In my companion piece, (NOLA And All That Jazz), I discuss the music and fabric of the most unique City in the US, New Orleans, where I recently enjoyed two weekends of music and fun during Jazz Fest 2012. But, here, I think we need to focus on the unique food capital that the Big Easy has become. New Orleans’ tastes blend with old world and global flavors like nowhere else. Creole, Cajun, New World French, Louisiana Modern, are all names bandied about trying to describe food that really defies easy definition.
The first weekend we arrived at Louis B. Armstrong International Airport (why is it that sultry cities that call to us name their airports after musicians, e.g. Antonio Jobim and Louis Armstrong—maybe we all should learn something from this fact or at least plan our vacations accordingly) with two NOLA newbies in tow. An adventure was about to ensue and a party sure to break out. We stayed at the Bourbon Orleans which might be the best located hotel in the City. If you must do Bourbon Street (thankfully, I don’t do the tourist part any more), the hotel is in the less touristy and decidedly more gay portion of Bourbon Street. It is also right behind the Cathedral and provides amazingly easy walking access to all one might want to do in the French Quarter. While the hotel has a bit of a musty air (it is reputedly haunted), the location makes it a perfect spot to stay while enjoying the City and the Fest.
Our first food adventure happened moments after we arrived when we heard that there was a crawfish boil in the hotel’s bar. Mere minutes after arriving we found our way to the bar to slurp on crawfish (or crayfish if you must), corn and andouille sausage.
But that was just an appetizer as we took a short rest and then spruced up (albeit casual wear) and headed way Uptown to the area near Audobon Park to the very hip and hard to reserve new-ish hot spot Restaurant Patois. Patois is slang for a little bit French and the name fits the bill. As expected from a great, fun restaurant that is featured in the HBO show Treme (as someone else’s restaurant), the food was a hit too. French and then again not, modern and then again with some old-school flavors, creative but not fussy, our meals were all a hit with the beef dishes and pastas being the standouts. The wine list is thoughtful in both selection and price albeit not broad. We had a great Archery Summit Pinot which paired with everything perfectly (with a mix of fish, beef, pasta and duck dishes on the table).
With this auspicious start, we feared that we might have a let down but if anything the next night we hit what was the peak of the first weekend. That was at Stella! Stella! is a spectacular experience (and one that was so good I repeated the second weekend when back with a different group of friends) from the friendly upscale dining room (business casual or better is the dress), the impeccable service and warm staff to some of the most creative food happening today. Wow! The place hits its mark right from the start when you order a Martini (with one of
three Vodka options as it should be) that comes with liquid nitrogen. A vodka-smoking glass is poured which ultimately becomes the smoothest and coldest martini you ever had. Fun. Then the food comes. Wow again! The appetizers are a brilliant blend of hip Louisiana, some Asian flavors and French/Creole stylings. The version of Asian (yet Cajun) Shrimp, the Fois gras tower (if you do that) and the oysters with three styles of vodka glacee were standouts–especially so when paired with a beautiful white from the Heredia winemakers in Spain. The entrees were even better if that is possible with superlatives going to the “Pork Tower,” the Duck seven ways and the Fish special. We kept with the theme and moved to a Vina Tondonia from Heredia for this course. Desserts were as creative and the cheese plate thoughtful—all paired with what might be the superstar of wines, a white Chateau Musar, 1995. Oh my. (If it seems like a lot of wine, we brought some of it back to our hotel as one can do that in New Orleans so don’t be shy). Stella! was the star in a very stellar universe. But, we didn’t end there.
The next night was the ever splendid Bayona where Susan Spicer cooks some of her legends and some of her newer creations. All good plus it might be in one of the most beautiful carriage homes in the Quarter. Great food included the standout Quail salad (a brilliant take on “fried chicken and greens”) and the Lamb. A Condrieu (white Rhone) and a 1987 Chateau Tempier Bandol sure helped too!
In a food fest that offered any number of a parade of riches, we proceeded to John Besh’s temple, Restaurant August the next night. It was awesome. The service was terrific somehow blending the casual with the impeccable. We had a fun table in the middle of the dining room and things started really well with the amuse bouche of an egg—creative and fun and followed by a most brilliant appetizer of oysters done in a truffle foam followed by some of the freshest local beef cooked perfectly. All dishes showed talent and refrain where both were warranted and overall this could have been a “best meal ever” had we only eaten here. All I can say is that I plan to return as soon as I can.
The first weekend rounded up with the superlative Commanders Palace. Yes, it is part of the local “Brennan” chain and yes it does bring in the tourists but it also is a culinary wonderland which constantly impresses and surprises. This year was no exception with amazing fresh blueberry salad, a fois gras milkshake (again if you like such things) and my favorite (I have it everytime) shrimp and jalapeno jelly. The appetizers were on fire and then the main dishes came with superlative duck, awesome beef, fish and pork around the table. Another Wow!
After a long flight home, I returned to New Orleans the next weekend for a shorter, but no less food friendly time. With a repeat planned for the final night at Stella!, we started with an old favorite, Clancy’s which is only a block or so from Restaurant Patois (starting both weekends “Uptown” is a good way to go!). Clancy’s feels like going home as I have dined there for most of the last 10 years of jazz fest. I pretty much always get the Shrimp and Grits and then the Smoked Pork Loin and did again this year—great as ever. Pinot’s predominate the wine list and that is the right way to go with, perhaps, a push to France for a Burgundy style as opposed to New World Version.
Night two was another bright light—actually one of the brightest in the Cosmos—at Brightsen’s. Brightsen’s is the wonderful small, hard to reserve restaurant in Riverbend which is the home of culinary mastermind, Frank Brightsen. Brightsen studied under the tutelage of Paul Prudhomme and with fellow student Emeril Lagasse. But, Frank felt more at home making magic than on the TV and eventually created this most wonderful Cajun-inspired but Brightsen spectacular restaurant that no one visiting New Orleans should miss. Being Cinco de Mayo, we started with a strawberry infused Tequila (straight up and chilled—oh my!) and enjoyed a perfect Frank Brightsen meal—seafood is the star (but the pork and jalepeno jelly appetizer or the fresh gumbo sure need to find their way to the appetizer portion of the meal).
Wrapping up the trip was Stella! night two and it didn’t disappoint. But, I would happily repeat any of the spots we visited (and will).
Finally, two quick other suggestions: if you must eat a late night meal (after quaffing while enjoying music of fun), go to the Clover Grill on Bourbon Street. The crowd will be a great mix (some drag, some hipsters, some wide-eyed tourists and definitely a lot of fun-loving locals) and a quick other recommendation: Stanley! is the place to go for a casual brunch (the sister, super casual, restaurant to Stella!). Using the same creativity and finesse but with “diner-like” options like the Omelet sandwich or the Corn Beef Hash—it is a must. And it is on Jackson Square. So, grab a coffee at Café du Monde and then head right over to Stanley!
Hey, I gained five pounds over the two weeks. Didn’t make my nutritionist happy (nor my mirror) but in reflection it seemed worth it (and it is all gone now through some careful eating and extra time at the gym). Sometimes you just have to. New Orleans is that kind of place!
Restaurant Patois: (Uptown) www.patoisnola.com (504) 895-9441 (on Open Table)
Stella!: (French Quarter) www.restaurantstella.com (504) 587-0091 (on Open Table)
Restaurant August: (Warehouse District) www.restaurantaugust.com (on Open Table)
Clancy’s: (Uptown) www.clancysneworleans.com (504) 895-1111
Brightsen’s (Riverbend) www.brightsens.com (504) 861-7610
Stanley: (French Quarter/Jackson Square) www.stanleyrestaurant.com (504) 587-0093
Clover Grill: (French Quarter) www.clovergrill.com Open 24 hours at 900 Bourbon Street. (504) 598-1010
Bourbon Orleans Hotel: (French Quarter) www.bourbonorleans.com
Book your next trip to New Orleans and try the food for yourself!