A Foodie Weekend in NOLA:
We spent a memorable weekend in NOLA this spring. What I find remarkable about New Orleans is its radical contrasts. Before I talk about the incredible food we had I want to set the stage. We hired a dilapidated old cab and toured the Lower 9th Ward, something people did a great deal in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina but do less often these days. The Lower 9th Ward serves as a reminder of what we are good at in the United States, and at the same time is a startling example of the grievous ways in which we continue to fail our citizens. Six years after Hurricane Katrina the Lower 9th Ward shows off the exemplary social conscience of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. “Make it Right NOLA” is a non-profit that is designing and building safe, affordable, sustainable housing for working families who live (and lived pre-Katrina) in the that Ward. The new houses are stunning. Jutting out at odd angles, they are contemporary, brightly colored, cheerful homes – ones you can imagine you’d want to inhabit. The remaining pre-Katrina buildings (most abandoned) are to a one depressing, devoid of character, painfully small, and hopeless, most many decades old and in profound disrepair long before a 28-foot surge of water swept in and destroyed them. The original homes beg the question – is that the best America can do for its poorest citizens? Really? I shudder to think what living there must have been like. If you get to NOLA I highly recommend an hour spent touring the 9th Ward. If a visit there doesn’t turn you in a socially conscious activist, I don’t know what will.
Just 20 minutes from the Lower 9th Ward is a city wedded to excess. The French Quarter boasts bars and restaurants bustling with activity and commerce. Though the place has not returned to its pre-Katrina level of tourism and business, it still seemed CRAZY busy the April weekend we were there.
Our first meal in NOLA was at Upperline. Being a social media addict I noticed a while back that Peter Sagal (host of NPR’s Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me) was in NOLA by virtue of his NOLA-based tweets. At the end of his stay he tweeted that the best meal he had in New Orleans was at Upperline and that when there we were to order the Fried Green Tomatoes and the Crispy Oysters and give our best to JoAnn. Given that I do whatever wise NPR reporters tell me to do – I promptly dialed up JoAnn and made a reservation. JoAnn is an institution. She’s been at the helm of Upperline since the dawn of time. She’s gracious, quirky, charming, forthright and I’m certain would make an excellent neighbor. She swept us off to our cozy table and quickly made us feel at home. I’d have moved in had she let us – and I hadn’t even tried her food. And speaking of food, Upperline was two weeks into a new Chef, Anthony Spizale. We had an outstanding dinner, one any chef would have been proud to serve, and even more impressive for being produced by a newbie in the process of taking over someone else’s kitchen. If you make it to Upperline be sure to, 1. hug JoAnn, 2. order the fried green tomatoes which my husband ordered with deep suspicion and pronounced superb, 3. eat some slow roasted duck – truly the best we’ve ever tasted, and 4. tell Chef Spizale hello from me.
- Upperline: 1413 Upperline Street. Reservations Essential. 504-891-9822.
- 15 minutes from the French Quarter and a block from the Streetcar that runs down St. Charles Avenue. Dinner served Weds-Sunday.
- Chef Anthony Spizale
Going to Commander’s Palace the first time you go to New Orleans is like visiting the Statue of Liberty in New York – you could skip it but you’d go home wishing you hadn’t and what would you tell the neighbors when they asked to see the pictures? It’s a spacious, bright and cheerful place full of remarkably happy waiters, a chipper band, and enough food to sink several steamer ships. For heck’s sake, don’t eat anything for the week before you go. Though it’s a bit too big to be intimate in any sense of the word, they still manage to deliver a spot-on New Orleans “experience.” Our food was good, frequently bordering on excellent and the pecan pie was so delicious I bought the cookbook just so I could make it at home (I have a really hard time saying the words – “pecan pie” without conjuring up Billy Crystal and then collapsing in a fit of giggles). Our dining highlights were the Heirloom Tomato Salad (seasonal), Wild Shrimp Remoulade, Gumbo, and the Black Skillet Seared Wild Fish. We smartly told the staff it was my husband’s birthday (it had been, six months prior) and he was well-feted by both the wait staff and the band. Nice!
- 10403 Washington Avenue. Garden District. Reservations CRITICAL, make them well in advance. (504) 899-8221
- Make sure to save time to stroll through the cemetery across the street.
A NOLA-based college classmate facebooked me a list of places to eat – and Stella figured prominently. We had been out much of the day exploring in frightfully hot, humid weather. The streets were crowded with tourists, the roads packed with taxis. It was clear that going back to the hotel to change was logistically impossible in under two hours. We called the restaurant and explained to a gracious woman that ordinarily we don’t show up at fancy joints with sweat on our brows and shorts on our legs – could she forgive us if we did just that? “Absolutely,” she said. We skulked in, sat down and didn’t get up again until we departed. We quickly settled on the Chef’s tasting menu, there were simply too many fabulous dishes to decide between – why not have them all? Chef Scott Boswell follows all of the latest discoveries of molecular gastronomy, think Nathan Myhrvold meets NOLA. There is at least one, if not a baker’s dozen, sous vide machines working double time in the back and lots of liquid nitrogen freezing this thing and that (the nitro Vodka was otherworldly). Fancy new techniques or not, the food was outstanding, memorable, exemplary. Every dish was a delight. I adored the Sea Bass, as well as the Canadian lobster. I would walk a long way on a hot day to eat at Stella. It’s the real deal. One last note about Stella – we had one of the best waitresses EVER. A delightful young, energetic foodie who charmed us all night, it was her suggestion to try their sister restaurant, Stanley, the next day for breakfast.
- 1032 Chartres Street. French Quarter. Reservations essential. (504) 587-0091. Reservations can also be made through OpenTable.
- Chef Scott Boswell
The Chef’s Tasting Menu the night we were there included:
- Local Cherry Tomato Gazpacho with Louisiana Jumbo Lump Crab
- Canadian Lobster, North Shore Farm Egg and American Paddlefish Caviar
- Louisiana Gulf Shrimp and Andouille Risotto with Caramelized Shiitake Mushrooms, English Peas, Grilled Ramps and Virgin Olive Oil
- Parsley and Panko Crusted Japanese Mero Sea Bass with Glazed Baby Turnips and Dill Sauternes Butter
- Seared Prime Beef Tenderloin with Potato and Foie Gras Croquette, Caramelized Baby Onion, Baby Beets and Red Burgundy “Glace de Viande”
- Goat’s Milk Panna Cotta with Louisiana Strawberries, Candied Orange Peel, and Pistachio Glass
- Bombe of Sesame Cake, Chocolate-Caramel Ice Cream and Meringue with Chocolate Sauce Sphere, Black Sesame Lace and Pink Peppercorn Powder
We made our way to Stanley on Sunday morning on the advice of our outstanding server the night before at sister restaurant Stella. A bright, cheerful place right on crowded Jackson Square, Stanley serves an entire menu of things I would NEVER make at home. Despite the presence of AMERICAN CHEESE and PORK PRODUCTS in every dish, I have to tell you – I loved the place. I couldn’t consume meals like that with any regularity– but on a holiday weekend in NOLA, it was just the ticket. Our buddy and travelling companion Mike went with the Eggs Stella ~ Cornmeal-Crusted Soft-Shell Crab, Poached Eggs, Canadian Bacon and Creole Hollandaise on Toasted English Muffin which were just the right amount of crispy combined with just the right amount of creamy. I had the Eggs Stanley ~ Cornmeal-Crusted Oysters, Poached Eggs, Canadian Bacon and Creole Hollandaise on a Toasted English Muffin. One of the few dishes on the menu that didn’t sport American Cheese, something I loathe and believe is better suited to patching leaky car parts than human consumption – the dish was excellent. I loved the mild heat and spice of the creole hollandaise combined with the crunch of the fried oysters. Husband Eric ordered the Omelet Sandwich ~ Eggs, Smoked Ham, Smoked Bacon, American Cheese, Grilled Sweet Onions and Spicy Mayonnaise on Toasted Whole Grain Bread. Given its ingredient list, I cannot believe I liked it – but I assure you I did. I still don’t believe it was Kraft American Cheese. Perhaps they use “American-Style Cheese” made by some gourmand with grass-fed cows and naturally occurring orange dye. Or perhaps I don’t mind American Cheese in the right combination of other ingredients. Say it isn’t so.
- 547 Saint Ann Street at Chartres St., on historic Jackson Square
- No Reservations. Be prepared to wait up to an hour during peak time slots.
- Chef Scott Boswell (also owns Stella)
Two last foodie stops. First we literally stumbled onto (into) the only microbrewery in NOLA. The beer drinkers (not me, but the rest of my travelling band) gave the various brews they tried a triple thumbs up. I believe they had both the ale and the “So dark you can stick a knife in it and it won’t fall over.” It was the perfect antidote to a sweaty afternoon spent outdoors listening to Cajun music. Much like the Acme Oyster Bar, but with the addition of local brew, they were busily shucking a zillion oysters right in front of us at the bar. The two hard working oyster-men admitted that though they shucked thousands of oysters (one of them had been standing at that bar, day in day out, for a decade) neither of them ever actually ATE an oyster themselves. Perhaps if I looked at a few too many slimy, sandy crustaceans I wouldn’t want to eat one either.
Café du Monde. I get the inherent charm of Café du Monde. I get it, the hickory coffee, the HOT fried dough, the excessive sugar. Unfortunately the reality of Café du Monde is that it is CROWDED, the beignets are overly sugared and a big snooze in terms of taste, and well, did I mention that it is crowded? It took for bloody ever to get served and in the end seemed like a, well, Class A tourist trap. I’d skip it next time and eat American Cheese at Stanley. I would.