I never need an excuse to go to New Orleans, so when my wife suggested we go there at the end of 2012 to get out of NYC to visit some friends, I was all for it. And now, with the Super Bowl coming up there shortly, what better time to share my favorite bites.
Whenever I go to New Orleans I am always torn between going back to the places I've gotten to know and love over the last 25 years (Willie Mae's Scotch House, Morning Call, Casamento's) and try the new places. For this trip, I focused on places that have opened up post-Katrina, establishments that represent the new New Orleans. Of course, I still couldn't resist the siren call of some of my old faves, but you probably already knew that.
Breakfast: Camellia Grill
My friend Lolis Eric Elie, a longtime New Orleans resident and serious eater with a deep and abiding love for the food and culture of his native city, wrote imploring me to skip breakfast in New Orleans, because, and I'm paraphrasing here, New Orleans is not a great breakfast town, and why waste any New Orleans calories on things that are not seriously delicious.
So, in the three days we were down there I ate every breakfast except one at the hotel we stayed in, the incredibly cool and shockingly peaceful Audubon Cottages, located in the heart of the French Quarter. We were with our son Will, who is way too old to be sharing a room with his parents, so we were thrilled to have a comfy two-bedroom cottage so centrally located.
The one breakfast I had was at the French Quarter location of the legendary uptown New Orleans diner the Camellia Grill. Though the quarter location of the Camellia Grill lacked the character of the original, everything else was just as I remembered: the line, the awesome waitstaff never reluctant to venture an opinion about an order.
My waiter didn't bat an eye when I ordered a pecan waffle (with cane syrup, of course, the local equivalent of maple syrup), a cheeseburger medium rare, please, and a piece of griddled chocolate pecan pie, which I had read about while I was down there this time but somehow had never heard of, much less ordered before). My waiter burned the pecan waffle he had put in the waffle iron for me, but there was another one sitting on the grill, so that's the one I ended up with. It wasn't the pecan waffle that could have and would have been if he hadn't burned mine, but it was damn fine nonetheless. The cheeseburger was the surprise. I had never ordered a burger at the Camelia Grill, but this one had a lovely crust, was mighty juicy, and was cooked as ordered.
My awesome waiter told me he was going to cut me a double wide slice of chocolate pecan pie, which he proceeded to do before putting it on the grill. He then spooned some melted butter on it for good measure, took it off the griddle, topped it with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and voila, a piece of pecan pie worthy of worship, and big enough to bring back half of it back to the hotel to Will, who is the real pecan pie freak in the family.
Camellia Grill (2 locations): 540 Chartres Street, New Orleans LA 70130 (map); 504-552-1800
Lunch #1: Casamento's
Lolis told us not to skimp on lunch, and I didn't. Our first (and shockingly, our only lunch on the first day) was at Casamento's in the Uptown neighborhood, which I have to go to when I'm in New Orleans during a month that ends in "r," because that's when Casamento's is open. While waiting in line we downed a half-dozen freshly shucked before our eyes Gulf oysters, which were very fine if not quite up to the briny standards of the raw bar at the nearby Pasquale Manale's, which locals rightfully call the best oyster raw bar in the city.
Our po' boys—one shrimp, one oyster, and one catfish—came on Casamento's unique toasted sandwich bread, which is basically two big pieces of Texas Toast. The fillings were all fried beautifully, but the batter called out for salt. We also had the gumbo and the spaghetti and meatballs (eminently skippable). Vicky was sickened by the amount of food I ordered and ate, so she ordered a forced march back to our hotel, which was basically a five-mile walk.
Lunch #2: Company Burger
My friend Pableaux Johnson recommended Company Burger, and as usual he was spot on. Chef-owner Adam Biderman learned his burger craft from Linton Hopkins at Atlanta's Holeman & Finch (where the burgers are sold starting at 10 and are often sold-out by 11) before returning to his hometown to open Company Burger. He learned his lessons well.
The regular burger—two 3-ounce griddled patties, American cheese—was a delightful, juicy mess to eat. Fries and onion rings were both spot on, and the dude makes eight homemade condiments every day. He recognized me after I had ordered and paid the check, so he sent out a perfect bratwurst his girlfriend made at her new New Orleans butcher, Cleaver and Co., which I didn't get to visit. Next time, for sure.
Quick Bread Snack: Ancora
We went from the year-old Company Burger to a new pizzeria down the block on Ferret Street called Ancora, started by a young guy who had worked at the great northern California restaurant Cyrus.
Unfortunately I didn't get to try the pizza, as he was prepping for dinner. He did give us a taste of the bread he made from his pizza dough that he baked in his wood-burning oven, and it was damn fine. He was using the starter he brought from Cyrus.
Lunch #3: Domilise's Po-Boys
Bloodied but unbowed, we tried to hit a nearby po' boy place Guy's for its famous french fry po' boy, but the line was too long. So when my friend John told me we were close to one of my all-time favorite po-boy places Domelise's, off we went.
Get the large half shrimp, half oyster fully dressed with lettuce, mayo, ketchup, hot sauce, and a small roast beef po-boy with gravy, lettuce and tomato. The oysters and shrimp were perfectly fried. The roast beef was a skip. Better to head to the Parkway Bakery and Tavern for a roast beef po-boy.
Dinner: Toups Meatery
Dinner was at Toups Meatery. The name will lead serious eaters to believe we're in for a meat-centric experience, and boy were we. The house-cured charcuterie plate was terrific: candied bacon, coppa, salami, blood sausage, all delicious.
The two best main courses were a triple-wide and double-deep pork chop that passed the mondo pork chop test with flying colors. It had great charred, caramelized crust and tender juicy meat inside the crust. My kind of pork chop, and yours too, and surprisingly the head-on barbecue shrimp, which were so good the folks that ordered them were reluctant to pass around.
Dinner #2: Sylvain
The newish restaurant Sylvain symbolizes the kind of post-Creole and Cajun New Orleans food that has been cropping up more and more frequently post-Katrina.
Sylvain has a touch of New York attitude (its owner is a transplanted New Yorker) leavened by New Orleans friendliness and willingness to accommodate, once they got over my repeated requests to turn down the music. Co-owner Sean McCusker and his chef Alex Harrell, who's been cooking in New Orleans restaurants off and on since 1998, have created a menu that is more of the new New Orleans than the old one.
So there's no barbecued shrimp, no trout almandine, no baked oysters, no pork chop with oyster dressing, not even a gumbo. But there were terrific beef cheeks, a great hamburger, ridiculously tasty pan-fried pork shoulder, a fine brussels sprout and hazelnut salad, and even a fried chicken sandwich inspired by Chick-Fil-A.
Sylvain could have been in New York, except it was tucked away in an alley in the French quarter with an outdoor table facing one of the oldest walls in the city in a courtyard where Faulkner once held forth. Sylvain's setting and food was in New Orleans and of New Orleans, and it manages to capture the best of the new spirit of New Orleans and the old one, without being a museum piece.
If you're headed down to New Orleans anytime soon, either for the Super Bowl or after, make sure you go to the Camellia Grill in the Quarter for a slice of griddled chocolate pecan pie; Willie Mae's Scotch House for fried chicken; raw oysters and barbecued shrimp only at the oyster bar at Pascal Manale's; Domilise's for a large seafood po' boy, half oysters and half shrimp, fully dressed; Company Burger for a burger and some onion rings, and dinner (or lunch Friday through Sunday) at Sylvain.
You also can't go wrong at Cochon or if you can't get a reservation, go to the adjoining Butcher Shop for a glass of wine or a beer and the best muffaletta I've ever eaten (all the other sandwiches are of similar high quality). And for a recent, lengthier guide to New Orleans eating and drink, check out former REMer Michael Stipe's thoughts on the subject. Though I've never eaten with Stipe, I have often seen him chowing down at one of his friend Mario Batali's restaurants, so he is a serious eater.