Red beans and crawfish and Sazerac, oh my! RCS ambled down south recently--way down south. To New Orleans along with a pack of chefs on a mission to become enlightened as to the state of all things club culinary. As became clear soon enough; when a warm welcome into this fraternal gathering was not realized, RCS lit out for some of the city’s most delicious destinations.
Vibrant, humid and lively as ever with a massive amount of development and renovation going on, but with still enough grit, glitter and grime to remain authentic, NOLA keeps rollicking right along beckoning millions of tourists every year. It’s easy for a visitor to get around the avenues and alleyways of New Orleans, and get around we did! Venturing into heirloom and idiosyncratic neighborhoods like Tremé, the Garden and Warehouse Districts, the French Quarter, Marigny and Freret, we pounded the buckled cobblestones in search of Tasso and tipple; over miles in the Big Easy till our feet wailed like a Catahoula cur. We paid our respects to many of the traditional and innovative pillars of the city’s culinary scene: From corner po’boy joints to storied Creole palaces, New Orleans welcomed with an abundance of gifts for human consumption.
Anyone who would visit New Orleans without making a morning pilgrimage to Café Du Monde could be considered a perfect candidate to be hit with a very large baton rouge. A jolt of chicory-laced java and a shower of powdery sweetness puffing from a hot beignet is “de rigueur” to fortify the body and soul before embarking on a day of city-wide exploration.
At venerable Galatoire’s, the sun-dappled Victorian dining room was a party atmosphere with a crush of post-Sunday services patrons decked in seersucker and crinoline loosening up for an afternoon of spirited brunching. Wielding oyster forks and champagne flutes, they chatted and table-hopped as crisply-suited wait staff hustled plates of pompano and shrimp remoulade. Oysters meunière and Pascal Jolivet Sancerre made perfect dining companions.
An expertly-crafted refreshing Sazerac can be sipped at Auction House Market, a bright modern food hall with an airy greenhouse-like interior. Auction House is the perfect spot to cool one’s heels before heading across the street to grab a seat at the oyster bar at Pêche. Simply prepared seafood; in this case, perfectly rosy rare tuna, grilled on an open hearth over hardwood is the star of this enterprise.
Is a bowl of chicken and sausage gumbo another required indulgence on the NOLA eating roster? Is the gumbo at Emeril’s really this good? Does it have just the right balance of sweet, salty, bitter, spice and earthiness? Well, yes. Yes it is, and does. This little caldo of Creole tradition was clearly in the care of one who needed only to pass a knowing hand over a simmering pot to give all the pyrotechnic flavor that was anticipated.
There is something heartwarming about the comeback of a neighborhood that has been kicked around and neglected. The Freret neighborhood; run down a decade ago, has picked itself up and dusted itself off at the eponymous Freret Beer Room. An urbane space in an area of urban resurgence FBR is, not surprisingly, a craft beer-centric stube with food that compliments the suds. Chili garlic shrimp with mint was very neighborly towards the grapefruit-hoppy IPA.
There’s a strong tradition of Louisiana/French crossed comfort food at the diminutive Meauxbar bistro situated on the cusp of the Vieux Carre and the Tremé neighborhood. Like a deliciously blended family of dishes, callaloo and clafoutis mingle with boudin and escargot. The heavy French bistro-style drape at the entrance can’t muffle the brassy tones from a trombone being soulfully played in Louis Armstrong Park across the street.
As with any three hundred-year-old city that sanctions a twenty-four-seven saloon culture, New Orleans has an illustrious and legendary history with cocktails and socializing. During our visit, sidewalks were packed with hordes of spring breakers bent on day drinking in the “sip and stroll” tradition of the French Quarter. We sampled the creative cocktail culture and genteel hospitality at Public Belt. The cocktail list at this speakeasy meets piano bar gives a wink and a nod to the lore of New Orleans’ infamous, saucy red-light district, Storyville. “Boudoir Cocktails” with cheeky names like The Scarlet Harlot and Lulu’s Clever Hands recount history when, in 1721 King Louis XV released all of the prostitutes from La Salpêtrière prison in France and deported them to New Orleans. As strangers in a strange land, what were these gals to do, but that which came naturally? Soon there were brothels all over the city enticing travelers from around the world, and thus the foundations were laid for the biggest industry in New Orleans: tourism. And therefore by extension, hospitality, of the most gracious order.
Chef Mary Howley is the culinary consultant to the RCS Hospitality Group and a former Executive Chef of her own catering company, several country clubs, and fine dining restaurants. She studied throughout Europe and honed her skills on the East Coast working with a myriad of culinary styles. She had the honor to serve as research and development chef for Food Unlimited, and held the position of Pastry Chef in two James Beard Dinner Events.