New Orleans, oh, sweet New Orleans. There’s something about this town that whenever I visit, it pulls me closer to its heart, and a very large heart it has. For reasons I really can’t explain, I never visited this iconic city until I was 40, but I’ve now been here nearly half a dozen times in the past few years. I love everything about New Orleans — the people, the food, the music, the art, the architecture. This is a town with a grand and profound soul, and despite the historic tragedies it has had to endure, the setbacks have helped that spirit grow. I can finally say that I “get” New Orleans, its people, and its food. After my first couple of visits, I actually thought that New Orleans was essentially a captive of its own cuisine; that innovation was sacrificed at the expense of traditionalism. That may have been true, and if it were, the people of New Orleans would have just said, “Who gives a damn?” I now understand that attitude, and once I embraced New Orleans’ gastronomic history, I fell in love with the cuisine. I appreciate the freshness of the shrimp in a Johnny’s Po Boy; I know why a Sazerac in the Hotel Monteleone is some heavenly juice, or why simple boiled crawfish is the essence of seafood. And it took a meal of red beans and rice at a friend’s apartment shortly after the devastation of Katrina to help me understand that this is not only the way it is, but it’s the way it’s supposed to be. Simplicity. Honesty. Food of soul and love, and you find it all over town.
The current generation of culinary stars has merely built from that ethos, continuing to put out honest and simple food, but with a twist. From a food and drink perspective, New Orleans is better than ever. I was fortunate to spend a couple days in NOLA last week, dining at restaurants helmed by 4 different James Beard Award winners. Three of these restaurants opened after Katrina, so they’re a testament to the current gastronomic energy of the city.
Cochon, helmed by Donald Link of Herbsaint fame, is a cajun-influenced Southern restaurant, where smoke and pork are the lead attractions. Whether it’s the homemade slim jims, the best fried chicken livers imaginable, smoked ham hocks, or the catfish courtbouillon, Cochon features some of the tastiest, but simple, food around.
John Besh‘s Lüke is in the Hilton Hotel on St. Charles Avenue, and for lunch and dinner features an Alsatian-influenced brasserie menu. For breakfast, however, it’s pure Southern cooking, featuring Allan Benton‘s incredible bacon and Anson Mills‘ grits. Oh, and good French-press coffee with heavy cream, not any of that sissy half-and-half stuff!
MiLa is one of the more exciting restaurants to hit New Orleans. Located in the Renaissance Pere Marquette Hotel, MiLa is headed by husband and wife team Allison Vines-Rushing and Slade Rushing, who put out some of the best tasting food in the city (including the BEST sweetbreads I’ve ever eaten — yup, number 1 on my all time list). MiLa also has one of the coolest bars I’ve ever seen, with the bar itself made of a glowing, underlit white onyx. With the backlit, frosted window liquor cabinets, showing silhouettes of the liquor bottles within, I completely loved the look of this bar. And Allison Vines-Rushing has to be one of the nicest people around, although she looks like she’s only 17 years old! If you want to try one new place in New Orleans, I’d make it MiLa.
My final “fancy” meal was an impromptu lunch at Susan Spicer’s legendary Bayona. If I could choose one restaurant — and one restaurant only — for the rest of my meals, Bayona just might be on the top of the list. I felt that Bayona is not really a restaurant for foodies, it’s a restaurant for chefs. The food is clean. The flavors are pure. Everything about this place is so right — the food, the service, the feel of the rooms — that I really wanted to just linger for hours.
The cocktail scene remains strong, of course, as this is the legendary birthplace of the cocktail. Whether you’re at MiLa, the Swizzle Stick in the Loews New Orleans Hotel (where they still have the big block of ice in the center of the bar), or the Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone (which has been repaired and rotates much more frequently than it used to), there’s plenty of places to sate your libation needs.
I’ll be back to New Orleans. Again and again and again. And it will be ready for me, and you, too.