In New Orleans, the Taste of a Comeback
In New Orleans, the Taste of a Comeback
April 27, 2010
By SAM SIFTON
IT is the siren call of a magnificent, broken city: â€œThis, here, is the real New Orleans.â€
Spend any time sweating through a shirt and walking slow and purposeful along Magazine Street toward a Sazerac before dinner, and youâ€™ll hear the cry, in this bar or that one. Youâ€™ll hear it on the radio, driving the high-rise bridge over the Industrial Canal, someone spinning funk on WWOZ and talking about New Orleans soul. Youâ€™ll see it in the defiant eyes of a man lurching out of a second line in Pigeon Town.
You can see it on stages all over town this week, as the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival packs the city with visitors for 10 days of music and celebration. And you can see it on television, in David Simonâ€™s new HBO series, â€œTreme.â€ Finding the true, authentic New Orleans is that showâ€™s essential mission, its quest.
It may be the cityâ€™s, too. Particularly since 2005, when Hurricane Katrina scattered the cityâ€™s population, the question of what defines New Orleans in the minds of its remaining citizens and the world beyond has been a central question here.
I spent a week here earlier this month, seeing how restaurants are answering that question, eating high and low, new and old along the bends in the Mississippi River.
I walked through crowds in the French Quarter to a meal of oysters Rockefeller and crab Yvonne at Galatoireâ€™s, and along the barren streets south of Lake Pontchartrain to another of poâ€™ boys amid crowds at the Parkway Bakery.
There were breakfast phos across the Mississippi in Gretna, La., where a large Vietnamese community has settled, and dinner of speckled trout with lump crab, mushrooms and hollandaise sauce at August, John Beshâ€™s magnificent Southern internationalist restaurant downtown. There was caviar and vodka at Stella!, Scott Boswellâ€™s elegant, deeply European restaurant in the French Quarter, where duck five ways follows the foie gras, and leads to trios of crÃ¨me brÃ»lÃ©e. And at midnight, there were red beans and rice out at Vaughanâ€™s in Bywater, as Kermit Ruffins played his horn before red-eyed supplicants, tourists and New Orleans natives alike.
There was plenty to sample â€” there are roughly 1,000 restaurants in New Orleans now, up a cool couple of hundred from before the storm, according to The New Orleans Menu, a Web site dedicated to the subject that is run by Tom Fitzmorris.
And for a critic on the prowl for an authentic taste of the city in full springtime bloom, surprises abounded. One of the most purely joyful and purely New Orleans restaurants of the moment is Emerilâ€™s, a place run by a television chef who was born in Fall River, Mass., and lives mostly in New York City. Another, Cochon, is devoted not to the Creole cosmopolitanism of the city center, but to the Cajun traditions of the bayous and backwaters outside of town, in the tidal soup of southern Louisiana.
And a third group of genuine, true-to-type New Orleans restaurants that sit near this cityâ€™s culinary heart is not Southern at all, but Vietnamese.
At nearly every restaurant, still, there was evidence of the toll the storm exacted. Before lunch at Mandinaâ€™s, an elegant old Creole Italian restaurant in mid-city where the rich, buttery trout amandine would show a Martian what constitutes a classic New Orleans lunch, the crowd was drinking old-fashioneds at the bar. (Drink up, Martian!)
Pableaux Johnson, a child of Louisiana with prodigious knowledge of this cityâ€™s food scene, was among the crowd. His â€œEating New Orleans,â€ a guide to the cityâ€™s restaurants that was released just after Katrina, is still indispensable for anyone interested in the culture of New Orleans food.
â€œThereâ€™s a marker around here somewhere that shows how high the water was during the flood,â€ Mr. Johnson said. It took a few minutes to find it, high up on a column in the rebuilt dining room. A man of average height and abilities could not touch it if he jumped.
Against this background, most meals in New Orleans seem celebratory.
The Television Star
At Mr. Lagasseâ€™s flagship, the festivity is commemorative: Emerilâ€™s turned 20 this year, a standard-bearing, warehouse-district pioneer that has remained a constant in its ownerâ€™s increasingly peripatetic life.
In the early days, before television came calling, when he was just a breakout chef whoâ€™d cut his teeth at Commanderâ€™s Palace and gone on to open his own shop, Mr. Lagasse worked in the kitchen at this loft-like space on Tchoupitoulas Street.
Now he has restaurants in Orlando, Miami and Las Vegas, among others, as well as two more here in New Orleans: NOLA, a less formal version of Emerilâ€™s; and Delmonico, a steakhouse in the Garden District where a Ramos gin fizz in the bar leads pleasantly enough toward rabbit crepes and a thick steak.
Some 400 people work for Mr. Lagasse in this city, and nearly 1,000 more at his other properties.
His name and visage are on salad dressings in your supermarket. He sells knives, pots, pans, clogs, toothpaste. â€œThe Emeril Lagasse Showâ€ had its debut on the Ion network on April 18. And in late March, when he came to the restaurant to celebrate the anniversary, it was to broadcast a satellite radio program from the dining room.
By the laws of restaurant physics, Emerilâ€™s should be terrible, a food mill for tourists.
It isnâ€™t. It is excellent, neither raucous nor stuffy, cheery and high-ceilinged, with warm lighting. It is also one of the few high-end dining establishments in the city to exhibit more than simply a hint of the cityâ€™s racial and ethnic diversity in both its staff and its patronage.
The food is remarkably good. Exemplary barbecue shrimp â€” sautÃ©ed in a dark and fiery cream that carries with it hints of lemon and Worcestershire sauce â€” introduce the restaurantâ€™s abilities. Then a sweet and salty grilled Niman Ranch pork chop with caramelized sweet potatoes on the side doubles the bet. A shockingly good banana cream pie with a graham-cracker crust takes the eveningâ€™s winnings. David Slater, the restaurantâ€™s chef de cuisine, is a more than able manager of Mr. Lagasseâ€™s culinary Some here in New Orleans have held Mr. Lagasse in bad odor since Katrina, when he evacuated his family to Las Vegas. Some said he appeared insufficiently concerned for the welfare of his local staff and restaurants.
Criticâ€™s Notebook: New Orleans Dining
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In a telephone interview, Mr. Lagasse vigorously denied the charges.
â€œThey were taking potshots at me because I wasnâ€™t wearing waders and crying in front of the restaurant,â€ he said. â€œBut I was being a businessman, working on saving the business.â€
New refrigeration units for all the kitchens had to be fabricated, he said, and extensive renovation done to the restaurants themselves, particularly Delmonico.
â€œYou canâ€™t buy this stuff at Home Depot,â€ Mr. Lagasse said. â€œI couldnâ€™t reopen with a bunch of coolers and propane stoves.â€
Mr. Johnson had been one of those who had grumbled, at least privately. After all, other restaurateurs had done exactly that. â€œI stopped following him after the storm,â€ he wrote in an e-mail message.
â€œI guess Iâ€™m eating my words right now,â€ he said in the restaurant, stabbing at the last of the banana cream pie. â€œThis place is all damn right.â€
The Cajun Factor
For those interested in the big flavors that lie at the intersection of urban New Orleans and rustic Cajun country, Cochon, a few blocks upriver from Emerilâ€™s, is a canâ€™t-miss stop.
The chefs and owners â€” Donald Link, who also owns the well-regarded Herbsaint in the Central Business District, and Stephen Stryjewski, a sous chef at that restaurant â€” opened Cochon in 2006, a few months after Katrina. The dining room looks out through walls of windows, and its brick walls and bare wooden furniture glow in soft light. It is a highbrow roadhouse, a juke joint near Neil Young University.
The food is head-shakingly good: delicate fried rabbit livers on toast points with a fiery pepper jelly; oysters roasted in the heat of a wood fire; fried cauliflower with a chili vinegar sauce; a gumbo of shrimp and deviled eggs.
This is not bad for starter plates, with a glass of bourbon from Black Maple Hill and a chaser of Miller High Life. Afterward matters get serious.
Main dishes include a marvelous soft Louisiana cochon, a kind of Cajun version of suckling pig, slow-cooked and then crisped, served with turnips, cabbage and crackling skin, as well as a perfect sandwich of deep-fried oysters and house-made bacon on white Pullman bread, with a chili-spiked mayonnaise. A fellow could eat that for days.
And there is a simple salad: cucumber and herbs in vinegar, lightly pickled. It will be familiar to anyone who has ever eaten a banh mi, the Vietnamese sandwich.
The Immigrant Influence
They may be Cajun in impulse, but Cochonâ€™s cucumbers explain in one bite how these Vietnamese poâ€™ boys have taken their place alongside roast beef and Italian ones, and how pho can walk with gumbo in the night.
The Vietnamese came to New Orleans after the fall of Saigon, in 1975, having escaped the ravages of one city to establish themselves in a new one. Like the Cajuns before them the Vietnamese took to the Gulf to net shrimp, and in doing so angered those who had preceded them on the water. In time, however, their poverty and French-inflected history, not to mention their interest in food, allowed them to make inroads first into Cajun Louisiana and then New Orleans itself.
By the early 1990s, Mr. Lagasse said, he had incorporated a Vietnamese stuffed chicken wing onto his menu at NOLA, where it originated as a staff meal cooked by a Vietnamese employee. Miss Hayâ€™s chicken wings are still on the menu. There are a few Vietnamese accents at Mr. Beshâ€™s restaurants, too.
If youâ€™ve had a banh mi in New Orleans, chances are the bread came from Dong Phuong, on an undistinguished stretch of Chef Menteur Highway east of the city, near the church of Mary Queen of Vietnam. The bakery is on the right, a related restaurant on the left.
A banh mi from the bakery â€” meatballs with pÃ¢tÃ© and vegetables, and plenty of hot peppers â€” makes a parking-lot lunch at Dong Phuong one of the signal pleasures of the American South.
In the dining room, which draws a crowd from 11 a.m. on, there isnâ€™t much of note, aesthetically. But the food is worth driving for: dark, peppery, shaking beef with onions and rice, say, or pork over vermicelli and a cold duck salad to eat with sweet tea.
Closer to the cityâ€™s center, just across the bridge from downtown in a grim, low-slung concrete building in Gretna, is Pho Tau Bay. Here gather hung-over artists and college kids under ceiling fans in the heat, Vietnamese laborers and truck-driving Cajuns sharing tables and hot sauce, everyone slurping bowls of rich broth with beef tendon, with pork, with piles of vegetables.
Others go to Nine Roses, also in Gretna, for egg rolls and stewed mustard greens with ground pork and shrimp; or to Tan Dinh, for roast quail with a lemony salt and pepper dipping sauce and a superior banh mi.
Only one banh mi I tasted came close to Tan Dinhâ€™s for flavor and texture. It was served at Butcher, a new Cajun-style grocery that the Cochon team opened behind their restaurant.
What constitutes the real New Orleans is always in flux.
If All That Jazz Leaves You Hungry
Here are some of the better restaurants in New Orleans and nearby.
AUGUST 301 Tchoupitoulas Street (Gravier Street), (504) 299-9777.
COCHON 930 Tchoupitoulas Street (Andrew Higgins Drive), (504) 588-2123.
DONG PHUONG ORIENTAL BAKERY 14207 Chef Menteur Highway, (504) 254-0214.
EMERILâ€™S 800 Tchoupitoulas Street (Julia Street), (504) 528-9393.
EMERILâ€™S DELMONICO 1300 St. Charles Avenue (Erato Street), (504) 525-4937.
GALATOIREâ€™S 209 Bourbon Street (Iberville Street), (504) 525-2021.
MANDINAâ€™S 3800 Canal Street (South Cortez Street), (504) 482-9179.
PARKWAY BAKERY 538 Hagan Avenue (Toulouse Street), (504) 482-3047.
PHO TAU BAY 113 Westbank Expressway, Gretna, La., (504) 368-9846.
STELLA! 1032 Chartres Street (Ursulines Street), (504) 587-0091.
TAN DINH 1705 Lafayette Street, Gretna, La., (504) 361-8008.