WHEN IT COMES TO CONDITIONED responses, Pavlov’s dog has nothing on me. All you have to do is whisper the names of New Orleans’ fabled restaurants—Brennan’s, Galatoire’s, Commander’s Palace, K Paul’s, Bayona, Antoine’s, Emeril’s—and I’ll be salivating at the thought of snowy white crabmeat simmering in an ocean of butter or redfish blackening in a cast-iron skillet. In New Orleans, Everyman’s fare such as étouffée, jambalaya, or red beans and rice can be très, très bon, and fine cuisine—shrimp bisque, oysters Rockefeller, Grand Marnier soufflés, anything meunière—can be magnifique. Given my druthers, I would prefer a leisurely sampling of the city’s varied culinary styles, but since time was limited, I came up with a quick trip through its indigenous dishes, both traditional and updated. Two New Orleans friends—newlyweds Pableaux Johnson and Ariana French— provided counsel and company, and in 48 hours we happily ate our way from andouille sausage to bread pudding with whiskey sauce.
Arriving on Friday, I threw my bags into my room at the beautifully restored Grand Victorian Bed and Breakfast and met Pableaux for lunch at Commander’s Palace. It’s famous for its Sunday jazz brunch, but by going on a weekday, we had much of the same food and all of the genteel atmosphere for a song. (By the way, it’s fun to take one of the St. Charles Avenue streetcars to get there; the Washington Avenue stop is only two blocks from the restaurant, and the cars, with wooden seats and open windows, clack and clang along like relics from another century.) At Commander’s sprawling Victorian house we were led upstairs to a dining room in the treetops. Chef Tory McPhail’s beef bourguignonne, a winy braised stew of tenderloin tips and mushrooms, was topped with little slivers of jalapeño. The Mexican pepper made another suitably subtle appearance in Pableaux’s sautéed mahimahi with lovely morsels of crabmeat.
After lunch, I took off on foot to wander around Lafayette Cemetery, just across the street, a true city of the dead with Edward Gorey-worthy crypts. It’s in the Garden District, a gracious old neighborhood of becolumned houses, and I could easily imagine myself on the veranda of one of them, having a mint julep or a fainting spell. A few blocks away I joined the tourists gawking at the massive gray manse of author Anne (Interview With the Vampire) Rice. We kept hoping that the doyenne of the damned would sprint out the front door to her waiting limo, but she never appeared. Maybe if we had waited until dark . . .
In need of a commercial break after my brief encounter with history and culture, I walked part of the way back downtown via Magazine Street, a busy thoroughfare lined with galleries, smart boutiques, and stylish restaurants as well as hardware stores, pharmacies, and houses. I found the happiest hunting between 2000 and 5600 Magazine, especially the 3600 and 3700 blocks. At the Everything Angels and Psychic Café, I chatted with the spiky-haired clerk about getting a combo tarot-and-palm reading or doing a past-life regression. The place was pretty laid-back. “We used to have a cat,” he volunteered, “but she kept jumping on customers in the middle of a session—not good.”
Since Pableaux and I had indulged in such an uptown lunch, he suggested that he and Ariana meet me for dinner at Brigtsen’s, a cozy restaurant in a converted shotgun house, where chef-owner Frank Brigtsen has created an interesting, eclectic modern Louisiana menu with Cajun and Creole influences. I ordered roast duck, and although the bird was a bit dry, the dense, moist cornbread dressing that accompanied it was great, as was Ariana’s lemony spinach Caesar salad with perfect grilled oysters. Pableaux hardly looked up from his pork tenderloin with cinnamony apple-cider pan gravy. Afterward, we debated going to hear whoever was playing at Tipitina’s Uptown, the legendary music club founded in 1977 as a showcase for pianist Professor Longhair, but instead we just waddled off to our respective quarters.
On Saturday morning I had breakfast at Mother’s, the city’s most famous greasy spoon, where I stood in line to order biscuits and slices of primo baked ham while listening to the waitresses gripe among themselves and banter with the customers: “Hey, you old enough to be drinkin’ coffee?” From there, it was a short walk over to the Friends of the Cabildo office to catch a guided tour of the French Quarter (dating from 1795, the Cabildo is a building that was once the seat of Spanish power in the area). I am always amazed that amid the Quarter’s gumbo parlors, gilt-edged antiques stores, townhouses, gender-blender strip clubs, and curio shops selling T-shirts bearing a picture of a crawfish and the command “Eat me, bite me, suck my head!” a sense of decorum and history somehow prevails. Later, having stopped to check my voice mail while having the obligatory chicory coffee and beignets at breezy, open-air Café du Monde, I had one of those quintessential New Orleans moments: A musician sitting directly behind me let loose with a trumpet blast so exuberant that I almost swallowed my cell phone.
Wondering if I should have my hearing checked, I met Pableaux for lunch an hour later at smart, streamlined Herbsaint, about eight blocks from the Quarter. The newer of two restaurants owned by chef Susan Spicer (the other is Bayona), Herbsaint gently coaxes classic dishes into the modern world. Although a tad overcooked, my sautéed shrimp came with a fine tasso cream sauce and smooth green-chile grits, while Pableaux’s fried, buttermilk-battered frogs’ legs found a perfect foil in an herbed chile butter sauce.
Afterward, I attempted to walk off my indulgent lunch with a stroll back to the Quarter to visit its top shopping venue, Royal Street, where I saw enough Louis XIV antiques to start another French Revolution. But my favorite stores were the quirky ones, like Le Petit Soldier Shop, with hand-painted military toys. For $25, I could have had a two-inch-tall Robert E. Lee or George S. Patton—don’t you know Patton would hate it that I thought he was precious? A block off Royal, I treated myself to another of the city’s traditions, a Pimm’s cup—a tall lemon, gin, and 7-Up highball—at cool, dark Napoleon House.
After a nap at the hotel, I met Pableaux and Ariana for dinner at Peristyle, chef Anne Kearney’s don’t-miss dining stop in the French Quarter. The formal, high-ceilinged room is très charmant, the food classically based but not intimidating. Kearney is especially good at upgrading humble dishes: A fantastic dirty-rice dressing complemented squab Louisiana, and a confit of leeks topped with nuggets of feisty, lightly browned Point Reyes blue cheese accompanied hanger steak.
On Sunday, we thought about doing a jazz brunch, but I got nostalgic for Galatoire’s, which I recalled fondly from my first trip to the city some thirty years ago. Recently remodeled (but not changed, thank goodness), the 98-year-old French Quarter institution was just as I remembered: polished woods, a row of gleaming brass coat hooks on every wall, tuxedoed waiters with about a millennium of experience among them. I could have eaten several dozen of the cloudlike fried oysters en brochette, and is there a dish that says “New Orleans” more perfectly than bread pudding with whiskey sauce? We were purring when we left.
Feeling like someone in a Tennessee Williams play, I took the streetcar through the Garden District to pick up my bags and head home. It seemed strange to be going back to the land of barbecue and chili, but I knew that whenever I needed a gumbo fix, New Orleans would be waiting for me.