The Best Way To Experience New Orleans Culture: The Food

Staff Writer
This historically rich destination has an equally engaging and exceptional culinary scene
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Credit: Facebook/ Willa Jean

For baked goods fresh out of the oven, head to Willa Jean.

New Orleans is a city rich in history, fables, and fabulous food. Moreover, it has weathered the rigors of time and tumult to endure as one of the most visited and beloved vacation destinations in the world. We recently had the privilege of spending some time in the “Big Easy,” learning about its culture and cuisine and savoring meals at some of the most historic restaurants, as well as some of the new hot spots. Selecting a few from the myriad of great eateries was a delicious challenge that we were glad to undertake. New Orleans is the place to vacation whether you love history, mystery, or decadent dining — or all three.

Our first stop was the Hyatt Regency to see how Executive chef Damidot is faring at pleasing the palettes of the countless guests visiting from all corners of the globe. Chef Damidot is doing an outstanding job bringing the freshest seafood, proteins, and local produce to every venue within the Hyatt Regency, as well as the recently opened Extended Stay Hyatt House. Vitascope Hall offers some of the freshest Louisiana seafood, burgeoning burgers, brews, and hand crafted cocktails, along with some of the best sushi in all of NOLA. Chef Eric’s many years of expertise also became apparent after experiencing the hotel’s bakery program and outstanding brunch service.

If a more formal dining option is on your agenda, then visit chef John Besh's Borgne, with chef Brian Landry at the helm of the kitchen. Chef Landry is now creating dishes inspired by his Louisiana roots. If you want an affordable dining experience, try the happy hour with tapas offerings, or come for lunch, which features daily specials that will make your wallet and your waistline happy. Our meal was a dinner affair and we were excited to try the seared diver scallops with spaghetti squash, sweet potato, and crab broth. The perfectly seared large scallops were highlighted by the sweetness of the potato and squash and paired well with our VignobleD’azur Rose.

Chef Landry was the head chef of the Louisiana Seafood Board and knows a few things about crafting a dish that brings praise to the region from which it originated. The décor is a casual, seafaring atmosphere, with columns encrusted with hundreds of discarded and well-cleaned oyster shells that will have you sailing away with a content stomach and some cash left over for another cocktail at the bar.

After visiting some of the newer eateries around, we were ready to embrace the past with a visit to the famed Brennan’s restaurant — a place known for its breakfast and bananas foster. For any restaurant to survive and thrive after 70 years is a big deal. The iconic pink and green umbrellas adorn the courtyard tables that provide a weekend respite for those who want to spend a leisurely Sunday afternoon eating great food and engaging in stimulating conversation.

Greeted by Kathryn Brennan herself, we were put at ease right away. Our waiter, Peter Chavanne, a veteran of Brennan’s hospitality, was both entertaining and informative. After giving us the customary menu dialogue, we decided to go with some of the classics: the Eggs Sardou and the Eggs Hussarde, both outstanding from the first bite.

In honor of the classic NOLA spot's 70th anniversary, some of the original classics returned to the menu. One standout starter combination was the Crabmeat Lundi Gras, a refreshing bite of jumbo crab meat, asparagus, cherry tomato, and French dressing, paired with a Brennan’s Shamrock cocktail. The Flambé finale of Crepes Fitzgerald with local strawberries is a decadent way to end the dining experience. Our waiter stirred and swirled as we eagerly watched the flames dance in the pan, just barely missing the umbrella overhead. Brennan’s is indeed a culinary and cultural landmark that has been in the fabric of NOLA's fine dining scene for seven decades and will continue to be so for generations to come.

For those willing to explore the nuances of the culinary world outside of the tried and true, there is an epicurean adventure waiting within the French Quarter. We found several eateries that won our hungry hearts: Salon, Willa Jean, Compere Lapin, and Peche.

In the heart of the French Quarter, is Salon by Sucre, which offers a modern high tea service along with a menu that elevates and titillates the taste buds. The Croque Benedict made with house southern chive biscuits, soft boiled egg, and apple ham with creamy roclette, is a sophisticated take on the classic dish. The modern high tea service will have you rethinking your coffee habit and features an assortment of teas with names such as “Scarlet Glow” and “Wood Dragon.” With such a great selection, the tea cocktails are a must. The “Kate Townsend,” Jasmine infused Cocchi Americano Bianco, Damson Plum Gin, and Candied Mint, put Sucre on the map. Chef Tariq Hanna's artistic and ambitious menu coupled with the sleek, clean, and upscale modern setting creates a breath of fresh air in a city surrounded by history.

If fresh baked bread and warm chocolate chip cookies is what you're craving, head to the urban-chic restaurant and bakery, Willa Jean. Baker, Lisa White and chef Kelly Fields in partnership with restaurateur John Besh have created a southern contemporary restaurant that connects “bread as the foundation of inspiration.” The avocado toast with poached eggs, olive oil, and sea salt is a signature dish that is indeed a delight and a reflection of their culinary talent. Willa Jean is located in the Paramount building and offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

A short cab ride from the Quarter are two new, highly touted newcomers, Compere Lapin and Peche. Compere Lapin is new outpost of celebrity chef, chef Nina Compton. Finding her home in the renovated No. 77 Hotel Chandlery, chef Compton left Miami and brought with her astute skills in infusing classic Caribbean, French, and Italian flavors into her cuisine, which reads both whimsical and approachable. Believing “in the complexity of simplicity and the power of pure flavors,” we found chef Compton’s mission rang true in every bite.

The Blackened Drum, with Beurre Blanc, potato pearls, and Caviar was all about the freshness of the flaky, medium-textured Drum which was perfectly seasoned, blackened, and accented by the excellent sauce. The tiny potato pearls were a nice addition to the dish and added texture and flavor. Overall, each dish was intentionally created to persuade the diner to both rethink and embrace the traditional cooking methods of classic dishes. Words cannot do Chef Nina Compton’s Compere Lapin justice.

Peche was the recipient of the 2014 James Beard award for best new restaurant, while chef Ryan Prewitt won the accolade of Best New Chef. Peche continues to uphold its reputation for great food and service just as it did two years ago. All hands were on deck as the diners filtered into every seat and barstool. Watching the entire staff work as a cohesive unit, delivering superb food to the engaged diners, was impressive by itself.

Peche is known for preparing local coastal seafood using a mix of modern culinary skills with open hearth and wood burning coals. However rustic the preparations maybe, we opted for the grilled tuna with greens and olive relish. Each bite of the lovely tuna, complimented the peppery wilted greens, while the olive relish added both brightness and texture. The memory of this main dish will be revisited for years to come.

The final dinner of our grand culinary tour was at another classic institution of New Orleans dining. Since the 1880’s, Commander’s Palace has been acing the art of fine dining with the ease and charm of Southern hospitality. As a major birthday was to be celebrated this night, we decided to go all out with its milestone menu. One of our absolute favorite meals is the Osso Buco and we were in for a treat with the Commander’s version. The tender braised veal Osso Buco, was falling off the shank. Doused in an unctuous veal fond, it was accented with the aromatic roasted leeks, savory mushrooms, and spiced with crispy horseradish root. Underneath this tower of flavor was a perfect plateau of creamy goat cheese and thyme grits. This was a meal that everyone should have the chance to eat. A stop at the famed Commander’s Palace will garner you extra bragging rights and memories for years to come. As we raised a glass in celebration of this birthday, we contemplated the many meals we experienced on this journey and decided that this one was truly the icing on the birthday cake!

While we visited a bevy of restaurants during our stay, we do want to point out some educational and interesting places to visit. A very noteworthy museum that every citizen should visit is the National World War II museum. Open daily from 9-5 p.m., history buffs and visitors will marvel at the display of vintage warplanes, tanks, and other armory. Plan to watch the interactive media experience, “Beyond All Boundaries,” narrated by Tom Hanks, as a part of your visit. This production is a spectacular historical overview that will render every heart with patriotism.

New Orleans also offers countless tours. To get you up and walking, try a foodie tour, a history tour, or our favorite, a Haunted History tour. A walking tour is a great way to burn some of those calories off after all the meals and cocktails had. The Haunted History tour company has been voted as the number the one travel experience in NOLA by the Travel Channel. Whether it is the paranormal that you are interested in, or a tour amongst the grand homes of the Garden District, the Haunted History Tour Company will accommodate your every desire.

A must respite from your 10,000 steps should be a much deserved intermission at Café DuMonde. Piles of sugary powdered beignets, along with a café au lait, provides a perfect way to end your day. But don’t forget to try a cocktail from the famed Bourbon Orleans hotel bar, Arnaud’s, Muriel’s, or the rotating Carousal Bar at hotel Monteleone. Now, Bourbon Street, well…. that is another story. There’s plenty of entertainment, music, great food, and parties going on that will keep us going back year after year.

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