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In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, dining in the Big Easy has evolved in deliciously unexpected ways.
First Published Jan/Feb 2012Flying to Houston, our seatmate, who was heading home to Tampa, was envious to learn our final destination: “Man, it’s not hard to have a good time there,” he said. “It’s like going to another country.” Indeed, there’s something about New Orleans that’s more Caribbean island than American city. The reliance on tourism, for starters. The moist, billowy heat. The anything-goes atmosphere of Mardi Gras (and of Bourbon Street every day of the year). The colonial architecture and unhurried rhythm and decaying beauty of the French Quarter. Plus the sense of being surrounded by water—a figurative isolation made literal in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina and the pathetic official response to it.The food, too, has an elusive, almost un-American quality. Dining is central to the city’s identity, and the cuisine is unique in its gumbo of cultural influences: Cajun, Creole, Caribbean, African, Spanish, French, Italian, Vietnamese. The legendary rooms serve the same rich seafood dishes they always have, and no tour would be complete without a visit to Antoine’s for oysters Rockefeller (invented at the restaurant in 1889) or Dooky Chase for fried catfish. Paul Prudhomme serves up endless plates of crawfish étouffée, and Emeril Lagasse has three rooms in which tourists “kick it up a notch.” Stop in for a vieux carré (sweetly boozy) at the Hotel Monte-leone or a sazerac (even sweeter and boozier) at the Roosevelt and there you have it: old New Orleans in a nutshell.For classic cuisine, there may be no better spot than Commander’s Palace, a sprawling layout of connected rooms in the Garden District. It’s the sort of place where, since 1880, beneath elegant chandeliers, the gentlemen have stood when the ladies return to the table. It’s where birthdays are celebrated (at least five of them the Sunday night we visited), where the James Beard awards are discreetly framed on the stairway wall, and where the best perch in the main room is referred to as “the Ronald Reagan table.” A centuries-old live oak provides a canopy above the expansive courtyard, and “Miss Ella” Brennan, now 86, whose family owns the restaurant, can sometimes be seen peeking down from behind the curtains of her adjacent home. Service is gracious but not obsequious, the wine cellar includes 14,000 bottles and the menu pays careful homage to tradition (the restaurant reopened in 2006 after an extensive renovation).The food is flavourful and rich, complex but not fussy, and sauces and reductions play a prominent role. To a palate more accustomed to restraint, the turtle soup, spiked with sherry, tastes almost concentrated, as if the chef forgot to dilute it; but then so does the gumbo, which is built on a stock so rich that a mere taste suffices. Pecan-crusted Gulf redfish, topped with champagne-poached blue crabmeat and crushed corn sauce, is impressive, but you wonder how the fish would fare in a simpler preparation. The duck confit, plenty rich enough, is further enriched with pecans and dates. Praline parfait strikes the perfect light note for dessert.Elsewhere, tradition is being adapted in unexpected ways. Take Cochon. The room, in a former warehouse, feels more like Portland (open kitchen, sleek wood, exposed brick) than New Orleans, at least until you get to the Cajun riffs on the menu. The fried alligator with chili-spiked garlic aioli is addictive, as are the smoked pork ribs with watermelon pickle. The Louisiana cochon with turnips, cabbage and cracklins is exemplary. (And prices are more than reasonable: braised pork cheek with sauerkraut potato cakes is $12, and when’s the last time you saw $5 sides?) Just as Cochon was among the first new rooms to rise out of the post-Katrina devastation, heralding rejuvenation, the menu signals a revitalized approach to Cajun fare.
The city’s population is still only 350,000 (versus about 485,000 pre-Katrina) and many traces of the devastation remain, yet there are now more restaurants than there were in 2004. The celebrated chef John Besh owns half a dozen rooms, in New Orleans and elsewhere, and Luke (named after his son), adjacent to the Hilton, shows his willingness to include far-flung influences in his take on local. At brunch, the Plat Lyonnais would have made Jean-Georges Vongerichten proud: an Alsatian-style feast of sausage (three types), red potatoes and caramelized onions, along with little pots of cherry and Dijon mustard. The crab salad, meanwhile, was the single best dish we had, heavy on the crab, light on the dressing, with just the right crunch. Desserts included a fine Basque cake, with crème fraîche. Basque cake, in the American South? What country is this again?
It is, as our seatmate suggested, its own country. In New Orleans, local ingredients—from red beans and corn grits to okra and rabbit to catfish and Gulf shrimp—are overlaid with cultural influences and cooking traditions that long ago merged into a singular cuisine. Louisiana had a proud history for many centuries before the territory passed from French control to American in 1803, and the upheavals of Southern history have only enriched the gumbo. You taste this unique culinary fusion each time you sit down to dine.