Steaming bowls of seafood gumbo go gliding past on trays. Colourful cocktails are delivered to tables full of women. A waiter in tuxedo ignites a pan of sizzling rum, which dramatically erupts into a tall column of flames. It’s 9am on a Thursday, and this is breakfast at Brennan’s.
The legendary restaurant is famous for good reason and serves as a perfect entrée to the feast that is New Orleans. As soon we arrive, we’re welcomed warmly, ushered to a white-clothed table with a view of the garden. Lee, possibly the most delightful waiter I’ve ever encountered, pulls out our chairs and brandishes jumbo-sized menus. With a dimpled grin and Southern accent, he recommends an “eye opener” – a Bloody Mary to cure my friend’s hangover, or brandy milk punch, perhaps. The absinthe frappé catches my attention.
As good as compulsory is the three-course breakfast. Although the thought of dessert in the morning takes some getting used to, more shocking is that each dish is also matched with a suggested wine. The “appetizer” choices range from baked apple with double cream , to a savoury onion soup. For the main, there are a dozen types of egg dishes with fried trout, artichokes, crabmeat or beef hash. A Brennan’s original, Eggs Hussarde has Holland rusks (slices of crispy bread), Canadian bacon and Marchand de Vin sauce, topped again with Hollandaise sauce.
I opt for the spicy Shrimp Sardou, largely because it’s served on a bed of creamed spinach that Lee all but promises will change my life. My friend goes for the Oysters Benedict. To finish, there is no question – it has to be Bananas Foster . Another much-copied Brennan’s invention, it’s even listed in the dictionary (the page is framed in the lobby). This is what was being flambéed when we walked in, and the fiery show is re-staged every few minutes when someone else places an order. Beside your table, the fruit is sautéed in butter, brown sugar, cinnamon and banana liqueur, then flamed in rum and served over vanilla ice-cream.
Lee was right about the creamed spinach, too – it was too good to leave the leftovers and marked the first time I’ve ever asked for a doggy-bag.
While settling back with a coffee, we get chatting to a man seated at the table next to us. Known by all the waiters as Doctor Lawrence, he’s been coming here for 35 years. While he no longer lives in town, this Royal Street institution is the first place he visits when passing through. “It’s like family, and they treat you this well every time, not just because it’s your first visit,” he says.
A couple of the waiters and the last two chefs have also been here for decades. The current executive chef, Lazone Randolph, went straight from high school to Brennan’s in 1965.
“Brennan’s has been a continuous part of my life entire adult life,” he says. “It is a dream to head the talented kitchen staff that works very hard to put the best food possible on the plates of diners.”
Achieving a similar goal is the team at nearby Arnaud’s. In fact it was this restaurant’s owner, Count Arnaud Cazenave, who in 1945 challenged his Irish friend Owen Brennan to start up his own restaurant, and more than 60 years later, both dining spots are still going strong.
Owen’s sons, Pip, Jimmy and Ted, remain the sole owners and operators of their father’s restaurant, but Arnaud’s is now run by the Casbarian family.
Arnaud’s presents a more modern version of French-Creole cooking than found at Brennan’s. The setting is similarly elegant but on a grander scale. Spread across three once-private houses from the 1700s, the labyrinth of rooms creates an unmatched atmosphere. The dress code suggests jackets for men, but it’s a little less dressy in the bistro, where a jazz quartet plays nightly (US$4 per person surcharge).
According to the venue’s website, Arnaud believed that “the pursuit of the pleasures of the table is as worthy as anything else one chooses to pursue in life”. This philosophy shines through in the food, which is simply the best I tasted during my indulgent week in New Orleans.
Perfect for the indecisive diner, the Oysters Arnaud is a namesake dish for a reason. Six baked, fresh Louisiana oysters each come with different toppings: prawn, mushrooms, green onions, herbs and seasonings in a white wine sauce (yes, that’s just the first one); eggplant and andouille sausage; spinach, bacon and a touch of Pernod; artichoke hearts, garlic, Parmigiano-Reggiano and olive oil; and pimento peppers, onion and bacon.
Our main courses are even more sublime, and I highly recommend any of the veal or steaks. As our waiter Leo explains: “Our meat is so tender that we don’t have any sharp knives.” Sure enough, I’m effortlessly slicing through my filet mignon with a bread knife.
Sweet specialties include the bread pudding and creme bruleé, but for a tableside performance, get the café brulot. The preparation of this after-dinner drink involves fire (again), a long strip of orange peel, a silver bowl and a ladle. The blend of hot brandy and coffee is lit with a match and then the mixture cascades down the curly orange peel, which glows in a ribbon of blue-gold flame.
Before or after your meal, have a drink in the French 75 bar, or pop upstairs to the free museum, which displays the spectacular costumes worn by Arnaud’s daughter at the city’s Mardi Gras balls from 1937 to 1968.
Sunday brunch is another tradition in New Orleans and can last for several hours. Handy for travellers who may come on weekdays, the Court of Two Sisters has a live jazz trio every morning.
The format is a self-serve buffet but the selection and quality is top-notch. Our favourites include the veal grillades and corn grits, turtle soup (add your own sherry), salmon salad, candied yams, crawfish, made-to-order seafood omelette, buttermilk biscuits and the pecan pie.
However, the real drawcard is the courtyard, where you can eat outdoors under a leafy canopy or beside the fountain. The service staff are incredibly attentive, fetching teas and mimosas and juices. Tennessee Williams would have loved this environment, surrounded by an 18th-century building, complete with original gas lights, whose first resident was the royal governor of Louisiana.
The restaurant’s founding two sisters have since died and it’s now owned by two brothers, Jerome and Jim Fein. As Jerome says: “New Orleans is a destination for food, history and music – the Court of Two Sisters offers an authentic blend of all.”
Located on a busier street than these three venues is the Palace Café, co-owned by another Brennan, Dickie. Housed in the former Werlein’s music building, the two-storey French brasserie is a relative newcomer, opening in 1991 as a casual sister restaurant to the flagship Commander’s Palace.
The interior is dominated by its centerpiece staircase, ceiling fans and large front windows that overlook the tables on the footpath.
Duck is its main point of difference, and we happily devour the charcuterie board as a starter, and a main of pepper-crusted duck breast with foie gras and parsnip mash.
Other crusty highlights include the crabmeat cheesecake with pecan crust, andouille-crusted fish, crispy braised pork shank, and shrimp remoulade in a fried tomato cup. The two essential desserts are white chocolate bread pudding and a multi-layered Mississippi mud pie.
Just like my waistline this week, the food scene has rapidly expanded since Hurricane Katrina hit the New Orleans in 2005. According to local reviewer Tom Fitzmorris, who writes a 5000-word foodie newsletter every day: “Before Katrina, we had 809 real restaurants here. As of this morning we have 1118.”
In a city renowned for its food, it’s not surprising that restaurants are leading the charge to lure back visitors. Just remember to leave the diet and tight jeans at home.
After Hurricane Katrina
The rebuilding of New Orleans post-Katrina has done wonders for the destination. There is virtually no damage visible in the main tourist areas and the nightlife is as lively as ever. In the past five years alone, more than 300 new restaurants have opened. Respected local food critic Tom Fitzmorris (www.nomenu.com) shared his top five with me:
Le Foret www.leforetneworleans.com
Le Meritage www.lemeritagerestaurant.com
Bistro Daisy www.bistrodaisy.com
Feasting in the French Quarter
Most of New Orleans’ best food and music venues are found in the old French Quarter. Its main public area, Jackson Square, attracts musicians, artists, fortune-tellers and other quirky buskers. Sit outside and people-watch at Café du Monde, and order the only thing on the menu: beignets. These hot, square doughnuts are covered in powdered sugar – a sweet, messy delight.
Brennan’s, Arnaud’s, the Palace Café and the Court of Two Sisters (see main story) are four of the best for visitors to soak up the local hospitality.
Galatoire’s, on Bourbon Street, is like a 20th-century Parisian bistro, run by the same family since 1905.
Other excellent options include the Pelican Club and Stella.
Fun can also be had sitting at an oyster bar, such as Acme, where the high-speed shucking is performed while you wait.
For pub grub, Coop’s Place is a friendly spot to meet the locals while enjoying a rabbit jambalaya.
For a taste of Cajun, the number-one pick is K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen.
Further afield, in the Garden Distict, is the quintessential New Orleans dining experience at Commander’s Palace.
A much cheaper snack is a po-boy baguette, usually over-stuffed with fried prawn, soft-shell crab or roast beef and gravy.
Where to eat
813 Bienville Street
Tel: +1 504 523 5433
417 Royal Street
Tel: +1 504 525 9711
Court of Two Sisters
613 Royal Street
Tel: +1 504 522 7273
605 Canal Street
Tel: +1 504 523 1661
How to get there
From Australia, United Airlines is the only airline with international flights to the US and connecting domestic flights to Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport.
Where to stay
The Inn on Bourbon is smack-bang in the centre of the action and within a short stroll to hundreds of restaurants. Most of the recently renovated rooms have large balconies overlooking Bourbon Street or the courtyard and swimming pool.
541 Bourbon Street
New Orleans, Louisiana
Tel: +1 504 524 7611
Avoid driving in the narrow, one-way streets and walk. These streets are made for strolling – romantic and historic, with exceptionally talented buskers providing entertainment on corners. But wear flat shoes as many roads are cobble-stoned.
Take a ride on the streetcar, if you desire, to the Garden District.
Walking tours are also popular, such as the New Orleans Culinary Tour.
Tel: 504 875 6570
When to go
July and August are hot and humid; this year it was still very warm in October.
Mardi Gras, in February, and Halloween are the most fun times of year but also hardest to get a hotel room. April is also busy during the Jazz & Heritage Festival and French Quarter Festival.
In December, before and during Christmas, the city is gloriously festive, the weather is nice, and hotels significantly drop their rates.
For a food fest, the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience is held in May. See www.nowfe.com.
New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau
Tel: +1 504 566 501