I spent the last weekend in October (2012) in New Orleans with my buddy Pete. Our agenda was simple: Eat good food, walk around the French Quarter and see how it had recovered from Katrina, spend time hanging out and talking, and have a few drinks while watching the people go by on Bourbon Street. By every measure the trip was a success. I’m not going to bore you with every sight we saw or every little thing we did but I will talk (at length!) about the food and the restaurants.
Let’s get beignets out of the way first. No trip to New Orleans is complete without at least one plate of beignets; as a snack between meals or as a meal, morning, afternoon, or evening, beignets are a must. There are plenty of places to eat them, and I’m sure that plenty of folks would say that Café Du Monde is a tourist trap or that others places have better beignets, but Cafe Du Monde has two things going for it: First, they serve so many people that you order is guaranteed to have come out of the fryer no more than 60 seconds ago; second, it’s a great place to sit and watch people. We went there at least three times and weren’t ever disappointed.
Another “very New Orleans thing” to do is drink a Sazerac, and where better to do this than The Sazerac bar at the Roosevelt Hotel. The bar is dark, quiet, and nicely appointed – a welcome break from the hectic streets of the Quarter; the waitress was friendly and attentive, and the drink itself was simple (rye whiskey, sugar or simple syrup, bitters, and absinthe) but quite tasty. It’s not a “let’s party” drink but rather, something to sip while sitting and talking quietly. It was my first Sazerac (I don’t know how I’d managed to go to New Orleans three other times and never have one) and it’s definitely now on my “I should drink these at home” list as well as my “when in New Orleans” list.
Next, I may as well deal with the one disappointing meal we had. Based on the recommendation of a former New Orleans resident, we ate dinner at Gumbo Pot (the one at 600 Decatur Street, not to be confused with Gumbo Shop; more on them later); we should have guessed from the location alone (on the waterfront, on Decatur Street, close to all the tourist shops) that it wasn’t a good choice but we ate there anyway. The next tip-off should have been when we were seated immediately but then waited at least ten minutes for a waiter to come to our table and offer us water and drinks. Finally, the only vegetables available were a basic salad or collards; I went with the salad and it was OK, but the lack of choice should have had us leaving in search of somewhere different. Oh well.
Pete ordered a “pecan-encrusted” fish of some sort; what he got instead was a piece of fish (broiled, I think) with a pile of large-ish pecans chunks on top. I suppose some people would consider that “encrusted” but we were both expecting more of a coating of fine crumbs somehow cooked onto the fish. I don’t remember his exact words on how it tasted but I’m pretty sure it was mediocre at best. I went for the jambalaya and it was even more disappointing: large pieces and rings of barely cooked bell peppers but no noticeable onions or celery, lots of mushy rice with very little meat or seafood, and an overall unpleasant taste. The waiter (once we got his attention, which took way more effort than it should have), was perfectly pleasant about taking it back and bringing me something different (an unremarkable shrimp etouffee) but by then Pete had nearly finished his meal. All in all, a complete disappointment; I can’t recommend strongly enough that you avoid Gumbo Pot.
After Gumbo Pot we went for the other “when in New Orleans” drink: hurricanes at Pat O’Briens. Go ahead and say what you want about tourist traps and Bourbon Street and bars: at O’Brien’s the waiters and waitresses are pleasant and give quick service, the bartenders are quite friendly, the hurricanes are good (if you like sweet and fruity rum drinks, which I do), and it’s just a fun place to go for a drink (or three) to end the evening.
For breakfast we went to The Camellia Grill (once) and Mena’s Palace (twice); the former is an all-counter diner-type place that’s loud, a bit hectic, a bit kitschy, and mostly fun; the latter is small and quiet with excellent waitresses and simple but tasty food. Both places offer the expected choice of breakfast foods and both are moderately prices but for my money, Mena’s is the place to go. Camellia had only a single strike against it (a badly-cooked omelette), and it’s more fun than Mena’s, but for me the excellent waitress and quiet friendliness of Mena’s was my favorite. Oh, and just so you don’t get confused: it may officially be Mena’s Palace but the awning says “Mena’s Restaurant.”
A “po’boy” is the official sandwich of New Orleans. Some people will argue it’s the muffaletta they’re wrong. Mind you, I like muffalettas (although I didn’t manage to get one this trip), but po’boys are my favorite. There are claims that the original po’boy contained roast beef “debris” (shreds and small chunks of meat) and gravy, and that’s a perfectly good choice even today (it’s what Pete ordered) but I can never decide between fried shrimp or french fries with gravy. Yes, a french fry sandwich. With gravy. On the inside. What can I say? It may be bad for you in more ways than you can count, but it’s delicious! Since I hadn’t been to New Orleans in so long and since I didn’t know when I’d be back, I decided to splurge and get two po’boys for my lunch. Pete helped with the french fry and I moved most of the shrimp into half the other French loaf thus eliminating some bread I didn’t really need. We left Johnny’s Po-Boys happy and very full.
I don’t remember everything we had for lunch at Cafe Pontalba but it was all perfectly adequate. I know I had the Cajun combination (red beans and rice, jambalaya, gumbo) and I think we had fried alligator bites. We hadn’t planned well and wound up trying to find a place to eat at 1:00 p.m. on a busy Saturday; most restaurants were full with lines far longer than we wanted to wait in so we picked Pontalba because it looked like the fastest option. The red beans and rice left something to be desired but everything else was fine; I don’t know if I’d go back again but to be fair, a very crowded and busy Saturday when it’s more than an hour after I wanted to be eating is probably not the best test of a restaurant.
Krystal is New Orleans’ answer to White Castle; in fact, the burgers are nearly identical. I’m not by any means suggesting that the food at Krystal is good or that it’s in any way representative of Cajun or Creole or even “New Orleans cuisine,” but it’s the perfect place to top up one’s stomach after (during?) a night of drinking on Bourbon Street. I don’t know what time they close but they were open pretty late the night we were there and I suspect that if they close at all it’s well after most bar patrons have called it quits. I suggest keeping it simple: an appropriate number of “Krystals” (basic hamburger with pickles, mustard, and onions) and a soda; plan to get several because they’re really small and are more bun than meat. Of course, if you’ve eaten at White Castle, you already know this. ☺
I was going to save the best for last but now I can’t decide between the two remaining restaurants. I tossed a coin and picked K-Paul’s to be first but I’m going to declare it a tie with Gumbo Shop.
Our one fancy dinner was at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen; I had been there once before but it was Pete’s first time. When I say “fancy” I don’t mean “suits and nice dresses” (although you could certainly wear those and not be out of place) but rather, sit down in a quiet room and eat a really good multi-course meal. We had drinks (a Sazerac for me, I forget what Pete had), salads (I think Pete had the pear, pecan, and bleu cheese; I had the Caesar), the blackened Louisiana drum (fish) for our main courses, and I think we had dessert but I now can’t remember what it was. It was easily the most expensive meal we had (something like $80 or $85 each) but I thought it was well worth it; I also decided that the next time I’m in New Orleans and someone says “let’s go to K-Pauls,” I won’t hesitate for even a moment. Sure, there are other fancy restaurants like Arnaud’s and Commander’s Place and Galatoire’s, and I’d like someday to go to them, but for me, K-Paul’s is the perfect mix of fancy (food) and casual (atmosphere and attitude).
Last but far from least is Gumbo Shop: Pete ate lunch there before I arrived, we went there for dinner our first night, we would have gone there for lunch another day except the line was too long, and I went there for lunch after Pete left but before I had to head to the airport. Yes, we liked it that much. Some people say it’s a tourist trap; maybe it is, but the food is really good, the service fast and friendly, and the prices are reasonable. The grilled boudin (sausage) appetizer was only fair but I seem to remember you get better boudin outside the city anyway. The chicken and andouille (sausage) gumbo is excellent and the shrimp remoulade salad is also quite good. I’ve been to Gumbo Shop on my other visits to New Orleans and I’ll go back again the next time; there are still plenty of items on the menu I want to try.
So there you have it, a weekend of food, drink, a little sightseeing and people-watching, and a lot of talking with an old and close friend. I can hardly wait to do it again. So where are we going next year, Pete? Back to New Orleans? New York? Charleston? Memphis? San Francisco? So many restaurants in so many cities, so little time!
[Friday, 30 November 2012]