Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Of Gumbo, Oysters, & Head-On Shrimp: Essential, Classic New Orleans Eats

Juicy plump barbecue shrimp at Mr. B's Bistro
I have heard people who don't know any better claim that all New Orleans food is the same. "It's all just heavy, saucy stuff," they say. As you may imagine, this generally precipitates a rather stern lecture from me. Yes of course, some, but certainly not all, Creole (and Cajun) food is heavy - but since when is heaviness necessarily a bad thing? Besides, just as with with cocktails, it's all about pacing.

And no: New Orleans food is most definitely not all the same! In this post I am focusing on classic, old school establishments, but there are also many chefs who are experimenting and exploring the boundaries of a new New Orleans cuisine, and I'll talk about a few of them in a future post.

But first, let's talk about one of my very favorite things in the whole world: the barbecue shrimp at Mr. B's Bistro. This is always the first thing that Poppa Trix and I have when we arrive in New Orleans - we practically run there, before we've even unpacked our bags. It's likely doesn't resemble what you may think of as barbecue: Instead, the head-on Gulf shrimp are swimming in a rich broth of garlic, Worcestershire sauce, peppercorns, and butter. And I mean lots and lots of butter. And yes, you need to suck the brains out of those shrimp  - they are sweet! Look again!
Note the bread. That is for sopping. And sop you will! You'll need an extra loaf, in fact, and it will arrive with its insides still warm and soft, encased in a thin crackling crust:
When you order this dish, they will bring you a bib. Wear it. You will make a mess.

Another dish you must get at Mr. B's is the gumbo ya-ya. Loaded with chicken and shrimp, the star is the roux. It is perfection ... layers of flavor, finishing with a subtle heat:
 Mmm, mmm happy!
Notice the ribbons around our necks? They had holiday bells attached.  They were given to everyone in the place, and the whole restaurant was jingling!

Don't judge me for what I am about to tell you: Next we had a second lunch. It was small! And it was at Galatoire's, a New Orleans institution:
The recipes  for the Creole dishes at Galatoire's have never changed - in fact, nothing here has changed for over 100 years - and that's what I love about it. They have a dress code, and they mean it. No t-shirts ever, and jackets for men at dinner. No exceptions. There is a story that once, in the dead of the sticky hot New Orleans summer, the air conditioning broke, and the management relaxed its code to allow men to remove their jackets at the table. One man, however, would have none of it: "A gentleman never removes his jacket!" he is said to have exclaimed. Poppa loves to repeat this.

But I have to admire a place that doesn't lower its standards, bend its rules, or change its traditions just to get more customers. It is what is is, and I always say if you don't want to abide by it, there are plenty of other places to go.

Truth be told, though, Poppa and I had a rather disastrous experience here one Friday night in 2008, but in retrospect that was our mistake. We didn't realize that people wait in line starting very early, or even pay ... um, unemployed people ... to wait overnight to save them a spot for Friday lunch. Witness the folks in this queue, which had already formed on Thursday afternoon:
I don't know what's to prevent these guys from selling the spot they've been paid to save to a higher bidder, but I suppose these things run by some sort of code. At any rate, once they get their seat inside people stay all day ... and drink nonstop ... and the Friday lunch turns into the Friday dinner. And things get really, really rowdy. The night that we went, a crowd of guys became so loud and rude and just plain crazy that they caused our server to spill wine on Poppa's jacket, and we could barely hear one another over the din. Not so great when you consider that, as it turns out, it was supposed to be a romantic dinner - the night that Poppa asked me to marry him, in fact! Oh well. It all worked out, eh?

Flash forward. This time we showed up around 2 pm  on a Thursday, just in time to be able to watch as the noises and activity of the space transitioned from the bustle of lunch to the quiet lull before dinner. No one rushed us - we could have sat there all day and night. You already know that we had a couple of Sazeracs each, and we also had some crunchy, zingy shrimp remoulade, one of my favorite renditions ever:
And oysters en brochette, which I though was way too buttery, but Poppa loved:
Then again, you don't come to Galatoire's just for the food - it's about the experience. It's about just being there, and learning (or re-learning) how to sit and take your time about things. Poppa is really good at that!
The next day we had our traditional Friday lunch at Commander's Palace in the Garden District.
We always take a leisurely stroll through Lafayette Cemetery first:
A lady must protect herself from the harsh rays of the sun! And so must I.
 I've already told you about the cocktails we had, and the group of drunk and hilarious restaurant magnates we met there. We were seated next to them in the Garden Room, the place where all the action is!
Yes, those blue ribbons are more holiday bells. Between the bells, the laughter, people breaking into song, and the flowing booze it felt like we had wandered into the best party on earth. Which we had. To top it off, Ti Martin and Chef Tory McPhail were stopping at everyone's table to chat. I should have taken a photo, but I was too in the moment.

Before I show you all of the amazing things we ate, I must let you in on a little secret: the night before, Poppa dropped the camera. He swears he wasn't drunk, and I'll leave it at that. But it did damage the lens (it's since been fixed) but from here on out thanks to a combination of camera damage and booze things aren't quite as sharp in the photo department. Maybe before you continue reading, you should have a little cocktail yourself? Just to even the playing field.

It's a small thing, but this garlic bread is off the hook:
First we shared the boudin stuffed pork belly served over braised greens and pig trotter jus:
Incredible. Next we had some real Commander's Palace classics. I had the turtle soup with sherry:
While Poppa had the absinthe oyster dome:

My powers of food description fail me, because I cannot even begin to describe the subtle yet intense flavor of that absinthe-infused cream. I also thought I wasn't a fan of oysters, but this dish changed my mind.

We then had the wild game bird cassoulet and the Louisiana cochon de lait, or pig in milk. (I believe the dish's origin is in fact Cajun and not Creole.) Do you I have to tell you how good these dishes were? Behold:
Cochon de lait

At this point I blame the blurry photos on all the booze. We were both pretty tipsy. But I was still able to enjoy the tour of the kitchen and wine cellar our server Nolan took us on. I could not, however, be trusted  to carry the camera. Nolan told us that sometimes they have special reverse wine pairing dinners for 12 where the kitchen makes food designed to pair with the wine.

All told, our lunch lasted a very Creole-like 3 and a half hours. On the way out we ran into one of those guys from the restaurant magnate table - this gentlemen owns at least one country club, I believe:

Believe it or not we did eat dinner that night, but that's for another post. Our other classic bites on our brief (not quite 4 day) trip were the chargrilled oysters at Drago's.
 They cook them over flames and then pour a buttery garlicky cheesy ooze over top. Yum

Truth be told, this place does so much volume that I think they were cleaning their oysters a bit too fast because there was some grit and shell in a few of the oysters. But it's a testament to the garlicky goodness of that sauce that I kind of (almost) didn't care.

Of course we had to get a cafe au lait at the famous Cafe du Monde. Don't care if it's a tourist spot, that chicory coffe is heaven in a cup.
Sorry guys, no room for beignets! And that's that for the classic eats and drinks on this trip. Look for my post on new New Orleans food, plus a little lagniappe later on.

Happy Mardi Gras season!


  1. I need to bookmark this post and eat my way through your food itinerary when I head to New Orleans at Easter. Dang, that all looks good. Even the oysters. I WILL find room for beignets, though. haha

  2. I couldnt get past the garlic bread it looked divine for sure.... looks like you had a great meal there!

  3. Great post. I really enjoyed reading about your trip and definitely enjoyed the photos of the food :-)

  4. No judging on the second lunch. I think that I would judge you if you DIDN'T have a second lunch when so much good food was at your finger tips... Perhaps even a third lunch was warranted?

  5. No beignets? What a wonderful trip this was!! I am drooling - love the bells.

  6. wait, just breezing thru, will come back to do serious busn here but had to say: girl, ya crack me up, "And so must I."... I fell out of my chair... The food choices are right on - Mr. B's BBQ Shrimp / ant their Gumbo Ya-Ya, the standby leftover of Paul Prudhomme recipe at Brennan's / and Commander's Palace delightful Oyster Dome ... of course, nothing beats the service at Galatoire's, everyone's favorite NOLA lunch spot... but wait, I'm not commenting on any of that yet......

  7. wow, Wow, WOW! I'm taking notes for my future trip (not that I know when that'll be, but one day...). I loved hearing about some of the food this time...and seeing it. I went from hungry to stuffed in this delicious post =)

  8. Simply amazing selection of food and what a great experience it must have been

  9. New Orleans is a city that has always fascinated me—from afar. Believe or not, I've never been there! But that will definitely be corrected one day. With food like this…

    But just one question: How can anything possibly be "too buttery"?

  10. Thanks for sharing your trip and Restaurant experiences in New Orleans! We are way overdo for a trip back there. Our hotel was around the corner from the acme oyster house and my husband had to have an oyster po'boy every day we were there, either before or after lunch! We have a fairly new restaurant in SF called the boxing room with a chef from Louisiana, we've been a couple of time for the oysters, gumbo, hush puppies etc. but that's the closest we've been to the real deal, so again thanks for bringing it to us up close and personal - look forward to the next installment.

  11. My next trip to New Orleans needs to be partially Trixified (tm Trevor). Funny you should mention Mr. B's barbecue shrimp; I'm planning on making it for the Saints game on Saturday.

  12. New Orleans is such an exciting city; the food for one (I remember when people would line up to eat at Chef Paul Prudhomme's place) for miles.. also the atmosphere, the music, the culture, the Creole and Cajun thing, I just love it. I haven't gone back in ages but your post brought it all back to me and I thank you for that!

  13. Oh, what fabulous food!!! I'm suddenly VERY hungry. It's been a long time since we've been to NO, but I do remember that gumbo yaya fondly! As always, I loved reading your post, Trix~

  14. Hello again! Happy New Year lovely. This seems like a great place to be and I can't believe the queue?

  15. Wow this post has made me want to hop on the next plane and head to New Orleans for a food eating weekend! Everything looks and sounds amazing!

  16. I am making absinthe oysters!!! What an amazing combination... I just say DUH, why haven't I thought of that before! One of my favorite shrimp dishes is has pernod and cream and I didn't have any so used absinthe... it is insanely good... I now have a cartoon cloud over my head with a picture of those oysters ready to taste.

    Looks like a great trip... why have I never gone to New Orleans??

  17. Wow woman. I really do hope that one day you will be my culinary guide through that city as EVERYTHING looks just fantastic. I'd even let someone spill wine on my jacket just to experience such.

  18. I loved every meal in NO and I agree its good and different. I have no idea where you put all that amazing food though ??????? Love the bell idea.

  19. I totally just got treated to a spontaneous trip to New Orleans courtesy of your stunning post. And no calories :) Though I have to admit that I would have gotten the beignets not matter how distended my tummy was at that point :) THANK YOU for sharing your amazing trip and memories. Stunning.

  20. Of all the posts that I have seen on New Orleans none have made me want to visit as much as this one. Between sucking the head of the shrimp and dreaming about the boudin stuffed pork belly served over braised greens and pig trotter jus, I have to seriously think about organizing a trip there as soon as the little one can say cajun. Kudos Trix!

  21. You really had dinner after? :) Wow what an exciting food journey! Looks like you had one long party...I will have to read your previous post, probably should have read it first :)
    P.S. you are too funny with the sun umbrella comment :)

  22. Oh. Em. Gee.

    That thing is gonna bitecha watch out ;)

    Looks divine!

  23. I am in food heaven right now. Where to begin, everything looks and sounds so amazing. I too would have had 2 lunches and why not 2 dinners! Every creole or cajun food I've ever had I loved. Okay I really need to go to NO and soon. Thanks for sharing !