12 Great Bites of New OrleansWednesday, February 29, 2012
NOLA fare is not light. Things like butter, cream, and duck fat are used with joyful abandon. The deep fryer has a special place of honor in any given kitchen. And that French bread, sweet heaven on Earth, it is insane. For the record, I’d like a king-sized bed carved from a fluffy loaf of New Orleans French bread. K thanks.
There are just too many good things to eat and not enough hours in the day to digest it all (the story of my life). We, of course, indulged in the tried-and-true greats, but we also ventured off the beaten path a bit in search of the best eats. We ate at the classic spots, the new spots, the out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere-swampland spots. Really, we ate a lot. Still, that didn’t keep us from feeling like we still need a few more trips here (or a second stomach) to really do this culinary heavyweight of a city justice.
With tons of fresh, local, seafood at our fingertips, meals naturally skewed heavy towards oysters, shrimp, crawfish, and fish…with an amphibious friend or two thrown in the mix.
On that note, let’s start with the frog legs…
12. Crispy Frog Legs, Café Degas
First off, these were the beefiest frog legs I’ve ever seen. They were huge – the size of chicken drummettes! Our Crispy Frog Legs on steroids were served over a baby spinach salad with pickled red onions and apple-bacon-sherry vinaigrette. If you’ve never tasted frog legs before, what you’ve heard is true: tastes like chicken. Kind of. The texture is a bit different, like a cross between chicken meat and fish meat. These legs were succulent, with a thin, crispy crust. The freshness of the greens and tang of the dressing were great complements. Café Degas is far from the French Quarter so you will likely find more locals than tourists enjoying the tree-house charm of this spot. If the frog legs don’t draw you out here, the Frozen Lemon Icebox Pie surely will. Cool, creamy, and just delightful.
11. Barbequed Shrimp, Mr. B’s Bistro
Mr. B’s New Orleans Barbequed Shrimp is exactly the kind of dish you imagine when you think of NOLA cuisine – Gulf seafood full of rich, robust, sassy flavor. These New Orleans-style barbequed shrimp are unlike any barbequed shrimp you’ve had in other regions. First, there is no actual barbecue involved. Instead, the jumbo shrimp are sautéed with their shells and head in tact (that’s where all the flavor is) in a rich, peppery sauce full of Creole spices, garlic, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, and lotsa love (aka butter).
If you’re so inclined to try this dish at home, Mr. B’s has so kindly published the recipe on their site. You can see for yourself exactly how much “love” goes into this dish (according to them, roughly ¾ stick of butter per serving, and that’s an appetizer-sized portion mind you; if you’re going for the entrée size, that’s 1 ½ sticks per person — just don’t think about it). Besides a Paula Deen-approved amount of butter, the other key to this dish is serving it with a big ol’ hunk of French bread for dipping.
The French bread served at Mr. B’s is just heavenly. It crisps into a big flaky mess all over the table when you tear into it, and it is so incredibly soft and airy, you’ll think you’ve died and gone to heaven where all they serve are carb-negative clouds.
10. Crabmeat Croquetas, Borgne
Borgne is chef John Besh’s latest addition to his restaurant empire in New Orleans. The restaurant is named after Lake Borgne, the saltwater estuary that surrounds eastern Louisiana and flows into the Gulf of Mexico. Besh and his executive chef Brian Landry grew up fishing on Lake Borgne, and it is the inspiration behind the seafood-driven menu.
As you can see, we feasted on an embarrassing amount of food. The dish I kept going back to was the Crabmeat Croquetas (those little fried balls in the lower center of the pic, see them?). In honesty, I’ve never met a croqueta/croquette/kroket I didn’t like. There are many versions around the world, and they are all usually deep fried, creamy, and delicious. Borgne’s version was no exception. Theirs starts with a blonde roux that develops into a rich bechamel seasoned with spices. The sauce is then mounted with cream cheese and parmesan, with lumps of blue crab claw meat added in. After this cools, the croquetas are formed and rolled in panko, then deep-fried for a homerun on the satisfaction scale.
9. Fried Oyster Eggs Benedict, Stanley
Eggs Stanley is pretty much my idea of a perfect brunch dish. It is essentially an Oysters Benedict — perfectly poached eggs, Canadian bacon, Creole hollandaise on a toasted English muffin, kicked up a notch with the addition of big, fat, cornmeal-crusted, fried oysters scattered on top. Decadent and full of happy calories, this breakfast guarantees a good morning.
Stanley is the kind of spot I would go to multiple times in a trip because everything on the menu looks amazing. I have my sights set on trying the Eggs Stella next time, same as the Eggs Stanley but with fried soft-shell crab instead of oysters. Or the Korean Barbeque Beef Poor Boy with house kimchee, for something a little different. If you are more into sweet than savory, go for the Bananas Foster French Toast topped with bananas, Tahitian vanilla bean ice cream, and toasted walnuts with Foster caramel sauce. A bright sunny spot on historic Jackson Square with a retro diner feel to it, Stanley is a must-try.
8. Oyster Po’ Boy, Mother’s
You can’t visit New Orleans without gettin’ down with a po’boy. We headed to Mother’s, always bustling with tourists and local businessmen alike, for our fix. Mother’s is well known for their all-day breakfast (they serve a quarter of a million biscuits per year) and their Famous Ferdi Po’Boy made with baked ham, roast beef, debris, and gravy. But, if you ask me, the Oyster Po’Boy is where it’s at. It doesn’t get soggy like the Ferdi can get, and it is chock full of juicy, plump, golden-fried oysters. Get this and let everyone else have food envy.
7. Abita Beer Battered Oyster Tacos, Mike’s on the Avenue
So, in case you were wondering, the answer is yes, if there was a fried oyster on the menu, we had to have it. Mike’s on the Avenue had the most interesting iteration of the fried oyster with their Oyster Tacos. Featuring fat oysters, beer-battered in local Abita brew, the tacos are loaded up with an Asian slaw of cabbage, carrots, cucumber, and onion dressed in olive oil and rice wine vinegar, Cotija cheese, sesame guacamole, tomato-ginger salsa, and a drizzle of Sriracha-spiked aioli. Despite the fried element, the fresh crunch of the slaw and bright flavors gave this dish a light feel to it. After many meals featuring the same New Orleans-style flavors, this Asian/Mex fusion was a welcome change of pace.
6. Seared Chicken Rillette, Herbsaint
Our meal at chef Donald Link’s Herbsaint struck just the right chord between finesse and soul. The Seared Chicken Rillette is the perfect example — it may be gussied up with a shallot-mustard seed relish and a flourish of crisped chicken skin on top, but at its soul, it’s simply put, a fine dish of Southern comfort, replete with a pool of rich bacon broth. This was the sleeper hit for me, since it is one dish I wouldn’t have picked off the menu. Let me assure you how glad I am one of my dining companions has better sense than me.
The other unanimous winner was the Gnocchi with Pancetta and Maitake Mushrooms. Fluffy gnocchi that would make any Italian nonna proud, they were seared off in butter so you got that ethereal crispy on the outside, soft and light on the inside texture. Link’s take on a carbonara was another favorite, featuring Homemade Spaghetti with Guanciale, and what’s better than a runny farm egg? An encrusted deep-fried runny farm egg. And, oh.my.goodness. The Fried Brussels Sprouts! I never thought I’d use the word “sinful” to describe a vegetable, but there you have it, these crispy sprouts were downright sinful. Ok, so…I basically listed four dishes here in the allotted #6 spot…call it a four-way tie.
5. Shrimp Sardou, Brennan’s
Brunch at Brennan’s is an elegant affair with bow-tied waiters setting things aflame tableside, and dining rooms dripping with old-NOLA style. Brunch at Brennan’s is also sure to be a tasty affair, especially if you opt for the Shrimp Sardou, a generous portion of spicy fried shrimp served over sliced artichoke bottoms and creamed spinach. A blanket of Hollandaise sauce completes the dish. Light as a feather? Not so much. But light isn’t the name of the game here. You can diet when you go home.
4. Salted Caramel Banana King Cake, Domenica
Dining at Domenica I felt like I was back in Italy. The pizze were perfection, the salumi had a place of honor (where they belong), and the hand-rolled pasta were mmmwah! Delizioso. But the one dish that had us licking the plate when we were full to capacity already was pastry chef Lisa White’s Salted Caramel Banana King Cake. Unlike the rainbow-hued, sugar overload of your average king cake, White’s King of King Cakes takes the traditional flavors of another beloved NOLA dessert, Bananas Foster, and reinvents it in Mardi Gras form.
The regal King Cake starts with the traditional Danish dough, which is filled with salted caramel, fresh bananas, roasted pecans, mascarpone cheese, and caramel latte. The whole thing is covered in a praline glaze and finished off with flecks of edible gold leaf. It’s b-a-n-a-n-a-s. And, apparently I’m not the only one who thinks so. This Salted Caramel Banana King Cake was the People’s Choice of Best Non-Traditional King Cake at this year’s 4th Annual NOLA Eats King Cake Tasting Party.
3. Pancetta Mac-n-Cheese, Cochon Butcher
I’m no stranger to the seductive ways of Cochon Butcher. I’ve been wooed time and again by their divine swine. This time though, just when I thought I had them all figured out, I tried the Pancetta Mac-n-Cheese (because, you know, at this point why hold back?). Holy sweet baby Jesus buried in a king cake. This was beyond mac-n-cheese. This was comfort and joy. (I promise, I won’t start singing Christmas Carols…although it might as well have been Christmas morning I was so excited about this mac-n-cheese). I digress.
This was the best mac-n-cheese I’ve ever had. Bold statement. I know. No doubt, the house-made pancetta had something to do with the incredible depth of flavor. The crunchy bits of pesto breadcrumb topping had another thing to do with it. And then there was that jaw-dropping ooey gooey cheesiness thing going on all over the place. I like my mac-n-cheese saucy, and this hit the sauciness factor outta the ballpark. Grand slam. I’m fired up. (BTW, guess who scored the recipe?!! Get excited people. There is extreme mac-n-cheese happiness in your future.)
2. Collard Greens & Grit Fries, Boucherie
I know you are thinking, “Really, Steph? Collard greens? How ah-maaazing could collard greens be?” To which I confidently reply: Pretty frickin’ amazing. Some of the most delicious foods in history have come from a cook’s ingenuity and desire to draw out the sublime from the most humble scraps. This is how French peasant food transformed into bougie fare. This is why Vietnamese street food is among some of the best food I’ve ever tasted. And this is how a simple dish of collard greens and grits can become utterly transcendent. The greens are cooked in a rich duck stock, that’s the secret. A bit of garlic, a lot of butter, and a bright splash of pepper vinegar later and there you have it. Magic. The grit fries are the perfect crispy, creamy accompaniment.
Boucherie, is far from the tourist path, which is perhaps what adds to its charm. It is a quaint little house, tucked away in a pretty residential area, just down the street from where the streetcars go to sleep at night. The restaurant is named after the Cajun tradition of boucherie celebrations, which are continued to this day. Traditionally, communities would gather to take part in a boucherie in the winter time. Families would take turns offering a hog to be slaughtered, celebrated, and then divvied up amongst everyone there. Everyone would work together, and feast together. Boucherie, the restaurant, has embraced its namesake, smoking, curing, aging, and preparing all their meats in house, and articulating a community-centric philosophy of providing fine dining for the people.
Fine dining indeed. The food has clear roots in Southern tradition, but they’re not afraid to branch out to Asian, French, or Italian influences. The food is fun, playful, creative, delicious. I was smitten with the Basque Cider Glazed Applewood Smoked Scallops with Beluga Lentils and Dehydrated Apples – the supple scallops were accentuated by the creamy lentils, the tangy sweetness of the dehydrated apples played off the cider glaze and applewood smoke, and there was that hit of vinegar again that I loved from the collard greens. For dessert, we had to try the infamous Krispy Kreme Bread Pudding. So wrong, yet so right.
Chef Nathanial Zimet is killin’ it. The food has heart and soul. The prices are incredibly reasonable. The people are happy.
1. Thin Fried Catfish, Middendorf’s
And now, the #1 Best Thing I Ate in New Orleans, the single dish I have not been able to shut up about, the stuff culinary dreams are made of: Middendorf’s Thin Fried Catfish.
The catfish is sliced unfathomably thin, to the point where it is as if you’re eating fried fish chips, or fish filet chicharrones (if something like that existed). I know the term “fried to perfection” is cliché and thrown around all too often, but trust me when I say, this is the epitome of the perfect fry. There is not a trace of grease, and the cornmeal-crusted fish is left impossibly light and crispy, so thin they curl up into ribbons of gold.
To complete the blissdom, the dish is served with hush puppies, French fries, and coleslaw. I was able to find out that the catfish is sourced from Biloxi, Mississippi, but the owners of Middendorf’s are so protective about the secrets of Grandma Josie’s famous thin fried catfish that not even the employees are privy to knowing how they get it so thin. Nota bene: The Barbequed Oysters are also very worth your while. They are just barely cooked so they still burst with succulent juiciness and topped with a vinegary, sweet, tangy sauce that makes you smack your lips.
Middendorf’s is about 45 minutes outside New Orleans, but it is well worth the pilgrimage out to Cajun Country. Even getting there is part of the fun, as you drive past swamplands and drive over a highway that is essentially one long bridge, with lakes on either side of you. And of course, there is promise of the best fried fish you’ll ever have at the end of your journey.
I’m sure I missed many great bites on this list. Like I said…there are just too many good things to eat and not enough hours in the day. If I’ve missed your favorites, please share! I’ll make it a point to try it on my next trip down to the Big Easy.