Some favorite places from New Orleans

It’s been almost two years since I wrote my last restaurant review for the Janesville Gazette. I had been doing it for five years and, honestly, I felt like I was running out of things to say. It was time to start doing and fostering the change we wanted to see in the local dining scene.

Obviously, my perspective has changed somewhat since Richard and I opened Lark. But not as much as you might expect. I have a much deeper appreciation of what it takes to deliver an exceptional dining experience (it’s a daily learning experience). Much like he did when we were reviewing restaurants, Richard did the research and created a well-curated schedule for our recent trip to New Orleans. So there were no misses on our list of restaurants and cocktail bars, but some experiences were better than others. 

If you’re planning a trip to New Orleans, here’s a few places worth checking out:

Magazine Street

Two of my favorite dining experiences in New Orleans were within two blocks of each other on Magazine Street — Casamento’s and Shaya. You couldn’t think of two more different restaurants. Casamento’s is a classic New Orleans oyster house with an interior that looks unchanged since the ‘40s. It’s also the only place we ate at twice on our trip. The chargrilled oysters and fried oyster loaf are that addictive. Make sure you check online if they’re open before you make the trip. Their hours are sort of, well, elastic.

Shaya is just a couple blocks down the street, which gives you a good opportunity to browse the aisles of vinyl at Peaches Record Store as you walk all that food off. Shaya is elegant, upscale and features sumptuous Israeli cuisine. We weren’t sure how good it would be since its chef-founder, Alon Shaya, was fired by the restaurant’s owner, chef John Besh, last fall amid the sexual harassment scandals around Besh. But the whole experience was amazing. I had never tasted hot pita bread fresh from a wood-fired oven. Sadly, I now crave it. The hummus was unbelievably silky and flavorful, accentuated by a spiced ground lamb that was addictive. Their baba ganoush, a traditional eggplant dish that I’ve never thought that much about, honestly, was unlike anything I’ve ever tasted. Their cocktail list also blew me away — it was inventive and delicious. Alon Shaya is opening a new restaurant named Saba in New Orleans later this year and we will be there the next time we visit. 

In between these two wonderful restaurants is another one worth the visit — La Petite Grocery. It has a Top Chef contestant as its owner and a very approachable food and cocktail menu. We returned for basically one thing, the blue crab-stuffed beignets and they were even better than we remembered. The cocktails were good, but the ones at Shaya were better.

Several blocks down Magazine Street is one of our favorite small plate/cocktail places, Bouligny Tavern. We only had time to drop in for one drink but had a good time catching up with bartender CJ, with whom we spent a rainy afternoon on our previous visit to town.

Cocktails around town

After several trips to New Orleans in recent years, I have my favorite spots that feel comfortable. Besides Bouligny Tavern, we have a love of Bar Tonique, which is basically a dive bar on the fringe of the French Quarter that has one of the most extensive (and inexpensive) craft cocktail menus in the city. The bartenders are all highly professional and friendly. And the neighbor’s cat hangs around for some quality time if you’re interested. They open a little earlier than most of the other cocktail places in town, which is nice if you need a pick-me-up between the bustle.

Our other favorite is Cane & Table, which offers a history lesson with all of its cocktails. It is a cocktail nerd’s heaven with an emphasis on rum drinks and the classic essence of New Orleans old-school, glamorous decay in its decor. I especially like sitting in their courtyard. The staff is friendly and know their stuff. It’s the sister venture to Cure, which is an upscale cocktail bar located in the Freret district. Cure’s massive back bar, antique cocktail bottles and tools are cool, and the drinks are really smart, but I’ve found the experience kind of chilly. Not sure we’ll bother to go back on the next trip.

Finally, there’s Latitude 29, the bar from tiki cocktail icon Jeff “Beachbum” Berry. He turned a hobbyist obsession with tracking down the old recipes for tiki drinks into a series of books, a consulting career and now a bar. We’ve adapted one of the cocktails they feature, Missionary’s Downfall, into the Missionary’s Demise we’re carrying on our spring menu. We’re also doing a riff on a Cane & Table drink, the Banana Manhattan, as the Banana Stand .

Old school local that’s always wonderful

Two of our best meals were at iconic New Orleans restaurants off the beaten path. Brigtsen’s is in an old house in the Uptown and the family-owned restaurant never disappoints. Their barbecue shrimp was the best we tasted and their butternut squash and shrimp bisque is worth a return trip. I was shrimp, oyster and duck fatigued that evening and opted for a steak. It was incredible, but the twice-baked potato, whipped with what I’m guessing was some goat cheese, blew everyone’s mind.

Upperline is another Upper Garden District institution that serves traditional New Orleans cuisine with uncompromising standards. The walls are covered with the owner’s art collection and she’s happy to tell you all about it. JoAnn Cleavinger was a gracious host to us on the night we visited and I’m so glad to see she’s a semi-finalist for a James Beard Award. Everything we ate was fantastic, but the oysters lightly dusted in corn flower were truly standouts. It’s obvious from their website that JoAnn isn’t much for the internet, but don’t let their lousy website scare you off. The place is magic accomplished by elbow grease.

Donald Link is the dude …

New Orleans has always had its iconic chefs — Paul Prudhomme, Emeril Lagasse, John Besh — but the one to watch right now is Donald Link. We tried three of his restaurants during our trip: Peche, Herbsaint and Cochon Butcher. All of them had outstanding food, ambience and service. Of the three, Peche was a favorite but you can’t beat Cochon Butcher for a tasty sandwich and its mac and cheese was pure gooey Southern goodness. The desserts at Peche and Herbsaint were remarkable. There was a duck pasta at Peche that was among the best things I've ever tasted. Wow.

We visited so many other places during our visit — Maypop, DTB, Turkey and the Wolf — that all have national reputations and creative cuisine. Ask Richard, Billy at the bar, or our chefs Olivia and Jen for their opinions and suggestions if you’re planning a trip to the Big Easy. There’s just too much to write about in one post so I’ve stuck with my favorites. 

We made the trip as a thank you to our management team and  to fuel inspiration for future menus. New drinks, dishes and desserts have already made their way to Lark’s tables based on what we tried and the people we met.

Next year? We’re thinking Austin, Texas.