It took me 36 hours and 4 meals before I gained a glimmer of what it was I had come to New Orleans to eat. What it was was this: anything local--caught in local waters or slithering over land or grown in a field, and not more than hundred miles as the crow flies from Jackson Square; AND served in rooms themselves with a great sense of place. That it took me a day and a half to figure this out cost me four good meals, which loss I greatly begrudge, still.
First stop Xmas night was Marisol, where a very talented chef toils in a charming old house. Marisol's menu is populated by mostly 'imported' items: i.e Tasmanian Salmon, Mediterranean Pompano and so forth. I probably should have went with him there, instead of ordering a $24 dollar semi-boned half duck that late Xmas afternoon got to the table far too dry to be taken seriously. Reasonable wine list though (Taurino Salice Salentino Reserva 1998 $18.00), and very good dirty rice and pristine brussel sprouts filled out the duck plate. There's only one excuse imaginable for such a crime against pre-roasted poultry: overwork resulting in inattention. I'll go back readily when Chef Pete comes back from sabbatical, rested and on the money.
Boxing day found us opening Camellia Grill for breakfast. Nothing to add to what's already been said: a great greasy spoon, perhaps not worth a wait, but certainly worth the visit.
Lunch at Liuzza' By The Track. Here the quest crystallized. Very good creole (no okra, no file gumbo) seafood gumbo. Crab Cakes Friday Special a joke--90% bread but with a tasty gravy. BBQ shrimp po boy was a hollowed out hero loaf, filled with 60-count north sea frozen shrimp in a solid shrimp-stock intense gravy. My fault--I assumed that BBQ shrimp had something to do with flames. Would go back only for the gumbo. Not deterred and now fired up, left Liuzza's and called Casamento's, who said they were still open. Cut across N. Broad onto Napolean, rolled up at Magazine at 1:45 only to discover that lunch service ends at 1:30 PM sharp. Sigh. And it cost me two bucks in the parking meter to boot (which after getting a $15.00 ticket at a chowhound dinner a few weeks ago on a snowy evening in Chicago I was determined not to get snagged on again).
Retreated to the hotel bar at La Cote Brasserie while my wife went shopping. Ordered a $9.00 hotel-priced dozen local oysters and got my first glimpse of the day's silver lining. Huge oysters, well shucked, so good that when my wife walked in we ordered a second dozen.
Meanwhile, all afternoon, I'm dialing Restaurant Mandich, and keep getting the machine. I conclude that Mandich is probably closed for Xmas Week (like Dick and Jenny's and Jacques Imo's). Finally about 5:30 I make one last try, and lo, Mandich is open (although they had been closed for lunch that day).
Finding Mandich itself is a challenge if you don't know that Rampart changes into St. Claude a few blocks past Esplanade. Then you go a ways, past the big fried chicken sign that says 'More Cluck For The Buck', then eventually, deep into what I guess must be the ninth ward, comes Restaurant Mandich. Even before we ordered, I was happy, both with the sense of place like a favorite family friend's house and hot garlic bread that arrived immediately when seated.
Ordering at Mandich presented a personal challenge. All the things that every writer and Chowhound poster suggested sounded overly rich and complex. But sometimes, you have to make a leap of faith, since ordering dinner presents a wholly transient commitment as opposed to choosing a mate for life.
Long story short I'm climbing up on the soapbox: Restaurant Mandich is le ne plus ultra chowhound spot in New Orleans. Oysters Bordelaise (fried, back onto the half shell, drizzled with garlic-scallion butter) superb. And the best turtle soup of four tries during the trip---intense fresh turtle flavor, beef and turtle stock, allspice. The recipe is on the wall in the bar, but it omits much of the technique. Sort of like you get what you bring to it, if you know what I mean. Ok, I'm going to blow on. The Trout Meuniere, with fresh lump crab meat sauteed in butter atop (here I did cop out and ducked the holladaise). A second revelation equal to that of the turtle soup. Also, the first etouffee I have ever had in a restaurant that was not a crime against cuisine--deep, complex, and perfectly cooked shrimp. The place was quiet last Friday, so after dinner we got a chance to sit at the bar and talk awhile with Mr. Mandich and Aaron. We learned that a turtle has seven different cuts of meat each cut with different textures. The stringy parts come from the front quarters and the smooth parts from the hind. While we talked, a party of ten lingered on in the next room. Mr. Mandich mentioned it was the Mosca's (likewise, closed for Xmas week). Not surprised, not surprised at all.
With the check finally paid, my attention immediately turned to our next unplanned meal -- Sunday. So many places closed, I whined, a helpless tourist who might go hungry and at a loss. The Mandichs' response was rapid and unequivocal. La Cuisine, 225 Harrison (west of Ponchartrain Blvd) in Metairie. "What kind of food" I asked. "Like ours" said Aaron. Mr. Mandich nodded. No question.
Next day found us on the River Road, my wife having already toured Laura Plantation and this trip wanting more. From Hungry Celeste's past post, we had lined up Hymel's in Convent, about fifteen minutes west of San Francisco Plantation. Oysters $4.50 (now we're talking--not $9.00 like the hotel!). Couldn't be fresher. Better gumbo than turtle soup, although both good. A whole speckled trout $9.50 (came with two actually--each about a 1-1/4 pound fish, the waitress said they were a little small), cornmeal dusted as were the fried oysters and soft shells. Praline caramel ice cream. Little hope left for dinner, so we finally got to Casamento's before they closed at 9:00 PM for very good oysters ($7.00), good fried oysters/excellent hand cut fries intermezzo and gumbo forgettable. Lovely place and very nice people too.
Sunday, we drank our lunch in preparation for dinner. Which brings us to La Cuisine Sunday night. Before we went, I searched both the web and chowhound, but could find nary a mention. So the short drive to Metairie was another leap of Mandich faith, although I should mention that Hymel's proprietor, a gentleman whose oldest children must well be past a certain age themselves, averred that La Cuisine was his wife's favorite place. You walk into La Cuisine, all the walls are dark paneling. The first room is the smoking section populated by several colorful characters that probably belonged to the many mercedes outside, then a long bar in a narrow room that looks like its been there a hundred years, not just since 1966. Then a series of small dining rooms, all paneled in dark wood. No appetizer, all these dinners were catching up with us. Terrific turtle soup--veal stock based and brightened with orange zest, almost,almost as good as Mandich. Good gumbo, but the turtle soup was two notches better. More great trout meuniere. From a reasonable, unadventurous wine list, a modest bottle of very crisp Lagaria Pinot Grigio. Praline sundae for my wife, she of the 130 cholestorol. Very hard to believe indeed that La Cuisine hasn't made it up onto Chowhound radar. Great food, and a terrific sense of place.
Last day, and still a crescendo to come--Harbor Seafood on Williams Blvd and 33rd Street in Kenner, five minutes from the airport. Rolled up at 11:00 sharp. Lights still out, workers inside. Sat at 11:15. Ordered a pitcher of Abita Amber, several dozen oysters ($3.25, now we're talking!), soft shell's for me, lunch special blackened amberjack for my wife. Soft shell's were huge, they came in shortly after we ordered, unbelievably fresh. Amberjack cooked perfectly, still moist despite blackening. Great cornmeal encrusted onion rings. First okra based gumbo of the trip, very good. Turtle soup just ok. It wasn't just the price--these were the best oysters of the trip, bar none, not La Cote, not Hymel's, not Casamento's. Funny thing about Harbor: it was full by 11:45, when we left at 12:30 a dozen people were waiting, but even so, the food is not fast food, it doesn't fly out of the kitchen, and what's more--everyone just accepts it. They should--the oyster po boy's looked unreal! After lunch walked into the attached fish market and kicked myself that I didn't order the boiled shrimp, as they had fresh 16-20 count head-on gray shrimp at $3.99!
If you live in New Orleans, I don't think any of these places we visited are a big deal. New Orleans local bounty is so rich, what with seafood, game and produce, I suspect both chefs and customers could in time get jaded.
Not us. Not ever. Now if I could just get back those thirty-six misspent hours...