by Steve Levine
We don't confine our extreme dining to our hometown. Road trips are an excellent time to explore and overindulge in cuisine based upon different ingredients and techniques than are available here in New York City. One of our favorite road trips is the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. I went once, with Alex and a whole bunch of the crew. Alex has gone many times, and will likely write his own account of his experiences there. I went back to New Orleans last summer with my wife (then fiancée) for a long weekend to celebrate her birthday, and feel compelled to ruminate about our food adventures.
We arrived late on Thursday night, checking into the Royal Sonesta Hotel on Bourbon Street, after 11. We immediately went out for a light dinner, running into the Acme Oyster House for crawfish etouffe and po' boy. The Acme isn't my favorite spot, as their food isn't great and it's kind of grubby, but they were close and open. We had a quick bite and a few drinks to celebrate the coming of Friday, Marci's birthday, and then crashed.
Friday, we were determined to go to Uglesich's, a legendary diner open only for lunch in a shady section of town. We went right after getting up, so we could beat the lunch crowd, but had a tough time finding it, and finally discovered that it was closed. Starving and heartbroken, I determined that we would go to a place that my friend Darryl, a N'awlins native, had taken a bunch of us during Jazz Fest the previous year.
Unfortunately, I couldn't remember what it was called; I just had a vague notion that it had a two-part name and that it was sort of uptown. We stopped into a drug store on St Charles Avenue to try and figure out where it was. After asking about 10 people, (everyone was very nice) someone figured out that I was talking about Frankie & Johnnie's, and gave me directions. After taking a wrong turn through a depressed neighborhood, we wound up in the warehouse district uptown, maybe a block from Tipitina's, a legendary club where I'd seen the Radiators the year before. I recognized the place on sight, and warned Marci about the large roaches we'd seen then.
It was perfection. We had cold Abita beers, a Louisiana original, and feasted like we hadn't eaten in a week. The appetizers consisted of rich, yummy gumbo, and a crawfish pie. Their gumbo was thick with meat and dark roux, with just the right bite. The 4" pie was filled with meat and vegetables, and topped with breadcrumbs. Next, we had po'boys, the local version of the hero (or hoagie, sub, torpedo, or grinder as you please). Marci had fried oysters on hers, while I went for a very large one with no less than four soft-shell crabs on it, with what the fine folks here call "dressing": lettuce, tomato, mayo, and pickle slices. The lightly-seasoned cornmeal breading was just right for the fresh seafood, and the light French-style long roll made these portions just right to hold us until our 9 PM dinner.
After a day of sightseeing, a tea interval, and a nap, we went to our birthday dinner reservation at Commander's Palace, generally considered the finest restaurant in New Orleans and the place where great chefs such as Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse made their names. Located in a huge and spectacular mansion in the beautiful garden district, this restaurant is a feast for the senses. We had a drink at the gorgeous bar, where Marci developed a new love for the Absolut Mandarin Cosmopolitan. To get to the bar and the large dining areas towards the back of the mansion, one must pass through the kitchen. Being from New York, I was more than a little impressed by its size. Chefs back home tend to do more with less, but these guys had room to spare. There is even a large booth on one side, where parties can be seated by special reservation and be fed by the chef directly.
After something of a long wait, we were led across an outdoor patio studded with flowering trees and into a large greenhouse-like structure, with high ceilings that attached to another wing of the mansion. It was mostly empty, and we were led to a table in the center of the room and at least two tables from anyone else. Service was black-tie and impeccable. They were friendly, helpful, and knowledgeable. The menu was a Creole dream, and very difficult to choose from. The wine list was somewhat brief for the caliber of restaurant, but had some quality stuff. We wound up ordering a Stag's Leap Chardonnay to go with the fish we both wound up ordering.
Marci started with a long-time house and state specialty, turtle soup. This recipe has been used and refined over generations by the Brennan family, who own Commander's Palace and several of the other great restaurants in town, such as Mr. B's Bistro, Brennan's, and more. It was meaty and rich, with fresh herbs and a drop of sherry. For my appetizer, I got a special of the day, which absolutely blew my mind. It was four very large gulf oysters, with a fragrant bread, parsley, and fennel stuffing. These oysters were placed on a bed of rock salt studded with cloves, peppercorns, and herbs, and baked until golden brown. The aroma alone was enough to drop my jaw three inches, and infused the breadcrumbs and even the underlying oyster. I would have to rate this among the three best appetizers I've ever had. It hurt to give one to Marci, but a couple of spoonfuls of her wonderful soup eased my pain.
For entrees, we had dishes that were superficially similar in composition, but really quite different in flavor. Marci had the Barbecue Stew, which was kind of like a bouillabaisse, but with all of the ingredients grilled beforehand. The centerpiece of the dish was blackened redfish, surrounded by local shellfish taken off the grill and simmered in a delicious broth. Being a glutton, I was able to sample it thoroughly. My entrée was a "Napoleon," of layered grouper, shrimp, crawfish, scallop, and a potato thing, covered in a creamy wild mushroom sauce. It tasted as good as it sounds. Excepting the local ingredients, this dish could have walked right off of the menu from Le Bernardin.
Unfortunately, by the time we hit dessert my memory got a little hazy. I'm pretty sure we had port, and I know there was really good coffee with chicory. I know that Marci had their signature dessert: bread pudding soufflé. Imagine the best aspects of a vanilla bread pudding, poofed up with egg whites: Oh my gosh! I think I had something chocolate, possibly with banana, but this is largely a guess. We'd told them it was Marci's Birthday, so they brought out a chef's hat and a bouquet of balloons for her with dessert. This place is definitely special, and will be revisited. The only bad thing was that as a Manhattanite, I am unaccustomed to having to drive us home from celebratory dinners.
The following day, I took Marci to Brennan's for breakfast. This is something of a New Orleans institution, and was one of the high points of my earlier visit to the city. Located in the French Quarter, two blocks from our hotel, Brennan's has the special local charm of the neighborhood, combined with white-glove-quality service and a menu heavy on Creole standards. We had cocktails at the bar while waiting for our table, and Marci loved the treat of a pickled green bean in her Bloody Mary.
Breakfast was two courses plus dessert for $35, I believe. Marci started with perfect berries and cream, while I had oyster chowder, a variation on the turtle soup at Commander's. We enjoyed a bottle of Louis Jadot Pouille-Fuisse alongside. For an entrée Marci had a ham and cheddar omelet, and I had Eggs Shannon, which was two poached eggs atop two fried trout fillets and creamed spinach, topped with Hollandaise. This was a heart-stopper in every sense of the word.
At dessert, we each selected Bananas Foster, a Brennan's invention. For those of you who've never seen it, Bananas Foster is made tableside, starting with a big frying pan on a hot plate on a cart. The waiter melts a stick of butter and cup or more of brown sugar together, and then sautés sliced banana in it. After a few minutes, he dumps in a generous splash of banana liqueur, and flambés it. When the flames die down, the resulting mixture is spooned over vanilla ice cream. This is probably one of my five favorite desserts. After one of these and some more of that chicory coffee, it was pretty tough to stumble around the French Quarter in the summer heat, but we managed.
We had a late reservation for dinner again, and were able to take our time enjoying the French Quarter. In our hotel was the Desire Oyster bar, where we enjoyed a few huge gulf beauties on the half-shell with cocktail sauce - we each made to our own taste - when we needed a light bite. There were many drinks, and a nap and shower before dinner.
All the way at the end of St. Charles Avenue, and a little to the right, is Brightsen's, set in a decent-sized house in a residential neighborhood. The chef-owner is Frank Brightsen, who can be seen occasionally on various cable cooking shows and spins his own version of Creole cuisine. The restaurant is bright and welcoming, and the staff extremely professional. One waitress I'd talked to the previous year had been the first female captain at Commander's Palace.
By this time, Marci was feeling an extreme need for a salad, so she had one with the two amazing appetizers that I insisted we get anyway. One of them was a loin of rabbit in sesame batter, served on top of a cornmeal cake and greens in a pool of warm mustard remoulade. The bitter greens married the sauce to the rabbit, while the corn cake and sesame seeds in the batter made sweet music in the background. The other, equally delicious appetizer was the largest soft-shell crab I've ever seen, deep fried in a light batter and sitting in a pool of red wine sauce. A soft-shell crab fanatic, I was in heaven.
For entrées, I have to admit my memory is weak, but I'm pretty sure I had a piece of fish with some crab meat and an oyster cream sauce. Marci had some kind of veal dish, but she was getting stuffed, and I wound up eating most of it. Feeling guilty, I finished her dinner and the bottle of wine and we went home without dessert.
Our flight home was early the following afternoon (or so we thought). We got up somewhat early and went across the street behind our hotel for some beignets and coffee. A beignet is the local version of the doughnut, only it's got an irregular shape, depending upon where you get them, and the only flavor is "lots of powdered sugar." They are heavenly, but heavy, and one and a half of the large ones at this place was enough. We were going from there to check out of the hotel and go to the airport, so we got a muffaletta to go. A muffaletta is another New Orleans specialty, invented many years ago at the Central Grocery. It is a sandwich of Italian salami, ham, bologna, mortadella, and provolone cheese stacked on a 12" round Tuscan loaf and topped with an olive and pepper salad that they now sell all over town. It is a mountainous meal, which we shared in the airport waiting area. The only other thing we ate on this journey was McDonald's, when we were stranded in O'Hare for several hours.
I would have to say that this hit-and-run commando raid represents the perfect way to sample the culinary charms of the Big Easy. If we'd stayed any longer we might have hurt ourselves, but we were still sorry to leave and vowed to return. The next time we might check out Antoine's, Uglesitch's, and there would likely have to be a return to Commander's Palace, though there are many, many more. Another good way to understand the local cuisine would be to come to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, usually held the last two weeks of April. It's held on an enormous fair ground, and the food courts have amazing stuff, like crawfish in all its forms, fried turkey po' boys, and more kinds of jambalaya than you can dream up. The music isn't bad either.