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An Insider's guide to restaurants, wine, spirits and culinary travel

new orleans restaurants

Few places have a richer culinary tradition than New Orleans. Between the Cajuns, who migrated to Louisiana from the Maritimes of eastern Canada, and the French influence of the Creoles, the city’s food is dramatic and sophisticated at the same time. Dishes may be aggressively seasoned but somehow remain soothing and harmonious. Here are some favorite haunts, primarily located in the French Quarter.

acme oyster house

In a city of sensual pleasures, few are more satisfying than the Acme Oyster House. Yes, you have to stand in line, but that’s part of the mystique, and your inevitable wait on the sidewalk of Bourbon Street serves to sharpen your appetite and hone your sense of anticipation.

Acme opened in 1910, and it would be safe to describe the interior as short on decor. The floors are wooden, the tablecloths are plastic, and the noise level is formidable. The front room consists of tables sandwiched between a long bar on one side and an open kitchen on the other; the larger room in the back offers a more peaceful ambience, but only slightly. At any hour of the day or night, the place is packed, and the staff is understandably cheerful as a result.

To start with, you obviously come here for oysters: briny and oceanic, freshly shucked and magnificent. You can also have them char-grilled, a Nawlins specialty. The bivalves are opened, slathered with garlic and butter, topped with a thin coating of cheese, and baked under the broiler---a nice option for those wary of eating raw shellfish.

After that, there are the local classics: gumbo and jambalaya, red beans and rice, seafood etoufée. Beyond those, anything that isn’t raw is fried, so forget about cholesterol. There isn’t a salad in the place. The centerpiece of the lunch menu is the selection of Po’Boys, the traditional Louisiana sub served on a light, fluffy roll, dressed with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles and mayonnaise. The seafood options include shrimp, oysters, fish, crawfish tails and soft shell crabs. On the meat side, there’s ham, turkey, hot sausage and hamburger, grilled marinated chicken, and the killer---the “10 Napkin Roast Beef Po’Boy.”  This consists of slow-cooked chuck roast, propelled into another dimension by Tabasco-infused mayo. No one would likely confuse Acme with a wine destination, but the selection is decent.

And the service? Consider this: our waitress took the order for our party of ten without writing anything down, then repeated it back to us flawlessly. Try doing that on your best day (724 Iberville St., (504) 522-5973; acmeoyster.com)

bayona

Once upon a time, Susan Spicer was on the cutting edge of the New Orleans culinary scene. A veteran of famous kitchens in France, she operated several restaurants before opening Bayona in the French Quarter in 1990. For a number of years the restaurant rested comfortably at the top of the mountain, no small feat in a city as food-obsessed as NOLA.

Today, Bayona can be described in one word: tired. The room lacks energy and enthusiasm. There isn’t enough staff on duty to provide dedicated service on a busy night. Dishes are forgotten, mistakes are made, excuses tendered. When the correct item finally arrives, it is bland and uninspired. Yes, the menu change daily, but the repertoire of dishes has long since been exhausted. There is a lengthy wine list and a dedicated sommelier, but prices are high and wine service lackluster. In other words, go elsewhere (430 Dauphine St., (504) 525-4455; bayona.com).

cafe du monde

You’ll hear a lot about this place, and you’ll go at some point. Here’s what you’ll find: one of New Orleans’ oldest establishments, dating to 1862, with a large open-air seating area facing Jackson Square. The menu contains one item (beignets) and one beverage (coffee), so you won’t have too many decisions to make. Beignets are fritters made from deep-fried choux pastry, sprinkled with powdered sugar, brought to Louisiana by the Arcadians. At Café du Monde they are light, fluffy and delicious, served in orders of three.

The coffee is also Arcadian style: spiked with chicory, served au lait, mixed half and half with hot milk. In the one nod to modern life, a decaf version is available. It could reasonably be said that you haven’t been to New Orleans until you’ve had coffee and beignets at Café du Monde. Don’t miss it (800 Decatur St., (504) 525-4544; cafedumonde.com).

court of two sisters

This was the first restaurant I remember visiting in New Orleans. I was 16 at the time, ordered Eggs Benedict, and thought I was one of the most sophisticated people on the surface of the earth.

I still have residual feelings of nostalgia for the place, but the truth is that time hasn’t been kind to the Court of Two Sisters. The big draw is still the Jazz Brunch, offered daily, and the setting is spectacular: relaxing in a breezy, leafy courtyard, serenaded by a strolling trio of musicians, you can still feel like the king of the world. The food, though, is another story. If you’re happy with the items on the carving station, you’ll have a decent experience, but the hot food in the chafing dishes looks like it could be carbon-dated. You can always finesse the situation and order an omelet, but a $30 omelet is hard to swallow. Add alcohol, tax and tip, and you’re looking at $50 per person for a forgettable meal (613 Royal St., (504) 522-7261; courtoftwosisters.com).

galatoire's

For me, Galatoire’s has always been what psychologist Abraham Maslow would call a peak experience. It was established in 1905 by Jean Galatoire, an immigrant from the small village of Pardies in south-western France. The décor and menu likely haven’t changed much since then. The main room downstairs is a long, rectangular space, with a tiled floor and flocked wallpaper. The noise level can be deafening when the restaurant is full, which is just about all the time. No reservations are accepted for the downstairs room, regardless of who you are

The menu is a roll call of Creole classics. Start with Crabmeat Maison, Shrimp Remoulade, Duck and Andouille Gumbo, Sweetbreads or the Godchaux Salad (Bibb lettuce, lump crabmeat, shrimp and hard-boiled eggs, tossed in a grainy mustard dressing). There’s a strong selection of local fish (redfish, drum, pompano, lemon fish and sheephead) and the shellfish you come to New Orleans for, along with roast duck, veal chops and a litany of steaks. On top of that, we were fortunate to be there when soft shell crabs were in season. Dishes are simply prepared, to let the quality of the ingredients shine through.

Given the history of Galatoire’s and the relative formality of the place (it’s one of the few restaurants in the city that require gentlemen to wear jackets at night), you might expect the tuxedo-clad waiters to be a bit stiff. Not at all: They are the epitome of warmth and charm, and their service combines precision, humor, and good old-fashioned hospitality. The wine list is a connoisseur’s delight. While comprehensive, it’s naturally heavy on French wine, and contain scarce gems from Burgundy and the Loire Valley. Finding something under $100 may require a search, but life is but once---and peak experiences are hard to find (209 Bourbon St., (504) 525-2021; galatoires.com).

G.W. Fins

For a number of years, G.W. Fins has been the #1 New Orleans restaurant on Trip Advisor, out of a possible 1,495. To appreciate the significance of this, remember that all Trip Advisor reviews are legitimate, verified comments from consumers who have actually dined in the establishments.

The décor is elegant yet relaxed, and also crisp---it’s obvious that effort has been put into continually updating the surroundings. Rather than trendiness or innovation, the menu relies on the best possible ingredients prepared in the most flattering way (the philosophy is “nature writes our menu”). Appetizers include classics such as barbecue shrimp, gumbo and pork belly, and the entrée selection is heavy on local fish such as drum, snapper and sheepshead. The service is among the friendliest, most caring and attentive you will ever encounter. While not huge, the carefully chosen wine list puts emphasis on small, artisan producers. This place is a delight (808 Iberville St., (504) 565-5459; gwfins.com).

le bayou

My first visit to this restaurant was outstanding, featuring fresh oysters and a piece of blackened redfish that could only be described as spectacular. When I returned about a year later with a large group, having touted the place to them as an undiscovered gem on Bourbon Street, the staff were so unpleasant that we ended up walking out without eating. There are a few morals to this story:

1.      Undiscovered gems are usually undiscovered for a reason.

2.      Any establishment with touts stationed outside on the street, beseeching customers to come in, should only quicken your pace.

(208 Bourbon St., (504) 525-4755; lebayourestaurant.com)

oceana grill

In nearly one dozen visits to Oceana Grill, I’ve never been disappointed. The place isn’t fancy---think sports bar décor with wooden tables, lots of TVs, and a multi-colored, laminated menu. But that menu is close to encyclopedic, offering fresh and grilled oysters, local seafood, po’ boys of all sorts, burgers, pasta, and assorted Cajun and Creole specialties. With all the hype showered on the Acme Oyster House, the oysters here are actually better. The restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and offers take-out as well.

Service at Oceana is cheerful, accommodating and efficient. The wine list could fairly be described as a disaster, but if you want a tropical drink or a chilled shot, you’re in business. You won’t be scaling the apex of culinary excellence during your visit, but you won’t get a bad meal either (739 Conti St., at Bourbon, (504) 525-6002; oceanagrill.com)

restaurant r'Evolution

On the surface, it was an unlikely combination: John Folse and Rick Tramonto. Folse was a Louisiana native son, a home-grown talent who made his bones at Lafitte’s Landing in Donaldson and went on to spread the gospel of Cajun cooking around the world. Tramonto was the driving force behind Tru, the legendary Chicago restaurant, and an alumnus of establishments such as Charlie Trotter’s and Manhattan’s Gotham Bar and Grill.

They became friends after Hurricane Katrina, when Tramonto joined the effort to feed survivors. A few year later, the pair opened R’evolution in the Royal Sonesta Hotel, in the heart of the French Quarter, which immediately became the most exciting new restaurant in the city. The interior is luxurious and relaxed, with the dining area split into a series of small rooms for additional intimacy.

The menu is a reimagined rendering of Creole classics, using the ingredients of Louisiana’s “swamp floor pantry”---oysters and crawfish, Andouille sausage, catfish and alligator, and an array of local game birds and seafood. Standout appetizers include Death by Gumbo (roasted quail, Andouille, oysters and file rice), light and fluffy crab beignets, snapping turtle soup and house-made salumi. Entrees range from a Crawfish-stuffed Redfish Napolean and a lyrical rendition of Shrimp and Grits to roast duck, braised short ribs and a Tryptich of Quail. A selection of pasta dishes pays homage to Tramonto’s Italian roots, with the clear winner being the Sheep Ricotta Gnocchi with Lobster.

R’evolution’s wine list is a stunner. By the glass, there are 40 selections poured from magnums, including grower and tête de cuvée Champagne. The list is enclyclopedic, heavy on Burgundy and the Rhone Valley, and includes many hard-to-find estates in multiple back vintages. The restaurant is gunning for the Grand Award next year, and they expect to get it.

snug harbor jazz bistro

This restaurant is included not as a culinary destination, but rather as the best place to eat if you’re taking in an evening of jazz on Frenchmen Street. If you’re going to be listening to music at Snug Harbor itself, it’s the ideal place to be, since you can squeeze in a meal prior to the 8 p.m. show and be positioned to grab a good seat. The menu is basic but good: appetizers such as shrimp cocktail and fried calamari, entrees ranging from barbecue shrimp and fresh fish to filet mignon and prime rib. The wine list is short but serviceable. You can do much worse, particularly if you’re wandering up and down the block (626 Frenchmen St., (504) 949-0696; snugjazz.com).

superior seafood and oyster bar

If you find yourself uptown, or if you just want to get out of the French Quarter, this is a destination worth pursuing. The restaurant sits at stop #24 of the St. Charles streetcar line, at the intersection of St. Charles and Napoleon Avenues, so you can hop the trolley and take the scenic route. The interior features a zinc oyster bar imported from Paris, as well as a comfortable dining room.

The voluminous menu includes oysters, obviously (raw, Bienville, Rockefeller or Char-Grilled), fried alligator, assorted po’boys, pasta, salads, and fresh local fish in addition to steak and chicken. Prices are reasonable, portions are large, and the execution is light and graceful. Some of the highlights include shrimp and andouille gumbo, cochon de lait po’boy (braised pork shoulder), pecan-crusted drum and a blackened fish Napoleon. The wine list is adequate if not inspiring, and the service is friendly and efficient (4338 St. Charles Ave., (504) 293-3474; superiorseafoodnola.com).

Portions of this article first appeared on palmbeachillustrated.com

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