We recently returned from a trip to New Orleans, and I have to share with you some of my favorite food and drink spots. There is no shortage of places to eat or drink. In fact the current New Orleans visitors guide lists the number of places to eat and drink by neighborhood. The French Quarter is only one small area of the city, and it has 174 places to eat and 140 places to drink! The larger uptown area which is also known for the beautiful oak tree lined streets and large mansion homes of the Garden District boasts a whopping 332 places to eat and 95 places to grab a drink. The other neighborhoods combined contain an additional 341 restaurants! With over 800 restaurants, it is a great city for foodies to visit.
Our first stop was the Port of Call. It was established in 1963 as a steakhouse located on beautiful, historic Esplanade Avenue which borders the French Quarter and Marigny neighborhoods. The Port started as a quiet, small neighborhood restaurant open only at night, and has grown into an extremely popular destination for locals and tourists alike. Today the Port of Call is famous for the burgers and steaks. They’ve received many awards including Best Burger in New Orleans. I agree it is one of the best burgers I’ve ever had. Their burgers consist of a half-pound of ground beef that they grind freshly in house daily and come with a baked potato with butter. The burger is topped with another two ounces of sharp cheddar cheese, shredded in-house. Topping a burger with shredded cheese is not often found here in central Illinois, but it should be. It completely changes the experience of eating the burger. It’s warm, but not melted and really holds in flavor and texture. Make sure you get a signature cocktail with your burger. I suggest the Windjammer, a blend of tropical juices combined with two kinds of rum and assorted ingredients capturing the spirit of the South Pacific Isles. Don’t worry if you can’t finish your drink, just get a go cup and take it with you! A New Orleans tradition in many restaurants and bars is the “go cup.” Not a to-go cup, they just call it a go cup in New Orleans where it’s legal to drink while walking around the city.
We have a couple of favorite breakfast places we usually frequent when visiting, but for brunch our favorite is the live jazz brunch at The Court of Two Sisters. Since at least 1726, the property where the Court of Two Sisters restaurant is now located has been a significant cultural presence in New Orleans. During that year, Sieur Etienne de Perier, the second French royal governor of colonial Louisiana, became the original resident of 613 Rue Royale. Originally known as “Governor’s Row,” the 600 block of Royal Street was home to five governors, two State Supreme Court Justices and one future Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (Edward Douglas White). Zachary Taylor, who later became the 12th president of the U.S., also resided for a time at 621 Royal.
The present structure at 613-615 Royal was constructed in 1832 during the city’s first major economic boom. The property changed hands twice before 1886 when Emile Angaud purchased the building and the street level store at 613 Royal. This is when Bertha, who was married to Emile’s son Baldomero Angaud, and Emma Camors set up their “rabais” or notions shop they called “The Shop of the Two Sisters.” The two sisters, born in 1858 and 1860 respectively, belonged to a proud and aristocratic Creole family. It was for these sisters that “The Court” was named. Their shop outfitted many of the city’s finest women with Mardi Gras costumes, formal gowns, lace and perfumes imported from Paris. It’s said that occasionally the sisters would serve tea and cakes to their favorite customers in the large courtyard, beginning the tradition continued today. In 1904, after Bertha’s husband died, the property was passed on to his sister’s children. Shortly after this Emma and Bertha found it necessary to close their shop, unable to sustain their business at a time when the French Quarter was rapidly losing its Creole population in the wake of a flood of Italian immigration. However, marriage, reversals of fortune, widowhood – nothing could separate the sisters. Indeed, as the Picayune was to report, the sisters died within two months of each other in the winter of 1944. United in death as in life, the sisters lie side by side at St. Louis Cemetery #3 on Esplanade Avenue. The Fein family who currently operates the restaurant had the sisters’ tomb restored in 1990.
During the next three decades, the property at 613 Royal passed through seven ownerships. In 1963, the late Mr. Joe Fein, Jr., an established local restaurateur, acquired the restaurant and immediately began steps to preserve the building’s historical integrity. Mr. Fein’s sons, Joe III and the late Jerry Fein, continued with their father’s dedication to The Court of Two Sisters and now their children, the third generation, are directing the day-to-day operations and maintaining the legacy of the property’s history and reputation. With the Fein family’s expertise, The Court of Two Sisters has become known worldwide for its live Jazz Brunch, romantic Creole dinners, friendly service and beautiful, open-air courtyard.
During our visit, we were fortunate enough to get tickets to see the famous Wendall Brunious Brass Band at Preservation Hall. Preservation Hall is an intimate venue featuring acoustic New Orleans Jazz concerts over 350 nights a year featuring ensembles from a current collective of 50 plus local master practitioners. I highly recommend booking tickets for a show there when you visit, but be prepared, there are limited seats and no air conditioning! After the jazz concert, we dined at The Gumbo Shop in the French Quarter on Saint Peter Street which is just steps away from Preservation Hall. The Gumbo Shop is of course known for their gumbo, it is the best I’ve had in the city. In New Orleans, the Choctaw Indians were living in the swampy mosquito-infested piece of land, below sea level and shaped like a crescent on the Mississippi River. They introduced powdered sassafras or file, which they called “kombo” to settlers as a staple for one of many styles of the indigenous soup we call gumbo, from the African word “kingumbo” meaning the vegetable okra. A gumbo usually contains either file or okra as a thickener. Just as gumbo is a blend of many cultures, so is the origin of the word. However, the base of most gumbos is roux, a flour and fat mixture with seasonings that is browned to provide an almost nutty flavor. The Gumbo Shop’s recipe for Seafood Okra Gumbo is below.
Last but not least, if you have ever been curious about absinthe, there’s a fantastic place to have an absinthe cocktail, Jean Lafitte's Old Absinthe House. A 200-year-old bar in the historic French Quarter refuses to give up its place in history.
According to popular urban mythology, the second floor of the Old Absinthe House was where the famed pirate and outlaw Jean Lafitte met with Andrew Jackson during the War of 1812. Jackson struck a deal with Lafitte and was awarded his assistance in the defense against British Naval forces during their last attempt to gain a foothold on American soil in the War of 1812. During the Battle of New Orleans, the British batteries opened up en masse, and were immediately met with an angry barrage from Jackson’s 24 artillery pieces, some of them manned by Jean Lafitte’s pirates.
Two hundred years later, The Old Absinthe House stands almost exactly as it did, but with hundreds of more claims to fame and history. Numerous celebrities have passed through its doors and left their mark, whether by photo, autograph, or the traditional attachment of a business card to the wall, which is lined with thousands of others. But the most famous thing in the building is the bar itself.
By 1920, the bar was so iconic that plans were made to destroy it at the beginning of prohibition as a symbolic end to the reign of alcohol, so the legendary bar was secretly uprooted and moved to a warehouse overnight for safekeeping, and The Old Absinthe House remained standing, though obviously no longer a tavern.
Today, the interior of the building has the same musty brick walls, the same ornate wooden fixtures, and the same water-dripping fountains for serving absinthe as it did when a pirate and a general passed through its doors to discuss their plans to secure a nation’s future. However, the absinthe is made by today’s standards, and the herbaceous and anise flavored liquor is top notch. I recommend the Nouvelle Orleans, a 136 proof French absinthe with a light green color from fresh wormwood. It has a herbaceous and floral bouquet on mint, anise, lemon balm and verbena. Or try an Absinthe Frappe for a lighter, less intense absinthe cocktail.
Seafood Okra Gumbo from the Gumbo Shop
*2 pounds fresh or frozen shrimp, head on about 40-50 count per pound
*2 small blue crabs, fresh or frozen
*3 quarts water
*2 Tablespoons cooking oil
*1 quart fresh or frozen okra, sliced into rounds
*2/3 cup cooking oil
*1/2 cup all purpose flour
*2 cups chopped onions
*1 cup chopped green bell pepper
*1/2 cup chopped celery
*1 teaspoon garlic, finely chopped
*1 16oz. can chopped tomatoes
*2 bay leaves
*2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
*1/2 teaspoon black pepper (or to taste)
*1/2 teaspoon white pepper (or to taste)
*1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (or to taste)
Peel and devein the shrimp, and set aside, covered in the refrigerator. Rinse the shrimp shells and heads, place in a non-reactive stock pot along with 2 quarts of water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 30 to 45 minutes to make a stock. Strain, discard the shells and heads and set the stock aside. Meanwhile, wash the crabs well under running water, place in a non-reactive pot with 1 quart of water, bring to a boil and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes. Strain, reserving stock and crabs. When the crabs are cool enough to handle, snap both claws off then break the body in half. Set aside.
In a heavy bottomed skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of oil, add the okra and saute over medium high heat for about 10 to 15 minutes or until all the "ropiness" is gone. This step may take a little longer if fresh okra is used. Frozen vegetables are usually plunged into boiling water and blanched before freezing, so they are partially cooked.
Place the oil in a large (8 quart) heavy bottomed non-reactive Dutch oven type pot. Add the flour and, over a medium high fire, make a dark brown roux. As soon as the proper color is achieved, add the onions, bell pepper, celery and garlic and saute, stirring occasionally until tender. During this process, allow the vegetables to stick to the bottom of the pan a bit, then scrape the bottom with a metal spoon or spatula. This allows some of the natural sugars in the onions to caramelize, rendering great depth of flavor.
When the vegetables are tender add the tomatoes, bay leaves and the three peppers and a little salt. Cook for about 10 minutes, repeating the stick and scrape process with the tomatoes. Add the sautéed okra and cook for 10 more minutes.
Add the crab stock and half of the shrimp stock to the pot. Stirring constantly, bring the pot to a boil. Lower the heat a bit, partially cover and simmer for thirty minutes, stirring occasionally. If the gumbo appears too thick, add more stock to adjust. Add salt to taste and adjust the pepper if desired. Add the broken crabs and simmer for about 10 minutes. Add the peeled shrimp, return to a boil and simmer until the shrimp are firm and pink, about 5 minutes. Remove the pot from heat.
As is the case with most gumbos, this dish is best prepared either early in the day it is to be served, or even the day before, thereby allowing time for the flavors to marry. When reheating, stir often and be careful to avoid overcooking the shrimp.
Serve in large bowls over steamed rice. This recipe will yield about six entrees or ten to twelve appetizers.
Lincoln Land Community College offers credit programs in Culinary Arts, Hospitality Management and Baking/Pastry, and non-credit cooking and food classes through LLCC Community Education.
Cooking or food questions? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.