Eating New Orleans: Dining in The Crescent City

Anyone who has been to New Orleans has a food recommendation. And well they should. NOLA’s cuisine scene is excellent and always getting better. There are sought after award winners and low key local favorites to satisfy any palate and budget.

Between our research, friendly recommendations, we were swimming in dining suggestions.  Our tip: Say thanks for the reco and do some research on the best restaurants in New Orleans. Not everyone shares your tastes and it’s a drag to find out once you’ve sat down and looked at the menu.

Note about NOLA’s upscale food scene: Make a reservation. For the more well-known spots like PIZZA Domenica, Commander’s Palace, Luke or Compere Lapin  book a few days in advance or you may have to take your chances grabbing a seat at the bar. We made our reservations only a day ahead and ended up with 5:30pm and 9:30pm reservations at Peche and Saffron respectively.

Breakfast / Brunch

The Ruby Slipper

To get us in the southern mood, we ate breakfast at the The Ruby Slipper-– a renowned and much-recommended NOLA staple. The Canal Street location (there are four) was a five minute walk from our hotel.  Early birds that we are, we avoided the morning rush. You should too. By the time we wrapped up our meal at 9:30, there was at least a forty-five minute wait. The reasonably-priced menu is standard southern and somewhat super-sized; with fried green tomatoes, shrimp and grits, biscuits & gravy and fried catfish all making an appearance. I was intrigued, but Malinda wisely suggested that we save our shrimp and grits experience for later in the trip.

Bacon lovers will appreciate the Pig Candy Bacon, Bacon Burger and Bacon Praline Pancakes. There are also healthy options and interesting flairs like Shrimp Boogaloo Benedict and a shrimp-laden, grilled fish St. Peter that make the most of the bounty of the bayou. You’ll have to try them on your own.

Not wanting to experiment with breakfast, we both opted for grits and eggs– mine with sauteed spinach and Malinda’s with potatoes. It didn’t disappoint. A good breakfast rarely does.  Although the cheese on my grits seemed a hastily added afterthought (on top not blended), they were rich and buttery enough to forgive the presentation.  The accompanying biscuit was larger than my fist–  served with ample butter and jam to mount a valiant attempt to finish it. Neither of us was victorious.

Sylvain’s

Sylvain’s was not on our list. We happened to be standing in front of it when my energy meter dipped dangerously low. Too hungry to bother with a search for reviews– a cursory look at the menu confirmed it a good place to eat as any. In fact, it was better.

Unfortunately, neither of us ordered entrees from what looked to be a pretty tasty selection. I went for the familiar, and cobbled together a comfort food classic of grits, eggs and biscuits from the side order menu. The grits were my favorite– ever. As Malinda can attest– I prefer my breakfast porridges (oatmeal, grits, etc.) pretty thick. Finding grits prepared exactly to my liking in a restaurant is hit or miss. Sylvain’s rich, creamy, perfectly seasoned, stone-ground grits hit the exact right spot. I couldn’t resist asking our server for their secret. “Heavy cream and a ton of butter,” she confided. It was the first time I’d ever had grits made with heavy cream. It won’t be the last. The eggs were fluffy and the (regular-sized) biscuit was exactly what I needed.

Malinda wasn’t as famished as I, and ordered only fries.  Hot, golden and delicious– they were served in a bowl large enough for both of us to have our fill.  I finally googled the restaurant after we’d eaten. Based on the reviews, it turns out that there is plenty to recommend besides the grits. Sadly, we had neither the time–nor space in our stomachs– to spare.

Snacks/ Coffee

Cafe du Monde

The cafe is straightforward yet charming and often crowded. It’s green and white awning is hard to miss. Beware, there is  a look-alike a a few blocks down the street– but don’t believe the hype. At peak times, the tables and floor of Cafe du Monde can look like a powdered sugar factory exploded– but no one complains. Do visit and have a beignet. Some may say it’s cliche, but it’s famous for a reason. That fried dough is damned good. If you’ve never had one, it’s like a warm, fluffy, funnel cake pillow. If you’ve never had a funnel cake– our condolences to your taste buds. Naively, we thought one order of  beignets would hold both of us over while we waited. HA! Without dinner reservations for later– and a modicum of self-restraint– we might have even had thirds.

The cash-only menu is as basic as can be. Beignets, coffee, tea and hot chocolate are your only options besides soda or water.  We happily committed to the experience and paired our slices of confection heaven with cocoa. A perfect combination.

TiL TIP: IF YOU PLAN ON GOING TO CAFE DU MONDE FOR BEIGNETS– DON’T WEAR BLACK

Dinner

Saffron

Saffron is a recently opened Indian Creole fusion restaurant situated on the far end of Magazine Street. Reviews recommended it as an interesting and tasty, exciting new addition to the Garden District restaurant scene.  We arrived slightly ahead of our 9:30pm reservation. Lit for maximum ambiance, the elegant wood-paneled dining room and bar were comfortably packed with a diverse, attractive group of Friday-night diners. A brief wait by the bar afforded us a bird’s eye view of several dishes as they were served to the tables nearest us. Amid a parade of delicious looking and smelling entrees, the gumbo grabbed our attention.

It was “Curried Seafood Gumbo” to be specific. Ask for it. Once tableside, the thick, aromatic stew, starring bite-sized bits of crab and shrimp is poured into a bowl over a small, but ample, dollop of basmati rice. We both loved it enough for each of us to grudgingly offer the other the last bite. I did not protest and savored the final tasty morsel.  The Tamarind Shrimp– Malinda’s other favorite dish– consisted of several jumbo shrimp doused with a sweet, dark & spicy tamarind black pepper sauce, that she is certain would’ve made great shrimp and grits. Agreed. Likewise, I was more than happy with the crispy, perfectly seasoned Bombay Shrimp and the Crabmeat Pudha (crab-infused lentil pancakes). Tasty garlic Naan and the 24-Carat salad rounded out our meal. We were stuffed by the time the salad arrived and took it ToGo.

Peche

Well known and well regarded, Peche is a seafood standout in the Central Business District. A few years ago its head chef, Ryan Prewitt, won the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the South and Peche was named Best New Restaurant in America. That’s the restaurant industry equivalent of winning the Oscar for Best Director and Best Picture in the same year.

This time, my brother and sister-in-law (Kesha and Hassan) joined us. Malinda and I had raved so much about the food at Saffron– an intended double date– that they weren’t likely to miss this meal. It was nearly packed when we arrived for our 5:30pm reservation, but we were seated quickly.

As we examined the menu, I noticed a large U-shaped entree arrive at the table adjacent to ours. Our server identified it as Tuna Collar that was off-menu but still available. She said it was delicious and offered to reserve us one of the few that were left. Please do! We’d never had it, but it seemed like a tasty adventure for two. It was delectable– and I don’t use that term lightly. —Talk about Wicked Tuna! The collar was smothered in an olive oil, cilantro, basil, citrus rub (I’m guessing– it wasn’t listed on the menu). The flavor and texture of the rub accented the juicy, tender, flaky flesh so well that I can nearly taste it now. It was the highlight of a meal that was full of excellent options.

Peche: Ask if there are any additional off-menu specials for the evening. Your taste buds could be in for a treat.

We started with smoked tuna dip, shrimp toast and crab with pickled chilies. All three were very tasty with the shrimp toast easily outdoing any I’ve ever eaten.  Once the fog of the first few bites lifted, we all looked up, spoke up and offered to share. Hassan was completely contented with his whole grilled fish and Kesha enjoyed the gumbo and fried brussels sprouts. Our only disappointment was the overly dry hush puppies, though If you’re in the mood for carbs, Malinda has two words for you: “Fried! Bread!” Order it. Enjoy it. You’re welcome.

Speaking of gratitude; ours goes out to the pastry chef at Peche. We were seated right next to the dessert staging area and we watched enormous servings of decadent and delicious looking pastries float past our eyes the entire evening. We picked three and shared. Key Lime Pie, Salted Caramel Cake, and Vanilla Crepe Cake.

Our foursome emerged from the restaurant to our second Second Line, in as many days. We resisted the urge to join this one with its oversized, merry clowns prancing down the street, frustrating drivers of all stripes. It was only about 8:30pm and the night was still young. Or so we thought. Rather than head to the hotel to freshen up, we succumbed to the allure of sleep and called it an early night.

–TMW

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