Table for One

The Best Thing I Ate on My Solo Trip to New Orleans

It wasn’t a po’boy or beignet.

by:
May 24, 2019
Photo by Rocky Luten. Food Stylist: Samantha Seneviratne. Prop Stylist: Amanda Widis.

Table for One is a column by Senior Editor Eric Kim, who loves cooking for himself—and only himself—and seeks to celebrate the beauty of solitude in its many forms.


When I landed in New Orleans, it was 11:59 p.m. I had taken the latest flight out of New York on a Friday for a week-long solo trip to clear my head of the city noise. Once I got to my destination, I had to scavenge for lodging. I hadn’t booked a room in advance. This is how I usually travel: I fly late into a new city and check into the cheapest motel I can find next to the airport because, I figure, why pay for a whole day when I’m just catching a couple winks? It works 99 percent of the time. Unluckily for me, it was the weekend of an LSU v. UGA game, which meant absolutely every single room in New Orleans was booked.

I was desperate. I flipped through my phone book and called my friend Daniel, a cellist for the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra. He happened to be awake and gave me his address. I trekked to his apartment to stay for the night, until the next morning, when I was able to snag a room at a hotel in the French Quarter.

Things were looking up, or so I thought.

I decided to park myself at the hotel bar to look through the gargantuan list of restaurant recommendations I had collected in the weeks leading up to my vacation. My friend Amelia had forwarded a chain from her editor at Bon Appétit who claimed that “for old-school places like Galatoire’s, Commander’s, and Antoine’s, it’s all about the Friday lunch.” So I made a lunch reservation at Commander’s Palace for my last day. One of my writers, Shane, had sent me this email:

OH MERCY.
You must go to the Bywater and visit Island of Salvation Botanica. On Friday night, go to Blue Nile on Frenchman St. and hope that Kermit Ruffins is playing.
Chris Hannah has left Arnaud's French75, but still get a cocktail there. When it's second line season keep asking people what's happening on Sunday.
Do NOT eat beignets at Cafe du Monde. Focus on the women who cook. I.e., Nina Compton at Compère Lapin.
Follow Pableaux on Instagram.

Shane’s guide (and a thousand others from friends) in tow, I set off on my New Orleans adventure.

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Top Comment:
“Couple of thoughts for you Eric as a current and longtime resident of New Orleans that loves solo dining. Cafe Degas for brunch is delightful. Chargrilled oysters at the Blue Crab on the lakefront during happy hour watching the sunset and the sailboats is magic. The grilled veggie sandwich on raisin toast at Napoleon House sounds weird but is amazing as well as the shrimp remoulade stuffed avocado. Turtle soup at Mandinas. Michael Gullotta is doing great things at MoPho. Issac Toups at Toups Meatery and Toups South. You've already had the pleasure of dining at one of Ms. Ninas' spots. As for the ubiquitous po-boy, go to Killer Poboys (no boring fried bland seafood). Enjoy.”
— Anna
Comment

The second best thing I did in the city was take Shane’s advice to follow Pableaux Johnson, a New Orleans–based food writer, photographer, and all-around good guy, on Instagram. He invited me to one of his red beans and rice dinners, a gathering he hosts every week, bringing together all manner of friends and strangers—some food writers, mostly New Orleans academics and musicians—around his dining room table with a big pot of the classic rice and beans supper, plus a super savory, crunchy-at-the-edges cornbread (a recipe he got from his dad).

Pableaux’s house had a stained glass–windowed front door, and the way he grinned at me when I walked in looked as if he’d already known me for years. I brought him a bottle of Four Roses because Shane told me to. Conversation flowed, and I left that night feeling very full and very much less alone.

Despite the perfect evening I had at Pableaux’s (and some of the best red beans and rice I’ve ever tasted), much of the restaurant food I ended up eating the rest of that week was disappointing: heavy, greasy, and not quite what I envisioned considering the hype. Maybe it was because my list was so fat, but I felt that I had made all of the wrong choices despite the bounty of recommendations. I ate mediocre étouffée, limp beignets, soggy fried chicken, and one of the worst po’boys I’ve ever had. Perhaps it was that I had too many recommendations and didn’t know which ones to heed and which to ignore.

Regardless, I couldn’t help but feel that I had done the city wrong. I came for a relaxing time alone, but, save for my night with McCellist, my dinner with Pableaux, and the World War II Museum, I found the experience a little miserable overall. With each bad restaurant meal I had, I was reminded of how lonely I was. It didn’t help that I wasn’t talking to my boyfriend at the time and was feeling more depressed than usual.

That’s when I thought that maybe New Orleans just wasn’t the city for me.

Was it that certain cities lend themselves to solo travel more than others? Compared to densely populated Tokyo, Paris, and New York, for instance, New Orleans felt sprawling and difficult to get around. Where Portland, Maine and Honolulu offer the calm of quiet docksides, beaches, and bars fit for reading a book throughout an entire afternoon, NOLA was more suited for conversing with friends over jazz and whiskey shots, or strolling through the French Quarter for the Carnival celebration.

But what of us loners?


On my last day, I woke up feeling defeated. It was 9:32 a.m. on Friday morning and my flight was at 3. But the thought of one last heavy meal was more than I could take. So I pulled out my phone and scrolled through my long list, stopping at this one line from Shane:

Focus on the women who cook. I.e., Nina Compton at Compère Lapin.

I decided to ditch my big NOLA lunch at Commander’s and walked into Compère Lapin instead, right on Tchoupitoulas Street and Lafayette. It was a cool and quiet respite, just what I needed after the uncomfortable week I had just endured. There was one item on the menu that caught my eye: a butternut squash ravioli with broccoli rabe puree and ricotta salata. It was like a sip of water in the desert. After all the beignets and po’boys, my body desperately craved vegetables.

The best thing I ate in New Orleans. Photo by Eric Kim

The puree was so bitter, in the most pleasurable way, measured by the sharp cheese and sweet squash. It made me think of what Jennifer McLagen once wrote about bitterness:

Our tongues are covered in taste buds that are very adept in detecting even the smallest traces of bitterness. This is a natural defense system to protect us: many poisons are bitter, so our response when tasting something very bitter is to grimace and often to spit it out. This reaction is strongest in babies, as small amounts of toxins can kill them. As we age, we lose taste buds, and we also learn that not all bitter foods will kill us. In fact, we realize that many bitter foods, like coffee, bitter alcohols, and chocolate, stimulate our nervous system in ways we enjoy, so we actively seek them out. Over time we have also discovered that many bitter foods contain compounds that can protect us against illness, and positively influence our health.

My stomach was grateful for this vegetal reprieve, my heart full of renewed health.

I boarded the plane feeling that I had somehow redeemed myself. I had found a dish that I actually enjoyed eating. In recent years, so many people in my life have lauded New Orleans as one of their favorite food cities, but it took my last bite to finally find that one thing just for me.

What I learned, too, yet again, was that even when I set out on a solo trip for rest and relaxation, time to be with myself, what I end up finding is the exact opposite. And the things I end up learning, I never would have learned had I traveled with the comfort of another person. I never would have met Pableaux and been invited into his home. I never would have spent an evening with the cellist and had a taste of his favorite local bourbon before bed. I never would have felt the discomfort that led me to seek out the food I actually wanted to eat.

More recently, I found myself thinking back on the good parts about that trip. I realized that the best moments were, in fact, those when I wasn’t alone at all. Then, I thought about why I leaned into those moments in particular, and why maybe sometimes, what I’m looking for when I go somewhere new isn’t necessarily to be alone—it’s to reach out.

I thought about that dish for weeks after, especially the bitterness and how much I enjoyed it. Until one day, I couldn’t take it anymore and had to make it myself.

A bitter broccoli rabe puree measures the creamy rice. Photo by Rocky Luten

So I developed a risotto version. I blanched a handful of broccoli rabe for a brief two minutes (no longer) to maintain its vibrant green color. Over the sink, I wrung out as much water as I could and pureed it with some cream. The risotto base happened like an old habit: a little butter, shallot, and Arborio rice, toasted, then plumped up with ladleful after ladleful of Better Than Bouillon chicken stock. I folded the broccoli rabe puree into the creamy risotto and watched it dye a glorious viridescence. With plenty of Parmesan—both grated finely into the rice and shaved thinly over it—it tasted not unlike the broccoli-cheese-rice casseroles I grew up adoring, but much bitterer, much better.

My body thanked me for this vegetal elixir, as it did on that last day in New Orleans.

Should Eric have followed through on his lunch at Commander’s Palace? Or did he make the right decision? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.

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Eric Kim is the Senior Editor and 'Table for One' columnist at Food52. Formerly the Digital Manager of FoodNetwork.com, he writes about food, travel, and culture and lives in a tiny shoebox in Manhattan with his dog, Quentin "Q" Compson Kim. His favorite writers are William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway.

107 Comments

Susanna June 15, 2019
I’ve been to Commander’s only once, 25 years ago on my only trip to NOLA to date. Even then—with Emeril in the kitchen, I believe—I was distinctly underwhelmed. I have, however, always harbored a dream of going to Galatoire’s.

Did you at least have a decent muffaletta when you were there? I think that is my fondest food memory from that trip. Also went to some current chefs’ places, e.g. Susan Spicer, but I’m sure it was all very different in the 90s.
 
Jeff T. June 6, 2019
Anything Nina Compton puts on your plate at either Compere Lapin or Bywater American Bistro is worth your attention and they have great cocktails to go with that great food
 
Margaret D. May 31, 2019
I haven’t done much solo travel but I do have a recommendation that helps every time I’m in a new city - ask the police officers where they eat. More than likely they know about a neighborhood restaurant that is delicious and reasonable.
 
Lynne W. May 30, 2019
I tried to follow Pableaux Johnson on IG but there wasn’t a food writer by that name. Help! Please.
 
Susan June 1, 2019
He is a photographer.
 
Amelia R. May 30, 2019
I've been so nervous about going to Thailand by myself and reading this makes me feel so comforted and empowered! Can't wait to lean in to the unknown and meet new people! Also, so curious about all the bad food you ate. Next time I see you, you must tell me where!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 30, 2019
Better yet, let's go together!
 
Amelia R. May 30, 2019
Can we just make a plan already?! :)
 
Kevin B. May 30, 2019
This article is another reason why this site needs a “Get to the Point”, or a “Take me now to the recipe” button. I had to scroll quite far because I really was only interested in the dish being written about, not the long story. I know some people love that, but not me.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 30, 2019
“Get to the Point” is good. I'll suggest that to our product team.
 
Stephanie D. May 30, 2019
Hi Eric,

I tend to read these articles & corresponding comments from the sidelines, but your (consistently evocative) writing compelled me to comment today. You bring up the interesting dichotomy of New Orleans: a city both booming with pleasure and activity yet an oddly lonely experience for the solo wanderer. I lived here for 3 years while attending graduate school and so feel a piece of myself will always belong to New Orleans – and New Orleans to me. I think the French Quarter, founded by Europeans, and the very heart of the city, underlines the communal nature essential to a “traditional” New Orleans experience. So many activities, even dining in the city, are best when shared. While I loved going to festivals with friends, meeting up for pho at 11 on weekends, grabbing drinks, wandering Royal St…. I relished the moments that became solely my own.

My first purchase in New Orleans was a bike, and this became my favorite way to see the city. I would wake up very early on Sunday mornings and bike around Audubon Park. Along the way, I would smell the beginnings of post-church Sunday lunches being prepared, every block bringing a new fragrance (and not all lovely, but all distinctly New Orleans): roasting chicken, blooming jasmine, souring vodka, slow-cooked barbecue, hot garbage… this was my ideal solo experience, drinking in the sights and smells that defined a sleepy city on a mode of transportation that didn’t demand interaction. A perfect lazy Saturday afternoon meant picking up picnic foods at St. James Cheese Co and transporting them to The Fly. And as you discovered, it’s hard to go wrong with the ever-expanding WWII museum.

I hope you go back to New Orleans; it grows on you. Once you make it your own, you will feel a strange possessiveness – look at all the comments here! There’s something magical about the city - perhaps the foreboding not-so-distant future, sinking NOLA into the water a little deeper each year, that drives people to make a case for it before it disappears.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 30, 2019
Stephanie! I appreciate this comment so much, especially on this gross rainy night in NYC. Thanks for reading and sharing your wisdom with me, especially this: "I relished the moments that became solely my own."

After all these comments, and yours, I don't doubt that New Orleans will grow on me.
 
Hollis R. May 28, 2019
where's my comment? i spent literally hours on it (with appropriate foods, restaurant names, and addresses)! if it's just being moderated before posting, then fine. if it's gone completely, i can replicate it for you if you'd like. i include entries from Mother's, Casamento's, Café Du Monde, and the Camellia Grill of yore (before it changed hands).

i just came back to add my thanks for the article, the lovely quote re bitterness and the nature of taste buds, and the two recipes: the beans & rice (i make a loaded black-eyed-pea soup with collards, smoked hocks, andouille, sometimes tasso, and okra) and, especially, that broccoli rabe risotto. *bitter* would be my middle name if it weren't *Evon*!
 
Hollis R. May 28, 2019
i have pickle juice in my fridge -- always -- but usually it's from pickled jalapenos. that should be perfect, don't you think?

i love the idea of getting hot sauces by mail, but $120 for 12 sauces, plus $9/delivery times 4 (!), is out of my price range. i'll be fermenting and making my own. that way, i can get EXACTLY what i want.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 28, 2019
Hi Hollis! I see your original comment as a reply to Cherie U.'s right below. Thank you so much for your guide (and your insider's tips!). Will be sure to use it the next time I make it out.
 
Hollis R. May 28, 2019
hi, Eric (my brother's name!),

yeah, i realized that a couple of hours ago. glad to be of help. i also cook for one -- myself only -- and i love eating alone in cozy restaurants, too. my favorite restaurant in the world is The Nosebag in Oxford, England. i usually went alone. but that was 45 years ago ... and they are still going strong at the same location! they're also on-line, with a Facebook page and a website. no pretensions; just great British fare.

i used my comment to you so i could remember the great food i ate in New Orleans, but also so i could google the actual foods i loved so well, and the restaurants that served them. now i have a photo of Casamento's, of Mother's Debris Po'Boy, and even of The Nosebag. i still need to locate a photo of Casamento's dreamy to-die-for Oyster Loaf.

i'd love your feedback on my suggestion about using jalapeno pickle juice in the Red Beans and Rice recipe, too, if you have any opinion about it.
 
Hollis R. May 28, 2019
EUREKA, I FOUND IT! TripAdvisor won't let me save the image, but i did an end-around: saved it to Pinterest, then went to the source and saved the image there! haha
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 28, 2019
The Nosebag is just...the best name. Will have to check that out the next time I'm in England.

And just confirmed w/ the recipe author that jalapeño pickle juice would work great in that recipe. The main point about using it, anyway, is the sour-salty brine; jalapeño would just add some nice heat, if you're good with that.

Thanks for sharing, Hollis. :)
 
jodyrah May 31, 2019
Most of us here in Nola prefer to get some vinegary heat on our red beans with Crystal. And yeah, if you were disappointed with our food, it’s on your poor choices or lack of research, sorry. (Especially if Compere Lapin provided your highlight).
 
ChefJune May 27, 2019
I enjoyed your article, but so sad you were disappointed with the food overall.
I'm surely not a local, but I can never go to New Orleans without a meal at the legendary Dooky Chase. Ms. Leah is still cooking there at 95! And although I can make Shrimp Clemençeau myself, it's so much better there. Only open for lunch, next trip, be sure to go see her.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 28, 2019
Thanks, ChefJune. I've never had Shrimp Clemençeau! Will definitely try that at Dooky Chase next time.
 
Emily May 27, 2019
And my group found Compere Lapin to be truly awful - overly salty, undercooked food. This came highly recommended to us by a former local who strongly insisted we needed to eat here. What a true letdown.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 28, 2019
Sorry to hear that. What did you order?
 
Emily May 28, 2019
We had the pork loin which came to the table salty and undercooked (which is not quite safe). Also a fish entree was also super salty, plus conch croquettes which was nothing bit bread.

If you want to try somewhere unassuming bit delish, Try Mother's! It's a divy place but the food we could not stop eating after one bite. Also try Jimmy J's - we ate there so many times.


 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 30, 2019
Sorry you had that experience! Will add Mother's and Jimmy J's to the list. Thanks, Emily.
 
Joy May 27, 2019
The best advice I have ever received is watch where the locals eat and go there. It has never failed me yet. It always leads to surprisingly good food and great experiences.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 28, 2019
Too right, Joy.
 
Paula May 25, 2019
I've been to NOLA with recommendations from a friend that lived in the area. My experiences were mostly good, but each person will take away something different in experience and their dining. What I mostly wanted to say is how gifted you are at evoking feelings and experiences for the reader. Thanks for sharing that with us.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 28, 2019
Aw Paula, thank you so much. Couldn't agree more with this: "each person will take away something different in experience and their dining."
 
Joe S. May 25, 2019
Yes New Orleans is best shared. That said you should have asked locals where to eat. I think your trip would have been different. The neighborhood restaurants we favor are entirely different from the flagships like Commanders,Galatoire's,ect.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 28, 2019
Right, I had a long list from a couple (locals) I met on my flight there. I do think a common thread here has been to avoid Commander's—save for the dining "experience" which, as you say, is best shared. Thanks for reading, Joe.
 
Robert H. May 25, 2019
Noticed no on mentioned Michael Gulotta's Maypop Restaurant. A fusion of contemporary Louisiana cuisine (often stemming from diahes from his childhood) and South East Asian (think hand ground curries). The spirit of his dishes at their core are undeniably Italian (theres a curing cabinet with an array of rotating meats, and the pastas are of course done in house), but everything feels like his personal musings on what a given protein, vegetable, or season means to him. Maybe check it put on your next trip here or pass the reccomendation on to a friend.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 28, 2019
Sounds incredible! Thank you for the rec, Robert.
 
Chris P. May 25, 2019
I knew this article was going to be a waste of my time when you said you couldn't find a hotel anywhere in New Orleans because of an LSU v Georgia football game.
You see, LSU plays their home games in Baton Rouge, not New Orleans.
Yes, there may be a few Georgia fans who fly into NOLA Friday night and stay it certainly isn't enough to sell out the city of hotel rooms.
Poor attempt at not admitting your per diem wouldn't cover housing.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 28, 2019
Just to be clear: This was a personal vacation l took last year, not a work assignment. So no per diem.
 
Henry A. May 25, 2019
Too bad you took the advice ofoutsiders and ate at places run by outsiders. I could have told where to get the best poboy you've ever eaten, where to get the best beignets, where to get some kick ass seafood and where to get anything local you wanted. Our food , culture and reputation is being destroyed by newbies thinking they can make the best better by making it different. Come again and ask me what's cooking.
 
Cj34668 May 28, 2019
Please share as we are planning a trip soon!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 28, 2019
What's cooking?
 
Anna May 25, 2019
Couple of thoughts for you Eric as a current and longtime resident of New Orleans that loves solo dining. Cafe Degas for brunch is delightful. Chargrilled oysters at the Blue Crab on the lakefront during happy hour watching the sunset and the sailboats is magic. The grilled veggie sandwich on raisin toast at Napoleon House sounds weird but is amazing as well as the shrimp remoulade stuffed avocado. Turtle soup at Mandinas. Michael Gullotta is doing great things at MoPho. Issac Toups at Toups Meatery and Toups South. You've already had the pleasure of dining at one of Ms. Ninas' spots. As for the ubiquitous po-boy, go to Killer Poboys (no boring fried bland seafood). Enjoy.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 28, 2019
That all sounds magical. One other person mentioned Gullotta, so will definitely check him out. Thank you, Anna!
 
bboutside May 25, 2019
Ah, NOLA. Had a wonderful four days there in the winter. The absolute best meal we had was brunch at Compere Lapin. The space was quiet and cool, the staff attentive and friendly, and the food - so perfectly creative, well-prepared and delicious. Glad you stopped in, Nina Compton has a gift for sure.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 28, 2019
NOLA in the winter sounds like a great idea. And so encouraged to hear that you felt the same about Nina!
 
NOLA M. May 25, 2019
I am a first time reader. Your problem was that you got bad advice from.uninformed people that rely on yelp or other digital forms of information..

I have gone out alone many times and found food, music, and experiences. If your friend who plays the cello coukd ahow you a good time, imagine a rwal jqzz experience ? All of us in the know , know how to find kermit ( not at blue nile )..if you spent a.week here and didnt have fun and great food, then its your selection process and ot the city. I would be happy to give you an insiders set of referrals , but you jave to come back for a REAL experience ..
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 28, 2019
Apparently! Will be back soon to do it right.
 
Morgan T. May 25, 2019
Hello Nola native and life long resident foodie here. Reading your article reiterates one of my greatest fears when making restaurant recommendations. There are so many different experiences to be had with our unique culinary scene that people can be very easily mislead by someone else's favorites. Many of my favorite restaurants have been called pretentious or overly hip by some of my closest friends. And visitors all to often give me puzzled looks when I can't tell them where to find great versions of "local cusine" like gumbo, jambalaya, and etouffee but instead recommend the truely unique Nola creole / St. Lucian Caribbean style of Chef Nina's Compare Lapin or the French / Japanese canned food inspired menu at N7. A Californian, a Midwestern, a New England palate, will each have very different ideas of what an enjoyable meal would be. The truth is the best version of gumbo, jambalaya and etouffee are always the ones momma made at home on a random Tuesday evening and most of the restaurants that serve them are tourist traps with uninspired recipes and staff.
I often find myself replying to requests for restaurant recommendations with the question " tell me about your favorite restaurants back home" offered as a trade of local knowledge. It's not that I ever really plan on visiting Sheboygan or Ames or wherever, it's that I collecting intell on what that person enjoys in order to make a recommendation they might like. Now if only I could design algorithm to do it for me, make it an app and make the food world a better matched place, lol. But then again, maybe that would defeat the purpose and take away from the fun.
There is magic to be found here and sometimes the best part is discovering it all on your own.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 30, 2019
I love your thoughtful, empathetic approach to restaurant recommendations. You're so right that taste and experience and memory are all subjective. I'm ashamed to say I've never thought to ask people asking for NYC recs, "Well, what do you like?" I always just spew my favorites!