A Twist on New Orleans Cuisine

by Sandra Ramani

Po’boys and muffulettas, gumbo and red beans and rice, beignets and bananas Foster—with all its signature dishes (plus its legendary local chefs, from Paul Prudhomme to Emeril Lagasse), it’s no surprise that New Orleans is considered one of the best U.S. cities for cuisine.

A large part of why the Big Easy has such a unique culinary landscape is, of course, NOLA’s diverse founding cultures, which include French, Spanish, Cajun, African American, Caribbean and more. It’s also a result of the city’s position as a key port hub on the Gulf, which has led to an influx of ingredients from around the world (not to mention lots of fresh seafood).

Today, however, those same factors of culture and location have helped New Orleans’ food scene take some interesting turns—resulting in new “signatures” that might surprise you. Notable immigrant populations from Latin America and Asia (particularly from Vietnam), an influx of new residents and businesses post-Hurricane Katrina, the development of emerging neighborhoods and more mean that you’ll now find locals raving about shakshuka and bennachin as much as their favorite gumbo.

Here are four spots helping to showcase contemporary New Orleans cuisine.


Bywater American Bistro

Carribbean

Following her stint on Season 11 of Top Chef (where she was declared the runner-up), Saint Lucian-born chef Nina Compton landed in New Orleans to open her first self-helmed restaurant, Compère Lapin, in the then-burgeoning Warehouse District. In 2018, the James Beard Award-winner opened her second, again choosing an emerging neighborhood—this time, the Bywater— for this buzzing bistro.

The menu reflects Compton’s signature Caribbean-Louisiana flair, reflected in dishes like rabbit curry with jasmine rice and pecan pickled shrimp with buttermilk and trout roe, and jerk chicken rice with butter beans and crispy habanero peppers. Save room for the spiced Nutella flan. 

Maypop

Southeast Asian

Get in some extra workouts, wear loose clothing, go on a juice fast—whatever you need to do to work up a big appetite for a meal at Maypop, it’s worth it. Under the direction of Chef Michael Gulotta, this lively, modern spot a few blocks from Canal Street takes your palate on a journey through Southeast Asia, via Louisiana. That translates to dishes like bouillabaisse with gulf shrimp and clams and mahi-mahi in a lemongrass saffron broth, cornmeal pasta with Lao sausage, blue crabs and fermented black beans, and cardamom-glazed beef with cheese-and-potato-stuffed roti bread. Though it may sound like the most basic item on the menu, the Bibb salad—tossed with coconut-cucumber ranch and chai spices— is a revelation. 


Saba

Middle Eastern

After serving up Italian-accented fare at city staples Domenica and Pizza Domenica, Chef Alon Shaya tapped into his Middle Eastern heritage for his first solo restaurant (the award-winning Shaya)—and his second.

Opened in 2018 in the Uptown area, Saba (Hebrew for “grandfa- ther”) draws crowds for its menu of shareable modern Israeli dishes, which includes several flavor-packed small plates (think shakshuka, Moroccan carrot salad and roasted eggplant dip), a separate hummus section (with seasonal options that might include Brussels sprouts or blue crab), grilled items (from lamb kebabs to charred eggplant) and family-style mains like roasted chicken or a whole red snapper. With his national profile, charitable community initiatives and wealth of accolades, Chef Shaya is increasingly becoming one of the more visible members of the food scene in his adopted hometown. 


Bennachin

African

This local favorite serves the flavors of Africa in the heart of the French Quarter. Opened since 1992, Bennachin has its roots in the cuisine of Gambia and Cameroon, and serves signatures from both countries—though the menu also reflects its NOLA location. You’ll see that fusion influence in dishes like mburu akara (black-eyed pea fritters and tomato stew on French bread), sorso wolengho ni mano (red beans and beef sausage with rice), and the house special bennachin (African-style jambalaya with sautéed spinach). You’ll also find some Caribbean-flavored dishes, lots of meat and veggie curries, and tasty sides like coconut rice and pounded cassava.


The Flavors of NOLA 

SPA The largest sanctuary in the city (with 22 treatment rooms spread out over 25,000 square feet), The Spa at The Ritz-Carlton, New Orleans celebrates local ingredients like praline, coffee and Southern citrus in many of its over 100 offered treatments. One of the more popular services, though, goes deeper, by paying homage to a unique local culture.

Stretching a luxurious 80 minutes, the Voodoo Ritual is a full-body massage performed with handcraft- ed herbal poultices filled with herbs and flowers commonly used in the practice of voodoo (which arrived in the city via enslaved West African and Caribbean people, then mingled with Cajun and other cultures). Along with the aromas of absinthe, moss, vetiver and incense, a soundtrack of rhythmic tradition- al chants further helps transport you to another world.


SHOP While working as a massage therapist, Kathleen Currie began crafting a natural perfume blend based on her love of vetiver, jasmine and citrus— making it first just for herself, then for an increasing number of friends and acquaintances. Eventually, she studied perfumery and became a certified herbalist, and now draws on that expertise to create her Smoke line of perfumes, which are sold both throughout New Orleans and in about 100 stores nationally.

As with her original blend, many of the line’s unisex scents—all made with organic alcohol and natural, sustainably sourced ingredients—take inspiration from the city; Night Cloud, for example, features oak moss, lavender and allspice to evoke New Orleans at dusk, while the Cypress body oil features cypress Currie forages from City Park.


SEE Get inspired by both nature and art at the re- cently expanded Sculpture Garden at the New Orleans Museum of Art. Opened in late-spring of 2019, the new addition—which adds six acres to the previous five— was built with the environment in mind, with features that help regulate the water levels of the central lake and that help clean the water using plants. (You can also explore the sculpture-lined waterways via kayak or gondola.)

Many of the featured works also examine the city’s turbulent history with water, including a glass bridge that traces the development of the Mississippi River. With its serene grounds, meditation path and world- class sculptures, this is an idyllic spot to relax and enjoy a stroll in between all the restaurant visits.

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