To live 90 minutes away from one of the top restaurant cities in the world is an embarrassment of riches for a restaurateur/food writer/food lover. It would be as if Bruce Springsteen lived next door to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, or if Joe Montana lived a hop, skip, and a last-minute-playoff-game-saving-touchdown pass away from the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
It would be just like that, except when it comes to Springsteen and Montana — both of whom have busts in those respective buildings — one is the savior of rock and roll, and the other has four Super Bowl rings. I am just a burger-flipper who loves to eat.
Nevertheless, I consider myself fortunate to be able to eat near, in, and around New Orleans a lot. Lately I have been eating down here more than usual. This past Spring I compiled a list of got-to-get-to restaurants in New Orleans. Before I was finished, the list was over one hundred restaurants long. Over the course of the past two months I have added several dozen more to the list making it even longer.
For years, I have fallen into the same old culinary trap of finding a couple of places that I love and then sticking with those for a year or so. No longer. The list has taken care of that. There is too much to do, too many places to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and too many places to evaluate.
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The list, which I call RSJ’s New Orleans Restaurant To-Do List (catchy title isn’t it? I thought of it all by myself) in the notes feature of my phone, is broken out into three categories: General restaurants I need to visit, breakfast places I need to dine in, and re-visits (restaurants I have been to over the years and need to get back into for another visit). After I visit a place I take short, quick notes on my overall personal experience and evaluate the place on a five-star rating system that only means something to me (my 5-star might be your 2.5).
Once I have visited the restaurant I cut and paste the spot review into a visited-restaurants category at the bottom of the note. The original plan was to complete the list by the end of the summer which would have given me a good reference for future dining visits. Unfortunately, as I stated earlier, the list keeps growing. It might be the end of the year before I stop adding restaurants, and a good while after that before I knock out the entire list.
The entire list is not for future publication. It’s for personal use and to be used as a recommendation list for friends, and as a reference for an upcoming 2019 book project that is in the works. It has been my practice over the 18 years I have written this column to never include a negative review of any restaurant. I did it once about 13 years ago when I had a very strange experience in a restaurant in the Florida Panhandle and I haven’t done it since. This column — when it comes to restaurant reviews — takes a cue from what your momma always said, “If you don’t have something nice to say about someone, just don’t say anything.” I love restaurants. I love restaurant people, and I love to dine around. Everyone has different preferences and tastes, and even though I have encountered some bad experiences on this quest, I leave the criticizing to the critics.
I will certainly write about all the positive experiences in upcoming columns. I love sharing those experiences. So far, I have eaten in/reviewed 13 breakfast places and 27 lunch/dinner/brunch restaurants — not bad for eight weeks’ work while living 90 miles away. Still, there is a lot of eating to be done.
I think it’s only fair at this point to publish a couple of my favorites from the past several weeks. My favorite breakfast spot in the city (at this moment) is Toast. I have returned three times in a matter of weeks. Reviewing my notes, I wrote, “EXCELLENT breakfast. Love this place. Will return often. Both locations deliver a great product. Good service, too. Toast w/egg is killer, great homemade strawberry jam for buttered toast. 4.75*” Ruby Slipper (multiple locations throughout the city) received similar raves. My notes from Surrey’s Cafe and Juice Bar read, “Enjoyed breakfast. An hour wait, people in the streets waiting, I sat at the bar after 10-min wait. Bananas Foster French Toast was good, bacon, too. Excellent orange juice. Small, funky atmosphere. Very friendly and efficient service. 4*.” I had a similarly positive breakfast experience at Biscuits and Buns on Banks.
This past weekend I was finally able to make it to Willa Jean, the bakery John Besh opened over a year ago, and to Donald Link’s French bakery concept, La Boulangerie (both over four stars in my personal notes). At the former I ate the most amazing Pecan Sticky Bun I have tasted in over 55 years of eating breakfast pastries, and at the latter, I ate what might possibly be the best croissant I have ever eaten— not just in New Orleans, but anywhere — Paris, and all regions of France included.
So far, there have only been two perfect scores — Brigtsen’s Restaurant, which is ground zero for what New Orleans food is, and should be to me, and The Franklin, which is a small joint in the Marigny that is within walking distance of where we’ve been staying. There is something about both of those restaurants that speak to me. They are vastly different from one another, but when it comes to the RSJ checklist for things I am looking for in a restaurant, they both cover every category.
The list continues with miles to go before I sleep.
Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author. Visit him online at robertstjohn.com. Follow him on Twitter @robertstjohn.
Amaretto-Brulee Breakfast Bread
⅓ cup butter, melted
¾ cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons pecans, chopped (optional)
2 tablespoons almonds, slivered and blanched (optional)
8 French bread croutons, cut into 1-inch-thick rounds
⅔ cup milk
¼ cup heavy cream
⅛ teaspoon cinnamon
⅛ teaspoon nutmeg
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 tablespoon amaretto
French bread croutons should be cut out of a baguette-style French bread loaf. Slices should be one inch thick.
In a cast iron skillet, combine butter, brown sugar and honey over medium-high heat. Cook mixture, stirring constantly until bubbly and sugar has dissolved. Add nuts. Pour Brulee into the bottom of a round, two-quart Pyrex baking dish. Allow Brulee to cool slightly then top with the French bread croutons.
In a large mixing bowl whisk eggs, milk, heavy cream, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla and Amaretto. Pour mixture evenly over the croutons. Using the tips of your fingers, press bread down gently to force custard into croutons without breaking. Cover dish with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Allow custard to come to room temperature one hour before baking. Bake uncovered until French bread is puffed and edges of croutons are golden brown, (approximately 40 minutes). Place a plate on top of the baking dish. Using dish towels or pot holders, invert dish onto a plate. Top with powdered sugar. Yield: four to six servings.