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Restaurants & Bars 28

7 Days in NOLA (looooong trip report)

kukubura | Jul 2, 200909:26 AM

We had a fantastic 7 day trip to New Orleans from June 11-18 and I just wanted to share our food experiences. A tiny bit of background on us first: We got married in New Orleans a year ago and were back celebrating our first anniversary. We've both been to New Orleans more than a few times (pre- and post-Katrina) and have a lot of old favorite places. We don't eat any meat except for seafood, which we eat occasionally in real life but pretty constantly on vacation. We love to cook so when we eat out we try to emphasize restaurants that reflect the local history, cuisine and atmosphere, which is easy in a place like New Orleans. We've done the gauntlet of old restaurants in the FQ (Antoine's, Arnaud's, Galatoire's) and haven't found one where we want to become regulars. Commander's Palace is the only "destination" restaurant where we were planning a return trip.

On to the reviews! 

Day 1: When we landed at about 10:30 am our first order of business (after checking in to our hotel, The Frenchman, more on that later) was to get over to Mr. B's for BBQ shrimp. We'd never been there before but we'd heard about it from a friend and were dying to try it. We started off with seafood gumbo, to celebrate our arriving in our favorite city, but we were actually kind of disappointed with it. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't memorable. Just kind of bland. We decided that there was no reason to order apps if we didn't need them and that philosophy served us well for the rest of the trip. The BBQ shrimp, however, were no disappointment. I can honestly say that that dish is one of the very best things I've ever eaten. The pepper and garlic are so strong and flavorful, but nothing was out of balance. We were sopping up every drop of the sauce with bread. We also had $1.50 vodka lemonades that were extremely refreshing. The service was really good, friendly and attentive.

For dinner that night we went to Bennachin, the West African restaurant on Royal. We have a deep love of African cuisine and are also appreciative of the ways it's reflected in New Orleans' native cuisines. I had a stewed spinach dish with beautifully cooked rice and delicious, sweet, sticky plantains. My wife had a black eyed pea dish with the same sides. They were both the essence of cooking simple, flavorful food that's true to the ingredients.

That night we went to Vaughn's for Kermit Ruffins' weekly show. We had heard that he often cooks BBQ at the show and hands it out to the crowd. That would have been more of a spectator experience for us but it didn't matter because I guess he didn't feel like cooking that night. Either way, it was fun.

Day 2: The next day we started out with coffee from Rose Nicaud's on Frenchmen street, since that's where we were staying. Unfortunately it was bland. We vowed to start with Cafe Du Monde the next day. If we only knew then what the next morning would bring!

We spent the middle part of the next day strolling up Magazine st from 3rd to a little past Napoleon ave. We ate lunch at Joey K's, where we had trout tchoupitoulas, which was very tasty. The fish was nicely cooked and it was served covered with crab meat and shrimp, which were really, really good. There was also a simple side salad with a kicking creole mustard dressing and very tasty roasted potatoes. And the veggies, which looked like standard steamed mixed veggies were actually hiding a huge, seasoned taste. And monster-sized Abitas. Obviously a very casual place, but with no lack of attention to the quality of the food.

We planned to continue strolling up Magazine and eventually have a snack at Sucre, but we were dismayed to reach Sucre almost immediately. We like to dwell on good flavors as long as possible (hence we're not big dessert people) but we had to go to Sucre. We had a few little chocolate truffles (the stand-out was one filled with a chocolate-caramel swirl ganache and topped with a few grains of coarse sea salt... yum...) and ice coffee.

We stopped in at the Columns Hotel for a drink after lunch. The house is amazing but there was something off about the bar scene. The music was 80's pop, I think, and the bartenders seemed confused to some extent. We had mint juleps which weren't anything special. I would give it another shot and I was thrilled of spend time there but it was underwhelming as a bar experience.

That night, looking to have a cheap dinner, we went back to Mr B's and shared a dinner portion of the BBQ shrimp at the bar. We also had a creole tomato salad that was really fresh and simple, served only with some red onions and seasoned with salt and pepper. We really appreciate this sort of simplicity when dealing with a special ingredient. We finished off the night with sazeracs at the Carousel Bar and a very funny conversation with an out-of-towner who got sucked into our paranoid fantasies where we're at the bar spying on KGB agents, complete with staged shoelace tying, timed so that the bar would rotate just so you could eavesdrop on other conversations. The Carousel Bar is great for that sort of thing. We are children.

That night all hell broke loose at the Frenchman hotel. We already had issues with the room being exceedingly dirty (we we forced to go to Walgreen's and buy our own sponges and cleaning product because the creaning crew was unwilling to do anything even after we asked nicely), but the final straw was a pool party featuring screaming girls and the morbidly obese owner of the hotel that kept us up until about 4 am. I went from politely asking them to keep the noise down at 12:30 to having a full-blown screaming match with the night staff who used implied physical threats against me at 3:30. The next morning we packed up and left (and refused to pay for our two nights there) and moved to the Hotel Monteleone, which is frankly out of our price range in general but an annual vacation - a first anniversary, no less - is too important to gamble with. Plus it put us a lot closer to the Carousel Bar (and Mr. B's!)

Day 3: Lunch on day three (after switching hotels) was at the Creole Tomato and Louisiana Seafood festivals. We kicked it off by marching with the New Era Jazz Band in a second line meant to kick off the festivals. We had umbrellas with us and were right up front. It was just the thing we needed to help us get a little energy after our sleepless night. The first dish we had was fried catfish on top of shrimp rice from the Dunbar's booth. I used to eat at Dunbar's about 15 years ago when it was in a rough neighborhood. We haven't been there since they moved to Tulane but we will have to go. That's a great joint.

The second thing we had was a shrimp-stuffed creole tomato at the tomato festival (don't remember the booth name). It was a little tough to eat on a plastic plate but it was really good. The tomato was sweet and the shrimp had a really refreshing sauce. We popped in to Mr. B's for a drink (Pimm's Cups) while we waited for our new room across the street to be ready.

After checking in we were so exhausted from losing the night's sleep that we got into a bit of a funk and ended up sleeping a lot of the day away at our new hotel, which was depressing. That night we decided to try to get our groove back in a trusted environment and went to the Napoleon House for muffalettas (sans meat) which were absolutely delicious. We sat in one of the back rooms, which was completely empty, giving us a much-needed chance to decompress. I don't take sides in the warm-vs-cold muffaletta debate: I love them both. We also, of course, had Pimm's Cups, which were perfect. We unloaded our whole hotel story on the waiter who was absolutely hilarious and lifted our moods quite a bit.

To continue the decompression we went to Rouse's and got a bottle of wine, took it back to the room and just chilled.

Day 4: The next day we were planning on brunch. We decided, for some reason, to try the Lil Dizzy's at the Whitney Hotel. We got all dressed up but when we stepped in the atmosphere was all wrong. As always, most people were dressed like crap and the promised live music sounded like a funeral. The room looked nice and full of history, but cold and unwelcoming. We got a bad feeling and hopped in a cab for the original Lil Dizzy's in Treme. That was a great decision because it was jumping. Wayne Baquet was manning the omelet station and everyone was having a great time. We had stopped at a corner store on the way to get champagne, since it's BYOB, and the waitress mixed us up some mimosas. The buffet was full of beautiful food. For the first time in years I was tempted to try the fried chicken but didn't. I did have lots of mac n cheese, however, which might have been the best I've ever had. The grits were creamy and perfect. The seafood gravy was amazing as well.  The seafood omelets were good too, although the buffet was the star here.

Later on we headed back to the festivals and had the creole tomato and basil crepe, which was pretty much the perfect festival food: Easy to hold and eat but still full of flavor. The crepe was moist and crisp, the cheese was beautifully melted, the basil was fresh and the creole tomato was juicy. I heard a lot of people buzzing about this particular item and it was well-deserved. I wish I could remember the name of the crepe place whose booth it was so I could plug it. Someone will. We also had shrimp remoulade in lettuce cups from Redwood Grill, which was good and cool in the afternoon heat but could have used a little more zing. My final assessment on those festivals, however, was that they were not nearly as well set up as the previous year. The Zydeco and Seafood fests should move back to the US Mint grounds. Dancing in the blaring sun on the cement is as not attractive as when it was in the tree-lined Mint courtyard. And they seriously need to bring back the tables that you could eat at last year. This time, finding someplace to eat was very tricky.

For dinner that night we headed to old stand-by The Gumbo Shop. It's solid enough so that we never have to find ourselves standing on the street with no plans, gambling on some trap that turns out to be disgusting (hello, Pere Antoine, I'm looking at you.) We had the gumbo z'herbe, which is a vegetarian gumbo that is usually really exceptional there. This time it was yummy but it seemed like the recipe had changed. It wasn't as green as last time and it was thicker. It also had beans in it, which isn't really in the gumbo z'herbe recipe, I don't think. It was good, but if that had been the first time I'd ordered it I might not get it again. My wife had their vegetarian special, creole white beans and rice,  which is really nicely done and simple, with a good amount of garlic and a subtle heat build. I had a nice crawfish etouffe, which didn't have any surprises but was very satisfying. Definitely comfort food.

Day 5: The next day was our long-planned cajun country day-trip. Before all that I got up extra early to do a little outdoor painting. I did a little mini painting of the Pearl Oyster Bar just as the sun was coming up and hitting it. We started with breakfast at the Monteleone (which they comped us because we checked in in such a traumatic way) which was a normal hotel breakfast (except for the melted cheese-topped creole tomatoes... yum!) and then rented a car from Nifty Car Rental. We hit I-10 and headed out to Breaux Bridge. The most famous food event in Breaux Bridge is Cafe Des Amis' saturday zydeco breakfast, which weren't going to get to have. A lot of Breaux Bridge is closed on Mondays, which we knew but it was the only day we could do it. Still, Chez Jacqueline was open and, even though Jacqueline's daughter teased us for being unadventurous, we had crawfish po-boys. The menu is full of intriguing French dishes but when you get a craving you get a craving. Plus Breaux Bridge is the crawfish capitol of the world, apparently.  It was delicious and the pommes frites were double-fried in that golden French way.

After that we visited New Iberia, St Martinville, and Lafayette before driving back to NOLA. We did 335 miles that day. Part of the reason was to see if cajun country is someplace we might want to move to some day. The consensus was that it is.

That night we were exhausted so we got take-out at Arnaud's Remoulade (after briefly popping in to the Old Absinthe House, one year to the day from some very, very insane wedding night chaos. We didn't drink anything this time.) It was depressing to see so many people at Remoulade eating hot dogs and hamburgers when so many great local dishes are on the menu, but I think that place could do a better job of making itself the inexpensive classic that I know it can be (turn down the lights, lose the neon, emphasize the creole dishes more.) We took Shrimp Arnaud and a muffaletta pizza (again, no meat) back to the room with another bottle of wine from Rouse's. The shrimp were good, although not as out-of-control good as I'd remembered from a previous trip. I think it used to have more of a bite, maybe more horseradish. Hopefully it's not being dulled down for the hot dog eating clientele. The pizza was awesome and inspired us to bring home a jar of olive salad for our own home-made pizzas.

Day 6: The next day was our anniversary and included two highly-anticipated meals. First up, we got dressed in our finest and strolled out to the streetcar to head to Commander's. We got there an hour early and resisted their attempt to rush us to our table. Instead, we headed to the bar, which meant walking through the kitchen where we caught a glimpse of executive check Tory McPhail discussing Very Important Things with the other chefs. At the bar we talked drinks with Jenni, the extremely awesome bartender, who gave us lots of insight into what she does and offered us a few different liquors and cocktails to try just for fun. For our actual full-sized cocktails, my wife had a hibiscus martini that had an amazing purple color which came from the tea that Jenni had brewed from Japanese hibiscus flowers, and I had a whiskey smash, which is awesome. Among the other things we sampled were the Papa Doble and St. Germaine.

When we were done at the bar we stumbled over to our table (the garden room was closed so we were seated in the main room with the bird wallpaper. Allen Toussaint was a few tables over from us.) and were soon given complimentary champagne. Commander's was determined to leave us a mess. We also each had dirty vodka martinis for 25 cents. We started with the seafood bisque, which was super delicious. They really do this soup to perfection. By the time the entrees came we were both pretty tipsy so I'm a little short on details, but we had a fish dish that I recall being delicious. I will say that, as good as it was, it wasn't quite as specifically memorable as the crawfish strudel we had there the previous year. That was a real write-all-your-friends-and-tell-them-about it sort of dish, on par with the best dishes that I'll be getting to at the end of this write-up.

And of course we finished with the creole bread pudding souffle with whiskey sauce, which is insanely good. They even brought us out a special cocktail at the end that didn't have a name yet (I think Jennie cooked it up with the conversation we had all had in mind) and asked us to help name it. Pretty cool.

After lunch we popped into the Carousel Bar and had vieux carre's, since we had just been talking to Jenni about how it was a Carousel Bar invention. It was depressing hearing some just-checked-in tourists asking the day-time bartender if there were any good places to eat nearby. After he was done telling them about some places we hadn't been we had to chime in with our favorites.

Our anniversary dinner that night was also intended to be a fancy experience. We had heard great things about Muriel's for atmosphere and food and had long-standing reservations. We got all gussied up (for the second time in one day) and headed over there. We were pretty surprised to find it to be much more casual than we expected. Diners in shorts and flip-flops, staff was dressed in clothes you'd expect at Applebee's or something like that, lights turned up very bright, noise-level shockingly high. I couldn't hear the waiter speaking to me from about two feet away. I'm ok with most of these factors (maybe the not the noise) but in the right context and we were definitely not in the right place at that moment. We decided to leave. 

A little dismayed, we weren't sure where to go. Then my wife remembered the Pelican Club, so we headed there. Turned out to be a great choice. The atmosphere in the first room (the dark wood one) was perfect. We were surrounded by Michalopoulos  paintings (he's a personal favorite, as a painter myself, and we visit his gallery whenever we're in town) There were a lot of people there but it was not overly noisy. Since we mentioned our roundabout journey getting there (and our anniversary) we were given yet more complimentary champagne. We had the lump crab meat and shrimp cakes, which came with a fried green tomato (something we missed at the festival) and a sweet chutney that really complemented it well, adding a surprising flavor to the cakes. We also shared the scallop-stuffed artichokes. Both of these apps were very generous and really delicious. The scallop-stuffed artichoke in particular was very unusual and flavorful. It came with a zesty lemony sauce that was definitely cause for yet more sopping. For our entrees we both had grilled black drum with bbq shrimp. Another very generous portion and every element, including the potatoes and veggies were top of the line. It was very nicely prepared and really delicious. Even with a bottle of wine I thought the bill was very reasonable. Gone are the days of dropping $300 on a less-than-satisfying meal for two at Antoine's when there are so many other options when you can spend less than half that much and have a much better meal.

I also want to point out that our server, Cliff, was exceedingly gracious and attentive. He could tell that we had a deep love of the region and told us a lot about New Orleans from his perspective. He helped make it a very memorable experience. We eventually closed The Pelican Club out, so we had a chance to walk around the other rooms without any other diners and check out the other artwork.

After dinner it was back to the Carousel Bar for French 75s and a very bizarre conversation with a very drunk Algiers resident who was drinking coffee and wine and was trying to convince us to move to Natchez. I don't really understand what he was driving at, exactly.

Day 7: The next day was our last full day in NOLA so we packed a lot in, including another early morning painting session (the front of the Monteleone) as well as visiting a lot of our favorite little shops and museums. We stopped in to the Voodoo Spiritual Museum, which is where we got married, and spent a while chatting with Priestess Miriam, who shoed us how she had incorporated elements from our offering basket into her altar to Princess Diana. She's a very unique person. We finally made it to Cafe Du Monde for beignets and cafe au lait (great as always, and even friendly service for once!) and had one last shared BBQ shrimp at Mr. B's for lunch, this time supplemented with an order of catfish fingers, which were surprisingly tender inside for being such thin strips of fish. One dismaying thing at Mr. B's: Finding out that they put beef broth in their bloody mary. They should REALLY tell you that! First off, not everyone eats beef. And secondly, as I understand it, that's not a bloody mary. It's a "bloody bull." 

For dinner on our last night we finally made it to K-Paul's, which we'd been talking about for years. Knowing that it was our anniversary trip, the put little cut-out hearts all over our table. I believe that this is what Raymond Blanc calls a "delight" on Last Restaurant Standing, something cheap and easy that you can do to make your guests feel welcome and special. I can say that it definitely works. Very memorable.

For apps we ordered, fried green tomatoes topped with a shrimp remoulade, which was really, really great, and a creole tomato salad which came with a slice of provolone on top. Very juicy and delicious. Both of these apps very very generous and really took advantage of the ingredients, we thought. The salad in particular was so simple and really gave a sense of why creole tomato season, as fleeting as it is, is so special.

As good as the apps were, the entrees were even better. My wife had the bronzed swordfish, which was almost surreally good. The fish was cooked with such attention to the flavor that I can still imagine the taste. The swordfish was delicate and had a pillowy texture, but the seasoning was bold and had a real complex taste. Even the mashed potatoes were memorable: Creamy and delicious. I had soft-shell crab stuffed with crab-meat and covered with a shrimp sauce. The taste of the crab stuffing was unlike anything I've ever had before. Just incredible. The unique flavor had smokiness, sweetness and creamy, richness. All the veggies on each plate were thoughtfully prepared and as good as can be.

More than with any other part of this write-up I'm having a really hard time describing the flavors at K-Paul's. It was like there was a distinct progression of flavors with each bite: First you'd taste the smokey bronzing of the glaze, then the moist, plump original fish taste, then a little bit of sweetness, then a little bit of heat. You could see the progression take place slowly over my wife's face with the first bite, like "yummm... oh nice... wow!... WOW!!" It was sort of like that gum in Willy Wonka that changes flavors over time to create an entire meal. Last year we saw Paul Prudhomme cook at the Louisiana Seafood Festival and he really emphasized the concept of seasoning throughout cooking, not just at the beginning or end, as a way of giving the food layers of flavor (since the seasoning would cook at different amounts based on when it was added.) We've incorporated this technique into our own cooking since then but now I really finally understand what it can mean when done by a real master. I have to say, dish for dish, K Paul's is one of the best restaurants I've ever been to. We also really appreciated that the menu had long lists of ingredients with each item. No surprises this time.

We also did something that we don't normally do: Order wine by the glass and ask for recommendations as to what might go with the dishes. We had rose with the appetizers and my wife had a rioja with her entree while I had (I think) a cab. Even though these were suggestions from our very excellent server, they also happened to be the two wines we were eyeing originally, which made us feel pretty good about ourselves. I should point out that the service we received at K-Paul's was also extremely good. I don't think a lot of the cell-phone-talking, flip-flop-wearing diners that you see in there really appreciate the meal and service they're getting. The server offered to "buy" us dessert because of our anniversary and, even though I know it's horrible to refuse something along those lines in a restaurant we were way too stuffed and had to decline. Plus, as I said before, we like to savor great tastes and there was no way that my taste buds were ready to erase those flavors with something sweet just yet. He did bring us a wrapped up container of K-Paul's Magic Seasoning as a gift instead, which was really cute and has been put to good use since we've been home. K-Paul's is DEFINITELY on our must-eat rotation for all future visits.

We ended our trip with a night at Preservation Hall, and one last drink at the Carousel Bar. Well, two actually, a sazerac and a vieux carre. We then, sadly, headed off to our room to finish packing and get a coupple of hours sleep before it was time to fly home to Baltimore, where we knew we would spend the next 358 or so days planning our next trip.

Lil Dizzy's Cafe
1500 Esplanade Ave, New Orleans, LA 70116

Columns Hotel
3811 Saint Charles Ave, New Orleans, LA 70115

Napoleon House Bar & Cafe
500 Chartres St, New Orleans, LA 70130

Commander's Palace Restaurant
1403 Washington Ave, New Orleans, LA 70130

Dunbar's Creole Cooking
501 Pine St, New Orleans, LA

K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen
416 Chartres St, New Orleans, LA

Cafe Du Monde Coffee Stand
800 Decatur St, New Orleans, LA 70116

Pelican Club Restaurant & Bar
312 Exchange Alley, New Orleans, LA 70130

Joey K's Restaurant & Bar
3001 Magazine St, New Orleans, LA 70115

Gumbo Shop Restaurant
630 Saint Peter St, New Orleans, LA 70116

Carousel Bar
214 Royal St, New Orleans, LA

Mr B's Bistro
201 Royal St, New Orleans, LA 70130

701 Royal St, New Orleans, LA

Bennachin Restaurant
1212 Royal St, New Orleans, LA 70116

Vaughan's Lounge
800 Lesseps St, New Orleans, LA 70117

Cafe Rose Nicaud
632 Frenchmen St, New Orleans, LA 70116

Chez Jacqueline Restaurant
114 E Bridge St, Breaux Bridge, LA 70517

309 Bourbon St, New Orleans, LA

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