“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 from a hurricane,” the nice woman behind the counter pointed out). When you’re out a night in the neighborhood, there’s always the Hummingbird Grill (804 St. Charles Avenue, 561-9229), a 24-hour coffee shop in the Hummingbird Hotel. Cops and cabbies gather here to talk sports and knock back daily specials ($3 to $4) ranging from grilled calf’s liver to red beans and rice. A sign on the wall next to the phone warns, “No Talking to Imaginary People.”
In the Mid-City area, Liuzza’s (3636 Bienville, 482-9120) is a watering hole known also for its fried seafood, sandwiches, and onion rings. I’ve never gone wrong with the Italian fare (Italian being the most underrated element of good New Orleans cooking). This trip it was shrimp-and-artichoke Liuzza, a casserole heavy on the Parmesan.
There are still surprises to be had in the Quarter. I stumbled onto a memorable jambalaya—not too hot but with a satisfying afterburn—at Coop’s Place (1109 Decatur, 525-9053), which manages to have a neighborhood feel, even though it’s in the heart of the tourist strip. Oyster bars are a story in themselves. The one at Houlihan’s (315 Bourbon, 523-7412), unknown to most of the world, has crept into the same league as the celebrated Felix’s and Acme Oyster House in the Quarter and Casamento’s and Pascal’s Manale uptown.
Next to food, music is the Crescent City’s most unshakable obsession, even though finding a good, undiscovered music room in New Orleans these days is even harder than finding an obscure restaurant. After all, Jazzfest vets know that once the music stops at the fairgrounds, it’s time to head uptown to Tipitina’s (501 Napoleon Avenue, 895-8477), the standard-bearer for rhythm and blues since it opened in 1977. There’s no telling which musicians might appear, but if they can play it bluesy, they’re bound to wind up onstage, jamming. The problem is getting to see them. Though the space is reasonably large and though its exposed wood beams and crummy tile floor give Tip’s the requisite gin-mill ambience, the club fills up well past the point of comfort during Jazzfest. When I went on a rainy January night, the club was celebrating its “fourth anniversary” (since reopening after a bankruptcy hiatus). The Rebirth Jazz Band was out on the floor, not the stage, doing its damnedest to re-create a street performance indoors. Couples sashayed all around to the band’s fusion of bebop and the traditional pre-jazz parade music of New Orleans. Later that evening, singer-pianist Eddie Bo put on his turban and led a babop-tinged rhythm and blues band through “Check Mr. Popeye” and some of his other near-hits from the fifties and sixties.
Despite the dominance of Tip’s (and other favorites like Jimmy’s, the Maple Leaf Bar, and Benny’s Bar), the neighborhoods have spawned a handful of smaller clubs. The Glass House (2519 S. Saratoga, 895-9279) plays host throughout the year to the Dirty Dozen Brass Band on Monday nights when they’re in town and to the Rebirth Jazz Band on Thursdays. The shoeboxlike club has no stage or sound system and is located in an area where gunplay is common, but it’s usually overflowing by midnight in spite of those minor drawbacks.
For one extreme of New Orleans music, check out the Mid-City Bowling Lanes and Sports Palace (4133 S. Carrollton Avenue, 482-3133), which is fast becoming the place for new rock bands and scenemakers. The Backsliders, a rockabilly and jump-blues band, were playing to several hundred ultracool fans, and the lanes were all in use as well.
Singer Irma Thomas and her husband, Emile Jackson, run a funky blues club called the Lion’s Den (2655 Gravier, 822-9591), which shares a building with Jailbusters Bail Bonds, across the street from the Orleans Parish Prison. But Irma rarely performs at her own place—her regular gig is at Bourbon Street Gospel and Blues (227 Bourbon, 523-3800), which is really just a covered courtyard behind a couple of businesses on the Quarter’s main drag. A transparent attempt to cash in on the popularity of Jazzfest’s Gospel Tent, the club reflects the city’s exasperating inclination to turn its greatest assets into a theme park. But in addition to the irrepressible Thomas, Marva Wright sings at Bourbon Street Gospel—and Marva Wright is the best-kept secret in New Orleans music.
A round, lusty woman, Wright has a throbbing voice, and her forte is dirty blues. I caught her at Snug Harbor (626 Frenchmen, 949-0696), a small, classy jazz room just outside the Quarter, where she took the stage in a frilly red dress and proceeded to scandalize the audience with her X-rated, single-entendre version of Aretha Franklin’s “Dr. Feelgood” (something about planting one foot to the east, one foot to the west). Three years ago Wright was singing in a Baptist choir, which she quit after she began doing her blues act on Bourbon Street. Today, at 42, she is the last of the red-hot blues mamas, and it’s unlikely that at this late date she could have emerged anywhere except New Orleans.
But like the man said in reference to New Orleans’ cuisine, the city is a place of its own and it wants to stay the same. That’s as true of the rhythm and blues as it is of the red beans and rice. Thankfully, neither is about to start changing now.