New Orleans: Hooked on the Classics

Kermit Ruffins and friends at Tipitina's; photos by Robert DiGiacomo

Kermit Ruffins shares the stage at Tipitina’s;      photos by Robert DiGiacomo

New Orleans has seemingly more than its share of centuries-old restaurants and watering holes, with most aspiring to be more than tourist traps. Meanwhile, new spots keep coming, with the Crescent City boasting almost 1,400 restaurants, compared with some 800 before Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, according to Tom Fitzmorris of New Orleans Menu.

During a recent visit, I wanted to find out whether it’s wise to stick to the classics and to check out newer places that might be worth talking about in 100 years.

broussard'sBoldface names For my splashiest meal, I chose the nearly century-old Broussard’s, which in the last year has changed hands and undergone a complete renovation. Executive chef Guy Reinboldt is taking a lighter approach to classic French-Creole cuisine, via dishes like sweet potato-wrapped Gulf shrimp, paired with a cucumber-raspberry salad (left), and items that reflect his Alsatian background, such as fresh sardines with arugula, Granny Smith apples and horseradish cream. But he’s also retained old favorites, like the oysters menage a trois and a rack of lamb stuffed with Louisiana crab.

muffalettaSpeaking of classics, I couldn’t leave town without having a muffaletta sandwich, so I headed to the new school Cochon Butcher, where I chowed down on a worthy version, stuffed with house-cured meats and olive salad (right). Having read raves about the classic World War II-era roadhouse, Mosca’s, from food writer and humorist Calvin Trillin, I made the drive 30 minutes away to Avondale with some locally-based friends. After so much rich food elsewhere, we enjoyed the rosemary-garlicky goodness of the chicken a la Grande and other straight-forward Italian-American dishes.

We Partyin’ I was fortunate to get tickets to see trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, a star of the HBO series, “Treme,” at the uptown institution Tipitina’s. Ruffins lived up to his “We partyin'” catch-phrase, presiding over a boisterous set that included appearances by some of his local musician friends, and a great opener in the smoky voiced, tattooed Meschiya Lake and her Little Big Horns. On other nights I checked out the scene at Chickie Wah Wah, a small smoke-free club with a classic trio on the stage, and also caught the midnight show at Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse, a happening spot tucked inside the Royal Sonesta Hotel.

tct-vaughn'sNew Classic? For lunch one day, I arrived famished at Muriel’s, on Jackson Square, following an entertaining three-hour Creole New Orleans bike tour of the Bywater (left) and other neighborhoods with the Confederacy of Cruisers. Muriel’s, which opened in 2001 in a carefully restored 18th century townhouse, offers a two-course lunch special for $17.50. With a potent $4 gin martini in hand, I enjoyed turtle soup, followed by mirleton, a local vegetable that’s a cross between a pepper and an artichoke, stuffed with Andouille sausage and Gulf shrimp.

tct-sazeracPour Me Another As befitting a city that’s always taken its drinking seriously, I was able to quench my thirst with some well-mixed –– and potent –– cocktails. I spent time at elegant spots like the French 75 Bar at Arnaud’s (beware the cigar smoke) and the Roosevelt Hotel’s Sazerac Bar, where the signature drink (right) positively glowed among the beautiful Art Deco-style murals and woodwork. Meanwhile, the funky Bar Tonique, on the edge of the Quarter, and Kingfish, in the heart of it, showed that the Vieux Carre and other standbys could be poured just as well in more casual settings.

tct-hotelLocal Hospitality I looked for a hotel that would give me a glimpse of life behind the walls of a traditional French Quarter building built around a central courtyard. The locally-based New Orleans Hotel Collection offers several such properties, including the Dauphine Orleans. My guest room (detail, left) delivered with a comfortable, memory-foam-topped mattress, marble-lined bathroom and niceties like a complimentary Continental breakfast, free Wi-Fi and bottled water, although the public areas could use a little updating.

tct-elizabeth'sPraline and Bacon, Perfect Together For my final meal –– breakfast –– I headed to Elizabeth’s, which at 18 years-old would be an institution in almost any other city, but in New Orleans is practically a newcomer. This Bywater neighborhood favorite –– whose motto is “Real Food, Done Real Good” –– is famous for over-the-top dishes like a savory waffle piled high with duck hash (right). Having tried Elizabeth’s invention of praline bacon, I wondered how I had gone this long without its salty-sweet goodness.