It didn't matter that he had no staff and no customers other than rescue workers, reporters from around the world and the few stragglers who hadn't either evacuated or been run out of town by the National Guard. There he was day after day, cooking up pots of jambalaya and red beans and rice, and doling them out free of charge to grateful customers.
Prudhomme and a few other chefs were the exception. For months after the storm, you could get a better meal in Shreveport than in New Orleans, and most of the city's celebrity chefs were working their magic in Houston, Las Vegas and elsewhere.
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As a resident of the Crescent City for 25 years before moving to Lexington in the aftermath of Katrina, I am happy to report that that is no longer the case. Most of New Orleans' chefs have come home, and its legendary restaurants are again open for business and are better than ever.
You can have breakfast at Brennan's and dinner at Antoine's, and should you get hungry in between, there's lunch at Galatoire's (except on Fridays, when it is reserved exclusively for locals, many of whom have had the same table and waiter for generations).
All three of Emeril Lagasse's restaurants (NOLA in the French Quarter, Delmonico on St. Charles Avenue, and Emeril's in the Warehouse District) are doing a brisk business, and the Brennan family empire of restaurants stretches from the Quarter (Mr. B's, Bacco, the Bourbon House, the Redfish Grill) to Canal Street (The Palace Café) to the Central Business District (Café Adelaide) to mid-city (Ralph's on the Park) to the Garden District (Commander's Palace.)
Once again, you can belly up to the (oyster) bars at Acme, Felix's and the Desire in the Royal Sonesta Hotel; lick the powdered sugar from your beignet at Café Du Monde across from Jackson Square; order a bowl of thick gumbo at The Gumbo Shop (and virtually any other restaurant in town); eat Susan Spicer's signature peanut butter and pepper jelly sandwich at Bayona (you'll never think of PB&J the same way again, I can assure you); and you absolutely can't leave The Palace Café without trying the sinful white chocolate bread pudding.
Arnaud's still has its famous shrimp remoulade, the Central Grocery Store its mouth-watering muffalettas, Mother's its over-stuffed po'-boys, and for those satiated with seafood, The Rib Room in the Royal Orleans Hotel still serves the best prime rib in the city (book a table alongside the floor-to-ceiling windows and get a firsthand view of the Royal Street action.)
Sure, there have been Katrina casualties. Longtime fixture Alex Patout left town permanently to set up shop in Miami, and some restaurants were swept away — literally — by the storm (one of my favorites, Sidmar's in Bucktown, is now at the bottom of Lake Pontchartrain).
But if the city has lost some old favorites, it has gained some new ones, and that is the story that Lorin Gaudin, otherwise known as ”New Orleans' food goddess“ on her two-hour weekly radio show, prefers to tell.
”What most people don't realize is that New Orleans now has 120 more restaurants than it did before Katrina,“ Gaudin says. ”Without taking anything away from our legendary institutions, there has just been an explosion of exciting new places to dine.“
Among Gaudin's new favorites are Patois in the Uptown area, Cake Café and Bakery in the Marigny District across Esplanade Avenue from the French Quarter, whose Mardi Gras King Cakes she describes as ”looking like a Jackson Pollock work of art,“ and Pelicano, located in Kenner, a bedroom community just west of the city and formerly something of a culinary wasteland.
Thankfully, when it comes to their culinary scene, New Orleanians are once again chanting, ”Laissez les bon temps rouler“ — ”Let the good times roll.“
If you can't make it to New Orleans just now, try this recipe from Brennan's. You'll feel as if you're in New Orleans.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup onion, finely chopped
1/2 cup celery, final chopped
1/2 cup green bell pepper, finely chopped
11/2 tablespoons paprika
1/2 cup tomato juice
1/2 teaspoon Italian seasoning
1 bay leaf
11/2 tablespoons tomato paste
11/2 teaspoon garlic, finely chopped
11/2 cups fresh or canned whole tomatoes
2 cups beef stock
11/2 teaspoons cornstarch
11/2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
salt and black pepper
8 medium pastry shells
8 poached eggs
2 cups hollandaise
Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan or Dutch oven, then add the onion, celery and bell pepper. Sauté the vegetables 2 to 3 minutes, then add the paprika and tomato juice. Reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the Italian seasoning, bay leaf, tomato paste, garlic and tomatoes, mashing the tomatoes with a fork. Pour in the stock and cook the mixture over moderately high heat for 15 minutes.
In a small bowl, blend together the cornstarch and 2 tablespoons water. Stir the liquid cornstarch into the sauce, then add the Worcestershire. Season with salt and pepper to taste and reduce the sauce until glossy and slightly thickened, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the bay leaf before serving
Place two warm pastry shells on each of four heated plates. Spoon the Portuguese sauce into the pastry shells, then place a poached egg in each. Ladle hollandaise sauce on top of the eggs and serve.
Makes 4 servings.
1 pound butter
4 egg yolks
11/2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
pinch of cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon salt
11/2 teaspoons water
Melt butter in a medium saucepan; skim and discard the milk solids from the top of the butter. Hold the clarified butter over very low heat while preparing the egg yolks.
Place the egg yolks, vinegar, cayenne and salt in a large stainless steel bowl and whisk briefly. Fill a saucepan or Dutch oven large enough to accommodate the bowl with about 1 inch of water. Heat the water to just below the boiling point. Set the bowl in the pan over the water; do not let the water touch the bottom of the bowl. Whisk the egg yolk mixture until slightly thickened, then drizzle the clarified butter into the yolks, whisking constantly. If the bottom of the bowl becomes hotter than warm to the touch, remove the bowl from the pan of water for a few seconds and let cool. When all of the butter is incorporated and the sauce is thick, beat in the water.
Serve immediately or keep in a warm place at room temperature until use.
Makes 2 cups.