Sunday, May 13, 2012

Dining in New Orleans

I knew I loved New Orleans long before I ever got there. Before I ever strolled the colorful streets of the French Quarter, before I ever caught a set of Mardi Gras beads, and before I ever tasted a muffuletta sandwich, I had fallen in love with just the idea of it. Intrigued by the culture, spirit, and especially the food that the city is known for, New Orleans had long been on the top of my mental checklist of places to go.

Mardi Gras float and beads at Mardi Gras World, a mardi gras museum within one
of the warehouses where they make mardi gras floats.

I recently visited The Big Easy for the first time, and already I can’t wait to go back. It is everything you’ve heard about; from the mayhem of Bourbon Street to the cool, charming, jazz-filled streets that lay just beyond it, there is truly no place like it.

Bourbon Street
A quiet side street in the French Quarter

With an unwavering party spirit that’s always in full effect, New Orleans is a world full of character, deeply steeped in history and tradition. Beneath every iron laced balcony of the French Quarter and every bead-draped lamppost and stoplight, there is a story to be told. Near the famous Jackson Square, music echoes, psychics read tarot cards and street performers perform. If you’re lucky, you may even catch one of the many spontaneous parades that break out in celebration of marriages or debutantes.

Beads on a Royal Street streetlight, a wedding parade, & Jackson Square.

Nothing speaks louder of New Orleans culture than its spicy, Cajun and Creole-influenced cuisine, heavy in fresh-from-the bayou seafood. I used to imagine what it would be like to eat authentic dishes like crawfish etoufee and gumbo right in the unique city where they were born. Then, one day I blinked my eyes, and there I was with a warm beignet in my hand and powdered sugar all over my shirt. It was certainly a culinary daydream fulfilled.

You will notice there are a few must-tastes that I did not taste (i.e. catfish po’ boy). In four days, I may not have been able to eat everything, but I damn well tried. Here is my food-filled adventure in pictures. As they say in NOLA, laissez le bon temps roulette or let the good times roll…

First stop, Port of Call. New Orleans has a great way of leaving an impression on everyone who visits. When I told people that I was going, the typical response from those who had already been was a gush of excitement and a list of places to visit. Port of Call was one of many recommended spots; it came with acclaim from my cousin as one of the best burgers she had ever tasted and a baked potato that she “still dreams about.”

When we arrived in New Orleans it was pouring out. We took a taxi right to Port of Call to get out of the rain, fill our bellies and cross the first “must visit” off of the list. After wiping the rain from my glasses, I found myself standing in what felt like a cool, old pirate ship with Christmas lights strung around the bar.

True, a burger and baked potato are not very New Orleans-y, but at Port of Call they are freakin’ good. The menu is small, offering not much more than their handmade burgers, steaks and drinks. And yes, the baked potatoes are awesome. The enormous spuds overflow with fluffy potatoes and a heaping dollop of sour cream, bacon and chives at your request. And I can’t forget the Monsoon, their signature drink fit for pirate—with lots of rum.

Desire Bistro & Oyster Bar
Inside of the Royal Sonesta Hotel, Desire Bistro & Oyster Bar’s prime Bourbon Street corner location is one of the most well-known and photographed places in NOLA. For my first night dining in The Big Easy, Desire was a great place to start. The casual restaurant is known for their raw bar and has a menu with just about every classic New Orleans dish you would want to taste, and they do it well. I ordered the shrimp remoulade and hush puppies for an appetizer and the jambalaya for my entrée.

Jambalaya, Hush Puppies, & Shrimp Remoulade at Desire

For dessert, we went to the historical Napoleon House. According to, the building that houses the small bar was first occupied by Nicholas Girod, the mayor of New Orleans from 1812-1815. The mayor “offered his residence to Napoleon in 1821 as a refuge during his exile. Napoleon never made it, but the name stuck.” Here, set to a soundtrack of classical tunes, you can enjoy what many artists and writers considered a getaway for much of the twentieth century. They offer a full menu, but if you go there for nothing more than a cup of coffee, the antique atmosphere is so worth the visit.

Court of the Two Sisters

Hidden behind many of the building in New Orleans, there are beautiful courtyards. The Court of theTwo Sisters has one of the most romantic of them all. Unfortunately, it was raining so I did not get to eat in the courtyard (another reason to go back), but the inside is also very elegant. We had the jazz brunch there, which is offered throughout the week. As you help yourself to the plentiful buffet of Louisiana standard breakfast and lunch fare, it’s pleasant to hear the upright base thumping and the clarinet wail. My plate was piled absurdly high with an irrational mix of food, so I’ll spare you that picture. Among the good eats were etoufee, turtle soup, and crawfish.

Crawfish, crayfish, crawdaddies, mud bugs, whatever you call them, there’s a whole lot of work involved to get to a tiny piece of meat, but it’s all part of the New Orleans experience...and it's good!

Bananas Foster & Bloody Mary at Brennan's

Brennan’s is a celebrated New Orleans institution. It is also the place where the first bloody Mary was ever made and bananas foster was invented. It’s a pretty formal restaurant with great service. I was excited to go there and taste the “originals” that it is known for, and am happy that I finally got the chance to. The bloody Mary is exceptional. The bananas foster is prepared as it always has been, tableside with an impressive flambé flare-up at the end.

Beignets at Café du Monde

If I could fly to New Orleans every night and get a beignet or two (or three) at Café du Monde, I would. Beignets are like big fluffy doughnuts or zeppoles, only better and with about an inch of powdered sugar on top. The famous coffee house sells no other food but beignets. They are open for 24 hours and business is always booming. The only thing better than having beignets at Café du Monde, is having beignets with a cup of their famous chicory-roasted coffee or “café au lait.”

Red Beans & Rice

Red beans and rice is an icon of Louisiana Creole food. The hearty rice dish is traditionally made on Mondays with the leftovers from Sunday dinner and often includes andouille sausage and tasso ham. It originated as the perfect “set it and forget it” one-pot recipe that could simmer all day on Monday washdays. Though it is largely made in Louisiana homes, many restaurants also offer it as a special.

August is one of star Louisina chef John Besh’s several restaurants and is considered one of the best formal dining restaurants in New Orleans. The cuisine is contemporary French with a New Orleans twist that utilizes local ingredients. It was too dark to take good pictures, so I’ll just tell you what I ate. The amuse bouche was a savory truffle zabaglione served inside of an egg shell and topped with caviar. For my first course, I got an awesomely smooth shrimp bisque. My entrée was the Sugar and Spice Duckling with grits, roasted foie gras and local strawberries. And for dessert, the Napoleon of Noutgatine with layers of crispy chocolate brittle, topped with salted toffee ice cream. I think my favorite part of the meal was the plate of sweets that came with the check including handmade pralines, chocolate and jelly candies. I enjoyed it all with a champagne cocktail. So fancy! I’m a lucky girl.

King cakes at the French Market

King Cake is most prevalent around Mardi Gras, but you can find it any time. The customary round braided brioche bread is covered in glaze and decorated in green, purple, and gold sugar sprinkles to represent faith (green), justice (purple) and power (gold). Inside of every King Cake is a plastic baby. The baby represents Jesus, and anyone who gets the baby in their slice of cake is supposed to have good luck and buy the King Cake the next year.

Last year, I made my own king cake for Mardi Gras. Click here for the post and recipe. If you read the post you can get an idea of all that NOLA daydreaming I was talking about before. I wasn’t kidding.

Pecan pralines are a classic New Orleans confection. A bit creamy and a bit crunchy, they taste just like little morsels of pecan pie to me. So good!

Bananas Foster French toast & my dad & I with snowballs at Stanley.

Stanley is located right in Jackson Square and is known for their breakfast. I got the bananas foster French toast and it was amazing. With all the classic elements of Bananas Foster including the rum sauce and a scoop of ice cream, how could it not be? Next door is a little walk-in shop that sells homemade gelato and snowballs. Crushed ice with flavored syrup, snowballs are like the NOLA version of snow cones. Nice and refreshing on a hot Louisiana day.

Muffuletta at Central Grocery

The muffuletta is a signature New Orleans sandwich named after the bread on which it is made. The massive Sicilian sandwich is constructed of various Italian meats, cheeses, and most importantly, marinated olive salad, all of which lay on an 10-inch loaf of soft, round, sesame muffuletta bread. It is so big, that you can order it in halves or quarters. Many eateries sell muffulettas, but I went right to the source for mine: Central Grocery, the old Italian deli where it originated. People come from far and wide to get a taste of this sandwich; you will meet them as you wait on the at least 30 minute muffuletta line. Trust me, you won’t regret it. Again, when I said I used to daydream of eating in New Orleans, this is the stuff that I was talking about.

Gumbo & crawfish with goat cheese crepes at Muriel's

Located in Jackson Square, Muriel’s is another excellent restaurant in the French Quarter with great old-fashioned charm. Something that often comes with old-fashioned charm is ghosts, and New Orleans apparently has a lot of them. If you go to Muriel’s and see a table set for what appears to be no one, it is actually for their resident ghost, Mr. Pierre Antoine Lepardi Jourdan, who is the primary spirit of several said to make their presence known quite often in the restaurant.


Rhapsodyàlacrème said...

No fair, you beat me there! New Orleans is on my must travel list! Looks like a lot of fun : )

Anonymous said...

Wow that trip sounds great!
Your father is a handsome guy!
Keep up the good work, I love your blog!

Victoria said...

You most definitely are a lucky girl, my friend! New Orleans has been on my culinary/travel to do list forever as well, and I have loved seeing it through your eyes. From the beignets to the comforting red beans and rice, looks like you had a truly memorable experience. Thanks for sharing!