Saturday, 24 March 2007

New Orleans...The Big Easy is not the easiest place to eat well

Last October, The noted food critic Alan Richman published a fairly scathing article in GQ about the quality of food in New Orleans post-Katrina. His point was, interestingly, not that the quality had failed to return after the hurricane, but that quality actually had long since disappeared pre-Katrina, and that New Orleans cuisine had become a mediocre, tourist-focused charicature of itself for years now. This understandably prompted a lot of outrage from New Orleaneans, who felt kicked when they were down.

The article happened to coincide with my first ever trip to New Orleans, so I read it with interest, and a bit of skepticism. Unfortunately, after two trips in short succession (one in early November and one in February) and more than a dozen meals in the Big Easy, I have to conclude that he was mostly right about the current quality of many of the places that had come highly recommended (I can't comment on what the food was like pre-Katrina, of course). There were several wonderful exceptions, however, so i'll start with those. You'll note that my first two choices happen to be Richman's recommendations. I would note that I ate at them on my second trip, after finding the other places so lackluster.

Liuzza's by the Track at 1518 North Lopez Street is the only meal I had in New Orleans that was I would call extraordinary. And by extraordinary, I mean one that was so good that I asked what time they closed that night so I could come back and have the same meal for dinner. That meal, by the way, was a bowl of their piquant gumbo and their famous barbequed shrimp po' boy. The latter is not barbequed in any traditional sense. It is small, shelless shrimp, seemingly braised in a sauce of extraordinary amounts of butter, black pepper and other spices, and then generously ladled (sauce and all) into a hollowed out roll. The roll, by the way, is unique in my experiences in New Orleans, in that it is good. The overwhelming majority of po' boys I've had are served on a light facsimile of a baguette with the internal consistency of a cotton ball and a thin skin of stale, papery crust. When I say that the Liuzza's po' boy was divine, I am understating the taste of this heavenly sandwich. The proportions are all perfect: the spices, the consistencies. This is a meal I would fly in just to eat.

August - at 301 Tchoupitoulos is a sophisticated restaurant that has blended traditional Lousiana cooking with modern restaurant technique and presentation. The menu had a large number of interesting choices, pushing me toward the house degustation menu - a promised three-hour meal with wine pairings. It was an excellent way to sample the kitchen's capabilities, with no course less than very good. The most memorable item was a crawfish boil with black truffles. The only disappointment of the meal was that the wines, though copious, were quite average compared both to the food, and to the quality implied by the menu and server in advance. This is an excellent place for an important meal, business or personal, or a splurge. It has the advantage of being directly across the street from one of the W hotels in town, which is an excellent place to stay.

Stewart's Diner - at the corner of North Claiborne Avenue and Desire. We stumbled on this place because it was the only place open for lunch post-Katrina (or open at all, actually) in the 9th Ward where we were working. Little did we know that it's where President Bush ate when he came visited the area. A very simple, clean place with a lunch counter and about eight tables, this family-run diner is excellent. Fried shrimp po-boys (dressed, of course) come loaded with an abundance of good-sized, crisp shrimp. The daily specials include a fried pork chop in a secret seasoning that is delectible. Prices are extremely reasonable, and co-owner Kim Stewart is a pleasure to speak with. We ate there three days in a row.


Lola's 3312 Esplanade Avenue (504) 488-6946. This was another stumble-upon. A neighborhood Spanish place with a very loyal clientele. The garlic shrimp appetizer was fantastic. So good, in fact, that it overshadowed everything else we tried by a significant margin. We all agreed it would be a good place to go simply to drink wine and eat garlic shrimp. (one caveat, they tried to serve us a cheaper wine than we'd ordered).

Napoleon House 500 Chatres Street. Still recovering from Katrina, it is only open for lunch, and with their still-limited staff, waits can be long. We sat in the courtyard, which is both comfortable and very atmospheric. We tried a variety of items, but the standout was the gumbo. Thick and packed with seafood and rice, it was the best I've tasted in New Orleans. That said, everything else was fairly average. One observation worth making, this is the first and last time I had a muffaletta. The muffaletta is a famous New Orleans cold-cut sandwhich on a large round loaf, slathered with a tapanade of olives and vegetables. It never sounded particularly interesting to me, I but I figured I'd try one. Sadly, it was precisely what I'd feared a muffaletta to be: a terrible riff on a traditional italian hoagie. This is not specific to Napoleon House. The problem with these sandwiches is that the proportions are off. There's way too much bread, a particular problem in a city that doesn't seem to know how to make very good bread. I'm told that Central Grocery is the king of muffaletta's, but I resisted, convinced that it would just be another sandwhich. Maybe I'll relent on my next trip.

Cafe du Monde - While they've become a chain, the orginal at the French Market, 800 Decatur Street, New Orleans, La, 70116 is pen 24 hours a day, closed 6pm December 24, opens 6am December 26 504-525-4544 is a delightful place to drink their delicious proprietary blend of chicory and coffee, and gorge on freshly fried beignets. One word of advice as to the latter, they are markedly better hot, so eat them as quickly as you can.

Dick and Jenny's 4501 Tchoupitoulas Street (504) 894-9880 a long cab ride from downtown, this creative, friendly cajun restaurant is known for long waits. We had none, however, as we opted to eat at the bar. The winelist is pocked with reasonably-priced gems (including a Seavey cabernet). The appetizer sampler was a good start, and the scallops were very good, though a bit on the small side.


Acme oyster 724 Iberville Street is as generic as its name. Sitting at the oyster bar the fresh-shucked oysters were ok, and everything else was similarly unmemorable.

Cochon 930 Tchoupitoulas Street in the Warehouse district is a restaurant dedicated to the joys of pork. What could be wrong with this, you ask? Lots, actually. Starting with a wine of a different vintage that they tried to pass off as the same, and then an argument when we raised it, the experience went down from there. The food was ok, but again, the fact that I remember nothing in a joint serving my favorite flavor of flesh speaks volumes.

Mother's 401 Poydras StNew Orleans, LA 70130(504) 523-9656 is famous for breakfast and for its "debris" po' boys -- the remainders of cut roast beef. The portions are huge, but nothing is particularly stand-out.

Don't bother
Deanie's Seafood
1713 Lake Avenue in Metairie promised a real crawfish boil, which is remarkably hard to find in New Orleans. When we got there, we discovered that the crawfish were out of season and therefore only frozen. We opted instead for a fried seafood sampler. The portions are enormous, but the food was average at best.

K-Paul's Lousiana Kitchen 416 Chartres Street Paul Prudhomme's Cajun flagship was dull, hackneyed and terribly overpriced.

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