The incursion of so many inventive new restaurants into the city has overshadowed its fashion-oblivious, old-guard establishments. Antoine's, Arnaud's, and Commander's Palace are all still at it, but the best of the lot is Galatoire's, fresh from a $3 million renovation, where on Friday evenings and at Sunday lunch New Orleanians show up in force, the ladies in hats, the gentlemen in navy blazers. (Locals and those in the know do not reserve, to ensure a seat in the preferred downstairs room.) The scene is so entertaining, no one notices that oysters Rockefeller may well be a dish that's better left uneaten. In fact, the thing to do is to skip all the gooey French-Creole stuff, order a chop or a simple crab dish, sit back, and enjoy the show.
The Emeril Empire
"Is it all delicious?" my waiter wanted to know. It's odd saying this about a meal, but delicious didn't seem to be the point. As with most people in the room, the point was that I was dining at Emeril's, the founding and still most important outpost of the one American chef whose first name, like Barbra's, say, or Liza's, is all it takes to produce instant recognition. That, of course, is due to Emeril's show on the Food Network, plus the cookbooks, plus the licensing deal with All-Clad, plus the Kicked Up Gaaahlic bottled salad dressing, all of which practically guarantee that the tables are always full. While people in search of clear, direct flavors will go home hungry, the chef behind New New Orleans Cuisine directs a kitchen reliable for its spicy-sweet grilled andouille, gutsy gumbos, little rosemary biscuits, and banana cream pie revisited as a mosaic. Followers for whom there is no such thing as too much Emeril will want to extend the pilgrimage to Nola (Louisiana flavors in a sleek setting) and Emeril's Delmonico (pumped-up Creole standards).
The Sandwiches: Po'Boys and Muffulettas
Maybe you need to have grown up in New Orleans to get worked up about po'boys and muffulettas. After all, how different are they from other two-fisted sandwiches served in seafood shacks and delis across the country?
Po'boys are always made with that doubtful American invention "French bread," and usually cradle either deep-fried oysters, shrimp, catfish, or soft-shell crabs. Hot sauce, ketchup, mayonnaise, tomato, and lettuce cut the grease. Of Domilise's and Uglesich's, two of the most celebrated po'boy joints, the former has nominally better bread and puts more care into its sandwiches. True to type, the location of Domilise's in a shady neighborhood, and its chairs with their bandaged, plastic-covered seats, can strike fear into the heart of even the bravest tourist. Po'boys filled with "debris"—scraps of well-done roast beef moistened with gravy—are the specialty of the equally seedy Parasol's, where the cook lays her head on the counter between orders and the linoleum floor tiles are only a memory.
The French Quarter's Central Grocery Co. invented the muffuletta, and it's where residents always send you to get one. The sandwich is pre-made and plastic-wrapped, however, and on some days the shop does not even follow its own recipe, which calls for provolone cheese (not Swiss) to be layered onto an eight-inch round sesame loaf with Genoa salami, ham, mortadella, and "olive salad," a puckery house mixture that includes green olives, marinated vegetables, capers, and garlic. Muffulettas have all the subtlety of a train wreck. But if you must have one, this is the place.
One of the largest Vietnamese communities in the United States explains New Orleans's wealth of Vietnamese restaurants. Kim Son's fish-tank décor doesn't amount to much, but its traditional hot-and-sour fish soup, salt-baked scallops, and variety of clay-pot preparations reward the schlep across the Mississippi to suburban Gretna. Chef Minh Bui does the upscale, fusion version of the cuisine. While he still has some kinks to work out in his melding of Vietnamese and Creole at Lemon Grass, in the International House hotel, his newer 56° works handsomely in the grand, marble-columned setting of a former bank, now the Whitney Wyndham Hotel.
New Orleanians do everything they can to keep Gautreau's to themselves. Housed in an old apothecary on a quiet residential Uptown side street, it's the kind of bistro you'll be grateful for when you can't face another oyster or étouffée—and crave straightforward grilled tuna, roast chicken, or seared Black Angus.
No one has ever spotted a conventioneer at Gabrielle, where the Creole-inflected cooking is unselfconscious, fearless, even a little wacky. The slow-roasted duck with mushrooms, peppers, and orange-sherry sauce over rice noodles hasn't changed since this Mid-City fixture opened 10 years ago.