Spent the last three weeks of April in the city and had the usual fantastic time. Though I usually try to avoid the festivals (this trip overlapped both French Quarter and Jazz Fests), the weather was so spectacular it more than made up for the slight crowdedness. Not up to a detailed day-by-day report at this time, but here are my top ten high points:
1. ABSINTHE SUISESSE: My new favorite cocktail (though admittedly I’m a sucker for anise liqueurs and drinks made with eggs). In researching my trip, I’d seen reference to the version of this at the Hermes Bar and tried ordering one my first night in town. Alas, they claimed never to have heard of it. A few nights later, I saw it on Kingfish’s drink menu and was completely knocked out by the one Chris McMillian made me. I’m a big Ramos Gin Fizz fan and my first thought was, wow this is better than a Ramos. Herbsaint, orgeat syrup, cream, and egg white; shaken and poured over crushed ice: herbal, just sweet enough, perfect really. At the very least, it’s the best setting for absinthe/herbsaint I’ve ever had. Which brings us to
2. THE BAR AT KINGFISH: The accolades Chris McMillian has racked up over the years are apparently all deserved. I stopped by this new spot at Chartres and Conti many nights and left always a much happier man. Early reports on the kitchen have not been encouraging and I did not have dinner here (though the one menu item I did sample, a smoked-rabbit gumbo, was superb). The bar however rivals any in town. Besides the Suisesse, I also loved the Milano Turino (sort of half a Negroni). This place has the best kind of casual Quarter walk-in feel, great service and product, to go along with McMillian’s inspiring conversation. Especially if Greg Sonier can shore up the menu, I expect Kingfish will be here for a long time.
3. BORGNE: John Besh’s gulf-seafood restaurant was the best new place I ate at (twice) on this visit. At first I was disappointed the crab bisque was not on the menu, but its replacement, a cream of garlic soup, turned out to be one of the stars of the trip: cream, a little cheese, cured egg yolk, fantastic. Equally good was another dish involving garlic, the spaghetti in a lightly creamed oyster broth, as good as any pasta at Domenica. Borgne is a little out of the way and in a hotel to boot, which has apparently kept its clientelle more random than foodie so far. (I was told the crab bisque was discontinued because half the orders were being sent back by conventioneers who didn’t know what to expect.) It certainly deserves better.
4. GRAZING: More and more, on my last two visits, dinner has consisted of picking a neighborhood and hopping from place to place, sampling drinks and small plates: an appetizer crawl. So far, I’ve found the Quarter, Warehouse District, and CBD all great for this approach, which lets me experience more menus than would otherwise be possible. It’s also good for returning to the scene of a recent great meal, without committing to a second dinner. One night, I ordered sweetbreads at La Boca, gumbo at Cochon, Oysters Bienville at Tommy’s, and a great poached pear, across the street at Tomas Bistro, sitting at the bar at all four. The one place where this approach has never worked is G.W. Fins, which has always been too busy to accommodate me. If not for this practice, I’d still be thinking Oysters Foch was the off-putting gummy mess I’d experienced twelve years ago.
5. GALATOIRE’S (AGAIN AND AGAIN): Two dinners and one lunch. The big revelation this trip was the sweetbreads (meuniere), which somehow I’d never ordered here before. Wow, I can definitely see getting an entree portion sometime. My timing at Galatoire’s this past year has been pretty spot-on. Last May, I picked the same night to dine there as Bill Clinton. This time, on a Friday night, an older couple (he’d just turned 90) was seated at the table next to me, just as my dinner was winding down. She immediatly informed me that “they caught the second bomber in Boston” and conversation took off from there. It turns out they eat at Galatoire’s at least once a week. (They recalled one instance where they ate there four nights in a row.) I asked where else in town they went and they would only admit to really liking four places: Galatoire’s, Antoine’s, Ruth’s Chris, and Dickie Brennan’s. I told them my two attempts to dine at Antoine’s had been pretty problematic -- and she immediatly wrote down their regular waiter’s name and told me to say they had sent me! How lucky is that?! They were just incredibly nice people and meeting them was the kind of everyday magic that only seems to happen in this town. (Alas, I wish I could say that having a waiter’s name made much difference at Antoine’s, but the meal was as up-and-down as ever. Though I will say this: Filet Marchand de Vin, excellent!)
6. SOUPS: This was not the first time I’ve left New Orleans thinking what a great town it is for soups. There was that amazing garlic soup at Borgne; but I also had any number of good gumbos (Emeril’s, Two Sisters Kitchen, Dooky Chase, Cochon, Revolution, St Rose, and best of class at Kingfish) and turtle soups (Clancy’s, Commander’s, Brennan’s, Manale’s, Galatoire’s, a fantastic version at Hymel’s). Best of all though might have been an exceptionally rich crawfish bisque, complete with stuffed heads, at Luke, a place I hadn’t been since the year it opened. Domenica’s great wild mushroom soup seems to have departed the menu.
7. CONVERSATION & COINCIDENCES: New Orleans has to be the easiest city in the world to fall into conversation with strangers, both visitors and natives. (It happens nearly every day of most visits.) It’s fertile breeding ground for coincidences as well. This time, in the course of a single Saturday, I met two different people who’d grown up in the same county I had (in northwest Indiana) and a third who, before he moved to Nola six years ago, had lived twelve blocks from my current residence in Indianapolis.
8. DAY TRIP: Up early one day to take a drive along the River Road. Lunch was at a new place (for me), Hymel’s, outside Convent, and it was great: an outstanding turtle soup and fried shrimp as vivid tasting as any in recent memory. Conversation at the bar was mainly “I hardly ever go out to eat but when I do, it’s always (insert several restaurants in different towns).” I then drove thru Baton Rouge and over to the Lafayette area for Boudin. My stops were Best Stop (as good as ever), Don’s Specialty Meats (just ok), and Broussard’s in Milton (my first time here and possibly even better than Best Stop!). Though I was back in Nola by seven, it was the one night I skipped dinner.
9. ST ROSE TAVERN: Of course, there’ll always be restaurants in New Orleans I haven’t tried. What amazes me, for as much as I visit, is how often I’ll find restaurants I’ve never even heard of before. Case in point, this ancient neighborhood spot on the edge of town. Picture-perfect looking, still using mainly 60-year-old recipes, including probably the best chicken-andouille gumbo I had this trip, with a light-brown roux at once complex and downhomey. Another such place:
10. ALOIS J BINDER: I spent several mornings reading and waking up at this ancient bakery (seven blocks from my apartment), which I’d walked past on previous visits, uncertain if it was still in business. The coffee is pretty terrible, but it’s only 55 cents; the pastries are better and not much more. But mostly it was great just to hang out and enjoy the constant foot traffic, almost all of it local and involving conversation. One of the best sources of unadorned local color still intact. And no tip jar.
So, what else? Tried Dante’s, Boucherie, and Mariza, all for the first time, all worth returning to. Had two terrific meals at Clancey’s, which has now replaced Brigtsen’s as my must-do every visit. Biggest disappointments this time: Liuzza’s (on Bienville) and Soda Shop (Besh, at the D-Day Museum), both of which were kind of terrible. Somehow, I was in town for three weeks and never made it to Hanson’s. It’s all right though, I’ll be back.