Friday, June 17, 2011

The Most Food-Centric City in the U.S.

New Orleans.  Without a doubt.  And I'm fresh back from my second trip down there (trip 1 here).

Jesus, pictured above, would surely agree.

First stop, right of the bat, Felix's for oysters with mix-your-own cocktail sauce and some Abita.  I'd agree that the local oysters down there aren't the most complex in the world, but sometimes there's just no need to contemplate your food--they're super fresh, super clean, and flow like water over a busted levy.  I ordered a dozen at the stand up bar and was served two at a time until I called uncle.  Like lots of the great things down there, these were easy to enjoy and pretty inexpensive.  Truly a simple luxury.

I love oysters from both coasts, whether briny, citrusy, or both, and these weren't like them.  These were just plump, cold, and had the slightest refreshing cucumber taste.  The perfect breakfast or snack food.  So I can't completly disagree with those who say the southern bivalves are not as heady or profound as their northern brethren, but they are perfect for what they are.

So what to do post oysters and beer?  Cocktails, naturally.  Some spots in the city have been known to make good ones, and a relative newcomer, The Green Goddess, was no outlier.  A bit off the beaten path in the French Quarter, the place had some ridiculously good innovative cocktails.  After my first, gin and super high quality vermouth based, things started getting fuzzy.  All I remember is that I had another drink that was just as good as the first.  Both pure alcohol, and both delicious.  And the food that was flying by looked really nice too.
future home of the cft?
After the snacks and drinks it was time to wait for my friend at the hotel, which just happened to have one of this guy's restaurants downstairs.  Dominica.  Another cocktail, another Abita, and a fantastic little lardo pizza for the low low happy hour price of $6.50.  Everything at the place looked good, but we had plans for the evening.

Dinner at Cochon, preceded by drinks and boudin next door at Cochon Butcher.  Cochon Butcher was closer in in spirit to a Spanish tapas place than anywhere I've been in the States.  Several sandwiches to choose from, but even better were the cured meat plates and palate friendly drinks.  And like so much else in New Orleans, both Cochon and the Butcher were super reasonably priced.

At Chochon it was ham hocks, an interesting take on pulled pork, insanely good mac and cheese, very good charcuterie, and solid eggplant and shrimp dressing.  Really nice, really busy place.

Then back to the hotel for a sazerac at Sazerac Bar, and it was lights out.

frenchman street, pictured above wasn't the best place there, but what a cool neighborhood
The next day was more madness.  Coffee and bignets at Cafe du Monde (how can you not?) followed by a seafood feast at the French Market.  Boiled shrimp (excellent), crawfish (equally excellent), and crab (very good).  Hyper local, hyper fresh.  On one side of the Market was the Creole Tomato Festival (good tomatoes before they're good here) and on the other was the Louisiana Seafood Festival (soft shell crab po boy with remoulade and shrimp dressing?  sure.)

Then to the Garden District for a gin fizz at the Columns Hotel and dinner at Brigtsen's (with a stop for some quality coffee on Magazine Street between).  I love Brigtsen's.  Classic and white tableclothed, but by no means pretentious.  Flawless rabbit and snapper.  Equally perfect apps and dessert too.  We were surrounded by locals--those folks drink.

Without a doubt New Orleans is the most food-centric city I've ever been to.  Eating and drinking is a lifestyle, and it's done well but not taken obnoxiously seriously (I'm looking at you, Portland).  They use what they've got and make the best of what's around.  It's not "hey we're local, we're awesome." It's all largely local (not all all, but you know what I'm saying).  It was a given.  Fish was from the gulf.  Berries were from nearby farms.  A conversation I eavesdropped on outside of Domenica between a chef and his farmer was eye opening--everyone wanted things to be the best they could be and they were willing to work hard at it.  They just loved the good food and wouldn't accept anything else.

While they're blessed with quite the bounty of seafood and produce, and steeped in history and technique, there's something more than that there.  I felt like the Acadians could have settled anywhere and made just as tasty a lifestyle.  That's where I'm hoping things go here in the Cle.  We need to stop tossing those sheepshead--we need to eat them and make them tasty.  Same with our black walnuts, our mushrooms, our game . . . .  Those folks looked at mud bugs and owned them.  Same with red fish and things like eggplant.  We've got tons of great stuff here, we just have to make it work.  So what if we're not French.

And that's my idealized version of New Orleans.


Sarah said...

nice write up. we've been to new orleans a couple of times - and also found it to be the most food centric place we've been to.
unfortunately we couldn't fit cochon into our last trip - but it's a must on our next.
your post has got me thinking that we need to make another visit.

The CFT said...

Thanks Sarah. Cochon, or at least Cochon Butcher, is a must. I love that city.