I have never been interested in the wild spring break trip that is based primarily on drinking and sunbathing so in my second semester back in student life I was once again faced with what to do for spring break. The beauty of graduate school is that I am surrounded not only by nerds such as myself but food nerds. An NYU trip to New Orleans seemed like my idea of a spring break – going with a group of girls not interested in overdosing on alcohol on Bourbon St but on deliciously greasy food and actually exploring the city. The best part was being able to talk about food 24/7 for a week straight.
Day one began with the obligatory walking tour of the French Quarter identifying all of the old school restaurants that put New Orleans cuisine on the map – Galatoire’s, Antoine’s, Brennan’s, K-Paul. While having a history of the Po Boy lesson our sandwiches thankfully arrived – i was so ready to delve into my first NOLA delight and could not have been more disappointed. Call me crazy, but cold fried seafood, shredded lettuce with tomato, and a double helping of mayo on tough white bread, just doesn’t do it for me. I would not have to wait long, however, for the sinful deliciousness I was craving.
Dinner at Lüke, Chef John Besh’s restaurant, was fabulous. The menu is made up of slightly more refined NOLA cuisine – things like Étouffeé made with fresh pasta and jumbo lump crab meat, and bourbon-caramel bread pudding. It is not a bad idea to ease into the food here with a meal that gives you the flavors of New Orleans without completely knocking you on your rear. That meal would come next…
Willie Mae’s is a neighborhood joint that found national acclaim with a James Beard Heritage award and the Food Network declaring their fried chicken the best in the country. I do not eat fried chicken very often, but this was definitely the best I have ever had. It also allowed us to see a part of New Orleans that is not necessarily on people’s to-do list. In desperate need of a walk after this meal we made our way back to our hotel through Tremé, one of the oldest districts in the city and historically important center of the city’s African-American and Creole cultures.
We also had to try the red beans and rice – very traditional in NOLA cuisine and one of the few dishes that so seamlessly crosses the divide between home cooks and restaurant chefs.
The Muffaletta from Central Grocery. Not a sandwich I would typically want to eat, especially being so full from Willie Mae’s, but being on a food trip really does not allow for such reprehensible behavior. I wish I had been hungrier because this sandwich was delicious! The olive/vegetable mixture was so flavorful and had soaked into the bread, which was fresh and light.
The next morning we headed out for some oystering on the bayou. The people in the area are predominantly Croatian, our boat was captained by a second-generation oysterman but the work remains a family affair with his father and uncle on board as well. Catching a glimpse of what their day-to-day lives are like, it is hard to see a connection with our lives back home and yet these men were so eager to share their knowledge. My favorite moment of the day, besides slurping down the biggest and freshest oyster I had ever seen, was inside the cabin where we had gathered to get warm (having packed inappropriately for such an excursion) and the captain’s father, a heavy-accented first generation immigrant, was chatting away with all the ladies, pulling out his iphone to prove that his precious little dog was the cuttest and offering up double-stuffed oreos from his secret stash. It was truly a unique experience.
Beignets are a must in New Orleans. The famous place to go is Cafe du Monde but unless you enjoy feeling like the ultimate tourist and getting so-so food, I would not recommend going there. I loved the ones from Cafe Beignet – it happened to be right next to our hotel and I went there each morning for much needed coffee and decided on day four to try the beignets (since that is what the cafe is named after) and was immediately in fried pillow heaven.
Our last evening in New Orleans was by far the best – a crawfish boil at someone’s house. Our gracious host (pictured below) not only welcomed a group of eager students into his home, but made a spectacular feast for us as well. I went early to help cook – well I mostly just help cut up the massive amount of sausage being used that evening.
The crawfish were delicious but the corn that gets cooked in the same pot was my favorite morsel, despite being so spicy I thought my lips might go up in flames!
Oh and there was Jambalaya too. THAT was the best thing I ate on the whole trip. Since I was helping cut up the sausage for it, I asked our host about his recipe (or lack there of), as I had recently made a jambalaya that seemed quite similar – and to my complete astonishment, he used the same recipe!!! I felt like such an authentic New Orleanian! Stay tuned for that recipe (right now I need some serious health-food TLC).
Lüke: high-end NOLA cuisine
Willie Mae’s Scotch House: fried chicken
Central Grocery: muffaletta
Cafe Beignet: beignets (and good coffee)
Cochon: boudin – Chef Donald Link
Herbsaint: also Donald Link
Boucherie: refined but delicious
Galatoire’s: old-school spot
Sobu: decadent (foie gras burger)
Acme Oyster House: oysters
Palace Cafe: supposed to have incredible gumbo