Chuck Taggart is a dedicated cocktailian and native New Orleanian now living in Los Angeles. He publishes The Gumbo Pages.
Yeah, I’m not going to be able to make it to Tales this year. (Waah! I don’t wanna talk about it.)
But I do hope all y’all have a GREAT time at Tales, and I want to do my bit this year to help y’all eat and drink well — not that you won’t probably be able to do it on your own, but a few ideas can always help. I know many of you are already there or arriving today, so I’ll keep it short and sweet.
Domenica in the Roosevelt Hotel is one of our very favorite newer New Orleans restaurants, and it’s supremely Italian (not New Orleans Italian). It’s one of John Besh’s restaurants, with the very talented chef Alon Shaya at the helm. Fantastic pizzas, pastas, risottos, salumi, seafood and meats, just everything is wonderful. They’ve also got one of the standout bars in the city as well — superb Sazeracs and a spate of original cocktails featuring Italian ingredients. Make sure you stop in early for a drink, say hey to Michael and Kimberly or whoever else is behind the stick and imbibe well.
In the Quarter consider Le Meritage, in the space formerly occupied by Dominique’s in the Maison Dupuy Hotel at the corner of Toulouse and Burgundy. (And remember, it’s bur-GUN-dy, not BUR-gun-dy.) They specialize in wine pairings (although they offer cocktails as well; a recent Sidecar was quite respectable) and the menu is actually organized by types of wine. Everything from dishes to wine pours is available in a large or small size, so it’s perfect for sharing.
I have yet to make it to the Louisiana Bistro, but it comes highly recommended. “Casual, contemporary Creole” on Dauphine and Conti, tucked away and out-of-the-way like a little Parisian place you’d stumble upon by accident, they have a solid menu featuring items like classic Chicken Creole in red sauce, drum meunière and crabmeat with asparagus. Most folks, however, prefer one of the chef’s “Feed Me!” menus for the adventurous — 3, 4 or 5 courses for $39, $49 or $59, a pretty sweet deal actually — in which the chef goes all out, getting creative and unpredictable. I’ve never met the chef but he’s apparently quite a character, and “Feed Me!” is probably how you’re going to want to go.
Café Amelie, on Royal St. between Dumaine and St. Philip, is a solid, very casual spot popular with locals as well as visitors. Sample small plates, some really nice salads, sandwiches and hearty entrées (Gulf shrimp and mushroom linguine, double-cut garlic pork chop with mashed potatoes and haricots verts, citrus roasted chicken) in a lovely courtyard setting. They emphasize fresh ingredients and of non-fried food, which may help stave off the cankles you’re inevitably going to get during your week at Tales. They’re a short walk from the Monteleone and worth a stop if you’re looking for someplace new. You’re going to want their key lime pie for dessert, too.
Given that July and August in New Orleans are barely fit for human habitation, you might want something to help you cool off (well, other than an icy cocktail). Try Meltdown Popsicles, on Dumaine just off Decatur. All their quiescently frozen confections are made from scratch with interesting flavor combinations and the freshest of ingredients — I’m told she picks the berries off the vine for some of the flavors, and grows the herbs). Fruit pops are all fresh fruit and vegan, in case you’re concerned with that sort of thing, and the cream flavors use organic milk and cream. Can’t be beat on a sweltering New Orleans summer day.
Heading out to the Warehouse district another new John Besh restaurant is also worth a visit — The American Sector, inside the National World War II Museum, which features American comfort food “inspired by life on the Home Front.” It’s fun, reasonably priced and ranges from a few local specialties (shrimp Creole, seafood po-boys and bánh mì, aka “Vietnamese po-boys”) to meatloaf, chicken and dumplings, chicken fried steak and pork cheeks with black-eyed peas (mmm). Absolutely do not the housemade corn dogs, though (“BEST EVER!”). Also fun is the array of sodas — you order a bottle of seltzer for the table and choose from a variety of house-made syrups. Many New Orleans restaurants these days are getting serious about cocktails and offering cocktail menus; this one’s no exception, and the menu reflects a mid-century vibe — Pink Lady, Bronx, Gibson, Blood and Sand, Moscow Mule and more.
If you get Creoled-out (one cannot live on fried seafood alone … although one can certainly try!) I highly recommend heading in the Latin direction. Chef Adolfo Garcia now has three restaurants and a café in the city, his oldest, Rio Mar, still being my favorite. It’s seafood “from a different perspective,” heavily influenced by Spanish cuisine and Chef Adolfo’s own Latin American background. Every single morsel I’ve ever had here has been wonderful, from the small tapas plates to full entrées. Do not miss the ceviches, four of which are served every day. The Panamanian-style ceviche, simple as it is, is one of the best ceviches I’ve ever had. I haven’t been to his newer places, but you can’t go wrong with such a talented chef and restauranteur — La Boca is an Argentine-style steakhouse, A Mano is an Italian trattoria featuring handmade pastas and house-cured salumi, and Gusto is the new café inside The Theatres at Canal Place on the corner of Canal and S. Peters, which is great for casual noshing. Non-theatregoers are welcome, and the small menu includes his Spanish take on a muffuletta with Serrano ham and Manchego cheese.
In addition to the above my friend Diana recommends a tiny Japanese tavern called Yuki Izakaya on Frenchmen Street in the Marigny. They do Japanese pub food, small places, grandmother’s recipes from the old country as well as more modern fare (but no sushi). There’s a very large sake list and a full bar as well, plus a cool mix of music and classic Japanese films projected onto the wall. If you’re doing a Frenchmen Street crawl (which you most definitely should) it’s a very nice stop. Also while on Frenchmen keep an eye out for Holly’s Tamales, although she and her bike-mounted tamale cart aren’t always around. She’s recently promised to update her location via Twitter.
For a fancy dinner out other than your wonderful Spirited Dinners, I couldn’t recommend Le Foret more highly. It’s traditional French rather than Creole or French-Creole, but tradition in this case doesn’t hold back creativity, innovation and sheer delight. A prime example: Champignons le Foret, one of their signature dishes. It’s described as “wild mushroom confit with foie gras and hazelnut sauce” and is delicious, but the wonderful presentation takes it up an order of magnitude. The mushroom caps sit atop “stems” which are made of foie gras terrine. It takes you a moment to realize this, and when you do, you laugh. Then once you dig in you stop laughing and start moaning.
Service is warm, friendly and impeccable, and the food is quite reasonably priced considering what you get. It’s certainly one of the best new restaurants in the city.
The other new best bet for a fancy night out is Meson 923 on S. Peters in the Warehouse District, a quick cab ride from Tales Central. I have yet to dine there myself, much to my annoyance, but all I hear are raves — by all accounts the food is outstanding. Former Emeril’s chef de cuisine Chris Lynch opened the restaurant this year and serves modern American cuisine with Spanish influences, and it was described to me as an “absolute knockout.” Try the pork belly, Maine skate with jumbo lump crabmeat, braised pork shank or sous-vide filet of beef. I will be beating a path to their door the instant I return home to New Orleans,and I suggest you do your best to beat me to it.
Coquette Bistro & Wine Bar is very much worth a visit if you head out to Magazine Street. Gulf shrimp* and grits with roasted okra and sweet corn, soft-shell crab with Benton’s bacon, Mississippi rabbit with fava beans, oh my. Although it’s primarily a wine bar they’re very serious about their cocktails too (and yes, they have Benton’s bacon-infused bourbon, used in one of their house cocktails, and I’ll just bet you can get an Old Fashioned with it as well). If you’re on a bit more of a budget or are just jonesing for a great po-boy (as we do), Mahony’s Po-Boy Shop at 3454 Magazine (a block and a half on the Uptown side of Louisiana Ave.) is mighty damn good, and rapidly gaining a reputation as one of the best in town. They’ve received accolades for their chicken liver po-boys with Creole slaw (Best Non-Seafood award winner at the New Orleans Po-Boy Preservation Festival) which I absolutely cannot wait to try, plus Patton’s hot sausage patties, root beer-glazed Chisesi ham (a local variety that happens to be … um, well, one of the best in the world) and fried or grilled shrimp plus shrimp rémoulade with fried green tomatoes. (On a po-boy. Good lord.) And as I said last year, don’t miss La Divina Gelateria about 5 blocks downtown from Mahony’s. If your timing is good you’ll get to enjoy their Lucid absinthe sorbetto, which is even better than you think it is.
Speaking of hot sausage … dammit, if you don’t get to Gene’s Po-Boys on St. Claude and Elysian Fields (just five minutes from the Quarter! You have NO excuse!) and get a hot sausage po-boy with cheese, dressed … I’m going to have to slap each and every one of you. Don’t worry about the fact that it’s a dive (it is), go during the day (despite the fact that it’s open 24 hours) and don’t bother with anything else they offer on their limited menu. I am a connoisseur of New Orleans creole hot sausage, and I still think theirs is the best. Take your sandwich next door to their rather nice new barroom and eat it there. Do it! I’m serious!
If you love Gene’s — the kind of place where you see locals, not tourists — and want more authentic neighborhood dining experiences, keep heading toward the Industrial Canal and the Bywater on St. Claude. That’s my family’s old neighborhood, and there’s some mighty fine eating to be done out there. Jack Dempsey’s Restaurant at 738 Poland Ave. just past Dauphine has been a favorite of mine for many years. The menu is divided into fried and broiled selections, but you’re going to want to go with the former — it’s some of the best fried seafood in town, and a great deal. Note that the seafood platter for “2″ easily feeds four. The Italian stuffed artichoke is a must to start off, and last time I was there we got some mighty fine Beefeater Martinis, nice and wet, from the kid behind the bar (who got a nice, big tip from our very grateful tableful of drinkers).
A bit further down Poland at the corner of Chartres St. is Bacchanal Fine Wine and Spirits, a superb booze shop that’s so much more — live music every night (as long as the skies aren’t drenching us), a chef on the grill in the back patio six nights a week and they also import other local chefs to cook dinners on Sunday nights — I believe Chef Scott Maki, formerly of Emeril’s and currently of Rambla, will be at the grill during Tales. If you’re a fan of the mos’ scocious HBO series “Treme” you may remember the fictional chef Janette Desautel doing one of the Sunday night dinners, and it’s just as much fun as it looked on “Treme” (well, except for the part where it got rained out). Bacchanal is a treasure of the Bywater and a good place to get a nice bottle to bring home too.
From Jack Dempsey’s and Bacchanal you’re only a block or so from the legendary Vaughan’s Lounge, at Dauphine and Lesseps. One of the many answers to the question “What is New Orleans” is “Kermit Ruffins at Vaughan’s on a Thursday night.” Kermit will be at Vaughan’s as always during Tales, playing trumpet and barbecuing some turkey necks outside. If you’re not going to a Spirited Dinner, show up at 8:30 and get started with a cold Abita. If you are going to a Spirited Dinner, go to Vaughan’s afterward and hear Kermit.
Well, so much for short and sweet. Anyway, between three years worth of posts you ought to have enough to do. Have fun, don’t get arrested (advice — leave all glassware and bottles in your hotel room and don’t carry them around) and … someone bring me back a Hubig’s Pie.
[Many thanks to my good friend Diana Schwam (who's taking the reins of the Frommer's New Orleans book and is busily preparing the 2011 edition) for some of her suggestions.]