New Orleans Part 1: A Pescatarian Culinary Journey with Some Dancing

New Orleans – what a city!  It really is unlike any other city I’ve ever been to and I’ve done some traveling.  It’s the perfect storm of kitsch, seediness, amazing seafood, and hedonism in a background of despair and poverty.  It had been quite interesting going there right after my recent trip to Detroit where there is also a lot of poverty, but there’s something more aggressive and pulsating about Detroit, whereas New Orleans felt more Southern about it and I don’t even know what it means to feel more “Southern” about it, but it’s a Southern city.  Being a Northerner for my entire life, I felt the Southern “friendliness”, but who knows if there was some shade thrown when you’re not looking.  But seriously, people were friendly and that was a treat.

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I was in New Orleans for the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity and NOLA couldn’t have been a more perfect city to exist as the context and background for these moving conversations about race, sexuality, gender, and class.  A city with a predominant African American and Haitian population within a region known for its explicit racism mixed into the economic depravity pre and post-Katrina.

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While Frenchman Street was charming and novel, I absolutely loved the Bywater area.  It was casual, less touristy, filled with random bars and restaurants in unassuming street corners; it felt more real than a lot of places I go to in Chicago, but perhaps that’s me romanticizing a place I don’t live in.  Give it 5 more years and I’m sure it will be fully gentrified.

New Orleans is such a walkable, easygoing city.  I loved the suffocating humidity, it brought my body back to life after an 8 month winter.  I felt the sun warming up my skin everyday and didn’t have to bring a jacket with me because it was even warm at night.  I was intrigued by NOLA as it is a Southern foodie destination.  But did it live up to its expectations, especially through the eyes of a vegetarian-pescatarian foodie?

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As a vegetarian-pescatarian, I felt anxious about what options there would be in a Southern city.  While they didn’t have Almond or Soy milk at some restaurants (gasp), I found the city to be extremely pescatarian friendly, but not very vegetarian friendly, unless you were at a restaurant that specifically branded itself as being for vegetarians.

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Nonetheless, for a city in South, I was pleased with the options I had.  I had delicious Creole and Cajun cuisine, New American delicacies, fresh raw oysters, Italian cuisine (there’s a decent Italian population in NOLA), and vegetarian delights.  I didn’t get to try the Vietnamese food there, which was disappointing, but next time I will!  Read below for Part 1 my NOLA culinary journey with some bits and pieces of nightlife.

First Night, Italian Barrel: Traditional, Hearty Northern Italian Cuisine that Feeds the Soul

Neighborhood: French Quarter

Vegetarian Options Rating: ★★★★

Pescatarian Options Rating: ★★★★

Affordability: ★★★

Ambience: ★★★★

Service: ★★★★★

Food Quality: ★★★★★

Overall Rating: ★★★★1/2

While Italian food isn’t trendy right now, it’s always been a favorite of mine.  I love pasta, olive oil, and cheese so of course I love Italian food!  Italian Barrel has a traditional, old-school Italian, romantic feel for a date night or an intimate dinner with a dear friend.  They have an indoor and outdoor area off of Frenchman Street and a smaller bar area to hang out at if you have to wait.  I appreciated the fact that they give you complementary baked Italian bread with an olive oil balsamic dipping sauce and some freshly grated parmesan on the side.  I appreciate little touches like that.  I started off with an Italian margarita and it was refreshing considering how humid it is in NOLA.

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Porcini Truffle Ravioli

They have a decent amount of vegetarian and pescatarian options.  There were so many delicious-sounding choices that it was very difficult to make a decision.  I remember being astonished as to how many vegetarian options I could even look at on the menu.  I finally decided on the Porcini and Truffle Ravioli.  I can’t turn down two of my favorite things: truffle and porcini mushrooms.  The ravioli tasted fresh and had that al dente texture with a comforting mixture of porcini mushrooms and what I thought were bread crumbs.  The sauce was a creamy, white-wine sauce with truffle and extra virgin olive oil.  Sometimes cream sauces can be overwhelming but this wasn’t overwhelming at all.  It was delicate, yet hearty with a pronounced truffle flavor.  They also offered to sprinkle some freshly ground pepper on the ravioli, which was the perfect finish to a lovely dish.  I seriously had a difficult time controlling myself and wanted to scarf it ALL down.

Our server was very warm, welcoming, and was excellent at answering any questions we had.  I would definitely come back here if I came back to NOLA.  Who doesn’t love traditional, delicious Italian cuisine in an unpretentious space with warm service?

Envie Espresso Bar & Cafe: Need a Caffeine Break?

Neighborhood: French Quarter

Vegetarian Options Rating: ★★★1/2

Pescatarian Options Rating: ★★★1/2

Affordability: ★★★★

Ambience: ★★★★

Service: ★★★★★

Food Quality: ★★★

Beverage Quality: ★★★★★

Overall Rating: ★★★1/2

My hotel was just around the corner from this lovely cafe in the French Quarter.  While the hotel had coffee, I am a tea drinker so I ventured a few blocks away to Envie to get my day started.  Envie is a charming cafe with indoor and outdoor seating.  It has an eclectic aesthetic with some bar seating in addition to the regular floor seating.  They had a great selection of tea but since it was hot and humid I wanted to go with an iced tea.  I had a black peach iced tea and it was amazing.  It was perfectly refreshing without being too sweet or sugary.  The fruitiness was mild, which I liked since I didn’t want something super sweet.

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Croissant with a Brie Omelette

I also decided to try their breakfast and saw that they had a few vegetarian options but when I saw a Brie Croissant on the board I knew I had to have it.  It was a Brie Croissant Omelette that initially came with ham.  They were nice enough to take it off and the barista kindly asked me if I wanted something else instead of the meat such as spinach, arugula, etc.  I chose spinach and I was so happy that I didn’t have to ask to have a substitute, they kindly offered it.

However, the service was better than the food.  The croissant was good but the omelette was basically dry and dominated the entire sandwich.  The brie was stuffed inside of the omelette, but its flavor was drowned out by the intense omelette that wasn’t very flavorful.  It was a heavy sandwich that was bland.  There was a generous portion of hash browns and they hit the spot, I would have liked them to be crispier.  I did return here for iced tea but I decided to eat elsewhere.  Perhaps they have better items on their menu for food but I’d come back here for some Peach Iced Tea.  The barista who was working there seemed genuinely kind and thoughtful.

Cochon Restaurant: Pig Addicts Anonymous

Neighborhood: Warehouse District

Vegetarian Options Rating:

Pescatarian Options Rating: ★★1/2

Affordability: ★★

Ambience: ★★★★

Service: ★★★

Food Quality: ★★★

Overall Rating: ★★1/2

You might be wondering, what is a vegetarian doing at a restaurant named “cochon” (pig in English)?!?  I had a work dinner with my colleagues and they picked a place focused on eating dead pigs so what was I supposed to do?  I didn’t want to be that “difficult vegetarian”, so I went with the flow.

Cochon was featured on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and it’s been written up about so I was curious to see what this pig-obsessed restaurant would be like.  Since we were a large group, we had to do a special sharing prix fixe where it was $55 per person to share a bunch of food that I couldn’t even eat.  We didn’t realize we had to share everything until we got to the restaurant and I didn’t understand why it wasn’t just a regular individual prix-fixe for $55.  The value of the meal was terrible for someone that doesn’t eat dead pigs so I don’t recommend this restaurant if you’re a vegetarian/pescatarian.  The server also made me feel like a problem as a pescatarian and was kind of salty even though I had called ahead of time and arranged for one of the courses to be pescatarian.

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Smoke on the Water Cocktail

While I was dissatisfied with their food selection, they did have a nice assortment of unique cocktails.  I had the Smoke on the Water, which was a Mezcal cocktail with sage, honey, and smoked salt.  The smokiness came through and the sage gave it a comforting flavor. From the few things I could eat, everything tasted good but I wasn’t blown away by it.  I really think this place puts most of their effort into their meat.

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Poached Shrimp in a Clam Broth
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Wood-Fired Oysters

The bread with butter was delicious, the wood-fired oysters in chili-garlic butter were heavenly but I could only try one since we were all sharing 6 oysters and paying and arm and a leg.  The opening appetizer, a poached shrimp in a clam broth with basil and chilis was refreshing and unique, but not very exciting, I was appreciative of the fact that they let me have that while everyone ate the charcuterie board.  I think there were about 4 main meat courses served and one of the last dishes presented was a fish served “fisherman’s style” with some nice spices and seasonings garnished with onions and cilantro, I’ve had better fish in Chicago though.  It just wasn’t as good as it looked.  I think the texture could have been flakier and it could have been seasoned more.  The side of the macaroni and cheese casserole was another highlight of the meal.  It was rich, baked, and glorious, but when you’re paying $55 for a prix-fixe meal, the best part of the meal shouldn’t be the macaroni and cheese.  The desert platter was sinfully tasty and the best part of the meal since I could eat it with everyone.  The key lime pudding was extremely refreshing and the Malted Chocolate Cake was decadently delicious.

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Fisherman’s Style Fish
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Macaroni and Cheese
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Strawberry Shortbread, Key Lime Pudding, and Malted Chocolate Cake

Cochon is in the Warehouse District so it’s going for a modern, New American vibe.  I liked the ambience but that was pretty much it.  On top of not being able to eat most of this shared meat feast, they tried to charge me an extra $9 for the shrimp on top of the regular $55 prix fixe.  I of course had to argue with the server and he was pretty rude about it but they fixed it.  I was pretty disgusted that they tried to make me pay more when I barely ate this $55 shared prix-fixe meal.  I obviously don’t plan on coming back here again and I don’t recommend this for anyone with a dietary restriction.  It’s just one of those places that thinks carnivorously eating dead animals is trendy and I’m over it.

W.I.N.O.: Explore Your Wine Fantasies

Neighborhood: Downtown

Affordability: ★★★★

Ambience: ★★★★

Service: ★★★★★

Wine Quality: ★★★★★

Overall Rating: ★★★★★

After the awkward meal at Cochon, it was time to relax with some wine.  I am a big fan of wine and live in a part of the world that is really obsessed with beer.  Beer doesn’t agree with my stomach, it’s too heavy.  Wine is another story, it goes down smoothly, has a fascinating taste, and is not as unhealthy as other alcoholic beverages.

W.I.N.O. is a remarkable wine bar with 120 different wines that you can taste.  You go to the counter, get a card, insert the card in their automated pouring machines, and then pay at the end of the night.  You can choose from three different sizes (1 oz, 2 oz, or 4 oz pours), which is a genius idea so if you don’t want to get super wasted or just truly want a taste, you can do just that.  They also have wine from all over the world ranging from South Africa to California where you can find your sexy, complex red wines and your lighter, refreshing white wines.  I tried some delicious French Rosé, Malbec, and Cabernet, which were all soothing to my palette and had layers of flavor.

If you need a snack to soak up the wine, they do have a lovely assortment of cheese and dips.   I think the concept behind W.I.N.O. is incredibly innovative and the ambience is very pleasant.  They have happy hour on weeknights from 9pm-12am so it was a very affordable wine-tasting experience.  It doesn’t feel big and commercial like you would expect a high-tech wine bar to feel.  You can still have an intimate conversation with a friend.

Drago’s Seafood Restaurant: Time to Drown in Buttery Oysters

Neighborhood: Downtown

Vegetarian Options Rating:

Pescatarian Options Rating: ★★★★1/2

Affordability: ★★★

Ambience: ★★★

Service: ★★★1/2

Food Quality: ★★★★

Overall Rating: ★★★★

Drago’s is a restaurant in the Hilton Riverside New Orleans – the same location as the conference I was attending.  Hotel restaurants are not really well-known for their cuisine so I wouldn’t have tried it but my Uber driver insisted on Drago’s having the best oysters in NOLA so I of course had to try them.  We sat at the oyster bar and the chef was very kind.  The service was a bit slow and he saw us waiting there for awhile and kindly asked us if we needed oysters.  So we ordered their famous Charbroiled oysters and raw oysters along with the Shrimp Po’boy sandwich.

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Charbroiled Oysters
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Raw Oysters

The Charbroiled oysters were extremely unique, savory, and filling.  They were oysters slathered in garlic butter and bread crumbs served with a side of French bread for dipping into the butter.  Absolutely amazing!!  I also loved how enthusiastic and proud the chef was when he served their oysters.  Yeah, I felt guilty after eating so much butter but when in Rome, I mean New Orleans.  The raw oysters were a nice complement to the intense heaviness of the charbroiled oysters.  They were fresh, light, and delicate – what I love about oysters.  You can really taste the integrity of the oysters in their raw form.

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Shrimp Po’Boy

Considering how delicious the oysters were, I was a bit disappointed with the Shrimp Po’Boy.  It was a bit bland and the breading on the shrimp was okay.  I was hoping for more spice and flavor but it was not very flavorful and very bready.  The fries were okay but not very memorable.  I would personally come back here for an in indulgent oyster snack and call it a day.  Drago’s is definitely worth sitting inside of a hotel for – it’s a culinary gem of NOLA!

Bacchanal Fine Wine & Spirits: Distinct Mediterranean Flavors

Neighborhood: Bywater

Vegetarian Options Rating: 1/2

Pescatarian Options Rating: ★★★★

Affordability: ★★★

Ambience: ★★★★1/2

Service: ★★★1/2

Food Quality: ★★★★★

Overall Rating: ★★★★1/2

Bacchanal is a Bywater treat.  It is relaxed, pretty, and authentic.  They have a beautiful outdoor garden area with live music.  You order all of the food and beverages in different parts of the restaurant.  You can order the mains and apps at the window on the ground floor, the cocktails and glasses of wine on the top floor, the cheese plate and bottles of wine at the ground entrance.  It’s a bit confusing and exhausting when it’s busy because you have to wait in a few different lines but the quality of the food and beverages made it worth the lines and confusion!  The service was good but it was hard to get a comprehensive understanding of the whole cheese plate process.  I would say everyone else was friendly and nice if you had questions.

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Cheese Plate
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Cheese Plate

While they are known for their wine, they have a splendid assortment of tasty cocktails.  I had the Bitter Hipster with Sazerac Rye, Suze, Cochi Americano, and Orange Bitters.  It was complex, bitter, and intense, like a bitter hipster!  It was boozy, but it had enough bitters to not make it uncomfortable to drink.

In addition to their lustful wine and spirits, they are known for their intricate cheese plates.  They have an extremely unique format for their cheese plates.  You get to select the cheese from their refrigerator, then bring it up to the counter, and then they assemble it and combine the cheeses with jam.  It is a pricy cheese plate as it costs about $20 for 3 cheeses, bread, jam, nuts, and olives, but it is worth the money.  I selected Brie, Gorgonzola and a Sheep’s Milk Manchego and was in heaven!!  The bread was lightly toasted with olive oil and the cheese just melted perfectly on it.  I loved the salty black olives to go along with the sweet jam.  This was a serious cheese plate!

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Pesto Linguine

Maybe cheese isn’t your thing?  They have plenty of other mouthwatering dishes here to choose from.  They have a small plates concept, which are perfect for sharing if you’re there with others. You do have to order everything at the window so you can’t necessarily control when everything comes out. We started with the shishito peppers, which were delicately seasoned to perfection.  They had a bit of spiciness, delicious flavors, and crunchiness.  We also ordered their Linguini, which was definitely a highlight of the meal.  It had a savory, herbaceous pesto with green beans, fingerling potatoes, and Pecorino Romano adding a nice crunchy texture to the pasta.

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Whole Grilled Fish

For the main entree, we ordered the Whole Grilled Fish as the seafood there is much fresher than what I am used to and it’s one of NOLA’s culinary specialties.  The fish was seasoned gorgeously with a caper chutney, fennel, herbs, hazelnuts, raisins and onions/cilantro on the side.  It was much better than what I had at Cochon.  I am not a big fan of raisins, but it didn’t take over the dish at all.  The dish was perfect – flaky, moist and fresh.  We left extremely satiated between the live jazz, naughty drinks, and delightful food.  Bacchanal is definitely a space to indulge your inner Dionysus with soothing and intricate flavors.

Saturn Bar: Dance Yourself Clean

Neighborhood: Bywater

Affordability: ★★★★★

Ambience: ★★★★★

Service: ★★★★★

Beverage Quality: ★★★1/2

Overall Rating: ★★★★★

Tucked away in the Bywater neighborhood with an unassuming exterior, Saturn Bar was a charming, divey dance bar with cheap drinks, experimental music, and committed dancing.  New Orleans seems to have a dive bar on every corner, but this one stood out because of its lively, fun atmosphere.  The service was great, there was no pretentiousness, you didn’t have to wait forever to get a drink, and you can get cheap, decent drinks.

It’s also an LGBTQ+ friendly space for people who genuinely adore dancing.  I absolutely loved the music there as it was experimental electronic that combined Footwork, Trap, Techno, and House.  I also enjoyed that you could step outside with your drink when you needed some fresh air.  I know that’s a NOLA thing, but I love being able to hang out outside of a bar past 12am and not get yelled at by some disgruntled doorman. Saturn Club was my favorite bar that I went to in NOLA.  It’s a masterpiece of the Bywater Neighborhood.

– Hungry for more?  Stay tuned for Part 2 of my culinary experience in NOLA coming next week!

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