NEW ORLEANS — I get to New Orleans every so often, and my waking hours there can be separated into three categories: Eating, getting ready to eat and just finished eating. I map out my restaurant assaults the way some parents plan a day at Disney World: I figure out which attractions I most want to see and time my arrivals to ensure a good seat.
New Orleans, home to this weekend's NCAA men's basketball Final Four, also has a renowned aquarium, charming neighborhoods and swamp tours, plantation tours and other attractions I've never, ever experienced because I'm eating. Here's a snapshot of my most recent trip ...
The Rib Room: We hit The Omni Royal Orleans' dining room the first night because we arrived late and the place was nearby with available tables. And also because I remember the chef, René Bajeux, from his days running the old Bistro 110 in Chicago before moving to New Orleans 15 years ago. The Rib Room is quiet and elegant, a chandelier-lit, wood-paneled beauty that's steeped in New Orleans mover-and-shaker history; all sorts of important deals reputedly were negotiated over the Rib Room's white-tablecloth tables. And it's resolutely not part of the city's Cajun-Creole dining scene; here, the emphasis is on prime rib and rotisserie meats.
My wife, sticking to soup for the evening, had a sort of Goldilocks moment: Her first choice was too hot (our waitress advised us that the lobster bisque was considerably spicy), the second too salty (a turtle soup so saline it must have been a kitchen error) but the third, the chef's signature onion soup, was just right.
My meal was much more consistent, opening with a plate of sautéed oysters amandine and ending with a pair of meaty lamb chops accented with five-spice powder. New Orleans restaurants, particularly in the French Quarter, tend to be locally focused and cheerfully noisy; if your mood is tending toward the opposite, the Rib Room is worth a look. (621 St. Louis Street. (504) 529-7046. Ribroomneworleans.com.)
Cochon: If you really want a little Cajun Southern in your dining experience (and, let's face it, that's a big reason people come to New Orleans), then this Warehouse District restaurant, a quick cab ride from the French Quarter, is the place to be.
That's especially true if you're fond of all things porcine, as locally sourced pork ("cochon" is French for pig) finds its way onto the menu in various guises, from a modest oyster and bacon sandwich to a richly flavored (and excellent) smoked ham hock with farro grain, bitter greens and pickled squash.
Start with barbecued chicken thigh alongside a serving of spoon bread, or, better still, the savory pumpkin calas (a crispy rice fritter and Creole staple). Dig into the nurturing rabbit and dumplings dish if you're in the right mood. Everything I tried was terrific (don't skip the hummingbird cake dessert), including the "Swinekiller" cocktail that I could not resist.
I offer but two caveats: Cochon is very popular (packed on a Monday night) and therefore noisy, and the kitchen produces enough smoke that whatever you're wearing may need to go straight to the dry cleaner. (930 Tchoupitoulas Street. (504) 588-2123. Cochonrestaurant.com.)
Herbsaint: I really didn't plan to focus on chef Donald Link, who happens to own Cochon as well as this Business District restaurant. But this is Link's first New Orleans restaurant, and it remains one of my favorites in this town. Herbsaint is rustic and bustling and, yes, pretty darn noisy, particularly if you get seated in the back room. But the joys of Link's food — straightforward, hearty stuff — make such distractions seem minor.
Grab the gumbo of the day, whatever it might be, dive into some pillow-soft gnocchi with pancetta and maitake mushrooms, try the chili-sparked, butter-poached Gulf tuna or indulge in shrimp and grits with tasso and okra. And those are just the small plates.
When it comes to the mains, make sure to sample the slow-cooked pork belly with turnips and Brussels sprouts, balanced by a sweet-tart apple-mustard vinaigrette. (701 St. Charles Avenue (504) 524-4114. Herbsaint.com.)
August: There never are enough evenings in my New Orleans stays to let me eat everywhere I'd like; fortunately, John Besh's restaurant, arguably the best restaurant in the city, is open for lunch. The options are considerably less expensive, and you'll still get such luxury touches as an amuse-bouche of truffled custard served inside an eggshell.
The shrimp bisque contains a bounty of shellfish; there are heavenly, feather-light gnocchi tossed with blue crab and flecked with black truffle; and you'll find fork-tender lamb surrounded by cheese grits. Whether you're sitting in the sunlit front room or the two-story, mahogany-paneled wine room, you'll be treated like royalty. (301 Tchoupitoulas Street. (504) 299-1199. Restaurantaugust.com.)
K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen: Paul Prudhomme became a superstar in this town as chef of the renowned Commander's Palace and then the chef/owner of this French Quarter destination, which in the old days was tiny and didn't take reservations, resulting in blocklong lines. These days it's much larger, and you can make online reservations, a boon to out-of-towners. And the food is still very, very good.
All the Cajun Creole standards are here: crawfish etouffee, jambalaya, shrimp and corn maque choux, and plenty more, including Prudhomme's signature blackened drum (topped with crabmeat, as if it weren't indulgent enough) and bronzed (less char, less heat) swordfish. My favorite remains the pan-fried rabbit with Creole mustard. Bread pudding is practically mandatory. Great stuff. (416 Chartres Street. (504) 948-6434. Kpauls.com.)