The first thing I did after landing in New Orleans was to dump my bag in the room and head out onto the streets. On the basis I travel at least a couple of times a month this was actually rather unusual. Most of the time I’m feeling tired, a little post-airport-security-sensitive and I’d normally spend some time unpacking, adjusting and trying to fathom out how to switch on the TV without accessing the 90s porn. Not so in NOLA. The streets emit a constant energy that induces a state of FOMO (fear of missing out). In fact, I’d only been here five minutes when I stumbled upon a mini Mardi Gras that had broken out in celebration of…well, no-one seemed quite sure. Any excuse to party must be the city’s motto.
The humidity here puts you immediately into a drinking state of mind, so you actually have a practical task as you explore the cobblestone streets of the famous French Quarter: that is, find a suitable spot for a drink, a snack and maybe a lowdown on places not to be missed. We quickly made ourselves at home at the oyster bar in Royal House. Lauren, the gap-toothed shucker was exactly who you want on your first night. A bit of a local character that could shuck ’em as he shared a few stories and chatted you through the must-haves. This is the place I watched the waitress knock back a dozen chargrilled (topped with melted parmesan butter) as she gossipped on the phone during her break. The shrimp ‘n grits is excellent too but our favourite was the blackened shrimp jambalaya. There is nothing fancy about the place or the food here. It’s just classic, good value creole cooking and I actually preferred it to the guide book’s sweetheart, the Acme Oyster House, probably because the latter is so goddamn crowded.
Avoiding bawdy Bourbon Street becomes an art here, at least if you’re over 25 it does, so next stop we settled for a gentler, cleaner, trendier looking bar called Kingfish (named after the controversial ex Governor who was assassinated in 1935) just around the corner on Chartres Street. Don’t let its somewhat swish interior put you off, the cocktails and food here are both elegant and well considered. And Justin, the mixologist (showing off below) was charming: humble, quietly hilarious but very serious about his liquor. Under ‘libations’ on the cocktail menu you must try the French Pearl, a delicious mix of gin, lemon, mint and, of course the local favourite, herbsaint served in a cute little antique glass.The ‘Lil’ Eats’ menu is particularly creative: crab claw lollipops with a smoked remoulade, Louisiana sportsman’s gumbo with crowley popcorn rice or the BBQ shrimp and waffles served with Hopitoulas cream made with locally brewed IPA. Oh yes, we tried it all.
One of the coolest new places to eat in N’awlins right now has to be Cochon. Not the posh Cochon but the hipster-friendly Butcher nextdoor. If you or your partner has a beard then this is the place for you. If you both have beards then it’s definitely the place for you. As the name makes pretty clear, Butcher is all about the meat. This is post-apocalypse man’s mecca with a primeval passion for dead pig served in a no-nonsense environment. Everything is made in-house: the pickles are pickled here, the smoked meats smoked, the cured meats cured and the sausages sausaged. We barely spoke as we bore down on the delicious hot Boudin, the charcuterie plate with spicy fennel pastrami and country terrine, the extraordinary Muffaletta and the clever (and very tidy) Le Pig Mac. This was all washed down with a gorgeous local IPA by the name of Lil’ Smack. (Thankfully, when ordering a couple more I was spared the eye-roll)
Cochon and Butcher are part of the Donald Link empire that includes the famous Peche seafood restaurant. He’s won endless awards and if you can only try one thing from one of his posher establishments go to Herbsaint for the Banana Brown Bread Butter Tart with Fleur de Sel Caramel. It’s wonderful.
Next morning was all about finding THE coffee. The two places we picked out were Spitfire and Arrow Cafe. Both were friendly in that laid back hipster kinda way. Arrow gets extra points by being part bike shop. Cool coffee shops are like a litmus test of a city and tell you whether or not there’s a new food culture emerging. No question about that here. We followed coffee with an eggy breakfast at Envie on Decatur Street which felt like a proper locals hang out.
The perfect NOLA hidden gem has to be Killer Poboys. Set right at the the back of a dark and dingy Irish pub, KPB is a tiny hole-in-the-wall standing-room-only space serving gourmet creole sandwiches. Do not miss the seared Gulf Shrimp with an Asian twist, or the Glazed Pork Belly Poboy with a rum and ginger syrup. The Grass-fed Beef Meatloaf is exactly what this place is all about: high quality meat served the way you least expect it. Brilliant stuff.
By contrast, that evening we had a gentle meal at Coquette on Magazine Street. It opened just after the crash in 2008 but still has the feeling of settling in. The big dining rooms are stripped back elegant, successfully finding that delicate balance between posh and trendy. Firstly, the bread here was unforgettable. Important thing, bread, just like coffee. It sets your expectations and we weren’t disappointed. The vibe was a tad stifled but the roast chicken in the silky vadouvan French gravy was sublime, as was the smoked catfish.
The best night we had, for an all-round atmosphere and food combo, was at Paladar 511. Just opened in a cavernous warehouse on the edge of Marigny this place is set for great things. We sat at the bar overlooking the kitchen and were instantly at the centre of all the action. Head Chef and owner Jack Murphy was everything you want from a hip young chef: super busy but able to laugh with his team and wear his hat back to front at the same time. He selected a fab bottle of Grenache for us to go with the fried arancini and lamb sausage, followed by blueberry pie and honey lavender ice cream. A very decent night.
Time was limited but we fitted what certainly felt like an awful lot of food and drink into our four day stay. If you want classic, Creole cooking at a place that feels like it’s been there for a thousand years, served on a crisp linen tablecloth, head for the Commander’s Palace, August, Antoine’s, Galatoire’s, Mr B’s Bistro, The Court of Two Sisters, Mother’s or K Pauls. For something a little edgier, the list is long and getting longer every day: Toups Meatery, Brown Butter, Ursa Major, Balise, Cellar Door, Boucherie. I couldn’t try them all but I know a man who has.
Finally, and only because I can’t not mention it, pick up a pound of Mississippi Mud from Laura’s Candies. ‘She’s’ been making it on the premises since 1913 so not only is it a local icon, it’s ridiculously wonderful.
Every good city has a thousand restaurants. What makes New Orleans feel special is the mood that lubricates it. I learned that the hip young chefs relish having the established places just up the street and will recommend that you try them. They talk enthusiastically about new competitors opening too, like they feel they’re part of a new momentum. I guess it’s a kind of harmony that can only be achieved in a place that’s more of a non-stop party than a serious city.