In a dining “world” in which “fast food” has become practically a national institution, it is refreshing to find one relatively small city where there are more than 1300 restaurants that are not a part of any chain and that actually pride themselves on being “different” from everyone else. Walk down almost any street or boulevard in New Orleans and you will see what I mean. I believe one could sample a dozen examples of so ubiquitous a dish as gumbo from as many restaurants or bistros, and find that they are all good, but all different. Of course that is one of the gastronomic charms of down-home Louisiana cooking to begin with. With three days at our culinary disposal though, we wanted to take our search beyond the “everyday”, and indulge ourselves in some of the acknowledged best-of-the-best.
To understand the history, geography and tradition that combine to make so-called Creole cooking magical we need to examine the origin of the word itself: crear, or in Spanish “to create”,was originally used solely to designate the offspring of Spanish, French and Portuguese emigrants who were born here. In a larger sense, it came to mean a “mixture”. However, when other people of French origin from Canada arrived, they were described as Acadians – a word which eventually was bastardized to “Cajun”. Actually five cultures had a hand in creating the food “umbrella” we call Creole (and Cajun).
The Choctaw Indians passed on their knowledge of how to flavor soups with ground sassafras roots, which the French called filé; slaves arriving from Central Africa brought with them the seeds of the kingumbo plant giving us the thickening power of okra (gumbo) and the art of slow-cooking in iron pots. The French contributed their ability to make a roux of flour thickening, sauces and the art of sautéing. The Spanish added their penchant for combining meat and poultry in the same spicy dish, leaving room for a healthy scoop of rice, and finally the Creoles escaping from the islands of the Caribbean brought with them the heat of the cayenne pepper. Add to this marriage of cooking techniques and cultures the generous “supermarket” lurking in the bays and bayous of Louisiana, and you have the shrimp, crawfish, oysters, turtles, crabs and fish just waiting for the pioneer chef. (One Creole gourmet was heard to say that when it comes to gumbo, “anything that swims, walks, flies, jumps or crawls” is fair game.) And let’s not forget the locally-made French Andouille sausage – a gumbo “gotta have”.
If there is one New Orleans restaurant establishment on every food connoisseur’s “bucket list”, it would have to be Commander’s Palace. First established in 1880, and managed for the last decade by the well-known Brennan family, it ranks among the world’s most highly rated and America’s top 20. Among its kitchen’s honored alumni are such chefs as Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse. My son and I were extremely lucky to get a reservation there given the brevity of our time window, and we were welcomed by a professional wait staff and an ambience which whispered of a long-established respect for history and tradition.
I started with a soup course which consisted of a demi-serving each of three specialties: a roasted tomato, pepper & chicken bisque, turtle soup topped with a touch of aged sherry, and a gumbo spiked with Louisiana hot sauce. My son went for Louisiana white shrimp wrapped with Tasso ham set off with pickled okra, sweet onions and a 5-pepper jelly. My entrée was a pecan crusted Gulf fish over crushed corn, spiced pecans and poached blue crab, while Chris chose a white truffle, oyster mushroom & Parmesan risotto with smoked mushroom broth. Then, we succumbed to their classic dessert; a bread pudding soufflé pierced at the last minute by the waiter’s spoonful of a hot cream sauce. Later, we were invited to the kitchen where we met Mr. Brennan himself!
We had wisely made friends with our hotel’s Concierge at the New Orleans JW. Marriott, and when we asked him to direct us to a restaurant which was unusual, wonderful, and little-known to the greater public, he managed to get us a table at Clancy’s, an off-the-beaten-path establishment which could easily be mistaken for a typical neighborhood residence by a casual passer-by, but which proved to be a rare uncut diamond for “foodees” such as we. Like Galatoire’s, another New Orleans “secret”, Clancy’s caters to a committed covey of “regulars”; patrons who have their own table, waiter and favorite wine, some of them a second or even third generation of a family-like gemeinschaften. There we were treated to a creamy corn chowder with crab for openers, crowned – for me – with smoked soft shell crab topped with more crabmeat, and for Chris with seared sea scallops so tender they parted with a mere touch of a fork!
To top it off, we enjoyed the frigid pleasure of Clancy’s famous “Ice Box Lemon Pie”.
In the end, there are too many good things to say about New Orleans and all things “Creole” to fit in one column. C’est la vie!