800 Decatur St., New Orleans, LA 70116
Web: Cafe Du Monde
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"Connoisseurs covet the French-style doughnuts at the city's numerous Cafe Beignets, which we found to be softer, more pillow-like, and consistent relative to the alternatingly chewy and crispy Cafe Du Monde rendition."
Though virtually every New Orleans dining experience would be easy for a decent to good chef to replicate in Western New York, some of the biggest no-brainers are the city's famous sandwiches and desserts: though there are sometimes substantial variations in recipes from restaurant to restaurant, they all tend to use ingredients that are as commonly available here as there. This second and final part of our look at New Orleans cuisines discusses everything from po' boys to pralines and fried chicken, along with a few small disappointments and some brief comparisons with Western New York options. You can see the first part, discussing New Orleans drinks and seafood dishes, here, as well as a huge New Orleans food photo gallery with more details here.
Sandwiches. If you love subs, there's little surprising about the Po' Boy: this 90-some-year-old recipe originated as a free or ultra-cheap sandwich, which accounts for the deliberately simple ingredients: a split roll of French bread, shredded lettuce, tomatoes, and pickles or onions, topped with either meat or seafood. Of course, there are things to look for in a special Po' Boy - including a properly made "Louisiana French Bread" roll with an unusually flaky, hard crust and a soft center - but the core is either the meat or the fish, the latter usually fried.
For instance, an overflowing portion of delicious fried oysters topped the Fried Oyster Po' Boy at Pere Antoine, transforming the otherwise unremarkable loaf with salty pickles into a real meal. Fried seafood is very popular, if generally predictable flavor-wise, in this city; the only surprise is how big and tasty the meat can sometimes be. But local tastes define expectations - the 10-Napkin Roast Beef Po' Boy sandwich at the Acme Oyster House we ordered was a huge but salty, wet mess of shredded beef that couldn't hold a candle to a good Beef on Weck; for a supposedly deliberately sloppy sandwich, it barely demanded two napkins.
The Po' Boy isn't the city's only sandwich: the Muffuletta (or Muffaletta) is another N'awlins original, served at the Central Grocery where it was invented as a circular, small pizza-sized $13 Italian bread roll with sliced mortadella, salami, ham, two cheeses, and olive salad on top. Profoundly salty, the Muffuletta is traditionally so large that a half-sized version is enough to fill a single person; other places shrink the sandwich down to a smaller circular roll, instead. We found the authentic version to be impressively big and fresh, but not the sort of combination of flavors that did much for us.
Desserts and Sweets. New Orleans did a better job of exciting us with its sweets; given its proclivities for all things intoxicating, it's not surprising that this city is a place where sugary treats prove as addicting as the drinks and entrees. One example is the beignet (bin-yay), a French-style doughnut that one of us finds considerably more appealing than the other. People line up for an hour outside the city's original and subsequently opened Cafe Du Monde locations, restaurants that serve little more than beignets, cups of coffee, and tourist-friendly packages so you can make both at home. The oversized first Cafe Du Monde in the French Quarter is packed these days by 9:00am, thereafter running a line down the street for what amounts to fist-sized pieces of cottonseed oil-fried dough topped with crazy piles of powdered sugar.
Yet local connoisseurs covet the versions at the city's similarly numerous Cafe Beignets, which we found to be softer, more pillow-like, and consistent relative to the alternatingly chewy and crispy Du Monde rendition. Both chains serve them three to a plate, and the coffee - generally mixed with a cheapening additive called chicory - isn't anything special, but it's part of the tradition here. By contrast, those looking for a nice spin on a more conventional breakfast food would enjoy the Sweet Potato Pancakes at Huck Finn's Cafe: the addition of sweet potatoes transformed the traditionally plain batter into a tangy, rich, and naturally sweet way to start the day.
Buffalonians seeking familiar sweets will find one in the Palmier, the original version of the heart-shaped puff pastry that is topped with thick white frosting and served as the Pastry Heart in Western New York. The Palmier is a lightly sugar-syruped version with the same puff pastry underneath - arguably more elegant, but certainly not as addictive. The Elephant Ear, a version topped with chocolate at the tips of the heart, is also available here; somehow the cocoa flavor adds less to the light, flaky pastry than a semi-solid layer of plain white sugar.
There's no doubt that New Orleans' most visible candy is the Praline (pray-leen), a lump of pecans and caramelized brown sugar that is sold so commonly as a take-home souvenir that boxes of six or twelve - each praline individually wrapped and boxed, contributing to the $2.50 to $3 per piece pricing - are easier to find than single-serving packages. At one specialty shop, the Royal Praline Store, we sampled five different brands of pralines, discovering that the best wasn't the ultra-common New Orleans Famous Praline Company version, but rather Aunt Sally's, which used large pecan slices rather than grated nuts, and had a richer, more caramel flavor than any of its rivals.
Sugar also finds its way into conventional end-of-meal desserts. Different restaurants we visited offered completely different takes on classic bread pudding, one adding a meringue and cream topping to a dish of light cake, another forgoing fancy toppings for a soft, gingerbread pudding that was almost strong enough to do without sauce. Pecans mixed with graham crackers in a Key Lime Pie at Cafe Amelie, creating a coarse, nutty finish for an overly sweet, less than sour rendition of the classic pie.
Disappointments and Comparisons. And on that note, there were some disappointments. Most notable was our visit to Willie Mae's Scotch House, a family-owned restaurant with extremely friendly service and a line out the door - despite its location in the Katrina-ravaged, rough-looking Orleans Parish neighborhood of Treme. Its so-called "America's Best Fried Chicken," so named for having won an award from Bon Appetit magazine, the praise of Paula Deen, and the attention of the James Beard Foundation, was comparable to a lunch at Kentucky Fried Chicken. The substantial and intriguing layer of batter, apparently applied wet before deep frying, had surprisingly little flavor but plenty of crispness, while only one of each of our three-piece lunch meals - the single large breast piece - was especially tender and moist inside, even then, with little actual taste. It wasn't worthy of any hype, and would have needed to be a lot better before meriting a drive down the street, let alone into a neighborhood with so many condemned buildings. Only the aforementioned gingerbread version of Bread Pudding was memorably good from that meal.
Also disappointing, though more mildly so, were the local renditions of well-known dishes such as Gumbo soup, Jambalaya, and Shrimp Creole, which didn't impress us as much at the places we tried them as at Western New York restaurants that offer their own versions. This wasn't a matter of loving what we already knew; it was more that there are different recipes for these dishes even in New Orleans, and though there are standout places to try these items, there are far more places where the experience is underwhelming. One exception was the Seafood Gumbo at Acme Oyster House, which arrived as a bowl with a bright red seafood broth, plus a big scoop of scallion-topped white rice. The presentation was attractive, and kept the ingredients fresh right until the moment they were served.
Our meal at the vaunted Commander's Palace, mentioned briefly in the prior part of this article, included great appetizers and a very nice Filet Mignon, but also a boring and extremely expensive $36 Tabasco & Garlic Seared Shrimp dish - one that should have done more justice to Louisiana's most famous indigenous hot sauce - and an attractively presented but bland $14 Bananas Foster. We've had numerous better high-end meals in Buffalo.
The best news from this trip to the Big Easy: Western New Yorkers are very well-served by Chester's, which specializes in the more common dishes mentioned here, and Shango Bistro, which offers more upscale cooking typical of Mr. B's Bistro and Commander's Palace. Our hometown restaurants do considerable justice to the powerful spices and rich flavors of New Orleans, and offer renditions at entirely reasonable prices. We'd even go so far as to say that the crawfish at Chester's are better than the ones we had during this trip, and even if the blackened shrimp aren't as fancy, they're just as delicious. On the flip side, the variety of dishes offered in New Orleans - particularly in the seafood department - is locally unparalleled, in part due to WNY-area sourcing challenges, and for better or worse, no one has mastered the art of making drinking as fun in Buffalo as it is in Louisiana. That may be a good thing. Experiences as intense as the ones you'll have on Bourbon Street are sometimes best left for vacations; all we can say is that we'd gladly visit again to see if we could top the ones we had this time.