Story and photos by John Griffin
New Orleans has long been known for its lively Cajun and Creole fare that mix seafood with spices in truly alchemical ways. But to limit your diet to gumbo or jambalaya is to miss out on the wealth of what the city has to offer.
On a recent trip, the call of the food world beyond the kitchens of Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Legasse or the culinary stylings of Antoine’s and Commander’s Palace was too delicious to resist.
The first bites of the evening were at a Middle Eastern place called Mona’s Café, which had a comforting selection of expected dishes, including warm lentil soup, a mini-pizza made on pita bread with gyro meat and feta, and some briny Kalamata olives.
My friend Carol decided to hold off on dessert until we got to the Palm Court Jazz Café, where she indulged in some bread pudding while I made do, at least food-wise, with the cucumber garnish on my Pimm’s Cup. I discovered this elixir about a year ago, on my last visit to New Orleans, and drank it throughout a subsequent trip to Africa and then at home where its cooling blend of bitter Pimm’s No. 1 with ginger ale or lemonade can take the edge off a 110-degree day.
But the real joy of the evening was the musical ruckus raised by Lucian Barbarin and Mark Braud with the Sunday Night Swingsters. The city had just learned it had made the playoffs, and the citizens of Who Dat Nation had erupted in joyous song.
Breakfast the following morning was our one nod to pure New Orleans tourist tradition: a stop at Café du Monde for beignets in a blizzard of powdered sugar. Monday morning is not a great time to visit this place, where the lengthy line moved as if it were in full hangover mode. Yet the light, puffy treats, sizzling hot from the fry vat, were irresistible.
The trolleys carried us from the Latin Quarter to Uptown; but though the setting changed, the lines remained the same. In fact, it was a lengthy line outside the Greek Revival structure dubbed Camellia Grill (top photo) that prompted us to take our place at the back.
Why? Because the woman ahead of us in line spoke with gusto about the omelets and the pecan waffles. Which would be better? An omelet with turkey, ham, bacon, potato, and American and Swiss cheeses and smothered in chili? Or a pecan waffle with plenty of butter and syrup on top?
We couldn’t decide, even as we finally earned a seat at the curved counter, so we had both and split them. Had we made the right choices? It’s never easy to answer that, unless you order the entire menu.
But we questioned our choices when we saw someone across the counter from us receive his burger piled high on a fluffy white bun. It was picture perfect, right down to the way the cheese melted over the edge of the patty. The petite woman next to me then received a double burger, which she proceeded to smash down to a size she could get her mouth around.
“Is it as good as it looks?” I asked.
I received no answer as she had become one with her lunch and didn’t reconnect with reality until she had finished the entire sandwich.
By then, we had gotten into the show that is as much a part of the Camellia Grill as the food itself. The bow-tied waiters whip the throngs of diners into fits of hoops and hollers as they hold up clean plates from other customers and lead groups into singing “Happy Birthday to You.”
Then the omelet arrived. It wasn’t exactly a pretty sight, with char marks on the outside. (We had ordered the chili on the side.) Honest-to-goodness brown hash browns filled the rest of the plate. But the first taste let us know that the omelet tasted every bit as good as that burger looked. It disappeared in a matter of minutes, as if we had not eaten in days. We were almost embarrassed as how quickly we devoured it.
The same was true of the waffle. The true joy of this treat was that it wasn’t sweet, but it was loaded with pecans in every crisp bite. Melted butter from a pour jug and syrup weren’t even needed, though Carol and her sweet tooth took to both with glee.
Dessert again was a matter of choices. I opted for the chocolate pecan pie in keeping with how good the waffle was. And it was decidedly good, again because it wasn’t too sweet, as some pecan pies can be.
But Camellia Grill, we learned later, is known for its grilled apple pie. Ah, me. Another reason to return.
We had dinner with friends who live in the city and love to show off some of the more off-beat culinary gems. That evening, the choice was Jacques-Imo’s Cafe, a funky restaurant in a converted old house that was also in the Uptown area. On a Monday night, we needed reservations, so be prepared to wait. It’s worth it. The menu is a lively combination of Cajun, Creole and Southern specialties, all made the more wonderful by chef Jacques Leonardi.
We went with the fried green tomatoes topped with whole shrimp for a starter, followed by a spinach salad dressed in garlic and Worcestershire sauce. I couldn’t resist the fried chicken, which sang of the added richness that comes from frying in peanut oil. Chicken Pontalba, named after an indomitable New Orleans woman, features chicken mixed with ham, mushrooms and more under a lively béarnaise sauce.
For those who like to take money, Jacques-Imo’s was the most expensive place we visited, with entrée prices reaching into the $20s.
On the way back to the hotel, one of our friends pointed out a bar in the Quarter called Yo Mama’s that’s known for its Peanut Butter Burger. Though I was carrying several pieces of leftover fried chicken with me, I could have stopped for one right then and there.
Our first meal on Tuesday was a lengthy lunch at the Cake Café on Chartres (or “Charter,” as the locals call it, I learned on this trip). Yes, the place is known for its killer cakes and cupcakes (chocolate mousse filled chocolate cupcakes with chocolate ganache on top – need I say more?), but the savory items will surprise you with their depth of flavor.
Carol opted for a lovely, fresh salad with plenty of goat cheese on top. I went for the succulent pulled pork sandwich on house-made rye that was pure pleasure.
We had a visit during our meal from Maitre D’, a black cat who has adopted the café and will often drop by your table to see if you have a crumb to spare. He alone made the trip worth it, though the red velvet cupcake was mighty fine, too.
The Praline Connection that evening promised Southern soul food, and it delivered with excellent crowder peas, creamy lima beans, and macaroni and cheese that had no business being that good. A mix of fried seafood was delivered in abundance, and while the oysters and catfish strips were good, there were some elements just not up to snuff, or so my friend Carol said, basing her comments on a previous visit a few days before I arrived. She found out from our waitress that the restaurant does have two chefs, and we apparently had the one who tended to overcook the fried shrimp just ever so slightly.
Again, a bagful of leftovers went back to the hotel refrigerator (most were demolished as breakfast). But I wasn’t finished, even if Carol was. I had to have that Peanut Butter Burger, so off to Yo Mama’s I headed by myself.
The streets of the Quarter were surprisingly deserted for a Tuesday night at 9 p.m., and I thought the place might be closed, because so many of its neighbors were. But the doors to the bar were open and in a fairy tiny space, I found myself faced with a ½-pound patty of surpassing wonder. It may have had plenty of peanut butter and bacon on top, but it was the burger itself that was seasoned and grilled to perfection. My stomach was beginning to reject all the food I had eaten that day, but I was smart: I had the side salad packed up to go, so I wouldn’t overdo it. Every last crumb of that burger disappeared, though.
Next time — and that’s the wonderful thing about New Orleans, you are always planning a next time while enjoying the ride while you’re there – it will be the Burger Romanoff with sour cream and caviar.
For my last meal in the city, it was time to return to an old favorite, Elizabeth’s near the levees. The drive there is a reminder of the rebirth that the city continues to experience in the days since Katrina and the spirit that swells within the city limits even when the Saints aren’t playing as well as they have this season.
Carol went for the panéed pork, a daily special that treated pork loin like chicken-fried steak, yet topped it with a shrimp-loaded white sauce. With sweet potato casserole and flat beans on the side, who could resist?
I opted for the cochon du lait po’boy, another variation on pulled pork. I don’t know if the pig was actually roasted in a pit according to tradition, but I can tell you that the sandwich was a success, especially in the way the hot sauce in the strands of meat was complemented by the cooling mayo slathered on the bun. Happy days, indeed.
The trip ended with a perfect slice of lemon chess pie, so tart and tangy that it made me want to forget obligations back home and lose myself in New Orleans a few more days.
If You Go
Café du Monde
1039 Decatur St.
Cake Café & Bakery
2440 Chartres St.
626 S. Carrollton Ave.
601 Gallier St.
8324 Oak St.
Mona’s Café & Deli
504 Frenchmen St.
Palm Court Jazz Café
1206 Decatur St.
542 Frenchmen St.
Yo Mama’s Bar & Grill
727 Saint Peter St.
John Griffin has traveled the world and is the editor of the food e-zine www.SavorSA.com, an online resource for foodies in San Antonio, Texas. Watch out for his next article about his trip to South Africa.