First, many thanks to the locals (and the frequent visitors) on Chowhound who had supplied their patient and detailed advice to me on previous threads, while I was trip planning over the past few months. The advice proved invaluable. Here are reflections on the many great meals my wife and I enjoyed over the past few days.
Arrived in time for dinner on a Wednesday night, went to Emeril's (the original location on Tchopitoulas). We had a nicely situated table along the wall with wine behind the windows, close enough to the kitchen to see a lot of the action. We both thought it was a beautiful space, slightly noisy, yes, but only just noisy enough to feel boisterous while still being to converse. Service was attentive and the pace was relaxed and never rushed. We started by splitting an order of barbecue shrimp (with petite rosemary biscuit and fresh chives) appetizer. I know the Emeril prep is different than the usual buttery, head-on style at places like Mr. B's, but we really liked this interpretation, and Emeril's twist on flavors. Also split an order of seafood gumbo, which was first rate. My entrée was a heavenly Andouille Crusted Drum (w. grilled local vegetables, shoestring potatoes, glazed pecans, Creole meuniére). I firmly think that this dish was the single best thing I ate on the whole trip. My wife had the Grilled Double Cut Pork Chop (caramelized sweet potatoes, tamarind glaze, green chile mole). She agreed with those who find the big chop "a little dry" but still very tasty. We had a half bottle of red Bordeaux and a full bottle of a very nice NZ Sauvignon Blanc. For dessert we split the signature Emeril’s Banana Cream Pie (graham cracker crust, caramel sauce, chocolate shavings), which lived up to expectations. All in all, a very happy dining experience and a perfect launch to our culinary adventures.
Cocktails afterwards at the Sazerac Bar (we were staying at the Roosevelt). There was a big (and very loud) crowd that night, so we were not there long, but did return another afternoon and very much enjoyed their famed Ramos Gin Fizz.
Thursday morning we relaxed and slept in, and then went to Commander's Palace for lunch. We had a great window table in the Garden room. The staff wowed us with their synchronization, etiquette, and the perfect leisurely pacing of the meal. We started with premium cocktails before I shifted to the 25 cent Martinis and my wife went with wine by the glass to go along with our food. Split the excellent appetizer of Shrimp and Tasso Hennican (wild Louisiana White Shrimp stuffed with spicy Cajun ham tossed in Crystal hot sauce beurre blanc with pickled okra and five pepper jelly...wow, the flavors really popped). We opted for the August “Coolinary” fixed price lunches… first course for my wife was Creole gumbo (seafood), and for me it was Turtle Soup, both of which we really enjoyed (and shared). My wife's entree was a Griiddle Seared Gulf Fish (upon inquiry we learned the fish in question was Black Drum) with a sauté of housemade andouille, Louisiana legumes, heirloom tomatoes and sweet summer corn with bruleed lemon, pressed basil, and "sauce Acadian." For me, it was Chicken Saltimbocca (panned chicken, filled with house-made tasso, hand-pulled mozzarella and sage, over a warm pasta salad of Creole tomatoes, local legumes, grilled eggplant, marinated olives, ripped basil, and smoked tomato butter. As with my fish at Emerils the night before, I was impressed by how much the other elements on the plate made an already great dish even better. Tasty biscuits and sourdough bread throughout the meal. For dessert we had the signature Creole Bread Pudding Souffle (rich bread pudding whipped into a light, fluffy soufflé, with whiskey sauce added at tableside). After finishing lunch, a nice young waiter offered us a kitchen tour and a stroll in the courtyard area, and he pointed out Miss Ella Brennan's home in back of the restaurant property. Our bellhop remarked as we got out of the taxi: “Y’all been at Commander’s all this time?” We smiled. It was nice to be wearing my white linen suit to that restaurant and not feeling at all overdressed. A very enjoyable lunch.
In the evening, we went to Frenchmen Street to hear Tom McDermott play solo piano during the happy hour at Three Muses. We enjoyed finely crafted cocktails (I highly recommend "The Muse") and a few small plates of marinated olives, empanadas, and tasty "feta fries." Better bar food would be hard to find.
Then a dinner at GW Finns in the Quarter. As at Emeril's, the space was inviting and there was plenty of energy in the room without it being deafening. We had a nice high booth that gave us a view of the whole space. To begin, we split a soft shell crab, which was very good. My entrée was Fins’ signature “Scalibut” (halibut crusted with thinly sliced scallops, over Lobster and tomato risotto, with Maine lobster, sugar snap peas, and lobster butter). My spouse's entrée was Blackened Swordfish (with crispy fried gulf shrimp, buttered spinach, mashed potatoes, roasted corn butter). Dessert was my wife’s lifelong favorite, Pecan Pie (she found it the best version of a coupleof versions that we sampled during the trip - a crisp little tart at Fins) and a snifter of VSOP cognac for me. Nice server, who patiently took a photo of us and answered lots of questions about the daily changing menu. The meal was very solid in every way and we'd gladly return.
After an early morning ride on the Algiers ferry we started the day at Cafe du Monde for beignets and cafe au lait. To my disappointment, the place was already packed with tourists (around 8:15 am) and we had a long wait to jump on a table, a long wait for the staff to clear the remains of the table's previous occupants' food, another long wait to order, and another very long wait for the simple order to emerge. The coffee seemed to be at far too high temperature (my wife burned her tongue, even after a long cooling off period ...waiting was certainly the theme of the experience at CDM). The beignets were very good, but frankly we would not go through all of that waiting to get them again. Next time we'll try and visit CDM late at night, or very early in the morning, and/or try Cafe Beignet instead.
Lunch was at Muriel’s on Jackson Square. Seated at a perfect window table looking across the street toward Restaurant Stanley. The amuse was a single fried oyster framed with 4 frites. For a starter, I had turtle soup, which was very good, but not as expertly seasoned as the version at Commander's. My wife had had a simple salad. For the entrée, I had Blackened Mississippi Catfish, served with roasted new potatoes, dill and red onions, finished with a Crystal hot sauce butter. My wife had Shrimp Creole (Louisiana gulf shrimp, simmered in a classic New Orleans sauce with popcorn rice) . Again, these were excellent "Coolinary Menu" values. My wife enjoyed a fine Albarino by the glass and I enjoyed their low priced Martinis. No room for dessert, so instead I had a refreshing Brandy Milk punch while my wife had coffee. The food and service at Muriel's hit all the right notes, and again we'd eagerly return. Visits afterwards to the restaurant's upper floors...the “ghost table,” the delightfully weird “séance room,” and a look down into the pretty courtyard.
Ramos Gin Fizzes in the much more tranquil afternoon setting of the Sazerac Bar (as we raised our glass to Huey Long and his love of the same cocktail from the same bar).
We planned to take in live music starting at 7 pm on Frenchmen Street (Kermit Ruffins at 7 then Ellis Marsalis at 10), and we were still full from lunch, so rather than a full dinner, we happily took in the happy hour at John Besh's Domenica, also located at the Roosevelt Hotel. Marveled at the value of the extensive set of wines by the glass and very decent well drink cocktails available at half price. We had a very attentive and knowledgeable server and really enjoyed sharing the highly touted Domenica pizza (ours was topped with lardo, toasted fennel, and mozzarella, which all melted and blended together for a rich and beautiful flavor). The crust was as perfect as any I've had...really exemplary. Next time we'll definitely have a full dinner at Domenica, that particular Besh property really seems to be firing on all cylinders right now.
We had Saturday brunch at Atchafalaya. Self-serve Bloody Mary Bar (yes!) with a huge selection of different garnishes to mix and match. I ordered an overly enormous (but addictive & delicious) crab omelette, My wife ordered Eggs Louisianne - a huge fresh crab cake topped with perfectly poached eggs and Creole hollandaise. Plus a plate of tasty grits made with cream cheese. Inventive and very tasty Chai spice creme brûlée for dessert. A very nice brunch, in a relaxed atmosphere, with a friendly and efficient staff. Another home run. Followed our brunch with a lot of walking along Magazine Street and then through the Garden District in the August heat. Insufficient hydration for me along the way, and the prodigious portions of crab and egg I had just consumed, would together exact a slight toll on my overall sense of well being, later in the day.
We stopped at the Carousel Bar in the FQ for drinks before dinner. We decided to have two French 75's, one each of their gin and brandy based versions. Frankly, we did not think that Carousel made a very good rendition of either. I kicked myself later for ordering these, rather than a Vieux Carre, since the Carousel is where the VC was invented. We smiled at the sight of the bar stool patrons slowing rotating, but the bar was very crowded and loud, and we were glad to exit and proceed to our next stop.
That next stop was Dickie Brennan's Bourbon House. This restaurant was not originally on my list, but they reached out to us in a really impressive fashion before the trip (a long story) and we decided that we had to try any place that would extend such gracious hospitality. And thank goodness we did, because our Bourbon House experience exceeded expectations in every way. They gave us a window table where we could watch the unending parade of humanity along Bourbon Street, which was more entertaining than any movie. The wait staff operated with trademark Brennan team coordination, and we enjoyed being in the company of the service staff here more than at any other restaurant during the trip. We were treated to a delightful amuse bouche of pork belly, with a nice and crisp sear on the outside, delicious (and so soft) inside, Our starter course was a half dozen oysters on the half shell, topped with caviar. Although August is certainly not the prime month for plump Gulf oysters, these were nevertheless delicious and the caviar added an elegant and subtle extra dimension. I then had the excellent and seemingly bottomless Bourbon House salad, while my wife enjoyed crab and corn soup. We both ordered Redfish “on the Halfshell” with new potatoes, balsamic glazed red onion, lemon butter. Huge fillets, of which we could barely eat half, which was sad, given that the fish was perfectly prepared and cooked. We had no room for dessert but ordered their pecan pie, packed to take with us, and we were given a second lagniappe of demi-sized signature Frozen Bourbon Milk Punch, which is really outstanding and refreshing, the perfect foil to the heat and humidity of summer along the Gulf. Great meal and surreal service. I found myself gradually bouncing back from the minor ill effects of the big breakfast and the long walks with no water in the August weather. I would not hesitate to return to BH, and would love to sample the outstanding collection of small batch bourbons and ryes on their long and impressive list. The pecan pie later proved to be very good, though not at the same level as the pie at Fins. Bourbon House was the "sleeper" find on the trip for us.
Sunday morning we cabbed to the Bywater District to have an early Sunday brunch at the wonderfully funky Elizabeth’s. Great Bloody Mary’s here for me, and my wife had the “Fabulous Mimosa.” Mindful of the effects of my “crab armegedon” breakfast on the previous day, I had a simple 2 egg (poached) breakfast that was beautifully prepared, but also allowed myself to indulge in the insanely sinful maple and praline bacon as a side. Very memorable dish, that sweet, smoky, and savory bacon. My wife had soft shell crab with grits and poached eggs, to which she gave a big thumbs up. Excellent breakfast! Note…the bill here was crazy low, perhaps dollar-for-dollar tied with Domenica's Happy Hour as the most high value meal of the trip, both for the very fine cooking and the fun and different casual "vibe" in Bywater. Our day after the brunch was dominated by even more walking, but I had learned my lesson, stayed better hydrated, and felt just fine all day.
...which was a good thing, because we had reservations that night at the eagerly anticipated Restaurant R'evolution. We were seated in the small and beautiful “Louisiana Parlor” Room where Chef John Folse himself was sitting at the very next table. During the course of the meal, Chef came to our table and greeted us. He could not have been any more gracious. We had fun talking with him about the differences between Seattle (our hometown) and New Orleans dining, and their respective claims to originality and to tradition in the local cuisine. We feel Seattle has next to no boasting rights over any iconic cuinary traditions, but Chef Folse nicely made respectful remarks about several of our hometown restaurants and chefs.
Cocktails to start were over-sweet (to a surprising degree), and therefore a disappointment. Then an order was placed for what proved to be a very nice bottle of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (Chateau Montelena) , chosen because we arrived with a steak strategy in mind, after several days of enjoying Louisiana's seafood bounty. Amazing wine service, including decanting into a stylized but very functional decanter, which was kept at the ready at a nearby wine service table in the center of the dining room.
I began with “Death by Gumbo,” a dish I consider one of the best tasting experiences of the whole trip (outdone only by Emeril’s drum). This is a whole Roasted Quail (boneless except for the two little leg bones), stuffed with andouille. The bird is then dropped at the table into a perfectly prepped and spiced gumbo, with oysters and filé rice. "Me-Oh-My-Oh," that was some fine gumbo! We shared this, as well as my wife's excellent starter course of Beer Battered Crab Beignets with Four Remoulades. Yum again.
A lagniappe of palate-refreshing passion fruit sherbet appeared between courses.
More than worthy of mention was the tasty house-made bread offered with a trio of olive oil, house-made (!) unsalted butter, and that same house butter topped with salt.
We then had the House Salad with Crispy Vegetables (mixed greens, haricot verts, cucumber, perfect crouton). Our forks happily clinked simultaneously in the empty salad bowls as we finished the tasty greens.
For the entrée, we had both ordered filet mignon (to get a feel for Chef Tramonte’s Chicago steak influence and the ballyhooed 1500 degree char-broiling oven technology). Perfectly cooked to order, insanely tender steaks, the just-right combination of sear on the outside, smoke ring, and pink color in the middle, nicely rested before coming to the table. My “topper” sauce was a rich lobster béarnaise and my wife had the horseradish cream.
For dessert: a chocolate mousse souffle (had to be ordered at least 35 minutes ahead) and scoops of three different house-made ice creams (red velvet cake, burnt marshmallow, and lemon buttermilk sorbet). Then we were treated to a (literal) jewel box placed on the table, each drawer filled with a variety of very diverse and delicious confections. The jewel box was a very impressive lagniappe.
Stunning décor, high concept, hi-tech (electronic dessert menu, huge wine list made easy to navigate since it comes on an Apple iPad), no expense spared fine dining. Service teams here are not yet pitch perfect (our primary food waiter was very good but as my wife aptly observed he projected a slight sense of "tension"). Still, the service was very close to perfection, especially considering the extreme complexity of a new restaurant operation like R’evolution. A dining experience here will never be forgotten. The check was (unsurprisingly) the biggest during our NO stay, but it was well worth the splurge.
Our last day (sob!) was a Monday. Had coffees at the hotel before embarking on our morning activities, Lunch at Cafe Adelaide, starting off with really good cocktails in the Swizzle Stick bar. 25 cent martinis (just like Commander's) and Cosmopolitans with the meal. Amuse bouche was shaved beet (and tiny onion I think...?) over goat cheese on a fried wonton cracker. Really a nice bite. I ate a Cobb Salad, laden with gorgeous lump blue crab meat. My wife had the two course “Coolinary” lunch special, starting with Sweet Corn Velouté (Louisiana Blue Crab, basil & truffle butter) and an entrée of Braised Pork Cheeks w. Creole tomatoes, rice grits & red eye gravy. I tasted both, and agreed with her that they were both excellent. As was my salad, which had generous quantities of tomatoes, avocado, and crumbled bacon to go with the perfect crab meat. Desert was a lagniappe cocktail “tree,” containing a mysterious and intriguing citrus beverage that seemed to include honey, bitters, and we don’t know what else. The tiny drink was very complex and grew on me immensely with each little sip. This was another great meal, but the service at this restaurant was less of the well-oiled machine we found at every other stop on our trip. Not terrible service, but a little sloppy, especially for a sister restaurant to Commander's Palace. Maybe just an off day.
Trying to wring out every last NOLA dining experience we possibly could, we then went to Cochon Butcher to shop for items to bring home. We ordered two muffalettas, packed to travel, and bought several pounds of the house-made charcuterie. The muffs were excellent the next day, 2000 miles from where they were made, supplemented by some spicy Zapp's chips we picked up at the airport to add to our Cochon bag of cured meat goodness.
In New Orleans, even the airport food was good. Our pre-flight dinner was a half shrimp/half oyster po' boy at an airport concession that is reportedly owned and operated by the Acme Oyster House, and it was way more than edible (and huge). My wife also got some very nicely done beignets at an adjoining spot. Then we had to say goodbye to New Orleans after six great days.
There were so many other places that we would have loved to visit, and in almost every instance we were so pleased by the dining experiences we did have, that we'd return to those places in a heartbeat, so it will be even tougher to make choices for the return visit. I know we will stay much longer next time.
Two things struck me in general about the meals we were served. In almost every instance a main dish was made stronger by being on a bed of something, and surrounded by something else, all of which brought additional textures, colors, and harmonious flavor components, unlike I find in other American cities' cooking. New Orleans dishes seem to be routinely more "complete."
The second thing that struck me is how well restaurants in NOLA think through their own particular service strategies, to provide the most excellent customer experience. Nowhere did we find the standard (everywhere else) waiter-supplemented-by-runner. Instead each establishment typically designs its own team-oriented approach designed to make the customer feel the wheels are turning perfectly. And the table "belongs" to the customer in New Orleans; there is almost never even the slightest sense that the restaurant is anxious to turn the table for another check. The NOLA establishments don't seem to see any conflict between really pleasing a customer and earning his or her loyalty, and the restaurant's own long term "bottom line," which of course is exactly the right business plan for the long term.
We so love New Orleans....not just the food, but also the great music every night, the beautiful spaces like City Park, the great museums, the distinctive character of each neighborhood, the beautiful splashes of color and aroma, the constantly changing skies and gorgeous cloud formations. The rich sense of centuries of history, and the town's constantly evolving cultural change, are poten,t and they seem to hang in the air. We were prepared for unbearable heat and worse than unbearable humidity, but it was actually much less grueling than expected...I have experienced worse humidity many times in D.C., in Michigan, in the Carolinas, and in Florida. Almost without exception, the people we met were all warm and witty, and they consistently bent over backwards to make a visitor feel welcome.
It was truly a tremendous pleasure...so thank you, New Orleans. Long live the Crescent City!