After spending two weeks or so each of the past few years in France eating my way through the Michelin Red Guide, I decided to take a 4 day eating vacation to New Orleans to see how it compares. Here is the short answer: Save your money and go to France where they really know how to cook. That may sound harsh but I will explain in greater detail:
Day 1: My flight arrived at 7:40 AM. After the trip in from the airport and hotel check in (Place d'Armes, Rue St Ann, a really enjoyable hotel) it was just about time for my first reservation, breakfast at Brennan's. I selected oyster soup, eggs hussard and banana foster. My wife chose berries in cream, a dish consisting of fried shrimp over spinach and parmesan, and a dessert of strawberry and cream cheese creps. The eggs hussard were good, two poached eggs served on holland rusks (toast) with two sauces, hollandaise and marchand de vin (red wine). This was good food, but you got the feeling these dishes had been done so many times over and over that you were really just getting well prepared airline food. Price including a bottle of San Pelligrino, one Mimosa and one glass of zinfandel was $110.52 + tip. I would probably go again, this restaurant offered perfecty acceptable food, a friendly staff and a nice dining room but nothing really spectacular. I compare the acceptable eggs hussard to a fabulous lunch first course at Restaurant Jamin (2 stars) in Paris last year that consisted of a perfectly poached egg with blanched asparagus, jambon belotta belotta and sauced with a rich bordeaux reduction. Well, actually, there is no comparison.
Day 1 Dinner: This board touts Upperline as some gastronomic mecca, so I arrived with great anticipation. My wife and I both ordered from what they called the Louisiana Purchase menu, 4 courses for $40 + $25 for wine pairings. I selected the turtle soup with Madeira, fried green tomatoes with shrimp remoulade with Louis Jadot Pouilly Fusse, half a roasted duck with ginger peach sauce with a Pinot Noir wine, and bread pudding with port wine. This was a perfectly enjoyable dinner but again was not spectacular. The duck was good but paled in comparison to the Cannette (baby duck) d'Challans (a region of France known for poultry)served two ways, rotie et fume, roasted and smoked, I enjoyed during two different visits to Restaurant Hiramatsu (1 star) in Paris. My wife had similar thoughts. Total price was $157.49 + tip.
Day 2 Lunch: We arrived at Rene Bistrot at 1230 to an empty dining room. This restaurant is located in the Rennaisance Pere Marquette hotel. Other than some bar guests, only one other patron had lunch, at least while we were there. That is too bad. Both me and my wife considered this to be the best place we ate at during our visit. The chef is from Alsace and was obviously brought up with a disciplined approach to cooking. I had a meticulously prepared potato galette topped with a very generous portion of smoked salmon shaped to form a flower. Herb infused cream was thinly piped on top of the salmon. The crispy potato cake sat in a pool of pepper jelly sauce. This was both a delicious and technically well executed dish. My main was half of a roasted chicken sauced with herb infused, reduced chicken stock / white wine with tiny whole onions and pieces of bacon. This was a simple but again very tasty and well executed dish. For dessert I had 3 profiteroles stuffed with vanilla, pistachio and hazelnut ice cream. My only complaint about this dish was that the chocolate sauce appeared to have been made from a low cocoa content chocolate. We had an unusualy but enjoyable Sicilian red to drink. Price was about $100 + tip. I highly recommend this restaurant.
Day 2 Dinner: Brigtsen's is another restaurant highly touted on this board. We arrived promptly at 8:30 PM but had to wait to be seated. This brings up a big problem I have with these supposedly fine dining restaurants, they overbook. A Michelin starred restaurant takes only as many reservations as it has tables so you never have this problem when dining in France. Each dinner we had in New Orleans included a wait to be seated even though we arrived on time.
Brigtsen's is located in a charming house, but tables are fairly well packed in. For my first course I selected fried des Allemandes catfish with jalapeno tartar sauce. This was a very well prepared dish. The fish was fried to perfection, very good. The rabbit with creole mustard I had for my main, however, was just so so. It was good, but not a dish etched in my mind. This is a stark contrast to the lapin au citron confit I had at Monsiuer Lapin (Michelin Bibb Gourmand) in Paris a few years ago. I can not even remember what the dessert was and I just ate there 4 days ago so that tells you something. Brigtsen's is a good restaurant but nowhere near as good as you might think by reading posts on this board.
Day 3 Lunch: We had lunch at Mr B's Bistro. This was an enjoyable lunch with a jazz trio providing entertainment. To start I had fried catfish with tomato tartar sauce. I intentionally ordered this to compare to the catfish dish from the previous night. It was good but not close to the Brigtsen's dish. My main course was grillades and grits, a New Orleans traditional dish. The wine list is way overpriced with lots of grocery store wines at high prices. We settled on a bottle of Mark West Pinot Noir which was quite tasty and one of the lowest priced bottles, $32. My wife had the BBQ shrimp, which she thought was fabulous. Total price $104.81 + tip. I would certainly return here for a casual lunch.
Day 3 Dinner: I had read somewhere, I think on their website, that Commander's Palace was voted by someone as the best restaurant in the USA a few years ago. With that bit of knowledge, I arrived expecting something equivalent to a Michelin 3 star. While the cooking was of very high quality, the overall dining experience is nowhere near what you get in France. Start with the long wait, although arriving on time, constant bustle in the dining room from turning tables over and over again, and speed service apparently in an attempt to turn more tables, and the cooking could not make up for the overall less than desirable dining experience.
No amuse bouchee were served, which is a serious fault in my opinion for a restaurant that is supposed to be among the best in the USA. My first course was sugar cane crusted foie gras served on black pepper pain perdue with a sauce of reduced strawberry jam and Malbec wine. This was no question the best dish of the trip and probably the best foie gras dish I have ever had. It was both delicious and technically perfect. My main was pecan crusted red snapper served with a butter sauce of some kind. It was very good but, again not something that sticks in my mind as a fabulous dish. In comparison, the 2 baby pan fried St Pierre fish sauced with jus de viande at Phamplet (Michelin Bibb Gourmand) last fall sticks in my mind as one of the most perfect fish dishes I have ever had. Second only perhaps to the piece of turbot I had at Helene Darroze (Michelin 2 star) in Paris that was cooked in such a way that the skin was perfectly crispy but the meat tasted like it had been poached. Commander's Palace has some good supervision in the kitchen, but no where near the technical proficiency you find in Michelin star restaurants at least with regards to cooking fish. For dessert I had the bread pudding souffle which is topped with creme anglaise at the table. I liked this dessert quite a bit, although it is very sweet. Total price $190.95 + tip. Commander's Palace is a very good restaurant, but I think it could only be voted #1 in America by a clientelle that has never experienced a really world class restaurant. I compare this to my lunch at Auberge d'l'Ill (3 Michelin Stars held continuously since 1967) in Illhausern France in September 2003 and again, there really is no comparison.
Day 4 Lunch: We had a lengthy lunch at Palace Cafe while waiting out a fierce rainstorm. I had the crab cheesecake for first course followed by thin pieces of veal over mashed potatoes served with several crawfish tails. My wife had crawfish etouffee which she liked very much. We both liked this restaurant. Total price $111.40 plus tip.
Day 4 Dinner: The Bayona menu posted on the internet looked enticing so I again arrived with great anticipation. After waiting 20 minutes or so we were seated. I ordered goat cheese croutons in Madeira cream for my first course. My wife had a salad which she liked very much. My first course consisted of goat cheese spread on toast which had been broiled to brown the cheese and then topped with sauteed wild mushrooms and them sauced with the Madeira Cream. This was a very good and nicely presented dish. For my main I ordered peppered loin of lamb with zinfandel sauce. My wife ordered hanger steak with baby leeks. Although our first courses arrived promptly, there was almost an hour lag from when our first course plates were taken away and the mains arrived. I do not like speed dining at this level but an hour lag is just not good. The server appologized saying there was a convention in town making it an unusually busy Monday night. OK but I go back to my previous observation about how all these restaurants appeared to overbook at dinner. I compare this to the dinner I had at Delice, a Michelin 1 star in Stuttgart, Germany in which one server, the owner / chef and one assistant, flawlessly served extremely high quality food to a dining room of 20 tables or so when I visited there in September 2003. For such a highly regarded restaurant as Bayona, why was service such a problem? Anyway, the lamb loin was quite good when it arrived served with 5 nicely blanched green beans, a quenelle of very light sweet potato puree and cubes of regular potato that tasted as if they had been cooked in bacon grease. This was a very good dish. For dessert my wife had freshly prepared minature donuts with hazelnut icecream. I had an icecream sandwich made from thin brownies and the same hazelnut icecream. It was served with roasted hazelnuts and the sandwich was rolled in cocoa nibs. It was very good. I liked Bayona very much in spite of the service issue. Total including a well priced bottle of 2001 Savigny les Beaune Domaine Pavelot was $167.92 + tip.
In summary, while you can eat well in New Orleans, I do not think the cooking at any of these places was any better than what you can get, for instance at Daniel Bouloud's DB Bistro Moderne in New York and certainly any run of the mill Michelin 1 Star in France just trounces these places in terms of both service and technical proficiency in the kitchen.