Maybe the pandemic isn’t in its death throes yet, but if you have a pulse, you can feel it begin its retreat. That means a lot of you will be going to New Orleans soon. It’s inevitable. Especially for Memphians. You may be contemplating a po’boy from Mother’s, a muffuletta from Central Grocery, a stodgy meal at Galatoire’s, a celebrity citing at Emeril’s or Commander’s Palace, heart-stirring soul food from Dooky Chase, R and O’s or Willie Mae’s Scotch House. But really what you should be doing is chucking the Fodor’s Guidebook and your preconceptions out the window and charting a new course.
You Mother’s fanatics will be heartbroken to hear that new management has been installed and the food, according to many, sucks now. I drove by it a few months ago and there were tumbleweeds rolling down the street where the long line used to be. K-Paul’s, long bereft of its celebrity chef, Paul Prudhomme, finally closed last spring, and Leah Chase, colorful and revered owner of the legendary Dooky Chase, passed away recently. Sadly, the old New Orleans you remember from days of yore has been swallowed by time and COVID-19.
But there’s still plenty of good eating in the Crescent City.
Wanna know where to get the good stuff? It’s not in the po’ boy shops and painful fine dining restaurants that opened around the turn of the last century. Nope. The best food, food that any cajun or creole will recognize as his or her own, can be found at Donald Link and Stephen Stryjewski’s odes to all things bayou, Cochon and Cochon Butcher. Both restaurants are located on Tchoupitoulas street in the warehouse district and provide just what I need when I’m in the city. The Butcher’s Le Pig Mac, a sandwich so revelatory and meaningful to my personal growth as a cook that I stole it and put it in my cookbook, is just one of the many plates that will have you crying at your high-top table. Cochon, the more expensive of the two, is a restaurant that will live in my heart forever. It was there that Kristin and I had the first of many gastronomic epiphanies as a couple over wood-fired oysters with chili-garlic butter, braised pork cheeks with spring onions, peas and mint and a charcuterie board so inventive yet creole that nothing has been able to top it. Anything that comes out of either kitchen will make an instant memory.
But Link and Stryjewski, incapable of sitting still, have created a variety of topnotch eateries that, for my money, beat anything I’ve had in New Orleans. If you’re into French cafes, then you’ll love the duo’s garden district La Boulangerie. We sat at a marble top table for hours people watching, reading and noshing on pastries and a soul-inspiring baguette slathered with salted butter, ham (made by The Butcher), cornichon and Comte cheese called The Parisien. The sandwich brought me back to my exchange trip to France when I was thirteen. I hate to use the word authentic, but The Parisien, with its crunchy and slightly fermented baguette and subtle filling was exactly what I had at my host families’ house for lunch almost every day. That and a bottle of Orangina, and I was transported back to be being a nervous adolescent in an unfamiliar wonderland of gustatory delights.
Like Italian? Link and Stryjewski have you covered there too. Go to the recently opened Gianna. Kristin and I don’t typically frequent Italian restaurants. Red sauce joints and Alfredo factories bore the shit of me, but Gianna, thanks to my chef friend T.H. Freeland and chef de cuisine Rebecca Wilcomb, was truly one of the best meals we had in our travels last summer. We chose to let the kitchen cook for us and boy were we happy about it. A procession of familiar sounding but entirely new takes on classic American-Italian dishes streamed out of the kitchen. Saltimbocca, Baked Sausage Provola (unreal), Italian Chopped Salad, Tuna Crudo with Fennel, Lemon and Olive Oil, Garlic Bread with Provolone, all were stunning and better than what you’re conjuring in your head. But for my money, and I think Kristin’s too, we were blown away by the simple sounding Ricotta-Lemon Ravioli with Hazelnuts and Crispy Pancetta. If you look at the menu I’m currently cooking from here in New Hampshire, you’ll see that dish listed almost verbatim. It left a mark. Kristin, ever the curious pastry chef, was energized by Chef Wilcomb’s Lemon Mousse Torta with Candied Almonds. I’ll admit to an indifference to desserts but as a study in pastry 101, Wilcomb’s lemon offering was whimsical and delicious.
Link also owns Herbsaint and Peche, both in New Orleans. Our dinner at Peche—and I know this is going to ruffle some feathers—was lackluster. Maybe it’s because we had come off three weeks of eating seafood so fresh it was just released from rigor, but nothing on the seafood heavy menu stood out as extraordinary. It was good, don’t get me wrong. But we thought, based upon the opinions of foodies we trust, that we were in store for nirvana. Perhaps the meal suffered from unrealistic expectations. We are happy to give Peche another try next time we’re in town. Maybe we’ll complete the circuit and hit Herbsaint, Donald Link’s first restaurant, too.
You MUST, I mean you MUST, get a Collard Green Melt from Turkey and The Wolf when you’re in New Orleans. They used to call it a “Collard Green Rueben”. Don’t be confused. It’s the same sandwich, and it’s the best bite of food you’ll have. Slow cooked collards, Swiss cheese, pickled cherry pepper dressing, coleslaw on butter brushed and toasted rye, you’ll be sad when you take your last bite. And you may just order another one. Turkey and The Wolf, owned by Chef Mason Hereford, serves playful, cheffed up takes on classic sandwiches. Don’t be surprised to get a fried bologna sandwich stacked with potato chips, hot mustard and shredduce (shredded + lettuce) served on commemorative Empire Strikes Back plate. Pretension is not on the menu. An abiding sense of humor and flavor is. Just thinking about that damn Collard Green Melt has me contemplating a return visit. I’d like to eat inside this time (instead of the parking lot—thanks COVID) and partake of one of the equally fun cocktails. I think I’ll get a The Best Part of Waking Up.