New Orleans restaurant roundup

The reentry shock of returning from sunny Louisiana, where the temps were in the 70s our entire stay, to frigid Boston in the middle of an ice storm on Monday night, is finally wearing off. A few days of rest, day job, and less indulgent meals have cleared our heads enough to get down to a solid post on the most important facet of any trip: where and what we ate.

I would argue that it’s relatively hard to get a bad meal in New Orleans, assuming your garfunkel meter is tuned properly. But, there are some falling-down points even for the most experienced traveler. For example, until the crawfish are in season (starting in March or April) don’t get them boiled. It’s just not worth it. In January, many places won’t offer them at all, but the few establishments that do are buying farmed crawfish, not wild caught. And there is definitely a difference. Now, frozen crawfish tails are actually quite good, so don’t shy away from crawfish used in other cooked preparations, such as étouffée, jambalaya, or gumbo. I buy frozen crawfish in bulk, and it’s fresh caught, processed and flash frozen in one-pound blocks that are so easy to use in recipes, and taste as good as fresh. But in January, skip the crawfish boil.

In a city that literally teems with great food choices, it can be overwhelming to select where to eat. Over the many visits we’ve made to New Orleans, we have a few reliable favorites that we tend to revisit, but this time we made sure to check out several new spots as well.

Here’s rundown of everyplace we ate, in no particular order, not because we couldn’t pick the standouts, but we simply couldn’t relegate any to the bottom of the list; they were all good in their own way. (Music, wine/beer bars, and other activities will be in a separate post.)

Bayona

saladEasily top of this trip’s list, for food, ambiance, service, everything. We had been wanting to go here for so long – having a reservation on a previous visit, but canceling due to coming down with colds – and now we’re just kicking ourselves because this was one of the most wonderful meals of the trip.

We arrived about a half hour early for our lunch reservation to see if we could get seated outside as it was a beautiful day. The hostess was very accommodating, said it would be no problem but we might have to wait until closer to 1PM, our normal reservation time, which of course was fine with us. She brought us our cocktails in a comfy lounge area, where we waited until the table in the courtyard was ready.

garlicsoupThe courtyard was served by three servers who worked as a team for each table, which seems excessive at first, yet the service was relaxed, friendly and efficient. The food, well, I cannot say enough about. Rob started with the Bayona Blue salad, and I had a roasted garlic soup – both delicious. The soup had a depth of flavor and creaminess that was all sweet roasted garlic. The salad was perfectly dressed, with a creamy and mildly piquant blue cheese. A basket of warm bread and butter was also brought to the table.

shrimpgritsEntrees: Shrimp and Grits with Smothered Greens for Rob, and for me, the Smoked Duck “PB&J” sandwich, which Susan Spicer is now famous for (and rightly so). If you’ve heard anything about this restaurant before you’ve likely heard of this sandwich. Smoked duck, cashew butter, and pepper jelly on grilled multigrain bread: yes, it sounds odd, but truly, don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it. Decadent and utterly delicious.

pbjWe paired it all with a bottle of rosé, Domaine Philippe Gilbert Menetou-Salon 2011, which went perfectly with both dishes. We were far too stuffed for dessert, and anyway, we’d rather eat more real food than waste calories on sweets. (I know, we’re odd…)

All in all, a must-do restaurant on any future visit. Tip: The PB&J is not served at dinner, only at weekday lunch.

Adolfo’s, 611 Frenchman Street

An Italian restaurant tucked rather anonymously above a nondescript bar in the Marigny, this was the surprise delight of the trip. The only sign there is a restaurant up the narrow flight of stairs is a white placard out front listing the fresh catch of the day – which on this visit, included puppy drum, trout, grouper, salmon and tilapia. Not a bad selection, and we were told by several locals that this was a great place for fish. Climb the stairs and you find a very rustic room with maybe a dozen or so tables, plastic red-checked tablecloths, a pass through to the tiny kitchen in the corner next to the bar (no seats). However unpromising this looks, the food was GREAT. An older Italian man came over to serve us, asked us if we’d been there before (we had not), and explained the menu, which listed about a dozen fish preparations which could be used with any of the fish they had that day. There were also extensive pasta and steak selections, as well as appetizers. Every dish came with either salad or pasta, served as a first course; warm bread and butter was brought out first. I had Tilapia “Tony”, which was a huge filet under a blanket of spinach lemon verde sauce. Rob had the puppy drum served “Michele” style, which was a crawfish & shrimp cream sauce. Both were delicious. Another great find!

Marigny Brasserie

poboyAnother new one for our list, Marigny Brasserie has been here for a while but according to one local has recently undergone some changes, making it a little more casual with a greater emphasis on comfort food. This was our dinner stop the night before we left, and looking at our checklist (oh, yes, we had a checklist of items we each considered “must-eats”), we realized Rob still needed to find a good oyster po’ boy. The restaurant is on Frenchman Street, near many great music venues, and after working up an appetite swing dancing at d.b.a., we came over here for something good. There is a dining room, but also a large bar area with tall and low tables, where you could also eat. We choose a table in the window so we could watch the comings and goings on Frenchman Street while we ate.

Rob found his target po’ boy on the menu: plump, well breaded oysters on a dressed roll with a spicy remoulade. I believe he actually moaned when he took the first bite; I know his eyes closed for a few moments in pure joy. I went with a sandwich they called “Marigny #1”: roasted turkey, avocado and sprouts on a nutty multigrain bread. We both splurged and ordered sides (an extra charge), dirty rice for him, mac & cheese for me (my maccheesechoice after asking the waiter whether he recommended that or the shoestring fries. His reply: “Well, the fries would be large enough for you both, but the mac & cheese is…goooood.” Enough said). And yup, he was right: this was my turn to moan, because this was, without a doubt, the best mac & cheese I have ever eaten.

The sandwiches themselves were huge – if you weren’t that hungry you could probably split one (I only ate half of mine, mostly because I was too busy licking the bowl my mac & cheese came in). But don’t skip the mac & cheese.

Coop’s

Coop’s, a dive bar in a rather dingy section of Decatur, is a place you’d normally walk by. But we never, ever miss coming here, because they make some of the best food we’ve ever had in this city, period.

What to order: Jambalaya Supreme. Smoked Duck Quesadilla. Fried Chicken. Actually, probably everything, but especially those. Be forewarned: it’s not fancy. Not even remotely. You may want to have extra tissues for the ladies’ room, and hand sanitizer. But the food is worth it.

Napoleon House

We’ve only eaten here a couple of times, but this is quickly becoming one of our favorite spots for an inexpensive but good meal. The place has been in business since 1797, and occupies several rooms plus a courtyard of a very old building on Chartres Street. Like so much in the Quarter, it’s historic and romantic, especially if you get seats in the courtyard. We haven’t had everything from the menu, of course, but I’d highly recommend the hot muffaletta (can be ordered as a whole, half, or quarter sandwich; the quarter is perfect with a side for a light meal). I had that with a side of red beans & rice, Rob had the same but with jambalaya. With two drinks each (beer & wine), our bill came to under $30. A delicious bargain for sure!

Palace Café

eggsbeneWe had been to Palace Café once before, also for Sunday brunch as on this visit. The food is on the expensive side, but is quite good. Duck & garlic gumbo and turtle soup to start were both hearty and delicious. Entrees were alligator sausage and beans, and the Café eggs benedict, with a massive pile of pulled pork atop cheddar biscuits, with a tasso hollandaise covering perfectly poached eggs.

What I did think was disappointing was the Bloody Mary, especially after we were given choice of house-infused vodkas, one of which was jalapeño (others were bacon, and a couple of herbal infusions–oregano and rosemary, I think?). We both chose jalapeño, figuring they would be nice and spicy; surprisingly, there was almost no heat at all, and actually very little flavor.

Alligator sausage & beans at Palace CafeThere is a nice jazz trio playing throughout Sunday brunch, which is a plus. So, overall it’s a nice brunch, but is it the best brunch in the city? No. We would recommend instead Brennan’s (splurge); Muriel’s (moderate); or Stanley (inexpensive).

Acme Oyster

This has always been our go-to oyster bar when we visit. Is it touristy? Hell yeah. But the oysters are fresh, the shuckers are really nice, and the atmosphere is always fun, which is why we usually like to make this our first stop. The trick is to sit right at the oyster bar…not further down, and certainly not at a table. Those are for rubes. You’ll usually wait in line, and if you’re just two people just tell the host/ess you want to wait for the oyster bar (most tourists don’t). It sometimes even gets you in faster.

Alas, we forgot our minds for a moment and ordered boiled crawfish. In our defense, we were just craving those little mudbugs and thought, “how bad can farm-raised be?” Note to self: wait until fresh crawfish are in season.

Felix’s Oyster Bar, 739 Iberville Street

oystersWhile we usually hit Acme first off for oysters, there was a really long line on Thursday so we crossed the street to try Felix’s instead. This was our first time here, although Felix’s has been here for some time. Completely different vibe than Acme, and we liked it a lot. Sit at they oyster bar and the shuckers actually shuck and place the oysters in front of you on the marble bar, rather than make up a plate of them on ice. Fresh, delicious, and casual (and, not coincidentally, much less expensive), this might just be our new favorite oyster bar.

Deanie’s

It’s almost not fair to review Deanie’s, as we went there and just had one drink and shared just one appetizer, BBQ shrimp. The shrimp were good – cooked perfectly – but were very different than our favorite BBQ shrimp (Mr. B’s). If you’ve never had BBQ shrimp, just know that there is no BBQ involved: it’s a butter-and-spice laden sauce coating whole, head-on (usually) shrimp. It’s messy and utterly delicious, and we’ve learned that every chef makes it differently. This was good, but it’s wasn’t Mr. B’s, where you truly want to lick the bowl of the last of that butter sauce when the shrimp are gone.

Worth a try again, but we can’t list as a “must” just yet.

Other places we recommend from previous visits

NOLA (an Emeril restaurant, so pretty upscale, but sit at the bar for more casual dining)
August (total splurge, and worth it)
Remoulade (solid inexpensive late night food)

Update: We just booked Jazz Fest this year, and can’t wait to go back and discover more great food!

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