Just did 4 days/nights in New Orleans with the GF during the cold snap, and had an interesting variety of culinary experiences. To note, I am a pretty simple eater - my tastes are generally pretty binary (I like it or I don't) and I don't have much of a refined palate - but I love good value. Highlights mostly, with a few lowlights.
AMAZING VALUE: Luke's 25-cent oysters - Chef Besh's LUKE offers 25 cent oysters during their 3PM-6PM Happy Hour (which might be every day, not just weekdays, if I heard correctly). As soon as the plane landed, we dashed off to our hotel at the JW Marriott, and dropped our bags off at the hotel. A brisk five minute walk later at 5:15PM, I was sucking down oysters. By 6PM, I had consumed 3.5 dozen oysters (the gf had the other half), and my girlfriend was afraid I'd toss the proverbial cookies. We spent the time in between shucked oysters chatting up Shaw, the friendly full time mother shucker, who gave us our first bit of local color and professed to a somewhat ironic dislike of raw oysters. Also had a side of cheese grits which was solid. The only bad thing? I had found the oysters to be somewhat bland, with the oyster liquid lacking the salty ocean taste I had enjoyed in other oysters. I was told they were local oysters, and wasn't sure they were representative until I enjoyed the same type of oysters from Acme and they were similarly lacking in saltiness.
Amazing Value (second place): COCHON - Overall, very reasonable (entrees sub $25) prices for some very tasty, unique dishes. One of the two best dishes I had the entire trip was a "fried boudin with pickled peppers." At only $8, it was three balls that had a crispy exterior and a soft interior with rice and pork. When paired with a dijon mustard that accompanied the plate, it was burst with flavor as well as the pleasant textural contrast. It reminded me of something that would be at home in a dim sum restaurant. Also had paneed pork cheeks, which was alright, and fried alligator with chili garlic aioli. The alligator was solid. The texture reminded me of roast pork, and I found the taste of the meat to be relatively neutral, and the garlic aioli sauce okay. I would order alligator meat again. Solid service, and the restaurant was hopping, with a large dark dining room (decor was nothing special) and a relatively loud atmosphere. I would definitely return to Cochon for another meal.
Friday Lunch Bargain: I decided to have Friday lunch (known as a great time to enjoy bargain prices at high end restaurants) at EMERIL'S. Emeril's is tastefully decorated, with the restaurant a cross between old wood steakhouse and hip urban brick looks. I opted for the 3 courses in 30 minutes for $20, while my girlfriend had Darian's Chicken and Waffles. My first course was a gumbo, which was solid - flavorful but not overly salty. For my second, I had the Grilled Niman Ranch Pork Chop, which was cooked perfectly and very enjoyable. I don't like the mix of savory and sweet, but the boneless fried chicken my girlfriend had was excellent, with the "just right" level of breading, despite the waffles. My dessert ended with Vanilla Bean Creme Brulee, which had the requisite hard sugar topping but was cold underneath (I don't remember if that was normal or not - I thought that brulees were typically warm underneath). Service was attentive and friendly, and like August, my water glass never went empty for more than a few seconds. All in all, it was an excellent experience, one that I would happily pay for again.
Anti-Value - CENTRAL GROCERY's muffalettas - I had a full muffaletta (about $14 plus all in). It was good, with a reasonable ratio of meat/olive & veg dressing to bread (with slightly more bread than I'd like). I was disappointed that they had a bunch of premade muffalettas and just handed me one of the sandwiches. I'm glad I had the original muffaletta, and it was tasty with the olive salad definitely packing a powerful flavor punch. However, it wasn't worth the value equivalent of three Subway foot long sandwiches to me. Also, definitely have something to clean your hands afterwards because they will be very oily from the olive oil dressing. For me, I'm glad I had the experience of the Central Grocery muffaletta, but would not have it again from CG.
The High End: I had Saturday night dinner at John Besh's AUGUST. Our expectations were through the roof given the various accolades Chef Besh has received and his TV appearances. Service was very good - as good as one would expect from a top level restaurant. At the same time, they were relatively friendly as opposed to intimidating. We were a little early but seated promptly on time. Decor was brick and understated elegant. I was hoping for the 7 course degustation, but my gf couldn't make it happen (all guests must participate in a degustation or no one) because she eats light. I got the four course tasting menu and she got potato gnocci with shaved truffles. I have to admit, I found the courses in the tasting menu to be okay - I like big flavors, and I felt like there was a lot of subtlety in the dishes, but overall, I felt like I was expecting more. We started off with an amuse bouche of a seafood mousse presented in an egg shell. This was enjoyable, with the cream based in fish stock. One of the dishes from the tasting menu was a ravioli with an apple based sauce. I forgot the other two dishes, and my girlfriend had what we believe was a herb crusted trout dish. There was also a dessert in the tasting menu of little donut like holes with cranberry. Overall, I thought it was a good experience, but had such high expectations I don't think anyone cooking American cuisine could meet those expectations (since I have a lot more experience with American food than say, Thai food, which means I am more likely to be surprised with Thai food). I told the server that the meal met my expectations, quickly adding that our expectations were sky high - but he almost seemed to take offense that I was blown away (not in a bad way) and wanted to address the situation immediately. I explained that I was hoping to taste something I wouldn't be able to taste anywhere else (and given that it was the end of the meal, preferably something appetizer scaled, rather than entree scaled). After patiently listening to my somewhat high maintenance request, I was asked if I would eat foie gras, which I said I would, and the waiter told me he'd see what the kitchen could come up with given my request. He came out shortly later presenting a duo of foie gras, with one side intended to evoke memories of french toast, and the other called "pastrami." I didn't care for the french toast side, but the "pastrami" side definitely reminded me of deli specials and brought a bit of a smile to my face, as it was the most playfully clever dish I'd eaten in memory. However, as an overall experience, I'd say that it didn't surprise - I don't think it's supposed to be that kind of restaurant, and it might be more about executing premium, high quality dishes consistently with a high-service yet laid back environment - in that case, I think August is successful. But for my uneducated palate that "likes what it likes," I would say I'd spend money more effectively in other places. [I also suspect the foie gras duo was a subset of the "trio of foie gras" dish that I did not order from the menu, which isn't a bad thing, but I'll always wonder if it was something completely off menu that was whipped up in minutes or based on an existing dish].
The Classic End: Near the end of our trip, we enjoyed Sunday Jazz Brunch at COMMANDER'S PALACE. After a quick ride on the St. Charles streetcar from Canal Street, then walking through some of the Garden District homes and gawking at $3M mansions, we walked into CP, which looked pretty innocuous from the outside, with very few windows for a building of its size. As an experience, SJB at CP was definitely the best overall experience we had. When we walked into CP it felt like we were in a historic institution and in for a real treat. The hostess led us to our table in the balloon-decorated Garden Room (good call on the Garden Room) and as we passed the servers we got warm smiles from most of them. After we got to our table, our server, Scott, had the best combination of friendliness and professionalism I saw during our trip to NO. We skipped out on the potentially enticing cocktails (I don't drink) and went right into the three course brunch menus. I made clear up front that I love big flavors and have never been one much for subtlety, and Scott recommended the Shrimp and Tasso Henican: "Wild Louisiana white shrimp stuffed with spicy Cajun ham, Crystal hot sauce beurre blanc, pickled okra and five pepper jelly" as my appetizer. Attached in the picture to this posting, it was one of the two best dishes I had during the entire trip (with Cochon's boudin the other). It was incredibly flavorful (maybe too strong for some, but my girlfriend liked it too) and beautifully presented. During the meal, we enjoyed watching a veritable army of servers and waitstaff efficiently bringing dishes out and clearing tables, and locals celebrating birthdays and other special occasions. Eventually, a jazz trio came around taking requests, and they performed a song at my girlfriend's request. At my server's recommendation, I also had the Wild Shrimp and Grits as a main (she had the strawberry and white chocolate griddle cakes). I thought the shrimp and grits were okay - anything was bound to be a dissapointment after the Henican, especially another shrimp dish. To my palate, the griddle cakes were fine (what's not to like with so much sugar) - the nice part was that the sugar was very natural. Unlike most American desserts laden with high fructose corn syrup, I could have eaten and eaten those griddle cakes, whereas the sugar in most American desserts, when eaten to excess, leave this unpleasant, lingering sickly sweet aftertaste to me. For dessert, I opted for the strawberry shortcake (not always available) while my girlfriend opted for the bread pudding souffle. Both desserts were solid, but I found myself wondering about whether or not the other desserts would have been better for me. Overall, the whole experience felt like an authentic "special occasions" locals experience. The celebratory aspect of SJB at CP is a "don't miss" for any New Orleans visitor. I'd have it again for a special experience, but its expensive - too expensive for me to patronize for anything but special occasions.
The Low End: After so many white glove experiences, it was time to hit ACME OYSTER HOUSE for our final dinner for a return to dining reality. After a 20 minute wait in the line outside the restaurant after the Packers football game, we both had 1/2 po boy dining platters, where the GF had seafood gumbo and I had a chicken andouille gumbo accompanying a turkey and fried oyster po'boys, respectively. The gumbos were okay, but nothing to write home about. The po' boys were simple, but tasty; what they lacked in punchy flavors they made up for with the bread, which was flaky/crispy on the outside but delightfully chewy on the inside. After my meal, and a fun, friendly talk with Montrell, an oyster shucker working the bar we were seated at, I decided to also have a half dozen oysters (~$7.50) to see how they compared with Luke's (identical, as far as I could tell in terms of taste). Overall, it's a tourist trap with the associated pricing that comes with that, though at slightly more reasonable prices than the other tourist traps in the French Quarter, if I had to guess. I probably wouldn't return, but again, I was glad I went the one time for the experience.