No degustation trip to New Orleans would be complete without at least one meal at the Garden district’s French-forward Cajun-styled bistro La Petite Grocery. It’s no wonder that this charming, honey-hued dining room with pressed-steel ceilings and nostalgic photographs from its former life has become a foodie favorite. Chef Justin Devillier makes bold choices to put a non-traditional spin on some otherwise sacrosanct dishes. The non-Louisiana-native had the temerity to re-craft a good many local favorites that have since become highly plagiarized by other toques around town.
His cotton-ball sized Blue-crab Beignets with malt vinegar aioli are still the mega-hit they ever were. One bite of these soft, puffy, fried clouds of goodness, and you instantly regret agreeing to share them. More delicately portioned and therefore less sharable are the Braised Beef Short-ribs. This seemingly heavy choice for an appetizer actually started out life as an amuse bouche, but the spicy cucumber with fried peanuts keep it light and surprisingly refreshing – making it the perfect prelude to a serious second act. The local Little-neck Clams are instantly given foreign passports with a deep lime-dominant roasted red-pepper and coconut, Thai broth.
I must admit, I am always a bit surprised to see the ubiquitous Grits as an entrée option on any dinner menu, but Devillier’s Gulf Shrimp and Grits is laced with shiitake mushrooms and bacon, which go a long way to upgrade the rich and buttery cornmeal breakfast staple. The Paneéd Rabbit was perfectly tender and moist under the (somewhat meager portion of) sauce grenobloise, and the Spätzle were of the crispy variety, but there was a definite noise emanating from my plate. Turns out it was a “Rabbit and Spätzle chorus” yearning in unison for something warm, soft and creamy to combine them together!
While I did try the Baked Macaroni with it’s own strong southern accent (thanks to the addition of crunchy cornmeal crumbs), I could kick myself for not trying the much-acclaimed Turtle Bolognaise. Oh well…I guess there will just have to be a next time.
Gulf Shrimp and Grits
Shaved Cucumber Salad
Unless you find yourself roaring through several time zones, it is seldom possible to eat dinner more than once per day. Consequently the toughest part of traveling to a food destination is deciding which restaurants will still stand up to their dinner service reputation – at lunchtime. Most often this can be a mixed bag of surprises and compromises, as sometimes chefs deliberately salad-and-sandwich-ify the dinner menu, or they remove a good chunk of time-consuming dishes to get the lunching public back to the office in a under an hour.
It is my sincere regret that James Beard semi-finalist Michael Stoltzfus’ locavore kitchen Coquette failed to live up to my expectations following the tsunami of rave reviews. On the second re-reading of the painfully shy menu, I realized that this was going to be a bit of a southern struggle. The charming natural wood dining room with exposed brick accents on Magazine Street felt like just the right place to enjoy the house-made Cucumber Lemonade, but then things soured after the waiter performed a flawless, but nonetheless vexing disappearing act. The Fried Gulf Oysters served on a sweet pepper paste with grilled cucumber were plenty zesty without the mint air-raid. The beautifully plated (but rather lonely) Shaved Cucumber Salad with ricotta crumbs was missing so many other vital ingredients that it seemed to be nothing more than a fussy garnish. The rather odd combination of Charleston gold rice, raw Lima beans and peanuts hiding under two sad filets of over-cooked Pompano fish, took on very little flavor from the milky clam-broth moistening the bottom of the plate, and the Soft-shell Sandwich with pickle, lettuce and tomato turned out to be nothing more than the sum of its parts.
It is moments like these when the best thing to order for dessert is a taxi!
Espresso-crusted Venison Carpaccio
Even though a Bourbon Street address might make you think otherwise, R’Evolution is a very smart, yet eclectic restaurant. This four year-old jewel of the French quarter earned its great reputation the hard way – by stopping at nothing to impress. Arguably the finest new dining establishment in New Orleans today, chefs Rick Tramonto and John Folse’s Cajun/Creole kitchen marries soulful tradition with rich surprise and their flawless front-of-house team delivers on good old-fashioned service. I know it’s considered “proper”, but I always feel a touch nervous when a waiter lays a napkin on my lap for me. I never know if he might also offer to wipe my mouth (or perform some other function) later on in the evening!
Thanks to a heavy dose of decor drama, the restaurant is divided into several very different rooms; a sumptuous caramel-walled living room, a moody wood-paneled library, a festive gastro-pub etc. But the large white, subway-tiled arch above the kitchen serves as a sobering designer’s record-scratch that forces the diner to remember why we’re here!
It’s seems like everyone in the Crescent City is re-inventing the Beignet these days. Here you can enjoy 4 crab-laced beer batter puffs, each with its own different flavored Remoulade. The unnervingly square shaped Espresso-crusted Venison Carpaccio frames a red debris-field dotted with just about every other shape, color and flavor, from chocolates to grapes to peppers, that collectively frightened the Espresso away. Another perfectly red square, the silky and indulgent, Black Truffle Steak Tartare, had to fight hard for the attention of the grilled country bread against a handsome jar of pork and duck Rillettes with home made pickled vegetables. The dark-mahogany-brown glazed and succulent Rotisserie Duck was definitely born from the richest of Creole roux’s – the kind of satiny sauce you want to take a bath in! The only significant miss was the Filet Mignon with a Lobster Béarnaise – curiously served lukewarm after having spent a good month too many in the aging closet. But the delectable Bouillabaisse transcended your average seafood stew with the lightest of broths that permitted each fish and shellfish to have his or her own unique flavor, creating a carousel of oceanic delight.
To finish the meal we requested Espresso Martini’s. Definitely not on the menu and definitely not familiar to any of the staff. But rather than concede defeat, moments later our brave table captain presented them as proudly as a Louisiana King Cake.
Emeril’s Barbecue Gulf Shrimp at NoLa
Since hurricane Katrina claimed so much of what this city used to be, it warms the belly to realize that in the past nine years the Big Easy has been busy stepping up to reclaim its title as the “dinner darlin’ of the south”. While there may be are a few big guns who have disappeared – their absence has only made more room for a host of hungry new entrants vying fiercely for top honors in the Crescent City’s vibrant food scene. And even though it’s thrilling to see busy lines of jacket-wearing diners still making a bee-line for the many gastro-historic landmarks like Galatoire’s, Arnaud’s and Commander’s Palace, it’s not hard to notice that there is an even more pronounced gourmand shift out of the French Quarter and into the Garden District with the likes off Lilette’s, La Petit Grocery* and Coquette* (* separate blogs to follow) and many others who have bravely traded in the boob-flashing, bead-throwing, spring-breakers of Bourbon Street for the toque-appreciators on shady Magazine Street.
Of the survivors, some still draw a nice crowd to enjoy many of their staples, but some hits and misses on revisited menus (like Emeril Lagasse’s NoLa) challenge their level on many concierge’s lists. The recently added Soft-Shell Crab to NoLa, was so deeply buried in cornmeal batter, it would have taken an oyster shucker all night to re-identify the succulent decapod. His Barbecue Gulf Shrimp on the other hand is still as solidly triumphant as ever. Also on the hit list, the magnificent Garlic Crusted Drum fish with bacon and beurre rouge sauce perfectly paired with patatas bravas.
Begneits & Cafe au Lait at Cafe du Monde
And because this is such a tradition-rich town, N’awlins wouldn’t be N’awlins without a daily dose of shower-requiring, powder-sugar-buried Beignets from Cafe du Monde, or the never-closed, always-reliable-for-a-greasy-hamburger-at-4:15am bender-ender: The Clover Grill. To this day the cooks in this Pepto-Bismol pink tiled shoebox of a diner, still use motor-car hubcaps to steam whatever is sizzling on the griddle. And just like the rest of New Orleans, this place is real, entertaining and unpretentious – and it never disappoints. Yet another metaphor for a defiant city that will always endure, come hell or high water.
Ford hubcaps as griddle covers at The Clover Grill