We just came back from a fantastic trip to NOLA. Almost everything we had was memorable, and I still cannot believe the freshness of (sea)food and generosity of people. Yes there were some glitches (however, no disasters), but most of them were because either we made a choices that fit badly with our lifestyle (Bombay and Brennnan's), or didn't have many options (Christmas Day). Here is my report.
First, I need to make a disclaimer about my eating preferences first since I know that not all people share the same preferences. I strongly dislike "classy" establishments, and I completely detest places that have that romanticized colonialist, elitist aura in them. I believe that it is that part of the food culture that makes it a snobbish establishment. I know that I am aware that most people will never have the opportunity to access the food I eat, but I make a political choice of at least not contribute to it by going to establishments that flaunt inequalities and privileges. I cringe every time my server puts on a white glove, a uniform and acts more like a servant. But that is a personal choice, I know some people dine out to be served; I simply need someone to put food on my table; preferably without spilling it on me. Rest is unnecessary for me. OK, enough rant.
First we arrived on Christmas Evening. A tough day for a chowhounder, especially if you don't like to eat at hotel restaurants. We also made a mistake of going towards the wrong direction all the time. We tried Drago's first, and alas it was closed; we walked around the block, but it wasn't a particularly crowded place in terms of casual restaurants. I remembered that Bombay was supposed to be open; so we headed down.
The minute we entered, we knew that it was all wrong. From the Prada'd-out furry clientele to the colonialist decoration, we realized that we didn't fit there. But I am a sucker for gin, so I said to myself "Well at least I can have a good martini while we are contemplating our next move". So we approached the maitre, and told him we had no reservations, hoping that he can sit us on one of the 10 empty tables or at least at the bar. He measured us with his eyes, and then politely told us "I'll see what we can do" and disappeared. He didn't ask whether we were there for just a drink (probably) or to eat (least likely), or whether we can sit on one of the 15 empty bar stools while we are waiting for him. Then we waited. We waited and waited. The maitre passed by us a few times, but never made a gesture about the situation or offered us the bar so we can have a drink. We could have waited more perhaps, but we had started growing a suspicion that he was simply trying to get rid of us; because perhaps we didn't fit with our casual clothes and potential lack of table manners. Having just finished Garlic and Sapphires where Ruth Reichl has faced similar acts when she was undercover, I decided that I don't want to be that person who gets seated next to the toilet and gets completely ignored by the staff. We looked at each other, and then left.
We were out again. Restaurants restaurants everywhere, not a drop of food to eat. Yes, there were lots of rowdy bars at the FQ, but we were too old and too wise to eat defrosted chicken wings and drink a hurricane from a phallic neon plastic thingy, so we decided to walk around. Had we walked to the market side, we could have found good establishments perhaps; but we were stupidly sticking to the main arteries like Bourbon. We saw a smallish storefront that revealed a full restaurant that seemed to sell seafood. Oceana, I think. It was pretty crowded, we took it as a good sign. I said to my partner, "you know what, perhaps it won't be the best food we ate; but at least it will be honest and fresh" and we entered.
There were perhaps 3-4 servers in what turned out to be a giant multilevel restaurant; a certain level of chaos was in the air, but we were greeted politely and immediately sent to a table. Our server was very nice albeit being extremely busy from looking at a thousand tables by herself (the charm of working when everyone else takes off). We knew that we wouldn't get something delicate and intricate at a giant mid range resto like this; so we decided to order safe. There were giant fried seafood platters with mounds of oysters, fish and shrimps going in in almost every table, so we decided to pick it. You know when you coat something in batter and fry it will taste good anyway, but eventually everything will taste the same? (I lived in WI for so many years and learned this from experience). This didn't. The seafood was extremely fresh (damn you NOLA residents are so lucky), and the batter was spicy enough to add a kick, but still revealed the taste of the beasts inside. Yes the sauces were boring, when the seafood is fresh why need them? Good choice I said and added "lets have a pie, or another dessert". The crazy busy server, however perhaps had other plans for us; or the restaurant didn't have any dessert so we suddenly had a check appeared. We took this as a good reminder for restraining ourselves from overeating the first day, and left to find ourself a bar. We realized that, in this city you possibly cannot go wrong with seafood and became insanely jealous.
Then we had a giant grenade at the stall next to the "couples sex act" place and lived happily ever after...
Umm, just kidding. I really needed to drink, but again most of the "no i don't want to be smashed" bars were not open at all. We decided to try our chances at Marigny, but on the way we saw a small and almost empty bar that looked very cosy with lots of lit candles and a fireplace. (can't remember its name) We got in, I got my first Pimms Cup (in a plastic cup per the Bourbon street tradition); chatted a little bit and then walked to our hotel. Not a terrible first night.
We woke up with lots of hope and headed to Petunia for breakfast. Bummer! It was closed. Where else, where else, where else? ... and we saw Brennan's. We peeked in with suspicion that this will be another Bombay experience; but remembering the raves about the turtle soup I decided that I must try this place. We were immediately seated. The minute our server arrived she started up-selling us food. However, she was not very good in doing it, because she only used phrases like "the best", "we invented this dish", without evoking any sensory feelings. She sounded like a robot after hearing her a few more times repeating the exact same words to the neighboring tables: we invented, the best, it is different than eggs benedict and we invented.... She wasn't happy because we got tap water. Later she wouldn't be happy because we ate perhaps so little. God, I cannot imagine if a person could finish their breakfast prix fixe; especially if this is a mid sized woman with a slightly big appetite or a skinny unathletic man who have plans for further eating. Portions were obscene, for example we asked if the omelette had three or four eggs, she replied "six". Our eyes got big; and so as hers when we mentioned "perhaps we can then share one". She got very unhappy again. Well hon, we are not the type of peeps that flaunt leaving half of their food on their plates, and we really do not want to be obese. We shared the dessert as well (good chocolate pecan pie); and the minute our dessert arrived we were stranded. No more coffee refills, no more peeking in every two seconds to check if we need anything. For her, we were a lost cause, bad customers who are too poor or too tight to appreciate their extravagant offerings; but she didn't know that I tend to be an obscenely generous tipper. Well... not this time. The turtle soup was good, and expensive; and for the 20 bucks they charge for the good-but-nothing-special omelette that comes with a lonely broiled tomato, I am guessing those must be very special eggs. Our dessert (chocolate pecan pie) perhaps could have been highlight of the brunch if only the ice cream it was served with wasn't rock hard. What a rip-off.
Later, we had some beignets and cafe at the Cafe du Monde, mostly for the experience. It is not very expensive (not cheap either); but especially if you get a table next to the street it is a very pleasurable people watching experience along with some live street music. We over ordered and got two orders of beignets for two; in two hours we would face terrible sugar hangover headaches. Unless you have a very efficient sugar metabolism and little insulin resistance, half order per person is perhaps ideal; more is overkill. Overall, it was a fun thing to do, not just for the fried sugary food or standard coffee; but also as an opportunity to smell the air of the French Market and watch people go by.
We got wiser as the hours passed. We had late dinner reservations, so I said "lets some oysters as teasers". We arrived at the Felix. What a wonderful place with wonderful people! We stood at the bar, and the shucker behind the bar treated us so well. 18 oysters, two Abita's and we were in heaven. Yes these oysters might not be properly washed on the outside, so there might be some sand (watch out slurpers), but they were giant, fresh, briny; they tasted like the smell of sea. It was also funny to watch some people looking at the bar in horror when they were offered to stand at the bar instead of being seated. Well dudes, we get the best ones while yours get pre shucked and sit on a tray for too long. Suckas!
And then we went to Cochon which was decadent, but homey. Everything was close to perfect. From the fairly priced wine menu to not-too-snotty bistro like atmosphere, we felt at home. We shared everything, and my partner who was scared of the pig ear and tongue salad even ate a few bites and approved the dish. I never had spoonbread before so I cannot compare it with anything but their version topped with okra and blackeye peas was pretty good, perhaps needed some hot sauce. The spicy sausage was excellent, and the grits (albeit being a little runny) was creamy. The oyster bacon sandwich was perfectly executed and the ribs were fork tender, sweet and spicy. We had a red velvet cake to share (good but perhaps the most unsurprising thing we ate there, next time we'll try other desserts) and tried some nutmegy Catdaddy moonshine for digestion. Umm yeah!
We woke up and headed to Mothers. Luckily, we arrived just before the crowds. Our breakfasts were wholesome, but bland. The omelette sauces/gravies had little seasoning or spice and the biscuits were tough. Thank god we had lots of hot sauce and butter in hand. Overall it wasn't a horrible experience, but I was perhaps expecting much better.
For lunch we got the ubiquitous Muffaletta from the Corner Grocery, along with some limonata. We ate our quarter sandwiches at the riverwalk, watching people and boats pass by. The sun smiling at us, we got insanely jealous about the people living in this city.
We did some touristy stuff rest of the day and when we got hungry we decided to try Coops. But first we made another stop at Felix. They recognized us immediately and treated us well. Great people, great food; if only they had some darker beers (like the fantastic Turbodog); this place could be heaven.
Not wanting to leave, but terrified of heavy metal poisoning after so many oyster meals; we headed to Coops. What a fantastic dive! From the unleashed bulldog (which has his own teddy bear to hug while sleeping) to the attitude of the servers it was a unique place. We had the juiciest chicken with the crispest skin, with some good jambalaya and a couple of Turbodogs. After that, we wanted to try Napoleon house, but we were too content to blemish this day with another Bombay experience so we went to see a movie. We were too old to drink all day anyway.
We headed to Petunia's with lots of anticipation. The place was closed for holidays previously, so this was the first and last chance we had there. Waited for a ridiculous amount of time, hoping that the food will be worth it. It was. We shared a crab benedict type of dish and a po-boy and washed them down with some bloody marys. The desserts looked good, but we already had plans to go to NOLA Cakes where we had some fine cakes alongside treats from the owner. We sat there for a while on a patio table, watching the people walk in the neighborhood. It was sunny and warm but crisp; perfect day to get some frosting on the nose.
Our plan for this trip was to go to mainly casual places because we wanted to taste the authentic food of New Orleans; the food most local people ate. But Cochon has left so many good memories in our mind that we wanted to have more from this chef. Herbsaint was a good choice perhaps, but living in another French infused city (Montreal), we thought it could be a little redundant to go to a placed that was labeled as "French". But the the minute I heard pork belly, nothing could stop me.
We were very much mistaken about Herbsaint being another old school restaurant with standard French dishes. First, it was pleasantly casual, with no elitist BS that I strongly dislike. Second, while some of the dishes like the confit were unmistakenly French, there were unique elements to them to make them stand apart from what we can have in Montreal. My dish was pretty much straightforwardly Southern, a decadently fatty, fork tender pork belly alongside with greens and blackeye peas. My partner had the duck confit with dirty rice (and I believe it had lentils in it) and I think I heard he moan a little bit. Earlier, we had the frog legs appetizer and the homemade pasta with an oil poached egg. The legs were crisp and juicy with a fragrant tarragon spiked batter, and the pasta was the most ingeneous carbonara deconstruction I have ever seen. We finished our dinner off with the legendary banana brown sugar tart and the chocolate meringue-chocolate ice cream topped with earl grey cream. We ordered some 6 year old Sazerac at the end, fragrant and sharp enough for digestion. Another perfect dinner!
I really didn't want to come back to snow covered streets of Montreal. Oh well! At least I brought a bottle of Pimms with me.