New Orleans restaurants are back; where are you?

By Jan Walsh

Today, three years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans restaurants are back, some better than ever. The non-stop flight to New Orleans on Southwest is also back. After a 50-minute ride, the plane descends and prepares for landing. I see New Orleans for the first time since Hurricane Katrina and see no physical evidence of her aftermath. Cabs are plentiful at the airport. And for those who prefer a limo or private car, Shelley's Taste of New Orleans Transportation and Tours is recommended.

Checking into the legendary Hotel Monteleone on Royal Street, in the heart of the French Quarter—the street is dotted with family owned fine antique shops. The hotel dates to 1886 when it was opened by Antonio Monteleone and has been family-owned and operated for over 100 years. There have been five major additions to the hotel since that time. Most recently every inch of the hotel underwent a complete restoration, which preserved the historic integrity while providing guests modern comforts and conveniences. The AAA Four Diamond for service, Monteleone’s restoration includes a newly furbished lobby with crystal chandeliers and a hand painted ceiling. The hotel also offers a rooftop pool, fitness center, Spa Aria, meeting facilities, Le Café, the Hunt Room—for fine dining—and their famous Carousel Piano Bar and Lounge.

The hotel is also a literary landmark with many famous authors resting their heads here and using the hotel as the setting for their stories or novels. It is written that Hotel Monteleone was Faulkner’s favorite hotel. And when Tennessee Williams and his grandfather checked out after a two-week stay here, they discovered that Mr. Monteleone had “taken care of their bill.” And deservedly so, as the playwright had bestowed on New Orleans, four years before, the debut of A Streetcar Named Desire. Williams also mentioned the hotel in The Rose Tattoo.

My last trip to New Orleans, planned for September 2005, was cancelled. My assignment for a national publication was to cover Bella Luna restaurant and the chef’s organic garden. Unfortunately Bella Luna was among the restaurants that did not survive Katrina. But many restaurants did recover from Katrina and her aftermath. And other chefs have opened new restaurants.

Sections of Commanders Palace roof were torn off by Katrina, flooding the restaurant. It was closed for more than a year afterwards, while the restaurant was gutted and underwent a full renovation. Today the restaurant has returned to its former glory, with the only thing missing being hand painted murals and some former employees, including former sous chef Thomas Robey—now a Birmingham resident and executive chef of Veranda on Highland. The appearance of the building's turquoise and turreted exterior looks much as it did in 1880. Inside the restaurant is gleaming. The service is flawless, and our server Hugo Miller is knowledgeable of the origins of every dish. And executive chef, Tory McPhail’s cuisine is extraordinary. A divine Wild Blackberry Salad boasts “first of the season” Mississippi blackberries atop mixed greens, lemon-thyme chevre, creole pecans with an old spiced rum vinaigrette. The best gumbo—I ever tasted anywhere—is rich stock slowly cooked with fresh regional products, with no rice. “Rice is filling, and the gumbo is an appetizer,” McPhail explains. The Creole Crawfish Strudel is a scrumptious and highly recommended creation of Louisiana crawfish tails with marinated heirloom tomatoes, herbs, pepper jack, haricot vert and charred chili cream. And Miller’s suggestion of a large, piping hot French Crème Brulee with a portly glass of warm Ron Zacapa Centenario—23-year-old Port from Guatemala—makes a memorable, perfect pairing. Find many of McPhail’s fabulous recipes in his cookbook, Commander’s Wild Side, to be published in Fall 2008 at which time he plans a book signing at Birmingham’s Veranda on Highland.

Just north of Jackson Square is Hotel Maison de Ville. The hotel offers Audubon Cottages, where John James Audubon painted much of his Birds of America series.  Other offerings include the room where Tennessee Williams completed A Streetcar Named Desire and guest rooms overlooking the courtyard—home to “Tennessee” the hotel’s adopted cat.

A local recommended the hotel’s charming bistro, The Bistro at Hotel Maison de Ville. Its atmosphere and décor are reminiscent of Parisian bistros with red leather banquettes, white tablecloths, beveled-glass mirrors, natural wood flooring, and Impressionist-style paintings. Al-fresco dining is also available in the courtyard, weather permitting. Chef Greg Picolo’s style is Louisiana Creole rather than spicy Cajun. From the Pate Provencal, Saffron Poached Catfish, Omelet of the Day with smoked beef, okra and asparagus, to the Chocolate City Cream Brulee, every dish was perfection. It appears that his culinary expertise is the best-kept secret in New Orleans.

The 17th Annual New Orleans Food and Wine Experience is being held this week, May 20-24, with 75 of the best restaurants in New Orleans showcasing their offerings at this five day feast. There are offerings from 75 chefs and 1,000 wines from 175 wineries to taste in five days. Vintner Dinners at the finest restaurants in New Orleans are one of the highlights of this experience. It is my pleasure to attend the J. Winery and Vineyard’s vintner dinner with Vice President of Winemaking George Bursick and Executive Chef of Galatoire’s Restaurant, Brian Landry. Under the guidance of the fourth generation of family ownership, Galatoire’s continues its rich tradition of serving authentic French Creole favorites, just as they did in 1905.

Tonight is a night to remember. From the free flowing flutes of the 1999 J. Vintage Brut, paired with Galatoire’s fried oysters and choupique “caviar” to the house made butterscotch and hazelnut biscotti with J. Ratafia dessert wine, nothing can beat a five course pairing of J. and Galatoire’s. Other New Orleans Food and Wine Experience events include The Royal Street Stroll and Vinola Tasting and Auction. Royal is closed to vehicular traffic for the Stroll as white tents dot the street and both antique and jewelry shops treat guests to their own food and wine offerings. Vinola is the new premium tasting event and a rare opportunity for 200 wine enthusiasts to mingle with notable winemakers and sample elite wines (each exceeding a retail value of $75.) Vinola is immediately followed by a live auction. And on Friday and Saturday the Grand Tastings are held in the Superdome, with guests being transported to and from hotels Monteleone, Ritz Carlton, and Royal Orleans.

New Orleans is back, and you should be back there too!


Categories: Culinary Travels