We were back in New Orleans, our favorite city, for a long weekend earlier this month after a too-long 2 1/2 year hiatus from our annual visits. Thanks as always to CH for the amazing suggestions. My pre-trip thread (here: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/812019) was full of too much good advice to fit into 4 days but damn if we didn't try! Almost everything was a knockout. (Comprehensive photos will be coming to my wife's blog, Tasty Trix, within the coming weeks.) And without further ado, heeeeere we go!
We hit the ground running by heading straight to Mr. B's for our beloved BBQ shrimp, but not before first sampling the gumbo ya-ya. Last time we were in town we were keeping to a pescatarian diet (detailed here: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/633414 ) so we had the seafood gumbo instead and found it a little underwhelming but this time we were down for whatever and found the gumbo ya-ya to be absolutely outstanding. Dark, earthy and smokey. Really great. The BBQ shrimp were as good as we remembered, with big plump, perfectly cooked shrimp and that peppery, buttery, garlicky sauce. I've developed a bit of a reputation on Chowhound for promoting Mr. B's BBQ shrimp, and I've even made it at home from their recipe, and I'm happy to say that I stand by all my past recs. If I had to point folks to one bite of food that defines the richness and uniqueness of creole cooking for me, it's this.
We also had some cocktails: Bloody marys and pomegranate cocktail (a couple rounds.) The lunch special cocktails are a really great deal here. They're not 25 cents, but they're not much more. Mr. B's is one of those places that balances lovely ambience with casual atmosphere in just the right way.
Thrilled with the way our dining started we strolled around the Quarter a little and ultimately ended up at Galatoire's (a return visit after a notorious Friday dinner there in 2007) where we started off with sazeracs - pleasingly bitter and sweet simultaneously. We also tore into another outstanding loaf of bread, this one slightly denser. There was still a lingering din from the lunch crowd and we noted that the room can accommodate a pretty healthy roar without you needing to shout to be heard by your companion, something you can't take for granted in loud restaurants. We ordered shrimp remoulade and oysters en brochette. The shrimp were some of the best I've had, for sure. The remoulade had the perfect amount of kick and the shrimp were buttery, rich, and meaty. Outstanding. The oysters were plump and juicy on the inside, crisp on the outside, and topped off with a beautiful smokiness from the bacon. The black butter they were soaked in just added to the decadence, although it might have come off as a bit too buttery to some. (But after the BBQ shrimp, really there was no turning back.)
I also really appreciated the service - attentive but not disruptive, and unhurried as can be. We sat for some time sipping a second round of sazeracs, as the restaurant emptied out and the din of diners turned into the clink of glasses being replaced and silverware being set up. Outside we chatted with the manager and some of the wacky line-holders who were dutifully (and lucratively) saving spots for lunch the next day.
We walked around for a while and eventually had a drink at the Sazerac Bar in the Roosevelt, which was fully decked out for the holidays with an amazing light display. The drinks here were top notch. The sazerac was even better than Galatoire's (a trend that would continue with each saz) and my wife's French 75 was crisp and refreshing. We were lucky to grab a couch since it was hopping. It was nice to see the lively atmosphere in the bar, although the restaurant was empty.
For dinner we went to the Green Goddess and put in our names, heading to the Carousel Bar for Vieux Carres while we waited. We were bummed that the piano bar was closed off for renovations, leaving the bar area feeling less festive than usual. Still, we love that place. After a couple of spins around the room we headed back to Exchange Alley to check on how things were going.
The Green Goddess was a revelation. Almost everything we had was awesome. We sat outside on a beautiful night and really took our time ordering, since every dish sounded so amazing. We started off with their takes on a sazerac and a mint julep and eventually ordered Oysters Delacroix and Shrimp "Wearing a Grass Skirt." The oysters were plump and juicy and the comforting broth, smokey bacon and braised Napa cabbage were all perfect. And the shrimp were also perfectly cooked and presented in a really creative way. Plus the dark sauce (their version of NOLA BBQ shrimp sauce) was reduced to a really rich flavor.
The mains we ordered were the Cochon de Lei and Louisiana Bangers and Mash. The cochon was really rich and beautifully balanced. wrapped in banana leaves, the pork was rich and complex tasting. The bangers and mash was the only near-miss since overall the dish was too sweet. The sausages used were great, but the mash and sauce just sort of overpowered. We had another cocktail with this course, I believe the Meantime, a whiskey cocktail. Another winner!
The Green Goddess was a definite highlight and we'll go back. Chef Chris came out several times to chat and you could tell that he has great enthusiasm for flavors and for cooking and it shows in his food.
We had planned to go to see Kermit at Vaughn's later that night but we were way too tired and decided to skip since we didn't want to lose our whole next day to exhaustion.
The next day, however, started off in a really memorable way. Surprisingly warm, we grabbed iced cafe au laits at Cafe du Monde and walked over to the WWOZ studios. I brought a couple of copies of my NOLA-inspired art book to give the station as a gift and Keith, the trad jazz DJ, ended up letting me talk about how much I love the city and how it inspired my work on air for a few minutes. If anyone heard that segment, that was me!
We meandered through the Quarter and eventually over to the St Charles streetcar to ride up to what's always one of our most highly anticipated meals: Lunch at Commander's Palace. Ti Martin greeted us at the door and heartily endorsed our plan to arrive very early in order to drink at the bar before lunch. Soon after arriving at the bar and ordering a couple of great cocktails we were surrounded by a group of suited men, a couple of whom looked familiar. One of them soon started talking to us and ww learned that they were an annual get-together of owners and managers of pretty much every major hospitality group or business in town: Galatoire's, Mr B's ACME, food distributors, country clubs, etc… They were lubricated and hilarious, as you can imagine.
Eventually we made our way up to the garden room where, from the joyous ambient noise level, we were joining many parties already in progress. We decided to start off with a round of expertly-mixed martinis and by sharing an appetizer before moving on to more plates, so we split the boudin-stuffed pork belly, which was an incredible little bite. Served over braised greens and a pig trotter jus, this was a little plate that packed a hugely complex flavor. Sweet, salty, rich, smokey. The perfect little thing to share.
We went for Commander's Palace classics for the next course: Turtle soup and oyster absinthe "dome." The turtle soup was just as promised: Rich and layered, with tartness and sweetness. The dome was something that I'd been looking forward to for a long time. We had a Chincoteague oyster stew at a Baltimore restaurant not long before and, while I recognize that the recipes are totally different, the norther cousin tasted like lovely plump oysters sitting in a bowl of unseasoned milk. With Commander's dome, however, the broth was potently flavorful, with a comforting warmth that really hit home. And the oysters were top notch: Tender, salty and completely amazing.
I should also mention the bread: In addition to the little chunks of delicious garlic bread that the start you off with, we were in awe of the French bread that accompanied our apps. After Mr. B's and Gal's it seems impossible to improve on the bread service but Commander's managed it. In all three establishments I found myself just tearing off a hunk of that beautiful, warm loaf and slowly, deeply inhaling the aroma of the tender insides.
For mains we asked the server to pair a couple of glasses of red wine to our entrees and we ordered the wild game-bird cassoulet and the Louisiana Cochon De Lait. The cassoulet was a revelation. The creamy beans were extremely flavorful and the duck leg and assorted other bird components were all succulent and awesome. Definitely one of the richest things I've tasted in a while and incredible. I remember the Cochon de Lait being great as well but honestly, by the time I tasted it I was losing my lucidity a little bit. Drunk on wine, cocktails and, most importantly, amazing flavors, it was all I could do to keep from bursting with joy. All around this was probably the best meal we've had at CP.
Throughout the meal the room felt increasingly celebratory. The guys from the bar filled two tables right around us and kept cracking us up with their singing and carousing. At one point I got up to use the restroom and told the guy we had talked to the most down at the bar to "keep an eye on" my wife, just to see what would happen. Tru to form he immediately jumped up at the opportunity to share a table with my wife and cracked wise about who knows what. Hilarious! Ti Martin stopped by a couple of times to chat and Chef Tory also toured the dining room, stopping at each table for a leisurely chat. The atmosphere on a day like that can't be matched anywhere else.
We finished off the meal with a couple of scotches. (We've had the bread pudding every other time we've gone and, while it's amazing, it would have killed us.) Afterwards our server Nolan took us on a tour of the grounds, including a private dining room in the wine cellar where you can have a special reverse-pairing dinner for 12 where the kitchen will make dishes matched to the wines selected. Pretty sweet! All told we were there for 3 1/2 hours and had an absolutely amazing time.
For dinner that day we headed to Cochon and it stood in pretty strong contrast to Commander's Palace (and all the meals on the previous day, as well.) One of the magnates at the CP bar poo-pooed this choice (I believe his words were "Coochon? Pffff fuck Coochon!") and while it was definitely not a BAD restaurant experience, it couldn't compare with the rest of our meals. It's the most NORMAL restaurant we visited. It could be in New York or Washington DC. The food was good but not transcendent and the atmosphere is nothing unusual. Event he pacing seemed designed to turn tables, not something we expect in New Orleans. We had some very nice cocktails and ordered a few items to split. The boudin balls were ok, although nothing special (the pickled peppers on the side, however, were great) and the rabbit livers with pepper jelly had good components, but the jelly overpowered the livers. The rabbit and dumplings were tasty but nothing you couldn't make at home easily. The oyster and meat pie was good but, again, didn't quite get up to that next level. We did a moonshine flight at the end, which ranged from way-too-drinkable to almost impossible to choke down. All in all we were not blown away, for once.
The next day we meandered through the warehouse district, checking out the awesome little farmers market, and up Magazine all the way to Casamento's only to discover that the line was out the door! Starving and looking at a wait of well over an hour we regrouped and headed up to St Charles to eat at a place that we've admired without actually trying every time we go to Commander's Palace: The Grocery. This little corner shop is exactly the sort of place we'd go to all the time if we lived in the neighborhood. We ordered a roast beef po-boy and a "muffaletta" (which they server on pressed French bread.) Sitting outside, munching on some seriously flavorful sandwiches, it was paradise.
When we got back to downtown we stopped in Cafe Adelaide for a drink. My wife, who was starting to feel sick so she got a hot toddy. I got a Swizzle Stick which, even though it was a girl drink, was delicious.
Next we headed into Drago's to try to the chargrilled oysters. The space is definitely a nightmare but we bellied up to the oyster station and ordered a dozen. I'm of two minds: On the one hand they tasted great (I mean, with all that butter and garlic how could they not?) but on the other hand the oysters weren't as plump as we'd had elsewhere that the cleaning was clearly inconsistent. There was lots of grit and broken shell all over the place. I want to check out the other location next time since the recipe itself is clearly awesome. But this location probably won't get another visit from me.
For dinner we headed up to Dante's Kitchen, which was a good move. Set in a lovely house on a quiet residential street (but directly across from Brigsten's! I've love to live on that block!) the restaurant had a great vibe. They started us off with a little skillet of buttery buckwheat spoonbread which was awesome. The talented bartender made my wife a custom cocktail based on her tastes and I had a "classic" sazerac, made with cognac, which was really interesting. We ordered boudin rouge and shrimp and grits for apps and both were outstanding. The boudin was a big change from Cochon. Intensely flavorful, soft in texture and just very cool. The shrimp and grits were also great, with big head-on shrimp and creamy grits.
For mains my wife ordered Trois Mignon and each little medium-rare steak (topped with debris, house-made worcestershire, and melted Stilton) was perfectly cooked, juicy, and sauced or seasoned beautifully. I had the confit pork steak and spare ribs, which was a heaping portion but was beautifully prepared and tender as hell. Plus the samosa-seasoned veggies were an unexpected treat along with it. Dante's Kitchen is DEFINITELY worth a visit.
Our last day (really a half day) was Sunday so we wanted brunch, but we decided to head back to Lil Dizzy's where we had brunch last time. We picked up some cafe au laits to go at CDM and strolled up Esplanade to the Treme Lil Dizzy's. Man, I love that place. The staff gives the impression that they genuinely love being there and it's great to be surrounded by people who are truly EATING! The buffet is awesome, with fried chicken that's every bit as juicy and crispy as it looks. Other items like mac n cheese, catfish with something like crab topping, grits, and gumbo were all awesome. And the bread pudding was creamy, smooth and fab. A great final meal for the trip.
We strolled around for a while and eventually headed to Tujagues for sazeracs which, after having them all over town, were the absolute best. After the delightfully sweet ones at Galatoire's, the crisp one at the Sazerac Bar, the quirkiness of the rum version at the Green Goddess, and the antiquated sweetness of the cognac version at Dante's Kitchen, the Tujagues sazerac was just simple, perfectly balanced elegance. Standing at the bar, surrounded by the local characters and chatting with the ornery bartender, I had a perfect moment of New Orleans bliss. Plus the Saints were on and I think it was just as I was achieving the ideal state of sazerac-blessed happiness that a game-changing touchdown was scored. Even though our visit to our favorite city in the world was wrapping up I couldn't have been happier.
BUT WAIT THERE'S MORE! We also picked up a muffaletta at Frank's for the flight home. The bread was a little stale (although it was Sunday, so I guess that could be expected) but the olive salad and cold cuts were awesome. Definitely ideal snack food.
You didn't think I was done with you yet? We also brought back roast beef poboys from Verti Marte for lunch the next day. Obviously the bread lost its crispness (no fault of its own) but the roast beef was rich and juicy and was definitely a far cry better than what I would have gotten at my company cafeteria.
New Orleans, you are an extraordinary city. When will we be back? Hard to pinpoint exactly. But don't be surprised if the next time we come to town it's to stay.