After Hurricane Katrina, my community of family and friends was flung from San Francisco to Austin, Atlanta and everywhere in-between: Memphis, Indianapolis, DC, Houston, rural Louisiana, etc. But the place I felt most at home, in spite of the fact that none of my family or closest friends were here, was NYC. Simply because here, I can more easily experience the best aspects of New Orleans culture – food, music, art, architecture, drinking – than in any other city in the world. New Orleans and New York have a special affinity for one another, and there is virtually no New Orleans specialty that New York cannot provide. (I’ll argue the opposite as well in another piece.)
So for me, New York is like a giant playground of my favorite NOLA things – fried oysters, jazz, street ignorance, festivals, strong cocktails – interspersed with pockets of genuine NOLA lovers, folks who really do “know what it means” to miss New Orleans and are committed to keeping the love of the place alive in their hearts. What’s even better is that there is a strong community of folks that works to ensure that NOLA music and culture is consistently brought to New York and exposed to new audiences: the NOLAFunk guys, as well as the venues Sullivan Hall, Highline Ballroom, Terminal 5, a bunch of places in Williamsburg, and more I’m sure that I’m overlooking. I mean, Trombone Shorty headlined the Red Hot + New Orleans at BAM and it was outstanding.
More fun on a daily basis, however, is rooting out restaurants that dabble in NOLA cuisine. NOLA’s culinary charms have drawn many an aspiring chef to its bosom, and many of those chefs eventually land in New York. I stumbled onto this affinity purely coincidentally. Fried oysters happen to be my favorite seafood dish – I used to eat a 12″ fried oyster po-boy about twice a week in NOLA – and it was in the course of hunting them down in New York that I realized that every place that ended up having a delicious fried oyster had a chef that either was from New Orleans or trained in New Orleans, or spent time living there. Here’s a roundup of my favorite NOLA/NOLA-influenced (note I said *my* favorite; I’ve never been to Mara’s Homemade or Bourbon Street mostly b/c I think they’re tacky – hello purple, green, and gold exterior – AND I’ve heard mixed reviews from folks whose tastebuds I trust. So they’re not included):
Eric and Bruce Bromberg are music aficionados who are no stranger to NOLA’s charms. Eric Bromberg attended Tulane while pursuing a music career in NOLA, which is all the validation I need that he *knows* NOLA food. Then they both went to Cordon Bleu. I love every recipe they’ve ever touched.
The fable of their humble beginnings goes that they wanted to make a restaurant where they as food- and music- industry folk getting off work late could get great food – not pizza/hamburgers, etc – so their restaurant was one of the first with a kitchen staying open until 4:00 AM. Ten restaurants later, we know it worked. I’ve only eaten at four out of the 10, but I’ve never ever been disappointed.
Needless to say, It was like music to my ears when Blue Ribbon Sushi opened a location behind the Time Warner Center. I no longer had to trek downtown or to Brooklyn for my fried oysters! I could get them on the way home from work. Also, their more casual fare at Brooklyn Bowl is delightful. (Hello, Oyster Egg Shooters!) It also doesn’t hurt that Questlove and/or Q-tip spins there on a monthly basis, and there’s a constant roster of great music, much of it the stuff that can be found on the NOLA music circuit. My last show there was Robert Randolph, the slide guitar king.
There’s an ACME on Decatur Street in New Orleans. This one is as close of an approximation as you can get in NYC. There’s also a cute little live music venue in the basement, featuring assorted indie acts. I usually come here when I know I want assorted seafood but I’m not quite sure what to get. You know the drill. There were rumors of Acme’s closing earlier this year after a “can’t-refuse” offer was made to the owner, but I believe they’re back in business.
I love everything about this place. The fact that the menu is largely seasonal items plucked fresh from the farmer’s market that day, the fact that they expanded from 6 tables to 12 and finally have a bar. That they are dedicated to sustainability and social responsibility. But most importantly, I love the fact that Brett Sims is a ragin’ cajun who has managed to bring a fried oyster po-boy to within walking distance of my office.
Duck gumbo, anyone? Although I usually go for their outstanding southern fried chicken. Meg Grace’s pastries also never disappoint; I’ve definitely purse-nabbed some of the cookie treats they sometimes give with the bill. Her bacon peanut brittle is also quite notable, and there’s an annual Crawfish boil that’s done just right.
St. John Frizell – also a Tulane alum – studied the Central Grocery muffuletta and has created quite the tasty approximation. The red beans and rice and hurricanes are also nothing to scoff at. I was there the day the Saints won the NFC Championship in 2009. We all cried and hugged, and ate King Cake from Randazzo’s.
The Two Boots = NOLA + Italy. It’s my favorite NYC slice, hands down (Sorry, traditionalists. Crawfish pie!!!) I usually get the Cleopatra Jones, but all of it, even the veggie pies, are outstanding.
Great Jones is probably the only place in New York where I’ll eat the two sacred staples of NOLA cooking: red beans and gumbo (only when I don’t feel like making it myself). I also appreciated their fried oysters and andouille sausage. It’s also one of the most non-assuming places in the city. No flash and panache here, just good food and nice people. You really do feel as though you’ve been transported to a little bayou town when you step inside.
NOLA PLACES I HAVEN’T BEEN, BUT INTEND TO (Shout out to Garden & Gun for a few reminders):
Imperial Woodpecker Snowballs – Yes, Real Snowballs in NYC. ‘Nuff said.
Cheeky Sandwiches – they’re only open 8am-6pm (time for a work field trip!)
Tchoup Shop at d.b.a. – I generally avoid DBA in NYC for a number of reasons, but if they reopen this summer I’m doing it.
Creole – I believe I got into an argument with the chef here at the Black Culinarian Alliance dinner at Tavern on the Green three years ago. We were arguing about the texture of one of his dishes, which was completely wrong in my opinion. I don’t remember which one, but suffice it to say that I’ve never eaten there either, but I’m still curious.