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Foodie Pilgrimage to New Orleans (2012)

This past weekend I took my first ever trip to The Big Easy. It was a long time in the making as I think I've tried every year since I was 21 to head on down to NOLA, the trip just never materialized. Finally, it happened, and the timing of this trip was perfect. It came at a point in my own life where I have been heartily pursuing culinary knowledge, while simultaneously, the city was being recognized as a foodie and culinary Mecca in our country. Travel and Leisure Magazine actually named it the top Foodie city in the U.S. in late 2011. Because of all the hype surrounding it, I knew I would be eating (and drinking...lots of drinking) very well. It also didn't hurt that I was traveling with several foodie masters who make my culinary knowledge look as if it hasn't yet left the Pop-tarts and Spaghettios phase. Among my companions were award winning restauranteurs, chefs, and let's just say I had some good tour guides.

The second I landed I had a big taste for Po'Boys, as this is what I pictured N'awlins food to be. I soon discovered there was so much more to the dining scene than traditional and stereotypical cajun cuisine. It was interesting to discover how most establishments pay homage to the traditional yet expand upon it to make it more contemporary. My first lunch was at a new restaurant called SoBou in the French Quarter. Its bold and quirky design element visually captivated you immediately as you stepped foot in the door. They went the "small plates" route and we tried about 10 different items. They were all so unique and quite delicious. One of my favorites was the Yellowfin Tuna Cone made with pineapple/coconut tuna tartar with a scoop of basil and avocado ice cream. It was awesome and unlike anything I've had. Tuna tartar and ice cream?!?! It worked beautifully. Another cool dish was the Crispy Oyster Taco (oysters appear in EVERYTHING in NOLA). It was made with pineapple ceviche and cajun ghost pepper caviar. The oysters were perfectly fried and popped when you bit into them and the refreshing sweetness of the pineapple counteracted the heat of the ghost peppers. We also had Sticky Pork Belly, Duck and Butternut Beignets, and the Suckling Pig Cuban Sandwich. Everything was delicious and a great first meal for me. However, this was my also my intro to what would become the central theme for our trip... the bizarre world of subpar New Orleans service. This was the first of several times that EVERY single dish we ordered showed up at the same time. We couldn't even fit all the food on our tiny table! This would never happen at Chicago restaurants...with small plates, food should arrive as it's ready. It should be eaten in stages and as a journey... not as an overwhelming downpour.

We all had an incredible experience, however, at Cochon. Chef Donald Links created a "Cajun Southern Cooking" menu and built a trendy, energetic, and visually appealing restaurant around it. Each of his “small plates” dishes was rooted in classic cajun cuisine, yet he put a totally modern interpretation on the preparation and presentation. Every single dish we tried was bold and completely delicious…and I think we had everything on the menu. Some dishes were so good we had to order them in duplicate and triplicate. The standouts were the wood-fired oysters, the crab cake with cucumber buttermilk and English peas, and the fried livers with red pepper jelly on toast…although it’s hard to choose my fave as everything was awesome. Seriously, just look at this menu and tell me that you don’t wanna hop on the next flight down to Loooosiana. And hey, the service was quite alright…

Finally, I had the pleasure of dining at a restaurant I’ve wanted to try for years. Ever since I was 20 years old and starting watching the Food Network, I’ve been a fan of Emeril Lagasse. Even though he can be quite obnoxious with his “BAMs” and “Kick it Up a Notches”, there’s no doubt he’s been a pioneer in his industry and a brilliant chef (and I would argue the first celebrity chef). The food was incredible and the service, for New Orleans, was quite decent. The New Orleans BBQ Shrimp is a classic signature dish of his, and I can see why…we also had the Pasta with smoked mushrooms and house made tasso cream sauce. This might have been one of my favorite dishes of the entire trip. The flavor was beyond complex and the smokiness of the mushrooms and smokiness of the ham went together so sublimely. Even though I have eaten at a couple of Emeril’s other restaurants (in Vegas of course) this one clearly stands out. It’s the original and has proven it has major staying power…a must try if you’re in New Orleans.

I guess I did do a few other things on my trip besides eat...but those activities are just a blur. Actually I can somehow remember a couple drinks I was ecstatic to discover. You have to check out The Old Absinthe House on Bourbon Street. It's an OLD (since 1807) dive bar with a rickety old juke box...but they have a bad ass selection of Absinthe. The bartenders are super knowledgeable and can really walk you through different tastes, styles, countries, etc. They do the traditional pour and it was my favorite way to kick off my afternoons and end my evenings (I know that sounds bad...but hey, it was a vacay). The other super classy and fancy drink I discovered is able to be found about every 50 ft up and down Bourbon Street. Just look for one of the places with the frozen rotating slushy machines. They all have their own frozen "Jungle Juice" concoction. It's made with Everclear and even though it tastes like an ICEE, it will have you on your ass after about 5 sips. They serve it in a very luxurious 20 oz styrofoam cup and it's worth every penny of the $9 you spend on it. Shockingly, the hangovers from them are not nearly bad as you would expect.

New Orleans is a special and interesting town, and if you have never can't even begin to picture it's true nature. It's a "must see" at some point in every American's life. The history is rich, the party scene is strong, and the food is world class. I'm thrilled I was able to experience the best of the town and with other people who could really appreciate all that it has to offer. An