New Orleans’ ‘culinary imagination’ |

New Orleans’ ‘culinary imagination’

Linda HayesSpecial to the Aspen Times WeeklyAspen, CO Colorado
Make your reservations well in advance for Cochon, where chef-owners Donald Link and Stephen Stryjewski's delicious cooking contributes to an always-lively atmosphere.

NEW ORLEANS, La. – Etouffe. Gumbo. Jambalaya. Muffulettas. Pralines. Beignets. Cajun, or Louisiana, cuisine can make your mouth water (even if you’re thousands of miles away).At the New Orleans restaurants below – some longtime favorites, and some formidable newcomers with enterprising chefs – you’ll find lots of ways to satisfy your cravings. Just be sure to leave room for a little lagniappe along the way.

A reservation at Cochon can be tough to get. One step in and you’ll know why. Besides the buzz about chef-owners Donald Link and Stephen Stryjewski’s outrageously delicious Cajun/Southern cooking, the crowd cramming the plain wood tables always seems to be having a bang-up time. Cocktails, bourbons and brews from the sideline bar may have something to do with it.That said, the real action takes place in the open kitchen, and if you can grab one of the seats at the chef’s counter, it’s the place to be. A wood-burning oven crackles, pans and grills sizzle and spit, as a cadre of chefs turn local meats and seafood, artisan produce and andouille, boudin and smoked bacon procured from whole pigs at the in-house Boucherie into irresistible nibbles and bites.You’ll likely find it hard to choose. Don’t be shy. Try the crispy boudin balls, fried alligator with chili-garlic aioli, and fire-roasted mushrooms and grits cake topped with a poached yard egg. Follow that with pickled pork tongue, spicy grilled pork ribs, or deep fat-fried hog head cheese from the Boucherie. Keep it going with tender rabbit and dumplings, or mustard-crusted ham hocks. Stay for “Ice Box” Lime Pie with white chocolate mousse and salted caramel sauce. Come back for wines by-the-glass, house-cured meat sandwiches and all-natural butcher cuts to go at Cochon Butcher next door.930 Tchoupitoulas Street. 504-588-2123,

The newest in the legendary Commander’s Palace family of restaurants, Caf Adelaide was named after the Brennan clan’s Aunt Adelaide, who was known for her enthusiastic pursuit of the joie de vivre. Set inside the Loews New Orleans Hotel in NoLa’s trendy Warehouse Arts District, its dcor is reminiscent of the back gallery of Adelaide’s plantation-style home, with faux tiger-eye maple walls and windows overlooking the street.Staid it is not, especially when the Swizzle Stick Bar (also named after Auntie, who was said to have worn a swizzle stick around her neck) up front is in full swing. And for that, proprietors Lally Brennan and Ti Adelaide Martin are to thank. Known as the “cocktail chicks” and authors of “In the Land of Cocktails,” the pair have turned the place into one of the hottest spots in town for drinks like the Adelaide Swizzle (amber rum, Peychaud’s bitters, simple syrup, soda and a “secret ingredient”) and the Redheaded Stepchild (peach brandy, Calvados and orange juice with a superfine sugar and cayenne rim).When it’s time for a bite of chef Chris Lusk’s “boosted” New Orleans bistro cuisine, stick at the bar or move into the dining room. Either way, don’t miss creative dishes like shrimp and tasso “corndogs” laced with pepper jelly, horseradish biscuit-crusted oysters and black Atlantic drum poached in olive oil. Save room for white chocolate biscuit pudding with Abita root beer caramel.300 Poydras Street. 504-595-3305,

Curiously quirky and infinitely cool, this pint-sized eatery in a pedestrian alley (look for the painted goddess sign and umbrella tables outside when the weather’s good) in the French Quarter serves up exotic food and drink on a first-come, first-served basis.Everything is custom, from the whimsical, irregularly shaped wood tables to the short glass-block bar to the copper-pressed wallpaper on the ceiling. That goes for drink and food, too, dreamed up by a pair of globe-trotting chefs (Chris DeBarr does dinner, Paul Artigues lunch) who find inspiration in everything from cultural references to “figments” of their “culinary imagination.”Drinks range widely. There’s Brazilian cashew fruit juice and African coffee berry juice. Vietnamese coffee and international teas. Riffs on classic cocktails (try The Very Right Rev. Rob Roy). Serious wines and ales. Food menus, written with a sense of humor, portend serious deliciousness. “Shrimp wearing a grass skirt” is roasted Louisiana shrimp wrapped in shredded phyllo with barbecue shrimp sauce, roasted pineapple and young coconut slaw. “South Indian savory ivory lentil pancakes” come with tamarind chutney and spicy dal. There’s bison and bacon (a recurring theme) meatloaf, pumpkin and boudin risotto, and “spooky” blue corn crepes with Aztec huitlacoche. Don’t miss the “notorious” bacon sundae – praline ice cream, salted bacon caramel sauce and micro-planed Nueske’s applewood bacon layered with whipped cream.307 Exchange Place. 504-301-3347,

Longtime local favorite and James Beard Award-winning chef Susan Spicer’s skills have been in play at popular New Orleans restaurants, including Herbsaint, which she founded with Donald Link of Cochon, and Bayona, her signature spot in a two-century-old Creole cottage in the French Quarter. These days, she’s busy in the kitchen of her latest venture, Mondo, which she’s wanted to open for years.In New Orlean’s Lakeview neighborhood, revitalized post-Katrina, Mondo is colorful and contemporary, with cobalt and olive leather booths, round wood-topped tables, walls of windows and a sleek, busy bar. Menus are the work of both Spicer and chef de cuisine Cindi Crosbie, who did stints at The Little Nell in Aspen and the Hyatt in Beaver Creek before making her way to New Orleans. They follow Spicer’s concept of offering a variety of dishes from around the globe, including Louisiana standards with a twist, made from as much of the local harvest as possible.There’s lots of crossover between lunch and dinner menus, which is good if you’re craving skewered Thai shrimp and pork meatballs, Mondo burgers with griddle onions and Comt, or pizzas from the wood-burning oven. Lunch also means smoked trout bialys and fried shrimp Banh Mi. Dinner steps up with slow-roasted pork shoulder with black beans and plantains, and Gulf fish served “Muddy Waters” style with rich meuniere sauce, green onions, jalapeno and anchovies. Thick fruit-filled crepes, called Flaugnarde, from the wood-burning oven are tops.900 Harrison Avenue. 504-224-2633,

Too much of a good thing does not apply in New Orleans, especially when it comes to good eats. Work your way to the places below. Eat big. Leave happy.Caf du Monde: Start the morning off under the green and white-striped awning with world-famous beignets piled high with powered sugar (and best eaten fast before they cool). Pair it with signature chicory caf au lait. Check out the kitchen line in back, where trays of beignets are shouldered by seasoned wait staff in black-and-white unis and paper Caf du Monde hats.Mother’s: Don’t let the line out the door dissuade you. Half the fun is dishing with the locals on their way in to this 70-plus year-old Poydras Street landmark for egg and ham biscuits, roast beef debris, oyster Po’boys, crawfish etoufee, jambalaya (they serve more than 90,000 pounds a year), grits, turnip greens and more.K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen: It’s pushing three decades since Paul Prudhomme opened this French Quarter standard, and the place has been (some say) overly gentrified. But you still gotta go, even if it’s just to sip a Cajun martini, or grab a piece of sweet potato pie for dessert. You might even catch a glimpse of Prudhomme cruisin’ through. Acme Oyster House: Another must. Since 1910, people have been pouring into this French Quarter classic for fresh, hand-shucked New Orleans oysters, and there’s no reason (repeat, no reason) to stop now. Toss ’em back with a spicy Bloody Mary, or an Abita on draft.Caf Reconcile: For 10 years, members of this non-profit restaurant’s life skills and job training program have been dishing out fried catfish Po’boy, jambalaya, crawfish bisque, jalapeno cornbread, bananas Foster bread pudding and more. It’s lunch only and the Central City neighborhood is a bit off-the-beaten path, but it’s delicious and the cause is a good one.Central Grocery: Another French Quarter standard for made-to-order muffulettas (Genoa salami, mortadella, ham, provolone and marinated “olive salad” on a flattened disk of Italian bread), plus a variety of groceries, including the ubiquitous bottled hot sauce.