Original Tastes of New Orleans

Local color and innovation flavor a great food city

By: R. Scott Macintosh

Austin Leslie, the head chef at Jacques-Imo’s Cafe, is as colorful as the food he prepares.

Baseball gave him the nimble hands needed to batter and fry a chicken properly, he says. Fried chicken is one of Leslie’s signature dishes.

“It’s in the hands. One hand drip. One hand dry,” he explained. “When I tell people I’m frying chicken better than ever, I mean it.”

That food in New Orleans is a reflection of the city’s local color, and the people who make it, is not lost on Leslie.

“When you order one of my dishes, you’re gonna have me with it,” he said.

Jacques-Imo’s fusion of soul food and Creole recipes has given the restaurant a reputation as one of the funkiest and most savory in town.

Dishes like the shrimp and alligator sausage cheesecake (more a quiche than a dessert) topped with a special creamy tomato sauce are sublime.

It is true that the best restaurants elevate cooking to an art form. And cooking in New Orleans follows a long tradition of creative innovation. Brennan’s, for example, has made breakfast in New Orleans an event with its “Breakfast at Brennan’s” three-course breakfast menu, offering as its main course six ways to eat poached eggs.

However, it is the original Bananas Foster a flamed dessert served over ice cream that makes any meal at Brennan’s.

Another classic French Quarter restaurant is Antoine’s, which notes on the menu each item that was created in-house the most notable being the Oysters Rockefeller.

Though Antoine’s has earned a reputation for being stuffy, it promises one of the great New Orleans dining experiences. The black-jacketed waiting staff are among the most professional in town and the restaurant itself is a veritable museum to New Orleans history, with room upon room of Mardi Gras paraphernalia, which in itself make a visit worthwhile.

Though classic restaurants follow a strict Creole tradition, with recipes and practices that have remained unchanged for decades, newer restaurants like Jacques-Imo’s draw from various sources, whether they are Creole, Cajun, soul food or down-home Southern cooking.

Where the classics have succeeded in innovation, newer restaurants follow with new creations.

Chef Paul Prudhomme gained international fame in the ’80s for starting the “blackened” craze with his Blackened Redfish. He wanted to replicate the dishes his mother used to make in a cast-iron skillet.

Emeril Lagasse is perhaps the most innovative of the city’s celebrity chefs and has taken Creole cooking into new territory.

NOLA Restaurant is the most eclectic of his restaurants, and the selection of pizzas on the menu are more reminiscent of Wolfgang Puck’s California cuisine than classic New Orleans fare.

Sometimes innovation stems from practicality, however. In this case, the restaurant came with a wood-burning oven, so rather than removing it, Emeril decided to make new dishes with it.

The true culinary landmarks, old and new, offer an experience that is largely missing from the quick-and-convenient daily life in America. Regardless of the latest trends, the best meals still require two age-old ingredients, time and patience.

In New Orleans, devotion to the preparation and enjoyment of great food is routine business.

More Classics and Originals

" Cafe du Monde is the home of beignets (essentially a deep-fried French donut topped with powdered sugar) and the best cup of cafe au lait in the city. It is open 24 hours a day, all year, except Christmas Day and during hurricanes. 800-772-2927.

" The muffuletta, the much imitated New Orleans sandwich, was invented at Central Grocery, an Italian grocery store in the French Quarter. The original still does it best, but Liuzza’s, a neighborhood joint in Mid-City, does a great variation with the “frenchuletta” a muffuletta on French bread. Central Grocery: 504-523-1620.

Liuzza’s: 504-482-9120.

" Uglesich’s is the quintessential New Orleans joint. The food is some of the best in town and the atmosphere unpretentious, but clients should know it is in a notoriously bad neighborhood. All oysters are shucked to order. 504-525-4925.

" The pinnacle of New Orleans dining might be said to be located at the table in the kitchen at the Commander’s Palace restaurant, where Chef Tory McPhail prepares custom-made meals to meet the diners’ tastes. The table, which seats no more and no less than four, is booked months in advance. 504-899-8221.