New Orleans: Herbsaint

Herbsaint, St. Charles Avenue, New Orleans, LA

Eating at Herbsaint when in New Orleans is such a no-brainer that it took me four visits over four years to do it. Now I’m mad at myself for waiting so long. It was a very satisfying experience.

The server had me sit next to the big plate glass window looking onto St Charles Avenue. A group of four people sat around an outdoor table drinking wine. Six bottles of wine and four glasses covered the table top. At first I thought I had a ringside seat at a convention of lushes. Then I realized that this is what restaurant owners do when they want to entertain friends and taste wine. Donald Link, the owner and chef of Herbsaint, Cochon and other restaurants in New Orleans was enjoying the perks of owning a very fine dining establishment. More power to him.

For my first course, I had a delicious cherry tomato and burrata salad with garlic toasts that actually would have been plenty for me. The dressing was light and tilted more to the flavor of the olive oil than any acid in the vinaigrette. Early July struck me as rather early for cherry tomatoes, but they were deep red and sweet.

A plate of housemade spaghetti with guanciale and fried poached egg came next. Poised on top of a mound of spaghetti already drenched in a creamy sauce with bits of guanciale (like bacon) was a dark golden ball of friend bread crumbs. When I broke into it with my fork, a perfectly runny egg yolk oozed out. I mashed the ball into the spaghetti like a kid playing with my food. A bit on the rich side, but delicious. The carbonara sauce into which the runny yolk disappeared was flavored with a hint of Cajun pepper.

It won’t be another five years before I return to Herbsaint. I will make it regular visits to one of the best places to eat in NOLA.

New Orleans: Café Amélie

912 Royal Street, New Orleans, LA (504) 412-8965

You’re tramping on a long diagonal course from one corner of the French Quarter to the other. The sun is hot. The temperature is somewhere in the mid-90s, but it feels hotter. The humidity makes you feel like your head is immersed exceptionally clear water. You’re losing much of your body weight by the minute through the sweat seeping out of every pore. The 900 block approaches and your zig-zagging through the Vieux Carré brings you now to Royal Street. Wait. Didn’t someone mention a good, moderately-priced place to eat on Royal toward Esplanade?

Suddenly, you see an opening in a leaf-cooled brick wall that makes you imagine a full-color version of the movie set for Streetcar Named Desire. Beyond the wall you see trees, you hear a bubbling fountain, and you feel the cool, refreshing breeze of air softened by garden greenery. An oasis in the middle of a sultry city.

Regardless of how delightful the garden looked, I decided to cool off inside the cafe, whose decor combined the best of the 1780s and the 1960s. The first thing I asked of my server was something to replenish my precious bodily fluids. She brought me a tall glass of freshly squeeze lemonade stained by lightly crushed blueberries and raspberries (see above). Then I had a bowl of very good chicken and andouille gumbo — not as complex and flavorful as the Commander’s Palace version, but authentic and tasty.

I could have sat there all day. The service was soothing; the food was unpretentious and good. A popular place patronized by locals and overlooked by tourists. I highly recommend it.

New Orleans: Lillette

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dsc00348.jpg3637 Magazine Street, (504) 895 1636

www.lilletterestaurant.com

I almost had myself fooled that I wasn’t going to eat at Lillette this trip. Too expensive, I told myself. Too many other places to try. What about August? Dick & Jenny’s? And then today, right around lunchtime, I broke down. I just happened to be in the neighborhood.

For about two seconds I considered one of the other items on the menu, but I knew I was kidding myself then as well. The braised pork belly on a cucumber-tomato-basil salad and garlic bread was the main reason I had come back. So, I confined myself to just ordering that one dish and a glass of a very smooth Côte du Rhone.

The pork belly was once again perfect: crisp on top, fat rendered, and tender meat below the layer of fat. With every bite I took in a cucumber or grape tomato and felt the light vinaigrette slice cleanly through the fat. The wine, too, helped cut through the cut. And I, daughter of New Jersey, felt absolutely no inclination to add salt to anything. Not even the salad.

After I finished, I asked the waiter if he knew how it was made. He said they braised the pork belly for hours and hours at the lowest temperature (he said twelve hours, but I wonder) in white wine, garlic, shallots, jalapeño chilies, and thyme. I wish I had had my pen and pad, because he mentioned one or two other ingredients. Never mind. Clearly that’s a recipe to conjure with. The cucumber-tomato salad is dressed with only olive oil, rice wine vinegar, and salt and pepper. That’s it.

I don’t think anyone would dispute that Lillette is one of the top five restaurants in New Orleans. I suppose I should just resign myself to my inability to stay away while I’m here and plan accordingly.