On the Road in NOLA with Steve Dolinsky

ABC 7 Chicago food reporter Steve Dolinsky recently hosted a four day tour of NOLA (aka New Orleans, Louisiana). The excursion would center around a mix of traditional and modern New Orleans gastronomy and mixology.

The invitation to a New Orleans tour masterminded by the ultimate foodie was just too good to pass up. The same held true for the twenty other cuisine enthusiasts who took the trip. We ate, we drank, we learned, and we became friends. I came away with a deeper appreciation for the culture and history of the Crescent City.

NOLA CureDay 1

It’s hard to appreciate the real impact that hurricane Katrina had on the people of New Orleans over eight years ago until you experience it firsthand. The effects of Katrina are still highly evident around the city.  To this day, New Orleans natives speak BK and AK – before and after Katrina.

Our first stop was Cure, a former Firehouse turned into a stylish cocktail bar that anchored the comeback and development in its uptown neighborhood after hurricane Katrina.

Saloons were places to get drunk, but cocktail bars were places of culture and civility where patrons could socialize with sophistication. Cure offered a variety of creative cocktails.  I particularly enjoyed the following selections from their menu:

HOLY SMOKE 10  A light & smoky sipper with a long finish of tropical 10 & cedar notes. MONKEY SHOULDER SCOTCH, ALIPUS SAN BALTAZAR MEZCAL, and BANANA are the major players.

ONCE OVER 10  APEROL, 86 Co’ sun aged TEQUILA CABEZA, lime, 10 and our house-made ORGEAT are the key players in this low-proof sour with hints of mint, bitter orange, and rhubarb.

NOLA 2014After drinks, it was time for dinner at Casamento’s Restaurant, a New Orleans landmark built in 1919 by Italian immigrant Joe Casamento.

In tune with the ceramic building traditions of his native Italy, Mr. Casamento embraced the cleaning ease of tiled surfaces. (So much tile was needed to meet Casamento’s requirements, it took four tile companies from across the United States to fill his order at the time.) Customers likened Joe’s restaurant to a “giant swimming pool”. The restaurant still sports the original floor and wall tiles today. The current owner, CJ Gerdes, has worked there since he was a kid.

Casamento’s is known for their raw oysters shucked throughout the day. Offered raw on the half shell, deep fried and grilled, we enjoyed oyster po-boys: fried oysters served on buttered griddled thick toast they call, “pan-bread”.

NOLA Commander's PalaceDay 2

We took the St. Charles Streetcar to the Garden District, a historic neighborhood of stately homes on tree lined streets – home to the New Orleans’ elite of yesterday and today.

The area was originally developed between 1832 and 1900 and is considered one of the best-preserved collections of historic southern mansions in the United States. Among these mansions, is the Commander’s Palace. Built in 1880, this former antebellum mansion is regarded as the one of the best upscale restaurants in New Orleans. Inside its aqua blue Victorian architecture, there is a blend of inventive modern New Orleans cooking that co-exists with haute Creole.

We were treated to a jazz brunch, which started with Turtle Soup, Shrimp and Tasso Henican appetizers served with champagne. Entrées featured Wild Berry Pancakes, Pecan Crusted Gulf Fish and my choice, Cochon De Lait Eggs Benedict, comprised of 12-hour barbecue pork shoulder over cheddar and bacon biscuits with poached eggs, ripped herb salad, natural jus, and herb hollandaise.   For dessert, there was Creole Bread Pudding Souffle, Triple Chocolate Truffle Terrine and Southern Style Pecan Pie.

NOLA GARDEN DISTRICTWe did a two hour walking tour of the Garden District after brunch which helped burn off some of the brunch calories – a very good thing. The Garden District is home to the famous above-ground cemetery Lafayette #1 which dates back to the early 1800’s. There are about 1,100 family tombs and more than 7,000 people buried there, in the size of just one city block. Movie buffs will recognize this cemetery from the films, Double Jeopardy and Interview with a Vampire.

NOLA Lu Brow Swizzle StickNext it was off to Café Adelaide & the Swizzle Stick Bar for more cocktails where we met Mixologist, Lu Brow. Lu shared her professional expertise by demonstrating techniques used to make classic cocktails. Brow’s key tips to us: Always measure portions, double strain fruit drinks and never stir the ice in a glass – gently sway the ice side to side

After cocktails, we headed to the Mississippi River Delta for an airboat tour of the wetlands. This is the heart of the region’s seafood industry. Still surrounded by remnants of Katrina fall out, the region was again hit hard by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. Shrimp, oysters, crawfish and other wildlife have yet to fully recover from the affects of the oil spill.

NOLA Air BoatWe had dinner at the Woodland Plantation and Spirits Hall on the Mississippi River, hosted by Foster Creppel, the owner of this restored plantation built in the 1830’s. The home is featured on the label of Southern Comfort bourbon and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The menu was filled with local seasonal specialties including alligator sauce picante, jambalaya, oysters and a crawfish boil.  A row boat, filled with a specially boiled medley of crawfish, crab and vegetables, was an experience highlight. We used large bowls to scoop our own servings and then dumped them onto a paper covered table to enjoy.

We learned the correct way to eat boiled crawfish: Twist off the tail. Peel off the top part off the tail NOLA Woodlandshell. Pinch the delicious meat onto your tongue and then suck the juice out of the head to finish it off. The combination of flavors from the spices, meat, and juices were delicious.

We enjoyed the rest of our menu inside Spirits Hall, a wooden church built in 1833. The church was moved to the plantation and restored as a beautiful banquet hall.

Day 3 

NOLA BorgneOur third day on the tour started with a cooking demonstration by Chef Brian Landry of Borgne, the latest restaurant by Chef John Besh. Chef Landry taught us how to make two popular regional dishes, Shrimp Remoulade and Oyster Spaghetti. Chef Landry taught us: Oysters curl up on the edges when done and you should always save the oyster juice, called “oyster liquor”, for other dishes.

Next it was off to lunch at Parkway Bakery and Tavern in Mid-City, home of the original  “New Orleans Poor Boy”, or as locals refer to it po’ boy.

NOLA ParkwayOriginally founded as a bakery in 1911, Parkway produced delicious breads, donuts and a sweet roll named the Seven Sisters because there were six golf ball sized pieces in a circle with a seventh in the middle.

In 1929, the “Poor Boy” sandwich was invented to help feed striking street car conductors. The term originated from the expression, “What are we going to feed these poor boys?” The original Poor Boy sandwich consisted of potatoes and a drizzle of roast beef gravy on fresh baked bread. Today, Parkway offers over twenty versions of the Poor Boy sandwich served on New Orleans’ famous Leidenheimer bread.

After lunch, we took a ride to the Bywater area to visit the outdoor art studio of Dr. Bob, a New Orleans folk artist famous for his use of bottle caps and thematic images found on vintage building materials. Dr. Bob’s art is proudly displayed throughout the city, and his signature “BE NICE OR LEAVE” signs have become a ubiquitous part of the city’s subculture. Among the celebrities who have added Dr. NOLA DR BobBob’s work to their private collections, are Emmy Lou Harris, GiO (The Burlesque Queen of New Orleans), Oprah Winfrey and Mariah Carey, who posed with the artist’s piece in People Magazine. Dr. Bob’s work can also be found in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian Institute, The Memphis Blues Foundation, the Center for Southern Folklore in Memphis, and the New Orleans House of Blues. Bob gave us an incredible talk about his life, his art and his philosophies. It was quite an experience.

Later that day we visited SoBou, a spirited bar South of Bourbon Street (S-o-Bou), where we learned the history of the Sazerac – the first truly American cocktail and the classic by which all other cocktails are judged.

NOLA SobouMixologist, Abigail Gullo showed us how to properly prepare this famous New Orleans cocktail. The Sazerac Cocktail was named for the Sazerac de Forge et Fils brand of imported cognac. In the 1800’s, a bar called Sazerac House began serving the “Sazerac Cocktail” made with Sazerac cognac and bitters created by a local druggist of the time, Antoine Amedie Peychaud. Today the drink is made with rye whiskey, cognac, or a combination of the two, using hints of absinthe or Herbsaint, and Peychaud’s bitters.

NOLA CochonDinner was at Cochon, one of Steve’s favorite restaurants. We dined on a family style menu of Chef Donald Link’s signature traditional Cajun Southern dishes that he’d grown up with. Cochon uses locally sourced pork, fresh produce and seafood, focusing on traditional methods, creating authentic flavors of Cajun country. The restaurant is set in a rustic, yet contemporary interior in a renovated New Orleans warehouse.

Day 4

Breakfast at Café du Monde consisted of the restaurant’s famous beignets and dark roasted coffee with chicory. The beignet is a square piece of dough, fried and covered with powdered sugar, served in three pieces. Chicory is the root of endive lettuce; the root of the plant is roasted and ground and added to the coffee to soften the bitter edge of the dark roast. NOLA Cafe du Mond(It adds an almost chocolate flavor to Monde’s Cafe Au Lait.) Established in 1862, the Café du Monde is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week closing only on Christmas Day.

After breakfast, we strolled through the cobblestone streets of the old French Quarter (to make room for lunch), visiting local shops, antique displays and voodoo stores.

Our final stop and farewell lunch was at Galatoire’s. A famous Bourbon Street landmark, the restaurant was established by Jean Galatoire in 1905 and is run by David Gooch, a fourth generation descendant, son of Clarisse Galatoire Gooch and grandson of Leon Galatoire.

Back in 1905, Jean Galatoire came to New Orleans from France with recipes and traditions inspired by the familial dining style of his homeland. He purchased the building on Bourbon Street and converted it into a fine dining restaurant. The restaurant’s culinary customs and reservation statutes have been preserved with little change throughout the NOLA Galatoire'sdecades.

We enjoyed a classic French luncheon menu starting with Galatoire Grand Goute and main courses of Shrimp Creole, Gulf Fish Meuniere Amandine and Crabmeat Sardou with sides of Rockefeller Spinach, Au Gratin and Brabant Potatoes.  For dessert, it was Banana Bread Pudding and a flaming finale of Café Brûlot – French for highly seasoned incendiary coffee.  Orange peel, lemon peel, sugar, cloves and cinnamon are combined in a stainless steel bowl, doused with brandy and then set on fire. The flaming mixture is  ladled high in the air with impressive tableside showmanship, then extinguished with strong hot black coffee and served. It tastes like a very thick, sweet coffee, with deep citrus and clove flavors mellowing the sweetness. It was truly a memorable way to cap off our fantastic trip.

I look forward to visiting New Orleans again, and even more to the next food adventure Steve cooks up.

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