New Orleans is Tourist Trap Heaven, what with expensive bars and clubs dotting Bourbon Street, a cartoonish image, and a reputation like Vegas: What happens in New Orleans stays in New Orleans. Avoid the traps, however, and you’ll discover a rich, complex cuisine steeped in regionalism and respect for ingredients.
I did my research before setting foot, as always, and the result was stunning. New Orleans has the best food I’ve had in the U.S. outside of New York City and Napa Valley. The menus are not varied, which accounts for the depth of flavors as restaurants compete implicitly to cook the best versions of classic dishes rather than reinvent what tastes good already. Unlike other cities like Boston where the chefs compete on who can be most creative, restaurant kitchens in New Orleans are focused, ingredient driven, and seasonal. What the food lacks in finesse, it makes up for concentrated tastes that are at once delicious and then memorable.
I had five nights and six days to find the best in food and drink. My mission met with success.
First stop was Napoleon House (500 Chartres Street, 504-524-9752). A centuries old corner bar with a small dining room adjacent to it, this spectacularly cinematic looking establishment is home to locals and visitors. The draw is the long bar in the front where bartenders mix classics in a dark, shadowy room. The drinks are relatively low in price, and treated by the bartenders as almost medicinal. They handle the alcohol with reverence and caution. You can see the fear in their eyes as they mix the elixers or was that just me before quaffing?
It’s a short walk from Napoleon House to Bayona (430 Dauphine Street, 504-525-4455). Helmed by Susan Spicer, Bayona has a lovely garden space, one of the most beautiful in the city, and a dining room that looks as if it as a set from “Sunset Boulevard.” The wait staff is chill, but anticipatory. The food? Dense and delicious garlic soup, sweetbreads, oysters, and wonderful fish from the gulf.
The next day, we headed to Cochon (30 Tchoupitoulas Street, (504) 588-2123) for lunch. Cochon is a collaboration between Donald Link and Stephen Stryjewski, both James Beard award winning chefs. Located in the warehouse district, the place is killer. Amazing versions of roasted, milk fed pork, an oyster and bacon sandwich, and, if you’re feeling Cajun, fried boudin, fried alligator, and gumbo. The staff is tatoo covered and the crowd is rollicking. This is a party.
Late that night, feeling hunger return, we walked over to Lüke (333 St. Charles Avenue, 504-378-2840). This restaurant, a low-key establishment run by John Besh, another top New Orleans chef with a national reputation, offers brasserie style food served in huge portions accompanied by draft beers, good wines, and simple cocktails. Feasting here consists of dishes like mussels and fries, gulf fish amandine, shrimp with grits, and veal sausages.
Easily the best restaurant in the city, Herbsaint (701 St. Charles Avenue, 504-522-1679), is run by Donald Link. Refined, serious, and extremely focused cuisine, our lunch here of raw oysters, house-made pasta with a fried egg and guanciale, and a perfect fresh tuna club was heavenly. This is the kind of restaurant that sets the bar. It’s food that makes you happy, makes you think, has you consider the local traditions, and earns your respect for the chef’s vision and skill at leading a team of cooks in his kitchen.