Memorial Day weekend kicks off the sizzling summer travel season. If you’re in the process of dreaming up a new adventure that’s a departure from sitting under a beach umbrella, consider planning a food-centric holiday that is culturally rich and closer to home. In Louisiana, where every city and town boasts gifted home cooks and passionate chefs, you can easily hit gastronomic gold while coming across a terrific little seafood joint or diner at a fork in the road, on a moss-draped bayou or in a charming old neighborhood off the beaten path.
Booty's Street Food
Another Side of New Orleans
Our journey through south, central and north Louisiana begins in New Orleans, the food-crazed city of almost 1,400 restaurants (600 more since Katrina). More than 10 percent of the jobs in the metro area are in the restaurant biz, compared to an 8.2 percent average nationwide. We’re not visiting the usual star-chef or rising star establishments, the old-line dynasty landmarks or the new James Beard award-winning places in the Big Easy this time. Instead, we head off the grid and into the bohemian Bywater/Marigny area, just past the fabled French Quarter. A subculture unto itself, blossoming Bywater is at the forefront of the city’s contemporary arts scene, and is home to an edgier enclave of restaurants, bars and galleries.
Our foray into Bywater begins on a steamy, starlit Friday night. We pass the thumping clubs of Frenchmen Street, including my favorite spot, Three Muses (great gourmet small plates and jazz; thethreemuses.com), and continue in the direction of hotelier Sean Cummings’ graffiti-bedecked Rice Mill Lofts, gazing into the big windows of Chef Ian Schoenbelen’s Italian-inspired Mariza (marizaneworleans.com). Instead of pricey food art, we’re on a quest for the casual, hipster-style Booty’s Street Food, (bootysnola.com) where there zany rotating bathroom art exhibits add to the overall allure. Chef Michael Capalango is churning out his minimalist, globally inspired small plates tonight. We notice the unicorn behind the bar, a symbol of the owners’ popular Unicorn Booty website. The eatery is their first “blog-to-brick” project. We sample a crisp Japanese salad in a refreshing ginger-sesame vinaigrette topped with tofu while dunking skewers of grilled Brazilian cheese into pools of oregano-flecked olive oil, and nibbling on lithe Korean tacos with a spicy-sour kimchi edge. We cool off with creamy Japanese mango coconut custard and the chef’s latest dessert creation, studded with nuts atop luscious lavender cream cheese. Chef tells us all about Booty’s new dessert and sweets shop opening in July 2014 and also discloses news about a larger Booty’s restaurant opening next year in the same area.
After a few light bites, we head to Mimi’s in the Marigny (mimisinthemarigny.net) for some dancing and tapas, then stop by briefly at the Country Club New Orleans (thecountryclubneworleans.com) a Bywater neighborhood “secret” ($10 cover for the pool; open to the public). Housed in an Italianate raised center hall cottage, this off-the-radar spot houses a restaurant, bar and a large saltwater pool area (be prepared: pool clothing is optional!). For the final touch, we stop in at Mardi Gras Zone, (mardigraszone.com) a wacky all-hours grocery serving up hot pizza and cool trinkets to night owls.
The next day we stroll down Freret Street, the continually evolving Uptown stretch of eateries and music spots. We visit the hot new Mint, a sleek Vietnamese restaurant and bar that opened in January, bedecked with whimsical chandeliers and flat screens galore. We grab a bar stool and enjoy the view and some Vietnamese iced coffee and tapioca smoothies, then check out a few steampunk-inspired eateries, coffee houses and hip cafés and land at Chef Adolfo Garcia’s High Hat (highhatcafe.com) diner for Abita root beer floats and gumbo. George Porter is taking the stage later at the cavernous Publiq House. We end the evening on South Carrollton at Rock ‘n’ Bowl (rocknbowl.com) with the cowboy-hat dudes twirling ladies to the irresistible zydeco beat.
San Francisco Plantation
The next weekend, I take the long, scenic route to Baton Rouge, that culturally rich, “friendly big city with a small-town feel” in the heart of Plantation Country to meet up with a couple from Avignon, France, and their three children. I travel toward the storied plantations on the Great River Road, which is invariably called La. and Route 44 and 75 on the east bank of the river, and Route or La. 18 on the West Bank.
Watching the sun sparkling across green fields, I meander past ancient oaks, 23 miles upriver from New Orleans, and drive past Destrehan Plantation and continue 18 more miles to San Francisco Plantation, the steamboat Gothic marvel in Garyville. Heading toward Donaldsonville, after crossing the Sunshine Bridge, I take Highway 70 to the rickety old railroad tracks and drive until the road splits, landing up at the art-filled Grapevine Café and Gallery (grapevinecafeandgallery.com). I always come for the white chocolate bread pudding, made by chef-owner Cynthia Schneider. She joined chefs John Folse and Emeril Lagasse to prepare it at a James Beard Foundation dinner in New York City; Schneider was the former head chef of Café des Amis in Breaux Bridge.
After a tall glass of freshly squeezed lemonade, I head to another favorite spot just outside of Baton Rouge on the Iberia Parish line and enjoy a light lunch at Roberto’s River Road Restaurant (robertosrestaurant.net) on Highway 75 in Sunshine. Nestled in an obscure little house facing the levee, it produces smooth-as-velvet cream of brie soup with oodles of lump crabmeat, and lovely fried green tomatoes.
Once in Baton Rouge, I spend the day with family exploring the sites including the Louisiana Art and Science Museum (lasm.org) that’s housed in an old railroad depot. We view the Irene W. Pennington Planetarium, the mesmerizing Chaos and Order show and the soaring planet tower with Saturn’s huge 15-foot rings. We head to the 125,000-square-foot Shaw Center for the Arts (shawcenter.org) for dinner at Tsunami, (servingsushi.com), and relax on the breezy sixth floor terrace. On Saturday morning, we catch a cooking demo at the Red Stick Farmer’s Market, and enjoy some take-out fried seafood from Tony’s Seafood Market and Deli (tonyseafood.com) where the catfish are pulled out of the tank live, then cooked for patrons on the other side.
Adding to the explosion of live music venues is the chic new Blues Room, (facebook.com/pages/the-blues-room). We head there after a quick stop at the earthy little pet-friendly BYOB Red Dragon Listening Room (reddragonlr.com). We check out the hopping Mud and Water (facebook.com/mudandwater) hidden under the Mississippi River Bridge and end up at an old shotgun house featuring blues acts in nearby Zachary, Teddy’s Juke Joint, strewn with Christmas lights year ‘round (teddysjukejoint.com).
The following morning, we do an ambitious 5:30 breakfast at Frank’s (franksrestaurantla.net), a great old diner with a smokehouse next door, decorated with animal trophies and machine parts. We love the famous biscuits hot from the oven, especially those topped with pools of lemony hollandaise studded with shrimp. Great sausage sampler, fluffy short stacks with melted Reese’s, and buttery crawfish omelets with a peppery little kick. After breakfast, we’re headed into a pink-hued sunrise towards Lafayette, while the little ones fall back to sleep in the rear seats, tummies full of pancakes and syrup, their little blonde curls bobbing gently down the smooth highway.
Allons a Lafayette, Mon Cher!
After fighting light morning traffic, it’s a straight shot to Lafayette on I-10 through the murky swamplands and across those time-worn bridges edging the small towns and obscure country roads, some without names. Since we have just a short time to spend in the area, I bring the family to get oriented at Vermilionville Living History Museum and Folklife Park (vermilionville.org). We begin by taking a self-guided tour around the grounds to view the restored buildings that date back to 1765. At 1 p.m., it’s time for the Cajun jam session led by the Huval family of Breaux Bridge. A few young local musicians sit in for the jam session, and the kids get up and dance, but not the Cajun way. That lesson will come later. For lunch, we decided on the down-home little Olde Tyme Grocery (oldtymegrocery.com), where the poor boy French bread has just the right crackle to the crust, and you can enjoy snowballs (sugar-free, too) right behind the little joint at Murph’s Olde Tyme Snowball Stand. (Tip: poor boys are half-price after 6 p.m.).
Since our Avignon guests are asking to see some live crawfish or crabs, we take a short drive to the Fruit Stand, a rustic little place that is adjoined to Ferdi’s Market and Café in nearby Breaux Bridge. At the market, we order some fresh rabbit, frog legs and alligator meat as gifts for our hosts. The children slurp on smoothies while gazing in utter horror at the slow-moving live crabs, which the owners throw into the boiling pot.
We poke around the quaint antique shops, and head back to Lafayette to view the Memorial Retrospective Exhibition at the George Rodrigue Studio (georgerodrigue.com) near the Oil Center (on view until January, 2015), then head to Café Vermilionville (cafev.com) where we enjoy crispy braised pork belly with truffled white bean puree, puffy crawfish beignets flecked with bacon, dark and rich turkey gumbo and some fresh sea bass for dinner.
After a memorable repast, we cool off with some fall-down fun at Planet Ice Skating Rink (planeticerinkla.com; summer ice skating session are held May 29-July 31). We hit two more great foodie spots before leaving Lafayette, Ruffino’s on the River (ruffinoslafayette.com) for dinner and the French Press for breakfast (thefrenchpresslafayette.com) where James Beard nominated, Chef Justin Girouard serves the kids banana pancakes. I’ve been coming here since it opened and I always order my cousin Roland’s LeBlanc’s Cane Jelly with the fried chicken and waffles with Steen’s Syrup that’s made in my hometown; I usually direct newcomers to the popular Cajun Benedict, simply because Girouard explained to me once about the odd way he came to invent the dish made with Hebert’s Meat Market boudin blended with poached eggs topped with gumbo. But visitors love such novelties, and so does the national press.
Baton Rouge chef Peter Sclafani’s latest success, Ruffino’s is our final stop on the culinary tour. We feast on his butternut squash and shrimp bisque, and marinated broiled pork chops Tchoupitoulas topped with enormous, zesty barbecue shrimp while gazing over the serene water. After dinner, we head to the wildly popular Blue Moon (bluemoonpresents.com) for some steamy Cajun dancing and honky-tonking under the stars.
The following weekend, I load up the car with rods and reels, camping gear (just in case), and riding boots for the Hayes E. Daze Lodge and Hemphill Horse Farms (they provide guided rides along the trails in Kisatchie National Forest, www.fs.usda.gov/kisatchie). Planning to meet up with a couple of equestrian friends for some outdoor adventures, with fishing side trips that include dropping a line at Indian Creek, I head up to Alexandria/Pineville in central Louisiana, where the cypress-studded lakes, moss-draped bayous, rushing rivers and cold water creeks attract anglers, boaters and water sports enthusiasts from afar.
All paddles are up for the colorful Louisiana Dragon Boat Races May 10 and the second annual Alex River Fête (facebook.com/alexriverfete), presented by the Alexandria Museum of Art. Folks gather for a view of the rolling Red River from the Riverfront Amphitheater, while families gather at the water’s edge for impromptu picnics and boating throughout the summer.
Before our outdoor adventures, we explore the five galleries of the Alexandria Museum of Art (themuseum.org; tip: check out the popular after-five yoga classes). Next, we stop to see the St. Francis Xavier Cathedral (sfxcathedral.org) built in 1898; it was once home to General and Mrs. George C. Armstrong Custer during the Civil War Reconstruction and contains over 50 priceless windows.
The stately Kent Plantation House (www.kenthouse.org) is next on our agenda, a French-Creole manse completed in 1800 and the oldest standing structure in Central Louisiana. Out of curiosity, we check out the Silver Dollar Pawn and Jewelry, home of the History Channel’s hit series, Cajun Pawn Stars, and it’s everything we expected, and then some! We get in one more stop at the intriguing River Oaks Square Arts Center (riveroaksartcenter.com), which is home to over 30 resident artists. We check out the circa 1899 Bolton House and the rather new studio annex, and chat with some of the artists as they work on various projects.
It was finally time for our group of foodies to gather for a memorable meal at Verona Italian Ristorante, a hidden gem near the Alexandria Zoo. It’s a charming, cozy restaurant and the owner, Tony, comes out to greet guests like family. We enjoy the succulent, plump lamb chops au jus and some ultra-fresh red snapper, tender pillows of ravioli cradling moist chunks of lobster, and the melt-in-the-mouth, silken tiramisu before floating to our hotel on a cloud of bliss.
The next morning, before packing up for all the outdoor adventures, we enjoy breakfast at Atwood’s Bakery and Deli (bakingmemories.com), where we nibble on eggs Benedict, flaky croissants and buttery biscuits, plus a slice of their bundt cake studded with walnuts and scented with apples and hints of cinnamon. Before leaving town, someone suggests that we check out Janohn’s in nearby Boyce (facebook.com/janohnsrestaurant). We get in some fishing and riding first, and then return for a trip down Highway 1 to the sophisticated but tiny restaurant that’s nestled inside an old cotton gin and run by a Cordon Bleu-trained chef (it’s only open Wednesday-Saturday). We decide to dine at the bar. The two best dishes of the night: a juicy, pepper-crusted, mesquite-smoked filet mignon and a pecan-dusted fresh grouper atop a bed of creamy risotto, flecked with crabmeat and finished with a velvety beurre blanc and the slightest drizzle of Steen’s cane syrup.
Calling All Duck Commanders
After Alexandria, we head to our final Louisiana destination on the way to Linden, where we have a culinary weekend planned at the Comodore, with a side trip to Amber Falls Winery. We are northward bound to the Monroe-West Monroe vicinity. We’ve recently heard the latest skinny about the Robertsons’ (of Duck Dynasty fame) new guided tour that was created by the CVB. We also want to check out some great little eateries in the area.
First stop on our culinary journey is the cozy, 40-seat Not Just Pie, ((318) 322-9928), a popular café in Monroe since the mid-1980s. We savor the creamy shrimp bisque, chunky chicken pot pie, overstuffed roast beef poor boy dripping with luscious brown gravy (the French bread is from Gambino’s in New Orleans), plus slices of summer blueberry cheesecake and strawberry-banana pie. We end up taking an entire caramel banana pie with oodles of fresh whipped cream “to go” since it is, hands-down, the best pie of the pickings.
Next stop is a visit to Landry Vineyards (landryvineyards.com) where we are led into the tasting room to sip, savor and learn about the upcoming summer outdoor concerts (June 7 and July 19). Back at our B&B, the newly refurbished Hamilton House Inn (hamiltonhouseinn.com) located in the historic Cotton Port District of West Monroe, we relax in style before going on our celebrity sightings hunt. First, we browse through the circa 1920s Tudor-style building that houses the Mansur Museum of Art (mansurmuseum.org) which is currently holding their 51st annual juried art competition until June 14 (showcasing works by contemporary artists throughout the U.S.). Later, we feast like kings at the Waterfront Grill (waterfrontgrill.com), which offers a splendid view of the bayou (torches are lit at night). We enjoy cool, tall cocktails with cracked ice out on the deck, moving indoors for pan-seared ahi tuna, and the surf-and-turf fashioned with a thick and juicy Black Angus hand-cut ribeye served with a succulent, tender lobster tail destined for drawn butter and a squeeze of lemon.
The following day, we tour the lovely Biedenharn Museum and Gardens (bmuseum.org) and view the elegant home of Joseph Biedenharns (the first bottler of Coca-Cola) and his lush gardens. After a shopping spree through Antique Alley, we dine at Big Momma’s Fine Foods ((318) 388-5678), a great little obscure soul food joint with huge portions. Yummy pork chops, greens, fried chicken, and hot-water cornbread, a house specialty, served up with soft butter and warm smiles.
We planned this leg of the trip after learning that Gov. Jindal traveled to West Monroe in the spring to the Duck Commander headquarters, where he presented the Robertson family with the inaugural Governor’s Award for Entrepreneurial Excellence. We visit the Robertsons’ headquarters and their adjacent shop (duckcommander.com), where around 5,000 visitors are now showing up on the weekends, resulting in a tourism boon. The CVB’s new visitor guide that was released in February (monroewwestmonroe.org) and self-guided tour of all the various spots where Duck Dynasty episodes have been filmed is all the rage. As friends pose for pictures near the enormous duck call in the shop, we are pleasantly surprised to have a celeb sighting after all, when Si Robertson strolls in for a minute. Cameras whir. It’s the perfect ending to our travels through all the little country roads and scenic highways, where every day brings joyful dining to passionate foodies seeking adventure. First stop on our culinary tour is Nonna (Italian for grandmother), a new Italian eatery with a charming courtyard in the heart of Monroe’s Garden District. It was opened by chef Corey Bahr (Restaurant Cotton) just two weeks after he was named as the Gulf Coast region’s “People’s Best New Chef 2014” by Food and Wine magazine. We savored the house-made pasta laced with moist rabbit and mushrooms and the mouth-watering panéed veal with lemon, sage and mascarpone and ended with a delicious olive oil cake laced with Limoncello cream and vanilla gelato presented in a tiny cast iron pot. Check out the hilarious “Blue Haired Angels” portraits of local grandmas.