Creole and Cajun still rule OK in New Orleans - but hot new chefs are now challenging the old guard with innovative fare
It’s no secret that New Orleans offers foodies the most original cuisine in America. Influences from French, Spanish, German, African and Caribbean settlers mean there’s no room for junk food or bland chain restaurant fare in the Big Easy.
Fast food does exist, but it’s all homegrown. When locals have to eat on the hoof, they might grab a po’boy, a baguette stuffed full of fried oysters (the aphrodisiac mollusc is the city’s single favourite food), or a muffuletta, a uniquely N’awlins invention of cold cuts and olives sandwiched into a fat circle of Italian bread.
However, slow food is what people really want in a city with so many great chefs. The famous old Creole restaurants - Antoine’s, Arnaud’s, Brennans and Galatoires - are mainly frequented by tourists and business diners these days, while a raft of hot new chefs is captivating foodies with rather more interesting fare.
To discover what they have to offer, you’ll have to venture out of the picturesque French Quarter, still the province of the old guard. The city’s new Restaurant Row is the near-unpronounceable Tchoupitoulas Street, main drag of the Warehouse District, and where it’s really at as far as locals are concerned.
This is where you’ll find Emeril’s, the flagship restaurant of Emeril Lagasse, America’s Gordon Ramsay. He does new takes on old dishes - like oyster Rockefeller soup to die for. Emeril is not the only heavy hitter on the street, where John Besh, another Louisiana-born chef, also holds sway. August, an elegant piece of old New Orleans, is stunning, and Besh's cuisine inventive, but, as always in this city, the drinks are as important as the dishes - and my favourite is August’s cucumber cosmopolitan.
A lot less fancy than either of these, but also a lot hipper, is Cochon, also on Tchoupitoulas. Casual and affordable it may be, but Stephen Stryjewski’s food is some of the best in town. Utterly sublime are the wood-fired roast oysters, dripping lemony butter, and the eggplant with shrimp dressing, one of several dishes showing the restaurant’s Cajun roots. Other than that, there's lots of charcuterie and small plates to share of authentic Gulf grub.
Cochon is the brainchild of Donald Link, a chef of Cajun origin whose Herbsaint restaurant, in the CBD (Central Business District), adjoining the Warehouse neighbourhood, is another brilliant eatery. The gumbo is to die for and the very best dish of all is the short ribs with horseradish sauce.
Lunch at Herbsaint, which is right on St Charles Avenue, could be followed by a trip in the fabulous old streetcar that trundles down this beautiful boulevard past a succession of amazing old Greek Revival mansions. St Charles runs parallel to Magazine Street, home of the most eclectic shopping and dining in New Orleans. A great place for an early supper after an afternoon’s browsing would be chef John Harris’s Lilette - think French (as opposed to Creole) food with a modern twist, with an ambience and decor reminiscent of provincial France.
Luke, back in the CBD, serves up rather more classic French dishes in decor that even more closely resembles a Parisian brasserie. But this is another John Besh establishment, so it’s essentially New Orleans in feel, which means the drinking is as important as the eating. The great house cocktail here is the French 75, a Champagne cocktail zinged with lemon juice.
So are you out of luck if you can’t get beyond the French Quarter, with its beautiful wrought-iron balconies and Spanish architecture? No, because some of the oldies are still goodies: starting the day with chicory-scented coffee and freshly-fried beignets in the French Market, progressing to a Bloody Mary-fuelled blowout brunch at Brennans, or an elegant little lunch of shrimp remoulade at Arnauds. But there are new takes on old tricks afoot in the Quarter, too. Emeril Lagasse has his popular NOLA restaurant here - almost an oldie now itself - while Ian Schnoebelen at Iris is serving up the kind of innovative dishes that are much more Warehouse district than Quarter.
Emerils: 800 Tchoupitoulas St.
August: 301 Tchoupitoulas St
Cochon: 930 Tchoupitoulas St
Herbsaint: 701 St Charles Ave
Lilette: 3637 Magazine St
Luke: 333 St. Charles Ave
Brennans: 417 Royal St
Arnauds: 813 Rue Bienville
NOLA: 534 Saint Louis St
Iris: 321 N Peters St
A great place to stay in the heart of New Orleans's new Restaurant
Row is the Renaissance Arts Hotel, right on Tchoupitoulas Street. It's elegant, surprisingly
affordable for the level of comfort and is surrounded
by art galleries as well as being a stone's throw from many of the
great restaurants described here.