It's bitter news for New York and San Francisco, but New Orleans may be the most food-centric city in the country. Days are measured by the lightness of the beignets at breakfast, the glossiness of the gumbo at lunch, the spiciness of the crawfish at dinner. Work is something locals squeeze in between meals.
While other food capitals make do with a single vernacular cuisine, New Orleans has three. Creole draws on the city's refined and buttery historical ties to continental France. Cajun, with its palate-grabbing catalogue of one-pot étouffées and jambalayas, is the legacy of the French Canadians who settled southern Louisiana in the 18th century. Soul food's "meat and three" needs no introduction. Factor in the opening of literally dozens of new restaurants over the past few years, and you have the most vibrant dining scene in America. Kick it up just one notch?You must be joking. This is New Orleans.
If New Orleans doesn't keep showing him more and more love, some high-paying New York restaurateur is going to steal John Besh faster than you can combine the ingredients for mock hogshead cheese. Born in Louisiana, Besh became the darling of the food press while he was the chef at Artesia in Abita Springs, just north of Lake Pontchartrain. It cost $3.5 million to set him up last year at Restaurant August, in a 19th-century warehouse in the Central Business District, and his backers are congratulating themselves on money well spent. Red-brick walls are played against classical pilasters and twinkling chandeliers in a chameleon space that manages to feel both buttoned-up and dressed-down.
Besh's cooking marries grand French technique to bayou bravado. It is also nearly free of the tyranny of Asian influences, reflecting instead Besh's German training and German-American background. At August, satiny foie gras soaked in Armagnac is encased in a dough used to make the German pastry Baumkuchen. Bündnerfleisch, or air-dried beef, escorts a wild mushroom tart; pheasant comes with dainty little lady apples and cabbage simmered in Riesling—an intelligent, on-the-money wink at traditional choucroute. It's a dish that would never play in Tulsa. But New Orleans is eating it up.
Besh speaks more than German. Lavender-scented grilled figs and russet-hued soupe de poisson with a rustic roasted flavor sing of Provence, where he has also worked. The big question—"Has Besh abandoned his Louisiana roots?"—is answered by his bread pudding. It's as smooth as flan, gilded with candied almonds and topped with banana.
If anyone in New Orleans could unseat Besh in the cover-boy department and the kitchen, it's John Harris, New Orleans Magazine's Chef of the Year in 2001. (Both Harris and Besh were named 2002 Best New Chefs by Food & Wine.) Without Besh's ambitions or any flag-waving, Harris romances diners at Lilette Restaurant with a French-Italian menu that includes his great-grandmother's labor-intensive spinach gnocchi, made with only a suggestion of flour; feathery quenelles, a virginal mixture of goat cheese and crème fraîche glazed with lavender honey; and boudin noir, or blood sausage, served with spicy mustard and cornichons. It's the kind of dish Harris learned to make when, six years ago, he moved in with a family in Gascony for a month and helped prepare two big meals a day. Occupying a late-1800's corner drugstore with plate-glass windows, Lilette is filled with attractive young couples stealing the odd smooch on creamy banquettes. It's the sexiest restaurant in town.