We didn’t have much confusion in choosing the culinary pocket of US of A, New Orleans especially based on my close interactions with a blogger friend, Pravs who was residing at NO at that point of time and had been giving me strange names of the food she experimented at this city. I must say that Pravs was very cautious while giving us pointers on the culinary treasures of this place as she didn’t want us to have the shock of seeing a totally different face of this country after flying from the northern part of America to its extreme south east, splurging a good chunk of our money, with high expectations just in the name of some romanticized dishes hyped up by the media. Around the same time, I happened to come across a post from Asha who listed this place as a topper in her favourite places and she responded to my mail request like this,” It feels very different in there, not like you are in America!:D...............There are so many things to do and EAT!!:D” . That was the green signal for us, from two great foodies who have experienced the place. Then followed those mornings when I woke up thinking about shrimp creole, jamabalaya, gumbo and muffulettas……!!!
A note on New Orleans Cuisine: During the trip, we attended a 3 hour session at the New Orleans School of Cooking where we learnt that the cooking and dining traditions of NO was a confluence of the early settlers from France, Italy, Spain who brought their culinary traditions along with them and the local native Americans and slaves from Africa which later got mixed with the ingredients and flairs of the New World. The two best known cuisine in this part is the “New Orleans Creole”, which developed from the cooking styles passed down from European and African traditions, mixed with the influences of the New World and the “Cajun Style” refers to the food of South Louisiana’s Acadians which is more of a rustic, country fare, often slow cooked in a single pot. Throughout the trip we felt that N’awlins, as the locals say, was like "a charming seductress" who lured us with her music and food. I can still hear the music flowing from bass and saxophones and can still smell the aroma of etouffee………..
Before I delve into the details, let me note that this post is not a travelogue instead a food-log on the culinary journey we took through the heart of NO where music is the language and food is the religion and the sole purpose of this post is to help other foodies who are planning a trip to NO. So you will see me talking only about food and food and food throughout this post, leaving you in the end wondering if we were eating all the food we can get our hands on at NO. Indeed yes, that is the only thing we did, eat-till-we-drop, as once you re in NO the only question you ask is , not when to eat, but where to eat and what to eat as the options this place gives is beyond one’s imagination. This time we stayed away from all the predictable touristy stuff, except for a three hour Katrina tour and tried to eat like the locals. When we were too heavy to walk, we came back to the room, took a nap and then went for a walk and grabbed a bite again. Please bear with me for the substandard pictures as most of the time I thought about the existence of the camera only when the plate was half-empty which means tummy was half-full to send signals to the brain about silly things in life and when I literally picked up the camera, we wanted to make sure that we were not inviting attention from those at the next table :)
We gave orders and found a place in the adjacent room which was darker and shady than the main room. The snob in me was still unsettled and unhappy with the state of the silverware but I was slowly getting absorbed in the atmosphere. The wait staff, in a very casual jovial mood, got our tickets and it was nice watching the man getting our food through a small window from the kitchen. As I took a big bite into my gravy soaked Roast beef Po-Boy sandwich, I was slowly soaking into the New Orleans atmosphere. Po-Boy sandwiches are known as poor man’s sandwiches and they are quite filling. I could finish only half of my sandwich and was quite amazed at the amount of beef filling; the pickles and mayo did give a kick to the sandwich. CJJ went for their famous Debris Po-Boy sandwich which was roast beef, dressed with lettuce and mayo on a French bread with a soft interior and flaky crust, in a debris sauce. Though he finished the whole sandwich, it did lack salt. So do I recommend this restaurant? Born snobs may stay away from this place but I suggest this to everyone who wants to eat out at a place which soaks up the essence of the city…..eating out here in this small place is quite an experience! Don’t miss it !
We had a 20 minute wait outside until the doorman indicated us to come in and then another 10 minute wait inside. Though I could feel the hungry devil doing gymnastic moves in my stomach, it was a pleasure watching the waiters beaming with energy and enthusiasm, singing songs and jazzing up the entire environment. It just lifted up my spirits on a Saturday morning. By now, my obsession with the hygiene of the silverware and tables and floors was all a thing of the past and for the same reason, I was quite surprised when we were given pure white cloth napkin and decent silverwares! Honestly, I wasn’t expecting that! We started with coffee and gave orders for a Bacon omelet and a Sausage omelet and both came with a side of French fries and toasted bread. The waiter guy lured us into ordering extra cheese filled omelets quite successfully. Another order for Chocolate freeze was also given which completed the sinful breakfast. With all that richness coming from eggs, cheese and cured meat and generous sides, we felt quite good after the food. Unlike the mandatory bloating up after eating such breakfast, we did not feel all that stuffed up and perhaps the waiter guy was right when he gave us a chilled glass of ice cold water saying. “ Have it maan…..it ‘ll help all dat wash it downnn…” :) If we make a trip again, this is a MUST- GO place in our list!
For lunch, we picked up COOP’S on Decatur Street at the French Quarter, again based on a recommendation from the locals. Both the online discussion forums and the locals we spoke to were all in praise of this place and we were happy after our visit too. It was one of those dark and dull French Quarter restaurants, with ancient brick walls and wooden tables and benches; they had an ambitious menu written on a blackboard with multi-colored chalks and a lively bar counter too. It had everything from rabbit to turtle to alligator meat. The vibe of the place was so indicative of the locals. We sampled their Seafood Gumbo, a N’awlins specialty soup with a light green roux cooked with crab legs, shrimp, oysters, drum fillets, file powder (ground sassafras leaves) okra and rice; Shrimp Creole- shrimp cooked in a very mildly spicy Creole tomato sauce, served over a bed of rice and Hurricane Cocktail- another NO creation with light, dark and gold rum with pineapple and orange juice and special hurricane mix. I loved the Gumbo here, it was spicy, hot and above all, tasty. I think it was at this place, CJJ experimented ABITA, the local beer and became a great fan of it. We liked this place so much that we wanted to go back again but since we didn’t want to repeat the same restaurants, we let it go.
Our next stop was at the Cajun restaurant, Mulate’s. This was again fashioned in the same lines of other French Quarter restaurants with its brick walls, framed pictures and checkered table clothes but with a mild touch of sophistication. They had live Cajun music and a very active dance floor. Here our samples included; Zydeco Meat Pies-a bit size pastry shells filled with a spicy ground beef seasoning; it was gone in the blink of an eye!! Yummy: Seafood Gumbo-dark roux based soup with shrimp, smoked sausage, chicken and okra served with white rice; The smokiness from the sausage scored well with CJJ: Crawfish Etouffee- etoufee means “smother “ and it is pronounced, A –TWO- FAY; peeled crawfish tails are smothered in a rich and creamy stew and served with a side of rice; I LOVED it….it was bursting with seafood flavour and am sure they have used either a seafood stock or a crawfish stock: Boudin, a traditional Cajun appetizer is pork and rice dressing with their house seasonings and served by the link with a side of a grainy mustard sauce; it was good but I was not bowled over by it: Mojito was just on the average: Bread Pudding- hmm……I really don’t know how to describe this dessert which was AWESOME. It was the best bread pudding we had at NO and I can still feel the taste of that raisin bread soaked and topped with a rich and creamy rum sauce. Heavenly!
A Culinary travel is never complete without a visit to the local school of cooking, isn’t it? CJJ agreed to attend a three hour open demonstration class at the New Orleans School of Cooking. Luckily he enjoyed the session as well as the food, needless to say that they served ABITA beer which sort of lightened up things for him :) Our chef-in –charge Barbara was a nice old lady who gave us brief introduction to the Cajun- Creole cuisine and how history shaped up the cuisine. She was quite homely, witty and genuine with a light southern accent. She made me smile with her “I just wanna share it with y’alll…” and reminded me of Paula Deen :) She gave us a cooking demo on Gumbo, Jambalaya, Bread Pudding and Pralines and handed over printed recipes for each one!!! This old woman knows cooking for sure! That was the best Gumbo we had in the city. All those who attended class with us would agree the same with me as all of us went for a second helping. Even after returning from this trip, we still talk about her gumbo and crave for it. I have her recipe with me and I think I should get to it soon! She gave lot of tips on making roux and she went in detail about the various stage of colour in roux making. Her Jambalaya, a traditional New Orleans dish, was also tasty and was prepared with the “holy trinity” of green peppers, onions and celery as the base and then cooked with chicken and sausage. Barbara’s bread pudding had a Caribbean touch, with her pinacolada mix and sweetened coconut and pineapple chunks, with whiskey sauce drizzled on it. Pecan Pralines, a Creole confection was also part of the kitchen demo and menu. Aww…how can I forget the flaky buttery biscuit they served at the beginning of the class with a drizzle of honey??? I must also mention about Michael, who was in charge of the general store that day, is also a chef at the school. Michael was generous with his recommendations on good local restaurants in town. We went to three restaurants in his list and they were all good. He also went to extent of calling up a baker in the neighborhood to find out for us if they were making King Cakes, a Mardi Gras specialty at this time of the year. I recommend this class for all the foodies visiting N’awlins!
By now we got an impression that all the restaurants in this city serve only good food as we never had a case of bad meal when we were in NO. Our next stop was at ACME Oyster Bar, to get our seafood share :) The place is loud and crowded. I think here everyone prefers the Oyster bar than the table. We could see the staff shucking fresh oysters and serving them in half –shell. Well, we had not risen to the Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations Style and hence went for Fried Oysters and Shrimp and it came with a side of French fries and potato salad with house dressings. Fried shrimp was good but fried oysters could not impress us well. I think I was not happy with its texture. The winner was the Oyster Rockefeller Soup which had a heavy seafood flavour and was smothered in a creamy sauce with spinach. Out of decency, I shared my soup with CJJ and got a completely wiped out bowl back!!! CJJ kept experimenting with their local beers and cocktails.
Café Maspero at Decatur Street is a jewel in the French Quarter. I wish they had a branch in my town here! This place has fantastic food at very cheap and unbelievable rates. CJJ fell in love with their Muffulettas. It was unbelievably awesome. Salami, ham and pastrami piled high on a seeded Italian roll topped with melted swiss cheese and a layer of olive salad, served with a side of home-style French fries. I wish our sandwich shop sold this one! We also ordered French onion soup, a rich and hearty onion filled broth ladled over a rye bread and topped with a very-very thick melted swiss cheese. My conscience did not allow me to eat up all that cheese! We also tried their Red Beans and rice, cooked with sausage and ham and some local spices served over rice and it was really creamy and tasty. I remember Barbara at the cooking school telling a story that red beans and rice was traditionally cooked on Monday which was the wash-day for Louisiana women and rice and beans got cooked while the women attended to their chores. The waitress was quite a friendly girl who suggested me to go for the smallest portion of this dish and oh boy! She was right!! We were quite amazed that our total bill came up to only $16 for that dinner including the beer!!!! It was really generous portions for that price and incredibly tasty dishes too. Don’t miss this place, if you re planning a trip!
When in New Orleans, eat like the locals and that’s by grabbing a Shrimp Po-Boy sandwich for breakfast from Johnny’s Po-Boy. Fried shrimp served on a layer of lettuce and mayo spread on a French bread. A hearty breakfast! Another must-visit place right in the heart of French Quarter.
On a recommendation from a local and the help desk staff at our hotel, we went to Deanies Seafood for lunch. A casual fine dining place where we had one of the messiest lunches of our lives because we ordered all the menus that required the best tools Mother Nature gave us, our hands and fingers. Our helpdesk staff at the hotel recommended this place for Crawfish and hence we gave the order for the same. The waitress was gracious enough to tell us that crawfish season is almost over but since we were not sure whether we would be making a trip to NO again, we ordered a pound of boiled crawfish . Not knowing how to eat this boiled New Orleans tradition, our waitress again was kind enough to give a demo on “how to eat crawfish?” !! We made a mess over there but did finish all those crawfish we bought. I liked the taste…they tasted similar to shrimp but had a more strong flavour. Our next messy item was Barbecue Shrimp- A sexy New Orleans jewel! Jumbo shrimp, with its heads –on, sautéed in a unique blend of seasonings was spicy to my palate and was an explosion of flavours, especially with ice cold draft beer. At home, I get cleaned shrimp and here at a fine dining restaurant I had to sit and peel the shrimp! Though I cursed myself for ordering that dish, it was worth all that peeling!!! If you think I stopped my peeling job with that dish, my friends, you are mistaken…CJJ’s Cajun Bloody Mary came with a boiled jumbo shrimp with its head-on, standing in the middle of the cocktail ! We also sampled Shrmip remoulade which was boiled peeled shrimp (Thank Lord!) served on a bed of lettuce with a remoulade sauce. Hmm….it was not great but just average or below average to our palate. If you think that’s too much of seafood, we also had a Crawfish Etouffee, crawfish tails smothered in a buttery blend of onions, peppers, celery and garlic to make a delicious sauce served over rice. It was served with French bread and salad with a Sicilian dressing. CJJ voted this as the best Crawfish Etoufee we had so far though I had to vote for the one we had from Mulate’s.
They served complimentary bread basket, consisting of warm and soft dark-molasses and pecan bread, a southern style biscuit and jalapeno and cheddar rolls. I usually don’t touch such bread baskets but it was so tasty I filled a part of my small tummy with those soft and heavenly nibbles. CJJ ordered a Cajun Martini first and I had fun seeing his eyes shrink and lips getting cornered after the first sip ? His Blackened Beef with Debris Sauce was an aged filet mignon, seasoned and blacked in their special debris sauce, served with potatoes and veggies. It was good though he funnily commented that the sauce tasted like “theeyal”, because of the sweetness and burnt taste of the sauce! My Blackened Louisiana Drum was again drum fillets seasoned and blackened in cast iron skillet and topped with crabmeat and chipotle compound butter, served with veggies and potatoes. It was cooked to perfection and drum fillets, a white flaky fish were not that fishy; it was soft and seasoned well and did satisfy my palate. I selected that dish based on the cute waiter guy’s suggestion as Chef Paul’s most popular dish. Guy was more than happy to suggest a Special Martini with pomegranate juice to CJJ which was better than the first one! For the dessert part, we tried Custard Marie, which is their version of crème brulee with a praline base. CJJ was happy with it but I was not that impressed, though praline base was good. Service was excellent. Overall, the dining experience was good. I would go to this place if I am celebrating a birthday or anniversary but for casual bites, I prefer one of those dark and dull restaurants at the French Quarter. I remember one of the local guy we spoke to mentioning that they used to sell dishes for even $3 in the beginning but now it has grown to be a pricey place!
How could I forget writing about the Muffuletta’s of Central Grocery?? Trust me, I crave for this sandwich! This is another New Orleans experiences that you should not miss out. It is a huge sandwich; we bought one full sandwich and we had it for breakfast as well as lunch that day !! A culinary invention of the Sicilian immigrants, the original Muffuletta sandwich at the Central Grocery, is a round Italian bread, split horizontally, then filled with salami, ham and some other cured meats with layers of provolone cheese and a generous layer of olive salad. It is that formidable taste of the pickled olive salad, drenched in an ocean of olive oil, is what gives the sandwich its personality. The best part is choosing the menu…it is very easy…either a half sandwich or a full sandwich!!
There is a place in NO which is like a sacred place where all the tourists flock to, at some point of time during their visit and it is Café Du Monde. Their Beignets and coffee are synonymous with the culinary map of NO. Beignets are deep fried French style square donuts and we sampled this twice during our visit with their invigorating black coffee. Beignets are served right out of the deep fryer, with a heap of powdered sugar and they are tasty as well. Don’t attack the beignets immediately after they serve and burn the roof of your palate. That bit of advice is coming from experience: D When we sat at their Café at the Decatur street, I was suddenly reminded of Saravana Bhavan of Chennai………with the wait staff wearing paper navy caps, with the café name written on it….. those long and almost-dead ceiling fans of the old world…..the pigeons walking on the courtyard gingerly yet with a pride, as though they own the place …somehow I felt I was sitting at Saravana Bhavan :-O Looking at the pigeons, CJJ had a bad joke that they might be suffering from high blood sugar eating all that powdered sugar on the floor!!