New Orleans Gastromic Tour: Part 1 of 3
A Primer on New Orleans Cuisine and Arnaud’s Restaurant
“New Orleans food is as delicious as the less criminal forms of sin.” – Mark Twain, 1884
WWW.TomsFoodieBlog.com has recently visited New Orleans during Mardi Gras to experience the city’s cuisine, culture and people. During this trip my goal was to learn about and experience every type of cuisine the city has to offer. During my gastromic journey of the city, I was able to experience the some of the city’s best restaurants, local foodie hangouts and experience each of the city’s best dishes.
This culinary journey permanently changed my perspective on the use of spices, flavors and the blending of cultural culinary techniques. This blog post will highlight the lessons I learned about New Orleans cuisine and a play by play recount of my experience at local restaurants. This gastromic journey will be recounted in three separate posts
New Orleans Cuisine
The Roots of New Orleans cuisine can be found in a unique melting pot culture formed by various waves of colonization, refugees and a dark history of slave trading. Modern day New Orleans holds onto its amalgamated cultural roots in within the delicious cuisine. Tom’s Foodie Blog recently traveled to New Orleans, Louisiana (NOLA) to enjoy the Mardi Gras culture in full ripeness and to immerse ourselves in the local cuisine. Along the journey I fell in love with the city, the people and above all their wonderfully rich culinary culture. This blog post will explore my culinary adventure in New Orleans and I will attempt to explain how I gained five pounds in five days in the Crescent City.
Before I can even begin explaining the cuisine of New Orleans, I must give a little history of the cultural roots that makes up modern New Orleans. This is not a history blog, although I must give a little historical reference to appreciate the sources of New Orleans’s culinary influences. In general, New Orleans cuisine can be categorized into 3 main categories: Creole, Cajun, and all others. I will talk about the “all others” category later on in this post, but let us take a trip into history to understand the difference between Creole and Cajun.
History Alert! The next couple of paragraphs will explain Creole and Cajun cuisine through the perspective of history. If you have a condition known as “History Intolerance”, you might want to scroll down a little. If you do not mind a little history, you might actually enjoy this next section!
Origins of Creole Cuisine
The origins of New Orleans cuisine can be summarized by saying it has evolved from diverse cultures adapting to their local environment and mixing culinary techniques learned from their neighbors. The word, “Creole” roughly means “The first born in a new colony.” During the age of European Colonialism and Slave Trading, European expatriates settled into modern-day Louisiana at the mouth of the Mississippi. As subsequent generations prospered in the territory, their cultures begin to slowly blend into their own distinct group called, the Creole.
European Influence and Native Influence
The original European colonists included the French, whom brought in saucing techniques, rich soups and layered flavors. The Spanish brought in rice dishes and hearty and pungent spices. The German immigrants brought sausages and mustard. The Italians brought in sweet pastries and tomato based cooking. During this initial period, the colonists brought with them their Caribbean and African slaves, who brought in their own cooking techniques.
The Colonists also traded with the indigenous population and learned to cook with native vegetables, herbs and animals. The colonists had disposable income and could rely on picking up ingredients from flourishing multi-cultural markets. The wealthier Creoles brought over their personal Chefs from Paris, Genoa and Barcelona and they learned to cook with the local ingredients.
Governor Bienville is rumored to have instructed his personal Chef to teach the local population how to cook French recipes using local ingredients, in order to keep the colonists from returning to Europe. Although this story is part lore, the imported Chefs did play a key role in teaching the Creoles how to use local ingredients in the style of their home country. Spanish Paella for example, morphed into Jambalaya as a result of using local ingredients. I will get more into this in part three of my blog.
Influence of the Slave Trade
Successive waves of slaves arrived into New Orleans over the next 200 years, each of them bringing a new culinary influence that seeped into the Cultural Creole Cuisine. The Haiti Slave Revolt in 1804 brought an influx of 10,000 “free people of color.” These people made New Orleans their home, bringing with them their Caribbean and French recipes. At the same time Europeans and Northerners also made their way to the New Orleans area and brought with them the slaved based plantation economy to raise cash crops. These slaves came from the West Indies and Africa and introduced slow cooking and spicy chili ingredients into the dishes. The New Orleans “Creole” cuisine began to morph over the 300 year period into what we can characterize as modern Creole dishes.
The common strain between creole and Cajun cuisine is their common linkage to France and a nod to Spanish influence. Cajun cuisine originated from the French-Canadian region called Arcadia (modern-day Nova Scotia). The French Canadians were expelled from the British Territory as punishment for their involvement in the French Indian Wars. The Arcadians were relocated to the swamps located southwest of New Orleans and they had to survive on whatever food they could farm, forage or capture.
Their dishes were just as rustic as their surroundings and they learned to stretch food supplies to last for many meals. There is a Cajun saying that states, “Creole feeds one family with three chickens and a Cajun feeds three families with one chicken.” The Arcadian brought with them their French cooking techniques and adapted them just like the Creoles to include all of the local ingredients and they were influenced by the indigenous population and the Creoles.
The Creoles also had a scarcity of dairy products, so today there are apparent preparation differences in certain dishes creating a “Roux.” A Roux is a foamy base sauce made from melted butter and flour, used in sauces and soups. In Cajun cooking, a Roux will be made out of lard or oil and mixed with flour, resulting in a heavier base, almost like gravy.
Over the years, Creole and Cajun cuisine blended so much that the lines have blurred between these cuisines. Some of the locals I met told me that the real difference between these cuisines is that Cajun Cuisines tend to be a little more rustic style cooking. Although if you tell this to a Cajun from the southwest part of the state you had better be prepared to quickly explain and run.
O.K. Enough history and foreplay on the cuisines of New Orleans
Lets jump straight into my gastromic journey into the cultural melting pot of New Orleans! You might just gain five pounds from reading my descriptions of the rich and luxurious food.
We discovered Arnaud’s Restaurant through a recommendation from the New Orleans Chamber of Convention and Visitors Bureau when we inquired about a list of the best restaurants that represent the “Heart and Soul” of New Orleans. We called Arnaud’s and made a late appointment, since we had just landed. The staff was very pleasant when we made our reservation; they thanked us for choosing them. After dodging thrown beads and boobies on Bourbon Street, we turned onto Rue Bienville and found Arnaud’s Restaurant.
Arnaud’s serves gourmet Creole dishes in a very polished environment. I did not know it at the time, but Arnaud’s is a venerable institution in both the New Orleans Culinary scene and the social culture of the city. I chatted with many people about this restaurant and they all agreed that Arnaud’s is a leader of New Orleans’s old culinary guard and continues to influence the flavor and flare of Creole cooking in the city.
The restaurant was founded in 1918 by “Count” Arnaud Cazenave Wells and then was passed down to the Casbarian family, whom has owned it since. I learned that the restaurant uses many of the same recipes that they have used for the past 85 Years and they are still made the exact same way that Mr. Arnaud made them. The menu varies wildly from 30 seafood dishes, beef dishes and always something in between.
When we walked into the restaurant there was a lot of old school New Orleans charm in the ambiance. The floors were a black and white tile parquet pattern. The walls were a combination of dark mahogany wood paneling with intricate artisanal designs, which were contrasted with white walls and festooned with oil paintings. Hanging from the ceiling were large crystal chandeliers that would remind you of a classic French salon.
The tuxedoed staff attentively waited the table with efficiency and elegance. I looked around and could tell that the customer’s needs were satisfied, as their focus was entirely on their food, or the company at their table. None of the customers were gophering their heads around looking to order or request checks; this is the mark of customer centric restaurant.
Here is what we ordered:
- Oysters Bienville -The name is derived from the restaurant’s location on Rue Bienville and is a Café Arnaud’s original recipe. This baked oyster contains shrimp, mushrooms, green onions, herbs and seasonings in a white wine sauce. The Oyster Bienville is a rich and luxurious offering that has a creamy mouth feel and a rich flavor from the natural oyster flavor mixed with the creamy sauce. This dish also had hints of sweetness from the brandy and a slight hint of spice from the Cayenne pepper.
- Oysters Kathryn – This dish was named after Casaberian’s Daughter, Kathryn on their re-launched menu in 1978. This baked oyster mixes artichoke hearts, eggs, bread crumbs, garlic, fresh basil, lemon juice and fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano. This oyster has a salty, tangy and creamy flavor. It had a nice balance of ingredients that allows the flavors of the artichoke and basil to peak out.
- Oysters Suzette – This oyster is made from bacon, pimento, green onion and bell pepper in a creamy roux base. This baked oyster is made in two separate steps, first by cooking bacon and using the rendered fat to cook the vegetables, fish stock and bitters. The second part of this recipe is creating a Creole style, “Roux,” which adds a rich foamy texture. The components are then mixed, creating a rich and heavy flavor, but this dish still has a bright flavor on the palate due to the acidity of the lemon juice and bitters.
- Oysters Ohan – This dish is the essence of Creole. This dish is made with eggplant and Andouille sausage. This baked oyster is made with simmered eggplant, Andouille sausage and onion. Yes, this is a simple recipe, but is also provides a classic creole flavor.
- Oysters Rockefeller – This is Café Arnaud’s version of the classic baked oyster dish. The oyster is made with fresh spinach, crispy bacon, celery, green pepper, onion, parsley, spinach and basil and Pernod liqueur… all cooked together and then baked atop an oyster. A lovely and sophisticated dish.
Fresh boiled shrimp mixed in a mustard style tomato sauce called Remoulade. Café Arnaud’s is protective of their recipe for remoulade, as this is one of their claims to fame as having the best remoulade in the city. The server refused to tell me the exact ingredients, but simply told me it might remind me of a very fancy mustard sauce with the complexities of an ex-wife. If you eat boiled shrimp in New Orleans, it is likely to be served with remoulade sauce. When I tasted it, it reminded me of combining a high-end German grain mustard, horseradish and English Brown sauce (Worchester and Molasses),possibly tomato sauce?
The remoulade provided that classic pungent and slight tart nose feel typical of mustard and horse radish; although, the sauce also had a pleasant savory and slight sweet combination. Nonetheless, it tasted wonderful on shrimp. Typically the remoulade is mixed into the shrimp, although we ordered it on the side, not knowing what to expect. The sauce and shrimp together was wonderful and decided to just pour it on ourselves. I recommend trying shrimp in a remoulade sauce at least once in New Orleans, as it a perfect example of the cultural blending in Creole cooking.
“The Fanciest French Fry you will ever taste” – This dish is essentially a very crisp, air filled French fries accompanied by a béarnaise sauce. As the story goes, a Chef was preparing fried potatoes for King Louis and accidentally placed already fried potatoes back into the hot oil. What resulted was serendipity, the fried potatoes became crispy and puffy…suitable for a King. The table next to us ordered this dish and graciously shared it with us. The Pommes Soufflé were exquisite! On the tongue, the potato was extremely crisp. When I bit down, my teeth cut through altering layers of molten sweet potato flesh and pockets of hot steam. When chewing, the crisp exterior and soft interior mixed on the palate resulted in a highly pleasurable and addicting combination. I had to hold myself back from asking our friends for seconds, after all this was a very respectable operation.
This was one of my favorite dishes while visiting New Orleans. This dish uses one of New Orleans’s tastiest local fish, the pompano. The preparation accentuates the natural flavor of this fish and adds a little pizazz! The dish consists of a golden browned Pompano filet resting in a shallow pool of Beurre Blanc sauce and it is topped with garlicky shrimp. This dish sounds simple in recipe, but it is complex in execution to get the textures and flavors just right. The filet appeared to be pan seared in butter, giving it a golden hue and a crispy finish.
Foodie Info: What kind of fish is Pompano? The pompano is a salt water fish typically found near the gulf coast and southern Atlantic. This fish typically weighs less than three pounds and is prized for its firm flesh, lean meat, and mild flavor. This dish is known for retaining its’ natural flavor during cooking, despite flavorful preparation. Based on my experience, the closest association for texture and flavor is between a Snapper and a Halibut.
When I bit into a portion of the fish, it was crispy on the tongue and chock-full of juices. The flesh was naturally smooth and had a sweet, creamy flavor. I then tried a portion of the fish resting in a pool of Buerre Blanc sauce; the fish still retained its unique crisp exterior. The Buerre Blanc sauce itself had a clean flavor that simply seemed to fall off my tongue. The flavors were rich and savory from the butter, wine and shallots, yet they also had a slight sting of acidity. The Buerre Blanc was a perfect sauce to match for this type of fish. When I ate the pompano and the sauce together, a little bit of magic occurred in my mouth and my eyes moistened over in joy. This had to be one of the better executions of fresh local fish that I have ever experienced. Together, the flavors combined like elegant silk and pleasantly slid down my throat.
The unjustified step child on this dish was the garlic shrimp atop the pompano. The shrimp were sweet and prepared in almost a scampi preparation with a hint of Pernod Liqueur. The shrimp would have been an amazing dish alone. Although like the buxom bombshell from High School, the pompano shows up and steals the show from the otherwise pleasant tasting shrimp.
Foodie Info: What is Buerre Blanc Sauce? It is one of the classic French Sauces, who’s name literally translates to “White Butter.” This is an emulsion sauce that is made from reducing dry white wine, shallots and adding in cold butter until a rich emulsified sauce is formed.
My wife, Daniele, ordered the trout Almandine. This local favorite of New Orleans is a buttery duo of local trout and sliced almonds. The origins of Trout Almandine come directly from France and has been adopted in New Orleans using their local speckled trout. The skinless filet of the trout appeared to have been lightly dredged in flour and deep-fried to create a crisp golden brown crust. Atop the fried trout was a pile of golden brown almond slivers that appeared to have been pan browned in lots of delicious butter! On the fish and around the plate was butter, lemon juice and a parsley combination.
This preparation of Trout Almandine beats all other similar preparation that I have tried, including those in France. What I liked about the preparation of this dish was that the almonds were piled on top the fish , versus using the almonds as a crust. When almonds are used as a crust, you have no choice on how much almond you include in each bite. With this method, I was able to throttle back my almond consumption and try the creamy smooth flavors of the trout alone. Although, as you guessed, I tried to maximize the amount of almonds in each bite. Another must try dish from Café Arnaud!
My Final Thoughts
When traveling to a new city, it is important to really slow down to appreciate the culture and cuisines. I personally struggle to remember this rule, as I try to experience as much as possible during a short vacation schedule. When I got off the plane, the last thing I wanted to do was start slow with a leisurely three hour dinner. Although as I was soon finished the incredible dinning experience at Arnaud’s Restaurant, I was reminded that the cuisines of a city should be savored slowly and enjoyed bite by bite. If you are planning a visit to New Orleans, a visit to Arnaud’s restaurant should be on the top of your agenda. I will put my reputation on the line by saying you will have a very memorable meal.
Please stay tuned for additional blog posts from my gastromic journey into New Orleans. Part two and three of this blog post will be posted this week. I will be placing the hyper link here when completed.
Part 2 of New Orleans Gastromic Tour will include: Where to find the best beignet in NOLA
- My experience at a gay dive burger joint
- Where to eat oysers
- Best Bignets.
- As a bonus! Learn the finer points of shucking and slurping live oysters and sucking the head of a crayfish!
Best Jazz Brunch Buffet in New Orleans
Thanks to all my readers! I would not be spending all my free time writing without your loyal patronage and positive feedback!