From beignets to boiled crawfish, New Creole cuisine to classic French, Christopher Petkanas uncovers the best restaurants in the Crescent City

Anders Overgaard

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.

Star Chefs
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.

New and Noteworthy
When it comes to new restaurants, New Orleans is a battlefield these days, with entrants duking it out for attention. The current victor is GW Fins, a big, loud place in the French Quarter jammed with decorative-looking people. Fins takes its fish and shellfish seriously. Cold-smoked oysters are placed in shells heated to 375 degrees, then rushed to the table sizzling. Gossamer wrappers enclose lobster mousseline dumplings, smooth as charmeuse. Lemonfish, whose beefy flesh makes it perfect for grilling—here over oak and pecan wood—is so simple as to be daring.

Peristyle, the reincarnation of Anne Kearney Sand's cult restaurant that burned down three years ago, is hyped just as loudly. Sand loves France—maybe a little too much. Her pan-roasted squab, crisp sweetbreads, and pissaladière would all mean a lot more with a lot fewer ingredients, but she's a well-grounded cook; a little imagination-harnessing and she'd have a winner.

Restaurant Cuvée is the latest venture from the team that created the nineties fixture Dakota across Lake Pontchartrain. The voluptuous comfort food—"shepherd's pie" of pulled duck and smoked chicken; duck liver foie gras and rice croquettes—is good enough on its own, but the real reason to reserve here is the city's finest, most interesting wine list.

Scott Boswell's Louisiana heritage and training in France, Italy, and Asia inform the menu at Stella!, which looks like somebody's romantic idea of a restaurant in the French countryside, circa an unspecified past. Shrimp—and—guinea hen gumbo, shellfish bouillabaisse, lobster-and-Brie risotto, and duck spring rolls manage to avoid collision, earning Stella! its exclamation point.

Hotel Dining

New Orleans prides itself on being adventurous at table, but Australian chef Frank Brunacci may be calling its bluff at Victor's, his unstoppably inventive French restaurant in the Ritz-Carlton. The sumptuous space is adorned with miles of beveled mirror, Louis XV—style chairs, and candlestick lamps whose live flames are diffused by proper, dainty cloth shades. Amid these trappings, Brunacci seems to obtain an almost perverse pleasure in using ingredients like shark bacon and percik (an Asian spice mixture), and in serving dishes such as chestnut-crusted grouper cheek and pancetta-wrapped lobster. His version of bananas Foster, New Orleans's rummy signature dessert, is glamorized with confiture de lait ice cream and a mini Belgian waffle. Overall, Victor's is a high-wire act that Brunacci mostly pulls off.

Luckily for the less courageous, eating in the city's hotels doesn't have to mean cumin beignets and daikon-root confit. The beloved Grill Room at the Windsor Court Hotel still serves dishes that vow never to scare the horses—perfectly professional citrus-scented turtle soup, butter-poached lobster, spiced bread pudding—in a room whose heavy brass chandeliers, treacly country-scene paintings, and bronze statuary ensure that its army of fans know that this is a big-occasion "splurge" restaurant.

If mussels marinière (cooked with white wine and shallots) were the only thing the Bistro at Maison de Ville did well, which I'm afraid may be the case, it would still be worth a meal here, especially if you snag a table in its leafy courtyard. The deal is weirdly the same at one of the city's newer hotel restaurants, René Bistrot in the Renaissance Pere Marquette Hotel: just one dish, jumbo lump-meat crab cakes, expertly executed.

The Queen: Susan Spicer

After the blackened-redfish hysteria of Paul Prudhomme and before the wham-bam ascension of Emeril, there was Susan Spicer, the foodiest of New Orleans's food ambassadors—and the motor driving the top-rated Bayona, which she opened in 1990. Although Spicer no doubt enjoys all the attention and the chance to spread her gospel, which is more global than that of many New Orleans chefs, she has always seemed to be in the business for the right reasons. You can see it in her face. She loves cooking.

While I'm distrustful of the cheaper spin-off restaurants of brand-name chefs like Spicer, I humbly and with a full stomach bow to Herbsaint. It doesn't look like much—the one stab at design, hideous wall lights fashioned out of iron ribbons, with dunce-cap shades, could be retired. But who cares, with food this satisfying, prices this gentle, and views of the clanking St. Charles Avenue streetcars this adorable? At the ovens is Spicer protégé Donald Link, whose winy beef short ribs are the hottest dish in New Orleans. Braised with sugarcane and flavored with tasso (smoked and sassafras-rubbed Cajun pork shoulder), they present an almost subversive dichotomy: crusty-dry on the outside, tender-moist inside. All the chefs in town wish they'd thought of the dish first. Since they didn't, they crowd Herbsaint on their days off.

Link has the same authoritative way with his herbed rillettes, buttery croque-monsieur, smoky ham-hock gumbo, and grits cakes filled with shrimp and green chiles and sauced with tasso cream. Many New Orleans restaurants collapse at the dessert course, but not Herbsaint. Shortcake is accessorized with jewel-like citrus segments and intensely perfumed Meyer lemon cream. Warm chocolate beignets with squirting liquid centers are a messy danger worth courting. The coconut-cream-pie connoisseur I happened to be dining with said more air had been beaten into the filling of Herbsaint's version than any he had ever had before.

Herbsaint's success has cast a long shadow over Cobalt, Spicer's newer and showier outpost in the Hotel Monaco, where the crowd is more interested in fruity cocktails than in the designer appetizers. And to me the food was sharper and more interesting at Herbsaint than at her more formal and expensive flagship Bayona, where she roams from prosciutto-wrapped monkfish to chiles rellenos to Israeli couscous.

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.

Neighborhood Favorites
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.

Beignets and Breakfast
It's amazing. You can talk to 50 New Orleanians, people who are knowledgeable about local specialties, and the beignets at the Morning Call Coffee Stand never come up. Hotel concierges are also clueless. Geography partly explains why. Morning Call, which is not a stand at all, but a storefront, is way out in Metairie, a 20-minute drive from the center of town. The setting is also a problem. But I switched off my allergy to strip malls long enough to eat nine of Morning Call's beignets—two-bite pillows of hot, perfectly greaseless fried dough that come in threes for a quite unbelievable $1.20.

The deadpan waiters in paper hats and baggy white jackets make a ceremony out of serving café au lait. In one hand they hold an aluminum kettle of chicory-fortified coffee, and in the other a second kettle of hot milk; the contents are poured simultaneously into your cup from a height of about 12 inches so that the mixture yields a little foam. Squeeze the most out of a trip here by lunching at Drago's, a block away.

Café du Monde is more famous, even though its beignets are chewier and heavier, its coffee insipid. But friends back home will look at you like you've got two heads if you tell them you didn't go to this French Quarter landmark. Besides, how often do you get to start your day with Mary J. Blige?Okay, so she's at the next table. Okay, so she's a drag queen.

The only other breakfast address you need is the Bluebird Café. This vaguely crunchy spot earns long weekend lines for its herbed, hand-formed sausage patties, firm grits, and deliciously wheaty pancakes and waffles, made with malted and buckwheat flours. Not to mention the buttermilk biscuits of your dreams.

Only in New Orleans
Was it the fried chicken she had delivered from Jacques-Imo's to her Ritz-Carlton suite, while shooting a video in the summer of 2001, that staved off the meltdown Mariah Carey so spectacularly suffered soon after?We may never know. What we do know is that the high C—hitting songbird has great taste, for the excellent fried chicken is the best (and certainly least scary) thing on the menu at this proto-funky Creole-soul restaurant in Carrollton Riverbend. More typical is the Batter-Dipped Deep-Fried Roast Beef Po'boy, also known as a "heart attack on a plate" and famously cited in a lecture on cholesterol given by a medical professor at Tulane University. If that doesn't spook you, there's always the alligator sausage—and—shrimp "cheesecake."

Except for the windows, R&O's looks like somebody's big, ill-cared-for rec room, with illuminated beer signs, thin industrial carpeting, and molded plastic chairs. Huge groups pile in for the Louisiana crawfish, boiled a day in advance with onion, garlic, lemon, orange, bay leaf, celery, and regulation Zatarain's seasonings, and served at room temperature. It's fussy, finger-numbing work freeing the small knobs of flesh from their shells, but it's worth it. Although four to five pounds supposedly constitutes a portion, two pounds did this Northerner nicely.

Consider the Oyster
No place, not even France, fetishizes oysters like New Orleans, where people pop them like potato chips. Although they're available all over town, and come only in one mild, generic variety, not all are equal. The finest are fat and icy and perfectly shucked: no shards, no gunk. The touristy Acme Oyster House in the French Quarter is probably the city's most famous purveyor; it serves more of the shellfish than any other restaurant in town. But Acme's unremarkable raw oysters and barely warm fried ones make you wonder what all the fuss is about.

I found the city's cleanest, freshest raw oysters at Pascal's Manale Restaurant, a wonderfully old-fashioned Italian-Creole classic with vinyl-covered armchairs and framed glamour poses of Vera-Ellen. It's better known for its barbecued shrimp, which are neither grilled nor served with barbecue sauce. What they are is an excuse to sponge up rivers of the spiced butter in which the shrimp are cooked.

No restaurant offers a keener understanding of the native oyster culture than Casamento's, an Uptown institution founded in 1919 and cherished for its Art Nouveau wall tiles, waitresses with Jaclyn Smith—in—Charlie's Angels hairstyles, and corn flour—coated oysters fried in lard—which produces a crisper result than the more commonly used vegetable oil. The oysters are layered between toasted and buttered "pan" bread (a spongy, tall, thickly cut white bread) to make the restaurant's signature "loaf," or sandwich. Regulars are known to put away a dozen or so raw oysters at the same meal. For those who practice oyster-eating as an extreme sport, oyster stew is yet another, chowdery possibility: redolent of onion and celery, milky-thin, with a pat of butter melting on the surface.

The best, lustiest oysters in New Orleans are neither raw nor fried—and they're not even in New Orleans. At a bumptious place called Drago's in the suburb of Metairie, oysters are thrown on the grill, splashed with garlic-herb butter, and pulled off the flames the moment they bubble.

Bayona 430 Dauphine St.; 504/525-4455 Dinner for two $90
Bistro at Maison de Ville 733 Toulouse St.; 504/561-5858 Dinner for two $85
Bluebird Café 3625 Prytania St.; 504/895-7166 Breakfast for two $12
Casamento's Restaurant 4330 Magazine St. 504/895-9761 Dinner for two $45
Central Grocery Co. 923 Decatur St. 504/523-1620 Lunch for two $20
Cobalt 333 St. Charles Ave.; 504/565-5595 Dinner for two $75
Domilise's Po'Boys 5240 Annunciation St. 504/899-9126 lunch for two $20
Drago's Restaurant 3232 N. Arnoult Rd., Metairie 504/888-9254 Dinner for two $60
Emeril's Delmonico 1300 St. Charles Ave.; 504/525-4937 Dinner for two $76
Emeril's Restaurant 800 Tchoupitoulas St. 504/528-9393 Dinner for two $86
56º 610 Poydras St.; 504/212-5656 Dinner for two $60
Gabrielle Restaurant 3201 Esplanade Ave.; 504/948-6233 Dinner for two $70
Galatoire's Restaurant 209 Bourbon St.; 504/525-2021 Dinner for two $70
Gautreau's 1728 Soniat St.; 504/899-7397 Dinner for two $72
Grill Room 300 Gravier St.; 504/522-1992 Dinner for two $120
GW Fins 808 Bienville St.; 504/581-3467 Dinner for two $80
Herbsaint Bar & Restaurant 701 St. Charles Ave.; 504/524-4114 Dinner for two $70
Jacques-Imo's Café 8324 Oak St.; 504/861-0886 Dinner for two $50
Kim Son 349 Whitney Ave., Gretna 504/366-2489 Dinner for two $30
Lemon Grass 217 Camp St.; 504/523-1200 Dinner for two $80
Lilette Restaurant 3637 Magazine St.; 504/895-1636 Dinner for two $80
Morning Call Coffee Stand 3325 Severn Ave., Metairie 504/885-4068 Breakfast for two $8
Nola Restaurant 534 St. Louis st.; 504/522-6662 Dinner for two $80
Parasol's Restaurant 2533 Constance St. 504/899-2054 lunch for two $15
Pascal's Manale Restaurant 1838 Napoleon Ave.; 504/895-4877 Dinner for two $60
Peristyle 1041 Dumaine St. 504/593-9535 Dinner for two $70
R & O's 216 Hammond Hwy., Metairie 504/831-1248 Dinner for two $24
René Bistrot 817 Common St.; 504/412-2580 Dinner for two $70
Restaurant August 301 Tchoupitoulas St. 504/299-9777 Dinner for two $86
Restaurant Cuvée 322 Magazine St.; 504/587-9001 Dinner for two $80
Stella! 1032 Chartres St.; 504/587-0091 Dinner for two $80
Uglesich's Restaurant & Bar 1238 Baronne St. 504/523-8571 lunch for two $30
Victor's 921 Canal St.; 504/524-1331 Dinner for two $130