Of all the things that can be said about food in New Orleans, perhaps this fact explains the most: By all accounts, there are more restaurants in town now than there were before Katrina.
Think about that for a moment: A city gets nearly wiped out, a large percentage of its residents flee, and when it comes time to rebuild, the first thing they say is, "We need restaurants."
Of course, humans have to eat. But New Orleans doesn't eat for survival; New Orleans eats the way New York drives, the way Paris celebrates, the way Los Angeles looks good. Food is one of the main threads in the great, unique cultural quilt that sprawls at the mouth of the Mississippi River.
Deciding where to start in a discussion of all this is like deciding where to eat first when you get to town. Do you want traditional? Fancy? Dive? Gourmet? Cutting-edge? Down-home? Reaching into a bag of notes taken during a week in town, one comes up with ... my hotel.
Sure, hotel food. We all know what that is. Well, I stayed at the Marriott on Canal Street, right on the edge of the French Quarter, and their chef has won local gumbo awards and "Best of Show" at the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience. The guy from the Marriott!
I got a chance to talk with Mark Quitney over dessert (more on that in a moment), and he kept using this phrase, "Trying to be a thread in the city."
"Coming to cook in this town is like being a guppy in a giant lake," he says. "It's a very tough nut to crack, unless you're in a famous place. But the thing is, now there are so many small, cool, rich places that locals know about but folks from out of town don't understand. It's the young people driving it."
He said more, but I was engrossed in the Bananas Foster Bread Pudding Poor Boy he had served us. You read that right. Quitney was cooking for a bunch of country club managers, and they wanted an all po'boy reception. The staff kicked it around and came up with bread pudding cut in fingers and deep fried, served on sweetened bread dough, slathered with Creole cream cheese and some bananas.
A cynic might call that "stuck in the past, trying to stay relevant," but I say New Orleans takes the traditional, spins it around a little, and goes to town. Consider the "young folks" Quitney was talking about, many of whom moved in after Katrina.
I talked with Erica Normand, a graphic designer, who referred to "a real entrepreneurial sense" that has infected the city since the water receded. "It's like starting all over and grass-roots level," she says. "It's the old cuisines but with local ingredients. But it's also new and different cuisines."
She points to "an upscale gastro-pub" movement, like the Quarter's new Batch, which is doing small plates and cocktails for several people, served in wood flasks. Also in the Quarter is Sylvain, where an appetizer called Southern Antipasti includes seasonal pickles, artisan cheese, pickled farmer's egg, country ham, and house-made mustard.
Normand says another trend is formerly seedy streets being reborn as hubs of culture and food. "And these are all locally owned, not chains," she says. Freret Street, for example, is Uptown by Tulane and has a business association whose mission is "to establish an image that Freret Street is a safe, vibrant, easily accessible destination to shop, dine, play, work and live." Read between the lines all you will, but also stop in at Cure for Bacon & Bleu Cheese Tartines with Bayley Hazen Bleu Cheese, Louisiana honey, bacon, and onion jam.
Another "up and coming" street is Oak Street, also Uptown, where Jacques-Imo's has been serving local dishes for 15 years. As Oak has taken off, Jacques-Imo's has become known for long lines waiting for a shot at its fare like shrimp and alligator sausage cheesecake or stuffed catfish with crabmeat dressing and hollandaise.
Of course, the places you've always heard about are still all over New Orleans: Commander's Palace, Galatoire's, and Arnaud's are doing just fine. And they still make Bananas Foster at Brennan's, where it was invented. And while a cynic (this one included) might wonder if those places aren't coasting on reputation and "we eat there when we visit because our parents ate their when they visited," people like Quitney assure us the lure is real.
"You want something authentic and Creole and Cajun influenced, go to [Paul Prudhomme's] K Paul's," he says. "It's the most simple presentation, 1-2-3 on a plate, but the complexity of the food is amazing."
Indeed, no town does the combination of traditional and local like New Orleans. We ate one night at Dooky Chase's, in the same location (aside from a Katrina shutdown) for more than 70 years. There was a trio doing soft jazz, and a very charming lady came out to say hello in between courses of gumbo and fish that were so good I wanted to hug everybody in the place. Turns out that was Leah Chase, a legend in town, an author, and a TV show host. She's owned the place since 1946. Our waiter was married to her granddaughter, who was also the singer with the pianist and bassist, who had that afternoon played with one of the Marsalis brothers at JazzFest.
This is how it goes in New Orleans. You think a hurricane might kill it, but it comes back stronger and more local. You think maybe it's all reputation, then you find out the "old folks" can still crank out the good stuff. You think maybe it's a few celebrity chefs surrounded by mediocrity, then the award-winning food at your hotel blows your mind.
Sometime, well after dinner at Dooky Chase's, after dropping in on about seven bands over on Frenchman Street, I decided to fulfill my own New Orleans tradition: beignets at Café du Monde. I almost feel like a sucker for going there every time, and several folks had suggested other places to get beignets, but those will have to wait. I needed to feel the old magic.
So I got myself a table and marveled, as always, at two things: the number of people in the place at all hours and the fact that the menu has three items on it: beignets, coffee, chocolate milk. Sitting there in the wee hours, with music and laughter all around me, and powdered sugar swirling in the breeze off the Mississippi, I wondered what else I would ever need.