How strange it was to be in a food mecca like New Orleans, choking down watery egg product and undercooked chicken sausage in a conference room with no windows. That was really the only bad meal I had, though…well, except for the undercooked steamed chicken breasts…But I managed to eat well anyway. Anyone who knows me knows I always do.
The first night I hopped off the plane and hightailed it over to nearby Cochon, about which I had heard raves from many trusted folk of fine taste buds. Although the presentation was nouvelle, the flavors were old-fashioned basic Cajun/southern and a real pleasure to the palate. See this post for more details. And my tight budget wasn’t dented much by Cochon, either, like the Antoine’s or August that I wanted to try; my total bill was $36 for appetizer, entree and two beers.
The following morning a continental breakfast of breads, yogurt and fruit was served as part of the roundtable discussions I attended, then that night there was a delightful reception offering much of Louisiana’s best, set amid lively live music and brisk breezes off the river. I got lost and got there 45 minutes late, so I may have missed some of it–the Sazeracs and Hurricanes were long gone–but standouts were Leah Chase’s sumptuous gumbo z’herbes with nine greens and a light roux, Ms. Chase told me, plus another excellent gumbo, a fine jambalaya, a divine bacon-wrapped shrimp over grits, a garlicky heads-on “barbecue” shrimp with bread for dunking (barbecue shrimp never sees a grill, is doused in generous quantities of butter and broiled–with fresh local gulf shrimp it can be exquisite–more on that later) and a couple of freshly shucked oysters (briny nirvana). A man pounded file powder from fresh sassafras leaves in a huge mortar and pestle and other local food artisans demonstrated the frying of calas, the making of brown-sugar/pecan pralines, the pouring of excellent local beer, and roux-crafting (light, medium and dark in cast-iron skillets with bread for dunking and tasting the difference).
The next morning was the above-mentioned breakfast from hell, but the consolation prize followed soon afterwards at my first panel of the day, a tasting of Southeast Asian street food with a delightfully fresh and balanced green papaya salad from Mai Pham and a spicy chicken satay from Robert Danhi. That night I went on a tour of the yet-unopened Southern Food and Beverage Museum that was supposed to end with a po-boy from Mother’s. But perhaps the 50 of us would have been too much for Mother’s, so we were led instead to Creole Delicacies at Riverwalk (a two-story mall) where we listened to an warm, funny local cook tells us New Orleans stories while we ate crispy crawfish croquettes and rich gumbo and she cooked and served us the best Bananas Foster I have ever had, or made, ever.
Friday night was the IACP awards ceremony, which was preceded by a cocktail reception where I planned to pig out on hors d’oeuvres and make a meal of it. However, other than some shrimp in sauce and a lot of crudites, most of what was on offer was sweet (I saw someone munching a lovely-looking lamb chop but couldn’t find them anywhere). So after the awards I was still hungry and went downstairs to dine at Drago’s which is part of the hotel but was originally opened in Metairie in 1969 by a Croatian immigrant. Fortunately, I ran into a couple of fellow conference attendees that I knew, so I didn’t have to eat alone. I had Drago’s charbroiled oysters, which were a tad gritty but otherwise good (butter, parmesan cheese, garlic and lots of tall flames), then a pretty good redfish with creamy crawfish sauce.
The next day was the culinary expo and cookbook signing which I preceded with a wonderful meal at Dooky Chase’s with some colleagues. The restaurant isn’t truly officially open yet, still getting up on its knees after Katrina, but will serve you lunch if you call ahead, since they’re understaffed and still struggling. But the place oozed history, was gilded with absolutely gorgeous African-American art, and the food was perfection–I had a moist fried chicken breast that put to shame any I’ve ever made, with some delectable greens and macaroni and cheese (my favorite “vegetable”) on the side.
Stuffed as I was, I didn’t stop, and kept on tasting at the Expo. I tried John Besh’s Creole Shrimp Salad with Louisiana Pickled Quail Eggs at the Zatarain’s booth, Rachel’s yogurt, Tabasco’s spicy Bloody Mary with pickled okra, an array of unctuous nut oils like pistachio and pecan from La Tourangelle and much more.
The next day was the last and thanks to my crappy cell phone I missed a chance to go to Willie Mae’s Scotch House, but I did get to go to Cafe du Monde for perky chicory cafe au lait and fluffy, crispy, oh-so-sugary beignets, twice in the same day, wearing a black shirt like the rube that I am–it got covered in powdered sugar. That afternoon I wandered all over the French Quarter, got kicked out of Acme Oyster House for not waiting in line (Line? Line? I thought it was just people outside smoking) but went on to have a perfect meal at the French Market Cafe on Decatur Street: a half dozen oysters on the half shell, at once chewy as a clam and creamy as pudding, metallic, tangy, sweet and swimming in their own tears in pearly tubs–I could have eaten three dozen. But better still was my “barbecue” shrimp, a mountain of huge heads-on shrimp bathed in butter and spice with bread for dunking, their sweet flesh succulent and delicate as a fine-textured lobster, the head-fat nearly funky as a crawfish’s and full of character, sometimes enriched with a nugget of coral or tomalley. Oh heaven, these shrimp, putting all other shrimp to shame. I tried so hard to “exercise restraint,” as my father used to advise me, but to no avail. I left only a pond of golden butter, a crust of bread and a heap of picked-clean pink shells.
No muffelettas for me this trip, no po-boys, no Sazeracs, no pompano crabmeat meuniere, but that’s okay (my last trip I got to eat at Commander’s Palace and Galatoire’s). I will be back. The Big Easy has burrowed forever under my skin. I’ve eaten very well in New York, L.A., Paris, Rome, Saigon and Bangkok, but never better than the city where they really know how to eat, in spite of paralyzing storms, that great wise voodoo queen New Orleans.
Did you go? Have you been? What did you eat?