There are so many great things to do in New Orleans. It was the last stop on our odyssey through the South, but with temperatures in the mid-90’s and only 48 hours in town, M and I opted to pass on the sites and do some serious speed eating. We were there four years ago and tried several of the better-known restaurants – Emeril’s, Central Grocery, Café du Monde, Johnny’s Po’ Boys, Superior Seafood – and I had eaten at Brennan’s and Commander’s Palace in years past. This time we were looking for a more local experience. Two friends, a public defender in NOLA and another friend who went to school at Tulane, gave us their top picks. So, we culled the list of referrals and came up with four – dinner at Upperline, lunch and dinner the next day at Pêche and Jewel of the South, and lunch at Le Petite Grocery before heading to the airport.
Speed-dining is like speed-dating with most of the mystery removed. There’s no problem finding reliable restaurant reviews. I doubt the same thing is true for speed dating. So glad we’re not in that scrum these days.
Our hotel, the St. Charles Inn, on St. Charles Avenue was perfect. We could take the funky aging streetcar, avoid parking problems, and not worry about drinking and driving. Location is everything, especially with a little local color thrown in.
Our due diligence told us that Upperline, a local favorite, was run by JoAnn Cleavenger, the sometimes querulous, eccentric art collector who is the creator, matriarch, and gatekeeper at this perennial James Beard award winning restaurant. It was a good choice for our first meal. JoAnn is about our age and treats her customers in the old New Orleans house as if they are guests in her home. She talked to us at length about how she started the restaurant on a shoestring in 1983. She ran the front of the house. Her son was in the kitchen, and the waiters got by on tips.
I won’t bore you with everything we ate over the 48 hours but will try to give you a “taste” of what was special at each one. At Upperline, we opted for the three-course tasting menu but the first course of fried green tomatoes with shrimp remoulade would have made the meal memorable all by itself. After our delicious entrees, we finished with “Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brûlée” sprinkled with candied pralines and staggered out into the steamy NOLA night.
The food fest continued on Monday at Pêche in the Central District near the World War II Museum (an absolute must for NOLA visitors). The energetic lunch crowd was a mix of business people and out of towners. It’s a good sized, wood-lined, open room but divided nicely into a couple of discrete spaces and a bar so that it doesn’t feel like a warehouse. I started with a half-dozen small juicy oysters on ice and followed with a crab jalapeño angel hair pasta washed down with local brown ale. It was perfect after our binge at Upperline the night before.
Two good strategies for speed-dining are small portions and an afternoon nap, so following lunch at Pêche we took a long break before heading to our evening meal at Jewel of the South. Jewel is the latest effort of two James Beard award winners and listed on Eater.com as one of the hottest new restaurants in town. Located in an old house on the edge of the French Quarter, Jewel is more bar than traditional restaurant. Its specialty is craft cocktails, like this Crusta Alcala, an artsy concoction of mezcal, tequila, yellow Chartreuse, Crème de Cacao, and chocolate bitters in a glass rimmed with caramelized sugar and black pepper.
Jewel’s food offerings, also artsy, are small plates listed on a chalk board, but the simple menu is deceptively upscale. We shared a burrata over chard pesto with toasted pecans served in a simple shallow dish. It was to die for and after licking the bowl we split the best key lime pie of the many we sampled during our three weeks on the road.
M is very outgoing, and our restaurant experiences are always enhanced when she makes her newest best friends. I’m not at all garrulous, but she is adept at opening conversations with strangers. At Upperline, we talked with a young economics professor from the University of Chicago but at Jewel of the South we got into a much more animated and extended conversation with Adam and Stacy, a graphic designer and his art teacher girlfriend. I always enjoy these offhand, spur of the moment conversations, especially with locals, and find that they often add significantly to our appreciation of these new places. Years ago, I traveled alone in Europe for five months and hardly met anyone. Now, I meet people every time we go out to dinner (or to the market). Without M I wouldn’t know how to start a conversation, but with her help I’m almost a bon vivant.
Jewel is an odd contradiction of funky and upscale, and the house has a lovely courtyard for evenings when it’s more temperate than what we experienced. Jewel was a different dining experience, but without question I’d go back.
Our final meal in New Orleans was lunch at La Petite Grocery. I knew nothing about it other than several friends had given it rave reviews. I thought it might be like Central Grocery, the Decatur Street mecca for muffuletta sandwich lovers. Instead, it turned out to be an elegant, period-style dining room on Magazine Street. The owner-executive chef, Justin Devillier, won the James Beard award for Best Chef: South after being a finalist in 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015.
It sounds like sacrilege to say I had the cheeseburger when the place serves sensational French cuisine, but, on the recommendation of a friend, that’s what I had. M had an eye-popping pumpkin curry soup with slivered almonds and chives, and for dessert we split the strange sounding lemon-basil ice cream. Everything, and I mean everything, was delicious. The ice cream suffered a little from its lack of artistic presentation – two scoops in a bowl that was a little too large – but the flavors made up for it.
In the end, it was an intense, food packed 48 hours. NOLA is a special place for foodies, an amalgam of French, Cajun, Creole, and international cuisines. We think of Seattle as a foodie destination, but New Orleans is over the top in that regard. There is no way to sample all of the good spots – even for a resident. It must be said that given the hot climate and abundance of good food it’s no wonder that there is a noticeable weight problem among its citizens. After just 48 hours we’re committed to lean cuisine until those five pounds are gone.