Thursday, June 21, 2012

New Orleans

NoLa. Nawlins. New Orleans. Don't matter how it's pronounced, it is an incredible city with a thriving live music scene and some unbelievably good eats. We did a little of everything on this 1 year anniversary trip -  (can you believe it's been a year already?!?). Hurricanes at the oldest bar in the country. A cemetery tour in 88° weather. Three-for-one beers on Bourbon Street. Boiled crawfish. Fried gator. Gumbo. Po-Boys galore. Someone even tried on a tuba. 

For all the craziness that New Orleans offers, there is an air of sophistication and pride in this most unique of cities. Part European and part Caribbean in it's architecture, language, food - it is a wholly American creation. Start off at the Sazerac bar for an old fashioned that Don Draper would swoon for. Drink all night (literally, the bars don't close) and walk on any street with an open container. Stroll among 300 year old Spanish inspired houses and meander into hidden courtyards. Belly up to a counter for a messy Po-Boy sandwich at lunch, then experience the height of fine dining at restaurants rivaling anything to be found north of the Mason-Dixon. 

The long weekend was like an escape to a different country. Live music is spilling out of nearly every restaurant, bar and club. There is nothing even remotely resembling this in Philly. The language is English, but you'll hear French, Spanish and a lot of things in between. We stayed with friends at a timeshare for the first few days, then made our way over to the Renaissance for our last night after they flew home. Below are some of the highlights - there is way too much to fit into just one post. When you go, make a couple reservations for dinner if you can but give yourself time to just wander, try something that smells good, and make friends. Enjoy! 

Dinner at NOLA: 
Our first proper meal in New Orleans, Emeril Lagasse's NOLA restaurant on St. Louis street in the French Quarter. I have a fond place in my heart for Emeril. I first got a passion for food watching The Essence of Emeril after school in my teens. Up until that point, cooking shows were only on PBS. Here was Emeril shouting at you through the TV and getting excited about garlic and rue and spicy sausage. Who was this crazy man? 

He may be plastered all over TV and slinging everything from bar-b-q sauce to kitchen knives, but his restaurants and food are still top of the order. White table cloths, sommelier service, multiple food runners - this is very fine dining. The food coming out of the kitchen is stellar. 

Chicken and sausage gumbo. Is there a more quintessential New Orleans dish? A robustly deep flavored rue based broth. Hunks of spicy sausage. Chicken that tasted like it was roasted for hours till falling off the bone. Oh man. This will make you week in the knees. 

Impossibly good and adorably tiny crab cakes with spicy corn relish (underneath) and crystal-butter sauce (on top). Crystal being the local hot sauce that is good on literally everything. You could put it on ice cream and it would be great. 

A beautifully presented tomato and crab salad.  Drizzled with a basil pesto and tomatoes so ripe you'd swear they were from a roadside stand in south Jersey. 

shrimp and grits

Another 'must have' while in this city. Shrimp and grits is a southern mainstay. Local caught gulf shrimp, grilled green onions, perched atop grits made with smoked cheddar. Just for good measure, add some apple smoked bacon, criminis and red chili-Abita butter sauce. Is that the greatest word in the English language - "butter sauce"?  My god. This is one of the best things I've eaten. Anywhere. Incredible meal, and this was just our first night. 

Gator nuggets:
Can't go to New Orleans without getting me some gator. I didn't have to wrestle this one. Conveniently you can get it for breakfast here. Fried up and served with a spicy aoili type sauce for dipping. A dish of these and strong coffee will help right the ship. 

Creole Tomato Festival:
On recommendations from a brother-in-law of a friend that happens to live here, we spent Sunday morning dodging rain showers and strolling through the Creole Tomato fest, set up in the French market area. Bloody Mary stand at the entrance to the festival? Thank you very much. I needed that. Stuffed tomatoes with garlic, olive oil and cheese. Check. Fried green tomatoes with spicy 'creole' sauce. Check. Tomato basil and mozzarella crepe. Check. Eight year old kids attempting to eat 4 whole tomatoes in 5 mins. Hilarious, and check. 

fried green tomatoes - yumm

tomato eating contest - the red head in the middle didn't get through one but was crowd favorite

tomato basil mozzarella crepe - best of the bunch

Dinner at Acme Oyster House:
This is what I came here for. Boo fries. Grilled oysters. Boiled crawfish. Oh my. Acme Oyster House doesn't take reservations. So if you show up at 9:30 on Saturday be prepared to wait. Got a party of 6? You're going to wait longer while they fill in the 2-tops. On the plus side, you're never far from beers in this town, so at least you can tie one on while you're in line. 

Crawpuppies. Incredible little morsels of cornmeal and crawfish, battered and deep fried to heart clogging perfection. 

fried fish po-boy
A killer fried fish po-boy. The server told us it was swai, which is in the catfish family. Whatever it was, it was tender, flaky, and not the least bit dry. Dressed up with lettuce & tomato and tobasco mayo on the side. Best po-boy I've ever had. Period. 

boo fries
The Boo Fries! How can you not order these with a name like that? Added bonus - they are covered with roast beef gravy and shredded cheese. Poutine with a southern accent. What the hell do the Quebecois know? 

boiled crawfish - heaven in a mesh bag
The star of the show, for me at least. This is literally what I came to New Orleans for - the crawfish. You have to know to ask for it; on the menu it just says 'boiled seafood'. There is remarkably little meat to be had from these things, and it is a hell of a lot of work getting it out. What's hidden inside though is worth a 3 hour flight. Infused throughout with spicy cajun seasoning, it is like a marriage between crab and lobster, but better. You break the tail off, work out the tail meat, then suck out the juices from the head. It's kind of gross, I'll admit. But by the end of dinner everyone at the table was trying them and loving it. I will remember these for years. 

char grilled oysters
The star of the show, for everyone else. Grilled oysters sounds kind of bizarre, and they are. I usually stick to a strict no cooking policy for oysters. Just give me some tobasco and I'm a happy boy. These were simply incredible. I've never had anything quite like them. Served on the half, grill marks on the shell, they are floating in a mix of butter and italian dressing that is like the poor man's truffle oil. The oysters cook up quick and are not the least bit chewy. They are soft and luscious. They even serve bread to soak up the extra juice in the shells. You could probably just do shots of it, it's that good. 

Beignets at Cafe Du Monde: 
No, that's not a pile of Tony Montana's cocaine on top of fried dough. That's powdered sugar. And those are beignets. There is only one place to get them, and that is at Cafe Du Monde. The lines are stupid long during the morning. Every fanny packed tourist will be there waiting patiently like fiends at the low rises in Bal'more. The wait gets shorter in the afternoon. If you're like us, you can go at 3am in the morning to soak up the whiskey sloshing around in your abdomen. Luckily they never close, and these are almost better than a cheese steak at that ungodly hour. Almost. Good tip - order a hot chocolate and use it for dipping, a-la breakfast in Spain. The wifey came up with this trick - another subtle reminder of how much I love her.  

Johnny's Po-Boys:
Johnny's was hyped as the best in New Orleans by our French Quarter tour guide, I thought they were pretty good.  The rest of our crowd thought otherwise. They also had the privilege of eating at Parkway Bakery the morning we got there, so they were a bit jaded. The wifey got the fried shrimp, but thought the fish version at Acme was better. I had to agree with her. Even with a great roll, I just couldn't taste the love in this. Next time we go to Parkway and compare. 

grilled sausage poboy

Johnny's poboys in the French Quarter

Dinner at Coquette: 
I'm only going to share a few pictures and dishes from Coquette here - it was so good that I've got a whole other post in the works for it. I had researched it on Trip Advisor and everyone gave it rave reviews - I wanted our 1st anniversary dinner to be something special. I'm patting myself on the back right now because this was one of the top 5 meals we've ever had. We discussed afterwards and started ranking our meals on the streetcar ride back to the hotel; I think there's a blog post to be had in that discussion.  

Any-who, Coquette is the absolute perfect romantic dinner spot in New Orleans. It's nestled on a quiet corner in the Garden District among the massive front porch wrapped houses that make up this gorgeous neighborhood. The menu is French, with a healthy southern accent, and lots of locally sourced ingredients. Service is impeccable. Wine list is smart and concise. Food was other-worldly good. It's like someone took the best bistro in Paris and dropped it in Louisiana. 

burrata crostini with crispy pig ear
They have a menu posted online, but it's only an example of what they offer. The chef changes it up nearly every day based on what's fresh and in season that day. My appetizer of fresh burrata cheese, roasted tomatoes, fresh greens and deep fried strips of crispy pig ear was insanely good. Is there no part of a pig that doesn't taste good? The burrata is like the best mozzarella you've ever had - not quite solid and not quite liquid, but somewhere congenially in between. The contrast with the uber crispy pork strips is magical. Salty and crunchy meets soft and sweet. 

black drum with spring veggies
A a very local fish, the black drum was tender, flaky and almost succulent. A light pan sear in some butter was all it needed. Dressed up with a beautiful display of veggies that tasted like they were literally picked for my plate. Ribbons of squash, roasted heirloom tomatoes, and colorful squash blossoms make the corners of your mouth perk up. It tastes like summer. This could best anything that Talula's Garden sends out of the kitchen. Superb. 

cheesecake ice cream sandwich over blueberry compote
I didn't know it was possibly to make cheesecake any better. Put it in ice cream sandwich form you say? Brilliant. The cheese cake ice cream on it's own would have been enough to make my eyes roll back in my head. But Coquette uses a graham cracker crust to make a little sandwich, and rest it on a bed of home made blueberry compote. One of the best desserts I've ever had. 

If you're still reading this post, I salute you. It's a lot to, ahem, digest. There was so much good food in just our short 3 day trip that it was tough squeezing it all in. New Orleans has so much to offer a foodie that you can almost get overwhelmed with the choices. Gumbo or etouffee? Po-Boy or muffalata? Crawfish or oysters? You can't really make a bad decision. We are very much looking forward to a return trip and venturing out a little further from the city center. I know there's a lot still to be experienced and tasted. 

-Food Baby

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