New Orleans, a Playbook

Four first-timers conquer the boozy, food-crazed city.

I’m happy to report that I’ve finally filled what was formerly a gaping gap in my resume with a trip to New Orleans. Last weekend, I headed south with a crew of first-timers: Saarim, Allison, and Ian. We sourced some stellar tips from NOLA obsessives and former residents (h/t Scott, Julia, and Ana Clare) and followed them with great success. Now, I’m sharing our playbook with you. Here goes.

Arrive in NOLA on Friday mid-morning.

First, stop: Turkey & The Wolf
This zany sandwich shop is very popular. Try to avoid weekend lines, and show up as close to opening (11 am) as possible. The wedge salad is great; the sweet potato sandwich—with morita romesco, whipped feta, basil, red onion, and red peppers on whole wheat—is a sleeper hit; and the kitschy, nostalgic decor (think vintage McDonald’s plateware) rounds it out.

Up next: Willa Jean
It’s a 35-minute walk to Willa Jean from Turkey & The Wolf—just enough time to work up an appetite for one of the bakery’s famous chocolate chip cookies. You might find yourself skeptical upon first look, as they lack those coveted browned and caramelized edges. One bite proves you wrong. The cookies resemble Alison Roman’s celebrated salted butter and chocolate chunk shortbread: brown-buttery in flavor with a moist yet sturdy texture and loaded with thin disks of three types of chocolate.

Head towards Marigny (where you are hopefully staying), meandering through St. Louis Cemetery #2 on the way.

Take a pitstop at Port of Call for a giant tiki drink to go. It’s time to start imbibing. Keep walking east.

Fourth destination: Bacchanal Wine
This is everyone’s favorite place, according to the many responses I received on my Instagram story. I get why. It’s similar to Detroit’s Motor City Wine, but cooler and more operationally sound. You enter through a wine shop and select a bottle and some cheese. Then, you have your wine opened and your cheese made into a board at check out, head back to the garden, grab some clean glasses, make yourself an ice bucket, find a table, and settle in. If live music isn’t on already, it’ll be coming soon. If only a place like this could exist in New York, everyone says, knowing it simply never will.

Dinner comes next, for which your options are many. We did Cochon, which I didn’t personally love, so I’m skipping forward to day two.

First meal of the day: Willie Mae’s Scotch House
Get to this institution as early as possible. It opens at 10 am, and as the morning rolls into the afternoon, the line ropes around and around. Don’t worry about the bouncer’s gun, he’s friendly, and you’re here for fried chicken, after all! Many say it’s the best in the country and while I haven’t had fried chicken all over the country, I’d be surprised to find anything better than what’s served here. Toe carefully as you make your way to your table; the floors are slick with grease. And once you’re seated, be patient; the food comes out slowly, but is well worth the wait. When the chicken arrives, use your hands to keep the shatteringly crisp, battered skin attached to the glistening and tender meat underneath. Tear off a piece of a breast or grab a leg, dunk it into Crystal hot sauce (and, if you’re like me, ketchup), and let the salty, crunchy sensation melt in your mouth. You want corn muffins for the table, butter beans as your side, and an Arnold Palmer to drink.

Follow up with: Pagoda Café
You might need a coffee to carry you through the rest of the day, and Pagoda is a local oasis only 10 blocks away. Order your preferred drink, take a seat at one of the teal-blue picnic tables, and wait for your name to be called.

Call a car to take you west towards Audubon Park. Try to climb the Tree of Life. Look out for giraffes over the fence. Then hop on the St. Charles Streetcar and head back in the other direction, ogling at all of the historic mansions as you ride. Get off in the Central Business District and find yourself back at Willa Jean for another cookie.

Aperitvo Hour at: The Elysian Bar
Peter and Paul is a beautifully renovated boutique hotel that was formerly a church and schoolhouse. In it sits this stylish spot for pre-dinner drinks. There’s a dedicated section of the menu for spritzes, which is a good place to start because this is the beginning of a big night on the town. Enjoy them in the back garden, with stained glass windows as your backdrop.

Maybe you still have time for another drink, before dinner? Mimi’s is a staple Marigny dive bar, with cocktails, wine, and plenty of beers.

Dinner time: N7
N7 was strongly recommended to us by several people, none of whom were wrong. The restaurant is mostly outdoors, with heat lamps, colorful mismatched chairs, hanging lights, and lots of plants. In addition to the sophisticated Bohemian aesthetic, French-leaning share plates get a Japanese touch and natural wine flows. That mushroom tarte flambée!

Bar-hopping in the French Quarter: Start at Cane & Table for excellent cocktails and a cool vibe, then swing by R Bar and Chart Room, which are divey and fun.

1 am must: Café du Monde
The beignets are as good as everyone says. Creamy insides, crunchy exteriors, oozing with oil but covered in a carton’s worth of powdered sugar to shroud it. Open 24 hours. Don’t miss it.

Finish the night at: Kajun’s Pub
Now you’re ready for karaoke. Put in your song immediately upon arrival. The queue is real.

Sunday brunch: Galatoire’s
Fun game: try to guess which tables are regular reservations. Look for folks with grey hair updos and tweed blazers. The super Southern fare is somewhat forgettable, although I’d eat the praline banana bread pudding again, along with café brûlot made tableside with the appropriate amount of pomp and circumstance.

Shop around or hit a museum—Blue Dream Vintage, Contemporary Arts Center, and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art are a few ideas.

Back to Bacchanal, because it’s the best.

The final dinner: Bywater American Bistro
The latest restaurant from James Beard Award-winning chef Nina Compton is a lovely locale with a wide-ranging modern menu rooted in New Orleans flavors. Super friendly service and local art on the walls add to the appeal. We loved the spaghetti pomodoro and the jerk chicken rice.

Catch a show (if you have any energy left): On Sundays, the Hot 8 Brass Band plays at the Howlin’ Wolf Den. Buy tickets online or at the door, it’s a good time.

Last but not least: Domilise’s Po-Boys
You can’t leave NOLA without eating a po-boy, so make it your last stop before heading to the airport. Domilise’s is a female-owned and run spot, and the ladies who take your money and make your sandwiches are stewards of hospitality. Opt for the roast beef or the shrimp with swiss and gravy over oyster. Get your Zapp’s voodoo chips at the bar.


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The fight fueled by Mexican mole

Saarim texted me this article when it was published in Grub Street on Tuesday, saying, “We have to go. Before it closes.” He’s been wanting to try La Morada for some time now and so have I. The fact that prevented us from getting there sooner is that The Bronx is further from Bed-Stuy than Queens, our typical destination for a dinner adventure. Suddenly, it felt imperative we go at once; the story by Chris Crowley details how Marco Saavedra, the son of the family who owns the Oaxacan restaurant known for its laborious moles, is an intrepid immigration activist facing trial for his asylum case next week. His parents are older and not able to work as often as they once could, which means the survival of the restaurant depends on his fate.

So I hopped in my car and drove to Mott Haven, scooped Saarim from the 3 Avenue-138 St 6 train stop, and parked around the corner from La Morada. We invited some friends to join us, who were coming from the nearby Upper East Side. A light blue awning reads “La Morada” in purple script besides childlike illustrations of a yellow sun and a pair of Oaxacan folks. The front door is painted black with the words “REFUGEES WELCOME” in red. You can’t miss it. Inside, the all-women kitchen crew wears traditional Oaxacan embroidered dresses. Photographs of Saavedra and his comrades in protest line the walls. We were seated in between a large party of organizers and a six-top of journalists. Like any night, Saavedra was there. When he came to take our order, we asked him what we should get.

Mole is a traditional Mexican sauce made of chilies, spices, nuts, seeds, dried fruits, tomatoes or tomatillos, and sometimes chocolate. There are endless combinations of ingredients, which are roasted and ground into a powder or paste, mixed with water or broth, and cooked to become a thick and oftentimes chunky sauce that gets spooned over proteins or vegetables. It’s an acquired taste. I didn’t love it until I tried it in Mexico City, where I discovered that not all moles are made with chocolate, as in mole poblano, the most popular version you’ll find stateside. And yet mole is something to be respected. Recipes have been passed down from generation to generation, from verde to negro to pipián. Making it is an arduous process. Before the advent of electric mills, women would grind and roast their mole ingredients by hand. When made properly, with regard to heritage, mole is homestyle cuisine—a complicated sauce comprised of soul.

“The only thing we’re out of tonight is the mole negro,” Saavedra begins. “The poblano is good with chicken. You like spicy?” We nod. “The Oaxaqueño is good with pork ribs, the pipián is good with vegetables, the blanco is good with chile relleno.” There was a special, too. Lamb barbacoa served with pico de gallo and escabeche. “For starters, maybe some guacamole.” The vegetable tyaluda would come with small cubes of squash, mushrooms, onions, and peppers. Great. Easy. Done.

What’s miraculous is how flavorful mole can be while still maintaining a stunning mildness. Like in the nutty blanco, driven by pine nuts, and comforting like mac and cheese when laden over a green chile pepper stuffed with sturdy queso fresco. Or in the earthy and slightly sweet poblano complemented by tender chicken legs, the table’s favorite. We sucked the mahogany-colored sauce off the bones and wiped fresh tortillas through the remaining pool of it. A sharp, dry heat hits your throat after a nibble of pork rib drenched in mole Oaxaqueño, but even the iteration deemed “VERY spicy” is more nuanced than it is intense.

When we were finished, I felt perfectly satiated. We ordered just right, perhaps. Each dish was complex and homey. But maybe, also, the feeling was thanks to the energy of the restaurant and the nature of the cooking: passionate, thoughtful, and spirited.

I hope La Morada will live on, that Saavedra triumphs. His family has created a treasure in the cornucopia New York eateries: a vital safe haven in trying times that serves up delicious, hard-to-find food. Saavedra belongs in the city where he built such powerful roots, and La Morada deserves to shine on.

La Morada
308 Willis Ave, The Bronx, NY 10454
(718) 292-0235

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Two sandwiches and a slice of babka, to share

The pleasures of a modern-day Jewish Delicatessen.

If you don’t watch The Circus, you should. It’s a documentary-style series that follows reporters John Heilemann, Alex Wagner, and Mark McKinnon behind the scenes of the current political moment. Each Sunday airs a new episode covering the last week’s events. Their access to key figures is remarkable, and the show’s entertainment value is palpable.

The best part of the show is how each episode begins, over a shared meal between the three hosts at a great restaurant, usually in New York or D.C. There’s some b-roll of the bustling atmosphere and dishes coming out of the kitchen, and then the trio sets the scene for the episode ahead, over caviar and tater tots at Union Square Cafe or spicy roasted rice cakes at Kāwi. They talk about what’s been shocking or intriguing and make predictions for the week to come. There are other meals sprinkled throughout each episode, too, as they split up and criss-cross the country to talk to politicians, government staffers, Washington vets, and voters, oftentimes over food and drink.

It’s how I learned about Perly’s, a Jewish delicatessen in Richmond, Virginia. It was season two, shot in 2017, and the meal was breakfast with former governor Terry McAuliffe. I took note of it then, saving it for whenever I made it to Richmond. That turned out to be last weekend.

After 30 minutes of waiting, you slide into a booth and scan the menu, hungry, hemming, and hawing. It’s 1 pm and you landed at Richmond International Airport just over an hour ago. Eventually, you decide to share: two sandwiches, a hot one called Oy Vey and a cold number named Goy Vey. Perly’s has a clever Yiddish tongue.

The first is made of 8 oz pastrami, 8 oz corned beef, and deli mustard on rye. Jewish rye bread is underrated, and Perly’s is appropriately fragrant with caraway seeds and so soft that you must pick your half up swiftly and carefully, otherwise, it will fall apart from the weight and moisture of the sliced cured beef. That flavor and texture, combined with the web-like architecture and melty mouthfeel of each meat—one smoked, the other boiled, both pleasantly salty—and cut with sharp mustard, is iconic for a reason. You dig your thumbs into the bottom slice and your other fingers into the top, securing the sandwich for a perfect first bite. Then you think of Katz’s and Schwartz’s because Perly’s is on par. 

God forbid that you forget that challah is fantastic sandwich bread. Mildly sweet and smushy, it melds to the giant mound of fresh turkey breast under two squares of cheddar cheese, crisped bacon, a slice of tomato, and a half-handful of romaine, with the help of a smear of mayonnaise. Your sandwich could’ve been a tad juicier, with a smaller portion of white meat, but it tastes like your childhood; of turkey, cheddar, tomato, and mayo wrapped in a store-bought flour tortilla and enjoyed in the summertime, before heading to the beach.

Skip the creamy coleslaw — coleslaw is either one of the world’s most underwhelming and poorly executed foods, or you’ve never been fortunate to have had the good stuff. Either way, this is a reminder to stop ordering coleslaw anywhere it’s not purported to be game-changing. Do opt for the fried brussels sprouts, one of fall’s great savory treats, served here atop thick and tangy yogurt. It works.

Stuffed with sandwiches, you’re ready to take on the city as first-time visitors, but there’s babka to be had, and you can’t resist. So you call for an order to go and get handed a brown paper bag stamped with the tagline “IT’S Yiddish FOR DELICIOUS.” You grab it and head for the door, satisfied with the weightiness, which promises proper density.

An hour later, and one museum exhibit in the books, you tear into the thick slice of bread marbled with rich, gooey chocolate, as you walk down the sidewalk. Each strand that isn’t fluffy challah boasts the consistency of a fudgy brownie. No one wants the regret that comes after eating dry, bready, babka and this one is concentrated and sugary, a little bit flakey, crumbly on top, and fully indulgent. Perly’s gets it right. L’chaim.

111 E Grace St, Richmond, VA 23219
(804) 912-1560

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What a time to be alive!

We are living in a pizza paradise.

Frankies 457 Spuntino, a longstanding neighborhood staple for cavatelli and eggplant marinara, became an Italian compound when it was joined, late last year, by Franks Wine Bar. Suddenly, regulars and visitors alike could pop in for a glass of something natural and snacks before, after, or in place of a meal at the sit-down spot. The two destinations are tied together by a kitchen and complimented with a picturesque backyard, the latter of which is now shared by a handsome pizzeria called F&F. Its recent arrival marks the establishment of a full-fledged culinary campus in Carroll Gardens, courtesy of chef-owners Frank Castronovo and Frank Facinelli.

The decor varies from room to room, each bearing a distinct personality, with warmth, elegance, and timelessness pervading throughout. A trace of Italy (the Naples yellow walls of F&F) here, a touch of Brooklyn (floor-to-ceiling exposed brick, in the spuntino) there. Friendly faces behind counters, bars, and at your table—taking orders, clearing plates. Old folks from the neighborhood, toddlers in pigtails, babies in björns, 30-somethings on their third date or 1,000th. It’s a sight to see, a fun place to hang, and that’s all without mentioning the pizza.

On a Friday afternoon, it’s cool and cloudy, the kind of fall day where you’re completely comfortable in just a sweater. The garage doors of F&F are open in the back and the front. Crisp air weaves through guests in line to order, awaiting their slices, and sprawled out across bar tables and garden seats, eating. There are three choices: marinara, plain, and Sicilian pepperoni. (Apparently, now, there are more.)

You put in an order for one of each slice. As reggae fills the space, balls of dough get stretched into round crusts, steam rises from the surface of crimson-colored sauce just out of the oven, fresh pies get sliced and slung. Ten minutes go by, maybe more—it’s hard to say because you’re in good company—and then your name is called. You ask a guy with a pizza wheel to slice all three in half, then walk them outside to the friend that you’re sharing with and whose manning your table.

The first bite tells all. The crust is ultra-thin and delicately crispy, with the tiniest inner layer of gooey gluten. The amount of cheese is just right; the ratio of mozzarella to provolone to pecorino, perfection. There are no sneaky seasonings to detect, like garlic powder or oregano. Instead, just a single basil leaf ripped in half plus a sprinkling of chili flakes and parm, which you shake to your liking. Next is the moist and doughy Sicilian seared with meaty roni cups. Your teeth pop a charred cheese blister on its surface, then rip through the open crumb to find a spectacularly pillowy inside. Finally, you find nirvana in the marinara: the sauce, laden with natural sugars and rich in umami, makes your lips pucker in satisfaction.

And it’s no wonder. The dough recipe comes from Chad Robertson of Tartine Bakery fame. The tomatoes are Bianco DiNapoli, largely considered to be the best you can get, grown and processed in California and overseen by the legendary pizzaiolo, Chris Bianco. And the olive oil? That’d be Frankies organic EVOO, of course.

I’m not one to shy away from convictions: this is the best pizza in NYC. And I’ve had most of the pies worth having. But not all! (To be fair.) It lives up to Beddia, and remember what I said about that?

Fast forward to Thursday evening, across two rivers and one state line. You’re in Jersey City, more specifically, an off-the-beaten-path neighborhood called The Heights, just east of Hoboken. You’re here for square slices of oval-shaped, Roman-style pies, fresh out the oven, crafted by another fabled baker named Rick Easton. He’s the guy behind Bread and Salt, a laidback eatery that first existed in Pittsburgh (where it garnered serious acclaim). Here, he’s set up shop in a clean café outfitted with—just like F&F—a glass-paneled garage door. His commitment to his cause is not unlike Brooks Headley’s, with whom Easton worked with on Superiority Burger’s Focaccia Friday program, and who is here tonight, working the early shift before heading back to the East Village where his veggie burger haven resides. You’ve brought your own wine, because that’s the rule. There are babies in high chairs and firemen in uniform, because pizza is for the people.

Your eyes glue to a giant sandwich in the making behind the short glass wall that separates the pizza and its makers from hungry guests. Rosy-pink slices of prosciutto get piled over silky strands of stracciatella atop crackly pizza bread. The other half of the loaf, long and thin and holey, is positioned on top. Then a serrated knife gets to work, producing a dozen specimens ready to order. You’ll have one of those, plus the other one that’s made with no cheese and just mortadella, whose butteriness pairs perfectly with Easton’s salty, crunchy bread, needing nothing else. You’ll have slices of the cheese-less rossa, fresh mozzarella, spicy ‘nduja with chunks of potato, wedges of green tomato and anchovy, plus the Concord grape-dotted, rosemary-scented beauty.

Rosemary, at least for now, is a favorite flavor for Easton. It announces itself proudly in a luscious, soupy pile of beans served with excellent bread. Then again, for dessert, in gelato paired with a whole poached pear. It’s fall, after all.

The red sauce slice wins again. Like at F&F, you can truly taste the elemental flavors, savor the brilliant texture. Here, that’s saltiness to a tee, bright and fruity olive oil, a hint of smoke from a light char. A lot of crackle with a touch of sponginess, not much chew, airy pockets, no gooey bits, utter flakiness. Your favorite dish of all is a “not pizza special”: more of that silky stracciatella, that excellent bread, those anchovies, and a handful of confit cherry tomatoes. Soft, creamy, salty, sharp, and sweet. Another winner is a hunk of bread smeared with a massive mop of tangy butter and topped with thick shavings of bottarga. Of this wildly indulgent, genius dish, you can only manage one bite.

You eat and you drink and you linger amongst friends, periodically getting up to check the pizza case, to see what new combinations are coming out of the oven, and if they’re worth budging for another slice. The menu here changes not just every day, but throughout the night. You take it all in, this pure whimsical mayhem. You stay as long as you feel, letting your clothes absorb molecules upon molecules of flour and crust. You make it count because Jersey ain’t so close to Brooklyn.

F&F Pizzeria
459 Court Street, Brooklyn, NY 11231

Bread and Salt
435 Palisade Ave, Jersey City, NJ 07307

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Eye candy

FiDi dining that‘s worth the hype.

Your eyes move from the snaky granite bar to the giant blonde wood hood hovering over the open kitchen and eventually up the soaring glass walls, pausing to linger on all of the little details. You take stock of the clientele, four-tops of finance execs, a giddy young couple celebrating a birthday, a table for eight women in dresses. You wonder how they all know each other. And then you focus back on your company, who nods in approval. You nod back. It’s nice in here, and you’re seated, even after having arrived two people short of a complete party. What a treat. 

You’re in FiDi, on the ground floor of a gorgeously appointed Art Deco building with a landmarked marble lobby and 67 floors. If it wasn’t for the restaurant’s sleek, modern design, you’d have felt like you stepped back in time. People have been telling you to come here. Specifically, trusted friends with great taste. “Every single dish was amazing. We got all of the desserts,” one said. “The wine list is extremely good,” said the other. “The whole operation radiates confidence from start to finish,” wrote Pete Wells, in a laudatory review. You were only waiting for an opportunity to secure a reservation and the right set of dining mates.

You found them in Josy and Andrew, an elegant duo and regulars at The NoMad, where James Kent, the restaurant’s chef-owner, previously led the kitchen. They arrive and you order wine, a delicious bottle of White Burgundy from Mâconnais. The complimentary bread is a neat pull-apart loaf with an olive tapenade center. You carefully rip off a soft, thin layer and let it melt in your mouth.

Your teeth crunch through the ridges of a savory churro, revealing a squishy inside oozing with gruyere cheese. You wipe a piece of crackly puffed bread through satiny white bean hummus and ‘nduja-laced oil. You can taste summer slipping away in a forkful of sugary, semi-dehydrated tomatoes with fresh peaches, creamy feta cheese, and a bright basil sauce.

Everything, so far, is very good. You all agree. So is the case with the mains. Saarim’s eyes light up with his first bite of the chicken, a Nando’s-reminiscent number marinated in citrus and paired with a creamy dollop of creamsicle-colored hot sauce. Its skin, golden and honeyed, peeks through a salad of lightly dressed Bibb lettuce, radishes, cilantro, and jalapeño rings. You can’t get enough of the perfectly cooked branzino filet, seasoned just right and addictively refreshing from various types of cucumber, mint leaves, and avocado purée. 

One final treat is in order. The sweets here, made by the pastry chef Renata Ameni, have a reputation of their own. The four of you share her chocolate tart, a masterpiece of texture and rich flavor: salty chocolate crust, mousse filling, pile of curls and shards, scoop of stracciatella ice cream. It’s distinctly different but just as delightful as your favorite chocolate tart, which has the addition of hazelnut and is served a mile and a half uptown, at Wildair.

As you make your way out of Crown Shy and into the Gotham city vibe of the Financial District at night, you scan the various rooms of the stunning space once more, studying its crevices and corners, taking a breath, and filling your lungs with the hum of this extraordinarily well-executed operation. You’ll definitely be back—when the moment is right.

Crown Shy
70 Pine St, New York, NY 10005
(212) 517-1932

This week’s eats

Trying out a new section here. Sometimes you’ll get reads, sometimes you’ll get recipes, sometimes you’ll get eats. It all depends on the week.

  • Grilled loukaniko sausage, Gregory’s 26 Corner Taverna. Sliced down the middle, seared crisp, and seasoned with fennel seeds and orange peel.

  • Spicy crab dynamite temaki, Nami Nori. The Maine uni temaki from this new sushi concept on Carmine St also hit.

  • Millet mochi donut, Win Son Bakery. Forget your apple cider donut, come here for a ring of supple dough fried to order with a springy, chewy texture known as “qq” in Taiwan and tossed in black sesame-sugar with a hint of salt.

  • Spare ribs and birds eye chili curry (I think it’s called gaeng khua prik), Ugly Baby. A new dish that’s fiery and flavorful, with tender meat that falls off the bone.

  • Shrimp rice rolls with cilantro and scallion, Joe’s Steam Rice Roll at Canal St Market. Top liberally with peanut sauce, toasty chili oil, vinegar, hoisin, and soy.

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