Fall is the time of year for soups. Soups nourish both the body and soul and trigger nostalgia in a way that few dishes can. From Korea to Greece, chicken soup’s reputation as a miracle cure is one of the few things on which just about all cultures can agree. In the case of Louisiana, one remarkably adaptable soup has become a sort of culinary poster child: gumbo. What follows below is a cross-spectrum sampling of this most restorative of dishes.
Kim Son on the Westbank puts a little Vietnamese topspin on the old American-Chinese classic Hot and Sour Soup. In this version, dubbed “Number 47” on the extensive menu, the clear and fragrant broth is punched up with the addition of pineapple and cilantro and includes a heap of mung bean sprouts to go with the plump, poached shrimp. The taste of celery is pronounced, and the overall impression is a soup that’s clean tasting with no muddiness or confusion. If this were a cocktail, it would be served neat.
he Chicken Egg Drop soup tows a more traditional line, thickened to the point at which the ingredients are not so much just in the soup but held almost in suspension. It is earthier and heartier; something to eat on a rainy day, with a pastiche of ingredients including peas, carrots, water chestnuts and diced chicken to go with the ubiquitous lightly poached egg and dice of green onion.
Choosing a direction for a meal at Horinoya on Poydras Street is a decision always tinged with a bit of regret, as there’s so much good stuff on the menu that by choosing one thing you must by necessity miss out on another. So it was with some degree of discipline that I recently ordered the Kitsune Udon. Technically this qualifies as a noodle dish but for this article I will repurpose it as a soup. My rationalization: If the broth level rises above that of the other ingredients, it qualifies as a soup. In this case, the pale amber broth covers a tangle of thick, pale noodles and is topped with two squares of fried tofu floating on top like delicious rafts. The tofu has an unusual sweetness to it, from Mirin and sugar perhaps, reminding me (of all things) of French toast. The bowl – and it’s a pretty large bowl – is accompanied by a glass phial of Nanami Togarashi, a condiment made from dried chili powder, orange peel, black sesame seeds, ginger and seaweed. Kind of like a Japanese version of Tony Chachere’s, it should be used with discretion.
On Williams Boulevard north of the Interstate in Kenner is the Kenner Supermarket, a grocery store catering to the Latin American community. Associated with it is a casual restaurant serving up some very good food at even better prices. Here I ordered the Caracol Soup on the recommendation of a friend. Conch does not often appear on menus in New Orleans, so when I heard about this dish I had to try it out. I was not disappointed. The “market price” on this day was $12.50, making it by far the priciest item on the menu, which features plenty of items for $2 or $3. But the soup is a meal in itself, served in a large bowl brimming with a sunflower-yellow broth flavored with annatto and coconut milk. The soup contains large chunks of starchy yucca, cross-sections of plantain poached a pinkish color by the broth and several substantial portions of conch, beaten tender enough to cut with the edge of a fork. By lucky coincidence I was there on Central American Independence Day. Balloons and streamers were being hung as I ate and I was treated to some live traditional tunes and songs as I enjoyed my conch.
Back Uptown at La Petite Grocery, Chef Justin Devillier ladles out a Shellfish Bisque with Crème Fraîche and Chive. This is a light soup, the tempting color of a fall pumpkin, with the crème fraîche swirled in before serving. It is tasty and will leave you primed for the next course. Look for other selections such as a Celery Root Brown Butter Soup with truffle oil and Parmesan to appear on the menu later in fall, along with a Sweet Potato and Tasso soup with goat cheese and sage that sounds great for a chilly November evening.
Grand Isle, the relatively new seafooder on the Fulton Street Corridor, serves a nice Turtle Soup distinguished by its inclusion of braised oxtail. According to Executive Chef Jens Jordan, the oxtail provides the soup with a greater depth of flavor and is a natural complement to the turtle meat as they both cook at about the same rate. Both the turtle and oxtail are braised in-house and the turtle isn’t purchased pre-ground, a common shortcut other places take. Since the oxtail itself is rich, it allows for a lighter broth to be used for the soup, making for a different flavor profile than other turtle soups around town. A quick lacing of sherry at the finish gives it the proper twist.
Herbsaint always features a consistently excellent gumbo on its menu, though the cast of ingredients is constantly rotating. Recently, Chef Donald Link offered a Seafood and Andouille version sporting a roux the color of molten chocolate and packing localized punches of spiciness from piquant cubes of andouille. It was a good, old-fashioned okra gumbo and chunks of cracked gumbo crab kept it honest. Also on the menu was a Tomato and Shrimp Bisque, distinguished with a splash of eponymous Herbsaint. The liquor seemed to enliven the soup a bit and its signature licorice flavor added a unique flavor to the canvas, making for an interesting twist.
Finally, Susan Spicer’s Cream of Garlic Soup at Bayona strikes a good balance between flavor and substance. The flavor comes from the caramelized onion and garlic and the substance comes from its method of being thickened with French bread, then pureed into its silky consistency. The result is a soup that has the wonderful, slightly sweet flavor of caramelized garlic embedded in a creamy, liquid base that makes you wish your spoon would never reach the bottom of an all-too-shallow bowl.