New Orleans Gets Its Bite Back

photo by Cedric Angeles

This past July, one month shy of the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the city of New Orleans marked a small but significant milestone. For the first time since the storm, the restaurant critic for The Times-Picayune, Brett Anderson, published a piece of restaurant criticism. For the previous 151 weeks, the idea of judging a business, any business, that had returned to the stricken city—let alone dealing it a potential setback—had seemed like heresy. “I didn’t want to be complaining about foie gras while the city was so messed up,” says Anderson.

Now, though, things have changed. The city certainly hasn’t gotten past the hurricane; Katrina is a story that’s still happening, day to day, in New Orleans. During the week I spent in town, I didn’t have a single conversation that didn’t touch on it. Huge swaths of the city remain empty and in decay. Depending on whom you believe, the population has shrunk to somewhere between 250,000 and 350,000, a number useful in calculating whether the number of murders is merely ludicrous or completely insane.

But plenty of the conversation has acquired a different tone. Now that the cataclysm is over, an influx of young, idealistic architects, urban planners, academics, and assorted nonprofiteers has brought energy (and cash) to the city while shared adversity has fostered a deep sense of community.

“I was in SoHo in the ’80s and Prague in the mid-’90s,” says Nic Perkin, who chose New Orleans as a base for his Web start-up, the Receivables Exchange. “That’s what New Orleans feels like today.”

Boutiques, shops, and galleries have popped up along the length of Magazine Street. Brad and Angelina, with much fanfare, bought a house. Last year, 50 percent more restaurants opened in Orleans Parish than in the year before.

All of which is to say, New Orleans can once again take whatever a mere critic can dole out.

Where exactly you go to taste the new sense of urban energy at work depends on which New Orleanian you ask. Sara Roahen, author of the book Gumbo Tales, points to the reopening of classic neighborhood eateries, from Liuzza’s, with its legendary gumbo and french-fry-stuffed po’boys, to Dooky Chase, the last of the great black-owned Creole restaurants. Others cite the elaborate genre-busting creations of Scott Boswell at Stella!, tucked away in the French Quarter.

When I asked chef John Besh where to go, he insisted on driving out to the suburb of Metairie. There we dined on sloppy chicharron tacos at a blue-and-white shack called Taqueria Sanchez, one of several locations around the city. “We never had real Mexican food in New Orleans,” Besh says. That changed when post-storm reconstruction jobs began attracting streams of Mexican workers—and fleets of taco trucks to feed them. Now the more successful trucks have put down brick-and-mortar roots, adding one more note to the city’s symphony of culinary influences.

It’s worth noting that Besh recently traded in his Land Rover, with which he helped distribute some 300 meals per day in the months after the flood, for a nifty used two-seat Porsche—a true sign of faith, since the new car could probably be swallowed by a largish puddle. Besh, a Louisiana native, is best known for Restaurant August, which serves perhaps the finest modern New Orleans cuisine in town. Before the storm, he seemed poised to follow Emeril Lagasse into the transregional ether of celebrity chefdom, but Katrina convinced him to regroup and stay close to home. He’s already opened three restaurants since the storm.

Lüke is his re-creation of a Parisian brasserie, albeit with distinctly Louisianan roots. All over America, in these uneasy times, less formal, noisier, more raucous eateries are thriving. For obvious reasons, that trend is particularly strong in New Orleans, and casual, homey Lüke—with dishes like a crabmeat maison or a spicy boudin noir with fried sage leaves and mustard—suits it to an umlaut. “It didn’t feel appropriate to do another formal restaurant like August,” Besh says. “I wanted a place that was welcoming and accessible to everybody.”

Cochon, Donald Link and Stephen Stryjewski’s porkcentric gussied-up Cajun joint, is in keeping with the post-storm communalism. Sure, its gleaming wood picnic tables and Bennigan’s lighting could almost belong to an interstate rest-stop cafeteria when empty, but the place is almost always packed, and the food has a way of forcing your eyes closed in something approaching bliss. That goes for a moist, chewy puck of suckling pig, served with turnips and cracklings, and the bacon-and-oyster sandwich, a crunchy, salty masterpiece that tastes like a BLT taken on a hell-bent ride through the bayou.

Places like this make New Orleans feel like a smaller town spiritually. There’s also been a real physical contraction toward downtown’s riverside crescent that once defined the Crescent City. Husband-and-wife chefs Slade Rushing and Allison Vines-Rushing opened their first Louisiana restaurant, Longbranch, on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain just a few weeks after Katrina but found the going too tough. Now they’ve moved into the city and opened MiLa, at the Renaissance Pere Marquette Hotel, where Vines-Rushing continues to create her famous “deconstructed” oysters Rockefeller. The Metairie seafood house Drago’s has also migrated downtown, with a branch in the cavernous lobby of the Hilton New Orleans Riverside. The new location comes with exactly as much ambience as its predecessor (zero) and exactly as many reasons to dine there (one), but it’s a hell of a reason: sizzling platters of plump charbroiled oysters smothered in butter and grated cheese.

Of course, it’s impossible to separate eating in New Orleans from drinking in New Orleans. In the Bywater neighborhood, Vaughan’s Lounge still serves red beans and rice late on Thursday nights while trumpeter Kermit Ruffins plays. For all the racial divisions exposed by Katrina, the crowds drinking and mingling on the street outside New Orleans’s neighborhood music venues, like Vaughan’s, are more diverse than any I’ve seen in New York or Los Angeles. (I am convinced that the right of the citizenry to drink on the streets is the highest mark of a civilization.)

Bacchanal Fine Wine and Spirits sits on a dusty corner in the Bywater, across the street from some railroad tracks. After Katrina, owner Chris Rudge noticed that many of his chef friends were left without kitchens, so he invited them to cook in the store’s leafy backyard. Chef Sundays—and more recently, Chef Fridays—have evolved into a neighborhood institution, complete with live music and ambitious menus.

That easy Sunday feeling pervades every day of the week at the R Bar, which anchors a cluster of bars, jazz clubs, and stores taking root in the Faubourg Marigny, just outside the French Quarter. Owned by Dave Neupert and Greg Dulli, once of the Afghan Whigs, the bar has one of those deep, spacious interiors that actually seem to swallow light. It’s as perfect for nursing a hangover as for courting one.

On Friday evenings, the R Bar hosts free crawfish boils (or shrimp, if mudbugs aren’t in season) on the Royal Street sidewalk. The cook, Newton “Red” Blanchard, still wearing the green Otis Elevator uniform of his day job, fires up an enormous pot of corn, potatoes, andouille sausage, and thousands of red crustaceans. Customers sit at makeshift tables, drinking cold beer and exchanging news. Someone passes out flyers for an art show; someone else stops by to offer on-the-spot haircuts.

“How can you beat this?” was the verdict of the middle-aged man in the Hawaiian shirt who shared my table. He had recently moved north from Florida, having heard that things were happening in the Crescent City, opportunities to be had. When nobody answered, he looked down at his plate and delivered his own restaurant review, tough but fair: “God bless New Orleans.”

1 ?When You Need a Shave and a Shot…

Aidan Gill for Men

Aidan Gill, a well-dressed tale-telling Irishman, presides over these temples to pre-metrosexuality, performing haircuts and shaves, admonishing clients on elements of style, and even pouring the occasional shot of Jameson.

2 ?When You Gotta Have Soul…

Louisiana Music Factory

If it’s possible, New Orleans’s relationship to its music has grown even more intense since Hurricane Katrina. Everywhere you go, radio station WWOZ pipes an evocative soundtrack of blues, gospel, funk, jazz, and other indigenous styles from bars, apartment windows, and passing cars. The brick-and-mortar version of WWOZ is the Louisiana Music Factory, which proves that great local record stores still have a place in our iTunes world.

3 ?When You Get Your Head in the Game

Meyer the Hatter

It’s not every city that can sustain a major hat store in the middle of downtown. (Then again, most cities don’t still have streetcars that lack air-conditioning, either.) If ever you’ve hankered for a fedora, a homburg, a purple trilby, or, in a nod to modern tastes, a Kangol or baseball cap, this century-old emporium is your one-stop shopping paradise.

The Art of Destruction

Out of Katrina, an art scene rises

“It’s impossible to go through something like Hurricane Katrina and not have great art come out of it,” says Jonathan Ferrara, a longtime player in NOLA’s art scene. Indeed, that scene may never have been so vibrant—from the galleries (including Ferrara’s own) lining Julia Street in the SoHo-like Warehouse District to funkier, more experimental spaces centered on the Marigny’s St. Claude Avenue and beyond. That bounty will only grow when Prospect.1, envisioned as a major international biennial, makes its debut in spaces all across the city for eleven weeks starting November 1.

Those looking “beyond” should check out Kirsha Kaechele, above, and her KK Projects. In 2006, the 31-year-old Kaechele began buying abandoned buildings on a run-down street in St. Roch. One, an old bakery, became Kaechele’s home and the gallery’s main building; her bed sits in the middle of the room, and a living tree almost pokes through the ceiling. The other structures, a handful of deteriorating shotgun houses, are periodically handed over to artists to have their way with. “Life is art” reads the credo of KK Projects, and that goes equally whether an artist is filling one of the houses with eighteen inches of dirt, the group is throwing a conceptual dinner party in the middle of the block (one recent menu item: “Dust and Light Explosion”), or Kaechele is simply receiving visitors in her tropical garden, armed with a pitcher of mojitos and surrounded by her deeply groovy, Factory-like coterie.?—B.M.