Dining al Fresco!

May 10, 2016
Since we spend so much effort, time and money into putting a roof over our head, it’s pretty amazing how much we humans enjoy being outside, especially dining, with only the stars between us and infinity!

Who does not love the openness, the fresh air, the smells of the night, the soft wind, and the subdued lighting usually coming from candles slightly flickering. These are the moments of which lifetime memories are made.

In addition to the complete feeling of freedom from usual convention, there is a welcome change in the landscape, then add the savory moments when great cuisine marries satisfying beverages, fully painting the image of a perfect dining experience.

The French, as usual, have a perfect phrase for such moments, en plein air, which has also been applied to a fine art style when scenes of people interacting with the great outdoors are at the center of the work. The Italians, not to be outdone, coined the term al fresco dining, which means “in the cool (air)” but that is not really the phrase they note to refer to dining outdoors. The Italians actually use all’aperto, while the Spanish love to sit in the grand plazas enjoying paella al aire libre.

No matter what you call it, there are few other places in the world besides here that can present the setting of historic buildings, lush vegetation, the aromas of night-blooming jasmine, and a background sound track of soft jazz, punctuated by piano notes and a saxophone wafting in the breeze. Dining in the evening on a New Orleans courtyard with world-renowned cuisine, amazing cocktails, and easy listening music create those moments that we never want to end.

In the French Quarter, in particular, there are venues especially outstanding for dining outdoors. We would like to suggest a couple of notable places, both for the ambience and the cuisine.

One of the largest and most comfortable courtyards in the Quarter is on Conti Street, just a few doors off Bourbon, and within the well-appointed walls of Broussard’s Restaurant. This large space, surrounded by trees and plants indigenous to our semi-tropical climate, gives one room to stretch out while enjoying top-rated regional cuisine and a perfectly prepared cocktail or carefully chosen glass of wine.

Since 1920, this destination for dining and drinking has fulfilled its mission with stunning results. Originally, in 1834, the home was a grand palace for the Borrello family and was converted to a restaurant after the World War I was settled.

Today, Chef Neal Swidler blends the classic styles of the French culinary arts with the influences of New Orleans’ Creole flavors and ingredients. A more perfect marriage of space, ambience, tastes and flair would be hard to imagine.

Immediately, the appetizer choice becomes a struggle of which way to go, with Sweet Pepper Lacquered Duck hushpuppies accompanied by Southern pimento cheese spread and pineapple slaw; Steens Candied Pork Belly with New Orleans Red Bean pancakes and horseradish Crème Fraiche; and/or Tarragon Crusted Crabmeat Gratinee with Grilled Cauliflower and toasted French Bread among other offerings.

Soups and Salads are changed daily to take advantage of the season and availability of the freshest ingredients.

Decisions are no easier moving along the menu with the signature Filet Mignon Broussard - Seared Filet Tenderloin, New Orleans Barbecued shrimp with roasted garlic smashed potatoes and grilled asparagus; Creole Bouillabaisse - pan roasted sea scallops and Mirliton with almond sticky rice and saffron-lump crab rouille; and pistachio-crusted Rack of Lamb with mint couscous, feta cheese and smoky blackberry glaze.

Another courtyard dining experience enveloped in history is the recently completely revamped and re-energized Brennan’s Restaurant on Royal Street. If only these walls and banana trees could talk. Step over to the fountain and say hello to the honored residents, the Turtles of Brennan’s. Like everyone else, they love it here.

While the classic dishes, like Eggs Sardou, and Bananas Foster, invented here, never change, Chef Slade Rushing is on a never-ending quest to create “new” timeless dishes, a real challenge given that Brennan’s prides itself on offering an unequaled experience at breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Just by themselves, the seafood filé gumbo and the oyster soup are worth the visit, yet the menu goes on. Shrimp and Artichoke Salad, Grilled Foie Gras, and Octopus a la Creole have become mainstays of New Orleans dining.

The main courses don’t make choosing any easier than what comes before. Vadouvan Spiced Black Drum, Grilled Veal Porterhouse, Smoked Pepper Seared Tuna, Palm Sugar Roasted Duck, Lamb Rack Mirabeau, and Grouper Amandine are just a few of the noteworthy dishes created with pride in the downstairs “show” kitchen. There is a window to the kitchen from Royal Street where you can enjoy the show.

Dining in the outdoors in New Orleans is not limited to courtyards. Several restaurants will make you feel like royalty overseeing your domain with balcony dining. Balconies, of course, are very French Quarter and at least two are the settings for memorable and romantic dining and drinking experiences formerly available only to the local elite…not the case here today.

A rather recent addition to the French Quarter neighborhood, although they have been a part of Uptown for many years, is Salon. This sweet shop-gone-savory is tastefully well-appointed and provides a bit of a design departure from the French and Spanish influences at just about every other address.

That makes it no less authentic and certainly no less welcome to the Quarter’s blend of delightful decay and utilitarian whimsy.

The balcony here (actually a gallery since the space is the width of the sidewalk below) looks upon the stately magnolia trees that populate the grounds of the massive Louisiana Supreme Court building…quite an impressive view that includes a little Royal Street and a little Chartres Street.

The cuisine at Salon is defined by the classic separations of savory and sweet. Treasures abound on both sides of those offerings.

It’s a special place, so why not start out with something special. The Belgian Fries and Caviar, or the entire Caviar Service, set a proper tone for what is to follow. The main ingredients drive the rest of the menu but the accompanying side offerings are amazing. Duck comes with pomegranate, watermelon, watercress and a soft egg. Fish enjoys the company of couscous, sweet potato, Brussels sprouts and citrus. Seared foie gras would not think of coming to the table without pistachio, fig jam, phyllo, and yoghurt.

The sweet side boasts crepe brulee, pretzel donuts, cerise chocolate cake, and a positively sinful molten chocolate soufflé. It all proves the point that you are in New Orleans.

Balcony dining is also taken to unimagined heights at the iconic K Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen. This keeper-of-the-flame restaurant was founded and headed by the man who changed the way America perceives Cajun and Creole cooking. Paul Prudhomme was one of those rare geniuses who knew how to create and then how to satisfy his audience every day beyond their expectations.

Starting with anything but the Chicken and Andouille Gumbo or the amazing Turtle Soup with plenty of Sherry is not the usual approach so don’t fight the feeling. Move along to the Crawfish Enchilada or the Cajun Jambalaya, classic approaches with Paul’s deft touches.

Main courses include Bronzed Swordfish with Hot Fanny Sauce (probably not what you are thinking it is); Crawfish Etoufee; Blackened Twin Beef Tenders with Debris; and Blackened Stuffed Pork Chop with Marchand du Vin.

The most difficult aspects to dining in the French Quarter are all the hard decisions: where to eat; outdoors or in the dining room; what to order and what drinks, cocktail or wine goes with all those previous decisions.

It’s not easy but it is very rewarding. Bon Appetit!

819 Conti Street

417 Royal Street

Salon by Sucre
622 Conti Street

K Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen 416 Chartres Street