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New Orleans on Six Meals a Day

When F&W’s Salma Abdelnour traveled to New Orleans to search for a Best New Chef, she did more than eat herself silly, as she reveals in this account of her art-loving, cocktail-sipping, celebrity-stalking weekend.

A friend recently suggested I publish a book of tell-all essays written by the travel companions I have dragged along with me on F&W restaurant-scouting missions. In her view, the book would be the literary equivalent of food porn: voyeuristic, hedonistic, jealousy-inducing. But I suspect it might have exactly the opposite effect. Every friend who has ever been sweet, loyal and hungry enough to accompany me on a work-related trip has, at some point, either yelled “Can we please stop eating?” or else tried, politely, to disguise the pained expression of an overstuffed duck destined to become foie gras. The best way I’ve found to stop people from saying, “Oh my God, I want your job!” is to bring them along on an F&W adventure.

That said, I have a phenomenal amount of fun exploring places I might otherwise never get to visit. One of my favorite work assignments is traveling all over the U.S. to help find the next batch of F&W Best New Chefs. Besides the absurd amount of eating that inevitably goes along with these trips, I’m able to poke around in my off hours and discover fascinating neighborhoods, shops, restaurants, bars and people.

This year, I’ve ended up with a jackpot destination: New Orleans, one of my all-time favorite places on earth, and a city I’ve visited nearly a dozen times (but never before on a Best New Chef hunt). Most years, F&W has at least one Best New Chef candidate from New Orleans on our list of finalists—a lineup we create after months of talking to our network of nominators around the country, poring over menus from the most promising candidates, narrowing down the roster to a few dozen contenders, and eventually picking our 10 winners.

As soon as I get the New Orleans assignment, I waste no time making reservations and planning my trip; I’ll have just two full days in the city, and three restaurants to check out. To control some of the variables—for instance, chefs finding out that an F&W editor is sneaking into their restaurants or rumors about Best New Chef candidates leaking to the local press—I tell virtually no one about my trip. Although I have a bunch of food-writer friends in New Orleans, none of them knows I’m headed to their city. I make my reservations using aliases as well as phone numbers I’ve borrowed from friends, complete with non–New York City area codes to throw any reservation-list detectives off the trail. My food-savvy friend Claire, who is joining me on her inaugural F&W mission (not quite knowing what she’s in for), keeps the mission a secret, too.

Given how many past F&W Best New Chefs have come from New Orleans—including John Besh of August, Susan Spice of Bayona, Frank Brigtsen of Brigtsen’s and John Harris of Lilette—I’d be surprised if I strike out on finding a winner here this year, especially since there are three nominees. But anything can happen. So far, there’s one major glitch in my plans. The two days I block out for my New Orleans trip turn out to be the NBA All-Star weekend, and it seems the entire city is booked; not a hotel room to be found. These are the perils of having a sports IQ of zero. If I’d had any clue about the upcoming basketball extravaganza, I would have avoided that weekend altogether—although the idea of spotting star athletes all over town (if I could recognize any of them) does sound pretty exciting. Claire and I eventually manage to find a room at a nondescript but spotlessly clean hotel called Chateau Sonesta in the French Quarter, which at least puts us within walking distance of good coffee in the morning.

As a prelude to our three Best New Chef–scouting meals, Claire and I decide to go for dinner at Lüke, the new restaurant and raw bar co-owned by Besh, a 1999 F&W Best New Chef anointee who has since risen to national superstardom. Despite its partying bent, New Orleans doesn’t have a late-night dining scene to speak of; Lüke is one of the few restaurants that serve food until 11 p.m. during the week. As soon as we land in New Orleans on Thursday night, we drive directly to the spacious, old-style brasserie on St. Charles Avenue in the Central Business District. We arrive to find a full house and waiters ferrying giant platters of oysters back and forth across the pleasantly noisy room. After having impeccably mixed French 75 cocktails (Champagne, cognac, fresh lemon juice), we share a platter of glistening Kumamoto oysters, a dish of translucent ravioli with a lemony stuffing made with plump local crab meat, and jumbo Louisiana shrimp cooked in a ramekin with white-corn grits and andouille sausage.

I’m craving more of Besh’s food the next day, so I enlist Claire to have lunch with me at his flagship, August, near the Warehouse District—an area that, like so many other formerly industrial zones in American cities, is now full of galleries and lofts. New Orleans has a tradition of long, languid midday meals on Fridays, and August reputedly serves one of the city’s best end-of-week blowouts. I warn Claire that this plan is superfluous to our assignment and will probably leave us both feeling overstuffed perilously close to dinnertime—but I can’t be talked out of it. As we walk into the restaurant, a warren of intimate dining rooms in an 1800s French-Creole building, we spot a matron with spectacularly frosted hair in a bouclé suit and her handsomely graying companion sitting at a window seat under the stately chandeliers. A prominent New Orleans couple? We’re not sure, but they make for stunning eye candy. We start with buster crabs, fried until they’re crispy and hot and served with juice-bomb heirloom tomatoes and smoked bacon; we follow those with P&J oysters from Louisiana, crusted in a thin cornmeal batter and topped with a blue cheese–and–buttermilk dressing for a touch of serious, but disciplined, decadence. Next come handmade agnolotti, wonderfully slippery and paper-thin and stuffed with sweet, juicy crawfish. Besh’s food has such a strong regional allegiance; it’s shot through with a sense of the city where he lives and works. Few chefs starting out can cook like this, not just in the balance of flavors, smart ideas and pitch-perfect presentation, but also in the mix of innovation and groundedness. Chefs who have any hope of making it in the long run have to prove they’ve got the coherence and originality in their thinking, and the dedication to memorable, powerful flavors, that Besh has nailed. Decadent as two Besh meals in a row might be, at least they’ve given us—besides huge amounts of pleasure and overly full stomachs—a useful framework to kick off our Best New Chef adventure.

On our way out, we stop to ask the maître d’ if any basketball stars have been in so far, and he tells us we’ve just missed Michael Jordan; he was at August with his entourage the previous night. Oh well. Maybe we’ll manage to cross paths with him somewhere else in the city.

At dinner tonight we scout a Best New Chef candidate at a place we’ll call Restaurant X. On this busy basketball weekend, when most restaurants and bars are jammed, the dining room here is nearly empty. But I’m not allowed to take that into account. In judging Best New Chef candidates, F&W editors must pay attention only to the food, not to the design or the energy (or lack thereof) in the dining room, and not even to the service (unless it happens to be egregiously bad).

First order of business: Study the menu to decode Restaurant X’s sensibility, and to guess which dishes might be the signatures, which the creative gambles and which the safety choices. Our first course, poached oysters, is somehow too bland-tasting. A duck dish is too sweet, a seafood stew too ho-hum; no flavor pops or makes a memorable impression. Overall, even though the actual cooking is done competently, and several ideas on the menu sound appealing and inventive on paper, the flavors on each plate are either monotonous or just too quiet.

Afterward, Claire and I discuss Restaurant X over locally brewed Abita beers at Saturn Bar, a dusty old dive on a residential street in the Bywater, about a 10-minute drive east of the Quarter. The parts of the Bywater that sit near the city’s Industrial Canal were badly hit by the Katrina floods, but the area continues to have some of the best old bars and music hangouts in town—including Vaughan’s Lounge, where on my trip here last spring I saw local jazz trumpeter Kermit Ruffins play to overflowing, beer-swilling crowds. Among the rows of small houses in the Bywater, many of the damaged ones are still deserted, though some families have recently repaired their homes and moved back in.

Saturn sits on a corner next to a slightly sinister-looking iron gate. Inside, there’s no impressive list of wines, beers or cocktails—just rickety tables scattered haphazardly, a dartboard on the wall and snapshots of staffers with celebrity visitors like usual-suspect partyers Nicolas Cage and Alec Baldwin. We’re immediately transfixed by the bar’s collection of dozens of outsider-art paintings made by a long-dead regular who, Saturn lore has it, lost too many brain cells in a scuba-diving mishap and started painting ever-more-deranged pieces. His paintings are wildly eclectic and mesmerizing, equal parts novice and sure-handed. We get absorbed in contemplating one piece after another, as Claire, an art critic, subjects the works to the same scrutiny we’ve just given the food at Restaurant X. Later, we chat with owner Eric Broyard’s daughter Bailee; the family is related to the late, famous critic and essayist Anatole Broyard.

Breakfast doesn’t figure into the Best New Chef itinerary, so our morning food options are wide open. But I desperately want to go to Café du Monde, the famous, century-and-a-half-old coffeehouse on the edge of the French Quarter, near the crowded Jackson Square shopping area. In my near-dozen visits to New Orleans over the years, I’ve skipped the café only once—last year during the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, when my friends and I ate so many cochon de lait (suckling pig) po’boys that breakfasting on sugar-doused fried dough would’ve been obscene, even by our standards. I wasn’t about to miss the place this time, in all its dank, history-soaked glory, never mind the brusque service and the tourist mobs. We order chickory-spiked café au laits and a plate of powdered-sugar-choked beignets. And damn if they aren’t way more delicious, every single time, than a fried-dough puff has any right to be.

Although last night at Saturn Bar I hadn’t seen any shots of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie pinned to the wall, I wonder if that’s because they’ve been spending much of their time in New Orleans—one of the multiple places they call home—trying to rebuild the city’s Katrina-ravaged Lower Ninth Ward instead of downing bottles of Abita. Judging from all the love they’ve been getting from locals lately, maybe it’s not far from the truth.

Claire and I finally give in to our celebrity-stalking alter egos—which are usually repressed back home in New York—and go in search of the Pitt-Jolie house, which we spot, on a tip from a local, in an unmarked building on the edge of the French Quarter. Then we take a 20-minute drive north to the Lakeview neighborhood, along Lake Pontchartrain, to see the impressive-looking construction projects underway there. Some renovated houses along the waterfront are, strangely, commanding prices in the millions. It’s exciting to see so much energy and cash pouring in for the rebuilding efforts, even if I can’t fully understand some of the real estate decisions.

The beautiful 1,300-acre City Park nearby, just barely off the Lake Pontchartrain waterfront and also badly flooded by Katrina, houses the New Orleans Museum of Art and its sculpture garden. We head there next to look at the giant outdoor sculptures by Louise Bourgeois and Henry Moore, and to gawk at the big old oak and magnolia trees—many of which barely survived the floods but now look healthy and prosperous.

Although tonight we’re scheduled to eat two Best New Chef dinners back-to-back, we have grand ambitions to hit Casamento’s Uptown for a predinner shellfish snack. Casamento’s is just a little oyster restaurant, but my food-fixated New Orleans friends adore it—as locals have since it opened more than 80 years ago—not just for its lived-in feel and old-time cred but for its Louisiana oysters: raw, fried, stewed and apparently as incredible as the creatures get. But first we spend some time strolling through the antiques, housewares and clothing shops that stretch out over the six-mile Magazine Street shopping area, killing time before we hit Casamento’s, about a half-mile further down the road. It’s a gloriously sunny day and pedestrians are out in force, but the sidewalk still has the mellow feel I remember from past visits here. Neither Claire nor I bother to keep tabs on the time, and after sitting at an outdoor table at the bohemian Rue de la Course coffeehouse, drinking fragrant espressos and spying on the crowd of graduate students and bookworms, we realize it’s after five o’clock, and our first dinner is at six. Panic: By the time we get a table at Casamento’s and eat, we’ll be late for our dinner reservation. We can’t risk that; too much is riding on our Best New Chef restaurant plans to mess with the timing. This isn’t the first time I’ve managed to screw up an attempt to visit Casamento’s—which serves dinner just three nights a week, and only from 5:30 to 9 p.m. at that. On this trip, it looks like I’m thwarted again.

Oysterless, we head directly to Restaurant Y. The menu borders on too-predictable (moules frites, grilled hanger steak), but there are flashes of creativity, and trusted local sources have insisted that the chef is worth watching. Because this is New Orleans, a special kind of magic—not to say voodoo—can sometimes turn a dull-sounding dish into something sublime. But that magic is not quite happening here tonight. I’m starting to worry. Given how much cooking talent there is all over New Orleans, I’d be disappointed if I ended up 0-for-3 on this trip.

We head to our third and last Best New Chef nominee, at Restaurant Z. This place is old-school New Orleans. On first glance, it looks like there’s no chance this can be a Best New Chef venue. It seems too fusty, albeit in a pleasing way. The restaurant is in an Uptown building that was formerly an apothecary, but there’s nothing clinical about the ambience. The dining room has a 19th-century vibe, with trompe l’oeil walls painted to look like drapery, and soft amber lighting. Most tables are arranged to offer an unobstructed view of the entire, fairly small space. The maître d’ greets us—and seemingly everyone else who enters—like New Orleans society, and some of the guests (certainly not us) probably are. But the chances that the staff is on to our identity are slim to zero: Again, I’ve used various undercover tactics to book the reservation. We’re shown to a table with an excellent view of the elderly patrons, stylish young couples and NBA attachés strewn about the dining room. Granted, we can’t take the vibe into consideration, but if I had to extrapolate from the atmosphere in the room, I would peg this as the kind of place where the regulars wouldn’t stand for too much innovation on the menu.

While it turns out to be true that only a portion of Restaurant Z’s European-inspired menu changes on a regular basis, F&W has had two past Best New Chefs come from this place. The management clearly has a knack for hiring talent, and the wisdom to let the newcomers have their way with at least part of the menu. That’s a major factor in the selection of Best New Chefs; the chefs under consideration have to create their own dishes, not just execute a menu developed by someone else—for instance, by a globe-hopping celebrity chef–owner who simply appoints a skilled chef de cuisine to do the cooking.

My first impression from looking at the menu: What are pierogies doing here? Obviously we have to order them. This is either a silly joke or…wow, a stroke of genius. The chef stuffs the pierogies with wild mushrooms and potato (a classic approach) and tops them with caramelized Vidalia onion–spiked crème fraîche and asparagus (a brilliant tweak). The onions are luxurious, and their sweetness beautifully complements the potato and mushrooms; the chunks of fresh asparagus add a pleasing crunch. Instead of innovating just for the sake of it, or doing a trendy but clichéd riff on comfort food, this chef has altered a traditional ethnic dish just enough to add an element of surprise, and cooked each component perfectly.

We almost decide not to order the ordinary-sounding sautéed brandade cake—but that would have been a grave mistake. The crispy cakes are made from creamy salted cod and served with marinated tomatoes and basil aioli. Salty, creamy, sweet and crunchy: The tastes and textures play off and enhance each other. The entrées are just as masterful. Succulent roasted duck breast is accompanied by a risotto made with cashew nuts and Manchego cheese. Snapper is wondrously crisp-skinned and buttery, and paired with lentils tossed with bits of ham hock and cherry tomatoes. There are lots of ingredients going on here, but they’re all treated with a powerful sense of balance and restraint.

Intelligent, unpredictable but coherent ideas; a touch of wit; flawless execution; and ultimately, spectacularly flavorful food that I want to return to again and again: Yes, this restaurant is a winner. Gautreau’s does it again, this time with chef Sue Zemanick, a 27-year-old from Pennsylvania who graduated from the Culinary Institute of America then trained at New Orleans icon Commander’s Palace and at New York City’s Oceana.

Claire and I end the night with pints of beer at Mimi’s in the Marigny, a dark, hipster-filled bar and live-music space in the boho Faubourg Marigny district next to the French Quarter. We’re too stuffed to order any of the Spanish tapas on the menu; instead we brood for a moment about not having run into one basketball star all weekend. But we cheer ourselves up by reminiscing about Zemanick’s incredible food, and by going back over why she deserves the award and why the other chefs we’ve sussed out on this trip haven’t quite earned it yet. I contemplate what might be happening this time next year: Will Zemanick and her peers be busy bouncing around to kitchens in other restaurants, other cities, other countries? Which Best New Chef from this year’s class will be on the fastest road to fame? And how can I dream up another reason for F&W to send me—and a courageous, patient, food-loving friend—back to New Orleans as soon as possible?

Published July 2008
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