Clearly from the photo above, you can tell that I didn't have to survive on mere nibbles in the Big Easy. Dieting was completely out of the question. I made a few futile attempts to workout at my hotel's gym, but it was ultimately a losing battle. There was no way in heck I was going to get to feel virtuous on this vacation. New Orleans is about decadence, decadence and more decadence.
Who am I to argue with tradition?
So, the whirlwind of dining, drinking, dining, drinking and more dining and drinking began. Frankly, I could go on and on about all the gourmet delights I indulged in, but I think you would overload in the reading, almost as much as I did in the eating.
Suffice to say, I most certainly experienced a muffuletta or two, downed my fair share of fried food, including a "Peace-Maker" Po-Boy sporting a half-n-half combo of fried oysters and fried shrimp with Tabasco-infused mayo, had a Sazerac at the Sazerac, and even visited a French Quarter Creole Kosher restaurant featuring Persian cuisine (?) for good measure. But, there were four meals that were particular standouts and deserve a bit of special attention...
It was difficult narrowing the field of restaurant choices to a handful we could manage, but after seeing Rachel Ray feasting on Chef Frank Brigtsen's updated Creole/Acadian fare on the Food Network, my traveling companions Laurel and Amy were quick to insist on a stop at Brigtsen's in the Riverbend area. No arm twisting was necessary. The restaurant is legendary for Brigtsen's brilliant riffs on Southern Louisiana cuisine. And, besides, how can a James Beard winner fail to deliver?
It was the first dinner of the vacation and we quickly realized that it was an ideal choice. For a lauded restaurant, I was immediately impressed by the dining room's blend of genteel elegance and downhome hospitality. The food struck the same delicate balance. It was a wonderful introduction to the city's inherent recipe of Southern refinement combined with Creole joie de vivre.
I was given a "good girl!" nod from the restaurant's hostess, when I mentioned that I was definitely ordering an appetizer of Rabbit Tenderloin on an Andouille Parmesan Grits Cake with Spinach & Creole Mustard Sauce. Although I didn't get much Andouille bite out of the dish, the perfectly cooked, crispy-coated rabbit was generously doused in the spicy, creamy mustard sauce. Mmm. I was in N'awlins alright.
My entree was equally homespun, with a confidence and style that took the dish into the realm of the gourmand: Roast Duck with Cornbread Dressing & Honey Pecan Gravy. I must admit that I was debating the wisdom of my choice when I saw Laurel's main dish: Brigtsen's Seafood Platter (pictured above), featuring Grilled Drum Fish with Shrimp & Corn Macque Choux Sauce, Crabmeat Thermidor, Baked Oyster Rockefeller, Baked Oyster with Bacon & Leeks, Deviled Crab and Eggplant Caponata. Luckily, she was happy to share a few tastes. Brigtsen clearly knows his way around the Bayou waters. Delicious.
Laurel and Amy were out for the count at this point, but I felt obliged to push on and ordered a Southern standard: Pecan Pie. Molasses sweet, lovingly-crafted and surrounded by a pool of lip-smacking caramel sauce, it was the most graceful slice of the pecan-variety that I'd ever eaten. Ya-Ya!!!
The next day, I had insisted that we partake in a New Orleans ritual: Friday lunch. We decided to skip Galatoire's, the city's most revered, old-line dining haunt for local politicos and swells, and try a New American-French twist on the tradition at Peristyle (bar/entrance pictured above). Considering that this sophisticated French Quarter haven only opens its doors for lunch on Friday, offering a different 3-course $24 prix-fixe every week, reservations had been rumored to be very hard to come by. I felt triumphant snagging a table for three at 1pm.
Entering the airy main dining room, it was obvious that this Big Easy practice usually starts well before 1pm. A large boisterous table of locals already had a dozen or so empty bottles of wine forming a centerpiece in the middle of their table.
We clearly had some catching up to do.
In honor of the Tennessee Williams Festival that was going on that weekend, Peristyle's Chef Anne Kearny cooked up a menu paying homage to the playwright's works. My epicurean tour through Williams' country: A cold plate of marinated vegetables, a chickpea salad and dollop of herbed goat cheese, christened "Stanley's Plate," inspired by "A Streetcar Desire," followed by a rich, fragrant Shrimp & Oyster Gumbo from "Vieux Carre."
Dessert was heaven on a plate: Angel Food Cake with White Icing and Frosted Grapes, taken from "27 Wagons Full of Cotton." I can't help moaning when I think about that icing - ivory white, buttery, sugary, vanilla goodness. The red grapes dipped in crystallized sugar set it off brilliantly. Oh, and the cake wasn't half bad too.
Feeling like we needed to get a bit more local flavor - literally and figuratively - after that polished, graceful lunch we took a sharp turn for dinner - straight to Pascal's Manale. An authentic Italian-Creole joint, Manale is famous for creating BBQ Shrimp (pictured above) - a dish that contains plenty of plump, fresh Louisiana shrimp, but has never known the thrill of a grill. Put innocent shrimp over fire-licking coals? That would be sacrilege! This rollicking hot spot, crammed with sports memorabilia, beer, freshly shucked oysters and ultra-fattening, old-time fare wouldn't spoil something as beautiful as Bayou shrimp by putting it on a barbeque. Much better to drown it in good, old-fashioned spiced butter - mounds of it - and serve it with a hunk of French bread for dipping.
Damned, if they're not right!
We waited a full 24-hours before taking on another truly gourmet experience. (Not that it gave enough time for our arteries to unclog, mind you. But, we can dream.)
Last time I was in New Orleans, about 6 years ago, I had the pleasure of dining at Chef Susan Spicer's award-winning Bayona, an intimate retreat from the bustling French Quarter that sets you at ease the second you walk through its doors. The food, if my memory serves me correctly, was superb. Spicer spotlighted local, farm-raised ingredients in dishes that captured flavors from across the globe. The service had been impeccable.
I was tempted to make a reservation as soon as I booked my airplane ticket, but something held me back. I should try something new - or at least new to me. One step into Spicer's fairly new, upscale Warehouse District cafe, Herbsaint (pictured above), and I realized that "new" was a good way to go. A very good way to go.
The room was effortlessly charming, with a large photo of an old-time jazz band covering the back wall to remind patrons that they were in New Orleans - if the clanking of the passing St. Charles Streetcar wasn't indication enough. All three of us were delighted with our table which faced the kitchen, so we could see Spicer's former Bayona Sous Chef Donald Link in action.
The menu was equally enticing. As with Spicer at Bayona, Link is fiercly committed to showcasing local foodstuffs. His style, however, is focused on leveraging French technique to create a modern spin on Louisiana cookery. We didn't know where to begin.
Thank goodness for John.
John - Laurel, Amy and I quickly determined - is a god among waiters. He was amazingly knowledgeable about food and wine and had an infectious enthusiasm for Herbsaint and the fine dining experience. And, it didn't hurt that he was terribly cute too.
He quickly convinced us that a four-course dinner was the only way to go. We weren't a tough sell.
I started off with a special of Duck and Tasso Ham Gumbo, featuring a spicy broth, kernels of rice, julienned scallion and bits of tender, smoked and buttery meats that, combined, tasted like the Big Easy served up in a bowl.
Next, we all shared a few small plates that were big on flavor, including a dish of Shrimp and Green Chile Grits Cakes with Tasso Cream Sauce, which made my eyes roll back into my head with pleasure, and a lusty Beef Short Rib on Potato Cake with Dijon-Horseradish Dressing.
For an entree, I settled on a house specialty that took me in the direction of Gascony, rather than the Bayou: Muscovy Duck Leg Confit with Dirty Rice and Citrus Gastrique. It was unsettlingly divine. I think I'm spoiled for Confit for the rest of my life.
Laurel and Amy were similarly enthralled with their main dishes: a special preparation of Halibut and Rabbit Fricasee with Homemade Pappardelle and Wild Mushrooms, respectively.
John returned and resolutely insisted that we order dessert. John had yet to steer us wrong. How could we fail to listen to him now?
While perusing the options, he easily convinced me to order a glass of soft, honey Muscat - a vintage bottle that had been opened accidentally and was being offered by the glass until the bottle ran dry. It must have been fate. There was one glass left. We all took sips of the rare treat while waiting for dessert.
In all of the other restaurants we visited during our stay, we ordered a single dessert to share. John would have none of that tonight - even letting Amy know that her original selection of Meyer Lemon Cr