Mention New Orleans and anyone who's been there will tell you the food is great, and so is the music. If you go, you'll love it. As my wife and I were going to spend a few days in town recently, I asked for recommendations on Facebook and Twitter, read guide books and asked friends who are NOLA aficionados.
Certain restaurants appeared on multiple lists. One was Acme Oyster House (724 Iberville Street, 504/522-5973) in the French Quarter for oysters, although I was advised the place is so crowded that a good workaround to get in is to sit at the bar between 3 and 4 p.m. Other popular recommendations were the jackets-preferred Commander's Palace in the Garden District (1403 Washington Avenue, 504/899-8221), Antoine's Restaurant (713 Saint Louis Street, 504/581-4422), and Galatoire's Restaurant (209 Bourbon Street, 504/525-2021) for an upscale version of Creole, Cajun and New Orleans cooking.
We missed many of the recommended places, but we did make a pilgrimage to the original Cafe du Monde (800 Decatur St., 504/525-4544) in the French Quarter for coffee and a breakfast beignet. This cash-only institution is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Given the crowds morning, noon and night, it's surprising they have such a limited menu. Basically it's a riff on the SNL cheeseburger-cheeseburger-cheeseburger joke. Only here it's cafe au lait-beignet-orange juice.
The beignets -- better than any I've eaten anywhere else -- arrive thickly coated with powdered sugar on tapas sized plates. There's no way you'll eat your beignet and not get sugar on your shirt and pants. The coffee is great and goes perfectly with the airy, sugary beignets. Even though the place is crowded, the turnover is quick so even if there is a long line to get in, you can sit, eat and even read the newspaper without feeling guilty.
A kitchen the size of a large closet accommodates dozens of wait staff and kitchen help. With exquisite choreography, servers carrying large trays loaded down with silverware, stacks of paper napkins, water glasses, coffees and beignets leave the kitchen passing by others returning tray-fulls of empty glasses, dirty silverware and plates.
Donald Link's restaurants are popular, especially Herbsaint (701 Saint Charles Ave., 504/524-4114) and Cochon (930 Tchoupitoulas St., 504/588-2123). Meals at both restaurants were good. Finding fresh vegetables that haven't been steamed, stewed and fried isn't that easy in New Orleans. Link treats his veggies with respect even as he celebrates all things meat, especially pork at pig-centric Cochon, where I had a crust-perfect serving of short ribs on a bed of vegetables and creamy faro.
For lovers of good fried chicken, Willie Mae's Scotch House (2401 St. Ann Street, 504/822-9503) is a lot of fun. Not close to anything, it's tucked away in the Seventh Ward but well worth the 10-minute cab ride or 30 minute walk from the French Quarter.
At Willie Mae's, there is no such thing as soggy fried chicken (which happens to be one of the fondest culinary memories of my youth). The chicken arrives on your plate as crisp as can be, the meat hot and moist. For $10, you get a wing, thigh and leg, a corn muffin and a choice of sides, which in my case was not a "side" but a second course consisting of red beans and rice served in a large bowl. The beans were as memorable as the chicken, thick with flavor and a touch of heat.
The best meal of the trip started with an interview with Austin Kirzner, executive chef at Red Fish Grill (115 Bourbon St., 504/598-1200) on the edge of the French Quarter. Kirzner sat down with me over a cup of coffee in the morning before the restaurant opened and described the kind of cooking he learned to do in Louisiana. That evening, my wife and I came back for a tasting of Red Fish Grill's menu.
Kirzner showed us his favorites: the BBQ oysters which were actually deep fried and served with blue cheese dressing, raw oysters on the half shell and Louisiana blue crab cakes. A crispy whole redfish looked as if it could still swim -- but this time in a river of vegetables -- and a filet of hickory-grilled redfish was topped with sweet lump crabmeat.
Several delicious desserts appeared on the table, including a fat slice of pecan pie with whipped cream and an over-the-top triple chocolate bread pudding that could barely contain itself in its silver bowl.
An interesting place for a drink is the Carousel Bar in the Hotel Monteleone (214 Royal St., 504/528-1019), which boasts the city's only rotating bar. It made me dizzy, even though we were sitting safely in the nearby large lounge. Changing my seat improved the experience, and instead of watching the slowly spinning bar, I watched people on the street walking by and riding in horse drawn carriages, enjoying this enchanting city.