“Oh, you’ve got to go to this restaurant I ate at last night,” panted Joanne as she ran to catch up to me. She rummaged around in her purse until she found the card she saved. It was SoBou on Chartres Street. Esquire magazine called SoBou (sobounola.com) the best new restaurant in 2012 and four years later, people are still raving about it, my friend included. Trusting the word of a like-minded foodie, off I went to the edge of the French Quarter in the exciting city of New Orleans.
SoBou is warm and comfortable with a stunning, signature wall of layered clear glass bottles in colours of muted yellow and sultry green lit from behind with bright lighting. If it sounds too stark for you, it’s all warmed by the charm of exposed brick and dark wood on the other walls.
Richard our waiter distinguishes SoBou from the smoky jazz clubs and drinking holes all around it by saying, “in this place the customers know that Pinot Noir isn’t a daiquiri flavour”. While SoBou is a distinctively different restaurant for New Orleans’s French Quarter, it shows its roots on Sunday when you can find New Orleans’s most famous burlesque dancer, Bella Blue performing during the Eggs and Legs Brunch.
Richard recommended I try the Charred Lemon Geaux Fish with saffron and crawfish risotto so that’s the way I went. The dish came surrounded with local squash and heirloom carrots grown for them by Covey Rise Farm not far away. They were cooked perfectly al’ dente. The fish was seared in a lemon glaze they call Geaux for a crispy citrusy spike on the palate. It’s a magical opposing mix of citrusy light and roasted savoury, a dance of elegant fish and rich root vegetables.
There once was a time when a food trip to New Orleans meant dinner at Mr. B’s for their jumbo lump crab cakes, Acme Oysters for a dozen Mississippi oysters or Café du Monde for a plate of hot, sugary beignets.
The French quarter, rich in oysters, gumbo, pralines and beignets continues to be a culinary institution drenched in history and heat. But in between the classics are new restaurants lead by daring chefs and inspired culinary entrepreneurs who are creating a new and unrecognizable food scene that ranges from sushi grade Yellow Fin tuna topped with avocado ice cream to boudoir meat lockers.
Voted best New Restaurant in 2013 by New Orleans Magazine and just a block away from SoBou is Doris Metropolitan (dorismetropolitan.com/new-orleans/en/index). Walk in and be amazed at the glassed in meat locker with a definite romantic decor. Not a surprising sight as this fourth restaurant in the Doris family empire began as a butcher shop in Israel. Giant slabs of beef lay dry aging on reproduction French antique, marble-topped tables.
At Doris they have in-house butchers and Peter, a New Orleans’s resident dining at the next table tells me you can order a steak, have it aged to your specifications (30, 60 or 90 days) and then come to the restaurant and enjoy it cooked to your liking; or take it home and cook it up yourself. All of the meat is sourced from small, artisan farms. Walking in the hot and sticky New Orleans afternoon my appetite was longing for something lighter than a big steak so I had the sizzling minute steak with shoe-string fries. It was delicious even though I felt overwhelmed by the giant wooden boards overflowing with huge hunks of beef at every other table. To enjoy this restaurant fully requires more training than I have time for.
On Peter’s table there was a giant wooden carving board covered with different cuts of meat cooked medium rare and surrounded with glistening red juices. It’s called a “family-style meat board” and you design it yourself, selecting the various steaks, the age and desired doneness. The kitchen cooks it up perfectly and then it’s styled. Some cuts are presliced and fanned out across the board, while others are stacked vertically – it’s a sexy sight for any veteran carnivore.
If the French Quarter attracts the party crowd, I’ll tell you it’s the Warehouse District that attracts the serious foodies. In between the art galleries, up-scale grocers and exclusive furniture stores are eateries the locals are keeping to themselves.
On the corner of Julia and Magazine streets you’ll find Pêche (pecherestaurant.com), a restaurant dedicated to fresh fish and their unique way of cooking it. In the back of the restaurant next to the fresh seafood bar is an open, wood-burning oven. But don’t mistake it for a wood burning pizza oven, this oven and its fiery embers are dedicated solely to fish. Fresh, whole fish go into the small inferno and come out smoky and delicious. I watched as no less than four waiters huddled around the oven flanked with heaps of dried wood, waited for their orders to be ready.
I immediately wanted a fish cooked so smoky you could taste the embers of the ash branches on the crisp skin. Shawn my waiter explained that the fish is all local and all seasonal. Since it was June and Redfish season, that’s what I went with. The large, whole Redfish complete with head and tail arrived at the table, skin glistening and a dark green chimmichurri sauce trailing from it’s head to its tail. There is no tableside deboning at Pêche, but doing the job was much easier than anticipated. The thick chunks of meaty, flaky flesh easily fell from the long, strong bones. It was served with a green salad that included a healthy dose of fresh Louisiana pecans.
Pêche is a restaurant with an eclectic theme of industrial and modern aquatics in an ambience of loud, blustery excitement. Waiters walked briskly around diners carrying plates of raw oysters, platters of whole fish and bowls of fresh salads. It was a Wednesday evening and Pêche was packed with a growing crowd sipping drinks around the cocktail bar waiting for tables.
With a variety of eateries to round out an exciting New Orleans day, waking up to good food is just as important to New Orleanders. Willa Jean (willajean.com) is a destination bakery and café with a seductive display of tall muffins, squat scones, cookie towers and specialty breakfast cakes gloriously displayed under glass domes. Pastry chef and partner Kelly Fields is a talented baker crafting muffins in a very un-American-style with less sugar, more quality ingredients and an appeal of full flavour.
I recommend the Avocado Toast. It begins with a thick slice of house made multi-grained dark bread with butter lettuce, a smear of guacamole, sliced of tomato, a heap of shaved chicken, slivers of ripe avocado and garnished with unprocessed, pieces of Louisiana pecans.
Kelly’s breakfast recommendation is the pure simplicity and decadence of cookies and milk. “We mess with the milk,” says Fields referring to the addition of Tahitian vanilla in fresh whole milk and she’s proud of her chocolate chip cookie perfection. Kelly works directly with local farmers to secure the best quality grains for flour, fresh eggs, milk, seasonal fruit and even sugar. Yes, she has a small local sugar cane farmer who even boils it down into a sugar syrup that meets Kelly’s standards.
Discovering what’s new in a city you think you know makes a traveller out of a tourist. Next time you’re in New Orleans wander into one of the lesser known neighbourhoods and discover how deliciously unpredictable New Orleans can be.
Written By: Lynn Ogryzlo