As I mentioned in my last post, I was lucky enough to be swept away on not one but two vacations over the holidays. We went first to Aspen, then to New Orleans, each with different parts of D’s family. It was my first time in Aspen; I’m not a skier, but I had a blast snow-shoeing with my brother-in-law Sam up a mountain so steep, and at such a high altitude, that every ten or fifteen steps, we had to catch our breath.
And it was my first time in New Orleans, too. Both of our first time. We were there with purpose – to cover ourselves in Maize and Blue, sing Hail to the Victors, and make sure U of M won that Sugar Bowl (oh thank goodness they did: made for a much happier vacation). But to say we fell in love with the city, well…it wouldn’t be an overstatement. I’m already itching to go back.
We only had three days to explore New Orleans. Before we left, everyone told us that was all we’d need. But now that we’ve been, I feel like we’ve barely scratched the surface of what NOLA has to offer. Everyone also told us that we’d probably have a hard time finding what to eat, since most of us keep kosher and thus wouldn’t be eating meat or shellfish on the trip. But we managed to find restaurants with plenty of options for vegetarians and pescatarians alike. Here, then, are just a few of the many highlights of our trip – what’ll be just a small fraction of your own trip’s highlights, if you go.
Restaurant August: the most well-regarded restaurant from local chef John Besh, August looks, feels, and tastes like a restaurant that’d exist only in New Orleans. The small, cramped bar area at the front belies the two elegant dining rooms, each with dim lighting, vaulted ceilings, white tablecloths, and trademark southern hospitality. The wine room, tucked away at the back of the restaurant, is especially beautiful, seemingly lined floor-to-ceiling with wooden cellar shelves. August infuses bourbon in house with vanilla and citrus, satsuma and coriander, local honey, and – yes – bacon. Yet, they offer two nightly tasting menus, one entirely vegetarian – a precious rarity in a city where everything comes with bacon crumble, clam broth, lump crab garnish, and a handful of shrimp. I’d happily have gone back to August a second time. If you go in the near future, you’d be wise to order the tagliatelle with fresh truffles and a truffle-cured egg yolk, as memorable for their deeply earthy flavor as for their sheer luxuriousness. But the thing you must try is the broccoli rabe. It’s cooked till just barely tender, set atop a swipe of bright, fresh green harissa, and topped with the softest, sweetest feta you’ve ever had. Not to be missed.
The Garden District
Picture the most beautiful suburb you’ve ever seen – one with rows of trees, old houses each different than the next, all with sprawling porches and traditional architectural flourishes. Now plant that suburb smack in the middle of a city, and you’ve got yourself the Garden District. Take the streetcar past the highway, hop off, and start walking. If you’re lucky, you’ll happen upon Sandra Bullock’s house. It’s big and grey, with a huge, beautiful wrought iron porches that are a signature feature of New Orleans homes. And even in January, when most of us can’t cut indoors to the fireplace fast enough, residents of the Garden District sit on their porches, eating light brunch, taking in the passers by. If I had a house with a porch in a neighborhood like this, I’d do it, too.
St. James Cheese Co.
Every city has a cheese shop, but not every city has a good cheese shop. St. James is a good cheese shop. They have my favorite cheese – Tomme de Bordeaux – as well as 2 others from the same maker, one of which I’d never tried before; they have all sorts of cheeses you’ve probably never encountered, and staff to happily facilitate tasting enough cheese that you may be less hungry when you leave than you were when you came; and, if you can muster up a sufficient appetite after trying all those cheeses, they have an all-star roster of sandwiches, including their take on a Reuben, complete with house-cured pastrami. For the vegetarians, the gruyere panini tastes like onion soup on a sandwich. In the best way.
Were it not for the soda-fountain decor, I’d have said this place felt like it came out of New York. The ice cream is really high-quality, and the flavors – from standards like vanilla and mint chip to more esoteric options like creme fraiche, lavender honey, and chocolate Madeira – leave nothing to be desired. (Just look at their menu!) The day we were there, they had a smoky dark chocolate with almonds and sea salt that none of us could stop eating; they also had “chef’s perfect chocolate, made from Vahlrona chocolate, Godiva liqueur, and cocoa nibs. My jeans appreciate that Creole Creamery is far from home.
The Spotted Cat
Ok, it’s not a food spot. Still, it nourishes all the same. For the first time in a long time, I felt I’d come to love a city for something other than food. The music scene in New Orleans – and I saw but a tiny corner of the action – is alive and well, and nowhere on better display than at The Spotted Cat. One night, there was a funk-ish jazz band playing some insane drumbeats. Another night brought a more mellow band, with a beautiful blond singer whose voice recalled Etta James, or Eva Cassidy. When you walk in, you’ll scan the room for a place to stand (or sit, if you’re lucky) while someone whispers in your ear, “1-drink minimum.” Grab a beer, grab a seat, close your eyes, and let the rhythm wash over you.
Less an endorsement of food than an endorsement of a scene. On the day we went, Mahoney’s had a 1-hour wait from the moment you place your order, which itself could take 30 minutes given the line. By the time food arrives, it almost doesn’t matter what’s inside the butcher paper, you’re tht hungry. Fortunately, what’s inside the butcher paper ain’t bad: po-boys of all varieties, including one with fried green tomatoes, which we all had. Not glamorous, but a quintessential NOLA lunch on Magazine Street, which you’ll most definitely want to explore.
Beignets at Cafe Beignet
Everyone will tell you to go to Cafe Du Monde for beignets. In a sense, they’re right: Cafe Du Monde is a scene that should be experienced if only for its total absurdity: parties of 8, clustered around a tiny table for 2, bags and coats and gloves piled on their lap or the ground, all tucking their cheeks and chins and fingers into beignets positively coated with powdered sugar. The beignet gets dunked in excellent chicory coffee, then eaten; the sugar gets everywhere; the people are giddy and gleeful, and stuffed. It’s a good time.
But the best beignets are not at Cafe Du Monde. They’re at Cafe Beignet, an unassuming place near the Central Business District. Cafe Beignet’s coffee is nothing special, and their other food is mediocre. Stick to beignets, though, and you’ll be rewarded with big, hot pillows of fully-cooked dough (the ones at Cafe Du Monde were a bit underdone) and plenty of powdered sugar to spill on your jeans. Delightful.
The Jury’s still out on John Besh’s newest creation, Borgne. In fact, we ate there – somewhat unwittingly – on opening night, and that was just over a week ago. After hitting the U of M pep rally before the Sugar Bowl and discovering a complete lack of edible food, we frantically searched for somewhere nearby where we could fill up before the game. We headed in the direction of Mother’s, planning on biscuits and eggs for dinner, but my brother-in-law Adam spotted Borgne, and in no time, we were escorted to a nice long table smack in the center of the restaurant. The maître d’ told us we were the restaurant’s first customers. Sure enough, as we sat down, we realized it was just us: the only other people in the restaurant were servers, huddled in the corner of the restaurant tasting the menu dish by dish, and investors, standing along the bar, drinks in hand, having a good ole’ chuckle with….Chef Besh. Now I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Besh on TV (he’s had a couple stints on Top Chef), but the man is easy on the eyes. In person, he’s downright hot. After less-than-subtle ogling, we wooed him over to our table, where he introduced himself, checked in about the food, and snapped that lovely picture you see above. As if that weren’t enough, he comped our entire meal — a good meal, at that. If you’re in NOLA, Borgne may be worth a try. It’s got subtly modernized takes on classic dishes like frogmore stew, Ya Ka Mein, and oysters in every style imaginable. If you do try it, let us know how it was.
Could, Shoulda, Woulda
As many places as we did try, there are so many others on my list that we couldn’t squeeze into this visit. On Magazine, Lilette, La Petite Grocery, and Coquette are all supposed to be great. We peered inside the windows (most were closed while we were in town) and they look every bit like A La Biche au Bois and other charming Parisian bistros.
If you want to round out your NOLA experience with a truly traditional meal — and all the gentlemen in your party have jackets, which are required at NOLA’s most storied restaurants — you might try Commander’s Palace or Galatoire’s. They’re expensive, they’re stuffy, and they can be chock full of tourists – but, especially at lunch, tables are occupied by those well-to-do elderly couples that seem to have lunches like these several times a week. They have napkins tucked into their shirts, well-coifed hair, and an appreciation for the finer things. We watched through the windows, and I’d consider going on my next visit, if only for the shtick of it all.
301 Tchoupitoulas St. New Orleans, LA 70130
St. James Cheese Co.
5004 Prytania St New Orleans, LA 70115
4924 Prytania Street New Orleans, LA 70115
The Spotted Cat
623 Frenchmen Street New Orleans, LA
334-B Royal Street New Orleans, LA
3637 Magazine Street New Orleans, LA 70115
601 Loyola Avenue New Orleans, LA 70113
Mahoney’s Po-Boy Shop
3454 Magazine Street New Orleans, LA 70115
1403 Washington Avenue New Orleans, LA 70130
209 Bourbon St. New Orleans, LA 70130
La Petite Grocery
4238 Magazine Street New Orleans, LA 70115