On our first ever landing in New Orleans, on Christmas day (Saturday), we were greeted by glorious snowfall and preternatural calm. Our hotel concierge (at the International House) advised us, to our chagrin, that virtually all the restaurants in the city were closed. True enough.
But when we ventured out Christmas night expecting to find only dreck we stumbled upon the perfect little joint -- EVELYNS PLACE, on Chartres. There were just a few regulars drinking at the bar. We took the little table by the fireplace and the raucous host (Evelyn?) spit out the days menu in an incomprehensibly mumbled rapid-fire toasted drawl. After several repetitions we finally understood they had gumbo and muffaletta only. So be it. I ordered the first of my many Abita Ambers and thought: this is the perfect beer with New Orleans cuisine. Im not big on cold cut sandwiches in general, especially because they remind of the disgusting low-grade Italian subs dressed in oil and vinegar that I used to eat as kid.. The muffaletta, thankfully, was served warm and hit the spot on this snowy night. After this I had no interest in trying the Central Grocery as Im told they serve only cold muffaletta. In any event, the gumbo was soupy, okra-less and seafood-less, replete with shredded chicken and andouille, chock full of white rice, and divine. All the ingredients tasted vibrant against one another and in unison. I had to order a second. It being my first New Orleans gumbo, and Evelyns being pretty much a dive bar, I assumed I had many even better gumbos to come. But Evelyns was the best. All the other gumbos were overly rouxy and/or overly sassafrassy; too much this, too little that, too thick, too muddled. Evelyns was perfect. Afterwards we skid over to the Monteleone Hotel bar and got a lift out of the carousel bar.
Next morning, CAMELLIA GRILL. The line was about 20 minutes long but we befriended a local regular couple who were also seated next to us when we finally arrived at the counter. This place is cool. The boisterous banter among/with the waiters was fun. And although I practically never eat omelettes outside of home, the everything omelette, sans chili, was great, especially with tobasco-soused fries. I consumed the immensity. A side order of pecan waffle frankly sucked: it was a soggy, wan, pecan overdose. The fake syrup and melted butter only added to the grossness. But I love the vibe at this place and wonder if their lunch menu is good too. This is a good once-a-year kind of breakfast place.
For dinner we decided to forgo the crowded Acme in favor of CASAMENTOS. I wasnt crazy about the bathroom tile decor, but the oysters were startlingly cold, clean-flavored, and fresh, and when shpritzed with lemon, were a singular delight... accompanied, of course, by Abita. The gumbo, however, was miserable. It might as well as come out of a can, with tasteless mini-shrimp in a dark and heavy and dreary sauce. Compared to Evelyns zenith gumbo of the night before, this was gumbo nadir.
Late night munching at CAFÉ DU MONDE. Of course Ive heard of this place and was psyched to go there. I was expecting a kind of sophisticated café scene on a picturesque block with big windows and chandeliers, etc. But the reality is just fine. In fact, at 2:00 AM on a Monday morning the place is full of freaks - I felt like I was back home in NYC. I love the minimalist menu: Hot donuts (pardon me, beignets) and coffee (that is, café au lait). Thats it. Generally, I find fried sugar-dusted dough to be disgusting. But these were good and so was the coffee. We went back a few days later in the afternoon and the place was stuffed like a sausage with tourists and mayhem. No thanks.
UGLESICHS for brunch. We arrived a little later than planned and had to wait. The organizational plan was curious, i.e., you enter the door and stand face to face with the owners and their stack of cookbooks for sale, place your order with little guidance from the duo except a perfunctory good order, and then slide over to the oyster bar, if desired, and then finally land at your table. I felt like I was on a conveyor belt in a restaurant factory: I entered as raw touristic material and was successfully rendered into full-bellied satisfied tourist product. The shrimp and grits and the fried green tomatoes are justly famous. Both were superb. We ordered a bunch of forgettable sides which were served as appetizers. Pauls Fantasy, which was raved about by the locals we met at Camillas Grill, was good, but nothing that I couldnt whip up myself and perhaps even improve upon. Very oily also. My girl got blackened something or other which was also good. I saw a table of Japanese tourists all ordering po boys and I thought it was a shame to wait so long for a seat only to order a sandwich. By the way, I really love roadhouse style food, especially if its good. Id like to return and try more menu items.
Up to COMMANDERS PALACE for dinner. Now let me say that it takes a lot to make me love a fancy restaurant. Theres so much acclaimed fine dining around (especially here in Manhattan) but Im rarely wowed. Im usually happier, I guess, at either unpretentious places or the occasional high-end place that really klick ass. Commanders didnt wow me. The Turtle Soup was exceptional. As an entree I had the seafood bouillabaisse which was delicious. The dinner rolls (or was it cornbread?) were greasy and unappealing. The famed bread pudding souffle was wickedly sweet and only barely edible. The coffee, as per usual at most restaurants, was terrible (why is it that only Italians can make great coffee effortlessly every time?) On the whole, theres absolutely nothing to dislike about Commanders. Best restaurant in the country? Such labels are preposterous. A very good restaurant but a little too precious and conservative for my taste.
...which is funny, because the next morning we went to BRENNANS for their over-the- top breakfast extravaganza....and loved it. I dont think I could go here more than once every few years, but everyone should go at least once in a lifetime. Despite the hugeness and constant bustle, the scene was tolerable because most seating is arrayed about the courtyard and there are pleasant distractions like, for instance, the Sazerac (I dont usually drink whiskey with breakfast but made an exception). Eggs Shannon was two beds of spinach topped with fried trout, poached eggs and hollandaise sauce. Fabulously rich and delicious. Surprisingly, heres one great breakfast/brunch that doesnt include the usual suspects: bacon, sausage, potatoes, or even bread. Although Im not much for supersweet desserts in general, especially after breakfast, we figured wed try the renowned Bananas Foster just because we were there and what the hell. But why anyone would think that an already ripe, i.e. sweet, banana, served with ice cream, also needs a sauce made with prodigious heapings of sugar is beyond me. Disgusting. And the turtle soup, especially after last nights sublime turtle soup at Commanders, tasted dispiritingly like canned chili!.
Later we stopped by LAFITTES BLACKSMITH SHOP for a some drinks beside the fireplace. Of all the bars on Bourbon Street, this was the only inviting one. It has real character, though Im sure it too gets packed with swilling hordes at night.
I think the single best dish I had in New Orleans was, ironically, at LEMON GRASS, the Vietnamese restaurant in our own hotel. The lemongrass chicken was the best Ive ever had. The dish comes spicy, the waiter said, but I asked for even more heat. What I got was succulent morsels of chicken in a fiery dry sauce, really a melange of spices and shallots and garlic, with layers of flavor and complexity, and searing heat that emanates organically from the dish rather than as the by-product of a last-minute application of chili pepper. The last bite was as interesting and scrumptious as the first. Everything else we ordered was irrelevant in comparison.
The final meal in New Orleans, before we set out for Breaux Bridge and Natchez, was a serendipitous afternoon foray into PALACE CAFÉ. We dined in the upstairs room, overlooking Canal Street. This place wasnt on my short list or even my long list, but I really liked it. We had their excellent soup de jour (sorry, forgot the funny-sounding name) which was really unusual. The crabmeat cheesecake appetizer, which I thought was quiche at first, but apparently is made with cream cheese, not eggs, was superb: light, delicate, delicious. As a main course we had the special, I think roasted gulf fish in a casserole with lots of veggies. Damn good. Their signature white chocolate bread pudding was from hell. More like a kiddie dessert than for adults. Ridiculously sweet and inedible.
Finally, a week later we arrived back at the airport, late, hungry, and with the knowledge that our airline doesnt serve meals. So it was with dread that we anticipated having to eat bad airport food - a sorry way to end a stellar vacation. We had wanted to visit the Acme Oyster House but was a little turned off by the crowds as well as the claustrophobically touristic French Quarter in general. Then, as we slogged through the gastronomic desert of the terminal, we practically stumbled right into the ACME OYSTER HOUSE which, under the circumstances, was like a chowhound dream. Although the place was jammed and frenetic and counter-gastronomical, with that sickeningly anxious airport energy throbbing everywhere, we nevertheless managed to joyously wolf down dozens of brilliant oysters, pretty good jambalayas, and a bunch of Abitas. Great luck!
JACQUES-IMOS. Actually, after I got back home I went to the Manhattan branch of this restaurant. I dont know if its worse, better or the same as the original. The famous dark meat fried chicken was very good, but definitely not the best. The corn side was weirdly salty and the mashed were good. The Abita Amber somehow didnt taste as good in NYC as it did in NOLA. And the crabmeat cheesecake was overpoweringly rich and utterly lacking the elegance of the Palace Café version. Nevertheless, its an ok place and best of all, its there when I need a little shot of New Orleans.
Im eager to revisit New Orleans for some serious chowing. The restaurants I want to return to are Uglesichs, Lemon Grass (for the lemongrass chicken), and maybe Camellia Grill and Palace Cafe. The new places I want to try are BRIGSTENS (actually it was near the top of my short list this time but was closed for several days around x-mas), ELIZABETHS, HERBSAINT, UPPERLINE, and possibly BON TON CAFÉ and JOHNNYS PO-BOYS (still havent had one), as well as other cafes besides Café du Monde. And, of course, any recommendations from you NOLA chowhounds now that you know my taste would be appreciated. Thanks!