Forbes — Let’s take a tasty trip to one of the most delicious destinations on the planet.
Welcome to the Crescent City
As a full-time wanderer, I’ve visited so many wonderful places but there’s nowhere I’d rather dine around than New Orleans. The city’s stuffed with so many incredible restaurants, cafes, bakeries, food trucks and bars, It’s impossible to hit a fraction of the top spots while leaving a little wiggle room to make new discoveries. On a recent trip, a food-loving girlfriend and I gave it our best shot. Here’s the greatest hits list from an exhilarating five-day feast. (All while thoroughly enjoying Jazzfest!)
Let’s do lunch
I’ve wanted to dine at Dookie Chase’s for a very long time… well, at least since 2006 when I was among a team that helped rebuild the restaurant after Katrina. That effort, organized by the Southern Foodways Alliance, focused its resources on the historic restaurant and Willie Mae’s Scotch House around the block, both run by black women — Leah Chase and Willie Mae Seaton — who’d become famous in the city and beyond. (Yes, that’s a photo of President Barack Obama and the late Miss Chase on the wall in the restaurant.)
On a recent Friday, I was able to snag a table for an early lunch at Dookie Chase’s and sitting in that bright, cheerful dining room surrounded by beautiful artwork and happy guests, it felt like coming home. The excellent gumbo followed by fried oysters reinforced that warm and fuzzy feeling. I realize New Orleans is not the same as it was before Katrina, as that storm and the catastrophic flooding that followed displaced so many families, many living in the Lower Ninth Ward.
Sadly, Willie Mae’s is shuttered once again after a fire caused significant damage.
I’m just an outsider who has strong feelings about this very special city and its resilient residents and while sitting in a post-lunch state of bliss at Dookie Chase’s, it certainly seemed as though things were getting back to normal. Or the new normal.
Then again, after a lackluster dinner at a hotel restaurant, I began to have doubts. There was a time when it was impossible to have a meh meal in this wonderful and complicated place. What gives?
The next morning, those doubts vanished after a spectacular jazz brunch at Miss River. While catching up with an old friend who recently moved to NOLA, I was thoroughly impressed by the gracious staff, the spectacular food and especially by Corina Hernandez and Coyote Anderson, who go by Co and Co Travelin’ Show. She whistles (not since Lauren Bacall’s lip puckering-and-blow performance in To Have or Have Not have I been so transfixed by a whistler), plays standup bass and sings. His guitar and vocals sounded so sweet and pure.
Yet, the music played as a gentle soundtrack to the gorgeous meal: savory beignets served alongside charcuterie, rightly famous boudin from Best Stop and butter-fried saltines. Take a cue from the locals and smear Creole mustard on a cracker before squeezing the powerfully delicious contents of those tiny sausages onto the saltine. Amazing and even that superlative doesn’t quite cover it.
For the main, I thought just have a bite or two of the Creole Duck Eggs, but I couldn’t stop eating this compelling creation. It reminded me of a shakshuka, the way the “holy trinity” of onions, celery and peppers in a rich tomato sauce thoroughly raised up those ultra-creamy eggs. My friend was thrilled with her shrimp and grits.
Dessert? No way, couldn’t do it.
Yet hours later and many miles on foot exploring – including stops at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum and the Backstreet Cultural Museum – I managed to make room for a single drumstick at Lil Dizzy’s. A Seattle-based food writer friend urged me to check this neighborhood joint out, knowing I have an insatiable hunger for fried chicken. Thank you, Jill! That golden bird was so good. Tender, juicy, seasoned just right, the crispy coating was downright light. Plus, I had the pleasure of telling the chef so because he made his way around the teeny dining room and outdoor tables to say hey. Well done, chef John!
Later, a highly anticipated dinner at Gabrielle Restaurant was absolutely lovely. We started with a spring salad that showcased the first-of-the-season strawberries. Tossed with well-dressed greens, this salad tasted like sweet preview of summer. While savoring the salad and some satisfying baked oysters, we asked our savvy server for more time to study chef Greg Sonnier’s menu. Everything sounded so good, it was a challenge to choose.
When the entrees arrived, my friend and I couldn’t stop moaning oh my goodness in between bites. The seafood cassoulet and my fried rabbit special served on a luxe corn maque sauce, lump crabmeat on top were just perfect, an adjective I rarely use. Sonnier has been in the kitchen for decades, getting his start with legendary Paul Prudhomme at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen.
Chef Greg has won awards and accolades over the years and he definitely could rest on his considerable laurels, letting a chef de cuisine realize his vision. But he is still standing at the stove, working his magic, managing the extensive menu while his oldest daughter, the restaurant’s namesake, is deftly running the front of the house. Her husband, Marsh, occasionally fills in behind the bar. Sonnier’s wife, Mary, another longtime restaurant industry force, guides the pastry program. Too full after that utterly delicious meal? Well, suck it up because you do not want to miss dessert. We swooned over a stunning strawberry shortcake. We rolled out of there and headed to d.b.a. to dance off some of those calories to the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
There were more incredible meals that followed that dinner – an impressive dinner at beautiful Compere Lapin and a late lunch at the bar at Pêche Seafood Grill, with the bonus of spotting executive chef-partner Ryan Prewitt in the kitchen – but Gabrielle firmly holds the top spot for my favorite dining experience on this trip.
A few more highlights
- Baked oysters at Bourbon House, especially if Peyton is shucking.
- Caviar-topped deviled eggs at Windsor Court’s Polo Lounge.
- The beignet flight – don’t miss the matcha – and a cafe au lait at The Vintage.
- Central Grocery’s famous muffuletta, which I picked up in the deli section at Rouse’s near the French Quarter.
- Snapper collars in a spicy coconut curry at Maypop.
- Crispy duck confit and waffles at Couvant.
Where to stay
My friend and I arrived groggy after an overnight flight from Seattle and couldn’t have dreamed of a more gracious welcome than we received at the Four Seasons Hotel New Orleans. That high rise in the Financial District is easy walking distance to the French Quarter, the Warehouse District and, if you’re ambitious, even the Garden District. But you might be tempted to plant yourself on the sunny pool deck and watch the steady stream of boat and barge traffic on the mighty Mississipppi. We felt pampered and well rested during our two-night stay at this pretty property.
Because we wanted to mix it up, we switched hotels midway through our stay and we were both absolutely charmed by the Eliza Jane. The backstory is just so cool, named after a pioneering publisher of the local newspaper, Eliza Jane Nicolson is credited with saving The Picayune in the 1870s. As former print journalists, my traveling buddy and I adored the retro references found around the place. Like the “stop the presses” do not disturb sign. Next time, I’ll make a point of booking the Publisher’s Suite. We also loved the central location, just a couple blocks from the Quarter. Our room faced Magazine Street, yet it was blissfully quiet. Sure hated to leave, but I’ll definitely be back soon.