Travels for Two in a Green Ford Escort #4: We’re Eating…and Eating…and Eating!
We’re Eating…and Eating…and Eating!
All of our friends know how much we love to eat. In fact, one of the reasons we came to New Orleans was because the city’s restaurants have influenced the country’s dining for at least a decade. Throughout that time, area chefs Paul Prudholm, Justin Wilson (The Cajun Chef) and Emeril Lagassee heralded hot food trends. The city has also birthed one of the most famous of all restaurateur families, the Brennans.
We weren’t disappointed in what we found. Creative new uses for fresh seafood and local ingredients as well as expert handling of time-honored French, Spanish and African recipes appear regularly on tables throughout the city. These tables grace restaurants throughout the French Quarter, Magazine Street and the Garden District. They can be found equally in historic and non-descript buildings and in both rich and poor neighborhoods. These diverse environments quickly begin bleeding into the dining rooms and improving the character of every meal.
Our priority during this part of our trip was to try as many New Orleans’ meals as possible. Below we’ve made a list of some of the places we tried. For more information on any of these places go to their Websites, Zagats.com, Sidewalk.com or New Orleans’ own site for information NOLA.com (short for New Orleans, Louisiana).
We promised ourselves one really good meal out and were eager to have this meal at Commander’s Palace. The restaurant, owned by the Brennan family, has won the James Beard award for best restaurant in the nation, while starting the careers of both Emeril Lagasee and Paul Prudholm. Commander’s is located in the Garden District across from Lafayette Cemetery, and has a bright gypsy blue exterior softened by elegant oak trees and its famous blue and white striped awning. We had heard the food was starting to decline a bit, and decided to go for lunch. It was quite a bit less expensive than a full dinner and we reasoned that if lunch was good, we could always make a dinner reservation for another night.
We ate lunch in the restaurant’s famed Garden Room, overlooking Lafayette Cemetery No.1. This room was airy and immaculate and also had higher-level views of the oak trees the Garden District that made the dining room feel more like a tree house. Contrary to the rumors we’d heard, our meal was wonderful. Soups were thick, chunky and rich; salads and entrees were served in generous portions; and the service, which Commander’s is known for, lived up to its reputation. The 25ï¿½ martinis on lunch special were stiff, and the bread pudding and soft centered chocolate soufflï¿½ were the best parts of the meal. We left the restaurant full and satisfied, making a reservation for Valentines’ Day dinner on the way out.
This small restaurant was just a block away from our apartment in the French Quarter and across from Armstrong Park. When we learned it is listed by Zagats as the best place to eat in New Orleans we cancelled our second Commander’s Palace reservation and made a new one here for the last day of our stay. We wanted to try something new and thought it would be good to enjoy a good lunch before we got back on the road.
We had hoped for a special meal this day and weren’t disappointed. We arrived early and started with cocktails at their bar, Jeff having New Orleans’ signature cocktail, the Sazerac. In the dining room, we ate off their prix fixe menu and enjoyed beef tornados and vegetable stuffed trout with a wine pairing. The food was simple, but wonderful and the wines matched perfectly – the white wine and seafood pairing particularly so. We also enjoyed the cream of celeriac soup, the bacon fritter appetizers and chocolate pear soufflï¿½. For a final treat, as we were leaving the bartender stopped us to ask about our lunch and give us the signature recipe for the Sazerac. Those details of service along with quality of our meal made Peristyles’ the best dining we’d had in New Orleans, perhaps our best ever. It even beat Commander’s Palace.
Uglesich’s (Nicknamed: Ugly’s)
Ugly’s is a small, casual restaurant in one of the worst parts of New Orleans. It has a noisy dining room, laid-back staff, and a kitchen crowded into a back corner in full view of the customers. But it has food so good the wait during Mardi Gras can increase to up to four hours while many of the city’s top chefs visit for lunch on their day off. Ugly’s doesn’t seat many, tables are crowded together and stray cats often sneak in from the alley, getting underfoot. (They are chased out quickly and later given cat food in the back alley) But once the owner – who greets you at a counter by the front door – takes your order and points you to a small table, you’re set. At Ugly’s we found some of the best and most creatively spicy Cajun seafood we had in New Orleans.
Named the Best Restaurant in New Orleans by City Sidewalk.com this restaurant was down the street from where we worked at Silky O’Sullivan’s. While he worked the door, Jeff had many people ask him for directions to it and we had to find out why it was so popular. Once we had eaten lunch there, we knew. After Uglishes, it was the most representative Creole food we’d had in the city. The tomato-based sauces on our whitefish and shrimp Creole were light, interesting and flavorful. The atmosphere was romantic and the prices were more than reasonable. At the end of the meal we were lucky to meet the owner, Arnaud Olivier, who talked to us and told us about the restaurant’s Creole origins. We made sure to tell him how much we enjoyed his lunch, and told him we’d try to return. Although we were never able to go back, we did recommend it to other people who passed by Silky’s wondering where to eat.
The night we were hired for our jobs we celebrated with dinner at this 150 year-old restaurant in the French Quarter. The second-oldest restaurant and bar in the city, Tujague’s is located at the edge of the quarter, near the waterfront and across from the open-air French market. Eating there was like stepping back in time 60 years. A New Orleans signature restaurant, black and white photos of celebrities crowded the walls and tuxedoed-clad wait staff read menus from memory.
The food at Tujague’s was good but although they’re known for their brisket appetizers, we’ve tasted better at a friend’s when he cooked it all day in his Korean barbeque. What we really appreciated was the spicy Cajun salad dressing and the atmosphere. Once you’ve stepped through Tujague’s doors you’ve left modern New Orleans for the 1940’s. Overall, the restaurant was a bit stuffy, worn and past its prime, but we had a fun meal we wouldn’t have wanted to miss.
The Original Pierre Maspero’s
This restaurant is a casual and interesting place to have a lunch. It is located in an early 19th century trading and coffee house where pirates Pierre and Jean Lafitte planned escapes and met with former president Andrew Jackson to plan strategy for the Battle of New Orleans. The building’s heritage is one of the best things about Maspero’s. The food isn’t bad, but it’s not special either and their menu lists traditional versions of New Orleans food like Red Beans and Rice, Po’Boys and Crawfish Pie. Nonetheless, we found it a great place for a quick, easy lunch and a rest from touring.
At the end of the Garden District in a small, white mansion is the Camellia Grill. We’d heard about their enormous omelets, waffles and hamburgers and decided to try it one day for lunch. We went there expecting a slick pub atmosphere with woodwork, big tables and microbrews. Surprisingly, we found a busy diner out of the 1960’s with just a long counter facing the grill. Waiters in white jackets, bowties and paper hats served diner food and ice cream in minutes while customers watched the cooks for entertainment. Our waiter was lively as well – performing his own sort of stand-up comedy routine for the customers as he slid plates across the counter, poured drinks and took orders. We enjoyed our meal and although we never returned to the Camellia Grill after our first lunch, we always wanted to.
New Orleans is famous for its beignets – French-style square doughnuts covered in powdered sugar that taste like fried dough for sale at carnivals. Cafï¿½ Dumonde at Jackson Square is the place to try these. They’re inexpensive at $1.30 per order and the cafï¿½ offers a serving of three at a time in a bag or plate covered with more powdered sugar than pastry.
Cafï¿½ Dumonde is open 24 hours a day and has a walk-up window for quicker service. We often had beignets as a mid-day snack or for something to eat after coming home from the bars late at night. The restaurant, with its tiny tables and chairs in the open air, can also become a crowded tourist destination. Lots of customers sit for hours at a time to people watch and drink strong coffee or fresh-squeezed orange juice.
Around the back of the restaurant is a special treat: two French doors open to the back kitchen and offer a close up view of the Beignet machine, fryers and pastry cooks. We had a lot of fun watching this and were amazed by the sheer volume of pastry produced and the copious amounts of flour in cracks by the doors and on the machine.
Although most tourists have heard of famous New Orleans cafï¿½s like Cafï¿½ Dumonde, Croissant d’Or is located just down the street from them on Urselines Avenue near the Urselines Convent that is the oldest building in New Orleans. It is a small, cafï¿½ that feels perfectly European and offers customer a brief escape from a busy day. Pastries are decadent and inexpensive – between .75 and $1.80 each and sit in their cases nearby salads, quiches, and sandwiches available for lunch. And like a true cafï¿½, Croissant d’Or doesn’t rush its guests. Customers could sit all day if they wanted and read by one of the front windows that look on the street, or sit in the cooler, tiled courtyard at the back.
We found Muffallettas (a traditional New Orleans sandwich of Salami, provolone cheese and olive spread) throughout the French Quarter, but the best one we tried was at Central Grocery. The sandwich was big and thick, and tasty with a strong pungent smell. The store itself is a treat to walk through. It’s an old-fashioned, New York-style deli. Shelves of imported European and specialty foods and an enormous cheese counter were also a treat to see although a bit expensive to purchase.
We didn’t go to…
Emeril’s, Emeril’s NOLA, Emeril’s Delmonico Steakhouse, and Paul Prudholme’s K-Paul
We had to pick and choose where we went carefully, and had heard these restaurants were coasting on their famous names. Locals and a few guidebooks told us the food was average and the service was slipping from when these restaurants were at their height a few years ago. We can’t confirm or deny these rumors but they did influence our decisions on where to eat.
Acme Oyster House, Brennans Steakhouse, Arnauds, The Original Ruth Chris’ Steak House, Antoines, The Napolean House
While we really wanted to try these places, we only had so much time and money to eat with. We hope to try them on our next visit to New Orleans.
Many of the Restaurants on Bourbon Street
When we first arrived in New Orleans we tried a few of the restaurants on Bourbon Street and were disappointed. The restaurants we tried delivered plain food from their freezer to their fry pans to our plates. They were expensive, and even those with low prices usually had a catch. For example, Pat O’Brien’s, the inventor of the Hurricane (a traditional New Orleans rum drink) seemed to price their specialty drink at a discount. But after finishing our meal, we found we had to purchase the souvenir glass for an additional three dollars. Other places weren’t a bargain either and even the three-for-one drinks at happy hours were served in glasses the size of a dixie cup.