With the NFL season now in full force, I am reminded that there is a changing of the guard when it comes to quarterbacks. With Peyton’s retirement, the Brady suspension and iffy performances by some of the league’s veterans QBs coupled with the emergence of new blood lad by the likes of Carson Wentz, notice has been served. This might not be that different than the food scene, especially in New Orleans. Although the long standing staples of Cajun cuisine continue to be alive and well, one can argue that they are being upstaged by the new kids on the block which include Shaya, the 2016 James Beard winner for best new restaurant in the US.
Day 4 was a brunch more than breakfast day so my food adventures began down the road at Compere Lapin in the Warehouse district. Once again, the weather was ominous so a location close to the convention centre was most desirable. The website describes this destination as follows :”Inspiration for the menu comes from the traditional Caribbean folktales featuring a mischievous rabbit named Compère Lapin that Chef Nina Compton read during her childhood in St. Lucia. Drawing on the story’s themes of exploration and play, she mixes the indigenous ingredients and rich culinary heritage of New Orleans with those of her Caribbean roots. Tapping into her classical French culinary training and deep experience with Italian cuisine, the result is a playful menu that takes food you know, and makes it food you love”. In addition, Eater New Orleans included it on their where to have brunch list.
The decor is roomy and industrial. We were there early so the crowds had yet to materialize. The smallish brunch menu featured a mix of sweet and savory so I indulged in a little of both. I started with a vanilla bruleed grapefruit which I thought was a smart twist on the breakfast classic. Next was a mix of two of my favorite things: biscuits and gravy and poached eggs. I found it a bit underwhelming; the heat from both a spice and temperature perspective was a bit lacking. The service was decent but I actually found the cleanup crew better than the waitstaff. My water glass was never empty and the gentleman was polite and courteous. The actual service was just ok.
Since it was brunch I really didn’t have a formal midday meal but took the opportunity when I had a few minutes to sample the famous grilled oysters from Drago’s. Almost 25 years ago, a little experimentation with one of nature’s most delicious offerings became what is now Drago’s signature dish. I was a bit reluctant given my wariness toward cooked oysters in general but figured garlic, butter, herbs and cheese on anything is never a bad idea on anything. I sat at a seat in front of the grill and watched the magic happen. With a beer in and a cup of gumbo on the side, I delved into a half dozen for $12. Even with the large chunk of baguette covering part of the plate, it’s clear that a New Orleans half dozen is a bit generous. Not only that, I felt like a bit of a seagull because I was also thrown an few extra by the guy at the grill once in a while. I wasn’t complaining because they were delicious and cooked just enough to maintain the taste and texture I enjoy with a platter of raw ones. The gumbo was pretty solid too. In the end, it was an excellent pseudo-lunch rounded out by great food and incredible service.
Dinner was at the highly anticipated Shaya which took this year’s James Beard crown as best new US restaurant. Also located in the popular garden district, Shaya, which is the namesake of respected chef New Orleans Alon Shaya, totally deviates from the definition of New Orleans cuisine and instead offers food inspired by Israel. The decor is a modernized old Europe but we found the table a little odd in the sense that it was ridiculously high. Perhaps it was a means to deter people from putting their elbows on the table because unless you were six foot five, this task was nearly impossible. I was happy to be with a larger group which allowed me to sample a number of the small plates they offer on the menu. For example, they offer ten or so small plates for a reasonable $23 when you order 5. We went with the tabouleh, morrocan carrots, ikra, pickles and baba ganoush. To go along with it we also got the tahini and soft cooked egg hummus. All hit the mark in their respective ways. With that we also ordered a spattering of other traditional offerings including fattoush, crispy halloumi, falafel and some tahini and soft cooked egg hummus. All were fresh, nicely presented,well spiced and a reasonable value.
The service was less than stellar which is likely one of the reasons there were long delays between the above and main dishes. That said, it allowed our bodies to adjust to the copious amounts of freshly baked pita (there is an oven in the back) that we inhaled with the above dishes so I wasn’t upset that we only opted for three mains; the chicken, hanger steak and the slow cooked lamb. Each main incorporates both elements of middle-eastern ingredients and cooking styles (eg. tagine and slow roast) to produce food that hit both modern and traditional notes.
Ok, maybe my visit was reminiscent of my childhood compete with soft food, a high chair and service on my mother’s terms but the food was spot on and beautifully presented. Whether or not it is deserving of best new restaurant in America I will leave it to the real critics but I’m convinced the James Beard committee has a soft spot for both New Orleans and for pumping up the ethnic flavour of the day and Shaya meets both criteria. What was most disappointing was the service. It seems like even the boundaries of the big easy, which once housed the definition of southern hospitality, can’t repel the infiltration of self-centred service typical of the new foodie generation. Oh well, I guess even Drew Brees will have to hang up the cleats someday.