached eggs with fried oysters, fried buodin balls, a sausage of rice and pork that can be eaten any time of day but delicious for breakfast. Elizabeth’s is totally worth going out of your way for.
Following this hefty breakfast, we got in our morning exercise by exploring the beautiful garden district on foot, marveling at the picturesque homes, and learning about the rich colonial history of New Orleans and it’s famous citizens (Sandra Bullock, Nicolas Cage, Brad Pitt, John Goodman to name a few.)
Following the garden district tour, our appetite was once again ready to be satisfied so we hopped on the St. Charles street car to the warehouse district and check out Peche, a new seafood grill on Magazine street. Housed in an old carriage stable, the restaurant retains some of those historic features with original wood beams, reclaimed wood bar from the swamps, and chairs from old whiskey barrels. But at the heart of Peche is its signature custom built 6 x 4 ft volcanic rock enclosed wood oven. It’s the pulse of kitchen where Chef Ryan Prewitt masterfully grills whole fish, crustaceans, bivalves, and pretty much almost all of the protein on menu.
Local oak and pecan wood is burned for hours to create blazing hot charcoal which is swept under the grill racks to provide hours of even heat. ”With this massive hearth, you have such a unique cooking surface, a whole range of opportunities” that’s unlike any seafood restaurant in New Orleans.
Whole Red Royal gulf shrimp, comes off the wood grill plump and juicy, bursting with natural sweetness. Their signature whole grilled redfish comes with perfectly charred and blistered skin and is dressed simply with a bright salsa verde. Cooking in it’s own bones, the fish is unbelievably moist and delicate. It was one of our favorite dishes of the weekend.
There are many places that offer local seafood, but not at the level of primal simplicity of a wood grilled oven like Peche, proudly elevating local seafood to its most simplest, and truly delicious form.
Saturday Afternoon Snack:
Our experience at Peche left us craving for more local seafood. Yes, even after devouring that 2 lb redfish. We walked just a few blocks away to the Riverwalk Market Place to Dragos for it’s famous charbroiled oysters. For twenty years Dragos has been grilling fresh shucked oysters and on a busy day the grills churn out over 10,000 oysters. We’ve had grilled oysters before, but Drago’s version is over the top good. The briny oyster liqueur, juicy oyster meat, and overflowing sauce of garlic and butter, browned parmesan and romano cheese is one combination that left us slurping up the sauce and knawing at the edges of the oyster shells. This is definitely one recipe we’ll try back in LA.
We then sauntered a few blocks over back to Magazine Street, home to some of the city’s more interesting art galleries, home decor, and antique shops. After discovering some unique watercolor still life of the local seafood for our kitchen wall decor, we were ready to feast once again. This time we wanted to try the most avant-garde New Orleans food scene has to offer and ROOT fit the bill perfectly: modern techniques, rooted in local flavors. Think cotton candy foie, gelee’s, emulsions, and sous vide techniques. But perhaps even more impressive are the numerous in house charcuteries, sausages and pickles. Our charcuterie plate of duck prosciutto, headcheese, beef tendon, guanciale, and truffled liver parfait along with the acoutrements were some of the best we’ve had. The pickled gulf shrimp and deviled eggs are also unique take on a southern classic. The cocktails here are also fantastic.
After dinner, we wanted go where the locals went for entertainment, so we eschewed Bourbon St. and headed to Frenchmen St. in the Faubourg Marigny district known for its numerous live music venues and frequently featured on HBO’s Treme. There we discovered the Frenchmen St. Art Market, a night market of local and regional artists selling some really unique art. After a stroll through the market, we were itching for some more jazz. Depending on your mood, there seemed to be a venue playing any type of genre you can think of. We ducked into the Spotted Cat Music Club, a cozy joint with just hand ful few chairs and cocktail tables. But perhaps that is the point, as we joined a packed house listening to Ecirb Müller Jassum Band and danced the night away.
We had a late reservation for Sunday brunch so decided to take short cooking demo at the New Orleans School of Cooking to learn about all the food we’ve been eating. Our instructor Harriet was a delight, explaining differences between cajun/creole (mainly lie in location, cajun is of the country and creole of the city) and showing us how their type of cooking can be so easy and approachable. We learned about roux, the intimidating oil and flour mixture so vital to gumbo and saw how easy it can be done. It was like learning by the side of a creole grandmother cooking dishes for her own family. But it wasn’t just gumbo and jambalaya, we also learned how to make pralines and bread pudding and sampled every delicious dish hot from the pot. We’re definitely going to try some of these recipes and post them on the blog soon!
Sunday brunch is one of New Orleans most important meals of the week and there are some amazing options such as Galatoires and Commanders Palace, but we opted for a new Dickie Brennan restaurant, Tableau right at the corner overlooking Jackson Square and just a block from our cooking demo and down the street from the French Market, our next destination. Tableau is a creole restaurant, but with some modern touches. The restaurant’s Spanish motif and charming courtyard is stunning and befitting of a former residence of the Spanish colonial governor, but more importantly, the food is simply spectacular. Chef Ben Thibodeaux, originally born in Lafayette, LA but classically trained in France, plays homage to traditional creole flavors but adds just enough modern unique techniques to elevate the familiar dishes. For example, the creole BBQ shrimp and grits (photo above) is spiked with beer and grits laced with creamy chevre cheese and is a must try. Oysters en brochette is skewered with rosemary and topped with toasty bread crumbs instead of deep fried.
The house made desserts are also fantastic. Our favorite is something new to us and quite unique called Tart a la Bouille, a rustic cajun sweet dough bake with vanilla custard with spiced rum caramel sauce. This dessert we’ve discovered is a lost cajun recipe that’s being brought to delicious life at Tableau. Check out this short video for just a tease of the amazing food and ambiance at Tableau.
Following brunch, we stopped by the French Market to buy some souvenirs. What began as a Native American trading post is now 6 blocks of shopping, dining, and entertainment. Food stalls intermix with unique handcrafted gifts, many unique to New Orleans (such as alligator paws and mardi gras masks) at reasonable prices. As one of the oldest markets in America, the French Market is a great way to spend a few hours and is a must visit.
While we wished we could have stayed another week in New Orleans, we had to say goodbye. However, our short culinary journey through New Orleans would not have been complete if we didn’t have some Po’boys, a traditional French baguette submarine sandwich not unlike Vietnamese banh mi, stuffed with meats or fried seafood. Just before heading to the airport, we walked just a few blocks from our hotel to Mothers for fantastic fried shrimp and fried soft shell crab Po’boys. It was amazing combination of crusty french baguette and delicious morsels fried shrimp and soft shell crab that simply made leaving New Orleans an even more painful experience.
We’ve been to many beautiful parts of the world and eaten in many delicious locations, but few would rival New Orleans. We did our best in 48 hours devouring the culture and flavor of New Orleans and left wanting more. From the freshest gulf seafood to home style gumbo, overstuffed po’boys, charbroiled oysters, and refined creole cuisine, you simply have an abundance of amazing dining options to make a culinary vacation rivaling any city in the world. What’s unique is that the food of New Orleans is so memorable. The culinary landscape has so many unique dishes created by its rich history and that’s something we’ll always remember. The entertainment value is also unbelievable as the price of admission to some of the best jazz is merely a single drink. Every local we met exuded so much infectious pride and love for New Orleans that I think we’re both stricken with and don’t think we’ll be cured until we devour New Orleans again. Soon.
This trip was sponsored by the New Orleans Tourism board as part of the #followyournola compaign. The dining choices and opinions however are our own.