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The New New Orleans
Grade-A insider with quite the restaurant pedigree gives us a tasty tour of this Cajun food-loving city now embracing unexpected, more worldly flavors. Her new (and old) favorites will be yours, too.
It had been 10 years since my last visit to New Orleans. Obviously, I'd been away for too long from a place that I love for its music, its food, its soulfulness. At a luncheon in Manhattan, when I happened to be seated alongside Ti Adelaide Martin, I couldn't help but share the fact that I missed the Crescent City. As part-owner of the venerable Commander's Palace and the new eat-and-drink spot SoBou, Ti qualifies as New Orleans royalty among foodies. After all, her family has been in the bar and restaurant business there since 1943.
Upon hearing of my long absence from the city of her birth, Ti insisted that the situation ought to be rectified. With a bit of gumption, I suggested that it would be nice if she'd show me her New Orleans, and Ti readily agreed. Then she raised the ante a bit by pointing out that it's precisely the sort of visit that R.W. "Johnny" Apple Jr. - one of the New York Times' legendary reporters and a notoriously voracious food lover - wanted to experience before his passing away in 2006. At that point, I knew I had to go.
That is how I end up in a hotel room at the newly renovated W New Orleans-French Quarter, a couple of stories up from SoBou, the hotel's in-house restaurant. Knowing that I'd be popping into SoBou the next day, Ti, via telephone, suggests I start my NOLA food experience at the year-old Root.
When Ti talks restaurants, smart people listen. So I cab it to Root with its beamed ceiling and soft lighting in the Warehouse District. Chill music plays on the sound system and the menu reflects the new New Orleans: Traditional dishes such as crawfish étouffée and jambalaya are nowhere to be found. The city has changed, along with its food culture. Old favorites have slipped out of the vanguard and the new sweet spot - whether culinary, cultural, or commercial - tends to be bigger, broader, more cutting edge. It has gone from local to international in much the way that the populace has evolved.
Chatting it up at the bar, I meet a trapeze artist from New York, a photographer from London, a software writer from Chicago - all more or less relocated here, drawn by the city's low cost of living and a feeling that it's a good place to try new things. The programmer quickly suggests that I order compressed watermelon salad, a good recommendation. Like other dishes on the menu, it benefits from a vaguely molecular preparation and has been conceived through a NOLA prism, without being overt New Orleans fare. As explained by locally bred chef Phillip Lopez, "The feeling of change started after Katrina. New people have arrived, new ideas are being pushed, change has to come. It's like the Wild West in New Orleans right now. These are exciting times to be a chef."
Indeed, it's an exciting time to be in New Orleans, deemed America's fastest-growing city by the U.S. Census Bureau, attracting a ton of arrivistes, and redefining itself on the fly. Root reflects the changes as new bars, restaurants, clubs, and galleries take shape here.
Additionally, the fertile environment fosters fresh retail concepts - on Magazine Street, check out Art & Eyes, which specializes in a mind-blowing array of antique and one-of-a-kind eyeglass frames like you've never seen before - and local style-setters even have their own version of New York's venerable Fashion Week. Fresh, groundbreaking stuff is scattered throughout the city. For example, a new arts district in the St. Claude neighborhood houses makeshift galleries showing cutting-edge work. If going there, though, keep in mind the area remains a bit funky.
Accommodating the flow of visitors, the cool Saint Hotel and Hotel Modern (located in the French Quarter and the Warehouse District, respectively) both opened since late 2011 and join the French Quarter W as being among the choice places to stay.
"It used to be when I went for dinner here I saw the brain drain," says Ti, referring to groups of intelligent, well-educated people who lost heart and left the city. "Now it's the opposite: brain gain. All kinds of smart, successful people are moving to New Orleans and driving things forward."
The next morning, Ti looks cool with a hairdo that reminds me of Diamond Dogs-era David Bowie, loafers that appear to have imagery from Picasso paintings on them, and a sharp shirt and pants ensemble. Behind the wheel of a black Lexus convertible, she tells me that we have a challenging itinerary and that I better be hungry. Emphasizing the point, she flaps a sheaf of papers that map out a 12-hour odyssey that will have us hopping from one side of the city to the other. We start with cups of strong, chicory-laced coffee and creamy napoleons that Ti has picked up at her long-standing favorite bakery, Croissant d'Or in the French Quarter. "My mouth is already watering," she says, breaking out the pastry. I take a deep sip of black coffee. Maybe she notices my reaction to the richness of it. "We care about our coffee in New Orleans and we do it strong!"
Munching and sipping, we make our way through the French Quarter, head a bit east, and out to an adjacent neighborhood called Bywater: up and coming and highlighted by brightly colored shotgun houses. Ti ignores the GPS and relies on instinct to find Maurepas Foods, a new restaurant that gets packed at night but remains mellow in late morning. It's built into a space that had once been a print shop doing segregationist newspapers in the 1960s. Now, rather than helping to shape local politics, it contributes to the redefinition of New Orleans cuisine with dishes like green onion sausage and shrimp hot pot with kimchi. We opt for goat-meat tacos - the plan for today is to eat small bites in lots of places - and chef Michael Doyle hops out to make sure they're disappearing (no worries there).
Dressed in camouflage cargo shorts, a brown T-shirt, and flip-flops, he characterizes this neighborhood as "a good place to take a risk" and recalls one recent night when diners jammed the restaurant, cocktails flowed, and a pack of hungry patrons got into the hard-partying New Orleans spirit by sending shots of tequila to the kitchen. "My chefs can't drink while they're cooking and we serve food until midnight. But after midnight it was all fair game."
Taking a zigzagging route down to Freret Street, a burgeoning commercial strip in Uptown New Orleans, Ti can't stop herself from making a detour for gumbo at Dooky Chase's Restaurant in the Treme area. Decades old and a world away from the Quarter's tourist spots, it remains a gathering place where local power-brokers do lunchtime deal-making, sip the soul-stirring gumbo, munch fried chicken, and marvel at the miracle of its 90-year-old proprietor, Leah Chase, who lost everything in Katrina and bounced back gracefully. She hugs Ti and the two get into philosophical debates about veal stock, Harry Connick Jr. (for whom Chase recently prepared 15 gallons of gumbo), and newfangled cocktails. "I just say color my Sprite. When I say that, they know that it means to put a little Crown Royal in there," Chase tells Ti after she insists that a visit to SoBou is mandatory.
Now we're proceeding straight toward Freret, with force and purpose. Following just one more side-stop - "I'm making another detour!" Ti announces before we even get out of Mid-City, doing a 180 and halting in front of her long-favorite, old-school gelato and cannoli place, Angelo Brocato's - Ti and I finally reach Freret Street. A sweet art gallery (Du Mois shows work by emerging artists), loads of restaurants, and a cool cocktail lounge (Cure maintains an apothecary vibe and serves drinks made with care) dot the block. We poke around a bit and hit Cure for one of its carefully measured libations, but, really, we already have a couple of places in mind.
First stop: Dat Dog, which just moved to new and larger quarters in Uptown and specializes in exotic hot dogs that range from smoked bratwurst to beer-battered fried cod to turducken sausage. We go for the crawfish dog, top it with mustard, sour cream, onions, tomatoes, and crawfish étouffée - a New Orleans classic repurposed as a sauerkraut substitute. Just perfect. Delicious and big enough to share, the wiener bursts with its unlikely mix of porky and fishy flavors.
A few blocks away, High Hat Cafe, not quite 2 years old, looks like it has been there forever. I check out a small collection of vintage blues posters and black-and-white snapshots framed on the wall. Ti orders and tells me the draw of the place: "The idea here is that you can buy New Orleans stuff and Southern stuff, which are not the same thing. You can't get New Orleans dishes in the South or Southern dishes in New Orleans." I think I understand. The point gets driven home as soon as I confront a platter of shrimp rémoulade accompanied by pimento cheese with deviled eggs.
Backtracking to the French Quarter, we make a pit stop at Ti's terrific new spot, SoBou. User-friendly beer taps stand out on the tables, wine-dispensing machines release excellent tipples by the glass, and, thanks to an innovative cocktail menu, the bar can seduce you into whiling a late afternoon into evening without realizing where the time has gone. We munch yellow-fin tuna tartar and crispy oysters and agree it's time for dinner.
But first there will be a quick drive to the Uptown precinct for a chat with Eman Loubier, chef/owner of Dante's Kitchen, beloved by locals and known for pushing the envelope a bit. He quickly tells me that he plans on pushing it further: "Having the best indigenous food in New Orleans is a trap. We want to do more. So I'm getting ready to open a place called Noodle & Pie. It will be ramen noodles and pie - two things that don't sound like they go together, but they will." (By the time you read this, what used to be a pop-up around town should be a full-fledged restaurant, also in the Uptown neighborhood.)
Ti orders appetizer-sized portions of broiled beef hearts and headcheese ravioli. Digging in and divvying out servings, she wonders, "I don't know who says that New Orleans menus are boring. They're not."
We finally make our way to the place that Ti has saved for the end: just-opened Serendipity, in Mid-City, run by the ingenious chef Chris DeBarr, who took his cuisine to the next level while cooking in the barebones kitchen of Delachaise, on the edge of the Garden District, during the nasty days after Katrina. The man exudes heart and soul, and his menu reflects that. Dishes with inspired food combinations include seared tuna with watermelon, duck-fat-fried rutabaga alongside goat curry, and grilled peaches with blue cheese and bacon. But I find out everything I need to know about DeBarr when he tells me the thought process behind his Vietnamese-sounding banh xeo. "I wanted to do a dish that represents Creole New Orleans today," says DeBarr. "It combines local immigrant culture and seafood. The Vietnamese rice flour pancake is filled with the local seafood that Vietnamese fishermen get us."
Topped with a spicy/tangy Vietnamese sauce, that dish tastes as good as DeBarr's story sounds.
I'd like to tell you that I spend the next day eating just as heroically. But, truthfully, I just don't have it in me. Instead I explore the city on foot, recheck some galleries, and take in the spectacular, sprawling architecture of Garden District homes. By nightfall, though, I begin feeling a tad peckish again. Restaurant R'evolution, located inside the French Quarter's Royal Sonesta Hotel and the brainchild of locally iconic chefs John Folse and Rick Tramonto and hotel manager Alfred Groos, rides high on my list of dining spots to try, and this seems like the perfect opportunity. Spectacular as a full, blowout dinner there sounds, I order just one thing: Death by Gumbo. The dish comes with the perfect presentation. A beautifully roasted quail - stuffed with andouille sausage, rice, and oysters - resides in the center of a large soup bowl. With great fanfare, the waiter pours earthy brown gumbo over the bird, as if drowning it. The rich flavors consume my brain as I eat it and I'm glad that I have nobody to chitchat with. The food practically causes hallucinations.
Feeling rejuvenated, I hit two new jazz clubs that I want to check out. Kermit's Treme Speakeasy, in the Treme neighborhood, proves to be a great option for an early set and the best place for seeing chef/musician Kermit Ruffins, a local legend who became a little less local thanks to the HBO series Treme. I squeeze into the small room, where most people are eating dinner (it's a restaurant as well as a jazz club) and catch a terrific set of classic New Orleans-style music.
From there, I make my way to Bywater's revived, al fresco Bacchanal Fine Wine & Spirits (so named for the shop in front of the club), which recently straightened out licensing issues to resume presenting live music. At what feels like an enormous backyard party, illuminated with strings of Christmas lights, sultry Kristina Morales sings Latin soul while the crowd sips wine.
As midnight nears, Morales' set winds down. I consider what to do next, and feel something familiar rumbling in my stomach: hunger. I text Ti. Does she happen to have a line on a great spot for late-night po'boys?
DETAILS YOU NEED TO KNOW
• Angelo Brocato's: 214 N. Carrollton Ave.; 504-486-1465; angelobrocatoicecream.com
• Art & Eyes: 3708 Magazine St.; 504-891-4494; artandeyesnola.com
• Bacchanal Fine Wine & Spirits: 600 Poland Ave.; 504-948-9111; bacchanalwine.com
• Commander's Palace: 1403 Washington Ave.; 504-899-8221; commanderspalace.com
• Croissant d'Or: 617 Ursulines Ave.; 504-524-4663; croissantdornola.com
• Cure: 4905 Freret St.; 504-302-2357; curenola.com
• Dante's Kitchen: 736 Dante St.; 504-861-3121; danteskitchen.com
• Dat Dog: 5030 Freret St.; 504-899-6883; datdognola.com
• Dooky Chase's Restaurant: 2301 Orleans Ave.; 504-821-0600; dookychaserestaurant.com
• Du Mois Gallery: 4921 Freret St.; 504-818-6032; dumoisgallery.com
• High Hat Cafe: 4500 Freret St.; 504-754-1336; highhatcafe.com
• Kermit's Treme Speakeasy: 1535 Basin St.; 504-309-5828
• Maurepas Foods: 3200 Burgundy St.; 504-267-0072; maurepasfoods.com
• Restaurant R'evolution: 777 Bienville St.; 504-553-2277; revolutionnola.com
• Root: 200 Julia St.; 504-252-9480; rootnola.com
• Serendipity: 3700 Orleans Ave.; 504-407-0818; serendipitynola.com
• SoBou: 310 Chartres St.; 504-552-4095; sobounola.com