My infatuation with New Orleans started on a merry-go-round.
It was the Thursday before Fat Tuesday, and I was perched upon a coveted seat at the moving Carousel Bar inside the historic Hotel Monteleone in the city’s French Quarter, slowly circumnavigating at a speed of one revolution every 15 minutes.
At 3 in the afternoon, the glamorous lounge was packed with Mardi Gras revelers donning plastic beads over their chic attire. Above the lively conversation, I heard music from a brass band leading a small parade of dancers down Royal Street. I sipped a Ramos gin fizz, a frothy, iconic New Orleans cocktail scented with orange flower water. Fried shrimp and oyster po-boys from the bar menu were on their way from the kitchen.
The scene was festive yet sophisticated — like the city itself.
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Ten years ago, on Aug. 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina blew through New Orleans, taking thousands of lives, homes and businesses and leaving behind catastrophic flooding that became the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history. It took years to revive the city that bore the burden of the nickname “The Big Easy.”
But, a decade later, much of New Orleans has been rebuilt and reborn, and nowhere is that more evident than in the city’s culinary culture. Food and drink — and the celebrations they represent — have always been tied to New Orleans’ soul.
While some eateries beloved to locals never reopened, new ones have in droves. The city now boasts over 1,400 restaurants — 600 more than existed in 2005, according to the New Orleans Conventions & Visitors Bureau. This year alone, 28 new restaurants had opened by July — “roughly one new restaurant every week,” with a few more high-profile ones on the way — the Times-Picayune reported recently.
Stories of established restaurants that worked tirelessly to recover from flood damage and the relocation of tenured personnel have aroused the interest of first-time culinary-minded tourists in recent years, while modern restaurants gaining new fans have popped up en masse thanks to a younger demographic moving into the city’s Central Business District.
The calamitous events of August 2005 still haunt longtime restaurateurs, many of whom can recall the damage done in great detail. But they feel fortunate that the culinary scene has thrived, thanks, in large part, to those who come from far away to support the Crescent City.
“Hurricane Katrina brought a lot of people to New Orleans who hadn’t been before,” said Rick Gratia, owner of Muriel’s Jackson Square, a contemporary Creole restaurant popular for its courtyard bar and balcony patio. “So many groups came in to help rebuild, including young folks. The city became more popular with the younger crowd.”
I witnessed that during a visit to Muriel’s for Sunday brunch earlier this year. I was surrounded by 20- and 30-somethings as I dined on goat cheese and crawfish crepes topped with a buttery chardonnay sauce and crowned with a bounty of toothsome crawfish tails. The dish, which comes with shrimp in the crawfish off-season, is one of the restaurant’s most popular, along with the pecan-crusted drum, a delicacy in New Orleans, and the turtle soup.
Muriel’s was without electricity for four weeks after Katrina and opened shortly after power was restored. The closure time was minimal compared to that of Mr. B’s Bistro, a French Quarter landmark since 1979.
“We thought we’d be open immediately,” said owner Cindy Brennan, a member of the prestigious Brennan family, known for such storied restaurants as Commander’s Palace and Brennan’s. “We actually had to gut the restaurant and were closed for 594 days.”
Basement flooding, power shortages and water and wind damage contributed to the prolonged closing, but the sophisticated Creole restaurant, where Fort Worth chef Jon Bonnell once interned, bustles again today. My evening visit started with garlic and rosemary infused fries topped with Pecorino cheese and fragrant porcini mushroom oil. As delicious as it was, the dish was quickly outshone by the barbecued shrimp, the restaurant’s signature dish of palm-sized Gulf shrimp grilled in-shell and served with a peppery butter sauce and plenty of crusty French bread for sopping.
The family’s legendary Brennan’s New Orleans, housed in a pink stucco French Quarter building dating from 1795, closed more recently — in June 2013 — for extensive restoration and renovations. The reopening last November of the venerable restaurant known for its breakfasts and bananas Foster was front-page news, and executive chef Slade Rushing was named a James Beard finalist in April.
While the chef arguably most associated with New Orleans — Emeril Lagasse — has not opened a new restaurant in the city since Katrina, others with name recognition have. Award-winning chef Susan Spicer, recognized for helping to spearhead the slow-food movement upon opening Bayona in a historic Creole cottage in the French Quarter in 1990, opened Mondo, specializing in world cuisine with a New Orleans accent, in the city’s Lakeview neighborhood in 2010.
Naturally, the biggest crowds still descend on the city for Mardi Gras.
At Drago’s Seafood Restaurant inside Hilton New Orleans Riverside, a live fire is used to charbroil more than 900 dozen oysters on the half shell on a busy day. I witnessed the line of dancing flames, visible from the spacious dining area, during a crowded Friday night. The nearly two-hour wait, to be expected with a large group during Mardi Gras, was worth the hot and buttery grilled oysters, each dusted with herbs and Parmesan and Romano cheeses.
The New Orleans location opened in 2007, but Drago and Klara Cvitanovich opened the original Drago’s in nearby Metairie in 1969. That was still decades after French chef Jean Galatoire founded Bourbon Street’s most distinguished dining room — one that helped shape New Orleans cuisine for more than a century.
“Galatoire’s is deeply rooted in our founder’s French heritage,” said Melvin Rodrigue, president of Galatoire’s Restaurant and the Louisiana Restaurant Association’s 2015 Restaurateur of the Year. “It’s sort of the foundation of a lot of styles that came after.”
The refined eatery exudes elegance with its brass fixtures, white tablecloths and a jacket-required dress code. Servers dressed in tuxedos are eager to please and keep the champagne flowing, recommending such delicacies as oysters Rockefeller — thickly coated in creamed spinach — and succulent black drum topped with lump crabmeat and lemon wedges.
At 100 years old in 2005, the restaurant was recognized by the James Beard Foundation as the Most Outstanding Restaurant in the United States. The award came just three months before Hurricane Katrina.
“We’d been around for so many generations and were a part of so many people’s traditions, it was important to us that we reopened as we always were,” Rodrigue said. “We didn’t reopen with partial menu or temporary hours. We closed for four months and reopened on Jan. 1, 2006, with our full menu served on china with silver.”
While Galatoire’s fine-dining recipes using ingredients indigenous to New Orleans are set in stone, chef Michael Sichel has opportunity to experiment next door at Galatoire’s 33 Bar & Steak, which opened in 2013.
On the other side of Canal Street is Lüke, John Besh’s homage to the old Franco-German brasseries (or informal French eateries) that once reigned in the Crescent City. The celebrity chef has long served as an unofficial culinary ambassador for New Orleans and now owns seven restaurants in the city, with another on the way. There I ate hot blue crab and corn fritters with a bright green tarragon aioli and sweet corn risotto with shrimp, crawfish and chanterelle mushrooms. But it was Besh’s light and airy strawberry pavlova, filled with tart Meyer lemon curd and sweet vanilla cream, that stole the table spotlight.
Speaking of sweets, an afternoon stroll down Magazine Street near the city’s Garden District yielded a discovery of confectionery gold. Sucré is a dessert shop home to gelato, pastries and, most importantly, handcrafted French macarons, which once made the famous list of Oprah’s favorite things. With crispy, flaky shells and a delicately chewy interior, the two-bite treats come in both seasonal flavors and New Orleans-inspired varieties, like Southern pecan, bananas Foster and chickory. I purchased a sampler box to take home and nibbled up nearly half before my return flight.
Culinary highlights have been many amid my multiple trips to the Big Easy over the past 18 months. Made-to-order seafood and shrimp Creole omelets, bloody marys and turtle soup with sherry are musts at the Court of Two Sisters daily jazz brunch, where live music and an occasional promenade by a local krewe — an organization that puts on a parade or ball during Carnival season — creates a vivacious atmosphere.
Those looking for pasta should experience the Northern Italian cuisine featured at the Italian Barrel, where my porcini-stuffed ravioli splashed with extra virgin white truffle oil turned heads upon arrival thanks to its fragrant aroma.
There’s no excuse to miss out on hot beignets and creamy coffee au lait at Café Du Monde because the historic open-air coffee shop is open 24 hours a day.
But skip the artificially flavored daiquiris on and around Bourbon Street and go instead for the freshly blended fruit beverages at the Organic Banana in the French Market, where fresh juices and fruits are whirled-to-order with New Orleans rum.
With hundreds of restaurants to explore, from the posh to the ramshackle and everything in between, today’s New Orleans has overcome devastation to take its place on the culinary map once again.
“New Orleans has grown drastically,” said Rodrigue. “I truly believe New Orleans today is stronger than it’s ever been.”
Where to stay:
Rates from $128 to $499. Open since 1886, the historic French Quarter hotel is within walking distance to some of New Orleans’ most popular attractions and restaurants. The hotel is also home to the award-winning Carousel Bar & Lounge.
214 Royal St., New Orleans,
Where to eat:
Muriel’s Jackson Square
801 Chartres St., New Orleans, 504-568-1885, www.muriels.com
Mr. B’s Bistro
201 Royal St., New Orleans,
Brennan’s New Orleans
417 Royal St., New Orleans,
(Note: Jacket preferred at dinner.)
900 Harrison Ave, New Orleans, 504-224-2633, www.mondoneworleans.com
Drago’s Seafood Restaurant
Inside the Hilton New Orleans Riverside
2 Poydras St., New Orleans, 504-584-3911, www.dragosrestaurant.com
209 Bourbon St., New Orleans, 504-525-2021, www.galatoires.com
(Note: Jacket required)
333 St. Charles Ave., New Orleans, 504-378-2840, www.lukeneworleans.com
3025 Magazine St., New Orleans, 504-520-8311, www.shopsucre.com
(Several other locations)
Court of Two Sisters
613 Royal St., New Orleans,
The Italian Barrel
430 Barracks St., New Orleans,
Café Du Monde
800 Decatur St., New Orleans,
(Several other locations)
1100 N. Peters St., New Orleans,
Good to know:
Taxis are fairly accessible, except during the weeks leading up to Mardi Gras, set next year for Feb. 9, 2016. Expect to walk frequently and make as many reservations in advance as possible, especially for large parties. New Orleans newcomers should note that unfinished cocktails may leave most restaurants and bars, so asking for a “go cup” to sip while strolling on the street is very much part of the Crescent City culture. Also, pralines are pronounced “prah-leens,” and snow cones are called snow balls. Eat them both — you’ll be glad you did.