Note: There will be no mention anywhere in the article below about Hurricane Katrina, the subsequent devastation, the city's courage and resiliency. All these things have to be taken as givens when you write about New Orleans. Five years on, Katrina is a part of the city's history, a resource New Orleans has more than it knows what to do with already. This column is about the city's food, which seems to be the best it's ever been.
I've been going to New Orleans for most of my life, as I have family there, and as a result have eaten many, many, many meals in the food-crazed city but rarely any really good ones. Alan Richman pissed off practically the entire English-speaking world with his thoughtful but ill-timed criticisms of New Orleans food in 2006, but he wasn't actually wrong: a lot of New Orleans cuisine was overwrought, old-fashioned and generally lame. There was a tendency, in many of the city's most celebrated restaurants, to pile crabmeat on top of everything, mix in some French or Italian stuff, and call it a day. If innovation did come, it was frequently horrific: even as I write this, a menu at one of the city's most famous restaurants includes a "French pastry layered with melted Brillat-Savarin cheese, strawberry jam, brown sugar bacon & sticky bourbon infused honey." Blech! I used to see that sort of overly fussy (or ongepotchket, as we say in Yiddish) thing in New Orleans all the time. But at a number of new restaurants I went to over the holidays, I saw a smarter, cleaner, more exciting kind of New Orleanian food still rich in butter and Creole flavors, still deeply traditional, but with a new-school bent.
Two separate friends had alerted me to Sylvain, a new restaurant in one of those 18th century spaces that make the French Quarter so attractive to visitors. Restaurants in tourist areas are rarely any better than they have to be, which is to say not great. But Sylvain really tries, and the effort pays off. The thing that struck me was the minimalism, previously a rare commodity in New Orleans. Chef Alex Harrell serves beef cheeks that are just beef cheeks, oleaginous and tender, with a side of potato puree; a crispy-duck confit, finished with Pernod and served with some sumptuous white beans; garlic sausage with napa cabbage; a massive, imposing fried-chicken sandwich; and a very, very good hamburger. (I should note that Harrell knew I was coming as did the other chefs I visited; I always make reservations under my own name, rather than trying to dine anonymously.) Sylvain is not the final word in gastronomy, but the food there would be at home in New York City, Portland, Ore., or San Francisco which isn't true of anyplace else I know of in the Quarter.
Harrell was introduced to Sylvain's young owner, Sean McCusker, by Aaron Burgau, executive chef of Patois, a three-year-old bistro that has earned the ardor of uptown gastronomes. I can see why. Patois was so good that I ate there twice, including on Christmas Eve. It's pure New Orleans, from a restaurant whose family has been cooking in the city for more than 100 years, and the dishes range from the familiar-looking like panéed rabbit, which turns out to be a panko-crusted cutlet of shocking lightness, with a succotash of unprecedented vim and buoyancy to big sweetbreads in a Benton's country-ham reduction that are as starkly new as a Christmas present. Grilled lamb ribs come with a green-tomato relish that cuts their fat and little else. And giant Gulf prawns and chorizo arrive dressed with, but not swimming in, garlic butter with sherry vinegar. It's not that this kind of cooking is totally new: the city's resident celebrity chef, John Besh, has been doing it for years, as have various other local stars, like John Harris at Lilette and Donald Link at his meat-obsessed Cochon. But it's when you see food of that caliber showing up in lots of local places (and touristy restaurants) that you know something good is afoot.
Nor is the revolution purely one of measure and modernity. The farm-to-table movement hasn't gone unnoticed, and in fact one of its greatest exponents might be Besh's La Provence, an elegant restaurant way out in the country, across Lake Ponchartrain in Lacombe, that actually has giant woolly Mangalitsa pigs walking around in pens behind the restaurant. (There are also chickens, little goats, a garden and an elaborate composting program, but it's the pigs that are the stars.) My wife and I ate dinner with Besh and his family there (as his guests, I should add, for disclosure's sake), and the restaurant, which he took over in 2006, seemed to bring together so much of New Orleans with other things that are going on in American cuisine: the pigs were in the back, the immersion circulator was running in the kitchen, and the food represented the very highest expression of a New Orleanian cooking that was old and new at the same time. Besh's brilliant young chef de cuisine, Erick Loos, produces things like a blue-crab soup, served in a mason jar with tapioca pearls piled luxuriously at the bottom; lacquered duck of the kind that Besh and his buddies had been hiding in blinds shooting at for the previous three days; and a slow-cooked rabbit with tiny potato gnocchi pillowing around delicate, unfussy vegetables from nearby Covey Rise Farms.
You can't definitively judge a city by its most praised young stars, any more than you can judge a restaurant by a meal you eat with its owner. But I had seen enough in a few days to believe that New Orleans is rising to a higher plane, gastronomically speaking, than ever before.
Ozersky is a James Beard Awardwinning food writer and the author of The Hamburger: A History. His food video site, Ozersky.TV, is updated daily. He is currently at work on a biography of Colonel Sanders. Taste of America, Ozersky's food column for TIME.com, appears every Wednesday.