Even though Tales of the Cocktail is devoted to drinking, I always seem to spend the better part of the annual New Orleans conference in dining rooms.
That’s how I this year inadvertently picked up a fine pro tip: Seated at the kitchen bar at Peche, an unfailingly brilliant and locally-grounded seafood restaurant, I was dealt a server who was clearly exhausted from a Friday night spent explaining drum and calas to hungry tourists. When I asked for a recommendation, he half-heartedly suggested shrimp and hush puppies. I firmly believe chef Ryan Prewitt’s crew could cook the heck out of shrimp and hush puppies. But I wasn’t in the mood for an entrée or anything fried, because as I honestly told the server, “well, I’ve already had dinner.”
Suddenly, the guy looked like I’d called the first four numbers on his Powerball ticket. Apparently, the quickest way to convey you’re interested in food is to indicate that you don’t need it. I ended up with a gorgeous grilled triple-tail head, its peppered, smoky skin calmed by melon bits.
That fish stands near the top of my short trip’s best eats list, along with delicate ricotta dumplings from La Petite Grocery and an extraordinary hummus from Shaya, topped with harissa, pickles, red onions and a split egg with a custardy yellow yolk. (Shaya, the modern Israeli restaurant that this year earned the James Beard Foundation’s best new restaurant award, also contributed to one of the neatest Tales events I attended. For Pizza & Porchlight, Shaya and Marta – the pizzeria in Union Square Hospitality Group’s collection – teamed up on Italian pies with Middle Eastern toppings and Middle Eastern hummus with Italian garnishes. Your life is probably less-complete without shakshuka pizza in it.)
Those restaurants are still brand new by the standards of New Orleans, where half a dozen respected French Quarter restaurants date back more than a century. And yet a few restaurants worth seeking out are even newer; in addition to covering Tales (my report runs in Wednesday’s food section), I found the following wonderful dishes in New Orleans. All three of these restaurants have opened since last spring.
Situated on Chartres Street, Angeline is nearly adjacent to an exterior brick wall cloaked in greenery, so if you’re seated opposite the window, it’s easy to think you’re supping at a hunting estate on Louisiana’s River Road. That little magical spark is tindered by the pork-rich bean soup, distinguished by greens prepared with care and the background click-clack of onions. The dark broth pairs gorgeously with sherry, which Angeline serves by the flight. My only complaint about the restaurant is the soundtrack: Nothing against Fleetwood Mac, but this kind of meal is the antithesis of pop.
First, a bartender noticed how quickly I devoured chef Nina Compton’s saucy pasta dish. Then a server commented that I sure was fast to finish. I’m not usually a fan of strangers assessing my eating pace, but to be fair, I don’t have a picture of the curried goat because I ate it in one ridiculously swift go. So you’ll just have to imagine little nuggets of sweet potato gnocchi, soft as the adorning cashews are crisp, layered with tender meat and a complex curry that swings from baking spices to tropical heat. I bet you’d polish it off too.
Usually, my eating tours of New Orleans are evenly split between historic old venues, such as Galatoire’s and Dooky Chase’s, and whatever’s new and hot. So I was hugely excited about Besh Restaurant Group’s restoration of the Caribbean Room at the Pontchartrain Hotel, a formerly grand restaurant where Frank Sinatra dined and the deal to create the New Orleans Saints was signed. (Archie Manning’s eldest son is a partner in the project.) Unlike many restaurants that reach the half-century mark, the Caribbean Room didn’t just slip into irrelevance: It was converted into a canteen for residents of an assisted living facility.
On June 17, it reopened with glamour to spare. Jackets are required at the Caribbean Room, although The Times-Picayune reports there are Billy Reid loaners on hand for underdressed guests. The room is stunning: The thick curtains and lush greenery were so impressive that I didn’t even notice the lobby painting of Lil Wayne eating Mile High Pie, a Caribbean Room icon.
About that Mile High Pie: According to The Times-Picayune, executive chef Chris Lusk, who smartly modernized the menu without sacrificing its intrinsic classiness, signed off on a perfectly cylindrical tower of strawberry, chocolate and peppermint ice cream. Longtime fans of the restaurant weren’t having it. The pie is supposed to look a little lumpy, like a melting bomb pop. Lusk acceded.
The reverence for tradition also informs the crab remick, a kind of supremely elegant deviled crab that the finest New York City restaurants once strived to imitate. It’s still a bacony broiled mound of lump crab, saturated with mayonnaise and chili sauce, but made a shade more ethereal by egg whites. The crab’s served in a ridged scallop shell, because even the seafood is expected to wear its best at the Caribbean Room.