I was in Katrina…Part I. Part I being the episode where the hurricane passed over Florida and didn’t do anything–we had a couple of lightless hours, long enough for a game of Clue, and a can of Chef Boyardee. We couldn’t believe it as we watched the monster the little hurricane would become, and what it did to the city I had always wanted to see.
Finally, a few months ago, I made my way to New Orleans. Sorry, I’ve been keeping this story in my back pocket. The first thing that struck me was how much damage there still was. Having lived in Florida, I know that hurricanes can be slow things to clean up. But it was clear that in some places, all efforts had stopped. But in the French Quarter, where we stayed, what struck me the most is how many times I heard the words “Thank you.” Hoteliers, restauranteurs, waiters, locals: Thank you for coming to see out city. I had never thought of it as charity! I was just so excited to finally arrive. So, if I can say anything back to New Orleans, it’s thank you for one of the most gut-busting weekends I’ve ever had in my life.
I don’t know what other people go to New Orleans for. I went for the food. And if that’s why you’re going, then this is where you’ve got to eat.
The Central Grocery
My first meal–and what should have been my last from the size of it. You can buy a half muffuletta, but Mr. English and I were like, please. We need a whole one. Don’t do that. It was this huge sesame loaf, stuffed with salami, mortadella, provolone, swiss, and olive salad soaked with oil and briny capers and pickled veggies and herbs. It was amazing, and a true testament to American enormity. But afterwards, I felt like a Pepcid AC commercial. I had to lie down…and eat a praline.
923 Decatur St
New Orleans, Louisiana 70116
Across from the W is this little candy shop. The pralines, especially the creamy chocolate ones, are to die for. They’re made with half and half, sugar, and pecans. That’s “peecahns”. They are like crisp, sweet fudge. If you’re there, and you don’t need to have a praline for sentimental purposes, get the Mississippi fudge–a morass of chocolate, caramel, and pecans.
What’s amazing in New Orleans is the gentrification of it all. Just steps from Bourbon Street and its plastic beads and peep show posters are these ancient establishments of dinner jackets and cocktail napkins. I had the Contessa: Boodles gin, Aperol, grapefruit juice, cranberry cordial, and an orange twist studded with three cloves. You’re not going to find cocktails taken so seriously anywhere else. And for Mr. English–an Abita beer, made close by.
You can find Chef Paul Prudhomme’s blackening spice in every supermarket now, but this is where the original blackened fish accident happened. Legend has it that a chef left a fillet of redfish in the skillet just a little too long–and the blackened fish shot to fame and fortune. I had it, with vegetables, and the best mashed potatoes, and a smoky pepper butter. You also have to get the shrimp remoulade with fried green tomatoes–so spicy and crunchy and good. You won’t get food this good in such a warm, casual atmosphere at any other New Orleans institution!
I had been waiting my whole life for this, mostly I think because my middle name is beignet. Or, it should be. You can taste the grease on them–but that’s okay. Square and fluffy and distinctly fried, the beignets are tumbled under an avalanche of powdered sugar that you snort on everyone around you, and inevitably inhale. It’s amazing. There’s only two things on the menu! Beignets and beverages. I kept going back–don’t let the line intimidate you, it goes fast. If you don’t want to be such a tourist, go to the window, order a bag of beignets to go, and take it down to a bench on the Mississippi.
I drink a lot of water, so when water is the show stopper, I have to say something about it. If you want a great hotel, do check out the W in the French Quarter. It has this very moody central courtyard that was my respite from running around and eating. But in reception, they had the best “spa” water: steeped with grapes, strawberries, citrus, and fresh mint.
This is a cheffy darling, I gather. Very gourmet. It’s a lovely, sophisticated little establishment. I had eggplant caviar and tapenade. Caesar salad. Perfect pink lamb with red wine sauce and goat cheese. And a lemon lavender semifreddo. It’s very perfect food, but not red-beans-and-rice. If you need a respite from all the gumbo, this is the place to go for something a little grown up.
Go and take Sandra’s class. You get beer, biscuits, tea, and Miss Sandra teaches you to make a real roux, gumbo, jambalaya, and pralines. She explains all about Emeril’s holy trinity of onion, celery, and green peppers–but did you know garlic is the pope? That’s what Sandra will teach you. You’ll leave stuffed with equal amounts of fat, personality, and flavor–plus their gourmet store is the perfect place to stock up on beignet mix, blackening spices, and the works.
One of my best friends from Le Cordon Bleu is from Louisiana, and he now works in New Orleans. He told me about Galatoire’s, which is one of the dinner jacket and cocktail napkin places I was mentioning earlier. I was the youngest person there by a generation, but it was so full of life, and history, it this big, cacophonous room, that I felt like the old fogey. The best thing about New Orleans is how cheap expensive food is–all I ate at that meal was oysters, crabs, and champagne, and while it’s not a cheap restaurant, I spent about what a chicken would have cost me out in New York.
The place I went to for a po’ boy wasn’t the place in New Orleans, so I’m not going to both listing it. The point is, just drop into any ol’ place and get one. I could not believe that I got a footlong baguette stuffed with fried oysters and fried shrimp, about 20 or 30 of each, with mayo, lettuce, pickles, and half a bottle of Crystal hot sauce for less than $10. It was voodoo magic.