Bring on the jam­bal­aya

The dis­tinc­tive food of New Or­leans is var­ied and in­vari­ably fill­ing

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence - JU­DITH ELEN

LIKE the city it­self, the kitchens of New Or­leans of­fer a ri­otous mix, from Cre­ole, Ca­jun and down­home soul food to dis­tinc­tive con­tem­po­rary fare.

Far-flung set­tlers — from France, Africa, Spain, Italy, Nova Scotia, the Ca­nary Is­lands and the Caribbean — have all con­trib­uted. In the 21st cen­tury, cook­ing styles over­lap; el­e­gant, chan­de­liered restau­rants, some­times more than a cen­tury old, con­tinue FrenchCre­ole tra­di­tions, while bar coun­ters and neigh­bour­hood din­ers are ready with ro­bust food for the soul. South­ern sass: For quick eats, po’ boys are any­thing but poor. Baguette-style bread, chunky and white, is packed with stuff­ings such as warm sausage — boudin, pork or spicy Ital­ian — roast beef or seafood. Muf­fulet­tas are big pizza-buns crammed with chopped olive salad, vine­gary pick­les, ham, salami or seafood. Both go well with gumbo, a soupy stew mixed with rice. Park­way Bak­ery flaunts a spec­trum of po’ boy va­ri­eties, from oys­ters and cat­fish to al­li­ga­tor sausage; Johnny’s PoBoys (checked table­cloths, sauce bot­tles) is a French Quar­ter favourite and for muf­fulet­tas, head to Cen­tral Gro­cery, where they were in­vented for im­mi­grant Si­cil­ian work­ers. More: park­way­bak­eryand­tav­ern­nola.com; john­nyspoboy.com. Ca­jun spice: Gumbo is a metaphor for New Or­leans. It’s a rich mix of sausage and shell­fish, if it’s south­ern style. North­ern means Louisiana-style veni­son, duck or squir­rel, with okra (African), file (ground sas­safras leaves, Na­tive Amer­i­can), veg­eta­bles and spices.

Gumbo and jam­bal­aya — made of meat, seafood, veg­eta­bles and rice — dif­fer from each other in the way the grain is added.

Paella-like, jam­bal­aya in­cor­po­rates the rice from the out­set, so that it sucks up the dish’s rich stock. These favourites and fried lo­cal seafood — cat­fish, craw­fish, shrimps, oys­ters — are as fa­mil­iar and as much in­dulged in as tra­di­tional Cre­ole cui­sine. Fancy ver­sions also turn up on high­end menus. Cre­ole chic: With French tra­di­tion at its core, lo­cal fire gives Cre­ole food its spe­cial charge, from hot chilli, cayenne, limes and pecans to rum and cham­pagne along­side Herb­saint, the non­worm­wood ab­sinthe pro­duced here since the 1930s, and rye whis- key. At An­toine’s, the sauce Al­ci­a­tore fea­tures sweet brown pineap­ple added to clas­sic bear­naise.

Louisiana gumbo and al­li­ga­tor bisque also fea­ture, be­side an el­e­gant Omelette Alaska An­toine, the house ver­sion of bombe alaska, at An­toine’s, es­tab­lished in 1840 and a fo­cus of New Or­leans so­ci­ety. The restau­rant is famed for its lav­ishly themed din­ing rooms, all tem­ples to the glory days of mardi gras queens, cos­tumes and mem­o­ra­bilia. More: an­toines.com. New Or­leans mod: At the An­thony Bour­dain end of the spec­trum, chef John Besh, at Restau­rant Au­gust, is flavour of the mo­ment, serv­ing ex­per­i­men­tal food with a clas­sic core. Light­filled, white-painted Com­man­ders Palace, in the Gar­den District, favoured in the 1800s by the Amer­i­cans (as dis­tinct from the Cre­oles of the French Quar­ter), is proud of what it calls mod­ern New Or­leans meets haute Cre­ole.

The Roo­sevelt Ho­tel’s Saz­erac Restau­rant brings an in­ter­na­tional touch to tra­di­tional south­ern food, with shrimp and foie gras dumplings and parme­san-dusted truf­fle fries. And at the old-club Rib Room, oys­ter-topped waffles with Abita beer syrup and an­douille (Cre­ole smoked sausage), and mac-and-cheese with spit-roasted shrimp, ap­pear along­side the sig­na­ture slow-roasted prime rib. More: restau­ran­tau­gust. com; com­man­der­spalace.com; theroo­sevelt­newor­leans. com; ri­b­room­newor­leans.com. Home cook­ing: Mean­while, Ca­jun kitchens bub­ble away with smoked hams and sausages, plan­ta­tion grits, okra, red beans, file powder and rice — the fish­ing and farm­ing food of the Louisiana bay­ous. Newer restau­rant Co­chon spe­cialises in rus­tic Ca­jun. But the true old ladies of AfricanAmer­i­can south­ern com­fort food (fried chicken, red beans and rice) are 88-year-old Leah Chase and nona­ge­nar­ian Wil­lie Mae Seaton. In the down-at-heel neigh­bour­hood of Treme, their restau­rants, Dooky Chase and Wil­lie Mae’s Scotch House (now run by Miss Wil­lie Mae’s grand­daugh­ter), are leg­endary.

Out of town, 65-year-old eatery Mosca’s is an­other lo­cal le­gend of home-cook­ing, this time Ital­ian, and still in fam­ily hands. The New Yorker’s Novem­ber 2010 food is­sue cel­e­brated Mosca’s in a five-page ar­ti­cle. More: co­chon­restau­rant.com, dooky­chaser­estau­rant.com; moscas­restau­rant. com. Wil­lie Mae’s Scotch House: + 1 504 822 9503. Taste tests: En­thralled by nos­tal­gia, I visit Ar­naud’s, which I read is one of the three grand dames of the French Quar­ter, with An­toine’s and Gala­toire’s. The main din­ing room has wood pan­elling, chan­de­liers, bev­elled glass and gold-framed por­traits, and there’s an in­ti­mate j azz bistro where warm pump­kin-toned walls set off the dark wood of french doors, mir­ror frames, bent­wood chairs and ceil­ing fans. The jazz trio, es­pe­cially the be­hat­ted dou­ble bass player, add their dark sil­hou­ettes. With white linen, sil­ver, carafes and can­dles in glass, all is warm, stylish and em­brac­ing, and the food fits. I or­der rich turtle soup, al­li­ga­tor sausage with smoked onion and ap­ple rel­ish, and Louisiana Quail Elzey, which is deboned, filled with foie gras mousse and mush­room dux­elle, wrapped in ba­con and served on a truf­fle-in­fused bor­de­laise sauce. A three-course ta­ble d’hote menu, with choices, is $US40 ($37). More: ar­nauds.com; gala­toires.com. Brunch beck­ons: At The Court of Two Sis­ters, a leafy canopy shades ta­bles and wrought-iron chairs in a cen­tral court­yard

Brunch is the thing to do here, with vast hot and cold buf­fets fea­tur­ing glazed ham, mounded seafood, sal­ads (craw­fish, her­ring, sweet potato), ce­viche, pate, cheeses, pasta, hot break­fast meats, but­ter­milk bis­cuits, grits, eggs, jam­bal­aya and desserts (in­clud­ing pe­can pie), and all for $US28, with eggs benedict or omelettes to or­der.

Bren­nan’s is the other brunch clas­sic. Here there is no buf­fet. The decor is un­pre­ten­tious, like ad­join­ing rooms in a coun­try house. Black-suited ta­ble ser­vice (try to re­serve with waiter Lee) in­cludes the chaf­ing-dish prepa­ra­tion of flamed Ba­nanas Fos­ter (caramelised in but­ter, brown sugar, white rum and ba­nana liqueur).

This deca­dent dessert comes at the end of a se­ri­ally deca­dent brunch: Cre­ole bloody mary, south­ern baked ap­ple in cream, egg hus­sarde ( poached with Hol­land rusks, Cana­dian ba­con, marchand de vin and hol­landaise sauces). A tra­di­tional an­te­bel­lum break­fast lists turtle soup, egg hus­sarde, rib-eye steak, mush­rooms, Ba­nanas Fos­ter, ab­sinthe and Moet et Chan­don. Three-course fixed price break­fast is $ US36. More: courtoft­wosis­ters. com; bren­nansnewor­leans.com. Pick-me-ups: Try cof­fee and beignets at Cafe du Monde or Cafe Beignet. But end your day with a saz­erac at the Roo­sevelt Ho­tel’s gleam­ing, art deco-style Saz­erac Bar. More: cafe­du­monde.com; cafebeignet.com.

newor­lean­scvb.com

PIC­TURES: JU­DITH ELEN

Cafe Beignet, in the French Quar­ter of New Or­leans, is famed for its cof­fee and sig­na­ture pas­tries made from deep-fried dough

Jazz trio at Ar­naud’s, a ‘grande dame’ of the French Quar­ter

Pre­par­ing Ba­nanas Fos­ter

Ellery, a waiter at Two Sis­ters

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