With due respect to New York, Boston, Chicago and a half-dozen other metropolitan areas, I’m a firm believer that New Orleans is America’s most culturally significant city. That’s saying something, considering that it is probably the least American of all American cities.
Where other cities imported their culture, in New Orleans, it sprung organically from the muddy waters of the Mississippi and oozed up from the murky swampland surrounding it. As if aware of its inhospitable location, it strove harder to make up for it.
The Crescent City cooked up its own cuisine and gave birth to its own music. Its architecture is anything but cookie-cutter, and its people — well, let’s just say, Middle American they’re not.
Full disclosure — I lived in this fascinating city for 27 years, and while some may say that affects my judgment, I say no way. Consider this — on my most recent visit earlier this month, I was greeted at Louis Armstrong Airport by a string of second-liners sporting reindeer antlers and hoisting red and green umbrellas; when I left, Santa Claus holding a bottle-green stuffed alligator, was handing out boarding passes behind the ticket counter. How often do you see this in other cities?
An uncharacteristic cool snap (temps this time of year are usually in the 70s) necessitated bundling up a bit more than usual, and a driving rainstorm on the night I arrived meant I had to deep-six plans to hang out in the outdoor living room of the night-time art market on Frenchman Street.
No matter — that just left more time to hunker down indoors and indulge in New Orleans’ favorite pastime — eating — and eating during the holiday season means indulging in the revelry of the Reveillon.
Taking a page from the city’s 19th century Creoles who celebrated on both Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve with a feast, Reveillon dinners are held throughout the month of December. More than 50 restaurants offer special menus — both traditional and contemporary, at prices ranging from $34 (The Gumbo Shop) to $110 (Commander’s Palace).
Braving a torrential rainfall, I started my first night with the Reveillon menu at Tujague’s, the city’s second-oldest restaurant, opened in 1856 (for trivia buffs, Antoine’s, dating from 1840, is the oldest). For $48 (plus tax and tip), I made my way through four courses — starting with a crawfish and goat cheese crepe and ending with a white chocolate bread pudding with bourbon caramel sauce.
Sandwiched in between was a classic turtle soup (sprinkle a dash of sherry to enjoy it Creole-style) and what is quite possibly the best Chicken Pontalba in New Orleans (served over Brabant potatoes, ham, green onions and mushrooms and topped with béarnaise sauce).
On the Culinary Trail
In New Orleans, breakfast means just one thing: Brennan’s, the legendary pink house on Royal Street. Recently renovated to add a stunning bar area, revamped upstairs dining rooms dedicated to the kings and queens of Mardi Gras, and a wall of windows opening onto Royal, it has also added the talents of executive chef Slade Rushing.
Rushing, while rooted in Creole tradition, is not averse to putting contemporary touches on traditional favorites. You can have your Eggs Benedict, Sardou and Hussarde, but you can also have egg yolk carpaccio with grilled shrimp, crispy sweet potatoes and Andouille vinaigrette.
For dessert, Instead of crème brûlée, opt for grapefruit brûlée (caramelized grapefruit, cherries and rosemary crème anglais).
Back in Reveillon mode, I headed to Arnaud’s for dinner. With its black-and-white tiled floors, ceiling fans and potted plants, the restaurant is the very essence of Creole sophistication. My four-course meal ($49) featured a remoulade of poached Barataria Pass white shrimp and pickled root vegetables; a butter lettuce salad with sugarcane vinaigrette; seared black drum, a Louisiana gulf fish served with stewed tomatoes and oysters, and crêpe Suzette.
End your meal with a cup of café brûlot, a flaming coffee liqueur, whose tableside preparation is sheer theater.
Lunch at Commander’s Palace has become a tradition for New Orleanians during the holidays, so take the St. Charles Avenue streetcar past gorgeously decorated mansions and walk the few blocks to Commander’s. Don’t expect quick or quiet. Lunches here usually last for hours, and all the dining rooms ring with raucous laughter from those celebrating the spirit of the season — literally as well as figuratively.
I couldn’t decide between Commander’s famed turtle soup, its equally famed Creole gumbo and the soup of the day, so I tried all three — Soups 1-1-1 offers a demi serving of each. I followed that with cornbread crusted Des Allemands catfish with Louisiana red beans and smoked corn grits, and finished with Creole Cream Cheese cheesecake.
To make the festivities even more festive, they offer 25 cent martinis, but as the menu warns, “there’s a limit of 3 per person ‘cause that’s enough.”
An old favorite and a new find
I can never go to New Orleans without making the one-hour drive to my friend Kevin Kelly’s magnificent plantation on the River Road, Houmas House. Every time I go, he’s added a new wrinkle to the 1828 plantation across the levee from the Mississippi.
First, it was the expansive gardens and water features that encircle the house. Next, he turned the garçonnière into the intimate Turtle Bar, and the carriage house designed by 19th century New Orleans architect James Gallier into an elegant restaurant. A recent project was converting a row of worker’s cottages into luxury accommodations for overnight guests.
A new find was Tableau restaurant which has one of the most enviable locations in the French Quarter, as well as a menu showcasing classic Creole dishes with a new twist. Overlooking Jackson Square and adjacent to Le Petit Théâtre, the oldest continuously operating community theater in the U.S., it boasts a three-story staircase and a balcony perfect for balmy nights.
As for menu choices, try the truffled crab fingers and BBQ shrimp and grits.
Of course, you must have a place to drag your over-sated and over-stimulated body back to, so you may want to opt for Hotel Maison Dupuy, a long-time French Quarter favorite. It has one of the loveliest courtyards in the Quarter, with its elevated pool and dramatic lighted fountain.
From March to December, management hosts a monthly themed event for guests. This month, it was a mini-bazaar, where they could do some last-minute Christmas shopping while sipping wine and nibbling on hors d’oeuvres.
An alternative choice is Le Marais, a few blocks away but offering a different experience — an upscale boutique property appealing to a hipper, trendier market. If you have any doubt, check out their regular guest offering.
Every Wednesday night, the hotel bar, Vive, presents “Heels for Deals,” where depending on the height of your heels, specialty cocktails are discounted 10 to 50 per cent. I’m guessing men as well as women are eligible.
I had time for one last Reveillon dinner — at Broussard’s, another of the Quarter’s elegant Creole restaurants. I spent my last evening feasting on Tabasco deviled eggs with southern pimento cheese and scallion hush puppies; truffle butternut squash bisque; seared drum with crispy crab croquette and red pepper corn maque choux, and pumpkin bread pudding with pecan praline sauce.
Pushing back from the table, I decided that this just might be enough to hold me until my next visit to America’s most culturally significant city.
Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based travel and food writer. Reach her at email@example.com.