New Orleans was long on my shortlist of American cities I’d never been to, but was dying to visit. There was something about the lore of the Big Easy, with its free-spirited, jazzy laissez les bons temps rouler mindset that spoke to me.
It was brass bands and zydeco, indulgent dishes, refined or rustic, synonymous with the city — jambalaya, crawfish étouffée, po’ boys, beignets, sazeracs. The sheer fact that a place like Bourbon Street existed, where you could walk around in the open air with a strong drink called a hurricane or one made of absinthe and go wild, besotted tourists or not.
It was the city’s tempestuous relationship with the muddy waters of the Mississippi and its melting pot of cultures — French, Southern, Creole, Cajun, Caribbean. I knew I wanted to eat and drink my way through New Orleans accompanied by live music. So by the time I finally made it there this January with my two best girlfriends, we had a well-vetted itinerary.
GARDEN DISTRICT STAPLE
We started our gastronomical exploration at La Petite Grocery (4238 Magazine St., 504-891-3377; http://lapetitegrocery.com) in the breezy, plane tree-lined Garden District. Here, chef-owner Justin Devillier, regularly a James Beard Award finalist, and wife Mia turn out refined New Orleans fare inside a century-old, Creole cottage that was once a coffee and teahouse.
We decided to go with their celebrated blue crab beignets, and I couldn’t resist the Gulf shrimp and grits made with shiitake mushrooms and smoked bacon.
The cocktails were the highlight of our lunch. With such tempting options as the LPG French 75 (pear brandy, Champagne, sugar and a lemon twist) and the Cassius Club (gin, Apricot du Roussillon, Steen’s syrup, absinthe and lemon), we were persuaded by our waiter to order off the menu. His concoction, made of tequila, jalapeño, honey and bitters, was perfectly balanced and a stellar recommendation.
We ventured uptown for dinner at Jacques-Imo’s (8324 Oak St., 504-861-0886; http://jacques-imos.com/), a rowdy outpost for down-home Creole and soul food run by exuberant New York transplant Jacques Leonardi.
With its no-reservations policy, we were prepared for our 45-minute wait and ordered a round of hurricanes at the bar. I quickly learned that a hurricane is simply New Orleans’ version of the Caribbean’s multitudinous rum punch. When I asked the bartender what went into theirs, she responded, a little bored: four different rums and a mix of fruit juices. Good enough for me. They packed a sweet punch.
With its funky décor, local art and no-frills plastic tablecloths, Jacques-Imo’s could just as easily be a delightful pit stop on a drive to the Keys, but the food positions you distinctly in New Orleans. A heaping basket of sweet cornbread muffins swept in garlic butter was a welcome start to the meal. My eyes landed on the eggplant pirogue. Named for a Creole carved-out canoe, the crispy eggplant serves as a “boat” for sautéed shrimp, oysters and flaky white fish in a rich lemon cream sauce. It is served with a salad and choice of two sides. This is the kind of place where you get a bang for your buck and leave completely stuffed.
BEIGNETS & CAFÉ AU LAITS
Any traveler too jaded to enjoy the pleasures of Café du Monde (800 Decatur St., 504-525-4544; http://cafedumonde.com/) is someone I’d rather not encounter. One of the Big Easy’s most iconic establishments, this haven for powdered sugar-doused beignets and milky-sweet café au laits more than lives up to the hype.
We visited twice during our long weekend and, luckily, never had to wait more than a few minutes to snag a table beneath the green awning overlooking Jackson Square. With a brusque, French bistro vibe, it’s the perfect perch to watch the world go by. We sat and listened to a lone musician’s lilting trumpet before breaking into a heart-rending, a cappella Amazing Grace.
BEST OF THE BESH
Chef John Besh is something of a legend on the New Orleans culinary front with 12 restaurants to his name. It all started with James Beard Award-winning August (301 Tchoupitoulas St., 504-299-9777; www.restaurantaugust.com), an ode to modern French cooking with a kick of New Orleans flavor. Located in a charming 19th century French-Creole corner building, the white tablecloth dining room is refined without being fussy. Sparkling chandeliers hang from high ceilings bolstered by ornate columns with exposed brick walls and picture windows spilling in light from the street.
We dined at lunchtime, when the three-course $20.16 prix fixe menu is a value hard to beat. However, other items on the menu tempted our taste buds: a charred winter green salad with the most perfectly piquant, crispy country ham, a roasted grouper in crab jus with blue crab meat and wild mushrooms, and fried green tomatoes with cold, firm lobster-shrimp remoulade. Every bite was symphonic, especially when chased with a fizzy French 75. It takes the cake for the best meal of our trip.
FRENCH QUARTER CLASSIC
There are a couple of stalwarts in the French Quarter and we were told that Arnaud’s (813 Bienville St., 504-523-5433; www.arnaudsrestaurant.com) was the one to try. Established in 1918, this massive institution spans an entire city block. With black and white tile floors, mahogany paneled walls, wainscoted ceilings and portraits of the original proprietors gazing down on its diners, the place exudes Old World glamour.
Dedicated to classical Creole fare, the menu has a true sense of place with dishes like turtle soup, alligator sausage and frog legs provençale. Cold Vesper martinis proved to be an effective aperitif and we opted for the escargots splashed with Pernod and topped with flaky pastry poufs, seafood gumbo and the Crawfish O’Connor baked in a brandy-infused Creole tomato sauce.
We kept hearing about a new Israeli restaurant in the Garden District called Shaya (4213 Magazine St., 504-891-4213; www.shayarestaurant.com) and decided to see what everyone was buzzing about. Alon Shaya, the James Beard Award-winning chef, draws on his Israeli roots and recent travels to create modern Israeli cuisine influenced by North Africa, Eastern Europe, Turkey, Greece and Middle East flavors. (Unbeknownst to us at the time, Shaya is also a Besh Group undertaking.)
We sat in the lovely outdoor courtyard, past a mirrored cerulean dining room with bright, fresh flowers and managed to order one of everything, starting with pillow soft pita baked onsite in a special oven. We dipped it into tart, creamy labneh yogurt, wood-roasted tahini Brussels sprouts, lutenitsa (roasted red pepper and eggplant puree) and curry-fried cauliflower hummus. We couldn’t get enough! Until, of course, our falafel sandwich, chicken schnitzel and shakshuka arrived and we realized we’d grossly over-ordered. At least the leftovers came in handy after a late night out on Frenchmen Street.
MUFFULETTAS ON THE MISSISSIPPI
On our final day, it came down to po’ boys vs. muffulettas. And the muffulettas won. Central Grocery at 923 Decatur St. (504-523-1620; no website), just north of Jackson Square, was founded by Sicilian immigrant Salvatore Lupo in 1906 and claims the original New Orleans muffuletta.
The sandwich is stacked with mortadella, salami, ham, provolone, mozzarella and a pungent olive salad. We took ours across the street to a bench overlooking the muddy Mississippi. We sat wind-whipped, watching the river’s eddies roil past us. And maybe, just maybe, we could hear the far-off whine of a fiddle from a lone musician in Jackson Square.
Eating and drinking in New Orleans
Jean Lafitte’s Old Absinthe House: Come for the absinthe frappe, stay for the delightfully convivial dive bar atmosphere on the corner of Bourbon and Bienville streets. 240 Bourbon St., 504-523-3181; www.ruebourbon.com/oldabsinthehouse.
Pirate’s Alley: Another den for absinthe tippling tucked away near Jackson Square with the traditional French preparation involving an absinthe water fountain, slotted spoon and sugar cube. 622 Pirates Alley, 504-524-9332; http://piratesalleycafe.com.
Maple Leaf: Next to Jacques-Imo’s, the Maple Leaf is a legendary music venue made famous in recent years as a film location for the movie Ray. On my visit, we heard a transporting, three-piece blues band made up of bass guitar, keyboard and drums. 8316 Oak St., 504-866-9359; www.mapleleafbar.com.
Spotted Cat: Frenchmen Street is a top live music destination just outside the French Quarter. Head to the Spotted Cat, a prime listening room for everything from brass bands to jazz. 623 Frenchman St., no phone; www.spottedcatmusicclub.com.
DBA: Another live music joint on Frenchmen, DBA has a slightly more rock ’n’ roll edge. 618 Frenchmen St., 504-942-3731; http://dbaneworleans.com.
The Swamp: It’s hardly worth distinguishing the venue on a Bourbon Street crawl. Just wander into whichever scene lures you — and remember, the open container laws allow you to take your drinks to go. Still, The Swamp, with its gator theme and neon green lights, is worth a gander for its upstairs, downstairs and outdoor patio space pulsing with a young, good-looking crowd. 516 Bourbon St., 504-528-9400; http://bourbon-swamp.com.
Saints & Sinners: Apparently Channing Tatum owns a bar on Bourbon. With a dude gyrating on the porch in baggy jeans, no shirt and a backwards cap, think of this as a hilarious Magic Mike-themed bar. 627 Bourbon St., 504-528-9307; http://saintsandsinnersnola.com.
Lost Love: A chill local haunt in the newly hip Marigny neighborhood. 2529 Dauphine St., 504-949-2009; http://lostlovelounge.com.
Carousel Bar: Located in the Hotel Monteleone, the trippy Carousel Bar rotates slowly, throwing off your equilibrium just so. We enjoyed killer Bloody Marys here to start the day on the right foot. 214 Royal St., 504-523-3341; http://hotelmonteleone.com/entertainment/carousel-bar.