New Orleans Trip . Restaurants and Reviews

This Story was originally posted on February 6, 2005.

Day One: Wendy’s – Atlanta Airport and Marigny Brasserie – New Orleans Louisiana

When we arrived in New Orleans, we had not gotten any sleep the night before, and had only eaten an incredibly tasteless and cardboard like breakfast sandwich at the airport in Atlanta from Wendy’s. How they managed to put those ingredients together to be so utterly devoid of any taste – good or bad – has to be something that they have worked at for years. We were famished and took to the streets for a good meal. At this point, we had not read our Frommer’s Guide for restaurant recommendations so we headed out to pick the best place ourselves just based on visual presentation and curb appeal and the menu posted on the windows or outside.

New Orleans
New Orleans

Starting out on Frenchmen Street, we walked half a block and bumped into a place called the Marigny Brasserie. Being the first place we saw, even though were impressed by the look of the place, we decided to keep walking and see what else struck our fancy. On our way, we kept being pulled into antique stores and art galleries that we could not resist, but famished as we were, we pressed on in our quest for good food. Every restaurant and bar that we passed seemed to get dirtier and smellier. It does not give one any confidence in the kitchen of these places when it seems that the windows haven’t been washed in years. With increasing hunger, desperation, and frustration we decided to go back to the Marigny that was the only eating establishment on the edge of the French Quarter that looked like it might hold the slightest bit of promise.

Walking in, we were struck by the elegant modern stark and cool feel of the place. Seating ourselves we noticed a concoction on the gigantic chalkboard bar drink menu called The Cucumber Cosmo. It would have to be great or incredibly unthinkably undrinkable.

Our bartender was busy serving a group of Good Ole Boys in the lounge behind us but managed to serve us with style, speed and professional mixology. Sharon Brown brought us our Cucumber Cosmopolitans that were incredibly subtle, and a little less sweet than your normal Cosmopolitan. A great discovery that we now make at home, with a little more cucumber than the Marigny used.

When Sharon went back over to help the boys, they asked her to turn on the game. (I forgot to mention, we arrived in New Orleans on the day of the Sugar Bowl with Auburn and Virginia Tech) As Sharon was trying to find the game, one of the men made a statement that made all of us turn our heads. In his best Southern Gentleman tone, he said “Honey let me do that for you”. This immediately started a whispered conversation between my partner and I about the South and attitudes that good ole boys take towards women and blacks (of which Sharon was both proudly woman and black). Sharon caught my statement about Southern stereotypes and how some men in the south think that a woman needs help with everything and the man should do it for her, and it made her take a second look at us. This started an incredible conversation between the three of us about New Orleans and it’s racial makeup and problems, money and the south, southern gentlemen and other regions of the country and the world (New Jersey, Chicago and Japan) where attitudes are more progressive.

While we were continuing this philosophical, sociological discussion, Sharon brought us the Dinner Menu. What we saw on the menu intrigued us and made us even more famished than we already were. The current offerings by Chef Richard “Bingo” Starr can best be described as Nouvelle Cuisine with a Lowcountry – New Orleans Twist. {not so fussy and not so skimpy as high-end snooty Nouvelle Cuisine can be}

The creativity shown on the menu was executed beautifully in the presentation of every dish and in the taste. My Pork Shank nestled in a bed of southern greens surrounded by a lively Cajun Baked Beans was out of this world, with an incredibly tender and not to sweet pork shank. The overall combination was masterful and unique.

My partner, Val ordered the Soft Shell Crab Entree similar results to mine. I grew up hating fish and shellfish, and it is only in the past decade that I will not run from the room when someone is serving seafood. The presentation made me have to try Val’s entree which was superb. It was the absolute best presentation that I have ever seen of Soft Shell Crab.

Our entire experience that night let us know that we would be back here to dine on another night, as there were other items on the menu that we were dying to try.

We thanked Sharon for our meal and promised to be back. Marigny Brasserie gets our vote for The Best Restaurant in New Orleans, and as you will read below, it had some stiff, well known and respected competition.

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Day Two: Bayona New Orleans LA

The next morning started with reading our Frommer’s Guide to New Orleans and one of the local restaurant feature magazines. From what I read in Frommer’s, and the sound of the menus from the local mag, I had two distinct recommendations to my partner when he woke up that morning: Bayona and Dominiques. Bayona won out based on the Frommer’s guide review. One statement somehow made it our choice: “…lamb dish, topped with goat cheese that may have been the best lamb we’ve ever tasted.” As I review that statement now I see that this “best of” statement has a weak qualifier: MAY HAVE BEEN.

We spent the day walking the streets of the Garden District and working up an appetite and returned back to the quarter to get ready for our much anticipated dinner. We arrived and approached the hostess station, and were greeted by a young woman sitting behind the hostess counter with the snottiest attitude that we have ever encountered upon entering a restaurant. Her blond assistant that took us to the porch waiting area was incredibly gracious, but this only partially made up for the initial slap in the face. We ordered our cocktails while waiting for our table in the back garden.

We know that this is fine dining and I keep thinking that somehow she did not like the way that we were dressed, which was dress casual. Most of the customers that night were dressed more formally than we were, but the restaurant reviews and the local magazine ad and article mentioned nothing about a dress code. This was not a good way to start a dinner that we were looking forward to.

The problems just continued at Bayona. Once seated Val realized that his main view was of the kitchen window, with a service area behind him that was constantly abuzz with clanging dishes and waitresses rushing in and out of the kitchen. Being a chef, this was far too close to the fire for him and he could not stop staring into the kitchen which is a place he spends most of his life.

When our waitress arrived we immediately connected and started talking about the incredible temperature that night and she handed us our menus. The first impression of the menu was chaos. It presented not one menu, but two. We did not know what we were supposed to look at. We knew the problem instantly when another waitress approached the table next to us and immediately explained the menu which was divided into the regular menu and the specials menu. Our server had not explained this, and the menu for some strange reason did not make this clear either. What? Is there something déclassé about printing “Menu” and “Specials”/”Spécial du Jour” at the top of the menu? After muddling through and somehow not being impressed with what the offerings were, we placed our order for food and wine.

When I arrived back from taking a smoke break, our wine had arrived. Another problem, and it goes back once again to the Frommer’s Guide. We also made our choice for the evening based on Frommer’s assertion that the wine list was extensive and the staff extremely helpful in suggesting a good wine. Our correction here, the selection of wines was extensive, but the wine menu organization was again chaotic, just like the food menu. Our overall conception of the wine list was that it was More Expensive than Extensive. We ordered an inexpensive white, which I cannot tell you the name of which was young, bitey, and totally unremarkable and unrefined. A good Yellow Tail Reserve would have been twice as good as this one, and our price tag for it was well over $30.00. Our problem with this, is that we had already been shocked at how inexpensive wine and cocktails were in Louisiana as compared with New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

For appetizers, I had the Garlic Soup which was one of the best dishes put in front of me in New Orleans. For our entrees, Val had “The Best Lamb Ever”, and I had the Niman Ranch Pork Chops with Cheddar Cheese Spoonbread and Greens. Val’s highly recommended lamb was probably the worst disappointment of the evening, and the biggest dining failure of our stay in the Big NO. When someone tells you to expect possibly the best lamb ever, you do not expect a tough and gristled piece of lamb. How will the best lamb you may have ever had start with a lackluster cut of lamb — Not Possible. My entree overall was masterfully designed with an incredible mix of delightful tastes that contrasted and complimented each other so much so that you wanted a small bite of each one on your fork to experience them all together. The execution was not the best as the Double Cut Chops were overcooked and slightly but not horribly dry.

Our deserts were both good, but by the time they arrived, they could not overcome this night’s and Bayona’s failure to please. All things considered: the atmosphere in the fabulous back courtyard, our moods, the tropical temperatures and the expectation of wonderful things, should have made for one incredible dining experience. None of these things matter when the restaurant fails in so many ways as Bayona did during the first week of January, 2005.

Please let it be known also, that we thought Chef Susan Spicer was incredibly talented in designing the food and pairing different disparate tastes together. Much of our bad dining experience could be laid at the feet of the staff that did not make us feel special in any way. For this reason we award Chef Susan Spicer and Bayona: New Orlean’s Best Gastronomic Conceptualizations.

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Day Three: Johnny’s Po-Boys, La Madeleine, and Feelings Cafe

After Bayona we felt like we should look for some smaller places with simple food and lower prices. We got a local recommendation for both of the places that we went to the next day. First off, Johnny’s Po-Boys is located across the street from one of Emeril’s famous restaurants, Nola on St. Louis Street. What drew us there was the constant traffic in and out the door and the homey atmosphere of it all. Once in the door, we were astounded at the variety of the menu and the outrageously low prices for entire meals. The kitchen which was more of a narrow hallway, was jammed with more staff than I think I saw at any restaurant in New Orleans, along with the owner. As we sat waiting for our food a local resident assured us that the food was very good and that he ate here every day. For less than $10.00, we both ate well and were on our way to see more of this incredible city.

Johnny’s Po-Boys ties for first in our award for The Best Quick Lunch in New Orleans

La Madeleine, Jackson Square, New Orleans, Louisiana

Late in the afternoon we wanted a coffee and a pastry and stopped in at La Madeleine. On the afternoon that we were there, the staff was abundant and far too occupied with talking with each other to really bother with helping us. Our coffees were good, and the pastries were boring, tough and badly prepared. The place looks charming sitting there on the corner on Jackson Square, and the view that looks oh so much like Paris is breathtaking, but don’t waste your money on this place, there are far too many good places in New Orleans with great views.

Feelings Cafe D’Aunoy, New Orleans LA

Following in this same spirit which had rewarded us at lunch, we decided to go to Feelings Cafe D’Aunoy for dinner. Once again because of the warm weather we chose to dine on the patio. I cannot tell you what we had that night. Feelings Cafe was unremarkable except for the host that was very interested in selling us his ties and in us seeing his paintings in the Dining Room. OK, I guess it wasn’t totally unremarkable, I did have a remark about our gregarious host, that’s it.

Feelings gets our award for Best New Orleans Restaurant Host or Hostess

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Day Four: Café Beignet and Gene’s Po-Boys

Café Beignet, New Orleans LA

Our last day dining in New Orleans did not start well. Before we left, we had been told to go to Cafe Beignet for breakfast. Reading the menu outside describing the Andouille Hash Browns: with Cajun Andouille sausage, potatoes, bell pepper & onion
served with scrambled egg & french bread, our appetites were heightened in anticipation of this marvelous sounding dish. What sounded wonderful and should have been with those ingredients was a pale grey dish (symbolically in terms of taste, not color) with little more flavor than the Wendy’s breakfast sandwich we had in Atlanta.

The staff were marvelous and cheery and the service was exceptionally fast. The light streaming in the front windows was marvelous and should have made for a great atmosphere for a great breakfast. The food was absolutely forgettable.

Café Beignet gets our award for Best New Orleans Bright and Sunny Room for Breakfast

Gene’s Po-Boys, New Orleans LA

Gene’s Po-Boys is one of the first place in New Orleans that shocked us when we came in from the airport. This gigantic building is painted the brightest and most offensive pink you have ever seen. It looks like a humongous pink monster. As we turned the corner Val noticed that is was next to another pink building that proudly boasted Walk In Divorces (or do they mean “Walk In And Take Out Divorces”?). Sharon our bartender at the Marigny had recommended Gene’s as having the best Po-Boy in New Orleans, which I did not believe because no good place could possibly be in a building that was probably the ugliest piece of architecture that I had ever seen (wait—when a building is that bad, maybe it doesn’t qualify as architecture anymore?)

Walking in the door one is not impressed either. Don’t dare go to Gene’s for atmosphere honey, cause it aint there!!!

Looking at the menu, our fears of another bad meal were creeping up again. Regardless of our trepidations we ordered and had one of the Best Gastronomic Experiences of our entire New Orleans visit!!! As I sat eating my Po-Boy with incredibly wonderful French Bread and a hot and lively sausage, I noticed that the customers at Gene’s were from every walk of life, from black women with their babies out to get some groceries and go back home that had stopped in for a quick and inexpensive meal, to corporate business executives on their lunch break. As we sat there delighted by this incredibly good and inexpensive meal, I pointed out to Val that we could have had breakfast at Gene’s for 99 cents and avoided the overprocessed and soulless breakfast we had paid dearly for at a tony French Quarter Cafe.

Gene’s Po-boys is one of those places that makes New Orleans what it is. An oxymoron and an enigma. It feels like you’re in a novel while you sit there and observe the characters acting their parts around you.

Gene’s is open 24 hours a day, but we don’t recommend going there too late or too early. You can read more about another visitor’s experience on the:

Looka! Blog’s Gumbo Pages (Looka, said with a New Orleans accent that is)

Gene’s Po-Boys gets our award for Best New Orleans Po-Boy. *** Note *** This page references another review of Gene’s. I don’t think Gene’s will ever have a website.

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Conclusion

Our stay in New Orleans was an incredible success overall. In terms of dining, it was spotty. Our Bayona experience made us timid, and kept us away from the better known, Star restaurants. This was our fault. I guess this gives us an excuse to return for another Taste of New Orleans.