Putting off a trip to New Orleans because of worries about seafood safety in the wake of the oil spill? Rest assured. Last week, during a last-minute weekend getaway to the Big Easy, I ate twice my weight in crab, oysters, shrimp, tilapia, clams, crawfish, catfish, and countless other creatures that swim and crawl along the Gulf Coast. Barring the inevitable indigestion that accompanies such gleeful, abandoned gluttony, I was absolutely fine. In fact, I ate one of the most incredible meals of my life (more on that after the jump . . . click here to see my interview with the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau).
"We just wouldn’t serve seafood that isn’t safe," said Tory McPhail, executive chef at the landmark Garden District restaurant Commander’s Palace. So far, hydrocarbon levels (the key indicator of oil contamination) for nearly all Gulf Coast seafood seem to be where they were when folks like Mark Twain and Jefferson Davis ate the restaurant: zero. Five agencies are currently testing all seafood coming out of the Gulf, and the official statement from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is that “The public should not be concerned about the safety of seafood buying at this time. The federal and state governments have strong systems in place to test and monitor seafood safety and to prohibit harvesting from affected areas, keeping oiled products off the market.” In coming months, local restaurants will still be dealing with a tighter supply due to the ongoing shutdown of major fishing areas, translating into higher-than-normal menu prices, but there’s no danger. "It’s true that some oyster bays may never come back," said another local chef. “But [the fishing industry] is certainly not over, as some have suggested . . . many coastal parishes are completely oil free.”
Now, back to that meal-of-a-lifetime, a specialty brunch menu created by three leading New Orleans chefs: Tory McPhail of Commander’s Palace (where the brunch was served), Matt Murphy of M Bistro, and Donald Link of Cochon. First up was Murphy, with his “Veux Carre Brunch” comprising four dishes on one plate: Alligator sausage with stewed greens, an escargot croque madame with quail egg, a sweet potato biscuit with sausage gravy and truffle scrambled egg, and a jumbo lump crepe with royal goat cheese and ghost pepper caviar. Next, McPhail moved in with his Sweet Corn Johnny Cakes – soft poached quail egg, lemon and champagne caviar from the Atchafalaya river basin, hollandaise, and Louisiana sugarcane – followed by butter-roasted Gulf grouper served with chanterelle mushrooms, Louisiana soybeans, and crushed Louisiana blue crab bisque. Finally, Link brought out his sausage and oyster pie with parmesan béchamel and local peppers.
I enjoyed similarly decadent meals at the Court of Two Sisters (legendary Creole restaurant with an amazing Jazz Bruch Buffet), Domenica (contemporary artisanal Italian joint in the gorgeously restored Roosevelt Hotel), and the aforementioned M Bistro (a farm-to-table hotspot at the Ritz-Carlton), absorbing a valuable lesson with every bite: Counting calories is futile in New Orleans, so don’t even try!
One last thought: In addition to its rich culinary heritage, the other “greatest thing about New Orleans” is the determination, humor, openness, hospitality, and incredible resilience of the locals. They've certainly rebuilt the primary tourist areas since Katrina, and people get wistful about the amazing spirit of cooperation and creative energy that swept into town after the hurricane. Young volunteers ended up saying "this is a cool place to live," moving in, and leading a wave of reinvention.
Yes, in spite of the oil spill in its backyard, New Orleans is back, and not just because the Saints won this year’s Superbowl. Go. It would be a shame to deprive your taste buds.