I have deep respect for a particular vegetarian friend. I worry not a bit about securing options for dining with her when the opportunity arises…the friendship is worth the effort. But I concluded when I moved to New Orleans in late 1993 that this town…this tropical, delightfully smarmy Third World-esque haven was no place for a tee-totaling vegetarian. In other words, New Orleans and I would get along just fine.
Having not set foot back in New Orleans in fifteen years saw me missing lots of things about the Easy. It’s a city of texture, sound, shape and taste that’s quite frankly unrivaled. Sure there are cities that roll-up said mélange in equally memorable ways but none, at least for me; do so with the same taste bud emphasis on which the Crescent City delivers—in spades. Emeril's ... I used to go to the Tchoupitoulas Street restaurant before he got so famous that the noise and frenetic movement of staff made it a no-go. And back then, said particular street, even in the daytime, wasn't one that you tarried on.
I used to look for clients to entertain when I lived here so that I could eat on my expense account. The highbrow is rightfully high…and expensive. But the lowbrow is such an equally facile deliverable that once I discovered my go-to standard Big Easy fast food, (a cup of gumbo and a shrimp or oyster Po Boy…dressed) I wondered why the hell anyone here would ever go to a McDonald's or Wendy’s…ever. And till you get out in the Jefferson Parish burbs, the typical homogenized lineup of national chains is for the most part, comfortingly absent.
Galatoire's, Brennan’s, Commander’s Palace, NOLA, Emeril’s…I mean really. The bar for average is so darned high in New Orleans that it’s hard to make a bad dining decision—as long as you stay out of the absurd tourist traps on Bourbon Street.
Galatoire's being the Bourbon Street exception of course. As my friend George Frazier, IV…who decamped Gotham and his job at Esquire to attend law school at Tulane and never left aptly stated, “we don’t talk about Bourbon Street in polite company.” Frazier IV by the way, is the little fella with the perfect Brooks Brothers collar roll in my previous post. He gave me permission to shoot a few pictures that line a hallway in his home.
Surprise…I also photographed his Belgian loafers, the oldest pair I've ever seen…his mother-in-law bought them for him over forty-five years ago. Ok, I’m digressing, this is my food post. I’ll do one on things sartorial and Frazier later. Here’s one of the greatest things about culinary New Orleans; once you make your way through all of their nationally renowned restaurants there’s at least another year’s worth of equally, if not more satiating places to discover.
So here’s my journey…the four day meanderings of a redneck gourmand. I arrived from Charlotte early enough Wednesday evening to join my small client group of eight for dinner at Muriels, on the back corner of Jackson Square. I’d never been there before and while it isn’t tops on my list, it was a fine place to begin my tastebudian reorientation. Turtle soup and a pecan crusted piece of fish was great but as I shared with one of my clients, a local, my New Orleans food-itch was barely, just barely scratched by that meal.
Thursday evening was the culinary highlight of my visit. The New Orleans Cooking Experience is indeed--an experience. It’s housed in a lovely old; I’ll coin this one…two acre Plantation-ette on Bayou Road. Yep, two acres.
Thankfully the property was just purchased by an artist foundation in New York and they are beginning to renovate and transform it into a residential retreat for artists…kind of a Yaddo for visual artists. The other good news is that the cooking school will remain.
My client takes her team there about every six months or so and nothing against the other local chefs who rotate through the program, she only goes when Frank Brigtsen is cooking and teaching.
And after spending an evening with him I can see why. He’s a kind soul—manifesting it immediately in ways that can’t be faked for ten people who've paid to semi-circle and needle you with questions.
His stories and anecdotes aren’t some contrived pile of gumbo ya-ya bullshit delivered with an exaggerated New Orleans Irish Channel play to the tourist accent. He’s thoughtful and thorough in explaining technically what he’s doing as well as supplying just enough history, back-story and lore to make a tale loving guy like me, sit up and literally, take notes. Tale loving. I said tale loving. Shut up.
It’s all about drinking wine and learning and tasting. You do no work. This isn’t some cook it yourself pseudo-sous chef boondoggle. You sit, you sip, you query and then you eat. I’d go back in a heartbeat and I’d go to Frank’s restaurant just as fast.
Friday morning sees me at Café Du Monde early...real early before the crowds thicken and my breakfast meeting begins. Beignets will kill you. But damn, what a way to go.
My breakfast meeting concludes and my personal agenda manifests. New Orleans thankfully, remains a great literary town and the evidence I needed to assure myself of it was the survival post Katrina, of most of my favorite bookstores. More on that later when I do my Literary New Orleans post. But after walking through the Quarter and dropping serious coin in used bookstores, I needed lunch. Nothing against Acme Oyster House but to me, it’s a tourist trap with a line of people craving admission. And I don’t do lines. (I NEVER did THAT kind of line…ever…I understand the price has come down somewhat but that stuff was always too expensive and unappealing to me) Felix’s is right across the street on Iberville and it has always been my go-to joint for a dozen oysters and something cool to wash ‘em down with.
On this my return visit, I moderated my intake with a half dozen oysters and an oyster po-boy. Nice.
And I couldn’t return to New Orleans without going to Mandina’s on Canal Street in Mid-City. To most folks, it’s average. To me, the Turtle Soup and Trout Almandine are the only things ADG on the menu and Friday early evening saw my Mandina’s itch on the scratch list.
Saturday early lunch…Mr. B’s on Royal Street. Mostly because it was my go-to destination for entertaining clients and it’s also really, really good.
Saturday evening offered me a delightful alternative to my French Quarter, fried, sautéed Cajun/Creole cravings. It also reminded me of something I’d quickly learned within a few weeks of moving to New Orleans. There’s another New Orleans that unless you live there or have personal friends who do, you’ll likely never discover. The small and somewhat secreted watering holes and eateries in Uptown and the Garden District are somewhat deliberately, I think, off the beaten path. New Orleanians are gracious people and are very welcoming. I met more people and was invited to more homes and events within a month of living in New Orleans than my entire first year in Washington D.C. But the locals selfishly covet a few safe harbors of their own. Places where you know people when you walk in. And more importantly, can rest assured that there won’t be an ersatz who dat? drunken gaggle of tacky-ass bead wearing drunks from Poughkeepsie sitting next to you. Oops...sorry Poughkeepsie, I meant Cahoes.
Gautreau’s would be that place. George Frazier, IV and his lovely bride suggested Gautreau’s for our dinner visit and it was a great choice. So I cabbed it over to casa Frazier and after a glass of wine, we ambled over. I loved meeting the Fraziers and my Creole culinary time-out manifested in a superb duck entrée. I was also reminded of another New Orleans custom…long dinners. Here’s evidence from a Frazier, IV email…“I really enjoyed our talk -- over seven hours…” Yep, I’m chatty.
Ok, let me close this rambling drivel and get to work. I got a lot to do work-wise and it’s a good thing. The food/bar tab on the good ole American Express bill this month is gonna be a zinger.