The Astronomer and I traveled to New Orleans together this past July. After dropping off June with her grandparents in Birmingham, we made the five-hour drive through Mississippi and spent 68 hours eating, drinking, and exploring the city. While we missed our little lady during our time apart, it was quite lovely to revel without worrying about nap times and such.
Since it was my first trip to New Orleans, I focused the itinerary mostly on the city’s incredible dining institutions. Folks have been eating well here since practically forever, so it was important on my inaugural visit to get a sense of the city’s rich culinary history. I can’t wait to explore newer establishments, especially the Vietnamese food scene, on another trip.
Central Grocery – French Quarter
We arrived in the late afternoon and stopped into Central Grocery in the French Quarter for one of its famous muffuletta sandwiches. I have had my share of mediocre Italian sandwiches, as well as expertly made ones, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
The muffuletta is the creation of Salvatore Lupo, a Sicilian immigrant who opened the deli in 1906. Each sandwich is made on a 10-inch round Sicilian sesame loaf that’s wonderfully crusty and is stuffed with ham, salami, Provolone, and best of all, a “spread” of Kalamata and green olives and other pickle-y bits. Sturdy and balanced, the muffuletta totally lived up to its reputation.
Cafe Du Monde – French Quarter
After checking into our hotel, The Astronomer and I walked over to Cafe Du Monde for another glorious afternoon snack: freshly-fried beignets served with hot chicory coffee.
Neither the coffee nor the beignet was particularly outstanding on its own, but consumed together, the pairing was nothing short of spectacular—bitter brew plus sugary dough equals pure heaven. I visited Cafe Du Monde a second time a few days later and the combination was as glorious as ever.
La Petite Grocery – East Riverside
For dinner, we walked to La Petit Grocery, which opened in 2004 in a former corner store from the 1800s. Chef Justin Devillier has been on the team since day one and even won the James Beard Award for Best Chef South in 2016. I sipped a sazerac to start because: New Orleans.
Between the two of us, we shared the blue crab beignets ($17), panéed rabbit with spaetzle and sauce grenobloise ($34), and most intriguing of all, the turtle bolognese ($24). The flavor of the Sherry-kissed sauce was echoed a few days later at Commander’s Palace.
Willie Mae’s Scotch House – Treme
The best thing about traveling child-free was walking everywhere in New Orleans. Not only was it a practical choice given the amount of food we were eating, but it was the best way to get a feel for the various neighborhoods.
After waking up at a leisurely hour, we walked to Willie Mae’s Scotch House for lunch. After waiting in the hot sun for what felt like an eternity, we were ushered inside for some of the best fried chicken of our lives.
We shared three pieces of dark-meat fried chicken with a side of fried okra ($15), an order of New Orleans-style butter beans ($7.50), and two corn muffins ($1.50). Every dish was well-prepared, and the crackly chicken was truly superb.
Parkway Bakery & Tavern – Bayou St. John
Since we were a stone’s throw away from Parkway Bakery & Tavern, we strolled over for one of its renowned poor boy sandwiches. We ordered the one stuffed with fried shrimp and “dressed” with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, and mayonnaise, on a French loaf from local legend Leidenheimer bakery.
While the sandwich was expertly constructed, I must admit that poor boys just aren’t for me. Between the thick bread and fried seafood, I find them sadly dry and monotonous.
However, a side of fried oysters was just the thing to make everything well again. The briny morsels arrived expertly battered and fried.
Walking back to the French Quarter, The Astronomer and I encountered some fantastic fauna…
…and even took in some live jazz at Preservation Hall.
Compère Lapin – Central Business District
For dinner, we headed to Compère Lapin, where Chef Nina Compton “mixes the indigenous ingredients and rich culinary heritage of New Orleans with those of her Caribbean roots.” Between the two of us, we shared fantastic conch croquettes ($6), a cobia crudo with passionfruit ($15), jerk chicken ($30), and my favorite, crisp yet gelatinous spiced pig ears served with smoked aioli ($5).
The Astronomer adored the fragrant curried goat served with sweet potato gnocchi and cashews ($30). The spicing was warm and inviting, while the meat was tender as can be.
Commander’s Palace – Garden District
A table in the garden room at Commander’s Palace beckoned us on the following day. We sweated up a storm walking through the Garden District, but the neighborhood’s tree-line streets and fabulous mansions were well worth a bit of discomfort. Opened in 1893, the restaurant is famous for its haute Creole cooking and Southern hospitality.
To cool down, I took advantage of the 25 cent martinis (limit three per person) and ordered a classic while munching on complimentary garlic bread—what a killer combination.
From minced snapping turtle soup with aged sherry to stuffed quail with fire-roasted chili boudin to pecan-crusted fish and Creole bread pudding soufflé, we ordered the Palace’s greatest hits and had a grand ol’ ball.
Herbsaint – Central Business District
For our final dinner in the city, I reserved a table at Chef Donald Link’s nearly 20-year-old restaurant Herbsaint. On the menu is “seasonal French-Southern cuisine with elements of rustic Italian cooking.” The restaurant’s comfortable yet polished vibe reminded me of Frank Stitt’s places in Birmingham. Fried oysters with hot sauce and house-made spaghetti with guanciale and a fried-poached egg made for two seriously decadent starters.
On the main course front, we shared some local shrimp along with fantastic crispy goat with beluga lentils, cucumber, and tomato ($29). If there’s one thing that we learned from eating in New Orleans it’s that goat ought to be on every fine dining menu—it’s a staple ingredient.
Loretta’s Authentic Pralines – French Quarter
On our final day in New Orleans, we headed to Loretta’s in the French Market for some edible souvenirs. Her pralines are a favorite of Vernon’s uncle, so we had to get our hands on some.
Made of sugar, butter, milk, and pecans, pralines are the city’s signature candy. They’re extremely sweet and almost immediately dissolve on one’s tongue, leaving behind just a bit of hearty nuttiness.
Dooky Chase Restaurant – Treme
The hardest table to snag on our entire trip was at Dooky Chase Restaurant. Opened in 1941, the restaurant is regarded as one of the first African American fine dining restaurants in the country and served as an important meeting place during the civil rights movement. Dooky Chase’s matriarch Leah Chase, also known as the Queen of Creole Cuisine, passed away a month or so before our visit.
Since it was lunchtime, The Astronomer settled on the buffet, which boasted seriously great hot sausage, fried catfish, and fried chicken.
I ordered the shrimp creole a la carte, which was served over rice. The tomato-based sauce was balanced and delightful, while the shrimp were as perky as hoped.
The restaurant’s walls showcase a tremendous collection of African American art, including a piece from Vernon’s uncle Curtis Graves.
Thank you for a wonderful visit, New Orleans. We’ll be back again soon.
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