Food Adventures in The Big Easy

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I was in New Orleans for the American Society of Safety Professionals conference this week. What better place to enjoy life (between keynote speeches, collaboration sessions, and training with thousands of my fellow occupational safety geeks) than spending the after hours walking around NOLA, enjoying the pretty architecture, fine cocktails and local beers, jazz bars, and fabulous restaurants?

First stop on day one was the Diamond Street Grill, an unassuming and very affordable hole in the wall with some of the best Cajun food around. I happened to walk by while looking for a quick bite after my flight. I did a quick Yelp lookup and saw the rave reviews. I settled on their seafood and okra gumbo, a comfort food delight that was the perfect finish to a long day of travel. I could have eaten every meal here, since it was so good and the service was so friendly. I gave it my best shot, as you can see.

Dinner was so good that I had to come back for lunch to try one of their po’ boys that Yelpers were raving about, along with their enormous and delicious barbecue shrimp. The server made sure to provide plenty of bread to mop up the delicious olive-oil-infused barbecue sauce, an addictive treat.

After conferencing all day, it was time to play. I walked around the French Quarter, popping into a few jazz clubs for some music and cold Abitas, and just generally enjoying my solo time.

Jazz and Abitas in The Spotted Cat Music Club, a local favorite in Faubourg Marigny, just outside of the French Quarter.

It was time for a break from the Diamond Grill and to try out Cochon Butcher, the more casual sister to the neighboring Cochon located in the Warehouse District. It’s on the pricier end and a little more crowded. We fortunately arrived before the lunch rush, placed our order at the counter, and grabbed up a table just minutes before the lunchtime crush.

I ordered the pork belly sandwich, with a side of delicious housemade breadand-butter pickles. Everything is à la carte, so your $14 gets you just the sandwich and pickles. I loved the sandwich dressing with the hint of mint flavor and the tender and meaty pork belly.

Next up was Tommy’s Coal-Fired Pizza, conveniently located right across from the convention center, and roomy enough to accommodate a crowd.

I started with the wings, a deliciously different take on the usual bar fare. The wood-fired wings are marinated in a garlicky lemon and herb concoction, and served under a layer of sweet caramelized onions and some soft garlic bread. The truffle fries were gloriously garlicky, served piping hot, and completely addictive. Don’t miss the crispy truffle pizza, loaded with goat cheese, fresh mushrooms, and fragrant truffle oil.

I followed this with a bowl of their penne pasta (it’s spaghetti and meatballs on the menu, but they are very nice about substitutions), housemade meatball, and a savory Italian sausage link, served with a dollop of creamy, fresh ricotta and pesto. Paired with a J. Lohr cabernet sauvignon, the whole thing was so delicious that I forgot I was in Cajun country.

The next day’s lunch break brought us to Emeril’s New Orleans, Emeril Lagasse’s flagship restaurant. The service is impeccable, the staff very friendly, attentive, and immaculately dressed. Start with a signature cocktail. I had the Bulleit Buzz, containing Bulleit Bourbon, a rosemary honey syrup, lemon/lime, and citrus bitters, worth the buzz but making some afternoon caffeine a necessity to get through the rest of the conference day.

Emeril’s take on barbecue shrimp is a thick, smoky sauce over the freshest of Gulf shrimp. For the entree, you can’t miss with the tender, juicy, and flavorful chicken and waffles, served with a hot sauce syrup and a watermelon slaw. It’s a glorious, balanced mix of sweet, salty, and hot.

As if that weren’t enough, there was the glorious lunch at Cochon, the dressier sister to Cochon Butcher. We opted to share small plates and the wonderful Louisiana Cochon, a marvel of pulled pork, caramelized cabbage, and cracklin’s. We tore into the cochon before I had a chance to snap a photo, but take my word for it that it was incredible! My favorite small plate was the fish cake with creamed corn and cucumber relish, followed by the fat and very fresh oysters. The star cocktail was the In Bloom, made with Bristow gin, strawberry, hibiscus tea & burlesque bitters.

Finally, who goes to NOLA without eating at least one beignet? This is Cafe Beignet’s version. Cafe Beignet is much less of a wait for service than the always mobbed and touristy Café du Monde. The service is very friendly, the tiled tables are cute, and there was live music playing inside the tiny cafe. How were the beignets? Just OK, really. Warm and sugary, but nothing special, but at least I was able to check that off of my list before I left. I think I liked Cafe du Monde’s version better, but it’s been a few years since I’ve been there, so it’s hard to compare.

When in NOLA, you’ve gotta have the beignets

In case you were wondering, yes, I really did attend all of the conference sessions I had scheduled, in addition to going to all of the fabulous restaurants, bars, and jazz clubs! Here is the opening session speaker, Retired Air Force Officer Nicole Malachowski, who was the first female pilot flying for the elite Air Force Thunderbirds. Col. Malachowski talked about her experiences as a combat pilot and as part of the Thunderbirds Air Demonstration Squadron, which demanded flawless execution and attention to detail, because lives depend on it. What an inspiration!

Colonel Nicole Malachowski

My flight was delayed coming home, and there was a not-too-small part of me that was hoping for a cancellation that would propel me back in town for one more night, and another cozy comfort-food dinner at the Diamond Street Grill. Since it all worked out, and I got home at a reasonable hour, I’m settling for some experimentation to develop my own versions of some of the wonderful flavors I enjoyed. Stay tuned!

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