Here’s the thing about New Orleans…when you get off the plane you can’t wait to stuff your face with as much gumbo, fried alligator, po’ boys and muffuletta sandwiches your stomach can hold. Five days later when you get back on the plane you promise never to eat another fried oyster, you swear off beignets for life, and the smell of the Zapp’s potato chips wafting from the seat in front of you makes you nauseous. Well at least that is what happened to me.
Don’t get me wrong, I think New Orleans is one of the greatest cities in America and one of the last holdouts for true regional cuisine in the United States. And I fully intend to go back and make myself ill all over again, but know before you go that when you are in New Orleans you eat New Orleans and nothing else. Below is a brief account of every smear of bone marrow and every glass of bourbon that entered my system on my trip to the Big Easy. Now I’m hoping you will all tell me what I missed on this trip so that I can start planning (and exercising) for the next one…
I went to New Orleans for Thanksgiving with friends. So it would be a lie if I said that everything I ate consisted of alligator or oysters or had Slap Ya Mama seasoning on it. I did the whole turkey, green beans and pumpkin pie rigamarole on Thanksgiving Day, but not before I experienced a distinctly New Orleans Thanksgiving Tradition – the track. For you and me Thanksgiving might mean cozying up with the family around an 18 lb bird, but in New Orleans Thanksgiving means the opening day at the Derby. So my turkey day began with a Bloody Mary, a derby hat and a few horse races. Only after I was sufficiently sauced did we head home to put the bird in the oven.
The Friday after Thanksgiving we met for drinks at Bellocq in the Warehouse District for a cocktail. The extensive menu highlights cobblers (wine cocktails with citrus and fresh fruit served over crushed ice), punches, juleps and smashers. I went for a classic gin martini and was dumbfounded when the bartender charged me a mere $7.50.
We moved on to dinner at Root. The menu is what you might call “contemporary cajun” and the decor a little too new and “oontz oontz” for my taste, but it had been highly recommended by reputable sources so there we were. We ordered the “Grand Charcuterie and Sausage Board,” and shortly thereafter a $55 mountain of meat arrived. Next we ordered a few seafood plates, some salads and because we just hadn’t had enough animal fat we ordered the bone marrow.
In LA when you order bone marrow one bone arrives and everyone at the table judiciously divyys up the unctuous prize inside the bone, careful not to take too much. In New Orleans when you order bone marrow, four bones arrive stacked like Lincoln Logs. Accompaniments include “face bacon jam” and toasted brioche. Yeah, I ate that. Bone Marrow and face bacon jam on buttery brioche. I gain a few pounds just thinking about it.
After dinner we went to what is possibly the most amazing bar I’ve ever been to. The French 75 Bar at Arnaud’s Restaurant looks like a scene from Midnight in Paris. Chris Hannah who helms the bar is the most celebrated bartender in New Orleans and a legend in cocktail circles nationwide. The man makes a mean cocktail. But the kicker is the Germaine Cazenave Wells Mardi Gras Museum which lurks upstairs from the restaurant and bar. The tiny wrap around museum consists of no more than a dozen mannequins dressed in the Mardi Gras ball gowns that Wells wore between the years of 1937 and 1968. She purportedly reigned as queen over 22 Mardi Gras balls. The display is as beautiful as it is creepy and just like the bar downstairs it whisks you away to another time.
Saturday morning breakfast consisted of a muffuletta sandwich from Central Grocery and New Orleans’ signature beignets and cafe au lait from Cafe Du Monde. A typical muffuletta sandwich is larger than a frisbee but smaller than a man-hole. The bread is a round disc of fluffy sesame covered white bread sliced in half. Inside are orderly layers of salami, ham, provolone and Central Grocery’s signature olive salad. One can feed four. And my friends – God bless ’em – bought two.
With no plans we quickly found ourselves aimlessly bar hopping through the French Quarter. Drinking on the streets is not only legal in New Orleans, it’s encouraged. Every bar has a stack of plastic “go cups” by the door. New Orleans is the land of the Drive-Thru-Daiquiri. And it’s legal to drink your daiquri while driving…but illegal to have a straw in it. Go figure.
We ended up at Bar Tonique – a charming bar on the outskirts of the Quarter that looks like it could be in Echo Park or Red Hook. The local characters inside also look like they could be from LA or Brooklyn and my guess is that they probably are (or were). Everything we had was delicious from the housemade celery soda to a Sazerac. And as the sun began to set we headed out in search of 50 cent oysters at Luke.
At this point I felt the stamina of both my stomach and my liver begin to wane. But we had reservations at Cochon so there was no backing down. A wood fired oyster roast, fried alligator with chili aioli and oven roasted gulf fish awaited me.
On Day 4 we drove to the swamp, better known as Jean Lafitte National Park and Preserve. On the way we got lost and stopped at a Piggly Wiggly to get our bearings. The produce section at Piggly Wiggly was wilted and disappointing. However, I was impressed with the display of black and yellow SOLO cups in honor of the Saints. Post swamping we drove to the West Bank for Vietnamese food at a hole in the wall called Tan Dinh. I am told that New Orleans has the most concentrated community of Vietnamese-Americans in the country. In his new cookbook Vietnamese Cooking at Home, Chef Charles Phan of the Slanted Door in San Francisco recommends buying shrimp exclusively from the gulf around New Orleans, much of which is caught and sold by Vietnamese-American shrimpers.
Dinner on Sunday was the highlight for me. Maurepas Foods in the Bywater is a fantastic restaurant. It’s loud and unpretentious with a long well-stocked bar and boisterous crowd. Their lead bartender is a self-described “Chief Intoxicologist.” Not surprisingly he makes great drinks. We ate shrimp hotpot, goat tacos, a pimenton sausage sandwich and a side of collards with generous hunks of ham.
We ended the night with a trip to Frenchman Street, caught a few bands and then face planted in bed.
I think it’s safe to say that I wanted to die come Monday morning. My stomach had reached full capacity. A friend from Los Angeles had told me about a place in the Garden District called Superfoods Bar. My husband and I took a cab there in the rain and binged on avocado and kale smoothies, fresh coconut water with Sencha green tea over ice, and two giant bowls of miso soup. We purchased housemade “green-ola” and raw cacao bars for the flight. It may not have been the best meal I ate in New Orleans, but it was definitely the most enjoyable. Now I’m back in the land of kale smoothies and I can’t stop thinking about my next trip to the Big Easy.