Over the weekend my family and I decided to take a quick trip to New Orleans. As usual, we didn’t make any dinner reservations, preferring instead to play it by ear. It’s an easy city to eat well in. So well in fact, that I’m on a Clif Bar/tempeh/sparkling water diet until I resume my normal state of semi-bulbousness.
On my sister’s advice, we stopped in at Lüke — celeb chef John Besh’s brasserie in the Central Business District. Some of the food was great, including this amazing BLT made with a fried soft shell “Buster crab” (a local term meaning they’re ready to molt), Allan Benton’s bacon and toasted brioche. We also loved the duck egg crème brûlée — a reminder of everything good about this overplayed dessert. Duck eggs are traditionally used in France, as they make a richer silkier custard.
But I have to say the service wasn’t the best. With every single order of food that came we had to chase down a waiter or manager for silverware. We gave up on the hope of ketchup for the wonderfully skinny and crisp frites. I did order a half dozen Gulf oysters and got my dubious 15-year-old to try one. She liked it so much I ordered a half dozen kumamotos to show her the difference between the two. Alas, I had to call over a manager and point out our order that had been dangling at the unattended raw bar printer for 10 minutes. They seemed like they were having a bad day but I’m disinclined to give them chance two.
Our hotel was right around the corner from Cochon — Donald Link and Stephen Stryjewski’s hugely popular venue for charcuterie, wood-fired meats and general bliss-out-the-buds New Orleans fare. We (haha) walked in on a Friday night but — amazingly — snagged four bar stools and had a great dinner with excellent service from the bartender. We stuck to the small plates, which were rocking one and all. Roasted oysters with chili-citrus butter, mushroom salad with fried beef jerky and lemon, deviled crab with butter crackers, amazing fried alligator with chili-garlic aïoli (like the best Buffalo wings ever) and braised country-style ribs with a brown rice cake and beets were among the highlights. We ate ourselves into la-la land.
On Saturday night we tried to get into the no-reservations Green Goddess – the definitive hole in the wall. This cramped, funky little room on an alley in the French Quarter got raves from my brother and his family in Mobile, who were blown away by the great cocktails and international menu. Alas, the wait was interminable, so I whipped out my handy-dandy Opentable app. The half dozen or so restaurants I had wanted to try were fully committed. But there was availability at Iris nearby. The menu looked good and the reviews were solid, so we figured why not.
It was an expensive unknown, but we had a really pitch perfect haute bistro meal. My dinner started with one of the best cocktails I’ve ever had — a concoction of whiskey, Benedictine, orange and rosemary served on the rocks in a footed punch glass. It just whispered, “Slow down. Sip.”
Chef-owner Ian Schnoebelen cooks with such a careful eye for seasoning, presentation and portion that you notice each bite. Highlights for us included a kind of pressed, crisp-skinned smoked duck confit with pea tendrils and other greens tossed in a chilled, viscous, olive oil dressing. Tuna rolled in nori, lightly fried and placed over pickled vegetables and ginger was so much better than any description could ever make it out to be thanks to a confidently modulated balance of flavor and temperature. Local triggerfish over piebald butterbeans was a bit overcooked, but its corn velouté added such a sexy flavor and texture that I appreciated every mouthful.
“I miss this kind of dining,” my wife said, and I knew exactly what she meant. It was prepared with a kind of precision that is currently out of favor. There’s nothing “comfort food” about it. I’m surprised it was so easy to get a reservation on a weekend night at Iris but, then again, this isn’t exactly the kind of fare tourists come to New Orleans for.