Though blessed with Gulf seafood, great citrus and a small but dedicated network of organic farmers and purveyors, New Orleans doesn’t have an adjacent breadbasket on par with Northern California’s Napa Valley or New York’s Hudson Valley. So how do we consistently remain one of America’s premier dining destinations? Chefs here employ a skillful balancing act, choosing the best of what they can obtain locally and augmenting it with quality ingredients from elsewhere. This pastiche of sourcing, be it from farmers’ markets, Asian, Latin and Middle Eastern grocery stores or boutique purveyors nationwide, is a building block of some of our city’s finest cuisine and a testament to the ingenuity of our local chefs, who must remain adaptable, flexible and creative to stay atop the shifting landscape of what’s available.
Chef Aaron Burgau of Patois sources heavily from the Crescent City Farmers Market, along with other regional producers. With a resumé that includes stints at Bayona and Lilette, Burgau has also worked closely with Chef Gerard Maras, who raised much of his own produce on the Northshore long before the pedigree of the baby greens on the menu became fashionable.
Louisiana citrus, a favorite of local chefs, is employed in every section of Patois’ menu. A recent entrée at Patois featured a Satsuma reduction whisked into a butter sauce, served over fresh redfish. “I use the blood oranges for an octopus salad,” says Burgau. “Grapefruit goes into our cocktails. Kumquats I’ll make compote out of for use with my terrine and charcuteire.” Thin-skinned, herbaceous Meyer lemon also finds its way into the buttermilk dressing for Burgau’s oyster salad and is featured in pastry chef Lisa Gustafson’s dessert menu in a creamy Lemon Posset served with lavender shortbread.
A Locavore’s double winner would be Burgau’s Creole Tomato and Goat’s Milk Feta salad. That the Creole tomatoes are local goes without saying, but the feta comes from Ryals’ farm on the Northshore, whose goats also provide far more than dairy – they also get braised and served in a pappardelle pasta dish. “That is a really good product,” Burgau says. “It is a very good meat that I can source locally.”
Of course, it isn’t possible to source everything locally. Chefs pick and choose what ingredients they feature on their menus, with quality and reliability in terms of the supply chain being the main criteria. Burgau gets his fresh hearts of palm from Wailea in Hawaii and buys his olive oil from the Organic Olive Oil Company, which deals exclusively in small-batch organic olive oil from around the world. “They have very strict quality guidelines and criteria about what they carry,” he says.
Chef Susan Spicer calls her cuisine global, but whenever I check out the oft-changing right side of the Bayona menu a couple of influences frequently recur: Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern. For sourcing pantry items, she’s a fan of the Hong Kong Market on the Westbank, with its great prices and selection of Asian ingredients that can otherwise be difficult to find in New Orleans. Ketjap Manis, a thick and sweet Indonesian soy sauce, is now an essential item in my own personal pantry thanks to her advice. Mona’s grocery store on Banks Street is another good local source for her Middle Eastern ingredients.
For entrées, a double-cut pork chop of impressive proportions was sourced from Neiman Ranch, technically not a ranch so much as a network of 650 independent American ranchers who raise their livestock without added hormones or antibiotics. The big chop was served with a cauliflower flan, a savory custard that really brought out the essence of this delicate vegetable’s flavor. Another entrée of locally caught redfish was seared then served in a hot and sour broth with braised bok choy. Starch came from tender rice noodles nested in the savory brew. Taste the difference wild-caught makes with her Salmon Trio. This most excellent of fish came prepared three ways: Unctuous Coho salmon tartar, a pair of tiny deep-fried beignets and grilled salmon belly gravlax. The last component came skin-on, lightly grilled and served crispy side up. Delicious.
Co-chefs Allison Vines-Rushing and Slade Rushing go one step further at MiLa. Through their extensive relationship with Lujele Farms in Mount Hermon, a steady supply of locally raised produce ends up on their dining room tables in the Père Marquette hotel. MiLa is an unusual synthesis of hotel and independently operated restaurant. The high volume of a hotel typically demands a level of consistency that small producers often cannot supply, but MiLa manages to take this in stride. Their menu changes constantly to reflect what’s available, and a focus on sauces that employ fruit, herbs and vinegar for their complexity rather than a cloying demiglace reduction, infuses their cuisine with a lighter, more ephemeral flavor. For example, an entrée of Monkfish came flanked by a celery root puree in lieu of the typical starch. A lobster reduction added richness, as well a briny complexity. But don’t worry – if you want to go decadent, they offer butter-poached chicken as well.
For dessert, their Strawberry Pavlova was a treat: a meringue shell filled with macerated strawberries and bulked up with crème Anglaise and crushed pistachios. Look for these seasonal berries to be around a bit longer, as this year’s January freeze will likely push their season back. While price points are fairly high, MiLa offers a three-course prix fixe lunch for $20, one of the better (and most overlooked) fine dining deals in the CBD.