Here’s one city that has been on my “I’ll get there one day” list for quite some time. The Big Easy, down in Louisiana. A town that’s had its hardships, still has its fair share of scars, but it can only look forward.
From a colour-filled road trip around New England to a steamy five days in New Orleans. Let the travelling continue.
The first thing that struck me about this town – aside from that blanket of humidity – was the architecture. I may like my food but I’ve also got a soft spot for architecture; so excuse me as I go a little mad on the building pics.
As any newcomer inevitably visits Kings Cross in my hometown of Sydney, just about anyone that visits New Orleans is bound to make it to Bourbon Street. The first part I saw was the quiet residential area at the top of the French Quarter. Colourful Creole houses, intricate balconies, leafy gardens and hanging flower baskets. It’s all quite beautiful.
And then there’s the part of Bourbon Street that’s not so much about serenity. Coloured neons, jazz and cabaret bars, the sour smell of booze wafting out of bars, spruikers vying for your cash and barely legal girls tempting you with their flesh. It can be fun, it can be seedy and it sure is an acquired taste.
Something that was a little more our scene was stumbled upon around the corner from the fun and debauchery. Twilight drinks on the sidewalk at Orleans Grapevine Wine Bar & Bistro. Beautiful spot in an equally beautiful building with drinks that don’t come served in a foot-long acrylic bottle with neon straw.
We could have easily settled in for dinner at the bistro but somehow we ended up at this place – SoBou at the W New Orleans. It was actually the walls of illuminated clear and frosted glass bottles that caught our attention from the street. Ok, I’ll be honest. There was something on the displayed menu that I needed to try.
A modern touch has been given to a share-focussed “Southern” menu and thanks to chef Juan Carlos Gonzalez’s heritage, there’s a bit of a Latin bent as well.
Smoky pork in a jar (5) is very much like rillette; it’s interactive finger food that goes hand in hand with drinking wine and cocktails. A little brûléed peach and citrus jam cuts through the pork and roasted garlic chilli crackers are there for the spreading. And you can’t ignore the good old pork cracklin’s, an absolute steal at $1.50.
Going to SoBou and not trying one of its signatures could be considered criminal, especially when it’s the foie gras burger (24). How could I not? A juicy meat patty, Hudson Valley foie gras, oozing fried egg, duck bacon and foie gras mayo in a palm-sized brioche bun. What can I say other than … wowsers.
It doesn’t end there. More cracklin’s on the side replace the usual fries and a root beer float seals the deal. And that isn’t ordinary ice cream in the float. It’s foie gras ice cream.
The crispy chicken on the bone (12) sounded great but, when delivered, we wondered if the crispy was left behind in the kitchen somewhere. The trio of chicken drumsticks was tasty enough, even glazed-up with a little guava jelly and Crystal hot sauce, but nothing all that remarkable.
Another one of the chefs specialties are the shrimp & tasso pinchos (10). The shrimp has been speared onto a skewer along with tasso ham, doused in flour and deep-fried until just cooked. A grilled round of pineapple acts as a stand and some pepper jelly adds a little savoury sweetness.
Another great-value dish is the smoky baby back ribs (10) served with Caribbean sauerkraut. There’s quite a lot of meat on the three ribs and its accompanying cotton candy sits flamboyantly on the side. It looks innocent enough but it quickly reminds you that it’s not just spun sugar. An unmistakably spicy ghost pepper fills your mouth and hits the sinus like a smack to the face. Talk about a shock to the senses.
The grilled flat iron steak (21) is perfectly cooked and drizzled with vibrant coriander sauce. Some brûléed onion and blackened Creole tomato almost seem superfluous, but if meat and vegetables are the requirement, this will do.
I wasn’t entirely convinced of the grilled alligator sausages (7) as they tasted very much like pork. Perhaps there was an unbalanced ratio of pork and gator? Still, they were juicy and tasty and nicely paired with pickled okra.
A handful of dessert options are up for grabs and the first one we tried was the spicy peach mojito sorbet (7). Served in a fresh coconut shell, there’s a cherry coulis and a couple of crispy plantains, candied ginger and sadly not a hint of spiciness. We also try the triple chocolate truffles (9), consisting of Swiss dark, milk and white chocolate, candied pecans and a sea salt caramel. A shot of chicory coffee shake finishes things off.
Waking up bright and early and walking through the French Quarter reveals a place very different from its nocturnal personality. The streets are blissfully devoid of people, the dawn sun illuminates the colourful buildings and the previous nights trash has been washed away. As the boozers slept off their cheap alcohol indulgence we hit the streets in search of breakfast and coffee.
Louisiana soul food abounds at this relic that opened its doors a mere 123 years ago. Crawfish pie, jambalaya and a whole roster of po-boys tempt the lunch and dinner crowd; with breakfast offering the likes of eggs Creole, lost bread and blitzes.
I’m always up for trying something a little different so the cala cakes (8.75) made my first pick. And you’ve got to love something with its own history. See my recipe here and read a little bit more about them.
So what is a cala cake? It’s basically a sweetened rice fritter; a dense arancini-like concoction with a crisp exterior and good dusting of powdered sugar. Here at the Old Coffeepot they’re accompanied by creamy grits and maple syrup. They’re a little dry and require some chewing, but it’s a solid breakfast that I really enjoyed.
We also had the Creole pancakes (8.75); a trio of rather ordinary pancakes topped with cream and a strawberry compote that was good enough to eat on its own.
Most of our coffee needs were taken care of at Spitfire, also located in the French Quarter. Relatively early opening times, a tiny storefront that’s easy to miss and friendly staff that know their way around the variety of beans that rotate around it. With window seating for no more than two people, most of the clientele have no choice but to take coffee away with them. Not for us. Sitting inside in the cool and people watching from the window was the perfect way to take a load off, relax and knock back a couple of coffees.
Jackson Square has a fair share of restaurants on its peripheries and Muriel’s is one legendary place that locals and visitors drop into for a fill on contemporary Creole grub. For a leisurely lunch we stopped in to give the “Classic New Orleans lunch” a burl.
$16.95 for a main course with a choice of soup or salad. A bit of a bargain, really.
It was soup for both of us – a seafood gumbo and Fontana’s West End turtle soup. I’ve always been intrigued by turtle soup and this one didn’t disappoint. It’s a little rich, has tiny flecks of turtle meat with a distinct bay and Worcestershire flavour.
Grilled pork chop was next, rafting over Louisiana popcorn rice and the most beautiful beans and lardons. It was nice to eat beans that weren’t loaded with sugar, as we found them to be throughout New England.
Mine was the stuffed mirliton – a vegetable that I rarely see on menus. Some may know them as choko’s or chayote; that watery and flavourless pear-shaped vegetable that doesn’t get much attention in Australia anymore. These were stuffed with shrimp and Andouille sausage, baked and served over a roast Creole tomato sauce. Great flavours with a touch of sourness.
The colours of Frenchmen Street and residential homes in the Faubourg Marigny district. Well-worth exploring if you’re an architecture-fiend like me.
Back in the French Quarter is was more Louisiana food for us. The Royal House Oyster Bar seems to be another hot-spot and one that specialises in seafood – New Orleans-style – where we sidled up to the marble counter for some oyster shucking action. Not that we were doing the shucking.
An oyster duo (12) kept me happy with grilled Royal and Rockefeller-style bivalves. So delicious.
Blackened shrimp & jambalaya (16) – that classic New Orleans rice dish looked tasty but sadly it was luke-warm in temperature as well as flavour. I was more than happy with the crayfish étouffée (17); a beautiful brown gravy loaded with Cajun seasonings, made even better with a dribble of Crystal hot sauce.
The oyster shucker talked us into trying the homemade bread pudding (6), studded with peaches and raisins and served over a Frangelico sauce.
It’s easy to waft around New Orleans and get caught up in what’s going on, so seeing we were in town for almost a week we thought we’d hire a car and head out of town for a little exploration. Not before fuelling up on a good solid breakfast at Stanley on Jackson Square. People seriously do sleep in in this town as we found we were the first people to walk into a cafe or restaurant almost every morning.
We passed on the coffee (Spitfire took care of that) but got stuck right in and filled up on a couple of big breakfasts. The Stanley classic (12.25) was all about the scrambled eggs, bacon, Creole hash and toast. I went for the eggs Stanley (14) – a Benedict-esque plate loaded with cornmeal crusted oysters. My arteries weren’t happy that morning, but my palate sure was.
We weren’t exactly sure where we were heading, even when I was sitting in the drivers seat about to exit the car rental depot. Lucky we had the iPad map as it was a quick “point to somewhere on the map” and we were on our way. A mutual decision was made to head out into bayou country and the first stop was the small city of Houma. The downtown area is compact and can be walked very easily, but nothing seemed to be open so we hit the road and continued our way south to an area called Shrimpers Row along one of the hundreds of waterways in the area.
Due to the low-lying delta landscape, a lot of the houses in this part of the gulf are built on stilts. Modern-looking houses, weathered shacks and many that are shaped like over-sized shipping containers. The scars of hurricane Katrina, and possibly other damaging storms, were still evident in some areas with abandoned and dilapidated homes left to crumble. Swamps and marshes make up most of the landscape with criss-crossing canals that provide boat access to towns and villages in the area.
Eating options in the area can be a little sparse so when I spotted this joint as we were driving, I did a u-turn and we did some investigating. Boo’s Bayou Magasin is a waterfront grocery store and restaurant in the small fishing community of Chauvin. It’s far from the fancy well-touristed hotspots of New Orleans – with its humble corrugated iron interior, bench seating that overlooks the bayou and a small Cajun-Creole menu.
With the sun shining and the temperature not-so-humid it was a given that we sit out on the back patio on the waters edge and take in the surroundings. Kiddies can even purchase pellets to feed the fish in the bayou, but I was quietly hoping to see a gator in there. No such luck.
The food portioning is generous as expected and the chicken gumbo (6.99) surely didn’t disappoint in its volume. The slightly runny stew comes loaded with rice, meaty bits and okra as well as sides of potato salad and buttered triangles of white bread.
I struggled to get through the mountain of food on the seafood platter (16.99); a celebration of all things deep-fried. Some very tasty spiced shrimp, rather dry fish fillets, fried oysters and crab cakes that had some spice but were let down with an off-putting pasty consistency. Too much flour, methinks. Sliced white bread comes with.
As many tourists do when they hit the French Quarter, they gravitate to the French Market. Loads of vendors peddling handicrafts, jewellery, t-shirts, sunglasses, souvenirs, you name it. Food-wise, there’s a line-up of bars and eateries along one side with places to stock up on spice mixes, sauces and dry goods.
Much has been said about Café Du Monde at the market – that New Orleans institution that supposedly serves up the city’s best beignets. The café was already buzzing at 8 am so we grabbed a table beneath whirling fans and placed a single order of beignets (2.42). Within two minutes the three little fritters arrived, dusted in sugar with the signs of previously being dusted (possibly) hours ago. The light and airy texture we were expecting was more akin to being firm and not-so-fresh. Kind of like biting into a donut that had been sitting around for half a day.
Loved the fresh orange juice.
Our slight fascination with burial grounds took us to the necropolis at the top of Canal Street. Everyone likes to stop and read tombstones, don’t they? Unfortunately the Greenwood Cemetery wasn’t open so before heading back we dropped into Sacred Grinds, a nifty little coffee shop that kick-started our morning and breathed a little life into into an otherwise gloomy area.
Seating inside the café doesn’t exist but there are a couple of tables at the front as well as a back porch; both with views over the cemeteries. Where else can you sit in an oversized zombie hand? As for the cortado we sampled, it’s pretty good. Robust, lively and with more kick than those resting souls just metres away.
As if the necropolis wasn’t enough, we spent a bit of time wandering around the oldest burial ground in New Orleans – St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 – founded in 1789. As with most cemeteries in New Orleans, most graves are above ground vaults and tombs. It’s said that when the river flooded, back in the day, buried bodies would float to the surface; hence the above ground burial tombs. Historians think otherwise.
By tradition, you can add another deceased family member to the same space one year and one day after the previous one. The Catholic church didn’t allow cremation, which was part of the reason for above ground vaults. The heat generated within these is enough to rot the casket and speed up the decomposition of the body. When it was time to add another body, the previous remains were swept to the side to make way for the new addition. Talk about economical!
The notorious voodoo priestess Marie Laveau was also buried here in the late 1880’s, along with her daughter in years to follow. Today the tomb, along with several others, look more like shrines thanks to visitors leaving gifts and tokens at the front of the tombs.
A bit of an appetite was generated walking in the heat to Elizabeth’s Restaurant in the Bywater, in the far east of the city where most tourists rarely get. The colourful old building in which Elizabeth’s resides can’t be missed; located across the road from the Mississippi River levee.
Waiting for a table took no more than ten minutes, which was plenty of time to decide on lunch from the very classic Southern and New Orleans menu. And you’ve got to love sitting at a table covered in flower-patterned vinyl.
It’s hand-cut chips all the way at this joint; a pile of which came with the panéed pork sandwich (9). Panéed seems to be a New Orleans term for crumbed and fried and others may even go as far as calling it a pork schnitzel. Juicy and soft with sautéed onion and whole cloves of garlic.
I was a tad ecstatic over the bleu cheese oysters (10) – golden little nuggets with an exterior that virtually shattered due to its crisp cornmeal batter; giving way to a juicy and hot oyster at its core. As for that thick cheesy sauce at the bottom – perfection.
We couldn’t leave Elizabeth’s without trying the famous praline bacon (6). Four rashers fried up in brown sugar, rendering to a sugary crunch. Can’t say no to a bit of pork candy!
The Arts District – also known as the Warehouse District – is just south of the downtown area. The once industrial area is home to museums and galleries and the hand of gentrification has made it a desirable place for design firms to set up office, and urbanites to move into converted lofts.
A bevy of bars, cafés and restaurants are dotted about the neighbourhood; one of which got our attention. Root. It’s easy on the eye with its wooden fit-out with splashes of green, amber and exposed brick. A modern-yet-rustic set-up that’s made even better thanks to not cramming tables uncomfortably close to one another.
And then there’s the menu that’s divided into Socials, Begginings, Principals and Endings. A variety of styles – it’s brave, modern and creative and a far cry from the po-boys, fried chicken and gumbo that Nola is famous for. Chef Phillip Lopez sure knows how to play with food.
I’m used to an amuse bouche preceding a degustation, but our meals started with a nice little surprise of lady slipper pea salad. Dainty in appearance and deliciously fresh on the palate with Thai tea caramel, gugutzu mustard, charred cucumber and a wheat berry granola.
For starters its an heirloom tomato salad (13) artfully arranged with compressed melons, pecorino and lemon fish “country ham”. A light dressing with salsa verde and muscatel vinaigrette bring some lovely tang.
The crispy 48 hour chicken gizzards (13) possibly references to the fried goodies you find all over New Orleans. Crisp, soft and oh-so-tasty, this was one fine way of celebrating offal. Overall the flavours are spicy and slightly sweet; a cornucopia of Indian chickpea and mint salad, black garlic, XO sauce, sofrito marmalade and sumac harissa vinaigrette. A great deal going on, but it works.
The black lacquered duck (29) sure lives up to the name with its presentation of ebony-coloured leg and wing cuts. Peeling back the skin reveals tender flesh that matches nicely with the wild mushrooms, beans and pickled onions.
My dish is delivered in a closed Cuban cigar box, opened when set in front of me, allowing a puff of smoke to escape and set the senses for some tasty eating. Cohiba smoked scallops (32) – impossibly buttery, seared perfectly with caramelised cauliflower, black garlic fennel choucroute and pimentón patatas bravas that was rather overcooked. Some chorizo dust brought another Spanish element to this delicious box of goodies.
As much creativity is given to the dessert offerings as the rest of the menu. The African amarula carrot cake (10) towers over carrot coriander ice cream and carrot crunchies, and is topped with charred carrot marshmallow, carrot bark and layered with celeriac crema. Incredibly moist with some added smokiness thanks to a sprinkling of black sesame praline.
A blueberry orange blossom clafoutis (10) is a treat to look at and even more of a treat to devour. Earl Grey tea sable, sour cream ice cream, blueberry vacherin, lemongrass curd, purple croquet and a violet blueberry foam. A feast of textures and flavours.
With another day trip planned, we thought we’d drop into Somethin’ Else Café for an early morning fill before heading off into swamp territory. The better half was feeling a little over the Southern-style breakfast and opted for toast and jam. I needed something a little more substantial and chose the breakfast biscuit (7). An egg cooked to your liking – I chose fried – with cheddar cheese & honey ham on an oversized biscuit.
What came out was a biscuit like no other that we’d seen previously. Was this how they usually make them or did something go a little pear-shaped in the kitchen?
The texture of the biscuit gave me the impression it was stale; like biting into a dry and crumbly cookie. Scrambled egg and crispy bacon instead of fried egg and ham and hard cheese fused to the bottom half of the biscuit.
Our little jaunt out of town involved a boat, sprawling swampland and a good dose of adrenaline. Any guesses what we got up to? Yup, that’s right. We took one of the swamp tours that run out of New Orleans. A hotel pick-up, half hour drive out to Hahnville and, unlucky for us, it just happened to start bucketing down with rain.
What, we have to go out in this storm?
Raincoats and earmuffs on and we were speeding down Hymel Canal into the depths of the swampland around Lac des Allemands, drops of rain needling our faces at high speed. The rain suddenly stopped so it was off with the hoodies as we explored the canals and swamps for two hours. Beautiful jungle-like scenery and many alligators and water snakes to be seen. And sometimes a little too close for comfort.
Our final afternoon in Nola was spent on a little walking tour of the Garden District; guided by the better half and the internet. The area was developed in the mid 1800s on what was then the edge of the city. A leafy refuge for those that had money to splash around. Something that still applies today, evidently. Actors Nicholas Cage, Sandra Bullock and John Goodman even have multi-million dollar homes there.
Dinner on that final evening in New Orleans was also in the Garden District, at a fab little place called Coquette. Hip young things up at the bar sipping on cocktails and nibbling on fried gulf shrimp, charcuterie and smoked catfish dip. The menu is decidedly Southern, respectfully handled and delivered with a modern touch. And I’m a big fan of the stoneware the meals are served on.
It’s some rather large gulf shrimp (12) for me, served with pickled watermelon and pepper jelly. The butternut squash cavatelli (13) outdoes the prawns in terms of portioning – a delicious pile of golden gnocchi-like dumplings interspersed with mushrooms, chunks of fried chicken, purslane and maple.
Main courses brought the likes of seared red snapper (30) sitting over wild mushrooms and arugula, with an intensely smoky eggplant paste. Gorgeous flavours all round. And then there was the beautifully blushed duck breast (28) with zucchini and lobster mushrooms and smear of liver pâté.
No need for dessert. We were comfortably full and happy to end our Nola visitation on a culinary high.
Thanks, New Orleans, you fed us well.