To celebrate the first full week of 2016, EAT THIS CITY is headed to New Orleans. May your year be filled with delicious food and excellent company!
It’s hard to mention New Orleans without eliciting an emotional response. The French, Cajun and Creole roots are planted deeply into the cuisine and the culture. Jazz, Zydeco, and delta blues echo through the streets; alligators and nutria rats lurk in the swamps; parades and parties roar and rage during Mardi Gras — it’s a loud, brassy, beautiful city (and undoubtedly one of the best food cities in the country).
Even if you’ve never been, you probably have preconceptions and ideas about NOLA…but they can’t do the city justice. This is a city that sticks with you (like the praline sauces and andouille sausage).
Chef Alon Shaya has always had a love affair with Louisiana cooking — starting way back when he first devoured an Emeril Lagasse cookbook. He moved to New Orleans in 2003, prodded by his partner Octavio Mantilla, and has truly found home in the city. When Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, he says it made him even more loyal. He had the opportunity to cook for people who were truly hungry, and he remembers it as the best work he’s ever done.
In 2008, Shaya went to study in Italy, knowing he would open up his restaurant, Domenica, soon afterward. He says his dream at that point was to be the next Mario Batali. Then in 2011, he took a trip to Israel, where he was born, and realized he would be missing out if his food didn’t reflect the influences of his homeland. He had been sneaking some Israeli dishes into the repertoire at Domenica, but the trip prompted a shift. That’s when the chef opened Shaya to focus on Israeli cuisine.
Shaya and his restaurants are well decorated — he’s the winner of the 2015 James Beard Award for Best Chef: South, a Top Ten Restaurant in the Times Picayune’s Dining Guide, and a top restaurant pick by Food & Wine’s editor-in-chief, Dana Cowin.
What Chef Alon loves most about New Orleans is the culture infused into everything. He may not be a native, but he’s a dedicated transplant, and he knows what’s up. Here are his 15 choices, so you, too, can eat your way through The Big Easy.
I cannot have enough of a perfectly made Margherita. It’s a classic combination for a reason. The flavors come together so perfectly with sweetness from the tomato sauce, richness and tartness from a great quality bufala mozzarella, and the fresh and floral flavor of basil that cuts through it all. I love it when they are baked at 700°F so they char up a little but cook long enough to get a crispy crust. It just so happens I can get all of that from Chef Morgan Angell at PIZZA Domenica in New Orleans.
Crispy Louisiana shrimp tacos from Johnny Sanchez. They are beautifully tempura-fried and tossed in a chile mayonnaise with pickled carrots and onions. The flavor of the gulf shrimp really comes through and can only be experienced in this part of the world with shrimp that are out of the water for less than 24 hours. They make their corn tortillas from scratch and it makes all of the difference in texture and flavor.
I squeeze a pinch of lime over the top right before stuffing my face with three shrimp tacos.
My wife and I always find comfort and joy at our local Vietnamese restaurant Pho Ga. They make really authentic Vietnamese food and don’t dumb it down for Americans. My favorite bite there is a duck leg and egg noodle pho they make with dried mushrooms. They also have a live crab tank and will stir-fry it with lemongrass, chilies and tamarind. That over some fluffy white rice is the best.
Cochon Butcher (parking lot)
I am a big supporter of the muffuletta. A creation of the Sicilian immigrants to New Orleans, it’s a round bun crusted with sesame seeds that is toasted and layered with cured meats, provolone cheese, and an oily olive salad with pickled vegetables. I’ll order one to go from Cochon butcher and eat it standing at my car in a savage manner.
You know it’s good when the oil from the olive salad drips down your chin as you make your way through the sandwich.
I am a real sucker for a great sweet-potato pie. Chef Kelly Fields at Willa Jean Bakery makes the best I’ve ever had. She adds white chocolate to it! I think it’s because it’s associated with Thanksgiving, a word which always gets me hungry, but no matter what’s on the table, I’m always drawn to a delicious sweet-potato pie. I especially love it when it’s topped with unsweetened whipped cream and has a perfect flaky crust.
Brigtsen’s is a classic New Orleans fine-dining restaurant run by Marna and Frank Brigtsen. Frank is a protégé of the late and great chef Paul Prudhomme. That restaurant will show you why New Orleans cuisine has become world famous. Everything from their roast duck to pecan pie is the best version of Creole cuisine in the city. The restaurant is in an old house and it feels like you’ve been invited to a dinner party.
Take the long ride out to Mosca’s Italian restaurant on the West Bank of New Orleans. It’s an old-school restaurant that’s been around for decades and is said to be a former hangout of mobsters. The move there is to order their oysters mosca, and spoon it over the spaghetti bordelaise. They make a great fried eggplant with red sauce and serve airy New Orleans-style baguettes perfect for wiping your plate clean.
One of my favorite vegetarian dishes in the city is at Tan Dinh on the West Bank. I could live off their spicy lemongrass tofu that they serve with white rice. It’s full of flavor and will keep you eating even after the sweat starts to pour — due to the generous amount of Thai chilies.
My wife Emily and I go and get our morning coffees at a little spot called Pagoda Café in Bayou St. John. I really like their pastries, breakfast tacos and smoked salmon toast. It’s a quaint little place with all outdoor seating and a great neighborhood vibe to it. We bring our dogs and enjoy the company of our friends and neighbors there regularly.
FOOD IN THE CITY
BBQ shrimp at Emeril’s Restaurant never gets old for me. The executive chef David Slater slices satsumas in the winter and squeezes it over the shrimp as they cook in the rich Worcestershire, black pepper and butter sauce. They make killer buttermilk biscuits to soak up all of the extra sauce.
ODD CULINARY EXPERIENCE
A Friday lunch at Galatoire’s is about as odd as you can get. The menu hasn’t changed in years so expect all of their great classics, like souffléd potatoes. A secret is to season them with powdered sugar and Tabasco sauce. Trust me, it’s great! Their crab-meat-stuffed whole flounder is a must as well. What makes it odd is when a brunch of drunk lawyers and middle-aged women in tiaras celebrating birthday parties start asking you to dance and pouring champagne into your glass without asking. At times, a brass band will walk through the dining room playing loud music and the server will make dirty and inappropriate jokes as you’re being forced to drink on someone else’s tab that you’ve never met. That’s just lunch, and it’s been known to last up to seven hours for us at times.
Something you can only do in New Orleans.
Going to Willie Mae’s Scotch House and loading up on their fried chicken, red beans and rice. Best fried chicken anywhere in the world. It’s not far from my house, so I sometimes feel guilty just driving by it, but resist the urge to go until I can’t stand it anymore.
Company Burger on Freret Street should begin accepting health insurance for their killer burgers. They are seared on a flat top grilled, topped with American cheese and served on soft buns. I love a good helping of sriracha, pickles and mayonnaise on it. It makes you forget that someone forced you to take six shots of tequila the night before.
Coquette has always been one of our favorite date-night restaurants. It’s in the Garden District on Magazine Street and is one of the most beautiful neighborhood restaurants around. Their menu changes all the time and is always fun and creative using local and seasonal ingredients. The service is attentive without being intrusive. The wine list has lots of fun choices, and their desserts stand up to the greatness of their other dishes. They also serve some of the best bread and butter in the city.
RESTAURANT RUN BY A FRIEND
Brian Landry is killing it at Borgne Restaurant. The fried turkey necks, catfish sliders and shrimp toast are some of the best bites in the city. I love hanging out at the long bar, eating oysters from their oyster bar, and catching up with Brian whenever I have a chance.
Stay tuned for more EAT THIS CITY — where each week we’ll feature a premier-level chef in a different city sharing their hometown eating tips! Load up your plate with past features: Providence, Memphis, Orange County, Boston or Detroit.
See you next week!