I returned to New Orleans last week, seeking the food of my childhood and early adulthood, and some good new stuff, too. I left in 1976 in my late 20s and have lived in the SF Bay Area ever since. Heres a report on how it went:
We arrived on Easter Sunday and met friends at Feelings. I thought it was a very nice space, and the service was attentive and accommodating to our vegetarian diners. I didnt much care for the food. Oysters en brochette, not like the ones I used to know, just pretty good fried oysters. Baked eggplant dish kind of bland and uninspired, as was the gumbo. It was a very nice place to socialize with friends.
Monday: coffee and doughnuts at Café du Monde. I still miss having Morning Call in the French Market, but even with hordes of other tourists, CDM is still the real deal, and worth a dash for the next empty table.
We went to Herbsaint for lunch. Between four of us we had excellent Duck and Andouille Gumbo, great fried oysters, a delicious gnocchi and wild mushroom dish, and a vegetarian corn dish of Louisiana origin that everyone enjoyed. I like this restaurant even though I didnt like the main dish that I ordered, the poached fried egg with home made spaghetti in a cream sauce. Somehow I didnt understand what a rich dish I was ordering. Dont know what I was thinking!
Dinner was at Mandinas: Three great cornmeal battered oyster po-boys (half loafs); one perfect cup of neighborhood restaurant gumbo; one decent cup of turtle soup; and a tasty roast beef po-boy with the meat cut too thick for our taste. Asking to sit in the no smoking section put us in a small room behind the bar, and although the waiter was talkative and entertaining, we were definitely out of the action.
Tuesday, we began with lunch at Sid-Mars. It was overcast and windy and the porch didnt smell right, so we sat inside and had a very good stuffed artichoke before we dug into a couple of trays of good boiled crawfish and a plate of pretty good boiled shrimp. We watched men go in and out of the little pen of gambling machines and noticed that Wop Salad is still on the menu.
Dinner was late at Katies. Once again when we requested the no smoking section we found ourselves ghettoized in the back. This is another honest neighborhood restaurant and I enjoyed my stuff(ed) crab. The bronzed catfish was good, too. One sour note: the lettuce had some brown edges. Guess they dont specialize in salad
Wednesday we headed for Breaux Bridge and stopped for a late lunch at Brendas in New Iberia. We had been there 3 years ago and wanted to go back. This is soul food at its most personal. The walls of the small dining room are covered with family pictures. Brenda learned to cook from her mother, and her daughter works in the kitchen. Brenda showed us a copy of a write up she had just received from the Sterns in the April Gourmet. She was talking expansion. We had the best smothered pork chop with unreasonably tasty corn and rice and perfectly baked chicken with okra that had been chopped fine and stewed with ham and maybe tomato and something sweet, perhaps Steens Cane Syrup. I dont remember desert, but the coffee was good and strong, and youll get Cremora if you dont ask for milk.
Dinner was at Poor Boys Riverside Inn in Brousard. This place serves impeccably fresh seafood. Especially memorable was the flounder stuffed with crab stuffing and topped with butter sautéed lump crabmeat and crawfish tails. The steamed crabmeat plate was fresh and generous and plain. Grilled green beans were not on the menu, but recommended by our friendly young waiter and very good.
Thursday and Friday began with breakfast at Café Des Amis. A striking exhibit of photographs of women was on the walls, and great blues were playing. The coffee was strong. My favorite breakfast consisted of beignet wrapped, deep fried boudin with powdered sugar, and a side of crawfish etoufee that I poured over a side order of grits.
Thursday lunch was oysters in Abbeville. A dozen plump delicious cold ones will set you back 5 bucks. We ate ours at Blacks. Three years ago Dupys was just as good. And theres a third place.
Dinner was to be at Café des Amis, but the much-anticipated Zydeco Dinner that evening turned out to be excruciatingly loud (and I like loud) and the room was filled with a group of partying retired tourists. The Zydeco brunch we had gone to on our last trip had been fun and at least partly local. The scene we encountered Thursday night was not what we retired tourists were looking for. Somehow we wound up driving to Lafayette and eating at Pimon Thai where we had one of the best meals of our trip. When I asked if the soft shell crab was fresh, the hostess said she wasnt sure, that they might not be from Lafayette, they might be from Morgan City. This is a Thai restaurant that does not serve shrimp if they cannot get fresh local shrimp! The food was distinctive and we were told that it is a home cooking style from central Thailand. The chef is a native of that area and moved to Lafayette with her American husband. The kids run the front. Lemongrass coconut milk soup with chicken, spicy clear noodle salad with basil and the best shrimp we had on our trip, meaty and succulent soft shell crab in a soulful garlic sauce, and wide rice noodles with beef in a pungent dark sauce. Whish Id had room for the fried banana and homemade coconut ice cream. Im heading back here next time Im in Lafayette.
Friday we stopped in Donaldsonville for lunch at the Railroad Café. This is the only place Ive ever been asked if I want my oysters fried soft, medium or crispy. Ive had them medium and crispy and next time Im going for soft. Probably more oystery.
This place is casual and old fashioned and serves plate lunches. Their frying skills are put to good use on their heaping orders of thin cut fresh, homemade onion rings and great soft shell crab po-boys. After a stroll around this historic town I got an Orchid Cream Vanilla and Nectar Snoball at a little wooden stand where the syrups were homemade and the ice shaved fine. This place was the equal of Williams (Plum Street) or Hansens!
Back in New Orleans we cleared our palates with a tasty and incredibly cheap Middle Eastern dinner at Monas on Frenchman: salads, babaganoush, stuffed grape leaves, etc.
Saturday lunch was a couple of Pims Cups and a split Muffeleta at The Napoleon House, a spot where I used to drink in high school. I dont remember food there in those days. The Muff was good, but different than what I remember from elsewhere. The bread is lighter and the salad is lighter, and maybe thats a good thing. Acys Pool Hall had heated Muffs that I enjoyed in the 70s, so that wasnt a problem. I do love sitting at the Nap House!
It was Restaurant Mandich for Saturday dinner. I had never been before, but it was much as I expected. The food was great and unique and totally New Orleans. Best Turtle Soup I ever have had. The Trout Mandich topped with grilled shrimp was simple and perfect. Duck breast with sweet potato sauce was a novel dish that worked and was accompanied by the biggest most crabmeat filled crab cake I have ever seen. If you want to eat like this you have to go to Mandich. I must say that as delicious as it was, I felt bludgeoned by the richness of this food, and as friendly as the service was, I felt that this windowless fortress decorated in a late 50s or early 60s style was oppressive in some way and took me back to an era I didnt care for the first time around.
Sunday lunch was at Martins Wine Cellar, recommended to us by several friends. I had never thought of this as a place to eat. In their little cafeteria-style lunchroom we had the perfect roast beef po-boy we had been looking for, and we were able to get fresh fennel salad and fresh green bean salad, too! The steak-frites were pretty perfect, as well.
For our last dinner we returned to Mandinas. The consensus was that they made the best oyster loaves of our trip (we never got to Casamentos, Bozos or Harbor Sea Food!!), so three more were ordered. I had the baked eggplant casserole with a side of spaghetti with red gravy. The artichoke and oyster soup was delicious. We sat in the main room and didnt get too worked up about the few cigarettes that were lit or the time our waiter spent watching sports on the big TV. The African-American busboys in Mandinas t-shirts seem to run everything, anyway. All was as it should be here, a real old school, warm and friendly New Orleans neighborhood restaurant with plenty of local business at the tables and at the bar. I hope it lasts!