Three days in NOLA - How I ate it
Thanks to the many chowhounds, and visitors to NOLA, who have taken the time to create such thoughtful posts about the local dining scene. While my recent weekend was not my first to the city, it was certainly my most enjoyable from a culinary standpoint, and I owe that to you all.
I stayed in the FQ on Bourbon Street, and arrived late on Thursday evening. My wife was working on assignment there, and wasn't ready to eat until around 10pm, so we just walked over to NOLA and sat at the bar. Emeril has been around for a while now, and for good reason. His dishes are crowd-pleasers, and lack the overly earnest qualities which encumber many of his younger peers. We sat at the bar, and I had some deboned and stuffed chicken wings (great concept, great delivery, except for the slightly underwhelming soy-based dipping sauce) and followed those up with the shrimp and grits. The entree was superb, although when I asked the bartender what the creamy sauce was around the edge of the bowl, he ascribed it to "the natural buttery juice from the grits." I'm fairly certain it was a beurre blanc. Skipped dessert because it was so late, but those we saw next to us looked fantastic.
Friday AM: Cafe du Monde. I know they're just glorified donuts, but the beignets and cafe au lait are an institution for a reason. Surprisingly good OJ too - maybe fresh-squeezed?
Friday Lunch: I got roped into a lunch which was out of my control, and ended up at the ACME Oyster House. The gumbo was average and oysters were bland (not surprising, given the season). This was me trying my best not to be the annoying food jerk who insists he knows the best places to eat. Michael Keaton sighting at the bar (he looks good - come back to us, Batman!!)
Friday dinner: August. The hype on this board and on the web in general for Restaurant August is well-deserved. John Besh was actually cooking that night (nice to see a celebrity chef who remembers what he's famous for), and from start to finish, the meal was the finest I've experienced in N.O. The environment recalls an older age, the high ceilings and dimmed crystal chandeliers had me wondering whether the servers would be wearing powdered wigs. This is not a "high my name is XYZ, and I'll be your server" kind of place. The gal that waited on us read us well, and tailored her service to our experience and preferences. Her command of the entire menu, which I'm sure changes a lot, was superb and the information she provided complemented what was on the menu and led us in the right direction. I started with the gnocchi, which if you haven't read about, is somehow rich and light at the same time. Fluffy gnocchi, parmesan, black truffles, lump crab - this is a no-brainer as far as an app goes, although my wife's roasted beat salad was terrific. The lardon in the salad was the best bacon ever to cross these lips.
Trout never had it so good, a simple preparation with lump crab meat (the second of many dishes I'd experience featuring lump crab meat) and a hollandaise on the side. This is one of those dishes where upon review of my description, you might presume that you could pull this off at home. It's possible, I suppose, and my own confidence in the kitchen actually led me towards this thought at one point in the meal, but I thought more about the golden crust he achieved on the perfectly filleted fish, the briny lumps of crab which crested the fish and spilled gently into a small stream of hollandaise which had obviously just been prepared - and my confidence withered into humble appreciation for a master who respected his ingredients by keeping the dish as simple as possible but whose technique truly brought them to a rare level of refinement.
My wife's duck breast was seasoned with bold ingredients (cardamom, cinnamon, star anise), but he somehow managed to avoid overwhelming the meat. There was some broiled foie gras, a peach compote, and some other lil' nibblies on there as well, and they were exquisite together, but I left this alone and let my wife enjoy it, save one or two test bites.
Rum cake was a little mini-layered, fluffy cake, creamy icing, shaved white chocolate and the sort of down-homey, goodness you rarely get when you order cake anymore. It was gentle, smooth and thoroughly enjoyable with the bold french press which accompanied it. Wifey had the cheese cake, which was on the tart side due to the presence of goat cheese, and a lovely way to round out the meal.
Saturday brunch: Commander's Palace. The whole experience was great. Getting out of the F.Q. and into the old, stately homes of the Garden District, the first sign of exemplary service was when we hopped out of the cab and an attendant sprang forward to extend an umbrella over us as we walked up to the front steps of the restaurant. I'd asked for a table in the Garden Room (props to you all for that recommendation), and we wandered through room after room, up some stairs, until we finally arrived in what felt like a richly decorated tree house. We sat against the wall of windows among what appeared to be a mix heavier on locals than it was on tourists. When my wife asked me what I was expecting, my answer was "the best brunch of my life." C. P. delivered, and it was a damned fine brunch experience. The friendly yet formal service, the wandering jazz trio that managed to play table-side without being intrusive, the turtle soup, peach griddle cakes (light, airy), bread pudding souffle with bourbon glaze. I'm telling you, it was all exceptional. The meal nearly put me into a food coma though, and so the post-brunch meandering up and down the nearby Magazine Street shopping district and the historic Lafayette Cemetery across the street was a welcome aide to my digestion.
Saturday Dinner: Coquette. Again, out of the F.Q., the quintessential bistro (black and white tile floor, heavy wood bar, dim lighting, corner location on the bustling Magazine Street) was a crowd pleaser. After so much seafood throughout the weekend, I was ready for a steak, and their strip was just what the doctor ordered - served with sauteed mushrooms, onions and a demi. I started with an app of house-made mozzerella, tomatoes and toast points drizzled with basil oil - nothing innovative here, but wonderful attention to the quality of each ingredient, and beautiful combo of flavors.
Sunday brunch: Mr. B's. Brunch salad, BBQ shrimp. The head-on prawns were everything you all said they'd be and more, with a sauce so perfectly constructed that I wasn't sure whether the best part of the meal was the glorious crustaceans or the savory sauce that I wanted to stick my straw into once the prawns were done. Thankfully, in addition to the warm, soft slices of bread that accompanied the dish, they also brought out a warm mini-baguette to accompany the meal which became the vehicle for the spicy, brown sauce. Again, jazz trio playing softly in the background, sat at the bar without a crowd, and received top-notch service. Note: this is a hands on entree, so don't order it if it's going to be a problem for you to end up with shrimp shells and sauce all over your hands. Props to the bartender for keeping the debris bowl emptied and promptly providing a hot towel with lemons as he saw me concluding my meal.
That's it in a nutshell. You guys have a wonderful town down there, and I'm always delighted to be a guest for a few days. Thanks so much for taking the time to write up your insights on the food scene.
301 Tchoupitoulas Street, New Orleans, LA 70130
Commander's Palace Restaurant
1403 Washington Ave, New Orleans, LA 70130
Great review and it sounds like you both hit some very good places, but also got what each is noted for. Nice when that happens.
Sorry that ACME was not up to par, but I always liked Fexlix's across the street a bit better. That said, I know many, who swear by ACME, so they CAN be very good. Maybe it was the season and the year? I need to give them another try, as it has been a very long time.
Thank you for your report,
Great report--great choices. We had an extraordinary night at August, Chef Besh was sitting at the next table so service was pretty impeccable.