Yup, I’m on a work trip to New Orleans, and aiming to devote a decent part of my down time to the culinary and architectural pleasures of the city. I’ve never been here before, although I’ve always wanted to visit, and I’m lucky enough to be here with several friends who either come from New Orleans or know the place well. I arrived last night, which is to say on Ash Wednesday, the day after Mardi Gras. Not the best timing, and the city is still covered in beads and cleanup crews. But truth be told, I’m a bit scared of heaving crowds and girls gone wild madness, so maybe it’s better I arrive into a slightly calmer city…
I was exhausted after a long and rather turbulent flight, but happily my friends picked me up from the airport and whisked me to Herbsaint, a bistro on Charles Street that focuses on upscale versions of New Orleans and Southern classics. The vibe is relaxed and the mixology is impressive. Our table of cocktail afficionados oohed and aahed over the sazerac and the ginger mint julep, though I was not quite up to joining in. I ordered a bunch of small plates because so many dishes looked good and I was still feeling dopey and indecisive from the journey. (Who am I kidding, I do this all the time…) I started with the gumbo, which was a dark and complex thing of beauty. My New Orleanian friend asked if I’d ever had gumbo before. I realised that while I had many times eaten something that was labelled gumbo on a menu, I had in fact never eaten gumbo before. The depth of a thick, dark roux is something I’ve heard cooks discuss before, but I never really appreciated it until now. It is astonishingly flavourful. This gumbo was chicken and andouille sausage, but I don’t think it really mattered what meats were added. It was all about the roux.
I went on to have shrimp and grits, a dish that’s common across the south, but was especially good at Herbsaint. The shrimp are of course all locally caught and the flavour of ultrafresh seafood is central to what is otherwise a very rich plate of food. The grits are decadently soft and creamy: probably about 80% butter holding the grits together. This was listed as a small plate on the menu but I actually couldn’t finish it because it was so incredibly rich. It was also really delicious.
I also had a special of spicy frogs’ legs served with pickled fennel and carrot, and some kind of peppery sautéed green. The frog legs themselves were delectable – big and meaty but with a delicacy of flavour and texture that suggested they were very fresh indeed. The home pickled vegetables provided a much needed bite of astringency, especially the fennel. I couldn’t quite figure out the greens: the menu called them bok choy, but they were much thinner than any bok choy I’ve ever had. They looked and tasted more like young mustard greens. Whatever they were, they had picked up a smoky quality from their cooking that felt like a more charcoaly version of Chinese wok hei. It was really really good. (They don’t really show up in the picture, as they’re hidden under the frogs’ legs.)
For dessert we ordered a banana brown butter pie with salty caramel sauce that has been on the menu for ten years. It was so popular at our table that it was more or less gone before I had the opportunity to photograph it. I suppose the lack of photographic evidence is the ultimate sign of deliciousness.
This morning I was up bright and early for beignets and chicory coffee at Cafe du Monde. (Tip: come at 7:30am to avoid the Disney-style queues of tourists.) I can’t describe how good the beignets are. Seriously. I’m coming back every morning and I don’t care if I do gain ten pounds in four days.