Culinary Capital Extraordinaire 1

New Orleans reflects a cuisine entirely its own

Food gives booze a run for its money in the fun, fabled city of New Orleans. The trick isn’t in finding good food. It’s in seeking out excellent food in one-of-a-kind restaurants that truly reflect the city. Here are few of the best:

Galatoire’s. This gilded spot’s old world glamour is a welcome antidote to the 24/7 party raging outside on Bourbon Street. White tablecloths, quiet conversation, and impeccable European-style service. The kitchen here knows how to get out of the way and let ingredients like black drum plucked from the Gulf stand out. A worthy exception is the restaurant’s unique oysters Rockefeller, which is topped with a whipped spinach concoction dreamy enough to (almost) make you forget about the plump oysters beneath.

Ask just about any local where to go for Sunday brunch and the answer is the same: Brennan’s. Each room in the historic pink building is unique from the opulent King’s Room to the outdoor courtyard where resident turtles ply the pond. Breakfast in this landmark is elevated to foodie art with staples like eggs sardou made with crispy artichokes and parmesan-whipped spinach. And, no matter how early it may be, it is never too early for a dramatic tableside bananas Foster; it’s right here that the flambéed dessert was created.

Stationed at the edge of the French Quarter, Red Fish is nearing its 20th anniversary. It’s known for hyper-fresh seafood like, yes, of course, redfish. Innovation keeps the menu fresh. Recently, I sampled one of the kitchen’s creative debuts: snapper ceviche poached in coconut milk and lime. Because it’s decreed by city ordinance (wink, wink) that every New Orleans restaurant must offer its own version of oysters, here they’re taken out for a chicken wing joyride: they’re fried and topped with buffalo sauce and blue cheese.

Bypass the humble façade of Napoleon House at your own peril. While the tiny emperor never stepped inside, the building is long in history, beginning with an 18th century French mayor and continuing on through an Italian immigrant’s 20th century American dream. The atmospheric building–with its rambling rooms, where framed prints hang askew on peeling stucco walls–is the backdrop for what may be the city’s best muffuletta (the sandwich is a tower of Italians meats, melted provolone and olive salad served on a Sicilian sesame bun), as it has been for more than 100 years.

Café du Monde may be crowded and hectic, but it’s survived for generations beneath its forest green and white awning at the corner of the French market because it consistently turns out some of the city’s best beignets–those fluffy fried pillows topped with copious quantities of soft powdered sugar–and the café’s trademark chicory coffee.

It’s no accident that alcoholic drinks like the hurricane–made with rum and fruit juice–were birthed in this party-centric city where to-go cups are ubiquitous. One of the region’s best assets is its Abita legacy. This Louisiana brewery’s Amber (a lager found on most taps in town) fuels a low-alcohol (4.5%) cool-down buzz ideal for strolling. Abita also makes virgin bubbles, like an earthy root beer.

Looking for something sweet? It’s impossible to visit New Orleans without sampling some pralines. Simply follow your nose to the pecan-flecked sugar concoction that can be found on just about every street corner in the heart of the city. You’ll encounter praline shops so often that before you leave the city, you will have firmly decided whether you favor the classic or the creamy variety.

Bringing home food is easy. Everything from Cajun spices to hot sauce to beignet mix is packed to go. But, to really laissez les bons temps rouler and bring home bragging rights, take a quick cooking class at New Orleans Cookery, where you’ll learn to master dishes like crawfish etouffee and Creole jambalaya.

Accommodation:

There’s no shortage of accommodations–from big box hotels in the business district to funky B&Bs in the French Quarter–but, for a true oasis, it’s hard to beat International House, a boutique hotel housed in a renovated Beaux Art bank and owned by a native New Orleanian. Well-curated art throughout the building includes work by art stars along with local artists. (Exit the elevator on the third floor for a wall dedicated to the iconoclastic writer Charles Bukowski, who got his literary start in this city). Drop in at Loa Bar–named for divine Voodoo spirits–in the lobby to rub elbows with hip locals and sample the work of one of the city’s best mixologists.