New Orleanians, or at least those who don’t live in the Quarter, have ceded the French Quarter to the tourists—especially on weekends. The streets are too crowded. The sidewalks are too crowded. And the restaurants are too crowded. And, for the most part, we have emulated that behavior. But knowing that our time in New Orleans was coming to an end, we ventured forth one Friday to wander the streets and have lunch.
Our tentative lunch destination was Johnny’s Po-Boys, a spot we had visited and liked about twenty-five years ago. While we were resting on a bench at Jackson Square, we toyed with the idea of returning to Stanley Restaurant just a half block away. Then we saw the mob milling by the doors. So we headed down Chartres Street where we passed a perennial favorite—the Napoleon House. Line out the door. When we turned onto St. Louis in the direction of Johnny’s we saw that the line was down the block and to the corner. Come on, folks. It’s a good poor boy, but not that good!
Then I looked across the street and realized that we were a few feet from NOLA, one of the three Emeril Lagasse restaurants in New Orleans. We had eaten and enjoyed dinner there during a Christmas visit fifteen years (or so) ago, so we decided to make this our lunch destination. And, there was no line out the door.
“Located in a renovated warehouse with a bright yellow stucco facade, large French door windows, and second floor balcony (right), NOLA is Emeril's casual and funky restaurant in the French Quarter.... Featuring an eclectic menu of New Orleans Creole and Acadian cuisine with an occasional ethnic twist, the rustic style of cooking showcases Southern Cajun, Vietnamese and Southwestern influences using Louisiana products (emerils.com/restaurants/neworleans_nola).
“Chef Emeril Lagasse received his first culinary experience from his mother, Hilda, when he was a boy growing up in the small town of Fall River, Massachusetts. As a teenager, he worked at a Portuguese bakery where he mastered the art of bread and pastry baking. Upon high school graduation, Lagasse was offered a full scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music, but decided to pursue a career as a professional chef. He earned a degree from the respected culinary fortress, Johnson and Wales University.... Lagasse then traveled to Paris and Lyon…. Returning to the United States, Lagasse practiced his art in fine restaurants in New York, Boston and Philadelphia before heading south to the Big Easy. Lured to New Orleans by Dick and Ella Brennan, Lagasse established his star at their legendary restaurant, Commander's Palace, where he was executive chef for seven and a half years” (emerils.com/restaurants/neworleans_nola).
And, as was the case for most New Orleans restaurateurs, Emeril’s restaurants were affected by the post-Katrina flooding. “Lagasse's troubles started when Hurricane Katrina hit…flooding 80 percent of the city and forcing a complete evacuation of residents. The storm damaged his three restaurants—Emeril's, NOLA and Delmonico's.... And even though Emeril's was reopened in early October 2005, and NOLA a few weeks later, Delmonico's was closed for over a year because of damage to the building” (blog.al.com).
Chuck decided to begin his meal with a bowl of that day’s gumbo—turkey and andouille, which was made with a not quite dark chocolate roux, large chunks of white turkey, and discs of andouille sausage. It tasted of hints of bay leaf and thyme and had just a slight heat from red pepper. It was from watching Emeril that I first heard about “layers of flavor.” Emeril maintains, for example, that a small amount of salt be added at each stage of the cooking process to achieve the maximum flavor of a dish. This gumbo was the perfect example. I kept sneaking my spoon across the table and Chuck finally pushed the bowl in my direction. Only one problem. I had to give it back.
He then decided to order the beef brisket.
“That’s a surprise,” I told him. “I was sure you would order the chicken.”
“Where’s that?” he asked.
“Second item from the top,” was my response. Somehow he missed this, but the buttermilk fried breast of chicken with bourbon mashed sweet potatoes, country ham cream gravy and sautéed sugar snap peas became his choice.
His plate contained two large pieces of boneless white chicken with a superbly light and crisp seasoned coating under which was the moistest chicken imaginable. I can only describe it as succulent. The mashed sweet potatoes had a hint of the smoky, oaky flavor of bourbon. And both the chicken and potatoes sat in a pool of cream gravy that was flecked with bits of ham. And all of this came with crisp cooked sugar snap peas.
My selection was the least “Southern” item on the menu—the seared rare yellow fin tuna (similar to and closely related to ahi tuna) with avocado, wonton crisps, cucumber, wasabi aioli and ponzu (a Japanese sauce with a sweet, sour, slightly salty flavor) vinaigrette. I have had quite a few meals of rare ahi, but nothing to date compares to this. Atop each fried wonton sat a slice of avocado and then a slice of beautifully rare yellow fin. The texture of the buttery fish and avocado were balanced by the crisp wonton. Add a dollop of wasabi aioli and a drizzle of the ponzu vinaigrette, and you have dining perfection. And the crisp cucumber “spaghetti” added to this textural balance.
And, of course, we had to have dessert—apple crostata with brown butter filling, cardamom ice cream, and candied orange zest. Now, as I have said before, I can’t eat oranges so asked our server John if the orange zest was just a garnish or an integral part of the dish. He very helpfully asked the kitchen and determined that, if we held the garnish, no orange was used in the construction of the crostata.
This matched the excellence of meal that preceded it. The pastry was flaky and buttery. The apples still had a bit of crispness. And the cardamom ice cream provided a slightly spicy taste to offset the sweet apples. The taste of cardamom is described at cardamomspice.com as a “complex flavor that can be described as slightly sweet, floral, and spicy with citric elements. It leaves the tongue with a warm antiseptic sensation similar to eucalyptus with an additional peppery after taste. Some have described its flavor as spicy and cola-like.”
A quick note about the service. It was attentive without being intrusive. Suddenly you would notice that your water glass had been refilled. And you never noticed the server.
And where is Kitty Humbug, you may be asking. Even I know better than to drag out a stuffed cat toy at an upscale restaurant like NOLA.
What a way to exit New Orleans than with a fine 5.0 Addie meal.
Exit New Orleans!!! The bon temps have just started to rouler!!! So many neighborhoods yet unvisited. So many meals yet uneaten. So much music yet unheard. What to do. Tear up the spring schedule, that’s what. We are still headed to Layafette until early March for Mardi Gras. Then, instead of working our way east to Florida (And who wants to go to Florida and hang out with a bunch of old people? And yes, I know I’m one of them.), we are coming back to New Orleans for another two months. We will be here for the French Quarter Festival and the two weekends of Jazz Fest. And we have just learned that Bruce Springsteen has been added to close the first weekend of Jazz Fest. His last appearance at this festival was the spring following Katrina where he brought the audience to tears by ending his performance by singing My City of Ruins which he wrote in 2000 as a tribute to his hometown of Asbury, NJ.
So the next time we write (that will be tomorrow) we’ll be in Lafayette, LA—another city where the bon temps rouler.
To review the role of Adler, Kitty Humbug, and the Addie rating system, read the November 14, 2011 blog.