Monday, October 21, 2013

A New Orleans Dining Travelogue (Part 1: Old School) - Felix's, Killer Poboys, Galatoire's, Mr. B's Bistro, Napoleon House

It's presumptuous to think you can genuinely understand a city's dining culture after only a few days. In a place with as rich a culinary heritage as New Orleans, it's downright foolish. Over the past few years I've eaten probably about a dozen meals in New Orleans - just about enough to feel like I'm barely scratching the surface of what the city has to offer. To give you a better idea of what I mean, here's my "New Orleans To Do List":

View New Orleans in a larger map

The places I've actually been to are only a small fraction of the pinpoints on that map. (Incidentally, if you find this map useful, I've got a few more of other cities and can look for excuses to post them). So I will try to restrain myself from the big deep thoughts, and instead recount a travelogue of about eight meals, and a few bars, over a recent long weekend in New Orleans:

Felix's Restaurant & Oyster Bar

I suspect everyone who visits New Orleans more than a couple times develops certain rituals. One of mine is that I like to ingest some oysters as soon as possible. After dropping my bag at the hotel, I headed straight for Iberville Street in the French Quarter. There's always a line at Acme Oyster House; there's almost never one at Felix's Restaurant & Oyster Bar, directly across the street.[1] I'd be willing to bet at least the price of a dozen oysters that they both get their supply from the same exact place. At Felix's they're available on the half-shell, "char-grilled," or in Rockefeller or Bienville modes; I sampled a half-dozen each of the first two varieties.

(You can see all my pictures from Felix's in this New Orleans flickr set).

Their Gulf oysters on the half-shell are plump, cold, mild, and more sweet than briny - maybe not the most characterful of oysters I've had, but far from the most offensive too. They go down easy, other than the fact that their bottoms are still caked with mud, making it tricky to sip their liquor from the shell without getting a mouthful of grit. "Char-grilled," meanwhile, means shucked, warmed on the grill and slathered with garlic butter and a sprinkle of parmesan cheese. Like New Orleans style BBQ shrimp, it's all mostly an excuse for dunking bread into that rich, buttery sauce - but I'll happily engage in that charade.

Speaking of rituals, I was slow to pick up on the DIY cocktail sauce program at Felix's. Every spot at the counter and every table is adorned with a still life composition of hot sauce bottles (both Tabasco and Crystal), Worcestershire sauce, and a tin of grated horseradish. An industrial size container of ketchup and little paper cups are positioned at the center of the bar, the idea being that you combine the ketchup and other accouterments according to your own taste to concoct your own personal magical blend (lemons are also available on request). For me, a dash of Crystal is all the oysters needed. As for the lady a few seats down, eating hers directly off the bar counter, with no ice platter, no plate, no nothing: well, everyone's got their own particular style.

Felix's Restaurant & Oyster Bar
739 Iberville Street, New Orleans, Louisiana

Felix's Restaurant & Oyster Bar on Urbanspoon

(continued ... read on for Killer Poboys, Napoleon House, Galatoire's and Mr. B's Bistro)

Killer Poboys

But oysters are not a meal; they are a prelude to a meal. So I felt no compunction about following my visit to Felix's with a po'boy. The ubiquitous po'boy can be found on just about every street corner in the city, the name supposedly originating during a streetcar worker strike in 1929 when a local restaurant pledged to provide free sandwiches to the "poor boy" strikers.

I was particularly interested in Killer Poboys, a pop-up which does some innovative spins on the traditional sandwich - i.e., coriander and lime seared shrimp with marinated carrots, cucumber and radish in place of the usual fried shrimp dressed with lettuce and tomato; five-spice meatloaf with hoisin and sriracha mustard instead of the usual roast beef and debris. Currently housed in the back of the Erin Rose Bar Wednesdays-Sundays, Killer Poboys is a bare-bones operation: head to the back of the bar, place your order at the window, take a seat at the bar and order a beer, and they'll bring your po'boy to you when it's ready.

I tried their "Dark 'n' Stormy" - roasted pork belly glazed with cane syrup, rum and ginger, blanketed with a lime slaw and a garlic aioli. The bread was both literally and figuratively solid - more chew than your typical hoagie roll, not as crisp a crust as your typical baguette. The pork belly glaze, playing on the components of the namesake cocktail (Gosling's Black Seal Rum and ginger beer), on its own may have been a bit cloying; but the fresh slaw helped restore equilibrium. Personally I might have looked for more citrus (fresh lime?) or maybe some heat (pickled jalapeños?) to cut through the fat and sweet. Still, it was rich, sloppy and satisfying - all important qualities in a sandwich.

The Erin Rose is not even a block off Bourbon Street, but somehow, at least during my mid-afternoon visit, manages to avoid the yahooism that plagues the French Quarter's main drag. This is real classy stuff as bar food goes, and it's a treat - especially right here in the black heart of touristville - to be able to quaff a beer or two and eat this well.

Killer Poboys
(in back of the Erin Rose Bar)
801 Conti Street, New Orleans, Louisiana

Killer Poboys on Urbanspoon

Napoleon House

As an alternative venue for daytime drinking - more heavily trafficked by tourists but still retaining its charm - I've always enjoyed Napoleon House.

Are the drinks that great? They're OK - my Sazerac was perfectly adequate. But they're reasonably priced, and the house specialty, a Pimm's Cup, can be quite refreshing on a muggy New Orleans afternoon. Is the food any good? Actually, from what I hear, yes. Fine things have been said about their muffuletta, which can be had by the half or quarter, and the lady sitting beside me at the bar who comes once a month from the Garden District recommended the bruschetta. I wouldn't know - I've never eaten there. The music? All classical. Hope you like that. The service? Nice enough, but s-l-o-w; still, my bartender got bonus points for looking like a long lost Marx Brother, combining Groucho's mustache, Chico's smirk, and Harpo's wild eyes.

So why do I like it? Because its a refuge from the Hurricanes and hoohah a couple blocks over. Because it looks every bit of its 200 years old. Because it feels like it belongs here, and sitting here at the bar lets me feel for a moment like I do too.

Napoleon House
500 Chartres Street, New Orleans, Louisiana

Napoleon House Bar & Café on Urbanspoon


Galatoire's is one of a triumvirate of old guard "fine dining" places in the French Quarter that also includes Antoine's and Arnaud's.  On a prior visit we went to Antoine's, which felt like it could be the "New Orleans Pavilion" at Epcot - a caricaturized rendition of stereotypical Creole food designed squarely for the tourist trade. This time around I heeded Blackened Out's advice, and booked our party of ten a table at Galatoire's.

(You can see all my pictures in this Galatoire's flickr set).

Galatoire's is clearly not some locals-only haunt, but something about it feels more genuine. Maybe it was the jackets-required policy, which adds an extra touch of elegance to the big, boisterously noisy dining room on top of the brass light fixtures, mirrored walls and fleur-de-lis patterned forest green wallpaper. Probably even more so it was our waiter - he was all business at first, but after taking our orders, seemed to read me like a book and became a fount of local dining lore. He may well have plotted out several pinpoints for my next visit: pastrami sandwich at Cochon Butcher, half-price pizzas at Domenica during happy hour, Borgne for pre-Saints game Sunday feasting.

"Not the first, but the best!" our waiter said of the Oysters Rockefeller.[2] I wouldn't argue. These were delightful, the oysters warmed through but not killed, the topping like a fine emerald cloud of spinach and absinthe (and about 20 other ingredients, according to our waiter, among which I suspect that fennel and leek figure prominently). Crisp, airy soufflé potatoes (with tarragon-inflected bernaise sauce for dipping) and fried eggplant (with powdered sugar) disappeared too fast for my shutter finger.

An entrée order of soft shell crabs brought two fairly massive specimens, with an almost tempura-like fried exterior encasing the richly flavored but delicately textured meat inside. They arrive practically swimming in brown butter, a good reason to stockpile some bread from the bags brought to the table earlier.

Filet of pompano, pan-seared and topped with "Crabmeat Yvonne" - a melange of crab, artichokes, mushrooms, scallions and butter - would be an exercise in delicacy but for the heavy hand with the salt, which creeps right up to the edge of overseasoned without crossing it.[3]

Though I only had a taste, I thought the stuffed eggplant, with a mound of minced crabmeat and shrimp bound with bread crumbs the size of a softball, was something of a sleeper hit, though my friend who ordered it was not enamored.

The bread pudding and key lime pie went the way of the soufflé potatoes - fast, and without pictures.

I am incredibly susceptible to the charms of places like this, which often have little to do with the food. And yet I found much of the food at Galatoire's surprisingly good - indeed, much better than it had to be. I may have added another ritual to my New Orleans visits.

209 Bourbon Street, New Orleans, Louisiana

Galatoire's Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Mr. B's Bistro

If you didn't bring a jacket with you, a potential alternative to Galatoire's is Mr. B's Bistro, literally around the corner on Royal Street. Mr. B's is one of several New Orleans restaurants owned by the Brennan family, who run about a dozen restaurants in New Orleans.

I can't tell you that everything on the menu at Mr. B's is great. In fact, I can only speak with absolute conviction as to precisely one item on the menu: the New Orleans style BBQ shrimp. In this great interview with the cook who's been turning out the BBQ shrimp for the past thirty years, he describes how they go through 120 pounds of fresh head-on shrimp every weekend. Prepared whole in the shell, seasoned with lots of pepper, garlic, spices, and lemon, then sent awash in a wave of butter, these are messy business to eat. Do not turn down the bib they offer, do not be afraid of getting a little dirty, and dive in. Don't forget to suck on the shrimp heads either - that's the best part. And do your best to horde all the bread at the table - you're going to want to dip it into that butter sauce afterwards. (In fact, sometimes Mrs. F will order this and I just get the heads and the sauce).

I may be selling Mr. B's short: the appetizer of fried oysters I tried this last time was great, the oysters lightly fried, then tucked back into their shells and napped with a bacon-horseradish hollandaise. I hear good things about the Gumbo Ya-Ya. And it's hard to imagine that fried chicken livers with pepper jelly on brioche toast could be all bad.

But even if there were nothing else worth eating on the menu, those BBQ shrimp make Mr. B's worth a visit.

Mr. B's Bistro
201 Royal Street, New Orleans, Louisiana

Mr B's Bistro on Urbanspoon

[1] Though Acme is more than 100 years old, Felix's is no spring chicken either, having been open for more than 70 years itself. Felix's has had some ups and downs recently - it filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy last year and briefly lost its liquor license and closed, but emerged this past April with a plan to pay all its creditors in full and owner John Rotonti to stay on board as manager once all creditors are paid. It showed no signs of any ill effects during my visit.

[2] Antoine's claims to have invented the dish.

[3] I know I pledged to avoid generalities based on my limited sampling, but I did find that nearly every place we ate seasoned their food pretty assertively - in a couple instances to the point of unpalatability.

1 comment:

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