Bring on the jambalaya
The distinctive food of New Orleans is varied and invariably filling
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.
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