Culinary Adventure In The Big Easy
When I think of New Orleans, I think of heavy blues beats and old-style jazz riffs wafting through a sweltering French Quarter … I think of 3 a.m. powdered-sugar showers falling from hot beignets at Café du Monde … I think of purple and gold and black beads tossed into air filled with the shouts of gliding Kings and Queens … But more than anything, when I think of Culinary Adventure in New Orleans, I think of hearty, spicy Creole dishes and classic soul food that fill my spirit as much as my stomach — Jeanette Valentine, Soul Of America
During a recent dream trip to the Big Easy, I was able to take a culinary tour of restaurants serving some of the finest fare the city has to offer. We made the rounds mostly in the morning, giving us particular insight into how New Orleans lifts breakfast and brunch to high art. Home base was the International House, a tony boutique hotel with an attentive staff located two blocks from the French Quarter.
Whether your plans lean toward romance or raucousness, the right food can only enhance the experience. Below are restaurants worthy of a visit. Just loosen your belt and bring a healthy appetite. You’ll be in for a treat.
Willie Mae’s Scotch House
ADDRESS: 2401 Saint Ann Street
Step through the door of Willie Mae’s Scotch House, and the aroma of catfish sizzling in hot oil wraps itself around you. The wait staff weaves through the crowded dining room serving Southern dishes – like the cornmeal-breaded fish fillets – reminiscent of Sunday supper at Big Mama’s house: pork chops fried to a crispy toasted brown, smoky red beans topped by mounds of flaky white rice, delicate scoops of potato salad dusted with paprika and tender green beans studded with chunks of white potatoes.
And then, there’s the chicken.
On any given day, a glance around the restaurant reveals that fried chicken – hot and crisp straight from the fryer – outnumber all other dishes on the tables. Many soul food connoisseurs swear that Willie Mae’s serves some of the best fried chicken in the country. It’s an accolade that invites high expectations. And it delivers.
The slightly crunchy golden skin covers succulent chicken laced with a zesty blend of spices. The seasoning is strong enough to give the flavor a kick without overpowering the taste. Willie Mae’s version of this soul food staple avoids the pitfalls common to restaurant fried chicken – overly greasy crusts, pinkish flesh near the bone or a too heavy hand with the salt. The restaurant’s chef, Kerry Seaton, gets the mix of crispy skin, tender insides and just-so spicing exactly right.
Little wonder. Kerry is the great granddaughter of the restaurant’s founder and owner, Willie Mae Seaton, who opened a bar in 1957 that she expanded into the restaurant in 1972. Hurricane Katrina all but destroyed the Scotch House in 2005, and the younger Chef Seaton took over for the elder Chef Seaton after the newly renovated restaurant re-opened in 2007. Willie Mae Seaton, just seven years shy of a century old, still stops by occasionally, according to her great granddaughter, who marvels at the matriarch’s career longevity in the kitchen.
“She used to come in here everyday and make it happen. And to have the guests say, “You know what? That was the best fried chicken I’ve ever ate in my life,” made it worthwhile,” said Chef Seaton.
At 29, she’s putting her own stamp on the menu. Pork-chop lovers can appreciate two additions – a Country-Style version with the meat dipped in egg wash and rolled in flour before frying and a Chicken-fried chop, coated with the same secret batter that makes the chicken special. Chef Seaton occasionally dishes up collard greens. She can only go so far with variation, though.
“I always try to bring other things on the menu,” she says. “Like sometimes, I have baked fish or baked chicken. But when…the line is out the door, they’re not coming here for that. They’re coming here for the fried chicken.”
Back in the dining room, muffled conversations mix with the clink of silverware. Waiters and waitresses are sliding plates piled high with food onto tables, whisking away empty dishes and topping off glasses with iced tea tangy enough to curl your toes.
Diners with room for dessert can choose from a variety of offerings, including bread pudding and strawberry or turtle cheesecake. The latter is especially enticing with chocolate rivulets dripping down the sides onto walnut halves and chocolate chips swimming in caramel.
Even hours after lunchtime, Willie Mae’s is packed. A friend who stopped by at 2 one afternoon found the line snaking out the door and around the corner, almost 30-people deep.
Trust me. It’s worth the wait.
Lil’ Dizzy’s at the Whitney
ADDRESS: 610 Poydras Street
Strawberry French Toast at Lil’ Dizzy’s Café at the Whitney should come with a warning: “The establishment bears no responsibility for your swooning and falling to the floor in spasms of ecstasy after tasting this breakfast entrée.”
A hint of vanilla infuses the thick slices of bread, and the tang from a chunky sauce of fresh strawberries contrasts perfectly with the sweetness of maple syrup served on the side. The toast’s smooth texture strikes the right balance between chewy and soft, with each bite firm to the teeth yet still seeming to melt in your mouth. As I swallowed, I closed my eyes and savored a sweet buttery flavor that lingered on my tongue forever…uh, I mean until the next bite.
Chef Kevin Belton credits his grandmother for the recipe, which she created from days-old, unpreserved french bread. “Lost bread,” she called it, and he remembers her setting aside loaves to dry out specifically for french toast. He also makes a mean bread pudding using lost bread as the base.
At Lil’ Dizzy’s, you can request the french toast topped by bananas instead of strawberries, and each order comes with a side of bacon, sausage or ham. It’s one of many dishes that make your taste buds turn somersaults.
For a morning version of a New Orleans staple, try the Jambalaya Omelet. Pocketed into the firm egg mixture is a fusion of green peppers, onions, sausage and shrimp that burst with Creole flavor. Just the right amount of seasoning gives the andouille sausage, which can be ordered separately, a spicy zing. And old standbys like bacon, scrambled eggs and grits don’t disappoint.
Not quite rivaling the food but also impressive is the Whitney Building, a former bank where the restaurant resides. Beaux Arts architecture – think thick marbled pillars, octagon-shaped mosaic tiles and a ceiling soaring 30 feet up – dominates a dining room drenched in sunlight. The banking theme lends whimsy: you can glimpse the kitchen through a counter window labeled “Paying and Receiving Teller,” see a 1920s bank robbery in progress in a golden-toned wall mural and reserve an elegant table for 10 within an actual vault.
Almost as appealing as the food and atmosphere is Chef Belton. Big and cuddly with a great gift of gab, he makes you feel like a life-long friend. You’ll feel comfortable inviting him into your own kitchen, and handing over your utensils. Later in the day, I was lucky enough to watch him in action at the New Orleans School of Cooking, where he walked us through the steps of making gumbo.
He demonstrated how flour and oil stirred continuously over high heat will produce an excellent roux – the base mixture for most Louisiana cooking – in just minutes. Continuous stirring is the key, he said.
“When mother or grandmother made a roux, you had 10 minutes to do whatever you wanted. They weren’t going to leave the stove to answer the phone, go to the door,” he recalled. “I was a professional bed jumper. I knew from the smell when it was time to dismount, fix that cover and get to another room.”
Combining fresh andouille sausage and plump shrimp, the “trinity” of chopped green peppers, onions and celery and seasoning that included the all-important file, his gumbo was rich and flavorful. It was a special treat for me because this Creole dish is my favorite food in the world.
In response to a question about his own favorite dish, he said, “I just like to watch people eat. So whatever your favorite dish is, that’s one of my favorite things to prepare.”
Two Sisters Restaurant
ADDRESS: 223 North Derbigny Street
Before visiting Two Sisters Restaurant, I thought I had sampled every calorie-rich, cholesterol-laden, soul-satisfying Southern food that New Orleans had to offer. But the breakfast menu at this teal-colored, clapboard restaurant in the fourth ward listed a dish from my childhood that I had yet to taste in the Big Easy: Liver.
To those who fail to share my enthusiasm for iron-rich organ meat (and that includes most folks I know), be assured that Two Sisters excels in all manner of Southern cooking. Thanks to gracious companions who offered nibbles from their breakfast plates, I can attest to the light fluffiness of the pancakes; the dark, smokiness of the bacon; the creamy consistency of the grits and the buttery flakiness of the biscuits.
But the liver was my favorite. Nestled in a Goliath plate of grits and accompanied by sautéed onions and a rich, brown gravy boasting just enough lumps, the two thick slices were fork tender. The robust taste reminded me of sitting at a yellow Formica table, my hair in pigtails, devouring one of many beloved dishes prepared by my mother.
By mid-morning, customers had filled the dining room, which seats about 70, to near capacity. Afternoon crowds are just as large, taking advantage of a more extensive menu that includes the usual soul food standbys: fried chicken, neck bones, candied yams, potato salad, cabbage, collard greens and chitlins. A specialty of Chef Doris Finister’s is Shrimp and Okra, a dish she’s been credited with bringing to New Orleans when the restaurant was under different ownership.
“’The people who owned the place said, (customers) weren’t going to buy that. They weren’t going to eat that,’” she recalls. “I said, ‘Well, okay, but I’m going to put it on the menu and see how it goes.’ And that’s one of our best sellers.”
I understand why Shrimp and Okra is a favorite after watching Chef Finister prepare the dish at the New Orleans School of Cooking earlier in the week. With an assurance honed from more than 40 years in the kitchen, she sautéed the onions, then the okra and then added tomato sauce, also known as gravy.
Next came the seasonings and finally the shrimp, all lovingly stirred, but not long enough to make the okra “ropey.” I’m not a big okra fan because of the “ropey-ness” issue, but I thoroughly enjoyed this creation. Simmered until the sauce takes on a reddish golden color, the layers of tomato, spices and shrimp combine for a hearty piquant flavor that had me going back for seconds.
Chef Finister oversees the Two Sisters kitchen with three adult daughters playing supporting roles. The “two sisters” were the former owners who wanted the name kept after they sold it to Chef Finister and her husband. For good luck, they said. A glance around the packed restaurant shows that the previous owners knew exactly what they were talking about.
Dooky Chase Restaurant
ADDRESS: 2301 Orleans Avenue
Travelers seeking a triple dose of African-American culture in New Orleans should head to Dooky Chase Restaurant. Historically, activists discussed civil rights strategy inside the white-roofed, brick building in the 1960s. Aesthetically, a wide array of African-American art hang in the spacious dining rooms, which are painted bright hues of red, yellow and green.
And from a culinary perspective, the restaurant serves food of such quality that owner and family matriarch Leah Chase has earned the title “Queen of Creole Cuisine.”
Over the years, the food community has bestowed a mountain of accolades onto Chef Chase. In July 2009 alone, the Southern Food and Beverage Museum named its largest Louisiana gallery after her, she received an honorary doctorate from Johnson and Wales University, and the Louisiana Restaurant Association named her Restaurateur of the Year.
And she’s keeping the food artistry in the family. Chase is passing the torch to her 29-year-old grandson, Edgar “Dooky” Chase IV. In early 2009, he completed an eight-month culinary training program at the prestigious Cordon Bleu in Paris.
“I’m more confident in what I’m doing,” Dooky IV says of how the trip abroad affected his cooking. One dish the younger Chase has perfected since returning is Lamb Tiana, a double-cut lamb chop, served with a garnish of mushroom, spinach and a tomato concasse.
“I’m putting my touch on the menu, but I still have to get it all signed off by the boss,” he says inclining his head toward Chef Chase, who is whipping up a colorful Shrimp Clemenceau in the kitchen. “She outworks us all.”
After hearing a bit of the story behind the Chase family, I was eager to taste the fruits of their labor. Opting for the buffet lunch allowed me to sample as many dishes as possible. The buffet was laid out in a yellow dining room lit by bright sunrays bursting through side windows.
Long connected tables carried barbecue ribs, fried chicken, collard greens with ham hocks, macaroni and cheese, candied yams, cabbage…the dishes went on and on, and I piled my plate high. The rich, well-seasoned food fulfilled my lofty expectations, with the spicy fried chicken as my favorite.
At one point, diners had dished up the last spoonfuls of the buffet, and the crowd had to bide its time for almost 20 minutes. It did so without much grumbling, and staff finally paraded in serving trays brimming with more of Dookie’s finest. Apparently, anticipation of food from the Creole Cuisine’s Queen within her hallowed culinary domain was enough to soothe any potential complaints.
ADDRESS: 417 Royal Street
A giant lick of flame erupts from the sauté pan, injecting a touch of the theatrical into the hushed, dignified atmosphere of Brennan’s. Diners applaud as Executive Chef Lazone Randolf, a brother who started in the kitchen 43 years ago, works his magic on Bananas Foster. Both he and sauciers like the one above never fail to delight the dining room when preparing this dessert.
It’s one of several signature dishes at Brennan’s, a grand dame of New Orleans restaurants. Ornate architecture, mirrored walls, muted conversation and attentive, yet unobtrusive, wait staff evoke an understated, old-world elegance. I shouldn’t have been surprised that breakfast as a three-course meal is an option. For a trifecta of Brennan’s breakfast specialties, order the Turtle Soup as appetizer, Eggs Hussard as entrée and the flaming Foster for dessert.
Or allow yourself plenty of time to pore over a menu that covers two pages in tiny print and features almost 20 egg dishes alone. A suggested wine from the restaurant’s exhaustive cellar is listed beneath each entrée.
I chose the Southern Baked Apple with Double Cream as my appetizer, expecting a cobbler-like pastry. Instead, the waiter served a dark, brown-skinned intact baked apple resting in a pool of cream. The subtle taste reminded me of a barely sweet, cinnamony apple pie with a hint of vanilla ice cream. It was a whisper of a decadent dessert.
A dining companion let me taste her Eggs Hussard, an intense dish that layers Holland rusks, Canadian bacon, Marchand de Vin Sauce (made of wine, butter and beef broth) and poached eggs, all topped by Hollandaise. That Eggs Benedict-like model is replicated in a host of poached egg entrees.
Various ingredients include Cajun andouille sausage (Eggs Bayou Lafourche), fresh fried trout (Eggs St. Charles) and crabmeat topped with brandy-cream sauce (Eggs La Nouvelle Orleans), among many others. My favorite, Eggs Sardou, featured poached eggs layered on artichoke bottoms and creamed spinach, drizzled with Hollandaise.
My choice for dessert was the Chocolate Suicide Cake, a dense chocolate confection covered with sweet fudge icing. But I still enjoyed the Bananas Foster floorshow, only lamenting that it signaled the near end to my Brennan’s dining experience.