(Thanks to everyone for all of their suggestions!...)
Neither my wife, nor I, had ever been to New Orleans. When a confluence of wonderful events presented itself along with an unbeatable deal at the W French Quarter we decided to splurge on 3 nights in New Orleans.
Friday, January 19
Café du Monde
We arrived in the afternoon bleary eyed from 2 hours of sleep the night before, with the weather overcast and drizzling rain. After dropping off our bags, we dashed across the French Quarter in anticipation of our very first taste of beignets. I doubt that I need to describe the Café to anyone on this board. My wife and I had heard about CdM years ago, and we had both been dreaming of it ever since. Fried food especially very simple fried food is one of our favorite things. The beignets managed to live up to the weight of our crushing expectations while still being quite a surprise. In all the things I ever read about Beignets, no one ever mentioned that they are not sweet; sure, with the heapings of powdered sugar on top, they taste delightfully sweet, but the actual dough itself almost borders on savory. They are so much more addictive than I had ever imagined; I would advise eating them fast, however, for as they cool they harden and, well, congeal. (And, of course, the chicory coffee was splendid as well.)
We ate very well on the trip, but nothing was really quite as wonderful or satisfying as the beignets.
We both avoid eating meat, but our first muffaletta was still quite satisfying. Again, Im sure that regular readers of the board are familiar with the C.G. (invented the muff, blah, blah), but I do think it bears mentioning what a wonderful grocery store surrounds this muffaletta provider. (We actually bought a bag of popcorn rice to bring back home.) A vegetarian muff seems (to our novice eyes) to be a regular with the meat replaced by provolone. Though neither of us really likes olives, we did truly love the sandwich. Something about the salad (pickled peppers, etc.) balances out the olives, leaving just a singular and enjoyable peppery, oily taste. I know that theres a debate on who does it the best, but we were very happy with the C.G. version.
(After this, we returned to the room, and went to sleep. I know, for shame, for shame )
Saturday, January 20
We arrived around 11:45. Only once we left did we realize how lucky we were: exiting the restaurant there was a line of at least 50 people who were not even allowed to enter the restaurant yet.
Zagats gives Mothers an 11 (out of 30) for décor, which might be the most egregious example of how screwed up Zagats actually is. I cannot imagine a more picturesque restaurant than Mothers rough brick walls with old pictures and accolades, cooks scurrying back and forth into the kitchen with sagging plastic bags of sauce, and dazed tourists slightly awed and extremely intimidated by the whole thing.
I had a Shrimp Po Boy and my wife had the breakfast special eggs, biscuit, grits, soda, and turkey. (They couldnt not give us the meat.) Grits were surprisingly non-buttery (the way we like them), and excellent. The Po Boy was good, but it didnt rock our world. Frankly, we were hoping to have a fried potato Po Boy, but were not able to make it to Liuzzas, a restaurant that is supposed to serve such a thing.
Tee-Evas (sort of)
After lunch, we decided to take a bus west to visit Tee-Evas, a fantastic sounding pie shop in the Garden District that we read about on Chowhound. Almost immediately we caught a bus on Magazine street, and stayed on for 46 of the most beautiful blocks of architecture weve ever seen. Building after building, house after house, each seemed to be a more perfect version of some ideal version of what New Orleans was supposed to look like. Sadly, however, Tee-Evas was not able to live up to our dreams, as the shop was closed; a gallery owner across the street said that she (Tee-Eva, I guess) comes in and out at her own whim during the winter months. One of these days I suppose we will actually order the pie through the mail.
Café du Monde
On our second trip we were nearly overwhelmed by the crowds; we thought it was busy the day before, but the lousy weather was just suppressing the teeming masses. This time we tried a hot chocolate (easily our favorite in the U.S.) and the much-recommended Frozen Café au Lait; though this iced drink is undoubtedly more soothing during the blistering hot months, we enjoyed this gourmet Iced Blended very much.
The only way that we could get into Brennans was to take advantage of their policy of allowing walk-in seating for dessert during the time of 9:30 10pm (the half-hour prior to closing). That worked fine for us, as all we wanted was dessert: for nearly a quarter century, my wife has heard her parents talk about Bananas Foster at Brennans, and we came to the city with the steely determination to see some flaming bananas.
Even in our brief time in the restaurant, we were quite impressed. A massive restaurant (modest only by New Orleans standards), it reminded us two California kids of the now defunct fine dining chain, the Velvet Turtle. Service was practiced and professional, the best of the Creole palaces we would dine in. Our waiter explained the entire process for making Bananas Foster, and then stepped over to a special station (surprisingly, not next to the table, for insurance reasons apparently) to prepare the dish. Again, Im sure everyone here is quite familiar with the dish, but the taste of the caramelized brown sugar and the crispy bananas was amazing; I think we could have gone through two or three each.
N.B. At $3 a cup, the entire overhead of Brennans wait-staff seems to be underwritten through their coffee! In the future, Id hold out for drinks at Café Du Monde after.
(It must be noted that coming in to New Orleans, we had no reservations at any restaurants. We decided to take the trip at the very last minute, and besides, we didnt think reservations would be needed in such an off month. In fact, this turned out to be very much incorrect all of the places we tried to get into were booked up at first. Some persistent calling and we were able to get in everywhere wanted.)
On the flight in, I had plainly stated to my wife, without any provocation, that I had no intention of eating at Bayona. Why? Bayona seemed like a restaurant that could be found anywhere, and I wanted to maximize our Creole exposure. My pointless resistance crumbled soon after, and I am quite glad: our meal at Bayona was simply our favorite on the trip, and probably the best food we have had in a long, long while.
At around 10:25, we dashed out of Brennans, splitting the crowd of people gathered to claim their cars from the valet, and speed-walked the few blocks to Bayona.
Simply entering the restaurant was like entering a unique world. The greeting from the hostess was warm and familiar, and the walls of the 200-year-old building are colored in a comforting and traditional reddish-brown. Our waiter was superb he recited the preparation of each dish with a care and passion that made it sound like he himself would be cooking the food. When he presented our 1999 white Bordeaux (I never wrote down the name), he specifically presented it to both my wife and I, having noted how we made the selection collectively.
As our meals were served, I think we both knew we were in for a treat while the food was carefully, artfully arranged on the plate, it was placed in the style that one might do at home, where each side dish occupies a separate quadrant of the plate. No food piled high on the plate, waiting to crumble down after the first bite.
And, of course, the food was superb. We started with seared scallops with a sesame crust, paired with both chutney and a mustard sauce. The quality of the scallops was remarkable, and they had a seductive, smoky flavor. For main course, I had the well-known Salmon with Choucroute and Gewurtztraminer sauce, while my wife had the Mahi-Mahi with grape leaves and a lobster-cream sauce, orzo with olives, and butternut squash. Of course, the fish was superb quality and perfectly prepared, but what really sent us into ecstasy was the choucroute paired with the wine reduction, and the butternut squash. Simple, hearty dishes, yet so delicate; we were still raving about them to each other when the star chef, Susan Spicer, stopped by to ask what we thought of our meal. (By now it was around 11:45pm and the kitchen was done for the night.) She seemed quite pleased (and somewhat surprised) that we had fallen in love with the simple side dishes; she talked to us about how each was prepared, and then had the staff bring over a printout of the recipe (which appeared to be a common feature of the restaurant).
And, as noted previously on Chowhound, the meal was, for this quality and service, ridiculously cheap.
Sunday, January 21
We woke up barely in time to catch the streetcar out to Commanders Palace to make our early afternoon reservations. We both knew that to have brunch at Commanders Palace meant breaking so many of the rules we had carefully collected in our years of travel. For example: a mimosa is a waste of perfectly good orange juice; dont go to a Jazz Brunch; dont go where everyone says to go; and, definitely dont go WHEN they say to go.
Considering what a violation of our deeply held principles our brunch at CP was, it actually wasnt that bad. Dining there felt like a ride at Disneyland, only more crowded. We were ushered back into a crowded room that felt like a banquet hall at the Woodland Hills Marriott, but thankfully seated looking on to a patio where we could watch the chefs take their cigarette breaks. Sticking with the crowd, we got the specialties shrimp remoulade, eggs sardou, and the bread pudding soufflé. Everything was good; nothing was fabulous. Service was solid, but with a different person bringing out each little thing (more vodka for the bloody mary, the soufflé, the cream for the soufflé, and so on), it was more like being gang tackled than waited on.
(With our final real meal in New Orleans ahead of us, we both began to panic slightly. Had we eaten authentic Creole food? Had we fully maximized our time in New Orleans? What had we missed? Speed walking around the city in an attempt to garner an appetite, we realized that for all the wonderful things we had ever heard about food in New Orleans, we werent quite sure what exactly we MUST eat. We both welcome the comments of Chowhounds on this topic; our realization was that our goal for New Orleans was to eat delicious food, carefully prepared.)
So, only 3 hours after leaving Commanders Palace, we ate dinner.
Galatoires is yet another storied New Orleans institution, with a long tradition of rich sauces and no reservations; while the sauces are the same, they now take reservations. Do note, however, that those with reservations are seated in a somewhat less distinctive dining room on the second floor.
The menu at Galatoires is quite curious. With the exception of a distinctly Creole dish or two (like Crawfish Remoulade), it almost feels like food from turn of the twentieth century France, frozen in a time capsule.
The collection of side dishes is the most impressive pairing of cheeses and vegetables we have ever seen. Distant memories of Scandia danced through my wifes head as she read the list of potato preparations. We finally settled on Potatoes Brabant and Potatoes Souffle. The Brabant look like what coffee shops call home fries, but taste so much better; they are chunks of Idaho potatoes, twice fried to a delicate crispness. The Souffle are like gourmet potato chips, and neither of us quite grasp how they are made; long and narrow, they are simply thin, crunchy slices of potato that have puffed up into a hollow oval.
As much as we love side dishes that somehow incorporate fried potatoes, our entrees were even better. My wife had the Poisson Meunière Amandine, a long piece of fresh Trout, crumb battered and fried, covered with a pile of buttery almonds. After much deliberation, I had the Poisson Margeury. A rolled-up piece of fresh trout is smothered in a sauce that mixes a revelatory Holandaise (neither my wife nor I had ever had anything so well-balanced; not too lemony, not too yolk-y, just perfectly thick and creamy) with shrimp and mushrooms. Both were amazing.
And, to, uh, cut the richness, our vegetable was Cauliflower au Gratin, which came in a thankfully small dish, diced Cauliflower pieces in a béchamel sauce, covered thin coat of bread crumbs.
Except for another trip to the Café du Monde the next morning, thats basically it. We both whole-heartedly recommend the W French Quarter. Its location, on Chartres, is unbeatable: it's in the vieux carre, close to everything, and yet on a quiet, dignified street.
If there is one thing that surprised us about New Orleans, it is, really, everything. Despite all the warnings, we were unprepared for just how awful Bourbon street really is. We were constantly surprised at how European the entire place felt. And, most of all, we were completely stunned at the beauty of the city.