Eating in New Orleans

We ate really well in New Orleans – and we managed to avoid places like Popeye’s and Wendy’s. We relied on Samantha Cook’s Rough Guide to New Orleans to steer us in the right direction, although the book is out of date (September 2001) and in at least one instance, wrong. Generally, we were extremely impressed with Cook’s recommendations.
I’ve spent the morning reliving our culinary treats, just in case you find yourself in New Orleans with a growly tummy:

Lunch at the Orleans Café
Our first meal in the Big Easy was accidental – we had just checked into the hotel, and we were ravenous because Air Canada Jazz didn’t feed us on the 2+ hour flight from Toronto. Right around the corner from the hotel, we found the Orleans Café.
Dr. T had one of the specials of the day, a pasta concoction with huge slices of battered zucchini and a brown sauce. He enjoyed it so much he spent the rest of the trip casually walking past the restaurant, hoping to find the dish on the specials board again. My first taste of Louisiana cuisine was the seafood platter – oysters, jumbo shrimp, catfish and calamari, all battered, with fries and salad. It sounds (a) sinfully fried and (b) mundane, but the batter was light, nothing was greasy, and the cocktail sauce was the best I’ve ever had – thick enough to stick to even the little oysters, and with more than a hint of hot mustard. I skipped most of the calamari – it’s a texture thing – but enjoyed the shrimp and oysters, and loved my first taste of catfish.
Dinner on the River
Dinner the first night was aboard the Natchez, the only operating steamboat in the area. The meal was served buffet-style, so we started by grabbing a table on the top deck, right in front of the band, The Dukes of Dixieland.
The Menu
Prime Rib au jus
Praline Chicken (topped with southern pecan sauce)
Catfish Louisiane
Mardi Gras Pasta Alfredo
Spinach Southern Style (spinach and artichoke hearts with a blend of three cheeses, topped with toasted bread crumbs)
Green Beans Amandine
Roasted Red Potatoes
Sternwheeler Salad
New Orleans Bread Pudding

One expects a buffet to be mediocre at best; this one exceeded expectations (in a good way). The chicken was good, the catfish was excellent, and the veggies weren’t overcooked or bland. It helped that the bar was a very short walk from our table.
Other meals, in no particular order
Dinner at Bayona
We decided to go all out and try one of the more expensive restaurants in the Quarter, Bayona, home of renowned chef Susan Spicer. As it turns out, Bayona is less expensive than some of its counterparts – the main courses all hover around $20 – and the food is incredible. I had the lamb loin with goat, cheese & zinfandel sauce while Dr. T, the vegetarian who is so hard to please, had a wild mushroom quiche. We shared a half-bottle of pinot noir, as well as cocktails before and sherry and port with dessert, which was beyond words good. The white grasshopper pie ice cream… indescribably good.
One observation we made was that the servings were reasonably sized – we hypothesized that mid-range restaurants ($10 or so for a dish) pile on the food because diners want to see quantity for their money. Restaurants like Bayona, on the other hand, have quality ingredients and a great chef, so operate under the assumption that if the food is really, really good, the diners don’t need to be overstuffed to feel they got their money’s worth.
Our only disappointment was that the terrace was closed – they don’t serve outside during the hot summer – but in retrospect, we probably were happier inside.
Breakfast at the Bywater Barbeque
One of the Guide recommendations was breakfast at Elizabeth’s, a small place in the Bywater district. Having no map of the area, Heather and I set out to find it – it’s on Chartres, so we figured as long as we stayed on Chartres from the French Quarter, eventually we would find Elizabeth’s.
After only an hour or so of walking in the steamy New Orleans heat, we found Elizabeth’s – first we stopped to ask “Dr. Bob” the artist, who reminded me of Wreck the Magic Man, for directions. After all, we were two relatively small white women, with guide books and cameras, wandering through some rather specifically non-touristy areas…
Elizabeth is on vacation.
Instead, based on Dr. Bob/Wreck’s recommendation, we walked back a couple of blocks to the Bywater Barbeque, where we shared a frittata and a breakfast burrito. Both featured eggs and plenty of andouille sausage, and both were good, especially the frittata, which was somewhere between an omelet and a quiche. We decided that the food was worth the walk – all the more so because we took a bus back to the Quarter!
The Gumbo Shop
Our first visit to the Gumbo Shop capped off our swamp tour day – and the Gumbo Shop serves alligator. So I had the alligator sauce piquant as an appetizer, just in case it bit. It didn’t. It was a little tiny bowl of alligator stew, with a thick tomato sauce and spices. The meat itself was about the taste and consistency of tender beef. Dr. T’s appetizer was a bowl of vegetarian gumbo, and we both had house beers, his dark, mine pale.
The main course for me was crawfish etouffe, which was good enough to recommend to our friends when we returned for our penultimate New Orleans dinner. The only problem was there was so much of it, I left more than half in the bowl! On our return visit, I tried the blackened catfish, which was melt-in-your-mouth good and done to perfection. Both times we ate at the Gumbo Shop, Dr. T had the vegetarian dish of the day, which was red beans and rice the first time, and black beans and rice the second.
On our second visit, having learned my lesson about the portions, I skipped the appetizer and had room for a slice of Southern Pecan Pie, which was more nuts than filling and was fabulous.
This place is a definite recommendation – our five Scrabble friends who joined us the second time couldn’t stop talking about the meal, and all agreed it was the best food they had yet to eat in New Orleans.
Café Maspero
Almost cafeteria style dining, in a big, crowded, fun atmosphere – the dollar daiquiris don’t hurt! We ended up here after we tried the famous Tujagues, which we discovered to our horror had nothing on the menu under $30 – let’s face it: add wine and tip and tax, and we’re talking $50 US per person, which is more than $65 CD.
At Maspero, I had the gumbo, which was nothing spectacular, but at least it was affordable!
Mona Lisa
Very cool little place, decorated with every imaginable rendition of La Giaconda, with tasty, interesting pizza. We ate there twice, so I have had the Meditteranean and the Seafood piiza, both of which were excellent.
Napoleon House
Napoleon House, so called because its owner, Mayor Girod, planned to receive Napoleon there after Jean Lafitte’s planned rescue of the admiral, never actually met its namesake, who died three days before Lafitte got there.
We tried the restaurant for lunch, which was a muffelatta for me – a sandwich stacked high with a variety of meats and a unique olive and pickle dressing – and for the life of me, I can’t remember what Dr. T had. Something without meat…
-Tujagues, as mentioned above
-Elizabeth’s, ditto
Old Dog, New Trick Café, a vegetarian place recommended by the guide – it’s not there anymore. We have since discovered that it’s only moved, not closed, but we missed it while we were there.
-No outdoor dining in the summer.
-Not eating Bananas Foster – although we did share a Bananas Foster crepe at a tiny roadside stand.
-Not eating a real po-boy – I had an andouille po-boy at the airport, but I suspect (and hope) it wasn’t representational.
-Not getting to eat that well all the time!!!!