Eating and drinking your way through the Crescent City by WAYNE CURTIS
There’s a Galápagos quality to New Orleans dining, the sense that what’s on the plate has evolved with a fierce independence from the rest of the world. The same could be said of its venerable restaurants—Galatoire’s, Commander’s Palace, Antoine’s—some of the oldest in America yet still singular experiences. These days, however, global influences have asserted new energy to praiseworthy effect: The eatery of the moment, Shaya, features Israeli fare; MoPho and Maypop each fold a little Louisiana into their interpretations of the Far East (well beyond Chalmette); and taquerias and taco trucks add their own spice. The intrusions are welcome—not because they offer a detour from well-worn routes, but because they have historically served as precursors. All the great native fare—gumbo, étouffée, red beans and rice—involved a slow collision of cultures. Today’s outsider cuisine may just be tomorrow’s classic. It’s as it was, and always will be.
Sinking your teeth into a beignet is a worthy way to start your morning, and it’s better still with a side of modest exploit. Rent a bike and head up Esplanade, or hop the Canal streetcar (City Park/Museum line) and ride until the end. Make your way to Morning Call, just past the neoclassical New Orleans Museum of Art, for the pillowy pastries. Café du Monde in the French Quarter has the crowds. Let them queue. Morning Call feels more like Brigadoon, except set amid live oaks and Spanish moss near a lazy lagoon.
Stretch your legs in the five-acre NOMA sculpture garden, then make your way to Willie Mae’s Scotch House in the Tremé neighborhood. Sometimes there’s a long line to get in, and sometimes…well, there’s always a line. Budget the time to wait. (Once, after I’d stood in line an hour, someone drove up and offered those toward the front a hundred dollars to give up a space. No one would.) But oh what chicken awaits—fried, spiced, certainly among the best you’ll ever taste. As for sides, just say, “butter beans.” (“Mac and cheese” is an acceptable alternative if you flub your line.)
Classic New Orleans joints are often dark and intimate, as if light from windows would cause the fare to spoil. That’s not the case at your dinner destination: Compère Lapin, a bright, lively Central Business District spot inspired by the sunny Caribbean. Chef-owner Nina Compton, a St. Lucia native, first came to the city to compete on Bravo’s Top Chef, then decided to stay. Compton brings the West Indian flavors often hidden in New Orleans cuisine front and center with stunning dishes such as the seafood pepper pot, and the curried goat with sweet potato gnocchi.