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Postcard from New Orleans

photo-52Over 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.

20 comments Add your comment

So, exactly,

October 18th, 2010
1:22 pm

…just kind of food do tourists go to New Orleans for? (And, don’t say beignets)…

Reds

October 18th, 2010
1:29 pm

I personally go for the po’boys. And anything else that isn’t on bourbon street….

John Kessler

October 18th, 2010
1:33 pm

So, exactly — I think people are looking for food with more of a sense of place. As much as I liked Iris, nothing said “New Orleans” about it to me. After eating there I looked up the (very positive) review in the local paper, and the writer commented that the restaurant served the kind of trendy food you’d find in New York or Atlanta. Trendy isn’t always bad…

CT

October 18th, 2010
2:12 pm

Cochon is awesome. Next trip, try Butcher next door for lunch. Best sandwiches in town for when you need a break from Po’boys. The Bacon rivls Pine Street Market’s. Always like Besh’s places too, including Luke, but he’s getting a little overextened like Emeril did many years ago.

nolacyn

October 18th, 2010
3:03 pm

I was so glad to learn about your new team. Good luck to all of you. I have always enjoyed your reviews and usually agree with them. My husband and I are going to N.O. in November for a week. we’re looking forward to eating at some of the restaurants that “speak New Orleans”. As for John Besh’s Luke. I was not surprised that it wasn’t a winner. We ate at his restaurant in the Roosevelt Hotel when it first opened and had the same problem with service and food. It’s disappointing. We have followed him since he was a young chef in N.O. and on the North Shore. That was some of the best food we have ever eaten. Each new restaurant has not lived up to the quality food that we know he can produce.

Mike M

October 18th, 2010
3:20 pm

I love New Orleans cuisine right next to authentic Thai food. They combine the best of Carribean spices with French classical cooking techniques and what could be better than that. In case you haven’t tried it, in East Cobb on Roswell road there is a hole in the wall place called AJ’s Famour Seafood and PoBoys that has some of the best New Orleans and Creo offerings with really low prices. I love their rice and beans side dish for only $1. Other favorites of mine are the seafood Gumbo and the giant round muffaletta sandwich that is enought ofeed 8 people.

Lisa

October 18th, 2010
4:07 pm

We gave Luke’s a second chance, and it was worse than the first. That was a year ago, so they must not have gotten the message. It must be on John Besh’s name that folks go there. The food was good, but the service was excruciatingly slow.

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Chuckles™

October 18th, 2010
11:22 pm

Love this wandering review. We love New Orleans.

Check out ‘Port of Call’ the next time you’re in the city. It’s where the locals eat.

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Rodney

October 19th, 2010
8:41 am

I still miss Uglesiche’s (spelling?) – I went the year before Katrina and, aside from it looking like a lean-to kinda dive, it was FANTASTIC.

But I follow the same kind of path in NOLA that you did, John. I do a little research, and most of the places I make plans to eat in NOLA are either in the CBD or out at Riverbend.

But – I always find time to grab a cup at Cafe du Monde. Yes, it’s touristy but it’s the kind of touristy that you don’t mind. Plus I like watching that ever present silver-painted man statue on Jackson Square. :)

Ganners

October 19th, 2010
9:40 am

In March we went to NOLA to see Wait, Wait….Don’t Tell Me. I had done the over priced under delivering places that everyone talks about in the past. One day while we were sipping beer at a local brewery we were talking about what to have for dinner. A waiter from Brannon’s was sitting beside us. I thank him still for sending us to Mimi’s in the Marigny. It was unbelievable. On the outskirt of the Quarter the two story locals hangout wiskey house with true Spanish tapas was rocking. Great live music, stiff drinks and a barkeep that gives a damn. The chefs name is Heathcliff….he put in his time at some fancy dancy tourist traps and has come into his own skin doing what he loves. Wish I could go now….if Mimi’s in the Marigny was in Atlanta I would be there at least monthly.

And yeah, nothing wrong with cafe au lait in he morning at Du Monde.

KoPP

October 19th, 2010
2:57 pm

Busters are being farmed more and more, but I though molting season was mostly in spring (East Coast)/early summer (Gulf). Not that there’s much wrong with a frozen soft shell, if it’s done rightly.

A fairly inexpensive meal can be had a Commander’s Palace during lunch. Pretty much the same menu as dinner, with lower prices and more ease of access. Still, remember to wear a coat.

Casamento’s still wins for oysters.

Amanda

October 20th, 2010
10:33 am

John, I love to read about your experiences sharing food with your kids. It’s always such a good reminder to keep exposing my son to new and different things. Weighing in at 24 pounds with a whopping 9 teeth, we are in the early stages but cooking for him, taking him to my favorite restaurants, and sharing the joy of food is one of the things I look most forward to as a parent. Sharing my honeycrisp apples is another story…

Jean

October 20th, 2010
10:41 am

What a shame you couldn’t get in at Green Goddess. The food and cocktails there are so surprising it just takes your breath away. I think the real food traditon of New Orleans is that it is such a great food city. I find that looking for restaurants that specialize in cajun and creole cuisine is generally a mistake, those flavors are infused everywhere.

Steven A.

October 20th, 2010
1:16 pm

Enjoyed this piece quite a bit. Feels a bit bittersweet because we had to curtail our annual N.O. trip this year. But we hit Cochon last year and loved it. We discovered, as you did, that you can’t get a table without a reservation. Not a big deal as we had a great time dining at the bar with the bonus of conversing with the kitchen staff as the place was closing up.

Best poor boys in the city are at Domelise’s, but you’ll need to hail a cab or be willing to walk 10 blocks or so from the closest streetcar stop. Port of Call is the best bar in the city. Get your monsoon (or two) and a burger and baked potato and taste what Bourbon Street wishes it could be if it weren’t awash in frat boys and tourist traps.

Mr. B’s is a fairly frequent visit as my wife is addicted to their barbecue shrimp (and we often stay at the Hotel Monteleone, which is right across the street). And we usually hit Commander’s Palace on the way out of town for Sunday brunch, one of the more economical ways to enjoy this classic.

John Kessler

October 20th, 2010
2:26 pm

Thanks for the recs, Steven. Believe it or not: not a single po’ boy this trip. Must. Return. Soon.

John Kessler

October 20th, 2010
2:29 pm

Amanda – My kid took the whole bag of honeycrisps to school to share with her friends. I nearly disowned her.

John Kessler

October 20th, 2010
3:43 pm

Jean – Can’t wait to go back…Green Goddess so piqued my interest.
Amanda – I think exposing kids to new foods is one of the best exercises in character building a parent can do. Of course, I do have a dog in this race…

J W

October 20th, 2010
4:06 pm

Cochon is just plain awesome food!!!!