New Orleans is a place I have threatened to visit over the years, but for some reason, never quite made it. Recently, I had an excuse to go for work, lured a good friend and colleague along with me—who has lived in NO for much of her adult life, and loves to eat and drink. Who else would you bring to this indescribable place, but someone with insider knowledge?
Thanks to her, I managed to steer clear of the usual tourist traps and experience the real NOLA. But even without her guidance, I fell head over heels in love with this gorgeous place within the first few minutes of walking around in the twilight. It’s where water and land meet, cultures meld, beliefs sit side-by-side—from voodoo to Catholicism, music and art surround you, alcohol flows and food greets you everywhere you go.
And yes, most of that food is wheat-based, deep fried, and probably not that good for you, but there are other delights to be found, including amazing Israeli food, Asian fusion and proper, local seafood. Of course, most of my suggestions are around food. Duh.
Eat Israeli food. #natch
I asked another friend, who has lived in New Orleans for many years, “If you had to choose one restaurant to eat at, which one would it be?” With little hesitation, the answer came back: “Shaya.” Shaya has achieved some notoriety as the winner of a James Beard award, and in case you hadn’t noticed, modern Israeli food is experiencing its 15 minutes of fame in the U.S. at the moment. Just two weeks ago, I enjoyed a cooking session learning how to make the best hummus from Michael Solomonov’s book Zahav.
Like any hot restaurant, a reservation at Shaya isn’t easy to come by, although they release outdoor tables each morning, and there are spots at the bar. I was giddy to find I could book at table at 7.15pm on the day-of. We arrived with our mouths watering, only to find that I had mistakenly booked for the following week! No matter, we squeezed in at the bar and enjoyed gin gimlets (what else?) while waiting for a couple of seats to open up.
The menu at Shaya did not disappoint. We tried as much as we could, although I’d suggest going here with a good group of friends so you can sample everything there is on offer. One of my favorites was the hummus with lamb ragu ($15). The foie gras with rose tahini ($20) was sublime. The halloumi (a melted cheese) was probably my least favorite – the pieces of cheese were too big and had lost their crusty crunch in the sauce, which to my mind, missed the whole point of halloumi.
Check out the local music scene
After dinner I wanted to sample some of New Orleans’ famous music scene, which on a warm night spills out on to the streets. Who needs a stage to draw a crowd? We headed on over to Frenchmen Street, which has a far better vibe than touristy Bourbon Street.
Along with the music, you’ll also find art and curios for sale in a little outdoor market.
Sample the seafood
If you find yourself hungry at lunchtime—and why wouldn’t you?—head on over to St Roch Market which houses a number of different food vendors in a food hall setting. If you’re lucky, you might even spot a celebrity chef like we did. In our case, Aarón Sanchez from Chopped, who we found enjoying rosé and oysters at Elysian Seafood.
I grabbed a prawn cocktail from Elysian ($13), while my companion opted for a crab cake sando. She seemed pretty happy with her lot.
Shelter from a storm
That stereotypical scene of people in New Orleans partying behind storm shutters while outside torrents of rain pour, and thunder and lightening go nuts, is a real thing. We had two days of storms with some of the loudest thunder, craziest lightening and heaviest rain—and I’ve just lived through California’s wettest winter on record—that I’ve ever seen. So naturally, you find a place to hunker-down and you stay there.
Luckily for us, we arrived at Maypop, a place where Southeast Asian meets Southeast Louisianan, just as the first fat drops of rain started to fall. First up, cocktails. There is a great list of imaginative libations to choose from and no, I didn’t order a Hurricane. A shiso-themed concoction of gin and Pimms caught my eye and it was delicious.
Next up, perusing Maypop’s fascinating menu which manages to bring together about a zillion influences from around the world and requires close concentration and a lot of questions. But I’m game to try new things, including veal trotters (which made me a little sad) served in a salad with crawfish ($15). It was pretty tasty. I love anything with a crunch so the chaat (crunchy pancake) salad with cashews, lettuce and beets ($10) really caught my eye. Also great.
This would be another great place to come with friends so you can get a taste of all that is on offer. We shared a main course and a dessert – dark chocolate pâté ($8), which I have to say was pretty insane and eminently shareable given its size. Check out the lovely sea salt on top. That took this dish over the top.
If you’re still with me, I commend you. This post is much longer that I anticipated and I haven’t even finished sharing details of my walks around the French Quarter (must-do, especially in daytime), and my drive through the Garden District (breathtaking, especially at night, when all the mansions are ablaze with light and seems to literally sparkle).
Suffice to say, I can’t wait to return to this amazing place. New Orleans is a city that feels really real (especially compared to the bubble of Silicon Valley). You can palpably grasp that this is a place full of survivors. Life is not easy here, but somehow with their never-ending charm, hospitality and understanding of how to make the best of what is on offer, New Orleans’ residents are generally ready with a smile and happy to show you a good time.
I stayed on Canal Street, which was convenient for the Convention Center, but if you’re heading to NO for fun, stay in one of the great neighborhoods away from the business district. I’ll be checking out the Garden District next time!