Why is the food so good? Reinvention.

By Lolis Eric Elie
March 10, 2020
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Saba’s Harissa Roasted Chicken
Cedric Angeles

If a chemical analysis of my earliest meals had been done, I’m certain there would have been traces of shrimp stock, okra, and filé powder in my mother’s milk. In my hometown, New Orleans, we don’t believe that a child should be denied the sacrament of gumbo simply because he or she does not yet have teeth.

My 2-year-old son does have almost a full set of teeth, but he spent many of his formative months in Madagascar—his mother’s home country. In the year since Béa and Niriko, my wife and son, arrived on these shores, I have been busily trying to make up for lost gumbo time. (The importance of the early months in shaping the well-calibrated palate cannot be overstated.)

When I learned that New Orleans had again topped the list of best dining cities in the South, the timing was truly perfect. My wife did not need convincing that the Big Easy was a great place to eat, but affirmation never hurts.

That New Orleans would receive this accolade is no big shock, but what might be surprising are the reasons why. The classic restaurants here still deliver the great meals and memories that have earned them the love of diners for over a century. But eating in New Orleans is such a dynamic experience, increasingly accented by new influences from around the country and the world.

Possibly it’s the Creolized nature of traditional food that encourages young chefs to create their own variations on the local fare. Maybe it’s the quality of the restaurants already here that makes them want to take up the challenge of tossing their toques into the crowded culinary scene. Perhaps they think, “If folks from France, Haiti, Senegal, Cuba, and other nations cooperated to create the ‘traditional’ New Orleans food, then who’s to say a young lady from Japan or St. Lucia or a young man from Ohio or Israel can’t also make their mark?”

Although I really wanted to take my family on a nostalgic trip to visit my old haunts, I opted to make this a discovery event for all of us.

Rosedale’s Rosemary BBQ Shrimp with French bread
Cedric Angeles

Of course, the city itself has never lost its taste for old standards, especially the class of comeback kids that have recently returned in the almost 15 years since the federal levee failures occasioned by Hurricane Katrina. Gabrielle Restaurant and Barrow’s Catfish, two places destroyed by the flooding, have thankfully reopened after more than a decade. Both are in new locations and, like Rosedale (owned by veteran chef Susan Spicer) and the ramen-based revelation that is Kin, they have the added attraction of being off the beaten path without seeming inaccessible. If a child’s palate is to be our standard-bearer, the potato salad and white bread at Barrow’s—even more than the catfish itself—was the standout. (My wife and I preferred the fish.)

Left: Chef Yuki Yamaguchi of N7 | Photo: Cedric Angeles
Right: N7's version of duck à l’orange | Photo: Cedric Angeles

The food scene here is a more eclectic experience than ever before. In a place where fine dining has long been given over to French and French-Creole dishes, chef Justin Devillier still keeps it real at Justine, his Vieux Carré brasserie. In Bywater, N7, describing itself as specializing in “French cuisine, often infused with a Japanese touch,” serves a duck à l’orange that is excellent but not exactly Français.

Left: Try the catfish at Marjie’s Grill | Photo: Cedric Angeles
Right: Don't miss the gumbo at Maypop | Photo: Cedric Angeles

The varied menu at Marjie’s Grill ranges from Lemongrass Fried Catfish to turmeric-spiced cracklings to Grilled Heirloom Okra. Saffron NOLA and Maypop both look to Asia to personalize their own versions of gumbo, the city’s emblematic dish. At Maypop, the turmeric-roasted quail and fermented black beans define the broth. At Saffron, the Curried Seafood Gumbo is a star on its upscale Indian menu. (And the broth with basmati rice received a thumbs-up from Niriko.)

The most celebrated of the recent immigrants to land in New Orleans are the Vietnamese. In the decades since their arrival, we have seen restaurants increasingly embrace local food on their menus. Banh Mi Boys (which is actually located in Metairie, the suburb that lies between the city and the airport) puts traditional Vietnamese meats in its banh mi sandwiches, but it also adds bulgogi beef, five-spice pork, and oysters Rockefeller between the slices of French bread.

A variety of specialties at Banh Mi Boys
Cedric Angeles

Operating from a similar aesthetic, the popular Em Trai Sandwich Co. uses the excellent barbecue brisket from Central City BBQ in its soups and sandwiches. American barbecue is a new delicacy for my wife, though Vietnamese soups have their parallels in the traditional Malagasy cuisine of her country. This combination was a winner for her.

All over the U.S., developers are reimagining the food court to feature interesting local options instead of the staid chains of standard shopping-mall eateries. These places offer chefs a chance to ply their trade without the big investment in brick-and-mortar locations.

Here, the St. Roch Market is home to Elysian Seafood, which boasts a Creole gumbo as good as any. Fritai, which specializes in “Haitian street food” is a reminder that immigrants coming from Haiti to New Orleans doubled the city’s population in the early 1800s.

The rabbit curry at Bywater American Bistro also brings to mind that NOLA is a Caribbean city, though the rest of the menu romps largely through New Orleans, Italy, and Asia.

The team at Bywater American Bistro: (from left) Levi Raines, Nina Compton, and Larry Miller
Cedric Angeles

Italians, Sicilians mostly, have been flocking here since Reconstruction. At Paladar 511, house-made pastas go a long way in reconnecting The Crescent City with the Italian artisan tradition.

Menus from the city’s business district in the 1950s often included dishes designed to cater to the Jewish immigrants who worked there. If those customers were alive today, they might not recognize the Israeli-Mediterranean mash-up at Saba, but it’s unlikely that any of them ever tasted better chicken than Alon Shaya’s harissa-roasted version. Even the meatless wing bones, when sucked by my 2-year-old, proved delicious enough to hold interest.

Diners at Saba
Cedric Angeles

The three pillars of Big Easy culture are food, music, and architecture. The old Feelings Cafe in the Marigny was always more praised for the atmosphere of the space than for the taste of its meals. Cru, the building’s new resident, keeps that vibe. The menu, while a conservative mix of steak and seafood, marks an improvement on the food. (Béa and I both liked the veal chop best, but Niriko thought it was outshone by the french fries, which arrived first per his request.)

WATCH: 2020 South's Best Food Cities

Hotel Peter & Paul, a beautiful renovation of an old Catholic church, houses The Elysian Bar, which is warm, intimate, and classic. Those adjectives could also describe the dishes, like the duck egg omelet and the Baked Sunchoke Custard, which are at once inventive and familiar.

Left: The Elysian Bar at Hotel Peter & Paul | Photo: Cedric Angeles
Right: The Elysian Bar’s Roasted Gulf Shrimp | Photo: Cedric Angeles

I get so many requests for New Orleans restaurant suggestions that I used to just recycle an old email I’d sent out time and time again. That no longer works. There are far too many new places to try and too many old spots deserving of return visits. Moreover, for the first time, I can now offer reviews for those who have pint-size diners in their parties.

The restaurant scene is evolving and improving in cities all over the South, but none of those places has offerings that are more dynamic and exciting than New Orleans.

Lolis Eric Elie is a native New Orleanian and author of Treme: Stories and Recipes from the Heart of New Orleans.