Yankees in the South – Mark and Paul in NOLA

Mark and I took advantage of the season to take a trip down to New Orleans last week, do some eating, and explore Acadiana a bit. I guess this is what you’d call a work/play junket, as we planned to do a lot of research as well as eat in some great restaurants, and no trip to Louisiana is complete without a little fun time in the French Quarter.

Besides eating in some great restaurants (and wow, there are more great restaurants in New Orleans than ever, it would seem) such as Cochon, August, Coquette, Bayona, Brennan’s, Drago’s, (in Metarie) and Cafe des Amis (in Breaux Bridge,) we really wanted to get out into the countryside and eat some boudin and andouille.

Here I am outside Jacob’s Andouille in LaPlace. Am I up so early in the morning that I have to check the time to see if they’re open yet?  Jacob’s is significant because it was the best andouille (to my taste) I’ve ever had. Others disagreed, actually insisting Big Jones’ house andouille the best of the six we tasted! (five from famous LA shops, plus our Big Jones-made specimen.) At Jacob’s, they still have the old small wood shacks out back where they hang the andouille and smoke it over pecan wood and sugar cane for hours and hours, until it’s almost black on the outside, leathery and jerky-like when sliced.

I have to pause for a minute to apologize for not having more pictures to share, it rained two days, was very gray a third, and the sun only came out the day we picked to be lazy on Magazine Street. I’ll post a few. If you’re ever out Lafayette way (which, we learned is often pronounced “laffy-ette” by the more rural folk out there) there are a couple of stops that are essential. One is Cafe des Amis in Breaux Bridge:

How early did I get up this morning?

Located steps off of the Bayou Teche ten minutes east of Lafayette, you might run into tourists here, but they pull more than their share of locals, plus artists, and lovers of Cajun cooking. Duck gumbo, crawfish etouffee, barbequed shrimp, and gateaux au sirop all reminded me, in a very soulful way, how beautiful simple Cajun food is. With a full belly, you’re in the heart of boudin country!

This is where I really have to apologize for not having more pictures, because the best boudin on the trip was to be had at Poche’s, just a few miles away from Cafe des Amis. Like in any boudin shop, you order it at the counter, and it comes out of a steaming crockpot and is handed over. You have to eat them with cracklins. Honestly, I felt like our boudin at Big Jones was really, really good. I’d had others from Louisiana before, and thought ours would compare somewhat favorably. Truth is it did, to most. But Poche’s! It’s unctuous, richly textured, and masterfully spiced. It starts with a prickle of heat at the tip of the tongue, then fills your mouth, but in a warm, rich, aromatic way. I was humbled. Their boudin trounced mine! Now I have a new goal to reach for, I suppose. I’ve had a new best boudin in my life! Mark did snap a shot of Bourque’s, a well-known sausage shop in Port Barre which doubles as a full-scale grocery.

There was also Comeaux’s, Tiny Prudhomme’s, and Ricky LaBlanc, which took us down to New Iberia. On our way back to New Orleans, we decided to take highway 90 back to town, to see some cane fields, crawfish farms, swamps, and bayous, and we were not disappointed. Oysters at Drago’s in Metarie were a nice cap to the trip out to boudin country, and I would recommend a trip to the Metarie location (the original) if only to eat their fantastic char-grilled oysters. It very well may be the best way to enjoy oysters.

What really struck me on our two trips out west of town, plus our wanderings in the groceries around the state, was the incredible, debilitating poverty out there. In 1988, Chinese crawfish entered the U.S. market. The impact on Louisiana crawfisheries and farms was quick and predictable. Home-grown popcorn rice is available everywhere at a discount to imported rice from countries without equal environmental or workplace standards. During our ongoing purchasing rigors at Big Jones we often find popcorn rice from AR/LA being sold as basmati and at a lower price than Indian grown basmati! Louisiana has lost 8,000 of 13,000 shrimpers that were on the water 8 years ago. Each one of those 8,000 represents a real life American family. There are now only 5,000 shrimpers on the water in Louisiana. They just can’t compete with Chinese and Indonesian imports of farm-raised shrimp on price. It’s usually only about a 10-15% difference, but that’s a deal breaker for a lot of people. The crazy thing is American Gulf of Mexico shrimp is far more environmentally sustainable and it tastes way, way better. It’s not even close. 10-15% more for twice the flavor, a more stable environment, and American jobs? Seems like a no brainer!

We have lately been using Laughing Bird Shrimp from Belize because of its environmentally sustainable practices, but this has lit a fire under my feet to get with my suppliers and find a comparably sustainable shrimp from the American Gulf Coast. I’ll keep you posted on the search.

Statistics on crawfish are harder to come by but the wild catch has been in decline for years, not because there aren’t crawfish, but because the labor (jobs) involved means a more costly product. It also tastes way better. We made the connections we hoped to make for Louisiana crawfish while we were there, and will have an announcement within the next couple of weeks about which Louisiana supplier will be supplying Big Jones with Louisiana crawfish.

The restaurants were great, and while it is tourist season, they all seemed busy, lunch and dinner, so that was wonderful to see. August remains one of the city’s best spots with spectacular food and service, Brennan’s is as good as ever, Coquette might be considered the discovery of the year – what a fantastic lunch we had there. Cochon is a great prize because it has so nicely taken Cajun cooking back from the tourist faux-Cajun factories, returned to its roots, and simultaneously takes Cajun cooking into the future.

We had the great pleasure of dining at Cochon with a former cook and intern of mine from Schubas, Kerenza Napoles, who is knocking them dead at Bourbon House, Dickie Brennan’s whiskey, steak, and raw bar restaurant in the quarter. Afterward, Kerenza took Mark and I to the Chart Room, an industry bar on Rue Chartres, so we got to have a night out drinking in the quarter with industry folk instead of tourists. What a great time, thanks Kerenza!

Of all the meals we ate while in town, at risk of stirring something up, I have to hand it to Susan Spicer at Bayona for a flawless meal, great flavors, and sweet hospitality.

There’s still something to be said about a chef who works the line every day. Bayona has been around for twenty years now, and while this was my first visit, I can’t imagine that it’s ever been better. The perfect place to end a trip to New Orleans.

Neither of us has been to New Orleans since before Hurricane Katrina, so we hoped to see the city making more progress toward normal. It’s true what’s been said: the touristy, high-ground areas are doing great, but a lot of work still needs to be done. It seems as if the news media and our public attention moves from disaster to disaster, and New Orleans has had a hard time staying in people’s minds as a cause to consider. Many people disagree on whether the lower ground should be redeveloped, or even settled upon in the first place, and I’m not going to enter that fray. What would be nice to see happen is more attention paid to the plight of one of our nation’s great cities, and maybe eventually all sides can agree on how to proceed. Right now, it seems as if Louisiana’s less fortunate have been forgotten. We’re dreaming up ways now to do our part, but what you can do if you are able, is take a trip. Louisianans are wonderful hosts!