A confederacy of lunches: Conquering NOLA's Zagat guide
“We Live to Eat.”
I saw the billboard (courtesy of the Louisiana Restaurant Association) on I-10 in August. It was the day before I was to move back to New York after three years in New Orleans. I was gloomy, like every New Orleanian -- native or transplant -- who must eventually move away from this place. I was going to miss everything: the Mardi Gras beads dotting the tree branches all year round; the sounds of a tenor saxophone percolating through French Quarter alleyways; the random outbreaks of “Who Dat” chants anywhere, everywhere; the perfect balance of work and play that denizens of no other city have mastered.
But, I think most of all, I was going to miss the food. I was going to miss living in a place where living was about eating.
I have always been a self-proclaimed foodie. My assortment of lists and rankings -- like NY Daily News’ Best Chocolate Chip Cookie in NYC (Levain Bakery) and US Airways Magazine’s “16 Most Desired Dinner Reservations” (Cochon is #13!) -- is extensive; I scour for gems when traveling; I frequently field friends’ requests for “the perfect spot” for a first date or an inventive sandwich.
I love eating at the best spots, but I really love eating at a lot of spots. And so, when, several months before school began, Tulane Law sent each of its admitted students a slimmed-down edition of the New Orleans Zagat Guide, I knew I was heading to the right place. The Tulane version had 211 restaurants in it, a solid introduction. I quickly upgraded to the full-length guide.
And so began my gastronomic goal.
For three years, I attempted to eat at every one of the 398 restaurants in “the Zag.” I began my three years with Herbsaint and I ended with Clancy’s. I dragged my friends on “Zag runs” to places they’d never heard of. I rejected “repeats” (but for a few perfect exceptions) to their frustration, although most were hugely loyal to my goal.
When the girlfriend of one of my best friends moved to the city, I told her she was a “new recruit.” She eagerly accompanied me to the North Shore (La Provence, Sal & Judy’s) and Kenner (Da Piero), as a way to explore her new surroundings. I loaded up on unrealized reservations when my parents visited, and chose untapped eateries when I went on dates.
I had the maroon book memorized. It became a Velveteen Rabbit of sorts, eventually losing its front and back covers. I don’t eat meat, but the seafood (and surprising availability of veggies) I consumed were enough to satisfy my appetite at every place I visited. At the beginning of my third year of law school, my roommate told me that, unfortunately, I needed to average 1.5 restaurants per day to finish by year’s end.
When I moved away, I’d eaten at almost 70 percent of the restaurants in the 2009 NOLA Zag.
The Zag was certainly no biblical guide to gourmet food (case-in-point: Popeyes made the list). It was merely an organized way for me to eat my way through the city, to try neighborhoods and chefs and vibes I’d yet to experience. Funny enough, a friend recently emailed me Doug McCash’s Times Picayune article about a New Orleans reverend whose goal was to eat at every restaurant (not just Zagat-rated spots) in New Orleans proper (my eating jurisdiction was wider). A documentary crew was following him around.
“This could have been you!” my friend wrote. I sent an email about my own goal to McCash. He posted a follow-up to his article. “One reader has written in to say that she once attempted to eat in every New Orleans restaurant in the Zagat guide book. Do you have a restaurant challenge?” he asked. Did anyone else?
My conquest is not over. But my New Orleans eating plan is shifting down to first gear. Because my limited trips back cannot just focus on the miscellaneous spots I’ve yet to conquer. (By now I’ve been to plenty of incredible establishments. May I suggest the Rex Room at Antoine's for a small gathering? And brunch at Galatoire’s. Or Elizabeth’s. And the “Original Charbroiled Oysters” at Drago’s. And Gambino’s Doberge Squares).
Though I will check a few Zags off the list each time I return, I will also repeat my favorite staples each time. Like a Crabby Jack’s fried oyster po-boy. I will eat that ‘non-sub-stitutable’ sandwich every single time I am back. I also refuse to neglect the many new spots that keep opening. (Isn’t it true that New Orleans is home to more restaurants now than before Hurricane Katrina?)
I used my newfound Zag philosophy over New Year's, when I returned to New Orleans for the first time since August. A mix of determined favorites, easy snacks, and -- obviously -- a few “Zags” filled my food schedule. I only completed one or two new spots, but I didn’t mind. I still managed to do what I love, and what I was told to do. I lived to eat.
So I share with you my New Year's week eating list. It is most certainly not a representative guide to where I would send a first-time visitor to the city. It is just one food-lover’s list of what she ate during one holiday week in wonderful New Orleans.
- “Snack”: New Orleans Original Daiquiris. Ordered my favorite concoction: the “Victoria’s Secret” (a mix of 190 Octane, Strawberry Daiquiri, and Piña Colada). Special request only.
- Dinner: Clancy’s. Perhaps my favorite restaurant. Shared meal of Risotto with Lobster and Mushrooms; Fried Oysters with Brie; and Clancy’s Crabmeat Salad. Did not share my own order of lemon icebox cake.
- “Lunch”: Café du Monde. Beignets and coffee.
- Snack: Leah’s Pralines. Pecan Pralines.
- Dinner: Superior Grill. A local, easy favorite. Uptown Quesadillas with Crawfish; Mojito.
- Cocktails: The Columns.
- Lunch: St. James Cheese Company. Mozzarella Sandwich with Basil Pesto and Tomato. I have sampled this sandwich many, many times.
- Snack: Creole Creamery. Butterscotch English Toffee ice cream.
- “Dinner”: lots of bubbly beverages & hors d'oeuvres to break in the new year.
- “Lunch”: Who Dat! A platter of fried shrimp & French fries at the Superdome. At what other sports venue would that "meal" taste gourmet?
- Snack: Jamba Juice. I would not recommend the Berry Fulfilling Jamba Light; stick with the “Classics.”
- Dinner: Singha Song. A new-ish, easy spot right near my friends’ pad in the Maple Street area. Why was it so empty? It shouldn’t be; it was delicious!
- Lunch: Crabby Jack’s. Hail Chef Jacques Leonardi and his po-boys. With a friend, split a Fried Green Tomato with Shrimp Remoulade po-boy and a Fried shrimp/Fried Oyster Combo po-boy. Yearning for another.
- Dinner: Still full from po-boys. Noshed at home.
- Snack 1: Port-of-Call. Best baked potato with cheddar and mushrooms I’ve ever had. My friend would rank his burger at the top, too.
- Snack 2: The Joint. Mac & Cheese. Known as the absolute best mac & cheese. And it is. (Besides Chalmette’s Rocky & Carlo’s).
- Dinner: Cowbell. Shared Grilled Gulf Fish Tacos with Black Beans, Arroz Verde, and Cilantro-Lime Crema; and Adult Grilled Cheese.
- “Lunch”: snacking. Beginning to feel like I am overdosing on good food.
- Dinner: Boucherie. Forgot about feeling of food overdose. Amazing shared meal of Lobster Bisque with Goat Pepper Infused Caviar and Crème Fraiche (special); Blackened Shrimp & Grit Cake; Fresh Cut French Fries with Garlic Butter and Parmesan Reggiano; Crispy Skinned Gulf Fish with Z’aatar Roasted Cauliflower, Mizuna & Sauce Bagna Cauda; and Curried Vegetable Stuffed Beets with Red Jasmine Rice & Beet Hoisin.
Bon appétit and laissez les bon temps rouler …
Becky Fromer recently moved to New York City, after spending three years in New Orleans at Tulane Law School -- a time spent happily working her way through the Zagat restaurant guide.