If New York is the city that never sleeps, New Orleans is the town that never stops celebrating. The music — and appreciation for it — is constant. As is the urge to dance, sing and get costumed any old time: a family walking down the street in pirate regalia is greeted with admiration for their levity and would not provoke surprise from any quarter.
The food and drink are also calibrated for pleasure. There’s cafe au lait to help you rise, or to help you settle after a 2 a.m. music set. Shrimp and grits, hoppin’ John, biscuits, boiled crayfish and other staples fuel your day. The food and drink culture are ancient here: the city and region are part of the Carolina Rice Kitchen, supported also by legendary fishing grounds, the birthplace of the Sazerac, an ever-expanding crop of post-Katrinia restaurants, farmers markets, some of the best school lunches in America, food trucks (building on a long tradition of people cooking in the streets) and the recently launched Edible New Orleans. It’s no wonder that chefs like Mike Anthony of Gramercy Tavern, recently in the Big Easy on book tour, relishes any chance to visit. “The food in NOLA is steeped in tradition, peppered with great ingredients and jam packed with young talent,” Anthony said.
On a recent trip to the Big Easy for the first week of JazzFest, we managed a whirlwind of food and drink stops. Consider this list your guide, whether you are there now or planning your next trip.
Early in the day
On our last trip to New Orleans, we discovered Satsuma, a eco-healthy cafe in the gentrifying Bywater neighborhood that churns out an impressive list of breakfast sandwiches, baked goods, brunch and lunch specials, as well as reviving juices packed with the sort of year-round veggie abundance the Louisiana climate delivers. Satsuma is just down the street from the High Line-esque Crescent Park, so consider grabbing a fennel juice and croissant sandwich for a picnic and stroll.
St. James Cheese Shop
This well-curated spot in the Garden District is New Orleans’s equivalent of Murray’s Cheese or Saxelby’s Cheesemongers and offers an impressive array of American farmstead cheeses, charcuterie and everything you need to go with it. They also serve lunch.
The Donald Link Trifecta
While New Orleans is packed with great restaurants, two chefs currently dominate the landscape: John Beche and Donald Link each run four or more restaurants. On our previous trips, we explored Beche’s joints including the celebrated eatery at the awe-inspiring World War II museum, the upscale August and the happy-hour packed pizza-serving Domenica at the Roosevelt hotel. All are worth the trip.
But on this trip we chose to explore the culinary arts of Donald Link, who has two recent cookbooks under his belt, including Real Cajun and Down South. First up was Cochon, in the Warehouse district, where the menu is an homage to all things porcine, from the traditional milk-softened cochon de lait to salads, soups and seafood dishes all inflected with pork. Favorites included a greens salad with smoked sheepshead (a local fish), grilled oysters, creamy grits, fried livers with pepper jelly and the oyster and bacon sandwich. Cochon is open for lunch, brunch and dinner.
Just around the corner from Cochon is its new sister restaurant Butcher. An instant hit, this casual house of meat worship has been inspiring lines out the door (and a never-ending stream of takeout orders) since its opening and still does, despite just expanding into a cavernous space next door. The crowds line up to choose from the chalkboard menu of house-smoked and cured meats, mostly in the form of sandwiches. Favorites here included the “Pig Mac,” an homage to the similar sounding menu item from McDonald’s (this version uses pork instead of beef, and uses the same triple layer construction and a sauce that uncannily reproduces the Big Mac’s signature mouthfeel), the duck pastrami sliders, Brussels sprouts, as well as cakes, pies, brownies and blondies, to cap the meal. Don’t be discouraged by the line; it moves quickly.
Our three-part Donald Link tour finished at Peche, the chef’s seafood focused option also in the Warehouse District, where the menu features oysters, shrimp, crayfish and other Gulf seafood in mouthwatering incarnations. Like the other restaurants, there’s a long list of local beers on tap: Nola Blonde Ale, Parish Brewery Canebrake, LA 31 Pale Ale and Lazy Magnolia from Mississippi, as well as a rainbow of brown and white cocktails. Among our favorites here were the raw fish starters, including ruby red shrimp and kohlrabi with pickled shrimp, crayfish and jalapeno capellini, the catfish with pickled greens, the Louisiana shrimp roll and glazed turnips with orange and parsley.
Le Petit Grocery
Our final dinner in New Orleans was at Le Petit Grocery, a relative new comer in the Garden district, which dazzled us with its attention to detail — from the perfect mini-baguettes at the table to the ricotta dumplings with lobster, field peas and oregano — and a menu that we could have explored several nights in a row. Other favorites included shrimp and grits, rabbit and spaetzle, a brocolli and leek soup and grilled octopus with warm potato salad, pickled celery, soffrito and Florida botarga. Named after a tea importer, coffee roaster and general store that occupied this historic space, the restaurant is run by the husband-wife team chef Justin Devillier and general manager Mia Freiberger-Devillier, who are committed to offering a setting that inspires nostalgia for New Orleans’s eating and drinking past.
To squeeze in some more gastronomic tourism, we added a pilgrimage to the reported birthplace of the Sazerac cocktail, the Sazerac Bar at the St. Roosevelt Hotel. The bar’s menu includes several variations on the Sazerac as well as options for non-Sazerac drinkers to enjoy in the throwback, wood-paneled room decorated with floor to ceiling murals of Louisiana life for earlier times.
Although we filed this under cocktails, and it was recently blurbed by Liquor.com as one of the top 10 cocktail bars to hit in New Orleans, Cane & Table was also one of our favorite meals. This neo-speakeasy in the French Quarter has no sign, but you can easily find it since it’s next to a much less creative restaurant that regularly has a line out the door. We ordered the full suite of cocktail-complementing Carribean-tinged small plates and swooned over them all, including the three-pea hummus with petit red beans, black eyed peas, chick peas, smoked cashew tahini and yucca chips; the farmers market salad with frilly greens, selected vegetables, fried green tomato croutons and butternut squash puree; the peas ‘n’ rice with island peas, local andouille sausage, pickled pork and popcorn rice; and the crispy rum ribs, made with Truebridge Duroc pork, papaya chutney and sambal.
A Few JazzFest Options
Like a famers market or Smorgasburg, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival’s (also known as JazzFest) food zones are best approached with a slow stroll to assess all your options. Resist the urge to jump on the first enticing options you see — oyster bread, crayfish sacks, fish sausage po-boys — or you may blow your caloric wad, so to speak. Your first stop should be the festival website (or mobile app), which has photos of all food and drink options.
Setup in a fake set from a spaghetti western, each of the dozens of food vendors dish two to three options. Eaters take their purchases and assemble at standup tables nearby or find a seat on the grass. As you navigate the musical stages, it’s useful to plan your food and drink stops along the way. Prices of dishes range from roughly $7-$9, which is up from $3 a dish about five years ago. Here are some of our favorites from this past week:
For vegetarians: the Spicy Grilled Tofu and Veggies w/ Peanut Sauce and the Couscous w/ Yogurt Sauce from Gambian Foods, as well as the Jama-Jama (Sautéed Spinach) and Fried Plaintains from Bennachin Restaurant.
For duck lovers, like we are: Crescent Catering served up Cajun Duck Po-Boy, Cajun Shrimp and Duck Pasta
For those seeking Cajun-style ethnic eats: This year we saw the first tacos at JazzFest, including fish, shrimp and chicken tacos from Taqueria Corona. For those seeking Asian fare, consider the Ya Ka Mein from Ms. Linda’s Catering, a noodle and beef soup that is New Orleans’s closest approximation of the ramen soups that have become a popular choice at second line parades.
To say you’ve tried it: Given the drenching heat at JazzFest, you wouldn’t think a dish like Crawfish Monica would be so popular. It’s a classic combination of pasta, creme sauce and Creole crustaceans–not unlike the lobster pasta dished at Beacon restaurant in Sag Harbor. And although it’s just as heavy and filling as you’d expect, it works even on a sweltering day. (Note: crayfish sushi rolls, a perennial favorite, were discontinued last year, done in by their own popularity. According to the owner of Ninja Japanese Restaurant, the dish was so labor intensive they couldn’t make enough to keep up with demand.
For dessert: Each food zone strip has at least one sweet option, including traditional pies and ices. But our favorite find was the handmade ice cream sandwiches (Whoopie pie style, chocolate sandwich with vanilla inside) from local dairymaker La Divina Gelateria on Wheels, which set up just outside the Blues Tent.
To drink: Staying hydrated is essential as you gyrate under the Louisiana sun and hoof it between stages. If you bring your own water bottle, look for the filling station just near the entrance. You can also seek out the herbal teas and bottled water sold throughout. Miller and Miller Lite are the official pours of the festival, but you will also find several craft pours, including locals Abita and Batch19, on tap near the Blues Tent.