Something is happening in New Orleans’s culinary evolution. Something big. Bigger than even before the hurricane.Â Katrina flood waters destroyed much of the culinary pedigree in New Orleans for several years. In the past year though, the oldies have been returning: Gautreau’s, Camellia Grill, Emeril’s Delmonico, Willie Mae’s Scotch House, Eleven 79, and several others. Not only has there been a historic resurgence of New Orleans dining, a new scene is emerging defined by the openings of dessert boutiques like SucrÃ© on Magazine Street, three new Brazilian restaurants, a Colombian bistro and Tapas bar, and John Besh’s city wide expansion.
I hadn’t visited the city since the hurricane. I kept being told to stay away and for some reason I listened. Then I kept seeing airline tickets popping up for ridiculously cheap prices, as well as cheap car rentals, and four star hotels going for half price. I gave in.
Immediately I found the culinary scene branching out. Not only capitalizing on the grand old traditions, but incorporating new ones. Cajun ambassador Paul Prudhomme, owner of K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen and star of PBS cooking show Always Cooking, was inspired by a few years of exploring the foods of the Asian continent. Slowly he has been working ingredients like Cilantro, ginger, and lemon grass into his spice blends, cookbooks, and menus. A sort of Asian-Cajun fusion.
One time Ã¼ber-celebrity chef Emeril still has his legacy here, but has somewhat faded from the national spotlight since he stopped taping his show on the Food Channel. That’s where John Besh has stepped in.
Fresh off his run to become the next Iron Chef -which he was runner up to Cleveland chef Michael Symon – Besh is rapidly taking over New Orleans’ culinary glory. The James Beard award winning chef has three restaurants in the city: Restaurant August, one of the very first places to reopen after Katrina; LÃ¼ke; and Besh Steak.
Â LÃ¼ke is his newest venture and sits on St. Charles Avenue downtown, just below the Hilton. I walk in on a Thursday at noon and find the restaurant full, but the waitress manages to magically clear a table and squeeze us in. The lunchtime business crowd looked all hustle and bustle and waiters were scrambling to pick from the bed of fresh seafood that lines the right side of the restaurant.
The traditional Alsatian-style brasserie combines Old World French and German culinary techniques, which are standards in Louisiana cooking I learn. My dish comes out steaming on a cast iron skillet: slow-cooked Berkshire Pork Belly, house made Andoullie Sausage, cochon de lait, knuckles, and kraut. I look to the table next to mine and see schnitzel and spÃ¤tzle and Moulets et Frites, garlic steamed Price Edward Island Mussels with a cone of house made fries that are oddly standing on almost every table in the restaurant. Is this the same Crescent City?
Besh also recently bought and renovated La Provence. This was Chef Chris Kerageorgiou’s – who was Besh’s mentor – legendary Provencal restaurant in Lacomb, about an hour outside the city on Highway 190. It’s a good ol’ Louisiana style French farmhouse with a big stone fire place for pig roasts. Every Friday Besh and La Provence executive chef RenÃ© Bajeux, whose previous restaurant was destroyed in Katrina, join forces and are serving three course prix-fix menus to a growing crowd that doesn’t seem to mind making the trip.
Ghosts and History tours have always been core tourist activities here. Katrina tours are common now too. While looking for something to do I notice a small ad in the corner of a city magazine for culinary classes. I turned the page and found a list for half a dozen more. If a blink I think more might appear on the page. There’s one right down the street. I call and a class is starting in a few minutes.
“Do I need to bring anything,” I ask?
“Just your appetite,” the woman on the other line says.
I walk in late after slogging through the rain from my Bourbon Street Hotel to the New Orleans School of Cooking. The class, which is offered several times a day, was full. It looked like a TV infomercial set with a cooking stage and track lighting. Tom Nagelin, the teacher, is standing in the front summing up Louisiana cooking in two sentences: “Cajun is if we can catch it, we can eat it. Creole uses three sauces.”
He goes on to explain that in Louisiana there are two types of cuisines: Cajun and Creole. Many tend to lump them together but they are as different as a Muffaletta and a Big Mac. Cajun food is country style food, taking on the traditions of Provence. The Holy Trinity, as it is called, is the cuisines three primary vegetables: bell pepper, celery, and onion. On this side you have Gumbo, Boudin sausage, and crawfish boils.
Creole food is the refined cuisine of the greater New Orleans area. The grand old restaurants that are steeped in French culinary traditions like Antoine’s are of this persuasion. Here you will find dishes like Crawfish Ã‰touffÃ©e, Turtle Soup, Oysters Rockefeller, and Bananas Foster.
Nagelin goes on to explain and demonstrate the basics. “You want a nice texture on the top of your mouth,” Nagelin said as he prepared his roux. “Something to chew on. It adds to the flavor and experience of it all.”
We choose Muriel’s on Jackson Square for our last dinner in New Orleans. Nagelin recommended it. Everyone calls it the new Creole place in the French Quarter, but it has been around for eight years now. History follows you everywhere in this town though.
Muriel’s is said to be haunted. The ghost even has a name: Pierre Antoine Lepardi Jourdan. He apparently lost the house, his family’s dream home in a poker game, then committed suicide in the building. He now hangs around, no pun intended, the opulent SÃ©ance Lounge on the 2nd level.
I walk in to check it out before dinner. Hand me a drink and I wouldn’t want to leave either. Jourdan even has his own entrÃ©e, the Filet Antoine Lepardi Jourdan, a Black Angus filet mignon served over rock lobster mashed potatoes with a Marchand de Vin sauce.
While refilling our wine glasses the waiter asks my wife and I, “Where are you guys from? Oh really. So am I.” What a coincidence we thought.
On our last morning before our flight, we are munching on Beignets and drinking chicory coffee at CafÃ© du Monde and another waiter said the same thing. Fishy. Either all New Orleans’s waiters are from Ohio, or they are in really dire need of more tips and tippers.
Where to Stay:
Royal Sonesta – 300 Bourbon Street, (504) 586-0300. Doubles from $149 per night. An elegant hotel in the heart of all Bourbon street action.
Lafitte Guest House – 1008 Bourbon Street, (504) 581-2678. Rooms from $179 per night. A French Style mansion turned boutique hotel on a busy corner of the French Quarter.
W Hotel New Orleans – 316 Chartres St., (504) 581-1200. Doubles from $190 per night. A posh, contemporary ambiance adjacent to Jackson Square.
Where to Eat
CafÃ© Du Monde – 800 Decatur Street, (504) 524-4544. Atmospheric cafÃ© beloved for their chicory coffee and beignets.
LÃ¼ke Restaurant – 333 Saint Charles Ave, (504) 378-2840. An old world brasserie that is the newest piece of the John Besh empire.
La Provence – 25020 Highway 190, Lacombe, (985) 626-7662. A working farmhouse about an hour outside the city with French country fare.
Muriel’s – 801 Chartres Street (Jackson Square), (504) 568-1885. Not as classic as Antoine’s, but one of the finest Creole restaurants in the city.
New Orleans School of Cooking – 524 Saint Louis St., (504) 525-2665. Classes vary from private hands on classes to open demonstration lunches. Beginning at $27 per person.
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Writer and photographer Nicholas Gill is the editor/publisher of New World Review. He lives in Lima, Peru and Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CondeNast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, and Penthouse. Visit his personal website (nicholas-gill.com) for more information.