Monday, January 22, 2018

An oyster crawl through New Orleans' French Quarter


This city — and the French Quarter specifically — is a place of joyful excess. Here you have an abundance of remarkable food, an overflowing cup of history and architecture, and enough soulful music to push you toward the spiritual in times of trouble.

There's a boozy overload, too, especially on Bourbon Street, where drinks are sucked from plastic fish bowls swinging from lanyards around willing necks. Even at 10 a.m., the Easter-egg-colored frozen drinks spin from banks of dispensers, twirling like clothes dryers on high and beckoning passers-by who may not have even been to bed yet. The sidewalks are wet, thanks to a powerful hosing to rid them of spilled beer and more unsavory leftovers from the previous night's indulgences.

We wander around, killing time before we join the line at Acme Oyster House. The legendary joint opens at 11 a.m., but the queue forms 30 minutes before that. It ebbs and flows through the day, not unlike the nearby Mississippi River, and is present well after dark. Too early to eat oysters? In the raucous French Quarter, it's never too early for anything, or too late for that matter.

We know that because we stepped off the plane from Tampa on a recent Friday night, dumped our bags at our hotel on Oyster Row — that would be Iberville Street — and headed across the road to Deanie's, a vast restaurant frequented by locals and tourists alike. Acme was closing down, but Deanie's was still thumping. We waited half an hour for a table. On one side of us was a group of liquored-up postcollege guys, acting silly and taking regrettable photos with their phones. On the other was a family, 20 people strong, ranging in age from grandmother to kid in a high chair. Before me, more importantly, was a towering pile of fried oysters.

Thus began our 48-hour French Quarter oyster crawl.

Inimitable tastes

Jazz may be the soul of New Orleans, but food is its heart. Saveur magazine declares New Orleans America's best food city in this month's cover story. In just a few weeks, the James Beard Foundation will name the nation's best chefs and restaurants, and it's likely the best chef in the South will come from the city. Four of the five nominees head restaurants here. Celebrated chef John Besh has eight restaurants in New Orleans, and his August, which offers fine-dining French fare (I can vouch for the foie gras three ways), is up for best restaurant in the country.

But long before Besh, a Mississippi native, came along to start his culinary empire, the city's identity was tied to food. Po' boys, red beans and rice, gumbo, muffulettas, beignets, etouffee, jambalaya and oysters every which way have long been staples in both the cities and rural areas of Louisiana. French Quarter restaurants Gallatoire's and Antoine's have served local specialties for more than 100 years. Paul Prudhomme with his blackened catfish and Emeril Lagasse with his New England "Bam!" moved South added further sheen and national attention.

Just eight weeks after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast in August 2005, the journalists of the Times-Picayune returned to their newsroom. Food editor Judy Walker began fielding calls from readers who had lost everything to the storm, including family recipes. The loss of personal culinary history was another indignity. Could she help them?

Recipes lost and found after the storm became Cooking Up a Storm (Chronicle Books, 2007), another testament to New Orleans' strong bond with food.

Then came the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 and more worries about seafood safety and a way of life. Oyster populations are coming back after initial decimation, but there is still uneasiness about what may happen to the Gulf of Mexico fishing industry, which brought $1.8 billion to Louisiana's economy in 2011. The story on that hasn't ended.

The city exciting

It seems on any given weekend, there's something going on in New Orleans. On the days we were there, it was the NCAA women's Final Four basketball tournament. The weekend after that was the 30th annual French Quarter Music Festival. On April 26, the 10-day Jazz Fest and Heritage Festival begins.

There's no way to experience all that New Orleans has to offer in a long weekend or to get to every celebrated oyster bar. With a few exceptions for upscale spots in the Garden District and the Central Business District, we limited our oyster slurping to the Quarter. We did not make it to either Drago's or Casamento's, both famed for their chargrilled oysters and history, but we did eat the fried oyster salad at Luke, Besh's nod to the Franco-German bistros of yesteryear New Orleans. A simple dish packed with flavorful ingredients and obvious culinary acumen.

But back to Acme. Don't be put off by the line; it moves quickly. For the best show, ask the hostess to sit you toward the back. That way, you can watch the guy grilling the oysters. He's behind glass that prevents flames and smoke from billowing into the dining room but allows the curious to watch. With what surely must be Teflon fingers, he places raw oysters on the half-shell on the grill, then ladles garlic butter into them. On top of that is a heaping of what appears to be finely grated Parmesan. (Oyster chargrillers are quite proprietary about the ingredients and amounts.)

The mixture bubbles away in the shells and when the melted butter seeps onto the coals, smoke envelopes oysters, imparting flavor into the delicate bivalves. A dozen are served with slices of French bread to sop up the liquid (about $20, the price you'll find just about everywhere for the same thing). We pace ourselves with a dozen. And then we can't help it, we order another.

From Acme, we head across Iberville to Felix's Restaurant and Oyster Bar. If you can't handle the line at Acme, you'll have better luck at Felix's. The line isn't as long, though it should be. The chargrilled oysters at Felix's are every bit as good, maybe better; just as fat but even smokier. (You'll have a shorter wait, too, at Dickie Brennan's Bourbon House next door to Acme. It's more upscale, with a definite special-occasion vibe. No chargrilled oysters at Bourbon House, but you can get them on the half- shell with caviar for $27 a dozen.)

If you go to Felix's twice, like we did, sit at the front-room bar once and watch Michael Jackson — they call him M.J. — shuck oysters. He doesn't talk much, but he works his shucking knife deftly and quickly. He offers undersized oysters to the nearest person for free.

On our second visit, we go to the back bar, near where Carl Smith is chargrilling. We meet Carl on a break. He is sitting on a bucket in front of the restaurant, and his chef's jacket gives him away. We talk about Katrina and the devastation the storm wrought on his city. "It felt like the end of the world," he says of the aftermath, though he did admit he slept through the initial howling wind.

There's not a seafood restaurant in New Orleans that doesn't serve oysters, but those that advertise an oyster bar tend to be more fun. Watching the shuckers or grillers adds plenty of value to the bill.

Main harvester

Many of the oysters served in the French Quarter come from P&J Oyster Co., which has been cultivating and harvesting on the Louisiana gulf coast since 1876. P&J's offices are in the French Quarter just blocks from the bars that serve its oysters, raw and cooked. Oysters are at their tastiest and best quality from November to April, especially for raw-shellfish lovers, because the water is cooler. Still, they are available year-round.

We've had oysters in many parts of the country, just recently in Hilton Head, S.C., where they were small and sweet. At Swan Oyster Depot in San Francisco, a variety of Pacific oysters are served, shucked ice cold and washed down with bottles of Anchor Steam. All delicious but not quite as stupendous as the plumpjacks served in New Orleans. You can slurp them down in one swallow, but when they are cooked Rockefeller or Bienville style, they are big enough for two, maybe three, bites if you're trying to be dainty.

After a breather, we head to the Royal House, but not before stopping to listen to street musicians. The Bloodroot Orkaestarr plays at Conti and Royal. Farther along, the Smoking Time Jazz Club swings near the steps of the Louisiana Supreme Court with a statue of Justice Edward Douglas White looking on.

We move to the music, hoping to make room for more oysters. Ahead is the Royal House and we ask for a table on the balcony, where we can spy the street scene from another vantage point. We are in luck and the clippity-clop of the horse-drawn carriages passing by provides another rhythm of New Orleans. The balcony is just wide enough for a single-file line of small tables next to the filigreed ironwork railings. Servers sidle by sideways. We tilt precariously toward the street and hope a dozen raw oysters and a couple of local Abita beers aren't the tipping points that will cause collapse. The oysters are briny and cold, doused with fresh lemon and Tabasco (of course) and slid onto saltine crackers. We get them chargrilled, too. They are more buttery than those we've sampled before.

We eat oysters at Le Bayou Restaurant on Bourbon Street, where our server, Jessica — no last name, she says — is almost as entertaining as the barkers on the street. With menus in hand, they attempt to lure customers with playful banter into the more modern restaurant, where a stuffed alligator lurks over the bar.

Jessica is a delightful server, a true ambassador for the city. We talk about music, which leads us to funerals and the colorful street processions for which New Orleans is famous.

"We mourn in a happy way," she says. "If you guys see one, just back jump and step in. They won't mind."

The chargilled oysters here are just as fat as the others, with a heavy smack of garlic.

"Good, aren't they?" Jessica says. Indeed.

Our last stop on our French Quarter oyster crawl, and believe it or not we aren't tired of them yet, is Desire Oyster Bar, a block from Le Bayou. It's midway between lunch and dinner on the Sunday of our visit, so there are prime spots at the windows and the shuckers' bar. We ask for a window table — really more like an entryway — where the doors are flung open to the street. Across Bourbon, a young boy puts on a tap dancing show until he's shooed away by the cops.

We get our usual chargrilled oysters, just half a dozen this time because we are slowing down, and half a dozen of the barbecued oysters topped with crumbled blue cheese. Here, under the pressed tin ceilings that tell a tale of old New Orleans, we declare them less cheesy than Acme, less smoky than Felix's and every bit as buttery as Royal House. The barbecue sauce and blue cheese mask the taste of the delicate oysters too much for us. Might as well be eating chicken nuggets.

But the best part of the window seat at Desire is the looks of the passers-by on Bourbon Street, even the ones toting colorful cocktails. They glance at us and the stout, bronzed oysters on our plates, then lean in close enough to reach for a sample. We've become part of the show on the French Quarter's most entertaining street.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8586.

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