Southern Spring Travel: New Orleans

A raucous romp through the south’s bonafide foodie city—but it didn’t stop at chicory coffee and beignets in the French Quarter.

The French Market in New Orleans.

On Friday afternoon, I rode in from the airport with the slowest cabdriver in the entire city of New Orleans. He was an old-timer, with white hair and a French-Cajun accent that made everything he said sound like the first bar of a song just waiting for the horns to come in. He chewed viciously at his nails while he drove and was passed on both sides by drivers whose notion of hurry was only slightly more finely developed, but eventually he dropped me in front of the Saint Hotel on Canal Street and rolled off so slowly, I could’ve spent most of an afternoon watching him go.

Inside, I dropped my bag in a room that was modern in a way that nothing else in New Orleans is and turned for the door. Down Dauphine Street, through the French Quarter, along Burgundy into the Bywater neighborhood—I walked streets that were oddly quiet. Not deserted, but soft in the high, clear sun that made every weathered hurricane shutter and early twist of Mardi Gras beads seem lit for a movie whose production had been abandoned years ago.

With Maurepas Foods, chef Michael Doyle has brought Bywater the kind of neighborhood restaurant that few neighborhoods actually get—a broad, open space in a former farm feed store, with a menu that reads like a takeover of the New South by savage Brooklynite food-nerds. I ate slow-cooked greens over chunks of white potato and Chisesi ham, and a plate of green onion sausages, cut and seared and plated with two arancini over a juniper and satsuma marmalade. And while, yeah, I can get better arancini in the Italian Market, the greens came swimming in a pot likker so rich and deeply flavored that I wanted to drink it. Instead, I knocked back cocktails (the near-legendary Gent & the Jackass should be a destination beverage for anyone who cares deeply about drinking) and asked the bartender where I ought to go next.

I had a plan, an itinerary of bars and restaurants that I wanted to try in the limited time I had available. But New Orleans is a city that laughs at plans, and I am a man unskilled at keeping to schedules under even the best of circumstances. So when the bartender told me to go around the corner to Booty’s Street Food, I listened. I ate pork belly and solicited more advice from a pretty girl named Anna Lee, who told me that if I was going to do as much walking as I had planned, I needed to find myself a po’boy to eat while strolling—just so I didn’t starve.

So I picked up a shrimp po’boy from Matassa’s Market on Dauphine, which has a sandwich history too deep to contemplate without risk of drowning. And anyway, there was no time. The sun had gone down, and the crowds had materialized on Bourbon Street.

I retreated to Tempt inside the Saint Hotel, where I ate hanger steak and greens that couldn’t possibly live up to the standard set at Maurepas. Then I changed shirts, splashed some water on my face, and went out again into the chaos of the Quarter, rolling around in it until the sun came up and I found myself back on Canal, standing before the statue of Ignatius J. Reilly and marveling at a town that could produce both the crowds mobbing the mechanical bull at Bourbon Cowboy and a writer like John Kennedy Toole.

Coffee and beignets in the French Market. A proper, elegant brunch at Galatoire’s, where the cream of New Orleans society gathers in their fancies to eat plates of crabmeat sardou under the chandelier lights. Then I went prowling again—finding myself on Burgundy Street at Fahy’s, talking with Jack, the owner, who spent 14 years as the sommelier at Emeril Lagasse’s Nola, then gave it all up to run this comfortably divey Irish pub in the Quarter.

I still had dinner planned. Two of them, actually. But then Jack told me that the Krewe du Vieux parade was that night in the French Quarter, and that it wasn’t the kind of thing I should miss. And then there were the parties after, and a place that I should really check out for oysters. “I mean, I don’t know what your plans are …”

I just asked for another pint of Harp and told him I didn’t have any plans at all.

Also Check Out:

Eat

  • Everyone who visits New Orleans tries to get chickory coffee and beignets at Café du Monde, so the waits can be ridiculous. To get in and out quick, go around back to the takeout window. Or, for a good-sized tip, you can get one of the wandering waiters to pick up your order straight from the kitchen.

Play

  • Feeling lucky? There are several casinos right at the foot of Canal Street just waiting for you.

Shop

  • Most of the French Quarter is filled with tacky t-shirt stands and souvenir shops. Royal Street is the exception, with amazing galleries and boutiques.