Eating and drinking is a way of life in the Big Easy…but it’s not all beignets, boudin, and booze. There’s a culinary renaissance of late, and the city’s restaurateurs are offering inventive dining options that walk the line between global fare and a love for all things local. Whether they feature big beverage programs, refined Louisiana cuisine, or a slick décor, these seven restaurants are shaping up to be game changers in the NOLA dining scene.
Somehow, rustic and modern sensibilities collide with brilliant results at historic Warehouse District eatery, Root. The spare, modern space—with exposed wooden beams and industrial light fixtures—allows chef Phillip Lopez’s playful food to be the focus. Shareable small plates, grouped in sections like "Socials" and "Principles" inspire taste testing. House-made charcuterie is a staple; consider the "face bacon," which also appears in the tasty, bourbon-based Face of New York cocktail. And vegetarians will find options, too, like aloo gobi (with crispy potato, cauliflower, and corn nuts with toasted Indian spices) and a vermicelli rice noodle salad bowl with grilled tofu and pickled daikon.
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Insider Tip: In 2013, Chef Lopez and his partners plan to open Square Root, a second and larger location, in the up-and-coming Lower Garden District.
Even in a city so rife with history, Dijon manages to stand out. The restaurant is located in a circa-1914 firehouse and boasts cobblestone floors and soaring ceilings. Following a chef shuffle, Dijon has become a noteworthy spot for elegantly composed fresh fare, like a gorgeous Louisiana jumbo lump crab salad with pickled beets and watercress; shrimp and potentially the creamiest grits in the city, stone ground to order from Hoppin’ John’s. Now helming the kitchen is Chef Daniel Causgrove, who logged hours at Manhattan’s Le Cirque and other storied kitchens, like New Orleans’s La Petite Grocery, before joining the team.
Insider Tip: The restaurant offers Free Wine Wednesdays, a gratis wine tasting from 5:30-7:30 pm.
It’s hard to imagine such refined environs just steps from rowdy Bourbon Street, but that’s exactly what you’ll discover in R’evolution, located in the Royal Sonesta Hotel. It doesn’t hurt that two powerhouse chefs—Rick Tramonto and John Folse—and a brilliant sommelier, Molly Wismeier, run this flawless fine-dining operation, focusing on reinterpretations of classic Louisiana dishes, all aided by modern touches like iPad wine lists and market-fresh mixology. Don’t miss Death by Gumbo, quail gumbo served with a whole quail stuffed with oysters, Andouille sausage and rice, or the cheese cart with selections from Chef John Folse’s own cheese company, Bittersweet Plantation.
Insider Tip: Some menu items, like the chicken grandee, pay homage to iconic New Orleans restaurants lost to time. This dish is a nod to Elmwood Plantation, serving Creole-Italian dishes from 1946-77.
The much-buzzed-about "Creole Saloon" opened in July, 2012 by the Commanders Palace Family of Restaurants earns its rave reviews with tasty bar food by chef Juan Carlos Gonzalez and thoughtful cocktails by New York transplant Abigail Gullo. Situated inside the hip, recently renovated W French Quarter Hotel, SoBou—which stands for South of Bourbon Street—beckons imbibers with a slick dining room with drinking artifacts culled from the Museum of the American Cocktail, automatic wine dispensers, and tabletop beer taps. As if you needed more reason to check out the place: crispy oyster tacos with Cajun ghost pepper caviar and molasses-lacquered pork belly invite menu exploration.
Insider Tip: Satisfy your thirst for cocktail knowledge by diving into the "Classics" section on the drinks list: Gullo will break down drink terms like "Buck" and "Fizz."
The historic hotel Monteleone already draws crowds with its charismatic Carousel Bar—and yes, it does actually rotate—and exquisite, antique-filled décor, but now adds Criollo’s fine dining to its list of attractions. In a city known for being over-the-top, Criollo—the Spanish term for Creole—is delightfully pared-down. There’s a handful of healthy, delicious options on the menu, ensuring you can’t really go wrong. The focus is on local bounty, with seafood a highlight. Try the Perdido Pass snapper with jumbo lump crab and orange and fennel slaw or the grilled grouper with hearts of palm and black bean-avocado salad.
Insider Tip: The Gulf shrimp, blue crab, and avocado appetizer is a signature dish not to be missed.
Great chefs create art on a plate, but some manage to be poets as well. Consider chef Chris De Barr and his "Rumi-inspired" kitchen. Located in the American Can building in Mid City, Serendipity has a dark, industrial-chic décor that manages romance, as well as boundary-pushing global cuisine and a focused wine list full of unexpected gems from around the world, including Greece and France. The chef, who recently appeared on "Chopped," offers dishes you won’t soon forget, like Lafcadio’s Creole curried lamb baklava, a Caribbean meat pie stuffed with lamb, curry, and mirlitons—the ubiquitous Louisiana squash—with phyllo layers of curried walnuts and saffron honey.
Insider Tip: Swing by the restaurant for Drink Like a Pro Mondays: $25 gets you a sampling of wines, along with tasty bites from the menu and De Barr waxing poetic on his favorite vinos.
The Grill Room
For an indulgent meal with perfect wine pairings, look no further than The Grill Room at the Windsor Court Hotel—one of New Orleans’s most charming dining rooms. It recently got an infusion of talent by way of Pennsylvania with Kristen Butterworth (formerly of Inn at Little Washington and Lautrec), who joined as chef in September, 2013. Butterworth and has completely revamped the menu, which she calls "refined Southern," turning out luscious dishes like Hudson Valley foie gras with a bacon beignet and gulf shrimp served with a cheddar-grit custard and smoked cherry tomatoes. Rising star sommelier Sara Kavanaugh has cultivated a stellar wine list more than 600 wines strong.
Insider Tip: Dining at the Grill Room means you’ll catch dinner and a show: There’s live music nightly by some of the city’s finest local musicians.
Alexis Korman is a freelance wine, food, and travel writer based in New Orleans. She is also Contributing Food Editor at Wine Enthusiast Magazine and founder of a blog, City City Bang Bang. Follow her on Twitter @lexisips
Photo credits: Dijon courtesy of Jason Mangiaracina; R’evolution courtesy of Ron Manville;