By Daniel Neman, St. Louis Post-Dispatch (TNS)
In the time-honored tradition of returning schoolchildren everywhere, I’d like to tell you how I spent my summer vacation.
It was actually a September vacation because we were celebrating a nice, round-number anniversary of our wedding. For such a momentous occasion, we decided to go someplace we had never been to before.
We went to New Orleans. I know, I know. How can anyone who claims to be at all interested in food not have been to New Orleans? Especially when that person used to live relatively near in east Texas?
It was an omission that needed to be rectified, and rectify it we did. I realize everyone who goes there says the same thing, but we ate our way across New Orleans. For our actual anniversary meal we went to the famous Commander’s Palace, after being duly assured by friends that it is not just a tourist trap. The friends were right: This was one of the best meals of my life.
I started with an appetizer of foie gras coffeecake, an improbable but unbelievably sumptuous combination of seared foie gras and a decadently sweet coffee cake, topped off with a little glass of coffee frappé made with a hint of foie gras fat. It is the kind of food that would leave you happy if it were the last thing you ever ate.
But if it had been my last bite, I never would have had the turtle soup, which came next. It was the finest example of turtle soup I have ever had, and as I ate it I imagined a line of turtles happily sacrificing themselves by diving into great vats of veal stock for our pleasure. I think the veal stock made all the difference, along with the happiness of the turtles.
Barbecued New Orleans shrimp over brie grits was awfully good, but I think my wife’s mushroom risotto was better. And while my dessert of pecan pie was sublime, my wife’s creole bread pudding soufflé was even sublimer.
For lunch one day, we stumbled unknowingly onto Bon Ton Café. We were drawn first by the crowds of satisfied local residents who were leaving; then, when we peeked through the windows, the red-checkered tablecloth and cast-iron chandeliers made it seem irresistible.
This was a real find, an old-school restaurant with old-school service and exceptional food. I began with turtle soup (this was before I had the ne plus ultra soup at Commander’s Palace) and moved on to the fish of the day, a delicious grilled drum served with some truly amazing onion rings. I have no idea how they made the rings so crispy. Meanwhile, my wife had an extraordinary seafood salad piled high with lump crab meat, shrimp and asparagus.
The charbroiled oysters at Drago’s were everything they were reputed to be, and considerably more rich. Unfortunately, the shrimp etouffée consisted of six tiny shrimp, maybe a half-cup of rice and the roux/trinity sauce that is part of so many New Orleans dishes. I was still hungry after I ate it, so we stopped off for dinner at a Popeye’s fried chicken joint.
Don’t laugh. They’re based in New Orleans. Besides, it was cheap and good. At Dickie Brennan’s Tableau, I had Eggs Hussarde, which are ultra-sophisticated steak-and-eggs, served with a couple of fried oysters. It was the kind of meal I dream about, and I have been dreaming about it ever since. At Broussard’s bar (we went on a whim and were not dressed well enough for the dining room), we had a stellar appetizer of glazed shrimp — a little spicy, a little sweet — on toast. At Joey K’s, we had red beans and rice that finally revealed what all the other red beans and rice I’d ever had were trying to be.
And at Hermes’ Bar in the legendary Antoine’s, we soaked up the atmosphere and a couple of drinks. They even had Suntory Hibiki whiskey, a highly regarded — and for good reason — Japanese brand that can be difficult to find.
But not everything was paradise in the Crescent City. The town’s famous beignets, for instance, were a disappointment.
We first got them at Café Beignet, which you might expect to have pretty good beignets (and which did have a good blueberry-stuffed croissant). Perhaps because we were the last patrons of the night, the beignets were horrible; leaden and heavy and full of dough. Basically, they were the opposite of beignets.
We had somewhat more success at the famous Café du Monde, though we had to endure a long line for beignets that were, at best, indifferent. Our next stop was the nearby Presbytère museum to see their exhibit on Hurricane Katrina, and we asked the woman behind the desk if we could use their restroom to wash the powdered sugar off our hands.
“Oh, you had the beignets?” she asked.
“Yes, and frankly I have made better beignets myself,” I said.
“Me too,” she said.
Image via Wikimedia