The late New Orleans restaurant matriarch Miss Ella Brennan once said that whereas in other places, one eats to live, “In New Orleans, we live to eat.” It seems that as soon as you step foot in this city, your appetite for just about everything somehow increases: adventure, romance, joy…and food food food.
Here, we don’t call a friend and ask, “How are you?” Instead, it’s either the colloquial “Where y’at?” or, more often, “What’re you eatin’?” Here, cuisine is community, cuisine is culture, cuisine is practically church (literally and figuratively—except for the fact that church is church). Food forms the crucial threads of the city’s multicolored fabric: It weaves through the people, the music, the history, the parties, the traditions. A style of gumbo can define a neighborhood. A roux technique can unite (or divide) generations of families.
New Orleans has always been recognized by food lovers, but with the advent of the foodie movement, the restaurant scene has positively erupted, and the city is undeniably a foodie destination. At last count New Orleans had more than 1,400 restaurants, so there’s goodness in every direction and on every level: in centuries-old grande-dame restaurants and the corner po’ boy shops; in a gas station with shockingly good steam-table food; and in the sleek bistro of a brash, upstart culinary-school grad fusing Grandma’s recipes with unpronounceable techniques and ingredients. And that’s not even counting the many bars and nightclubs serving seriously stellar snacks. Or the much-anticipated restaurants that are about to open as we’re finishing this book, including Meril from Emeril Lagasse; John Besh’s retro glam Caribbean Room in the Pontchartrain Hotel; and Ted Brennan’s in the French Quarter.
Culinary training grounds like the recently renovated Café Reconcile (1631 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd.; www.cafereconcile.org; [tel] 504/568-1157) and Liberty’s Kitchen (300 N. Broad St.; www.libertyskitchen.org; [tel] 504/822-4011) serve sturdy meals while training young men and women for careers in food service. And fourth-generation chefs work backstreet dives whose menus and ingredients haven’t varied since, well, forever.
You are going to want to eat a lot here. And you are going to want to eat here, a lot. And then you are going to talk about it. You’ll probably adopt the local custom of talking about dinner while you’re at lunch (and lunch while you’re breakfasting). The food here is utterly, unashamedly regional, which isn’t to say that (in some cases) it’s not also utterly of the moment, sophisticated, and/or redolent of other influences as well. But it’s ingredient- and chef-driven, which makes it uniquely New Orleanean: It will never be Copenhagen or Bilbao, or New York for that matter, nor does it want (or need) to.
In many restaurants, certainly in the more traditional ones, dishes are based largely on variations of Creole recipes. Others, the innovators, take Creole as a cue and go wildly afield. Creole food was originally based on recipes brought by the French settlers, the herbs and filé (ground sassafras leaves) used by the Native Americans, and saffron and peppers introduced by the Spanish. From the West Indies came new vegetables, spices, and sugarcane, and when slave boats arrived, an African influence was added. Today, the Italian influence runs deep, and even Vietnamese has found its way onto the plate, brought by a newer wave of immigrants. And while nearly all restaurateurs source fresh ingredients from local purveyors, the ban on butter never took hold here (thankfully). Flavor comes first.
So indulge and enjoy. It’s what you do here. Try some of everything. We’re particularly big on lunching, since many of the best restaurants have terrific prix-fixe lunch deals that include dishes that’d cost twice as much during dinner. Then start planning the next trip, so you can do it again.
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