Tasting New Orleans

by smartini on January 22, 2013

I’ve always wanted to come to New Orleans. Not knowing too much about it, I had visions of from Anne Rice’s vampire novels and surely from past lives spent on plantations. But I actually didn’t have a real clear picture of what to expect, just a few things on my bucket list to experience if I ever got the chance to go. Well, at long last, I finally had a work opportunity in this city, and I jumped at the chance. When I decided to go back on the road a few months ago doing corporate event management, I told myself I would make the most of it. That when I got a trip to someplace I’d been wanting to travel, I would pre or post extend so I could really experience the place as well as just work in it.

Here’s a snapshot of ‘Crescent City’, of NOLA, of N’Awleens, as I tasted it for the last 10 days. When I get a chance, I’ll write more on the other must-do’s I was able to happily cross off during this trip, but I had no idea that sampling the food this town is known for would leave such a meaningful aftertaste, so, I’ll just start with item number one from my bucket list:
“Eat like a Southerner”

Oysters, oysters, and maybe some more oysters.
I would say that I was a timid fan of this slimy little beast before coming to this town. They sounded good in theory, and being an adventurous eater, I had tried them, but having only ever sampled them at snooty restaurants and in polite company in Paris & Los Angeles, I had a certain preconceived idea of what they were like and how one was supposed to eat them. I also thought of oysters as a rich man’s food. But, in N’awleens, unlike Paris and LA, oysters are generally only about a dollar a pop, that’s a fraction of what they cost elsewhere. Here, they are milder too it seems: oceany bites of watery goodness. None of the fishy, gritty sketchy bites I’ve had elsewhere. Up the ante of this culinary experience by adding heat. Here, the traditional way of eating an oyster is not with the sophisticated mignonette sauce I was accustomed to, but rather on a saltine cracker, with cocktail sauce you make yourself – stirring together ketchup, horseradish and Tabasco to taste. Squeeze some fresh lemon on top, open wide (these suckers are gigantic!!), chew (don’t be scared) and swallow. See?? Delicious! (Especially when you’ve crossed that horseradish threshold and your eyes and nose water). Though raw is most commonly enjoyed, there are as many ways to enjoy the mollusk as there are restaurants famous for it here. At Luke’s I couldn’t help but down an entire dozen on my own durinf their happy hour featuring them on the half shell for 50 cents each! Washing them down with a ‘French 75’ (Lillette, champagne and cherry juice), I enjoyed conversation with an aging southern belle in horn rimmed glasses and a sugary sweet drawl, maybe just a little tipsy after her third ‘French 75’. And one night, after work, Dave (a colleague, friend and fellow oyster-phile) dragged out another co-worker, Scott on an oyster crawl, where we fed him his first oysters. Favorites that night included BBQ’d with blue cheese, and Oysters Oceana, chargrilled with Parmesan, butter and garlic.
Oyster Crawl with Dave and reluctant Scott
Oyster Shucking…
Oysters on the halfshell

Lest I neglect the rest of the seafood world…
When I asked a local tour guide his favorite restaurant, I was told not too expect too much in some areas (like presentation and service), but that I simply had to try the Ocean Sauce at Adolfo’s. What this tiny Creole-Italian restaurant at the top of a narrow staircase above the Apple Barrel Bar on Frenchman Street may lack in service (no reservations taken, and wait time is often 2 hours), makes up for in spades with flavor. The Mussels swimming in garlic, white wine and butter may be a common preparation, but they were some of the best I’ve ever had. And then came the main course of melting Grouper with that Ocean Sauce – a rich cream based sauce of crawfish & crab with just enough capers to add a hint of acidity.
It was at another local favorite, Bon Ton restaurant, that I fell in love with crawfish etouffee. Crawfish are, in my opinion, the poor man’s lobster. These bite-size bottom-feeders taste almost identical and are a little less intimidating, especially when served already shelled. Add the rich cream and tomato-based gravy that makes this an etouffee, and folks – we have ourselves a culinary masterpiece. The atmosphere at Bon Ton certainly didn’t hurt matters either. The locals here are straight out of a John Grisham novel.

Don’t forget the standards.
I’m an indecisive orderer, and often ask my server their opinion. I’ll admit though, I was surprised that, on every occasion I asked between the Red Beans and Rice and another selection, I was instructed to go with that simple staple. And, simple though it may be, I was never disappointed. What I expected to be dry and flavorless turned out to be saucy, rich and flavorful. I will definitely need to learn to make this one on my own.
No decisions were necessary at my next culinary stop though. With practically only 2 items on the menu, you get what you come for at Café du Monde. By day seven of working at probably the finest hotel in New Orleans, The Hotel Roosevelt, I was ready to leave the refinement and try the acclaimed New Orleans version of coffee and donuts. The beignets and chicory café au lait served at Café du Monde are not fancy, and neither is the ambience. Hovering until a table becomes available, you seat yourself, are quickly greeted by terse wait-staff and quickly served. Because of the high turnover at this original 24-hour coffee stand, payment is expected immediately. But never fear, the price is not steep — $2.42 for three beignets and another $2.42 for the chicory and coffee blend that became popular during the civil war, when coffee was in short supply and the bitter root served as a decent substitute. Surely this is the only tourist trap where you can still fill your belly with the leftover change in your pocket. Which is exactly what I did with a handful of quarters and dimes. I couldn’t resist one last bite of the warm, powdery explosion that is a fresh beignet as I made my way to the airport on this fine day.
Cafe du Monde Cafe du Monde
Beignets & Chicory Coffee at Cafe du Monde
I’m not big on Okra (tends to be slimy) and considering my diet is primarily paleo these days, I hardly ever eat rice. But, how could I Ieave New Orleans without trying on Gumbo and Jambalaya for size? As I wandered through the French Market one morning, I stumbled upon a cooking demonstration by chef Kevin Belton of the New Orleans School of Cooking. Well, sign me up! For $21, you get a two and a half hour demonstration, full meal and the local brewed Abita pale ale. Thanks to this former NFL player’s easy humor and banter, I discovered the staple that is the ‘holy trinity’ of southern cooking (onions, bell peppers and celery) and learned how to make a proper roux (for gumbo use oil, not butter, like in the ettouffe’s roux). And wanna know the secret to good jambalaya? For every cup of rice, rather than 2 cups liquid, use 1 1/4 cup liquid and 2 cups of Holy Trinity – the liquid from those water-based veggies makes up the difference. But what really touched my heart was when chef Kevin asked the audience who liked chocolate and the autistic man I was sitting next to called out the history of chocolate as well as how its traditionally made in South America. In a town where the majority of folks you encounter are drunk, no matter the time of day, this had the potential to turn into an uncomfortable situation. But, as his family shush-ed him, I was touched as the chef not only acknowledged the young man, but continued to gracefully and lovingly engage him throughout the entire demonstration.
Learning to make Gumbo…

And now for something completely different:
Not everything I tried while in this town was on my bucket list. For example – did I intend to try turtle soup at Felix’s diner, just off Bourbon Street? No, I sure did not. But I can tell you I did enjoy it. I’m usually pretty good at identifying the herbs and spices in a dish. But, while the flavor and the texture of turtle meat was quite familiar (almost like a hybrid of beef and chicken, not at all gamey like I would have expected) the broth of the soup mystified me – a deep, deep red, it wasn’t exactly spicy. It was almost sour in its rich tomato flavor and almost reminded me of Ethiopian dishes that I’ve had.
But my favorite culinary moment of New Orleans was the most abbreviated and unexpected. As I rushed to get to Rev. Zombie’s Voo-Doo Shop, the meet-spot for my cemetery tour yesterday, I thought I’d grab a po-boy or maybe some quick oysters at a bar before seeing Marie LeVeau’s tomb. It being a Saturday of a holiday weekend, I saw quickly that all the most popular spots had lines out the door. With only 35 minutes till I needed to meet my tor guide, I stopped in the only place that didn’t have a line, The Old Coffee Pot. Since every meal I’d had thus far had been noteworthy, and I was making my way back for a second round of Adolfo’s that night, I had no need for grandeur here. Grateful to be greeted right away by a friendly waiter, I quickly began my usual inquiry about what to order. I told him the Eggs Conti looked like fun, but what was his favorite breakfast item on the menu? He raised an eyebrow at me and asked if I like chicken livers (trying to be polite, but still smirking that this vanilla-looking white girl had clearly not read the menu description). ‘Well, sure’, I told him, since I’d had so much seafood since I arrived, I was game to try some organ meat. And I always love poached eggs – just couldn’t imagine the two together in one dish. Five minutes later poached eggs, smothered in a rich brown gravy with big chunks of liver, drowned a split buttermilk biscuit and sat steaming before me. And as delicious as this was, what happened as I hurriedly gobbled it down was even better. I wondered what was going on as my waiter cued Beverly; he yelled names and table numbers to the round, older black woman serving my section of the diner. Then Beverly sang. The restaurant immediately fell silent as she belted out happy birthday to a woman who immediately began to tear up. This was not the song of the obligated and embarrassed wait-staff at PF Chang’s – this woman made Marilyn Monroe’s serenade to JFK look like child’s play. And then, just as I was recovering and looked down again at my plate of gravy-goodness, I hear her begin again. This time announcing first that the couple she was about to sing to was here on their honeymoon. I do not know the song she sang, and the words are not important. What I noticed most of all was that this couple (well, the entire restaurant almost as much) was completely entranced by her ‘schooling’. She sang to him about honoring her, and to her about loving him. After she was done with her song, I sopped up the last of the gravy as they continued to hold each other. Which they did until the moment I left the restaurant; all I could do was look over to the bartender and share the moment. As I rushed out (with 5 minutes to spare even), I was brave enough to stop and thank Beverly on my way out.
Eggs Conti (chicken livers with poached eggs)
The Old Coffee Pot (Beverly serenading couple in the way back..)

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Taryn May 31, 2013 at 8:00 am

OMG I could never be as adventurous as you are with food! How fun!

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