“New Orleans is a little bit funny,” says chef Frank Brigtsen, a man who knows what people like. “Folks want it to always stay the same. Trends never really hit here; if they do, they’re five years late and leave overnight. It’s a place of its own.” Fine with me, I thought as I plowed into one of Brigtsen’s peerless eggplant pirogues with crawfish. I was in town to explore off-the-beaten-track dining and nightlife and pick up some pointers for fellow Texans going to New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival April 27 through May 6. The last thing I wanted to hear was that New Orleans had decided to get in step with the times. Luckily, I had nothing to fear. I easily discovered food that was as defiantly rich as ever and music as unashamedly rootsy. Rumors that New Orleans might be in danger of succumbing to the mainstream fascination with “lite,” “faddish,” and “upscale” are, happily, groundless.
Brigtsen is one of two rising culinary stars in town, the other being restaurateur Susan Spicer. Both are thirtysomething and have been influenced by California food prophet Alice Waters as well as by local boy Paul Prudhomme. Though they’re beginning to attract national attention, both rely more on the local trade than on tourism. Brigtsen’s (723 Dante, 861-7610) is off the tourist trail in the uptown Carrollton neighborhood.
Frank Brigtsen was the executive chef at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen for seven years under Prudhomme, the man who came to symbolize the Bayou State food craze by combining Cajun (hearty, French, one-pot, informal, slow-simmering, based on rice and whatever else is handy) and Creole (cross-ethnic, fancy, rich sauces, going-out-to-eat, civilized) foods into something he called simply Louisiana cuisine. In 1986 Prudhomme helped set Brigtsen up in his own place. The main difference between the two chefs, to hear Brigtsen tell it, is that he is from the city and his mentor is from the country. Brigtsen’s eggplant pirogue with crawfish in Roma tomato sauce was a marvel, the veal-stock base bringing out the flavor of the tomato, the pepper sharp but not searing, and the hollowed-out, deep-fried eggplant itself delectably crusty. Even after a slice of double chocolate cake, I didn’t experience much difficulty walking to the car.
Spicer, like Brigtsen, offers a subtle update of such New Orleans perennials as Mr. B’s, Cafe Sbisa, Antoine’s, Galatoire’s, Commander’s Palace, the Bon Ton Cafe, and even K-Paul’s. And like Brigtsen, Spicer is not shy about using butter: An appetizer of baked polenta with sausage and mushrooms was loaded with cheese and had a rich buttery taste; an entrée of salmon with truffles was drenched in butter. Spicer cooks in the Quarter, having recently left the forty-seat Bistro at Maison de Ville (733 Toulouse, 528-9206) to launch her own more spacious restaurant, Bayona (430 Dauphine, 525-4455), which she swears will open by Jazzfest. She calls her creations peasant cooking—“I’m just attracted to simple European cooking,” she explains—but if that phrase is accurate, we should all be such peasants. Spicer favors meats that are grilled or braised slowly, with chunky salsas and relishes rather than sauces. When she does go with the latter, she uses flavorful reduced sauces rather than roux-based thickeners. The grilled duck with pepper-jelly glaze couldn’t have been better: The sliced breast meat was charred on the outside, pink and juicy inside; the glaze (made from a jelly of green and red bell peppers and jalapeños) was thick but judiciously applied; it simultaneously yielded sweet, sour, and hot flavors.
Spicer’s entrées were $9 or 10 at lunch and $13 to $15 at dinner; Brigtsen’s (dinner only) run from $12 to $20. As reasonable as those prices are, during Jazzfest I usually look for more basic stuff, like Creole soul food, boiled crawfish, red beans and rice, and jambalaya. For that fare, I head for the neighborhood restaurants, of which Eddie’s is the reigning champ.
On a one-way street off Elysian Fields Avenue in a Seventh Ward neighborhood, not fare from the fairgrounds where Jazzfest is held, Eddie’s (2119 Law, 945-2207) is worth the search. It’s a favorite of artists and musicians aiming to fill up for very little money, but most of the trade comes from neighborhood Creole families. The most exotic item on them menu is an obscenely rich dressing of ground pork and ground oysters with sage, rosemary, and oil. The best dish is probably the red beans and rice. The best bargain is the Thursday buffet, $5.50 for all you can eat of musky okra gumbo, trout Baquet (broiled, with crabmeat), moist fried chicken, devil’s food cake, and more. How they’re able to keep it all so fresh-tasting on steam tables is beyond me.
Also near the fairgrounds, in Gentilly, Olivier’s Famous Creole Cuisine (2519 Dreux Avenue, 282-2314) is almost in a class with Eddie’s. The benchmark stuffed crabs have—unlike so many others—a properly high ratio of crabmeat to breading.
In Bywater, an old Ninth Ward neighborhood north and east of the Quarter where the locals are called “yats” because of their dialect (“Where y’at?”), corner bars like First Impression (3528 Dauphine, 944-9801) turn out admirable soul-food lunches of meat, potatoes or rice, and vegetables or salad for around $3. These places put to shame more-ballyhooed restaurants like Chez Helene. A few blocks away, Jack Dempsey’s (738 Poland, 943-9914) offers fried seafood, including a $21.95 platter for two that could feed an entire family of average appetite.
In the Central Business District, I go to Mother’s (401 Poydras, 523-9656) for po’ boys, though others swear by the gumbo, jambalaya, étouffée, and workingman’s breakfasts. Mother’s is a classic old Southern cafeteria with brick walls and wooden ceiling fans; owner Gerald Amato presides over the counter with a giant stogie in his mouth, and political candidates invariably wind up here when they want to press flesh with white ethnic voters. The Ferdi Special is a po’ boy made with baked ham, roast beef, and debris (the scraps of meat that fall of the spit into the gravy—“like the debris