In addition to the culture, and the history, and the amazing music, an essential thing to do in New Orleans is to eat. And to drink, but that almost goes without saying in New Orleans, Louisiana (NOLA). We were here about 10 years ago (pre hurricane Katrina) while I attended a business conference, but other than some convention food and a great steak at Smith & Wollensky (since closed), we didn’t really experience the food here. Thankfully my buddy Lee introduced us to his friend Greg, a foodie from North Carolina, who sent us his top picks for New Orleans.
We approached the city from the North, over the Lake Pontchartrain causeway (the longest continuous bridge over water in the world at 23.8 miles or 38 kms) , which allowed us to stop at the Abita Brewery for their afternoon brewery tour. The tour includes a video about Abita and a quick walk through of the brewery itself.
The best part of the tour is that all of Abita’s beers are available on tap, from which guests can pour as many or as much as they like. Diane’s favourite beer was something called ‘Purple Haze’. With unlimited beer, the tour quickly turns into a ‘kegger’, with everyone having a great time. We met Andre and Laura here, a couple who just recently started full-time RVing. The tour and the beer are both free!
The next afternoon, after narrowly avoiding a deluge on the walk there, we visited Cochon, a restaurant in the Garden district. We arrived moist to find the restaurant was just getting going again after a power failure. Neither affected our great lunch.
Our first appetizer was the Wood Fired Oyster Roast. Others had raved about this dish online. They were the best oysters I’ve ever eaten. An ideal combination of garlic and spice that didn’t mask the taste of barely cooked oyster. The perfect compromise between cooked and raw. They were so good that we licked the shells. They were so inspiring that afterwards Diane launched in to a spontaneous emotional monologue about how “I just don’t understand people who don’t like good food”. I wanted to make a trip back later in the day, just for some more oysters. That’s how good they were.
We also had the Shrimp and Deviled Egg Gumbo. Dark in colour and rich in flavour, it had a deviled egg floating on top. It was good, but not hot enough, and it paled in comparison to the oysters.
The Fried Alligator with Chili Garlic Aioli was lightly battered, deep fried and dressed in aioli containing sizeable pieces of parsley and mint. It was pleasingly firm on the tooth with the occasional chewier piece. The meat was perfectly spiced to balance the creaminess in the sauce.
Next up were Smoked Pork Ribs with Watermelon Pickle. The ribs were cooked just right, and easily encouraged to shed the bone. The rib sauce was tangy, with a pronounced but agreeable vinegar taste. It contained diced, pickled watermelon which is sweet, almost like candied fruit. The combination was packed with flavour.
Finally, we shared the Louisiana Cochon. The base of the dish is pulled pork fashioned into a disc and then baked to crisp the exterior. It’s topped with turnips, cabbage, and picked turnips with a large cracklin balanced on top. The cracklin was intentionally served at room temperature and was perfectly salted. It wasn’t the moistest pork I’ve ever eaten, but was good when dipped into the flavourful pan sauce.
Another New Orleans essential we visited twice is Café du Monde. The original French Market location has been serving hot coffee with a hint of chicory and glorious beignets since 1860.
We ate dinner at Adolfo’s, an Italian Creole restaurant above a tiny jazz bar in a nondescript building on Frenchmen Street. It’s a small and incredibly popular place that people line up for. No reservations, no credit cards, and no web site. The service was more efficient than caring during the first stampede seating.
We started with the Muscles, classically prepared with garlic and white wine. Amazing. The huge serving (enough for 2) was perfectly cooked. They served it with bread, lightly flavoured and barely toasted, which was essential to soak up every drop of the flavourful broth.
Salad and pasta starters also came with our meals but were nothing special. The bagged salad had a spicy dressing, and the spaghetti was properly cooked but forgettable.
As an entree, we shared the Drum (a type of fish) with Spinach Lemon Sauce, which was recommended by the waiter. It had no shortage of creamy yet light spinach sauce that was surprisingly spicy.
We also shared the Rib Eye Steak with Ocean Sauce, another favourite of prior patrons. The inch thick steak was cooked medium rare, but wasn’t overly tender. This was more than made up for by the fact it was topped with Ocean Sauce, a house speciality. Half of the steak was covered in shrimp and the other half in crawfish, both in light cream sauces. Gorgeous. Worthy of the acclaim.
We frequented d.b.a, a primarily beer bar with live music. It has a less than rustic décor and no furniture, but is packed every night because of the live music, with performers on the low stage so close that you can almost touch them.
Diane also liked the Spotted Cat Music Club, another intimate music venue on Frenchmen Street. Like d.b.a, the musical performers were almost too close. We listened to a jazz trio on steel guitar, harmonica, and washboard.
On our last day in New Orleans we went to Elizabeth’s, a funky restaurant in Bywater for brunch. The colourful décor included bright colours and plastic tablecloths on simple wooden tables. The service was very fast, despite it being a busy Saturday. In our case, they lived up to their motto, Real Food Done Real Good.
Diane ordered Crabby Eggs, crab cakes topped with poached eggs and hollandaise sauce. Each had just the right amount of hollandaise to accent both the egg and the fresh warm crab. Unfortunately, the dish had a lacklustre presentation on an oversized plate filled with fried potato chunks.
I ordered Eggs Florentine, an over-the-top dish of creamed spinach and fried oysters on a bed of pan-fried potatoes topped with 2 perfectly poached eggs, each with a dollop of hollandaise. The sauce was rich and subtly spicy, but the potatoes which could have been warmer.. The hollandaise was creamy and sweet with a distinct lemony top note. The deep fried oysters had a crunchy coating sealing in a juicy, flavourful interior.
We also ordered the house speciality, Praline Bacon. 4 thick slices of bacon covered in a sweet praline topping, which wasn’t hard or overly crunchy, just on the edge of crystalline. It was sweet and salty, but a bit of gimmick. Not something that I’d order on a regular basis. Bywater is 1 mile east of the French Quarter, and the trek back allowed us to start walking off our brunch.
Later that afternoon, we had 2 plates of crawfish boil from a booth at the 30th Annual French Quarter Festival that we’d been attending all weekend. After Mardi Gras, the <> is probably the largest event in New Orleans, with live music from over 1400 musicians on more than 20 outdoor stages. The streets are packed with lively people moving between the various venues, restaurants, and bars.
Crawfish (also known as ‘crayfish’, ‘crawdads’, and ‘mudbugs’) are boiled whole with spices, sausage, potato, and corn, which augment the terrific flavour and provide accompaniments. If you’ve never eaten crawfish, it’s relatively simple. Using your hands, you pull the head off, and suck out its rich, savory contents. Then you peel the body and eat the small bit of meat. It takes a lot of crawfish to satisfy one hungry crustacean-loving person, typically 3 pounds or more.
Thanks again to Greg for some great food recommendations. New Orleans is a terrific city that never disappoints, espeically in the food and beverage department!