As much as I love to cook, sometimes it’s great not to cook. While I get excited to try something new in the kitchen, I also love my restaurants, or nice dinners at a friend’s place who may also be culinarily inclined. Of course when you have kids, these nights away from home are few and far between, because you usually need to be house-bound for tuck-in duty. So when your husband is good enough to watch the kids and encourage a bucket-list trip with your foodie girlfriend who you’ve been hanging out with since grade nine, you don’t pause for a second to ask, “are you sure?” You book a bunch of reservations at either 5:30 or 9:30 (who knew?), throw on your finest lobster bib,
and eat the city of New Orleans with reckless abandon. Yes, the actual city. Godzilla style. (Apologies for those damn freckles. They lost our luggage, so I had to eat seafood in the face-nude for a day. More apologies for obviously cropping my friend out of the lobster bib picture. She fears the World Wide Web, and I’m totally going to hide out with her when Google builds its army and uses every detail of our waking lives to enslave us.)
Anyway. Facing this trip, I only had two big worries:
1. How quickly could I digest each meal so that I was ready for the next one?
2. Should I take advantage of this away mission to taste weird foods I wouldn’t normally have access to, or should I stick with comfortable standbys to get NOLA’s take on what I already knew I loved?
Oh, the pressure. Luckily, by carefully managing point #1, I was able to stuff my stomach with enough NOLA diversity to satisfy both options in #2. So, without further ado, here is my top ten list of interesting foodie experiences from The Big Easy.
This is when I realized that Toronto is kind of dumb when it comes to liquor. In New Orleans, if you haven’t finished your drink or if you’d rather wander than sit, you can ask for your drink in a “go-cup” and you can drink it on the street. Awesome. I’m old! If I’d rather have a beer outside, I should be old enough to decide that I’m allowed to! Of course, go-cups could be partially responsible for the puke smell that’s hard to miss each time you cross Bourbon Street. Ugh.
Beignets are square doughnuts that are completely covered in icing sugar. You eat them warm, and a famous place to get them is at Cafe du Monde, which is an open-air cafe on the Mississippi river. I’m not a huge doughnut person, but these were squishy and un-greasy. And eating them in 30 degree sunshine with a “cafe au lait,” ain’t half bad.
Ew. I don’t really get it. But I tried, like, a bite-and-a-half at our shoddy hotel breakfast to know what Joe Pesci was talking about in My Cousin Vinny.
A po-boy would be known here as a “sub,” although in NOLA its bread is crustier. Apparently it was traditionally made with bits of roast beef and gravy, given to striking streetcar drivers in 1929 from the back door of Clovis and Benjamin Martin’s restaurant, when they’d yell something along the lines of, “We’ve got another po-boy [poor boy] out here!” Now you can get them with just about anything on. My sandwich from Johnny’s Po-boys was ham — the only animal I ate on the whole trip that didn’t swim, I think.
6. Ooey gooey cake
So all of a sudden we found ourselves in a parade. Somehow I think that might happen in New Orleans randomly, right when you least expect it. The “first line” in a parade through the streets is the band, and then everyone follows the band in the “second line,” buying beers and snacks from folks pulling them along in coolers and carts. We felt pretty lucky to be dancing along in a second line. When we looked down at what the snack lady was pulling we noticed that some of her wares were labelled “ooey gooey cake.”
We were too full to snack at the time (see problem #1, above) but I just found this recipe for cake that might be similar. I need to give it a try.
5. Crawfish and oysters
There were t-shirts and kitchen paraphernalia everywhere that said “The four seasons of New Orleans: oyster, crawfish, crab, and shrimp.” I think we hit oyster season because they were dirt cheap, and they showed up in some of my nicer meals too, like in a soup. I adore oysters. If you have an oyster bar at your wedding, don’t invite me, because the gift I buy you will never cover all that I’ll consume. We were disappointed not to find fresh crawfish anywhere, but we did wolf down a crawfish po-boy that must have been prepared from frozen. Next time! And/or I’ve got to get to work at changing the seasons. Maybe global warming will do it for me?
4. Snapping turtle soup
Turtle soup has been on my list to try since I missed out on it a few years ago in Washington DC. This time, I tried it right. We ate at Restaurant R’evolution, which was our fanciest dinner. That was where I learned about presentation. For this soup, they started by spooning three tiny devilled quail’s eggs into my bowl. Then they poured my soup around the eggs using a gravy boat until they were drowned. They did the same for my friend with her “death by gumbo,” although they poured hers around a full quail. Craziness. (But now that they’ve shown me how to serve up soup, you can bet I’m going to do it that impressively for guests at my own darn table!). This dish also introduced me to something else different about New Orleans cooking. They use a LOT of spices. Not so that it’s spicy-hot, but so that everything is very fully flavoured. This soup tasted strongly of clove. The turtle didn’t taste too different — just like meaty seafood. I didn’t take a picture because it was a posh place and it felt odd. But it was delicious!
A funny story about friends and trust. I knew that there was something illicit about absinthe, but I didn’t quite know what. I knew it involved chasing something — turns out it was “chasing the green fairy,” or the swirls that appear in the bottom of the glass, but I confused it with “chasing the dragon,” with images of strung-out addicts from movies nervously flitting about in my head. Of course, I tried it anyway (my friend said she served it to friends at home, so how bad could it be?). Now I know that the illicit part was that it was banned because people were afraid that the wormwood derivative in it would poison people or make them crazy, but this might have only been a smear campaign by market-protecting wine growers a hundred years ago. Oscar Wilde, Hemingway, and Van Gogh all liked it, and they seemed to do okay (I could use some “manic creativity!”). It’s served in a glass with a sugar cube on a slotted spoon over it, which is dissolved slowly by drips of cold water. Tastes delicious, if you like liquorice.
I also enjoyed that I drank it from a pub that was right beside a church and sign that says “Church quiet zone.” God bless New Orleans.
2. Cobia Collar
Another incredible restaurant we tried was Peche, which was named “Best New Restaurant” at the 2014 James Beard Foundation Awards, and was listed as one of the top 50 best new restaurants by Bon Appetit. Now. You might remember when I cooked fish heads? When I saw “Cobia Collar,” aka cobia jaw on the menu, I just had to ignore my yearnings for more traditional meals and give it a go. I mean, what would a real chef do with a fish head? He’d serve it so that it looked like a bird, that’s what. (Sorry for the light, iPhone shot in the dark)
That’s just crazy food creativity, is what that is. The meat was tender, dense, white meat, and of course, it was done in a perfectly herby and buttery salsa verde.
And now, last, but very far from least…
I’m including the whole restaurant here, because everything I ate was my favourite. The service was incredibly friendly too — waiter escorted me to the “restroom” on his arm which made me laugh (they also filled your water glass each time you took a sip, which was slightly annoying. Sometimes service should be a little more invisible, you know? But this was a small distraction from greatness). Anyway. My friend and I felt a bit cliche choosing a celebrity chef’s restaurant as our hands-down fav, but what can you do — he might just be good for a reason. We’re talking lobster ravioli with shrimp in buttery-herbed sauce (wish I could describe it properly but it was a special and I didn’t write it down!). Every bite a delight. For dessert — sweet potato bread pudding with toasted marshmallow ice cream, brown sugar tuille, and praline sauce. I didn’t take a picture of it, but saveur.com took one that looks pretty darn similar by Emeril’s pastry chef Amy Lemon…
And on that note, I’ll say only one more thing. Eat the city of New Orleans. Here’s hoping the voodoo money chestnut I’m now carrying around in my purse actually does bring vast fortunes, because then I’ll go back every single year.