The most exciting dining to be found in New Orleans comes today from the new guard of the city’s chefs. Yet, there’s a reason that dining is such a part of the city’s DNA, as essential to the Big Easy experience as jazz at Preservation Hall and a picture at Jackson Square. It’s the classics that keep any city’s dining scene humming along consistently. The question always is have those classics grown tired and touristy, or do they continue to perform at the level they once did to deserve an exalted status.
For the most part, except for a certain grande dame restaurant on Bourbon Street, the New Orleans legends are as strong today as when they started decades ago or even a century ago.
The debate over who makes New Orleans’ best po-boy is as pointless and contentious as who makes the best taco in L.A. or the best pizza in New York. I can at least give an educated guess with ample supporting evidence for the L.A. and New York debates, but am in no position after having had just one po-boy destination in New Orleans to determine the city’s premier version of its signature sandwich.
That being said, if Domilise’s oyster and shrimp po-boys aren’t the city’s best, then those other po-boys must be incredible. The wooden building looks like just another home in an Uptown residential neighborhood not far from the river. Even the sign for Domilise’s is barely visible unless you’re standing right below it. It looks like it should be a dive bar. Indeed inside there is a bar where you procure your drinks, but the centerpiece is the tiny kitchen where the seafood is fried and the po-boys are crafted. Local tavern would really be the better term than dive bar or lunch spot. Domilise’s screams of the setting and local institution vibe that the various travel-food shows on the Food Network and the Travel Channel salivate for.
The Domilise family started making po-boys here over 70 years ago and still members of the family and other employees have been frying the seafood or pouring the Abita at the bar for many of those decades. It’s a no-nonsense joint, while also being remarkably friendly. Locals tend to belly up to the bar with sadly nothing better than Abita Amber to offer (which is barely a step above a Budweiser), while the tourists and families dine at the tables. The walls are plastered Philadelphia cheesesteak stand style with all the autographs and pictures of celebrities who have visited– there’s Anderson Cooper by the bathroom, the Manning brothers behind the bar.
With the 50/50 mix it seems of tourists and locals, with a few families from the Little League fields and volleyball matches at the peak of lunch times, the line was surprisingly short and efficient, most likely thanks to Domilise’s not being near the French Quarter. Tourists, including yours truly, will no doubt be lost at first with the ordering system. First, you’ll have to figure out to grab a number. Then you’ll be asked if you want the po-boy fully dressed. Yes you do for tomato, lettuce, mayonnaise and Creole mustard (similar to whole grain mustard, a little sweeter). Then you’ll try to figure out do you pay first then get drinks at the bar. No. Then go to the bar, get a Barq’s root beer or old fashioned glass bottle Coke, return to the sandwich area, and then pay.
Confusing, yes, but far from stressful. It’s all about the succulent, perfectly fried seafood inside those po-boys. Strangely despite the number system, the cooks and cashiers will just look your way and tell you when, “Your sandwich is ready” in the most gentle way, as opposed to, “Hey, forty nine!.” The oysters are revelations, twice the size of the normal oyster, bursting with salt water juice. The shrimp is as soft as velvet, melting like braised beef cheeks. A half sandwich is perfect for one. A whole sandwich could suffice for two.
This always brings the question up for fellow out of towners, what even is a po-boy? You can fill a po-boy with fried seafood, fried catfish, turkey, sausage, or the not recommended at Domilise’s roast beef in gravy. The key unifying trait is that a po-boy is a submarine style sandwich on French bread (Leidenheimer’s at Domilise’s). There may be a better po-boy out there, but I can’t imagine one much better, especially from such a classic institution like Domilise’s.
The name stands for the old order, where men are gentlemen, women are ladies, gentlemen wear coats, ladies wear dresses, waiters wear tuxedos, and the menu doesn’t change aside from what seafood was caught today. There is none of that local, organic, seasonal business to be fiddling around with. You don’t really need to know what farm the iceberg lettuce for the shrimp remoulade came from, do you?
Galatoire’s is truly the grande dame of New Orleans dining, strangely situated in the heart of the more seedy stretch of Bourbon Street since 1905. There is an upstairs nowadays that accepts reservations, but the action is downstairs in the opulent ground floor room, adorned with outsized mirrors, fleur de lys covered wallpaper, crisp white linens, lace curtains blocking the hectic 2012 outside from coming in through the window, and brilliant bright lighting that makes everyone look ten years younger.
Service has always been the hallmark of Galatoire’s, a place where when you seek advice upon coming, you’re told more often which waiter to have than which dish to order. Some waiters have been here for decades and seem to be natural storytellers at the table. Others, such as the one I had, are perfect consummate professionals who aren’t into reciting much more than the history of the redfish caught this morning. It was almost as if he was nervous or ready to call it a night. Indeed, it was later in the dinner service and perhaps that explained the numerous faux pas by the staff that led to me feeling as if it was a burden for me to even be there. After a gracious welcome from the hosts, no water was to be found for several minutes. Entrees came barely a moment after the appetizers. Several waiters simply hung out in the back of the dining room during the second half of the meal, giving the evil eye and awkward feeling that says, “Don’t think of ordering coffee or dessert.” Even some of the servers had untucked shirts visible underneath the tuxedo jackets, something that never would’ve been accepted at Galatoire’s in 1905.
It may have been an off night, but then the kitchen had an off night too with the overcooked, flabby redfish that lacked any of its usual buttery qualities. Fortunately the crawfish étoufée ordered on top of the fish was every bit the roux based, rich preparation classic it should be. Better is the shrimp remoulade, a no frills display of pristine seafood with an on the cusp of spicy dressing. Don’t even think of ordering a sazerac, tasting the caliber and balance of a well drink at a dive bar. It was a bad sign from the get go with the sazerac’s color as red as grenadine and half melted ice cubes floating around.
How can Galatoire’s have un- tucked shirts and terrible sazeracs? Not much change is needed for such an institution, but at least for one night 107 years after opening, Galatoire’s was not at the top of its game.
On the other hand, the Manale family’s 100 year old this year Garden District institution is every bit at the top of its game. The buttery head and tail on barbeque shrimp is a bonanza that every visitor must do, complete with bib and moist hot towels. This year celebrating its century birthday, with the fourth and fifth generation of the Manale family working as maître d’ and a waiter, Pascal’s Manale is a crisp, well-organized machine, the type where your hand is always held, but you never feel awkward at any point. Superb service, outstanding parsley heavy spaghetti and meatballs, and an assortment of oysters on the half shell that are the envy of the rest of the country. Only the somewhat bland dining room isn’t a home run, quite the contrast from the wood paneled tavern out front you enter through. It’s strange to have crisp white linens for a restaurants that has the messy barbeque shrimp as the signature dish.
That barbeque shrimp is epic, however. You’ll get a workout during the meal taking off the shells, being certain to suck the juice from the head, and doing your best to get an entire shrimp in whole out of the shells (you won’t, trust me). After two shrimp, everybody has their own method created. Accompany the barbeque shrimp with the pan roast, a gloppy dip that looks unappetizing, but turns out to be brilliant, filled with crab, oysters, and shrimp, in an herb seasoning. Think pesto meets a football party crab dip. It’s perfect with Crystal hot sauce.
I couldn’t believe that for the best char-grilled, garlic, and butter sauce filled oysters, I was being sent to the restaurant inside the mammoth, tourist heavy Hilton Hotel at the Riverwalk. The locals know what they’re talking about though with Drago’s char-grilled oysters, one of the most exciting bursts of energy one can experience when dining. It’s the seafood equivalent of a top tier Belgian truffle, where butter and oyster juice thrill the senses.
Drago’s is a great place for some New Orleans bottled beer sampling, once you forgive them for not having any local beers on draft. I can’t vouch for the rest of the menu. I can say that the oysters certainly are not hotel food, but the atmosphere screams massive, corporate hotel restaurant.
Tucked away on eastern side of Jackson Square near the French Market is this Italian grocer that upon first look sells nothing but canned tomatoes, olives, and the like. Oh and one sandwich too, a sandwich they created, and happens to be one of the most world renowned in the sandwich oeuvre.
That would be the muffaletta, one of the most basic sandwiches one can order. It’s a mammoth, frisbee sized beast. A half is really for two people, a whole for a family. The most disappointing part of the muffaletta is the bread, a hamburger like bun that is similar to an overly bready, slightly stale, sesame seed topped focaccia.
Luckily, the salami, ham, provolone cheese, and olive salad filling is spectacular, providing a spicy-salt-meat punch that every sandwich aspires to achieve and usually can’t quite reach. Just skip the bread. For being such a tourist stop, the atmosphere and sandwich makers were quite friendly, at 10 am in the morning.
Café du Monde
Essentially across Decatur Street from Central Grocery resides the famed café of New Orleans. It’s not an intellectual symbolic café for a city like Tortoni in Buenos Aires or Les Deux Magots in Paris. Café du Monde is a mostly outdoor, food court like space, that serves three items: beignets (three to an order) and chicory coffee (au lait or black). There is also hot chocolate that tastes like Swiss Miss.
The coffee itself is only fair, actually asking for a stronger chicory essence. The star is of course the beignet. You’ll be as covered in powdered sugar after eating them as the beignets themselves. They arrive almost too hot to eat, quickly cooling to an optimal temperature. This is one of the few classic tourist bites, along with Katz’s pastrami for a start, that actually is almost better than the guidebooks make them sound. Or at least that’s what I thought at 1 am in the morning. The best part of Café du Monde are the beignets. The next best part is that the café is open 24 hours a day, perfect after that dreadful drink at Pat O’Brien’s.
Uptown along Tchoupitoulas, not far from Domilise’s, resides a shack with a never-ending hour long line of hot, hungry people seeking a sno bliz. Inside that shack is a fascinating ice pick machine, that so cleanly and finely dices the ice into snow powder that a sno bliz resembles more sorbet than a Hawaiian shaved ice or carnival snow cone. With syrups all made in house, not at the big factory in Ohio, for 73 years this has been the place for New Orleans to not just cool off, but have a premier dessert-snack refresher. It’s the perfect palate cleanser. Go for the creative flavors that are more pronounced like the sour Satsuma orange, ginger, or my favorite, cardamom. Cream of strawberry excels as well. Skip the bland pineapple and peach flavors, neither tasted like the fruit was ripe.
It does get very hot and humid in New Orleans, nobody is kidding when they say that. You’d come here no matter how the sno-bliz tasted. Luckily, they are terrific.
Like how Central Grocery is a tiny slice of Italy in the French Market, Angelo Brocato’s is a sliver of Italy in Mid-City. Part bakery, part gelato purveyor, a visit mandates for both. Most of the cookies are biscotti-like, stale when you have them plain, but perfect for coffee dunking. The mini cannolis are a must, as are the ring shaped fig cookies and almond cookies that taste like the most vivid marzipan.
Really, however, it’s about the gelato, especially in the New Orleans heat. If possible, the gelato is even slightly smoother and creamier than standard gelato, the flavors sing brightly all across the board. Tiramisu is superb, as are Sicilian pistachio (actually tasting of pistachio) and Baci’s Kiss (chocolate hazelnut). I’d suggest a two flavor small, with a gelato and an ice. Lemon ice is an excellent rendition of the stand by, but you’d regret not going for the spring sensation strawberry, tasting more of the ripe fruit than you thought a sorbetto ever could. Espresso happens to be only decent, encouraging affogatos instead of just straight shots.
As old as Galatoire’s, since 1905, Angelo Brocato’s isn’t into the new wave of prosciutto or green tea ice cream. They just make some of New Orleans’ and the country purest, smoothest gelato. Molto bene.
Finally, since we forgot to mention Green Goddess in last week’s other wrap up, we’ll call this pop up turned restaurant a new legend. With all of the thick gumbos and fried seafood po-boys a visit to New Orleans requires, the light, vegetable heavy meals at Green Goddess are much needed and appreciated. The quaint inside pours out into Exchange Alley, a tiny pedestrian only, tree filled oasis of tranquility right next to the crush that is the tourist part of the French Quarter. There is a funky vibe to the place and the food, spanning the globe and Louisiana where a duck confit boudin hash and an Acadian breakfast shares space with South Indian utthapam and an outstanding muhammara, the Syrian dip of red peppers, walnuts, and pomegranate, with various raw and cooked vegetables for dipping, the ultimate starter.
One day’s crab melt lacked much crab, tasting mainly of toasted bread, while an arugula heavy salad with crab meat, watermelon, and mango was basic, but fine, needing more than 5 tiny slices of mango. The shrimp and pork belly banh mi on the other hand is superb, perfectly blending all the spice, seafood, and meat elements, only asking for a bit more foie gras mousse so it can be detectable. The knockout dish is the Louisiana classic shrimp and crawfish remoulade, making Galatoire’s version seem minor league. Spruced up with a bed of arugula, Nueske’s bacon, corn, and an avocado, this Southwest take on the Bayou classic is a perfect representation of a basic standard in a quality chef’s hands. Do pay attention to the excellent list of cocktails and fresh juices (sadly none of the juices were around aside from orange juice and coconut water on this visit).