NEW ORLEANS - The filet of skate was pan-fried, served with an intriguing puree of parsnips and Yukon gold potatoes, mustard greens - quintessential soul food - and a Creole mustard beurre blanc. Also brought to the table were seven sauteed jumbo shrimp, doing a little synchronized swimming routine with jalapeno bits in an eggplant dressing. And a half carafe of a crisp sauvignon blanc from France's Loire Valley proved a suitable match for both dishes.
Laissez le bon temps rouler, as they're fond of saying in New Orleans, and on this night at Herbsaint restaurant, the good times were rolling indeed. Notice was unmistakably served: All is right with the world of New Orleans' culinary creativity.
It's been an arduous road back from the devastation that Hurricane Katrina visited on this city in August 2005. "You can't have 80 percent of your city under water and expect everything to snap back in a year," said Susan Spicer, chef and co-partner of the acclaimed Bayona restaurant in the French Quarter.
The city's convention and visitors bureau estimates that tourism this past year was off by at least 50 percent, but noted brightly that the cruise ships have returned and convention bookings for next year are approaching normal levels.
It's a shame that the traveling public has been slow to re-embrace New Orleans. On a recent visit, it was clear that the city's tourist institutions are in remarkably good shape.
Credit for that goes to
The vintage jazz still sounds forth from Preservation Hall, the zoo and the aquarium are open, the antique stores of Magazine Street are hanging in there despite the reduced number of strolling shoppers, and the debauchery of Bourbon Street hasn't abated in the slightest.
The restaurants, meanwhile, are gradually regaining viability.
Paul Prudhomme, who cooked meals under a tent for first responders in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, was personally at the stove when he reopened his K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen. Emeril Lagasse, who operates three restaurants in the city, initially drew criticism for being AWOL after the storm, but he has since been tireless in raising money for Katrina relief.
It's probably not surprising that as New Orleans tourism creeps back, it is doing so on its stomach. (As a slogan at the bottom of the Brigtsen's menu puts it: "Rebuilding New Orleans - one plate at a time.")
Some restaurants are operating on scaled-back days or hours - closing early in the week, for example, or not yet serving lunch. The depressed tourist numbers have had an impact on that, not to mention the reduced numbers of residents. In a city where so much housing was wiped out, staffing remains a challenge.
The hurricane also wiped out wine reserves (because the loss of power played havoc with refrigeration systems), and disrupted the seafood industry in the Gulf of Mexico and small-scale farming inland.
But people who come to the city primarily to eat (and many do) won't be disappointed. A recent visit yielded some memorable restaurant experiences, and was enhanced by two side endeavors: a cooking class and a culinary history walking tour.
If so inclined, you'll find no shortage of opportunities to partake of the rich, creamy sauces of traditional Creole cooking in New Orleans, but a new wave of chefs has also latched on to the seasonally-fresh movement, and is presenting a lighter take on the genre. There were several dining highlights on a recent visit.
Herbsaint: Chef and partner Donald Link is an ardent advocate of regional ingredients, and last month that meant satsuma citrus wedges, lightly fried eggplant and lump crabmeat in a special salad - in addition to those exemplary skate and shrimp entrees.
In a city where dressy attire is often required and the prices routinely maim your credit card, Herbsaint is stepping to a daring, bistro beat in the Central Business District. The setting is a bit more casual, the main courses are priced in the low $20s, and a small-plates menu broadens the possibilities.
The wine list is extensive and very modestly priced. Even better, a generous offering of half bottles (actually 375-ml carafes, filled from the full-size bottles) made it easier for a table of two to match wines to courses. Most were priced at exactly half that of a full bottle - a rarity for wine splits in restaurants.
Bayona: Many of New Orleans' restaurants are housed in former homes - a charming touch - and this French Quarter cottage is one of the more delightful settings you'll find. We opted for Saturday Light Lunch here, one of Susan Spicer's post-Katrina innovations.
It's a clever concept: A dozen small-plates selections are offered on a "savory" menu, five more under "sweets," and diners may pick any three for $20.
The first time a server crossed the dining room floor carrying a lump crab tostada with roasted corn salad and guacamole, diners began ordering it wildly - such that the kitchen ran out of crab in about an hour. Also tasty were smoked salmon tartare, spinach and ricotta gnocchi, and eggplant caviar.
Commander's Palace: There was a "Now Hiring" sign out front of this venerable Garden District establishment, but any concern about an erosion of its legendary deferential service was quickly dashed.
Valets out front scurried to open the front door for you, glasses of ice water were changed after the first course "in case the ice has melted," and the pacing of lunch was impeccable.
Commander's doesn't take the kind of chances that might result in some menu surprises, but neither does it disappoint a clientele that knows what it wants (the clientele included Mayor Ray Nagin while we dined there).
A gumbo that was decidedly refined was the hit at our table, along with a salad with Parmesan-crusted oysters.
The Gumbo Shop: There's something comforting about settling in at this French Quarter institution, an hour after your flight arrives, for seafood okra gumbo, shrimp Creole, jambalaya studded with smoked sausage, chicken and shrimp, and - as if that lily needed any further gilding - a steaming serving of red beans and rice.
A crusty loaf of French bread was presented to sop up the gooey sauces and roux, and cold bottles of local Abita Amber Ale provided the perfect antidote to the robust spices. The seating along one side of banquette tables was a weathered wooden church pew.
Napoleon House: This scruffy 1797 building could challenge Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop for the title of French Quarter establishment with the most character. Its courtyard is serene and inviting at lunchtime or for an afternoon Pimm's cup cocktail.
The menu features nine po'boy sandwiches, but the muffuletta, served hot here, might be the best in the city. It combines ham, Genoa salami, pastrami, Swiss cheese, Provolone cheese and olive salad on a generous, round roll (unless you're ravenous, you'll probably want to order a half sandwich).
Upperline: New Orleans classics are nicely done at this Uptown restaurant favored by locals: fried green tomatoes with shrimp remoulade, duck etouffee with pepper jelly, spicy shrimp, roast duck, bread pudding with toffee sauce (the best we had during our stay).
Local art adorns the walls, and owner JoAnn Clevenger is an imperious presence overseeing all the doings at the restaurant.
Restaurant August: Chef John Besh is another strong proponent of local ingredients, and our waiter remarked that 90 percent of that night's menu was built around them.
This elegant restaurant in the Warehouse District has gained considerable national acclaim, but we felt that it fell a bit short of its notices. A pheasant entree was cooked two ways, but, unfortunately, also cooked too much. Sugar-and-spice duckling was unexceptional.
The evening's bright spots were an amuse bouche of seafood custard with local caviar, a starter that combined the complementary tastes and textures of heirloom beets, crab, bacon, mustard greens, quail eggs and crispy black-eyed pea croutons, plus a dark chocolate torte with berries and mulled Burgundy.
Brigtsen's: This restaurant in the Riverbend neighborhood routinely lands on the top 10 list of the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper, but it was our least favorite.
Broiled gulf grouper probably would have been fine with just the crabmeat Parmesan crust; pile on asparagus and mushrooms and drench it in a heavy Bernaise and its natural flavor is nearly indecipherable. Same with a pan-fried speckled trout that was heaped with roasted pecans and shrimp and ladled a bit too generously with meuniere sauce.
The best offerings here were an oyster stew special and a savory starter of file gumbo with andouille sausage and rabbit. The roux was thinner than is normally found in gumbo, but this was one tasty cup.
This concludes Great Escapes' 2006 series, The Culinary Traveler.
Be sure to join us for our Neighborhoods series in 2007, beginning with San Diego's Little Italy district on Jan. 7.
IF YOU GO
TRANSIT: Trees blown down by Katrina ripped out the overhead wires for the St. Charles streetcar, eliminating a delightful means of transportation from downtown, past the Garden District, to the Audubon Zoo. It's not expected to be up and running again until well into next year. The bus service that was established in its place cannot be recommended; this is a standard cross-city bus, with a lot of scruffy characters, and well-dressed tourists headed to Commander's Palace will feel as if a spotlight is trained upon them. Best to take taxis. Have the restaurant summon a United cab; we found their drivers to be the most professional in the city. Rent a car only if you're planning on roaming to the city outskirts, because the daily parking fee at your hotel can be almost as steep as the daily rental cost ($29 at the W Hotel in the French Quarter, for example). The ideal mode of transportation in the French Quarter is walking.
BAYONA: 430 Rue Dauphine; (504) 522-0588; www.bayona.com.
BRIGTSEN'S: 723 Dante St.; (504) 861-7610; www.brigtsens.com.
COMMANDER'S PALACE: 1403 Washington Ave.; (504) 899-8221; www.commanderspalace.com.
GUMBO SHOP: 630 St. Peter St.; (504) 525-1486; www.gumboshop.com.
HERBSAINT: 701 St. Charles Ave.; (504) 524-4114; www.herbsaint.com.
RESTAURANT AUGUST: 301 Tchoupitoulas St.; (504) 299-9777; www.rest-august.com
UPPERLINE: 1413 Upperline St.; (504) 891-9822; www.upperline.com.
INFORMATION: A Web site that tracks comings, goings and re-openings on the New Orleans restaurant scene is www.nomenu.com. Frommer's, meanwhile, has produced a small guidebook that is billed as a "post-Katrina update" of the city's tourist offerings ($11.99). It is particularly handy for restaurant and hotel listings.