In the early 1990s, when Louisiana's state legislature approved the construction of a huge casino in New Orleans, the city's restaurateurs had a fit. They were convinced that the millions of people who come to the city each year to eat and drink and generally make merry would now do so exclusively in the 100,000-square -foot temple of slots and blackjack planned for the foot of Poydras Street, and they lobbied like crazy against the bill. The restaurateurs lost, but they needn't have worried. The casino has been on the brink of bankruptcy more than once; the restaurants, of course, are still thriving.
The legislators and casino operators should have known better. Why would anyone want to start the day in a charmless casino when they could be lingering over hot biscuits and strawberry preserves in an antiques-filled suite at the Soniat House hotel or biting into a melt-in-your-mouth beignet at Café Du Monde? (Yes, Café Du Monde is full of tourists, but with good reason.) And while it's true that the very talented John Besh has opened a fine steak house in the casino, I much prefer dining a few blocks away at his lovely August, where I invariably order gnocchi with crab and white truffle, or whatever wonderful thing he is doing to his impeccable house-smoked salmon. It's not that I don't love to gamble; it's just that when I'm in New Orleans—and I've lived here on and off for the past 12 years—I'd rather bet on stuff like the exact date crawfish season will finally open (it usually starts in December and lasts at least through May) or whether Anthony Uglesich will deign to open the doors of his restaurant on any given Saturday (Uglesich's offers the briniest and sweetest oysters on the half shell, the best Bloody Mary and the fattest fried soft-shell crabs in the city—but only for lunch, Monday through Friday, unless Anthony decides otherwise).
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As it turns out, I'm not alone. People go to Las Vegas or Monte Carlo to gamble. When they're in New Orleans, they generally don't want anything, except maybe a little music and shopping, to interfere with their eating time. I've had plenty of requests for advice on where best to spend that time, and I'm happy to report that mine is an ever-expanding list.
A dozen Gulf oysters on the half shell are an ideal way to start your trip off and remind yourself where you are, so I usually send people straight to the aforementioned Uglesich's. It is almost always crowded and crazy, but well worth the wait, especially if Mike Rogers, the oyster man, is there to make the cocktail sauce—a fabulous blend of lemon, ketchup, hot sauce, Worcestershire sauce and horseradish. I also love Casamento's, a family-owned institution with tiled walls and floor, a long oyster bar in the front and tables in the back where I eat oyster stew in winter and the fried-oyster and shrimp sandwiches all the time. At most places in New Orleans, a fried-oyster and/or shrimp sandwich means that the seafood is served on a halved loaf of French bread and called a po'boy. Those are good, but the ones at Casamento's, served on thick slices of white toast and dressed with mayonnaise, lettuce and tomato, are way better.
Casamento's is on Magazine Street, a place where I go shopping—a lot. There are a half dozen antiques stores on almost every block, and since it's New Orleans, more than a few specialize in culinary antiques. At the high end of the spectrum is Lucullus, named after the famous Roman gourmand. Lucullus is like a grand stage set. It's possible to buy a walnut dining table that seats 24, plus the 19th-century French Champagne flutes and silver flatware set upon it—as well as the chandelier hanging above. I'd need a new house for all that; until I get one, I will continue to add to my collection of oyster plates at the nearby Passages—they always have dozens spread out among the clutter. Also in the neighborhood is Aux Belles Choses, where the range is remarkable—everything from old monogrammed linens to new dish towels. Whoever buys for this store is a genius. There are fish sets and ladles (a silver one, for gumbos and étouffées, is my standard wedding gift) and old French clay pots for growing herbs—all at great prices. I rarely pass by without running in for another English porcelain pudding bowl, cheap but handsome and perfect for mixing vinaigrettes and separating eggs. I usually also stop off at Scriptura, my favorite paper place, for menu and place cards and sophisticated letterpress invitations, and Hazelnut, a modern, new housewares shop. It's co-owned by Bryan Batt, a New Orleans native and a star of Forbidden Broadway in New York City, and carries gifts like silver frames and martini glasses.
After being surrounded by so much good-looking bistro tableware, I am generally in the mood for really good bistro food—which means I head to nearby Lilette. John Harris's sizzling Gulf shrimp in a lemon-oregano vinaigrette paired with a good glass of Sauvignon Blanc is such a civilized lunch, as is his boudin noir with spicy mustard and a Côtes-du-Rhône (for dinner have the hanger steak).
That's the thing about New Orleans: There is always someplace to duck into. If I am doing business at my French Quarter bank (or, more likely, browsing at the French Quarter branch of Lucullus), I might call a friend to meet me at Central Grocery. Its muffulettas, consisting of provolone, ham, mortadella, Genoa salami and the store's own olive salad layered and pressed on rounds of Italian bread, can be wrapped to go (they make excellent airplane food), or you can order a half and enjoy it at one of the counters with a newspaper and a beer.
A number of the city's art galleries—as well as a fine auction house, New Orleans Auction—are in the Warehouse District. If I've gone to look at the latest shows at Søren Christensen and Arthur Roger, I'll often walk to Herbsaint, which opened in 2000 with Susan Spicer, chef and owner of Bayona, as co-owner and co-chef. Spicer has since turned her attention back to her original stove, leaving the gifted Donald Link in full control. The room, with its cool green walls and understated bistro furniture, provides the perfect backdrop for Link's gutsy, flavorful dishes. Deviled eggs (deviled eggs!) stuffed with spicy shrimp surround a baby-spinach salad. There's also a daily gumbo and a fabulous tomato and shrimp bisque, but Link's influences aren't limited to Creole and Cajun. A Spanish-inspired dish of shrimp with romesco is a must-have, as are the French fries with pimentón aioli.
Another new spot nearby is Lee Circle. Chef Ryan Hughes outdoes himself at lunch with the cochon de lait—suckling pig—which sometimes means that there'll be an intense cochon de lait gumbo for dinner. Thank goodness both menus include a crab bisque with mirliton (chayote), as well as the little pot of duck rillettes that are always put on the table. Lee Circle and Herbsaint are both on the streetcar line, which you can take to Bassetti Fine Art Photographs. Vickie Bassetti has a terrific collection of modern photography, including David Halliday's sepia-tone gelatin prints of—what else?—food. One of the most popular is a beautiful still life with blackberries and a peach, but I prefer his silvery sardines.
There are no sardines at GW Fins, but just about everything else that swims is on the menu. Don't be put off by the gimmicky name or the fact that chef Tenney Flynn just came from Ruth's Chris Steak House. Some of his offerings wouldn't be all that out of place at Le Bernardin in New York City: an ethereal lobster dumpling appetizer, Chilean sea bass in a hot and sour shrimp broth. Plus, about 70 wines are available by the glass, enabling me to have, say, a 2001 Lucien Crochet Sancerre with the sizzling smoked oysters, my second-favorite starter there.
Fish is also the thing at Galatoire's. The passing show of occasionally louche local behavior is reason enough to go, but your meal will be better if you consult with your waiter. He (or she—they finally started hiring women about nine years ago) will be honest about whether the redfish is especially fresh or if the crawfish étouffée is worth ordering. Richard Smith, who has worked there for more than 20 years, has guided me through many a lunch that's lasted past dinner (a normal occurrence on Fridays, when the city all but shuts down after noon). Recently, I joined old friends for a "quick" bite, and we got so carried away by the conversation—and the case of wine we consumed—that we couldn't be bothered with food that required knives and forks. As always, Richard rose to the occasion and brought out endless plates of fried eggplant and souffléed potatoes, soft-shell crab and trout cut into goujonettes. In the end, we even managed to pick up a fork for fresh artichoke hearts mashed with garlic, something Richard whips up himself if you beg.
Galatoire's opened its swinging French doors in 1905; Gautreau's has been around almost as long, but it started out life as a drugstore. As a restaurant, this small, elegant space (named after John Singer Sargent's infamous painting of Madame Gautreau) has been a consistent favorite among locals, including me, but since 30-year-old Mathias Wolf arrived from Seattle in 2001, I want to eat there every night. His starters sound simple but are packed with complex—and intense—flavors: duck confit with flageolets and red-onion marmalade; an incredible pan-fried brandade cake with tomato jam. Recent main courses have included rack of veal with braised veal cheeks, and snapper with gnocchi and truffled beurre blanc. After dinner, sample owner Patrick Singley's vast collection of single malt Scotches and single barrel bourbons.
For decades, Dooky Chase's has been the place to go for authentic black Creole dishes. But lately, if I'm craving Creole or upscale soul food, I head to Pampy's, an airy, gossipy dining room by day (it's filled with lawyers, judges and city government types) and a nightclubby one after dark, where the gifted Frank Richard plays jazz piano on Fridays. I love Frank, but the food is the thing. There are lots of versions of fried green tomatoes topped with shrimp remoulade in the city (it was invented at Upperline, another of my favorite restaurants), but Pampy's version, with a creamy white remoulade sauce, is not to be missed. Have it as an appetizer alongside fried eggplant with crawfish sauce and the inspired "Buffalo" oysters with spicy butter hot sauce and blue cheese dressing. At lunch I stick with the basics—pork chops with smothered okra or cabbage, peppery fresh mustard greens, stuffed peppers and exemplary macaroni and cheese—"meat and three" elevated to superb heights. At dinner I order an amazingly tender whole fried Cornish hen and wonder why no one has ever thought to cook it that way before.
Another artist in the Creole—soul food realm is Jacques Leonardi, who opened Jacques-Imo's a few years back and recruited the great Austin Leslie (of late lamented Chez Helene fame) to cook by his side. With its folk-arty interior, raucous bar and surprisingly sophisticated cuisine, Jacques-Imo's became an instant dinner institution. Now Jacques has opened Crabby Jack's just outside the city for those who can't do without Austin's justifiably famous fried chicken for lunch. There are also terrific po'boys (on my last visit I had a rabbit one with a Creole mustard sauce), a daily gumbo (hope that the dense duck and andouille is on offer) and sides of steaming dirty rice or jambalaya. The fried catfish is fresh and delicious; so are the boiled crawfish and shrimp.
Finally, if you want to ship local seafood home, as well as boudin and andouille sausage, your best bet is the French Market. The stalls there also sell pecans and every brand of hot sauce imaginable, but mostly I look for the thin-skinned Louisiana lemons that perfume the whole house. Pack some in your suitcase to remind you where you've been.
Julia Reed, senior writer at Vogue, writes often about food for the New York Times Magazine.