For about as long as I’ve known Hal, he’s been telling me stories of Tales of the Cocktail, a week-long cocktail festival held every July in New Orleans. His tales of Tales made it sound about equal parts intriguing (New Orleans gorgeousness! awesome events! deelish drinks!) and daunting (so. much. excess.), but when he asked if I wanted to go along this summer, intriguing won out. I wanted to see New Orleans for the first time, I wanted to watch Hal do his favorite kind of work, and, of course, I wanted to eat.
As much as I was looking forward to this trip as a total food fest, I also knew it would be somewhat limited in scope. We had a lot of Tales related stuff on the agenda, and I didn’t anticipate traveling too far from the French Quarter. Or even from our hotel, for that matter–I wanted to be easily able to see all of the sites Hal wanted me to see, and to snatch the downtime so necessary to my introverted self in such a hustle bustle. So I considered this visit sort of a first taste, sticking mostly to one neighborhood and doing recon for the return trip I’m already fantasizing about taking with Laura and Ed. We had some great brunches and lunches steps from the hotel, carved out time for two special dinners, and made one very necessary treat stop.
This was the first meal we had in New Orleans, and it was a great introduction. We got into town just after midnight on a Thursday–just in time for a quick sazerac in the Hotel Monteleone’s Carousel Bar before crashing–and in the morning I slept in while Hal registered for the conference and worked his first event. A friend he was working with suggested Naoplean House for lunch, and I was more than happy to be led. I wasn’t feeling quite ready for the Pimm’s Cups the restaurant is famous for and so ordered an iced coffee, unintentionally getting my first taste of New Orleans magic: iced coffee in New Orleans apparently comes with milk automatically, which is a small dream come true. Sitting down in this 200 year old building, I immediately wanted Laura to be there–this place has ambiance to spare, and is glamorously dinged up in a way we both love. And, the food is dang tasty. Hal and I split the jambalaya, and I had my first po boy: roasted pulled duck with creamy cumin-lime dill coleslaw, and a side of chips. The crisp slaw cut through the richness of the duck, making for a beautifully balanced sandwich. The jambalaya had a perfect amount of spice, and I could have easily taken down an order all my own. Hal had–and loved–a roast beef poor boy (mysteriously, the menu called his sandwich “poor” and mine “po”), and our friend had a muffuletta salad, which he said was great. Strong start, New Orleans.
This dinner is a big part of why I went to Tales at all. For the fourth year in a row, Hal was part of a “Spirited Dinner”: a dinner pairing a cocktail with each course of a tasting menu, usually organized around a creative theme. His dinner (with three other awesome bartenders/mixologists he works with often) this year was based on the Seven Deadly Sins. That’s right, seven cocktails. They were supposedly half sized, but…still. The menu featured cinnamon cured tuna, blue crab gratin, braised short rib, duck breast (a day I get to eat duck twice is a good day), and both a chocolate and lemon dessert. It was all seriously delicious, but the crab gratin was the absolute standout. My dinner date and I agreed that we could happily have had seven courses of just the gratin. Biased though I obviously am, I think the drinks were perfectly paired. Hal’s favorite part of the dinner was a ginger candied carrot garnish he dreamed up for one of his drinks, to compliment the carrot broth the short rib was swimming in, and that the Windsor Court chefs did an awesome job executing.
It’s basically unfair of me to even mention this dinner, since it was a one time thing, but I couldn’t resist the chance to brag on my sweetie. Sorry/not sorry. But! A quick visit to the Grill Room (the Windsor Court’s main restaurant) website shows some strong parallels to the Spirited Dinner menu, most importantly the mind blowing blue crab gratin. It would be worth a trip, just on the strength of that one dish.
This was a yelp find with great reviews, and it did not disappoint. The room had a diner-y feel and was full of big family parties. I had another milky iced coffee while we mulled over the menu, and enlisted the help of our very friendly waiter to decide between shrimp and grits and eggs cochon, a “signature item” that was basically a pulled pork twist on eggs benedict: slow-cooked apple-braised pork debris sitting on a homemade buttermilk biscuit, topped with poached eggs, finished with hollandaise. Our waiter considered my options and said, “well, the eggs cochon is the heaviest item on our menu…so I’d get that.” Sold. Hal also got an almost benedict, with corned beef hash and horseradish cream in addition to the biscuit, eggs, and hollandaise. We both made very good choices. The biscuits were fluffy and had the necessary bit of salt, my pulled pork debris (love that name) was really flavorful, and the whole thing was just such a tasty mess. It was in fact heavy, and I snuck my second egg over to Hal’s plate. This was breakfast the morning after the 7 Deadly Sins dinner, and it definitely hit the spot.
Cochon is easily the restaurant on our itinerary I had heard the most about before trying, and it was a given for Hal that we would go. I thought it was great, but also that we probably could have ordered better. Everything we had was really tasty, but I feel like the menu might hold even tastier secrets that we missed. It’s also possible that we were just a little burnt by the time we got here. It was our last dinner, eaten with the knowledge that afterwards we had two more stops and a 6am flight to look forward to, so our ordering was maybe a bit subdued (though it’s all relative–we still ate a ton). We started with wood fired oysters with chili garlic butter, and that might have been the highlight for me. The spicy buttery sauce was SO GOOD. There was a basket of homemade Parker House rolls on the table, and I used one to soak up every bit of extra sauce I could. Hal ordered a fried chicken breast with watermelon and tomato salad, and thought it was one of the best fried chickens he’d every had. His lovely and light salad had exceptionally tasty cornbread croutons, which was a great touch. I had a very savory bowl of crab gumbo, and an order of braised pork cheeks with grits, pickled chilies, and crab broth. The grits had whole corn kernels, which I love.
A friend of ours posted a picture of a Green Goddess brunch on Facebook our first day in New Orleans, and it looked tasty enough to make me want to track it down. The restaurant turned out to be about a minute from our hotel, on a little pedestrian alleyway (Exchange Place, to be exact), and all but three tiny tables were outside. A bold seating plan, given that it seems to rain every other hour in the Big Easy. We watched the skies with some trepidation while we waited for our food, but once it arrived I was too distracted to care about the weather. I had sweet potato biscuits with mushroom gravy and Manchego truffle grits, and I would hardly have believed veggie biscuits and gravy could be so delicious. I’m often sort of a biscuit purist, but these sps were fantastic. And I was once again charmed by our waiter, who responded to Hal’s question about putting eggs on his Asian-inspired beef po-boy with, “no one’s ever asked for that before, but I bet it would be really good.” It was.
Knowing how much crazy social time we would get on this trip, when we first started planning I asked Hal if we could pick one night for a just us dinner date. We ended up getting more time for the two of us than I anticipated, but I’m so happy we still set aside a night. Because if we hadn’t, we wouldn’t have gone to Pêche. Hal put a call out on Facebook for suggestions of where folks would go if they could only have one special New Orleans meal (other than Cochon), and one of his very favorite chefs, Naomi Pomeroy of Portland’s BEAST, suggested Pêche. He couldn’t make a reservation fast enough, and I owe that woman a thank you card. Earlier this year, Pêche won James Beard awards for Best Chef (South) and Best New Restaurant, and we can absolutely see why. This is the meal we’ve talked over the most since getting back to New York, and we already can’t wait to go back and order the other half of the menu.
This time around, we had (get ready): a half dozen oysters raw oysters, tuna sashimi (a special), crab and rice fritters (another special, and Hal’s fave of the whole meal), seafood gumbo, shrimp + corn bisque, hush-puppies with honey butter, spicy ground shrimp with noodles, crab + jalapeño capelini, a side of stewed okra and tomatoes, and chocolate peanut butter banana pie to finish everything off. When we put in the order our waitress looked at us very seriously and said, “I am very excited for you.” The raw oysters and tuna started our meal off on a lovely refreshing note, but the crab fritters really set the tone for the evening. Crispy fried and delicious with a creamy spicy relish on the side, the crab really shined through in a way I almost don’t expect in a little fried nugget. The two soups were awesome. The bisque had just the right amount of sherry, and the spicy gumbo was another of Hal’s favorites. The shrimp and noodles were great, but the crab capelini really knocked my socks off. It was so delicate and so buttery, and I wish I had a bowl of it right now. And speaking of butter, the honey butter that came with our perfect hush-puppies was some of the best I’ve ever had. I could have ordered a second round for dessert, but Hal had been set on the chocolate peanut butter banana pie (with “butterfinger” crumbles!) since we first looked at the menu back home in Brooklyn. He is a wise wise man. We practically had to roll out of the restaurant, but it was so absolutely worth it.
Café Du Monde
Saved the best for last. As much as I wish there was a Pêche outpost in Manhattan that I could visit with ease, I wish there was a Café du Monde on every corner. Beignets, delicious squares of fried dough liberally covered in powdered sugar, can be found all over New Orleans, but Café du Monde is the classic spot to get ’em. CDM does two things: beignets in orders of three, and drinks to wash them down (frozen cafe au lait is another house specialty). They also do an insane amount of business. The cafe is open 24/7, there are piles of tables, and the beignets just fly out of the kitchen. I tried to look up how many beignets Café du Monde makes in a day, since sitting for just half an hour in the bustling space made me insanely curious about what their stats must be. I couldn’t find anything, so let’s just assume it’s a trillion. Seems about right. And oh my lord, are they delicious. Hot from the fryer, a bit chewy, insanely sweet, and just perfect. Sitting in the airport at 5am on Sunday morning, enjoying a freakishly good airport biscuit, my main take-away from the whole trip was, I shoulda had more beignets. Next time, I’ll know better.