It happened over and over, during my recent week in the Big Easy, that the restaurant meals I ate during the day equaled (and sometimes surpassed) the ones I consumed at night. So add this ovation to the already booming applause over New Orleans's food culture: It is America's finest city for lunching.
It makes sense, really. Traditions linger in New Orleans. The South's historical penchant for a generous daytime "dinner" and lighter "supper" still resonates in the city. NOLA's profusion of tourists, coupled with a populace that values leisure time more than most other places in the nation, make grand lunch service worth restaurants' efforts. Galatoire's, the French Quarter old-liner established in 1905, is most famous for its Friday lunch, where the city's business elite jumpstarts the weekend over a Sazerac and shrimp remoulade.
The South's historical penchant for a generous daytime "dinner" and lighter "supper" still resonates in the city.
"Wear a jacket and remember to meet me by 11:30 a.m., or we won't get a table," said the New Orleans friend joining me at Galatoire's. He was right. Not ten minutes after we arrived it was full in the soigné downstairs dining room: ballroom-sized, lined with black and white tiles, replete with ceiling fans sprouting naked light bulbs, but still regal with its walls covered in green and gold fleur-de-lys print. The restaurant doesn't accept reservations for the room, but it is the only acceptable place to sit — and the throng's frisson is as vital to the experience as the meal.
Oysters Rockefeller was invented at Antoine's (opened in 1840), a few blocks deeper into the French Quarter. I prefer the Galatoire's version. This is not a contemporary take that tangles bivalves in gluey webs of cheese and crumbled bacon. Here, green magma covers the oysters. It often flows over the sides of the shells and then quickly darkens under the broiler. The color underneath remains a few shades brighter than the ink used to dye a wad of Benjamins. Anise shoots through the puree, underpinned by fennel and a shot of Herbsaint liqueur. The greens (at least spinach and parsley; perhaps watercress lurks as well) taste sharper than one would expect. Really, the oysters act as saline bonus bites rather than headliners. Ordering a side of Rockefeller greens separately is nearly as satisfying.
The oysters kicked off a meal comprised strictly of classics. Another starter: the Galatoire Goute (pronounced goo-TAY), a combination plate of shrimp remoulade (coated in a tangy sauce that includes ketchup) and crabmeat maison (bound in Creole mustard aioli with capers, scallions, and lemon). An order of soufflé potatoes, like puffy fries, arrived tepid; our server whisked them away with a nod and soon returned with a fresher batch. The flesh of fried trout prepared amandine style crackled against the teeth; a scattering of slivered almonds echoed the crunch. Brown butter and crabmeat heightened the sweetness of pompano, the restaurant's default fish special. I've been eating at Galatoire's since the 1990s but never had a meal impressed me more: There was a finer tuning to the preparations than in years past. We opted for a liquid dessert: The restaurant's famed café brûlot, coffee flamed with brandy and steeped with spices and citrus. The alcohol and caffeine somehow canceled each other out. Or so we told ourselves.
Confession: I ate lunch at Galatoire's on a Thursday. The weekday crowd was spectacle enough, and past experiences have showed me that dining there the next day requires an even earlier arrival. On this visit I'd made a reservation for the Friday-only lunch at chef John Besh's flagship Restaurant August. Over the last decade Besh shifted into entrepreneurial mode — launching, among others, Italian charmer Domenica, seafood-focused Borgne, and Luke, a brasserie I favor for breakfast. August remains his grandest, most romantic venture. (The restaurant was named for its founder, August "Duke" Robin, who died in September.) In the front room, crown molding the color of caramel buttercream frame the windows. Umber hardwood floors hint of age: The Central Business District building was erected in the 1800s. It's a space that practically demands white linens on the tables.
Besh and executive chef Todd Pulsinelli extend the quixotic tone to the cooking, which is au courant in its precision but also frequently timeless in its extravagance. A salad of pistachio crusted goat cheese and several variations of pear, glossed with honey-jalapeno vinaigrette, would assimilate on a fine-dining menu anywhere in the U.S. I fell hardest for the dishes with a Southern lilt, like fried green tomatoes on a bed of curried green tomato chow chow, heaped with creamy lobster salad. And Besh's signature, trout Pontchartrain — a hard-seared rectangle of fish napped in the kind of frankly rich cream sauce rarely seen in restaurants these days, offset by toothy mushrooms and lumps of crabmeat. And a deconstructed banana pudding, which is the kind of thing I usually find too fussy but on this one the elements — crumbly cake, vanilla wafer ice cream, a dark cloud of toasted meringue, a dehydrated banana chip with fun snap —coalesced effortlessly.
Of course, a memorable lunch in New Orleans doesn't have to be a splurge. The $17.95 buffet lunch at venerable Dooky Chase's in the Treme transcends self-service mediocrity. Leah Chase, still a force in the restaurant at 91, began working at her husband's parent's restaurant in the 1950s and eventually ran the kitchen, serving family Creole recipes like shrimp Clemenseau (with potatoes, mushrooms, and peas in a white wine sauce) and her extraordinary gumbo z'herbes, a staple during Lent. Two plates from the buffet sustained me straight into naptime: the first piled with textbook fried chicken (crisp and meticulously seasoned), greens, and gumbo with chicken and andouille sausage; the second one weighed down with fried catfish and a dish of shrimp, lima beans, and rice dusky with white pepper.
Donald Link's boudin blanc is one of the city's indispensable dishes.
What Chase is to urbane Creole cuisine, Donald Link is to country Cajun cooking, dressed up for the city. The boudin blanc — a white sausage made of rice and pork, including the liver that adds earthy silkiness — served at Cochon Butcher hearkens to Link's Southern Louisiana childhood. It is one of the city's indispensable dishes. The casual sibling to Link's Herbsaint, Cochon (around the corner), and newcomer Peche, Cochon Butcher started as a modest salumeria and sandwich shop in 2009. Soon it was a phenomenon, with lines frequently snaking out the door. In April it expanded from 30 seats to 120, and on a Saturday afternoon I still had to wait for a table. Don't let it deter: For visiting food lovers it should be the first lunchtime stop in New Orleans. (Yes, even before a po'boy shop.) It is also open at night, but better to save the evening hours for curried mussels, ground shrimp and noodles, and a whole fish — grilled, not roasted — at Peche.
Growth has not diminished the food at Butcher. The boudin arrived hot and loamy as ever. House-cured meats and a frisky, not-too-salty olive salad elevated the muffuletta stacked on a fleecy sesame bun. But it didn't trump the bacon melt, a genius construction of thick, crisp-soft cured pork layered with stewed collard greens, pepper aioli, and Swiss cheese on buttery toast. I crave it more than any other sandwich in America, and it may soon be a bi-state sensation: Link and his partners are looking to expand Butcher to Nashville next year. Now I'll know where to find a New Orleans lunch the next time I'm in Tennessee.
Restaurant Editor Bill Addison is traveling to chronicle what's happening in America's dining scene and to formulate his list of the essential 38 restaurants in America. Follow his progress in this travelogue/review series, The Road to the 38, and check back in January to find out which restaurants made the cut.
Photos: Bill Addison