They say in New Orleans, there’s no such thing as a bad meal. Earlier this month, I spent a few days in the Crescent City, and based on my experience, I’d have to agree with that sentiment.
Going into the trip, my only criteria was that I had to, at least at some point, try the special dishes that put NOLA on the food map: gumbo, jambalaya, crawfish, etouffe, beignets, chicory coffee, muffaletta, charbroiled oysters, fried oyster po’boy, and, if I was lucky, alligator. I’m happy to say that my mission was accomplished on all fronts. Here are some of the highlights.
Crescent City Brewhouse
My group headed here for our first dinner of the trip, and it was a great way to ease into the New Orleans atmosphere. The restaurant was only a short distance from our hotel and was about as laid back as you can get. Live music greeted us as we walked up to the open garage door-style front, and we were seated right away.
The restaurant serves both traditional and innovative New Orleans specialties; I went with some of the more traditional options so I could cross them off my list. My cup of seafood and andouille gumbo was the perfect starter and was the best gumbo of the trip. However, I found my entrée order of crawfish etouffe to be a little bland. For some reason it didn’t occur to me at the time, but I should have tossed a few drops of Tabasco on it. The hot sauce is made locally in Avery Island, LA, and graced every table in NOLA.
The Three Muses
We had a party of five and waited for at least an hour at the bar for a table. This is a very small restaurant, and with the nightly live jazz, once people get a table they tend not to leave. The restaurant does not take reservations. After an hour passed and we realized we weren’t going to get a table, we ordered food at the bar, where a few in our party were able to secure a seat.
The food comes in smallish plates, akin to tapas, I’d say. It comes out from the kitchen in dribs and drabs whenever it’s ready, not all at once for the entire table. But I liked this idea because then you could really savor each dish at once before moving on to the next one, and nothing got cold before you had a chance to try it.
We ordered beet and goat cheese bruschetta, falafel salad, lemongrass grilled short ribs, house-cured duck pastrami pizza (tip: have them add the egg on top), kurobuta pork belly, and crawfish beignets. It was the perfect amount of food for our party, and everything was exceptional. In fact, we had a hard time choosing a favorite dish out of the assortment, but if pushed I would say it was a split between the short ribs and the pork belly. Both exploded with flavors from savory umami to sweet sauces to taste bud-tantalizing seasonings. My only disappointment from this visit is that I didn’t get any pictures of the food because the restaurant was too dark.
Café du Monde
Even if you know nothing of New Orleans dining, chances are you may have heard of Café du Monde. Famous for its beignets (fried pillows of dough buried in powdered sugar) and chicory café au lait, the flagship French Quarter location is open 24 hours for whenever you may have a craving.
Although we stopped here for dessert two nights in a row, I wasn’t particularly impressed. Of course everyone should try it when in NOLA if only for the experience, but the beignets just tasted like funnel cake and the café au lait, heavy on the milk, was a little weak. The second evening I ordered it black, and it was a little better.
A word of caution: if dining in the outdoor patio, try to sit on the street side. We sat street side the first night, but the second evening found a table on the opposite side, near a little courtyard with a few trees and bushes and a small fountain. At one point we noticed some little critters scurrying around the trees and bushes. They didn’t approach the table, and they were a bit of a ways off, but . . . well . . . they looked like rats. And I know it’s the south, but the second night there were also a few “palmetto bugs” (if you’re unfamiliar with the term, Google it) scurrying around that seemed to be enjoying the powdered sugar that fell on the ground near the tables. Needless to say, after that experience with the local wildlife, I had no desire to go back.
Acme Oyster House
Just off of Bourbon Street, you’ll find this small but well-loved hotspot. We actually learned of the establishment through a friend who used to live in the area, so when the locals recommend it, you know it’s good. There’s always a line to get in, but don’t worry, it moves quickly. The line was more than half a block long when we filed in, but even on a Saturday night during Jazz Fest, our party of four was seated in about 30-40 minutes.
Since oysters are clearly the specialty of the house, we ordered half a dozen of the charbroiled mollusks to split between three of us (our fourth diner wasn’t interested). I could have easily devoured the entire plate by myself. Each oyster was topped with a cheesy, buttery crust that crisped under the broiler and was still sizzling when it reached our table. We also shared an order of fried crawfish, which was very good but unfortunately paled in comparison after the oysters.
Although I was a little apprehensive about overdosing on oysters, I threw caution to the wind and ordered half a fried oyster po’boy with a side of seafood gumbo. The gumbo was heavy on the seafood but lacked the andouille that made Crescent City Brewhouse’s version a highlight for me. The po’boy, however, was piled high with a mountain of plump fried oysters. The crispy breading gave way to tender, melt-in-your-mouth flesh; although not quite the same, now I understand why a single fresh oyster kindled Anthony Bourdain’s love affair with food.
I’ve saved the best for last. Hands down this was the best meal of my NOLA trip and it is quite possibly a contender for a list of my all-time favorite restaurants. Upperline is near the St. Charles streetcar line, which can pick you up on Bourbon (and return you there later) for $1.25/person each way. I mention this because it only added to the overall experience. You get all kinds of characters on the streetcar.
Owner JoAnn Clevenger, who is quite an interesting character herself, met us at the door and arranged for us to get seated. We did have reservations for our party of four, and they offered us a choice of two tables. We were handed menus, and the waitress explained that all of the items could be ordered as part of the $40, three-course prix fixe menu or a la carte.
The decor is eclectic. Art Deco knick-knacks adorned the front where we were seated, but the decorations spanned decades as you moved around the dining areas. It created a homey, if not kitchy feel.
The food was phenomenal. I ordered fried green tomatoes with shrimp remoulade as my starter, the grilled redfish as my entree (which was served with creamy, cheesy grits), and creme brulee with crumbled pralines as my dessert. Everything was impeccable and delicious. The food was five-star caliber, to say the least.
As we left the restaurant, we asked JoAnn where we could catch the streetcar (we had actually taken a cab to the restaurant). She pointed us in the right direction and assured us we couldn’t miss it, but reminded us to call her if we got lost. She was like a doting mother or grandmother. And that pretty much sums up Upperline entirely: a juxtaposition of cozy, homey, quirky atmosphere with upscale food.
Although I had mixed feelings about the city itself, I can’t argue that this is certainly a food lover’s destination. Never before when traveling to a new area did I have such a laundry list of regional specialties to try, but New Orleans is a special case, blending Cajun and creole, with their French and African and who knows what other influences, into a cuisine that many just consider American. Yes, I found good gumbo, but when researching “the best place in New Orleans for gumbo” ahead of time, I couldn’t get a straight answer. In fact, the most common response was “my own gumbo recipe is far better than any restaurant’s.” Now that’s my kind of people.