I went to college in New Orleans. I truly feel that, perhaps more so than any other city, people who are blessed enough to live in New Orleans develop a deep emotional attachment to the city. How can you not? It’s unlike anywhere else in this world; it’s home to a culture that only exists in this one small, ill-planned parcel of land. It burrows itself deep down into your soul and stays there, as a permanent addition. Each time I go back, it strikes me how magical it is and how lucky I was to have had a chance to live there for a few short years. This time, I was back for only a couple of days for the bachelorette party of a good college friend. There was a LOT of food.
I arrived in the city about 4 hours ahead of the rest of the group, which gave me just enough time to stuff my face at the one restaurant I’ve been dying to go to for years: Cochon. Cochon lives on an unassuming stretch of Tchoupitoulas street (That’s pronounced “chop-it-too-las,” I know this from rap songs; they’re extremely educational). I sat at the bar, as I usually do if I’m eating alone, and proceeded to order faaaarrrr too much food. But omg it was so worth it. The wood smoked oyster roast? It was a revelation and the best possible way to start my weekend. It was smokey, tangy, and rich, as oysters are wont to be. They were finished with a salty cheese, which is odd, but was so perfect. This tied for my favorite dish of the weekend. I followed that with a very good crawfish etouffe, which was dark and rich and could only be made by someone who knows how to handle a near-black roux. Then came the braised pork cheeks with sauerkraut potato cakes, apple sauce, and goat feta. This dish got better with every bite. At first, it was just a tasty bite of pork, but as the flavors built and after I registered the chopped mint that finished the dish, it became something I didn’t want to stop eating. Ever. It’s the magic of properly-used mint, I’m telling you- it can work wonders in a savory dish. If you think I stopped there, you don’t know me at all. There may have also been a coconut cake in there. I plead the fifth. At any rate, Cochon was everything I hoped it would be and will be on the return list, preferably when I have people with me and can steal bites from their plates too. Because clearly I didn’t get enough food on this first trip? I’m ridiculous.
The rest of the weekend was filled with what you would expect: wandering the city, eating, drinking, eating, drinking, eating, drinking, remembering yet again that this city is amazing, nostalgia (the man at Guy’s Po-Boys still remembers me, 10 years later. It seems possible that I ate too many fried shrimp Po-Boys in college? Wait a minute, there’s no such thing.) and awe. On the Tulane campus, my alma mater, I found myself wondering how it was possible that I went to a school that was this gorgeous. How in the world did I, a girl from the midwest, end up at a quintessentially Southern college? (The real answer probably has something to do with an unhealthy obsession with Anne Rice in my early teenage years, but that’s neither here nor there). How lucky am I? So lucky.
I have this vivid memory from the first few days of my freshman year that smacks me in the face each and every time I return to the city. I was leaving the dorm at 1 in the morning on my way to who knows where and as I emerged form the air-conditioned cocoon we lived in, I was assaulted with air as hot and thick as pea soup. It was something I had never experienced to that point- the oppressive moisture that defines the Crescent City. Since it’s April, the humidity wasn’t as bad as it can be (which is why we chose to take the trip now rather that later in the year and closer to the wedding), but my hair still had a hayday with it. The nice thing is that everyone in New Orleans is dealing with the same thing and no one is immune, so there’s a collective tolerance for other’s unruly ‘fros and shiny faces. Why fight it? You’ll never win, just go with it.
The other amazing meal that we had this past weekend was at Bayona, part of Susan Spicer Empire. Years ago, I was lucky enough to eat at Herbsaint, but I had never made it to Bayona. Oh. My. It’s too bad I wasted all those years. The dish that rivaled the smoked oysters from Cochon were the sweet breads from Bayona. I’m a sucker for offal (obviously), but these were the best sweetbreads I’ve had in a while (they give the sweet breads at the Breslin a run for their money and that’s saying something). The sweet breads were lightly dusted with flour and fried until perfectly golden on the outside and creamy within. They were served with either a lemon-caper dressing or a madeira-reduction (we clearly had both), and perfectly roasted cubes of parsnips and beets, and tiny seared mushrooms. I’m still dreaming about them. Every bit of this meal was perfect, from the inexpensive, but delicious bordeaux to the creamy roasted garlic soup and the perfectly tender lamb loin with zinfandel reduction and goat cheese. The meal was topped off by a visit from the chef herself, and a friendly, talkative staff that joined us at the table despite the high class vibe, making the dining experience just that much more comfortable. It’s a keeper, this place. I’m in love. Again.
My last night in town was a blur of amazing food (Bayona), dancing to a brass band until 2 AM, drinking with the band after the show and a 4 AM trip directly to the airport. Note the lack of “sleep” in that list. It was so quintessentially a New Orleans night (though perhaps I’m too old for all nighters-most of the next day was spent sleeping on the couch). I left this amazing, vibrant city filled with the rekindled love that I’ve always had for it. If there is someone out there that hasn’t yet experienced the French Quarter early on a sunny, spring morning, punctuated with chicory coffee and warm beignets, I implore you, visit New Orleans. Spend some time uptown, see the Garden District, go to Frenchman’s street, avoid Mardi Gras (at least for your first trip), definitely do Jazz Fest (get the Crawfish Monica), drive through for daiquiris on the way to the levy, eat fried shrimp Po-Boys everywhere, all the time, find a crawfish boil and wear something that you don’t plan on wearing again, embrace the roadies, avoid Bourbon street, unless you’re at Lafitte’s blacksmith shop, take in the smells and the music and the food. Just go to the city and let it wash over you and you will leave a fuller person, in more ways than one.
930 Tchoupitoulas St
New Orleans, LA 70130
430 Dauphine St
New Orleans, LA 70112