Some people say New Orleans’s best culinary days are behind it. Not me. When I took a trip down there recently, I discovered an amazing new food ’hood, toured the city with a TV star who plans to open up grocery stores that will feel like a party and hung out with a trailblazing chef who’s working to supply the world with tastier pork. And that’s just now. I’m betting that in the future, New Orleans will become one of the country’s premier sources of culinary talent. First, NOCCA—the renowned creative-arts school whose graduates include Wynton Marsalis and Harry Connick, Jr.—has launched a cooking program with help from local superstar Emeril Lagasse. Then there’s the upcoming, $35 million John McDonogh culinary high school, located just outside the French Quarter. If there’s ever going to be a food world dream team, odds are it’ll come from New Orleans.
The Wendell Pierce Treme Tour
I will never stop mocking the people who take that ridiculous Sex and the City bus tour around Manhattan. But even so, if anyone ever launches a Treme tour of New Orleans, I’ll be the first one on the bus to gawk at sights from the HBO series, which is devoted to the city’s post–Hurricane Katrina music-and-food scene—even if it means the locals see me as a hopeless tourist.
Since that tour hasn’t been invented yet, I had to create my own. My Treme excursion started when I arrived at Bellocq to meet up with the show’s star, Wendell Pierce, who is also known as the job-hunting trombonist Antoine Batiste. Bellocq is a cool bar that looks more like a boudoir, all black-velvet divans and love seats tucked into dark corners. When I got there, a Tulane University reunion was in full swing, but everyone stopped talking the moment Pierce walked in—not just because he’s a commanding presence (he is built like a football player, and was wearing a snazzy gray suit with a pocket handkerchief), but because he’s so beloved in New Orleans. We ordered rum cobblers infused with black-tea syrup and talked about food. Pierce, who grew up here, is launching a chain of markets called Sterling Farms Grocery; he sees them not only as places to pick up fresh food, but also as local hangouts.
“Growing up, I went to grocery stores with my mom every Friday night,” he said. “It felt like a party.” I was entirely ready to go party at a supermarket with Wendell Pierce. Instead, we drove to Restaurant R’evolution, a new place from acclaimed chefs Rick Tramonto and John Folse that’s already one of Pierce’s favorites. On his recommendation, we got the fried crab-stuffed frog legs, which were so big they looked like chicken drumsticks.
For the second leg of my Treme tour, I got in touch with Lolis Eric Elie, a well-regarded local journalist who writes for the show and is authoring the Treme cookbook (due out in 2013). I asked him to take me somewhere that had an actual influence on the show, and he chose Bayona, chef Susan Spicer’s renowned restaurant. Spicer not only gave cooking lessons to actress Kim Dickens, who plays chef Janette Desautel; she also created a dish that Treme creator David Simon liked so much, it is appearing in season three: A smoked duck, cashew butter and pepper jelly sandwich. It’s oily, slightly smoky from the grilled toast it’s served on and just phenomenal. It’s the snack I’ll take on my Treme bus tour.
Domenica, where Elie took me next, is the city’s top regional Italian restaurant, from John Besh (an F&W Best New Chef 1999). But more to the point, its sweet, nerdy-looking chef, Alon Shaya, has a small recurring role on Treme playing a line cook. “It’s one of the funnest things I’ve ever done,” he told me. “Kim Dickens gave me great advice: She said, ‘relax.’ ” I went crazy for Shaya’s fried Tuscan kale with lemon dressing and grated Parmesan, but I’m not sure it was my favorite—the melting lardo he drapes over fried bread squares was insanely good, too.
The Pork King of New Orleans
It’s not like pork-obsessed chefs are in short supply these days, but still, if I were handing out awards, I’d bestow the title of Pork King on Donald Link. Not just because this stocky Louisiana-born chef owns the exceptional New Orleans restaurant Cochon, which is French for “pig,” nor because the adjoining Cochon Butcher shop, part meat market and part deli counter, sells any cut of pig you might want (and outstanding sandwiches, too). No, the real reason Link gets the Pork King title is because he’s working on two significant pig-breeding projects. At the first, on a Mississippi farm, he’s got pigs that are a cross of Berkshire and Bluebutt, resulting in pork that’s exceptionally meaty. For the second, he has partnered with Alabama-based barbecue chain Jim ‘N Nick’s to breed part Berkshire and part Mangalitsa pigs; that meat has wonderful fattiness. “I just wanted pork that tasted better,” Link said. “It wasn’t so I could use catchwords like sustainability. I couldn’t find any bacon that I liked, so we just started making it.”
At Cochon Butcher, Link told me his plans for all that pork. He wants to open another butcher shop in New Orleans, he says, and also in Birmingham and Atlanta. As he talked, we ate “gas station boudin,” sausage links flecked with rice and bursting out of their casings. Link loves the boudin he buys at Louisiana gas stations, where it’s often made in rice cookers. “I carry a pocket knife in my car so I can cut my boudin while I’m driving,” he says.
Link’s non-pork dishes get enormous praise, too. Before I arrived, Anthony Bourdain and my favorite comedian, Aziz Ansari, were tweeting up his rabbit and dumplings; my best dish of the trip was the slow-cooked lamb neck with saffron fideos (Spanish noodles) at Link’s elegant restaurant Herbsaint, the meat gorgeously browned and fatty on top.
Bywater: NOLA’s Hottest Neighborhood
Then there’s Bywater, the New Orleans neighborhood locals have taken to calling Bywater-Burg because of its similarities to Brooklyn’s Williamsburg. Bywater’s hipster cred is actually long-term: Jack Kerouac jumped off the cross-country train here in the ’40s to visit New Orleans. These days the neighborhood, which is down the Mississippi River from the French Quarter, is full of guys and girls opening idiosyncratic, artisanal shops. Many do double-duty, too, like the cool corner wine store Bacchanal, which now serves multiculti dinners in its backyard, and Studio Inferno, a glass-blowing operation that has a cozy little lunch spot, Jims, alongside.
I was so excited to visit Bywater, I headed there on my first night. I went right to Maurepas Foods, which also exemplifies the Bywater vibe. It’s a big-windowed restaurant with good food and terrific drinks, and I snacked there on chef Michael Doyle’s goat tacos and downed a cocktail called the Gent and the Jackass, a potent mix of bourbon, basil, peach bitters and paprika.
Afterward, I had a second dinner at Bywater’s most buzzed-about food destination, the twice-a-week pop-up Pizza Delicious. Its crisp-crust, New York–style pizza is made in a communal kitchen (called Delicious) that’s hidden away down a small alley. Right now, the only way to guarantee you’ll get a pizza, from the Margherita to specials like arugula-and-Peppadew, is to call in advance. But things will soon be easier; Pizza Delicious was a few weeks away from opening a nearby permanent home when I visited.
The following morning, I got a more in-depth tour of Bywater from Sean Cummings. A smart, good-looking entrepreneur, Cummings has become an expert on the neighborhood thanks to Rice Mills Lofts, the luxury apartment complex he’s built here. A converted rice mill, it has colorful street art both inside, on the brick hallway walls, and outside, on the shipping containers that form a wall on the property. This fall, Rice Mills will also become home to Mariza, an Italian-inspired restaurant from Ian Schnoebelen of Iris, an F&W Best New Chef 2007.
Cummings is a controversial figure these days because of a proposed building that’s too tall for zoning regulations. As we drove around the Bywater, it was not hard to spot anti-Cummings “Size Matters” posters. He ignored them.
Along the way we stopped at Satsuma Cafe, a groovy brunch spot where the dish that all the food people talk about is quinoa salad, studded with roasted zucchini and feta cheese. I ordered that, along with a Cleanser—a juice blend of beet, fennel, cucumber and celery, which tasted appropriately gnarly (at least to a non-juicer like me).
Late in the day, Cummings and I ended our tour at Piety Street Sno-Balls, an adorable stand in an old ironworks. Owner David Rebeck said he was “just another musician looking for a job after Katrina,” when a visit to a popular sno-ball place got him thinking: “The flavors were so unnatural. I thought, This is ridiculous.” He opened Piety Street last summer and features flavors like kaffir lime, made with citrus from a neighbor’s tree, and Vietnamese coffee, the secret to which, he told me, is a big can of Café du Monde ground coffee, the classic New Orleans standby.
Piety Street Sno-Balls is a mere block away from a new riverfront park that’s opening this fall, which will connect the French Quarter to the Bywater via a mile-plus-long path. It’s a thrilling development: A physical connection between the classic heart of New Orleans and an area that’s exploding with creativity and culinary energy. It will also be a good way for me to get some exercise as I walk between an old-school food mecca and a new one.
The Heart of New Orleans Jazz
In New Orleans, I scored an amazing tour of French Quarter institution Preservation Hall from director Ben Jaffe, a wild-haired guy whose father, Allan, founded the place in the ’60s. Jaffe, who also plays tuba for the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, pointed out highlights like Noel Rockmore’s dark-hued portraits of musicians and “the hat,” the tall metal tip jar that’s been used since Preservation Hall first opened. I also got to stand where rock icon Robert Plant did when he made a surprise appearance on the tiny stage during last year’s Jazz Fest. 726 St. Peter St.; preservationhall.com.
The Library of Rum
“I never turn down a thirsty traveler,” Steve Remsberg said when I wrote him that I was coming to New Orleans. That was good news, coming from the man whom Jim Meehan, F&W’s spirits contributing editor, claims has the world’s largest collection of rare rums. An affable retired lawyer, Remsberg has roughly 1,000 bottles of unbelievable rums, 600 in storage and 400 arrayed on shelves in his home. While I marveled at an 1881 S.S. Pierce dark rum with a pencil-drawn label, Remsberg poured me a pre-Prohibition Bacardi white with a weirdly gamey flavor, and a splash of new Havana Club alongside one from the ’30s (it was amazingly smooth and caramelly). Remsberg even made me his favorite rum drink, Planter’s Punch—though he used the new bottle of Havana Club, not the eight-decades-old one.
New Orleans Do-Not-Miss List: Kate’s Black Book
Chef Susan Spicer’s classic French Quarter destination serves New American food. 430 Dauphine St.; bayona.com.
A boudoir-style bar featuring cutting-edge cocktails. 936 St. Charles Ave.; thehotelmodern.com.
Cochon & Cochon Butcher
Donald Link’s renowned pork palace, and its adjoining shop and sandwich counter. 930 Tchoupitoulas St.; cochonrestaurant.com.
NOLA’s best regional Italian restaurant with great pizza, too. 123 Baronne St.; domenicarestaurant.com.
Chef Link’s elegant Cajun-Med spot. 701 St. Charles Ave.; herbsaint.com.
A laid-back Bywater lunch place alongside a glass studio. 3000 Royal St.
A cool new food-and-cocktail hangout. Get the goat tacos. 3200 Burgundy St.; maurepasfoods.com.
Crisp-crusted pizzas in Bywater. 617 Piety St.; pizzadelicious.blogspot.com.
Piety Street Sno-Balls
Exemplary versions of icy NOLA sweets. 612 Piety St.
A top new spot with elegant Creole cooking from two star chefs. 777 Bienville St.; revolutionnola.com.
Brunch experts. 3218 Dauphine St.; satsumacafe.com.