We rolled into town like birds of prey and had to be rolled out like over-stuffed roasters. Three friends and myself spent last week devouring our way through the vibrant culinary city of New Orleans. And what a trip it was: we must have ravaged whole sea beds, made scarce the supply of French bread for poor boy sandwiches, and forced law makers to consider raising taxes on chicory-imbued cafe au lait. When we were done there, clothes no longer fit - shame was the heaviest garment we wore. One thing is for sure, though. They knew our names. Those Katrina shirts hanging in gift shop windows may soon find company garments sporting our pictures.
Sure, we did other things in New Orleans too. We went to museums, zoos, and bars. But one of my dining compatriots may have said it best as we stumbled from one restaurant only to find ourselves in another soon after: "It feels like the only thing we're doing is killing time waiting to eat again." Going in, I knew this city had a reputation for special food. It's a tradition born of America's most unique and original cuisines, Creole and Cajun, each difficult to define and harder to peg down. But after this trip, if anyone asked me what American food really is, I'd tell them it's boiled crawfish - also, spicy gumbo, overstuffed po-boys, and glistening, raw oysters. Oh, so many, many oysters.
What follows is a brief pictoral account of a week of stuffing my face in the Big Sleazy.
What better place to start than with oysters, the truest symbol of the bounty of the ocean and the gluttony of man (because if you've ever watched someone eat raw oysters, it looks ridiculously gluttonous). (*Note: before you being to tell me that oysters should never be eaten in months with no "R," please know I subscribe to the Robb Walsh school of thought, which is something along the lines of "I'd rather die from eating a raw oyster than an undercooked hamburger." Though I do love both.) These pictured are from Felix's, a no-frills oyster bar where folks pile up to the marble bartop and stand - no seats there - as they slam gobs of raw shellfish down their gullets. Order a dozen and the shuckers will serve you three or four at a time, breaking out more as you go. We sat at a nearby table, because the amount of food we wanted to eat demanded a seat, and so we received this platter. These oysters were clean, fresh, and sweet, and about the size of a child's hand. Here's a closer look:
Who knew gulf oysters grew so large? You wouldn't know it, anyway, by the pathetically sized bivalves we get when we order dozens at local eateries. Apparently, the biggest and the best stay in harvest towns like Apalachicola and N'awlins. Am I missing a place that serves oysters this large in SoFla? Please let me know.
This oyster po' boy, also from Felix's, contained juicy, fried hunks of melting goodness with minimal "dressing" (poor boy shops ask if you want your sandwich dressed, which means anything from a full accompaniment of lettuce, tomato, mayo to cabbage, pickles, and roast beef gravy). The shellfish was beautiful, again, but it wasn't the best oyster po' I've ever eaten - amazingly, I had none better dressed in the city of their birth than the oyster po' boy served at local dive bar, Alligator Alley, which is slathered in spicy remoulade and creamy, house-made Cole slaw. Still, Felix's, in the heart of the French Quarter, is a great alternative to the tourist trap that is Acme, located right across the street.
New Orleaneans don't just eat their oysters raw; the city is also home to oyster's Rockefeller, a dish created the oldest operating restaurant in town, Antoine's. This version of the broiled dish is called oysters Fonseca, and it's served at the Bourbon House, one of the many restaurants run by the Brennan empire. The recipe for this tomato- and red pepper-stuffed oyster is found here, and I highly recommend it. I'm not sure if Fonseca will ever be the classic that Rockefeller is - I recall first eating the spinach*- and Pernod-covered dish when I was an eight-year-old kid, and loving shellfish ever since. Another oyster I had at the bourbon house (not pictured) was topped with caviar and a dash of champagne. I had imagined that variety as nothing more than a way to get punters to drop nearly an extra dollar per oyster and nothing more - wrong. The salty caviar and sweet champagne melded with the intoxicating and fleshy oysters served at Bourbon House better than any mignonette, lemon, horseradish, et. al ever could.
*spinach is actually a bastardization (or as Ignatius Reilly would say, "an abortion") of the original dish, which is said to include herbs to achieve that trademark green hue.
Tomorrow: more seafood, po' boys, and the king of New Orleans sandwiches, the Muffuletta.