New Orleans is a city like no other. Part raucous party, part historical gem, it is no surprise the lifestyle media powerhouse Thrillist chose this locale for their sixth “Hotel Thrillist”: a weekend of the best food, drink and entertainment the selected American city has to offer. Thrillist decamped from New York this past weekend, took over the illustrious Royal Sonesta Hotel on Bourbon Street, and enlisted the renowned Cajun/Creole chef, John Folse, (of Restaurant R’evolution and the Encyclopedia of Cajun & Creole Cuisine fame) to kick off the weekend with a party to beat the band.
I can’t tell you the last time I was lucky enough to taste 15 dishes from 15 different restaurants. (I think that would be never.) They were all truly delicious. Upon arrival, I may have wished I had worn drawstring pants. We began with Angeline’s smoky lamb shoulder with sorghum dumplings and fresh field peas. The herbaceous, rich lamb was meltingly tender and rested upon the sorghum flour dumplings (reminiscent of pillowy gnocchi).
We moved on to the Open Faced Chicken Tinga Tamale from Araña Taqueria y Cantina, which was sweet and spicy and creamy all at once. I could’ve licked the chili casabel cream off the plate; it was so good.
Oysters are king in the Gulf Coast, and Carrollton Market’s Oysters Goodenough was far better than their moniker suggests. Creamed leeks and Benton’s bacon kissed a flash-fried oyster and draped in a light cloak of béarnaise. It was one of the best oysters I’ve ever eaten, by far.
John Besh’s Restaurant August was up next, and the Crab Rigatoni with crispy crab fat (yes, you read that right) did not disappoint. Imagine crab cracklings (for those of you not in the South, cracklings are crispy pork skin) on top of rigatoni pasta, with huge chunks of pure, sweet crabmeat throughout.
Doris Metropolitan surprised with a lamb crostini with a coffee-cured lamb loin, Greek yogurt, pickled apple, and mint. It was innovative, hearty, and I liked the marriage of the rich lamb with the sour apple.
The pillowy spinach and ricotta gnocchi from Domenica were bite-sized deliciousness. Ricotta’s earthy creaminess married beautifully with fresh spinach in these pillowy little dumplings.
Kenton’s brought their smoked fish game with an often-overlooked fish choice: Black Drum. This dish was one of my favorites of the night, as I love a fish mousse, and I also adore when restaurants make an effort to source underutilized sustainable seafood. The mousse was silky and salty and tasted of the ocean– the trout roe was a not only beautiful garnish but also popped delightfully, flooding my mouth with a slight sweetness and familiar brine.
One of the most inventive dishes was from Achafalaya: a single “scallop” not of the seafood variety, but rather a precise round coin of polenta (essentially, cheese grits), seared on each side, surrounded by peas and pea shoots. Gorgeous, innovative, and sublimely tasty.
Jacques-Imo’s brought their most popular Shrimp and Alligator Sausage Cheesecake– a unique savory torte that’s cool and creamy and a little smoky (undoubtedly from the alligator sausage). Arnaud’s offered their classic Shrimp Arnaud – the freshest Gulf shrimp sauced in a tangy Remoulade. They describe it as “zippy,” and it most certainly tingles the taste buds — a perfect wake up after all the heavy richness.
Desire Oyster Bar set up in the courtyard, chargrilling their signature oysters on the half shell, topped with butter and garlic and everything that is wonderful in life. Oysters are a beautiful thing. Raw, they’re elegant and refined. Fried, they’re hearty and crisp. But chargrilled, they are both succulent and fresh, rich and simplistic. As I understand, chargrilled oysters are a purely Gulf Coast phenomenon, and Desire is up there with the best of them.
Rabbit is one of my favorite game meats, and Primitivo braised it with Modelo Negro (one of the thirst-quenching beverages of the night, along with Jack Daniels) and served it on a crispy corn sope and topped with a tangy mirliton (or chayote) slaw. Mirliton is a type of Louisiana-local squash, and it was wonderful to see such regional ingredients highlighted for Thrillist’s NYC crew.
I couldn’t fathom eating another bite, and yet, I pressed on. After all, I only eat my dinner to get dessert, and it was essential that this sweet tooth is satisfied. Brennan’s was flaming their renowned Bananas Foster, which is always a delight to watch. Banana liqueur and rum, added to halved bananas bathed in caramelized brown sugar, ignited into a foot-tall flame, wowing the onlookers. Topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, it tastes even better than it looks, and that’s a feat. The Buttermilk Drop Bakery brought their glazed doughnuts. My friend Catherine immediately declared them to be the best doughnut she’s ever had, and I concur (and that’s saying something). Their buttermilk drops, just as phenomenal as the doughnuts, were spheres of tender dough, glazed with the same icing. If they sound simple, it’s because they are. Simply delicious. Take5 served their five-layer Hershey chocolate confection in deconstructed ice-cream sundae form, with the help of the New Orleans Ice Cream Company. I opted for their chicory coffee ice cream, topped with pretzels, peanuts, peanut butter, and milk chocolate and caramel sauces. Overload? Not a chance. It was a sundae of worthy of a champion (eater).
No party in New Orleans would be complete without bread pudding, and Galatoire’s delivered. Often, bread pudding can be dense, but their banana bread pudding was ethereally airy. Served with a praline sauce, it melted in my mouth, something of which I’ve never thought a bread pudding was capable.
The absolute, most thrilling part of the evening was meeting John Folse, the host of the night. A world-renowned chef and author, Folse is the king of Creole and Cajun cuisine. Too numerous to recount here, his accolades include being named “Louisiana’s Culinary Ambassador to the World,” judging the Bocuse d’Or World Cuisine Contest in Lyon, France, and president of the American Culinary Federation. Towards the end of the evening, I spotted him milling about, and I introduced myself. He was unfailingly friendly and welcoming, and we discussed the food scene in Mobile, where I live. I discovered that he had come thisclose to partnering with his friend Bob Baumhower on his newest Mobile restaurant Dauphin’s, (a fantastic downtown restaurant on the 34th floor of the Trustmark building, with a gorgeous panoramic view of the city). I do hope he keeps Mobile in his culinary sights for the future. I’ve saved the best dish for last, and it is no surprise that it hails from Folse’s own Restaurant R’evolution.
Modern New Orleans cuisine is one of innovation and reinvention, and R’evolution’s offering took the simple rice crispy treat and made it one of the most memorable desserts, ever. At first bite, their Rye-Soaked Marshmallow Crackling Crispy Treat is all pork. Sounds crazy? I thought so, too, but it’s one of those pairings that immediately made sense once experienced. Cracklings, which are essentially pork rinds, are so characteristically similar to that it was difficult to pinpoint where rice cereal yielded to crisped pork fat. Soft, chewy, sweet, salty and slightly smoky, the dessert was the perfect ending to a fantastic night. The sticky rye sauce was almost gilding the lily, but isn’t that what New Orleans is all about?