We Ate New Orleans
A gastronomical odyssey from stuffed crawfish heads to king cake babka.
Well hi there,
I just got back from New Orleans yesterday and I’m truly overwhelmed at the task ahead of me: how do I distill one of the best eating weeks of my life into one newsletter?
New Orleans has always been one of America’s great food cities (if not the greatest). It’s a culture that prizes pleasure: whether that’s drinking, music, sex, or — my personal favorite — eating. Unlike Las Vegas, which advertises itself as the ultimate pleasure palace, New Orleans has soul. The people are warm and welcoming; with all apologies to Celine Dion, the music in New Orleans has depth.
And then there’s the food. I had one of the best meals of my life in New Orleans this past week — more on that in a sec — and what made it so amazing wasn’t just the provenance of the ingredients (all curated locally, especially the seafood), or the richness of the sauces and soups (rich as they were), but the graciousness and warmth of the hospitality. You feel cared for in New Orleans; you feel like there’s a party and you’re the most important guest. Sure, New York has its four-star bastions of cuisine and California has its figs on a plate (jk), but New Orleans makes you feel like family.
Where We Stayed: Hotel St. Vincent
Look, I won’t lie, Hotel St. Vincent isn’t cheap (currently $299 a night). A former orphanage (or, more accurately, a children’s asylum built in 1861) purchased and flipped by the musician St. Vincent, we chose to stay here for two reasons: our friends Ryan and Jonathan were also staying there and, two, Craig and I are about to be apart for a few months for work, and we wanted to splurge before parting ways.
If you can swing it, The Hotel St. Vincent is money well spent. The hotel is chic beyond chic: the lobby, the rooms, the restaurants. It’s in a fabulous location in the lower garden district; a walk up Magazine street takes you to Turkey and the Wolf (see below), a bunch of antique shops, and ultimately Uptown, where Shaya sits (also see below). A walk in the other direction takes you through the business district, where you can stop for lunch at Cochon Butcher (like I did) and continue on your way into the French Quarter and all the way to the Marigny.
Best of all, the hotel St. Vincent has the coolest bar, The Chapel Club, for hotel guests only.
We stopped here almost every night before going out to dinner and the drinks were so carefully made, it was almost like a religious ritual watching the bartender shake them up.
The other great thing is that Elizabeth Street (from Austin) has an outpost in the hotel, and we ate breakfast there every day, with perfectly made cappuccinos and kouign amans. Their lunch, with a Vietnamese menu, offered up perfectly cozy dumplings and spring rolls and banh mi on a cold and rainy day.
BTW: if you need another hotel rec, we almost stayed at the Hotel Peter and Paul, which is less expensive, and in the Marigny district, which is very cool. (We checked it out while strolling around, and the have an awesome bar.)
Okay, now for what you came for… THE MEALS.
Where We Ate: The Best of the Best
I’ll confess, I had a bad attitude going into the Mosquito Supper Club for dinner. I had my information wrong: I knew they used to be a communal dining experience, but I thought during Covid, they had changed their policy to individual tables which really appealed to me — not just for Covid safety, but because I hate eating with strangers! (I get this from my mother who starts every cruise rushing to the dining room to request a private table for her and my dad.)
But if this dinner were a movie, I’d be the Scrooge who, by the end, is skipping through the streets cheering: “Merry Mosquito Club, everyone!” You see, when we got to the door on a cold and rainy night, they immediately checked our vax cards. We were seated at the end of one of two long tables, where we immediately befriended our neighbors, Maddy and Spencer, who were visiting from Texas. Then the food started coming out: warm sweet potato biscuits, fresh local oysters…
…stuffed crawfish heads that we dropped into a complex and rich seafood bisque (Craig said it was the best thing he’s eaten in months, maybe years). There was BBQed shrimp that we peeled and ate with our hands, Carolina gold rice, a wildly delicious fresh strawberry and beet salad and, for dessert, a beignet with strawberry puree and buttermilk gelato.
The food was incredible, but the context made it even more incredible. The chef/owner, Melissa Martin, was recently featured in The New York Times for her work trying to help preserve Louisiana’s seafood industry after the multiple hurricanes that have pummeled it. This meal was the embodiment of her good heart. If you’re going to New Orleans, you have to get tickets for dinner here in advance. You won’t be sorry: it was one of the most memorable meals of my life.
The last time that we went to New Orleans, which was over ten years ago, I was blown away by the food at Donald Link’s restaurant, Cochon. Since then, I bought his cookbook Real Cajun and cooked things like smothered pork over rice and buttery dinner rolls.
Now all of that Cochon buzz has shifted to another Donald Link restaurant, Pêche. When I polled people on Twitter and Instagram about where I should eat in New Orleans, people talked about Pêche with reverent tones. So that’s where I made a reservation for Craig’s birthday dinner and man oh man did it deliver. I mean look at that picture above: hushpuppies, fish sticks, fried bread (!), smoked tuna dip, beets, turnips, Brussels sprouts, baked drum with mushroom broth and calas (rice fritters), jumbo shrimp with a rice cake, and salted caramel cake, plus key lime pie fro the birthday boy.
That look of satisfaction on Craig’s face says everything: it was a meal for the ages.
Now I just need to get the Pêche cookbook, if one ever comes out, so I can make that baked drum at home. And that fried bread. And those hushpuppies. And the…
I’m one of those people who likes to plan every meal on a trip down to the tiniest crumb. For our trip to New Orleans, I relied mostly on Eater New Orleans, an invaluable resource that pointed us in so many great directions (including most of the places that I’m writing about in this newsletter). There was one restaurant, however, that we booked which earned a thumb’s down from Raj at our hotel (Raj is a manager who we chatted up every morning). He said that the restaurant, which I won’t name here because this is only hearsay, was homophobic and transphobic and that the staff had quit in protest. Instead, he heartily recommended Marjie’s Grill, which serves a fascinating combination of Southern food and Southeast Asian food. I looked at the menu online and liked the vibe, so I changed up our reservations and wow, was this a great move.
Once again, the atmosphere had as much to do with the experience as the food. Our waitress was named Eve and when I said my name was Adam, she groaned and said “I get that all the time” and I said, “No really, my name is Adam.” The food was so surprising and delectable: from the pork knuckles to the lamb ribs to the vegetables sitting in a pungent fishy citrusy sauce. But the best bite of the night, and maybe of our trip (?), was the cornbread that you see above, which came grilled, slathered in butter, doused in cane syrup, and sprinkled with sea salt. It was so incredible, my first culinary mission, now that I’m back, is to try to recreate it. It’s the stuff of dreams.
Have you heard the one about the cookbook author whose books are sitting at the bottom of the ocean? That’s why Turkey and the Wolf’s been in the news lately: a transportation ship from Taiwan accidentally tipped a container carrying all of their cookbooks into the sea.
Out of sympathy, and because I’m a greedy eater who loves a good lunch, I took Craig with me to Turkey and the Wolf on a freezing, drizzly day. There was a frenzy for tables near space heaters, and after we ordered, we felt guilty sitting at ours with so many cold and hungry spectators waiting for our seats. Still, we persevered, and ate fried bologna sandwiches with potato chips and gooey cheese, crispy, crinkled fries with Duke’s mayo, and, my favorite it, a collard green sandwich that defied all logic in terms of texture. You would think mushy collard greens wouldn’t work on a sandwich, but piled up here with coleslaw on crispy brioche, it’s a wonder of the ages. And as I savored my last bite, I thought someone was going to kick me in the head for my seat, so I got up and left satisfied and very, very full.
The Rest: Coquette, Shaya, Gris Gris, Cochon Butcher, and Compère Lapin.
It’s insane to me how many good meals that we ate this past week and also, truly, how I’m not in the hospital right now.
One of my favorite meals was at a spot in the Garden District that was unpretentious and lovely: Coquette. The bar was gorgeous, the bread was warm and came with honey butter and ham. There was smoked trout roe on onion dip with homemade potato chips, pork belly with roasted cabbage, a gorgeous smoked braised short rib, and a chocolate dessert with cherries that totally hit the spot. (Plus, they were vegetarian-friendly for our friend Jonathan — listen to Thursday’s podcast, A Vegetarian in New Orleans — and he devoured the carrot Bolognese.)
Shaya was the cause of much debate before our trip, because some told us not to go there and to go to Saba instead because the chef, Shaya himself, wasn’t at Shaya anymore (how weird). But as it worked out, Shaya had a reservation when we needed one, and it did not disappoint. The concept is that it combines Israeli staples with Southern food, hence the fried chicken and hummus on the lower left, which came topped with the most incredible date salsa verde. We also went wild for the warm pita straight out of a wood-fired oven, braised lamb with date molasses, and, the star of the show, king cake babka which tasted like a a Cinnabon covered in warm caramel.
Gris Gris was where went on our first night, which made sense because it was right near our hotel, and it was an ideal welcome to New Orleans, with an expertly made Sazerac, oyster pie, chicken gizzard grillades — with a potent sauce made with a dark roux that may have been my most New Orleans bite of the trip — and shrimp and grits.
Of course, I had to stop at Cochon Butcher one day for lunch. Following in the footsteps of my Lunch Therapy patient, Noah Galvin, I had the Cubano with smoked pork, ham, and Swiss. It was hefty, but balanced, and a delight to eat in the buzzy dining room.
Finally, on our last night, we went to Compère Lapin, which came highly recommended and which featured Chef Nina Compton’s signature dish: curried goat with sweet potato gnocchi and cashews.
As the final entree of our trip, it embodied everything great about New Orleans — a mashup of different cultures; cozy, spicy, surprising, and sexy all at once.
And that, my friends, pretty much sums things up.
Our trip to New Orleans was enlivening, restorative, and very, very filling. If you’ve never been, and you love food, and you need a vacation this spring, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It was very Covid-conscious — every restaurant made us show our vax card and ID — and we felt very safe the whole time.
Now I need to sleep for a week, after all of that eating, then I’m going to join two gyms to burn it all off.
In the meantime, if you’re a fan of NYT bestselling author Mary Roach (and who isn’t?) she’s my patient on this week’s Lunch Therapy!
Her book Gulp, which I’m currently reading, has never made me laugh or cringe harder (it’s truly disgusting, but also highly informative); no wonder she’s been called “America’s funniest science writer” by The Washington Post. You can listen to the whole thing here:
And if you like it, please leave a nice review. It means a lot.
That’s all for today, folks!
See you back here on Thursday. If you’re not a paid subscriber, and want to get Thursday’s dispatch, here’s a 20% off discount code.
Laissez les bon temps rouler!