I really love New Orleans. I’ve been there at least a dozen times. I love its art, music, people, history, culture, architecture and most of all, perhaps, its food. Last weekend a few friends and I went down to New Orleans for what was truly a whirlwind tour of its fantastic food scene. What ensued was epic. We hit a few of the big spots, the ones that everyone is talking about now, and a few less popular spots that folks should be talking about. What we found was overwhelmingly very good. There were a few surprising misses.
One of my buddies had never been to New Orleans (let’s call him NOLA newb), so the remaining three of us, all foodies, were full of ideas for what he had to try, what he had to try first, and what he had to avoid. Of course, since we were arriving on Friday afternoon and leaving Sunday morning, therein lied the rub: we had a limited number of restaurants we could try. But in trade, our creative minds set to doubling up on the lunches and dinners, which we affectionately called first lunch, second lunch and so on.
Even so, it was difficult to make that initial segregation of restaurants. New Orleans restaurants can be classified into many different tiers or groups (and these classifications often mix): the high end farm-to-table places which break down further into those cooking Creole/Cajun food or just inspired food and those not; the old guard of standards preparing the city’s famous Creole and Cajun dishes; the many variants of the oyster restaurant; the many sandwich shops, including variants on the po’boy restaurant, and the muffaletta shop; the down home southern cooking places; the chicory coffee and beignet places and their donut variants; and the list goes on and on and deliciously on.
We decided to do one high end locally-sourced Creole/Cajun inspired place for dinner, one of the same for lunch, a renowned donut shop, an even more renowned sandwich shop, an oyster shop, and a couple other old favorites. Here’s how that all stacked up.
Turkey and the Wolf
It’s a sandwich shop. A little corner shop. You could easily drive by it, with its graffitied walls and hangers outers outside. But boy oh boy, you’d miss it big. You see, Turkey and the Wolf makes a killer sandwich and a great cocktail.
We stopped by simply because it was named Bon Appetite’s restaurant of the year. We wanted to try the collard green melt, which was made from slow cooked collards, Swiss cheese, pickled cherry pepper dressing and coleslaw on rye bread. That sandwich pretty much stopped time. Buttery crunchy bread, slippery greens, melty Swiss, tart coleslaw and some heat from those pickled cherry peppers. My buddy joked that it would be the best thing we ate all weekend. I cursed him right back, but in the end, it was in the top three dishes. Let’s take another look at that delicious thing.
We also had the lamb roti, which is made from lamb neck slow cooked in chilies and caraway, lemony yogurt, cucumbers, onions, and lots of mint and dill. This smelled deep and rich and exotic and alluring.
Proving a point that we saw repeated here in New Orleans, even great places can miss. Their Italian American was unbalanced, and the creaminess of the olive/hot pepper/caper cream cheese overpowered what would have been an enticing mix of mortadella and soppressata snuggled up under a gloss of herb vinaigrette. I also felt that the ratio of bread to filling was too high. But what great bread there was, nonetheless. New Orleans sure knows its way around a loaf.
I also had the 24 days till Mardi Gras, which was a cocktail made from rye, apricot, sweet vermouth and Amaro. It was well composed, well balanced, cold, and full of kick. What a great companion to the sandwich. It was as good a cocktail as any I had in the city.
La Petite Grocery
LPG’s chef Justin Devillier has been nominated for a James Beard Best Chef South several times, finally winning it in 2016. He knows how to compose a good menu, and how to execute it. Unfortunately, this Friday night, we had several misses on this menu.
We started off with an nice chicken mousse pate with a passion fruit jam. This ended up the best bite of the night. It was served on a perfectly thin cracker. It was just the right size; any thinner and it wouldn’t have held up, any thicker and it would have overpowered the consistency of the mousse.
Next up was this beautiful looking steak tartare. This was our first miss. It was so full of Dijon mustard, that the delicate meat was overpowered. This was accompanied by their blue crab beignet, which were so undercooked that they were gummy. That was another disappointment that we did not finish.
This is the fried green tomatoes with pesto and salad. I really enjoyed this dish, and thought the green tomatoes had that nice tart plum taste that I like. The guys thought this was a miss.
We really liked the Braised Beef Short Rib, with its spicy cucumbers, carrots, daikon and fried peanuts. It leaned heavily towards Korea, so we thought it deserved a nice hot kick of red pepper or gochujang. That would have really blown us away.
NOLA newb ordered the pickles. The pickled okra was fantastic: bright and crisp. However, the pickled green beans held so much pickling liquid inside them that they were too tart to eat. I think they should have clipped the ends of the green beans before they pickled them so that the extra juice could run out by the time it gets to the table.
We had this turtle Bolognese, with bucatini, sherry, parsley and a fried soft boiled egg. This one seemed to have a ton of black pepper spice. It was really pretty, but hard to get through.
I have always wanted to try it, so I had the burger. I order it rare, and they delivered. The burger was meaty, juicy, and delicious, and those fries were fantastic. Crispy, salty and savory. I’m really glad a place like this has a burger on its menu. Even more so that they list it first under entrees.
NOLA newb also ordered the paneed rabbit. That came with fried spätzle, wilted spinach, turnip puree and browned butter, caper, parsley and lemon sauce. The rabbit was delicious, but since it was fried, it made little sense to us to have that over fried spätzle, which is just fried air itself. The spätzle was a hard miss.
Café Du Monde
After a walking tour of Bourbon Street and Jackson Square, we headed over to that old chicory coffee and beignet stalwart, Café du Monde. If you have never had a beignet, Café du Monde is a rite of passage. It’s a large, open courtyard with white hatted servers buzzing about delivering café au lait and platters of beignets dredged in powdered sugar. There is better coffee out there, and better beignets, but regardless, there is something about this 155 year old place and its crowd and location between the river wall and Jackson Square that keeps drawing folks back. It’s cheap, it’s open late, and it’s a decent breakfast or dessert. NOLA Newb was all smiles. And powdered sugar.
Lafite’s Blacksmith Shop
This is the oldest building used as a bar, and is the spot to get a good hurricane. I must have drunk it too fast, since I didn’t take a picture.
Holy moly. This place is good. The donuts are huge; you just need one. Or half of one. The donuts are light and fluffy risen yeast donuts about six inches wide and three inches tall. I had the coffee cake donuts and loved it.
What I loved even more was the Bruleed Cinnamon Roll, which was a cinnamon roll with cream cheese frosting that was bruleed before serving. Talk about a hot out of the oven treat! This is pretty much a must have. The line gets busy about 9 am, but at 8 am was no line at all.
Cochon is a nice and quiet, elegant restaurant serving Creole and Cajun inspired food. They have several heavy hitters on their bourbon bar, including two Pappys.
Cochon had the best oysters we had in the city. These are the wood-fired oysters with chili garlic butter.
Our NOLA newb had the braised pork cheeks with sweet potato gratin. He loved it, but we noticed there wasn’t any gratin in that gratin.
The alligator was delicious and came dressed up in a chili garlic mayonnaise. It was so well cooked, nice and soft and had great crispy bits. I’d eat this dish all the time. Some of the guys thought this was overdressed.
Continuing the theme of hits and misses, the duck and andouille was a miss. It lacked the depth of flavor we thought that dark roux should have carried. We did like the okra and sausage in it, though.
I ordered the oyster BLT. It sure sounded good but I found the combination of toasted bread, mayonnaise and fried oysters to be too heavy to enjoy. I picked the delicious fried oysters out and at them instead. With bacon.
Cochon Butcher was our second lunch of the day. I have always loved Cochon Butcher. This is the less formal sister to Cochon, that specializes in sandwiches and also sells sausages and other meats from its meat counter. I have loved the charcuterie platter in the past, and fell in love with Le Pig Mac this time. There just aren’t enough words to express the love I had for this burger, but I’ll try. LPM is a riff on a McDonald’s Big Mac, but with pork instead of beef. For me, this was one of the best bites on the trip. Toasty bun, creamy burger sauce, gently cooked pork patties, lettuce, melted cheese, and peppery pickles that helped cut the richness of the burger. I’ll come back for this one in the future.
I’ve eaten at both Acme and at Felix. Folks are real picky about the two and seem to take sides on which one is better. I hear that they both use the same oysters. Doesn’t sound like much to argue about. I’ll tell you where the real difference is: with Acme you sit real close together to everyone, and sit at tables covered in red and white checkered tablecloths. At Felix, you sit farther apart from your neighbors, and do so at tables that have no tablecloths. Yep, that’s the difference. Tablecloths. Oh, that and the line at Felix’s is about 45 minutes shorter than outside Acme. And they’re across the street from each other. I guess you can see that I don’t see any real reason to go to Acme.
The oysters at Felix’s are good. Here’s what the oysters on the half shell look like.
And here’s what the chargrilled oysters look like.
I’d like to see more of the superior size than the standard size, but I suppose you need to go down to Drago’s to get that. These are tasty, and everyone slurped them up fast. But if you’re looking for chargrilled oysters, skip both of these and go to Drago’s.
The Sazerac Bar in the Roosevelt Hotel
This is where the Sazerac cocktail was invented. That itself would make it fun to visit. But what’s even neater is that this is a really cool, old wood bar. It has murals of folks farming all around the walls, comfortable chairs in which to visit, and has a hundred-forty-year-old pewter water ewer and a similarly old 79-pound silver Ascot Cup, which is a giant punch bowl designed by Queen Victoria. This small bar was built to party in classic style. NOLA newb got the Sazerac, as was pretty much required for a first visit, but I got the Milk Punch, a milk and brandy and nutmeg punch which was pretty much a grown up milkshake. I’ll get it again.
We cruised on over to Maypop for our second dinner of the night. Maypop is a cool restaurant, with great big art panels on the wall, drop down lighting, and a killer meat locker just across from the bar. I spent a good minute pawing at that glass.
Maypop has a very inventive menu, mixing cultures in every plate. Certainly there are a few components that were awry in each dish, but overall, this meal pushed our palates in interesting directions.
I’m not a bread guy. Sure, if you drop it off in front of me, I’ll eat it. But I don’t normally seek out and buy a bread plate at a restaurant. The Maypop annatto parker house rolls with coconut butter and shellfish pepper jam was utterly spectacular. It might have been the best dish… or at least is in the top three. Whoo, I kept coming back to those fluffy orange colored rolls, slathering them in that shellfish pepper jam and wondering how in the world did they come up with this spectacular bread dish? I note that this picture does not do this bread justice. I still dream about this bread.
The hits continued with the hand pulled noodles tossed with blue crab and a pork sausage mapo tofu sauce. Those strong flavors beat out the crab, so I think they could have done without it, but the delicious basil note that ran across the dish was enticing. I would have liked Shanghai-style pulled noodles and not tagliatelle, but the noodle shape and the superfluous crab were small nits.
Surrey’s Café and Juice Bar
I wish I lived next to Surrey’s. This is a very small, but very friendly café. The walls are covered with local art that you can purchase. There’s a price listing at the check in stand and on the back wall near the bathrooms.
We tried a variety of dishes, and washed them down with good coffee and great blood orange juice.
Here’s the hogshead eggs benedict.
The Bananas Foster French toast. This was one heck of a treat!
The breakfast burrito (swapping out bacon for chorizo).
And the boudin breakfast biscuit.
Uncle Bud’s Deep Fried Cajun Peanuts
Here’s a lagniappe. I got these in a gas station on my way out of New Orleans, and fell in love with them. You eat them shells and all. They have a rich roasted peanut taste, without any of the dry paperyness that normally comes from the shells. They carry a bunch of flavors, so I plan to try them all out. Get yourself some.