New Orleans embraces authenticity in culture and the arts, and this is superbly reflected in the culinary scene. As Mark Twain affectionately stated, “New Orleans food is as delicious as the less criminal forms of sin.” Although, the saying “sinfully good” has taken on an implication of the naughtiness of pleasure, there is indeed truth in Twain’s insights, as this is a city that does not blush at its culinary indulgences. Known for po’boys, beignets, gumbo, and the flaming bananas Foster, along with notable cocktails such as the hurricane and the Sazerac, New Orleans consistently showcases the best in stellar cuisine, music, art, and festivals; in general, residents celebrate the great pleasures of life. After a three-hour plane ride from Las Vegas, we were off to a weekend of culinary indulgences that reflect the cultural pride of the Big Easy.
Courtesy of Restaurant R’evolution
This weekend happened to start off with a St. Patrick’s Day celebration that showcased the city’s fun and frivolity. Making our way into the French Quarter, we knew that a good meal was the way to begin our three days of celebration. With that in mind, the innovative and upscale Restaurant R’evolution turned out to be a grand culinary entrance into some of the best cuisine in the city. Commencing with a deconstructed gumbo that reflected the genius of award-winning New Orleans-native chefs John Folse and Rick Tramonto, we quickly garnered a look and taste of their collective skills. Throughout their careers, Folse and Tramonto have drawn from cultural and culinary nuances when composing dishes that revel in a true taste revolution. Many come to New Orleans to have the po’boys and beignets, but Folse and Tramonto catapult the diner into another culinary construct: a realm where creativity and artistry come together to somersault a classic gumbo into another dimension. The aptly named “Death by Gumbo” (this would be my choice for a last meal) consisted of a rich roux broth, with a golden quail delightfully endowed with savory bits of andouille, oysters, and rice gently placed in the delectable, savory red brown liquid, which melded together in such a way that the decadent depth of flavor and texture spilled from each spoonful into mouthfuls of ecstatic lusciousness. Truly this was one of the best dishes we encountered in the relatively brief weekend’s worth of exploring new venues in such a diverse and culinarily competitive city. The preceding dishes where indeed well executed and thoughtful, but this dish was indeed worth remembering and coming back for again and again.
With a planned excursion on the horizon, we made our way out of the Quarter and picked up our Mustang convertible for a breezy ride out to a plantation that reflected a society that truly has gone with the wind. In prior trips, most of our New Orleans adventures kept us within a few miles of the French Quarter, but being in a place of rich historical interests, we decided a visit to the Houmas Plantation was a perfect way to learn about a bygone area.
An hour’s drive from New Orleans is worth the time and effort to explore and encounter an area that has departed from the landscape of American culture: plantation life. The Houmas Plantation has been carefully maintained and preserved with a vast collection of rare and expensive art works, gorgeous gardens, and four acclaimed restaurants, overnight luxury cottages, and an extensive wine cellar located in converted water cisterns. Although we did not have the time to enjoy any of the various dining venues on the property, a tour of the main plantation house led by our knowledgeable docent gave us a glimpse into a world that truly captured the ambience of a bygone area; a pristinely preserved portrait of an insular society regulated by restrictive social norms, traditions, and excesses and the shadowy side of the Antebellum period that conjures up ghostly images that do not easily fade away into the past.
As we drove along Lake Pontchartrain we chatted about this interesting and noteworthy expedition, especially noting the stories of the great sugar barons, their families, and the 1,000 slaves who maintained a lifestyle that seems as impossible as remembering a misty dream. As we neared New Orleans, ravenous after an afternoon of tours, it was a time for dinner at one of the newer restaurants in New Orleans, Sylvain, which has claimed its space in a rather historic and reportedly haunted eighteenth-century French building. Sylvain definitely captured the younger hipster crowd, with its open seating and very busy bar that, according to local author Elizabeth Pearce, is reported to serve up one of the most “perfectly balanced Manhattans” in the area. We however opted for glasses of syrah, but clearly the bar scene was busy and in full swing for a Friday St. Patrick’s celebration.
The noise level left much to be desired as the space inhabits a very old narrow building with unfavorable acoustics so we opted for the more comfortable outside dining venue with palm trees and quaint patio area. We eagerily devoured house specialties of fried eggplant and burrata salad, along with the generous mounds of shaved Brussel sprout salad with tart apples, grana padano and hazelnuts drizzled with tangy sweet balsamic vinaigrette. The local sheephead fish entrée, moist and perfectly cooked, filled our longing stomachs with groans of delight, but the dessert was the winning dish of the evening; a simple dish of assorted cheeses, crostinis, and thinly sliced apples paired with a nice sauterne; indeed an exclamation point on the end of a satisfying farm-to-table meal. The next day began with yet another dining adventure after an eventful night with St. Patrick’s partiers —costumed revelers had joined us in ample classic cocktails and dancing the jig at the lively Krazy Korner Bar to some of the best live music on Bourbon Street. As dawn turned into day, the leprechauns retreated to their pots of gold, and we needed some sustenance to start another full day. We gingerly made our way into a local favorite, Angeline, for a Pimm’s cup (the perfect drink after a long night at one of the largest St. Patrick’s parties on the planet) and some much-needed food. Chef Alex Harrell is a proponent of using local and seasonal produce to stay true to his Southern roots in his original dishes. His love for all manner of pickles (which are done in-house) and house-made vinegars was highlighted in the menu and drink selections. The bloody Mary with a touch of homemade vinegar and pickled okra affirmed a freshness and tang that enliven the sleepy taste buds. We managed to try a few things on the menu but the dish of the day was the special braised short ribs with a cauliflower purée. The meat was falling-off-the-bone tender, flavorful, and hearty and just the right thing to eat after a night of dancing and people-watching.
After saying our farwells to the kind Chef Harrell, we met up with Marita Jaeger, a lovely, tall, Germanic woman who has taken the mystical approach to drinking with a members-only bar scene. After several visits, Jaeger fell in love with New Orleans and finally made her way into the French Quarter to begin her own business. Being inclined to rely on her intuition and years of marketing experience, Jaeger knew an opportunity when she felt one and destiny coincided with opportunity when a wine brand named Vampire entered her life 14 years ago. After finding success with sales and marketing with the brand for International Wine and Spirits Distributing, Jaeger opened a Vampire-themed shop. Boutique du Vampyre is the only true Vampire-themed store in the country that features locally crafted gifts such as vampire soaps, fortune candles, and soon a magic wand that can turn all your electronics on with one wave of the hand. “There’s so much opportunity, and people love things like that here, and we are in a tourist town,” said Jaeger. Since opening in 2003, she has expanded into tarot readings, escape rooms, and “Vampire Adventures,” and most recently she and her partner opened a hidden speakeasy, which members only can access with a secret password (inquire at the boutique for membership information). We had a few minutes to whisper the password, walk up the winding, rickety old staircase to enjoy a glimpse at this upstairs hidden mystical haven where three violet-painted rooms and ample group seating allows members to mingle, enjoy Vampire spirits and wine-based cocktails such as the Blood Drop Martini or the Southern Spell while playing a board game or having a tarot reading. We enjoyed a few imaginative cocktails with Jaeger and thanked her for her interesting and intriguing story as we made our way out onto the bustling cacophony of Bourbon Street.
As the day darkened into twilight, we were eager to venture to one of the most renowned restaurants in New Orleans, Emeril’s New Orleans. Even cynical CNN correspondent Anthony Bourdain deems Emeril’s one of the top 10 restaurants in New Orleans. We were glad to take this lead, and enjoy yet another noteworthy meal. As it was a Saturday night on a holiday weekend, the restaurant was in full tilt as we made our way into this New Orleans dining icon. General manager Kevin Delaune greeted us with cordial Southern enthusiasm and quickly introduced us to our friendly server who ushered us into yet another lovely dining extravaganza. Sommelier Ray Gumpert engaged us with a glass of bubbles from the beginning of the meal, setting the tone of true Southern hospitality that Emeril’s organization does so well. The chili butter-glazed lobster skewers were accompanied by local, plump Louisiana blackberries; shaved celery was judiciously riddled with blue cheese crème fraîche composing the perfect beginning bite of savory and sweet. For the main course, we choose the local andouille-crusted Gulf drum fish, grilled local veggies, shoestring potatoes, and sweetly glazed crunchy pecans nestled on slightly spicy Creole meuniere. No wonder the locals and tourists keep coming back, year after year. Each bite spoke volumes of New Orleans’ love affair with Emeril’s texturally rich, inventive, and well executed dishes. It’s always a pleasure to begin and end our trip with some dazzling New Orleans dishes, and Emeril’s did put the period on the dining destinations sentence.
How were we going to end this three-day celebration of dining and celebrating New Orleans style? SoBou was just the place to experience the “Leggs and Eggs” burlesque brunch that only the Commander’s Palace group of restaurants could do with elegance, flair, and a whole lot of fun! As an added bonus, chef Juan Carlos Gonzalez was just named the best Chef of Louisiana by the American Culinary Foundation of New Orleans, so we knew the food and the entertainment were going to both eye-catching and palate pleasing. Bella Blue and Dapper Dandies were ready to get the party started again for all the post-St. Patrick’s day vacationers. The diminutive native burlesque queen Bella Blue meandered, dipped and wove her way among the diners with giant feather fans flashing just a hint of her scantily clad figure. As we sat down at the table, Bella’s rhinestone brazier landed on the corner of my menu but the distraction did not keep us from ordering the Leggs and Eggs dish of crispy chicken legs, corn and bacon succotash with a smattering of smoked corn cream accompanied by the Sunset in the Courtyard, a SoBou classic cocktail that comes with your very own pair of pink SoBou sunglasses. With an expertly prepared comfort food dish, a trusty cocktail in hand, and of course live and lovely entertainment, we knew that this is what keeps the good time rolling, or as the locals aptly state, “Laisser les bons temps rouler.”
Brunching with a beautiful burlesque dancer was just the beginning of our last day in New Orleans but after a stroll through Jackson Square and a much needed afternoon nap we climbed into to our Uber car for our final dining experience at local gem, Cavan. We eagerly stepped up into this stately remodeled manse turned restaurant for one last good New Orleans meal. Chef Nathan Richard took the helm a week prior so we were interested in his plans for the future. “Everything is taking its course and I probably won’t change the menu until mid-spring,” said Richard. “I want to spend my time learning everything, but of course, there will be some specials.” The chili-garlic clams with smoked garlic and sweet potatoes was by far one of the most innovative dishes during our visit. Just the addition of tiny golden nubs of sweetness in the white wine broth brought another layer of flavor that lent to yet another great meal in New Orleans and the end to a very festive and equally delicious weekend. As we pondered the delightful meal and the faded grandeur of this classic and reportedly haunted dining area, we thought of the many lives that had passed through this home and through the streets of New Orleans — the families, the adventures, and the tales they told, and the meals they shared — and of course, we now had our own New Orleans stories to tell.