"Yum-m-m-my motheroos!" you swoon in chorus with the locals, lasciviously eyeing a platter of oysters. You dip your spoon with abandon into the quicksand of brick-colored gumbos, flare your nostrils at the endless aromas of garlic and fish, lick the powdered sugar of beignets off your lips. Weeks, maybe years, after visiting New Orleans, you might wake up at night and moan to your pillow, "Ooh, those crawfish pies, eggs Sardou, milk punch at nine in the morning."
In a city where the food is so carnal it deserves to be X-rated, you can unleash all your intimate cravings (salt, fat, sugar, butter) by joining New Orleanians on their ritual rounds: Bayona on Mondays, Uglesich's on Wednesdays, Galatoire's on Fridays. A muffuletta here (Progress has the best), a turtle soup there. For weekend brunch, Commander's. One misstep, though, and you're caught in a tourist trap, so follow these cues and you'll leave town purring.
The Potato Perfected
Have you ever compared a spud to a baby's kiss or a May breeze?You will after tasting the soufflé potatoes at Arnaud's. In a miracle of culinary ingenuity, potato slices are fried first over low heat, then at high temperature, so that they puff up into tiny balloons. Light as snowflakes, they're eaten dunked in tarragon-happy béarnaise. You can have these potatoes and leave—or die, for that matter—or stay at the restaurant's dark, ornate bar and keep nibbling on smoked pompano slices and triangles of toast, all while plucking small, spicy shrimp from a puddle of superb rémoulade.
If you'd rather dine in style, reserve a table in the nostalgic main dining room, with its gorgeous mosaic floors and beveled glass windows, or in the Richelieu Room, where you can indulge your appetite for food and jazz alike.
Little black dresses look especially sharp against the dark-salmon walls of Bayona. After almost 10 years, this romantic French Quarter cottage still buzzes with devotees of Susan Spicer's gracefully eclectic cuisine.
Generous flavors and spare presentation are Spicer's hallmark. My roast quail stuffed with a springy cushion of Southern oyster dressing was no exception. And we found the chicken-fried steak of our dreams in the pecan-crusted rabbit with tasso gravy. Perhaps oomph and ecstasy are missing from the meal, but then, that's not what Spicer trades in.
Chef du Jour
Book well in advance for a table at Anne Kearney's Belle Époque bistro, Peristyle, or you might end up dining at the gleaming copper bar, scoping the scene in an antiques shop's worth of old mirrors.
Kearney's cuisine reflects the ethos of a new generation of chefs who favor high concepts and serious saucery. Crab salad laced with horseradish and set against swirls of brilliant roasted beets is a clean, thoughtful dish, but an aggressive dark sauce overpowers the plate of sweetbreads with strips of prosciutto and artichokes. (Why are thirtysomething cuisiniers so enamored of brown French reductions?) Better balanced is a clever timbale of creamy and sharp celery-root salad wrapped in slices of duck. Kearney's food is poised and delicious, but it would be nice if it smiled a bit.
Minh Bui arrived in a refugee boat from Vietnam, supported himself as a dishwasher and waiter, studied computers, then opened Lemon Grass Café, in tribute to his mother's cosmopolitan café in Saigon. This sweet, modest storefront delivers a beguiling colonial blend of French, Louisiana Creole, and Asian flavors.
With the culinary equivalent of perfect pitch, Bui teams shatteringly crisp frog's legs with a quick stir-fry of okra, pineapple, and peppers (inspired by a native Louisiana dish, maque-chou). Fat, sweet scallops are rhymed with mellow grilled baby eggplants and chili- and sake-touched sauce. Amazing fried oysters lounge in their shells atop wasabi-spiked leeks. The entrées are just as seductive: lush slices of lacquered duck with excellent sticky rice; crackling chunks of fried flounder on slippery cellophane noodles and greens. A $21 bottle of Beringer 1996 Gewürztraminer adds a delicious grace note.
Go ahead. Dismiss brunch at Commander's Palace as a tourist extravaganza, and cheat yourself out of possibly the best eggs on the planet. Or reserve on the weekend at the Garden Room, with its roving jazz trio, gaggles of Technicolor balloons, crying babies, boozy belles in décolleté. Order eggs Sardou, perfectly poached and resting on an artichoke bottom with creamed spinach, or the awesome gravlax with buttery toasted brioche, poached eggs, and rich horseradish cream. Oh, and don't forget the city's definitive turtle soup, and a scandalously rich bread-pudding soufflé.
While tourists chase after gumbos and Mardi Gras beads, well-heeled New Orleanians retreat to the sumptuous Grill Room at the Windsor Court Hotel. A parade of sophisticated international hits is expertly rendered by French-born chef René Bajeux.
I enjoyed the oysters arranged around a roasted-garlic egg custard, as well as the rabbit confit with its Asian accents. Though tasty, the mixed grill—squab and walnut bread pudding, grilled trout with a creamy corn sauce, and a hunk of meat with mashed potatoes—was overkill: three distinct entrées crowding one plate. For dessert, order ginger granita with a perfect poached pear.
Ode to the Oyster
Until Vietnamese immigrants took over the oyster-and-shrimp business, Yugoslavian surnames were synonymous with great New Orleans seafood. For more than 40 years, Frank Uglesich (Mr. Ugi to his loyal fans) has been tending an eight-burner stove in a shack so painstakingly shabby it feels glamorous, its rough location adding to the seedy allure. Muscle your way to one of Uglesich's Formica tables, inspect the writing on the walls—shrimp Cleopatra, crawfish Hugo, catfish Muddy Waters, Belgian beer, anyone?—then order away and start smacking your lips.
After fried green tomatoes with rémoulade sauce (Wow!) I move on to crab-stuffed peppers, saucy shrimp with squares of fried grits, "dirty" rice, and majestic soft-shell crab—my ecstasy escalating with each new plate. Oysters?You betcha: raw, grilled, glazed with cane syrup and balsamic vinegar, or stuffed into cotton-white rolls in the city's best po'boys. ("Order 'em naked"—no sauce, that is—admonishes my friend Paul, who has lunched here every Wednesday for 26 years.)
Gangsters and Garlic
If you thought Uglesich's was an adventure, Mosca's—an Italian dive in swampland 15 miles out of town—will feel like Godfather IV: Michael Moves the Family South. Legend has it that Papa Mosca, the original owner, was Al Capone's personal cook (the menu includes all Capone's favorites, locals assure me), who came to New Orleans with his friend Carlos Marcello to start up a family branch. Reservations are taken only on weekends, and regulars show up with huge wads of cash.
After funneling a quart of Bloody Marys into a thermos, my friends and I hit Highway 90 and eventually pull off by a roadhouse with a barely discernible sign. As soon as she sees us, the waitress knows what to do: two crab salads (a basin of incredible crabmeat with Italian pickles), two plates of oysters Mosca (baked oysters plastered with bread crumbs), garlic shrimp, spaghetti bordelaise (limp pasta with garlic), and—the best—chicken à la grande (oozing rosemary, garlic, and olive oil). The meal is a triumph of its genre.
Over dessert—pineapple fluff, in a plastic cup—we watch John Mosca, Papa's son, make his rounds. He furrows his huge brow, shakes hands, and recites a chicken recipe in perfect film noir-speak.