Monday, January 17, 2011

Cheap eats in the Big Easy

The unprepossessing Camellia Grill in the French Quarter.

Interior of the Camellia Grill: Standard American Diner decor.

A Camellia grillman works on an enormous omelet.

Before taking a train trip anywhere, I consult the habitues of TrainWeb's Amtrak forum, an invaluable repository of information about hotels and restaurants as well as rail travel. This time I wanted to know where to eat in New Orleans that wasn't either touristy or budget-busting, and the collective wisdom came through again.

Go where the locals go, they said, not the pricey establishments of the famous TV chefs, and they came up with a number of suggestions.

On our first evening in New Orleans, the Lady Friend and I dined at a highly recommended Cajun bistro called Cafe Maspero at 601 Decatur Street, cattycorner from the old Jax Brewery, on the edge of the French Quarter.

We weren't disappointed by either the prices (low) or the portions (huge). Or by the house merlot, remarkably good for $4.50 a glass. I passed up the much-praised muffaletta and jambalaya for a dish I've always loved, redbeans and andouille sausage over rice with a side of French bread. First-rate, and so large I couldn't clean the plate. (In the interest of full disclosure: the Lady Friend said hers was OK, only OK.)

The next morning we did the touristy thing and, after a few minutes photographing the sights at Jackson Square, broke our fast at Cafe du Monde, the historic coffeehouse in the French Market on the waterfront. As always, the beignets and cafe au lait were delicate and warming. The weather being unusually cold for New Orleans, just above freezing, the cafe's famous outdoor tables were closed, but there was room inside, where French Quarter workers grabbed take-outs for the office.

After two hours of camera work in the Quarter, we stopped at another highly recommended restaurant, the Camellia Grill on the corner of Toulouse and Chartres. (There's another on St. Charles Street near Tulane University, and branches in Baton Rouge and Destin, Florida.) Now this is where you find the locals on a workday morning.

This Camellia is an unprepossessing place in classic American Diner Style, with two large U-shaped counters flanked by fixed stools. On one side lie two grills and half a dozen workers.

On the Trainweb forum I was warned that the Camellia Grill omelets were hubcap-sized, way too big to finish. So the Lady Friend and I shared a ham-and-cheeser that was cut and served on separate plates, with separate piles of hash browns -- and still was way too big to finish.

I considered the omelet excellent, and the Lady Friend thought hers nonpareil. But the real attraction of the place turned out to be the chattering camaraderie among countermen, grillmen and customers. Amusing conversation ebbs and flows and surges all day, and the staff seemed as friendly to the two lone tourists as they were to the locals, telling stories of deep freezes of past years in the Big Easy.

And the prices are standard for diner fare -- inexpensive, but not dirt cheap.

After haring with our cameras all over frozen New Orleans all day, we returned to our hotel tired and cold, and both my back and knees were bothering me from the unaccustomed activity. At dinnertime we looked at each other and decided not to hobble out in the frigid wind again, but to remain snug and warm at the Omni Royal Orleans and dine in its Rib Room, no matter what it cost.

The Rib Room is definitely pricey -- two entrees, two glasses of wine and a shared chocolate mousse set us back more than a C-note, with tip. But this is New Orleans, and even the hotel dining rooms -- so often disappointing elsewhere -- live up to the city's high standards. The Lady Friend still swoons over her blackened salmon over stone-ground grits, drizzled with tabasco butter sauce. I was not in the least bit disappointed by my grilled black drum, fresh from the Gulf.

On this trip, life was finger-lickin' good, if you'll excuse the expression.

Inside the Cafe du Monde on an unseasonably cold January morning.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the memories - here and on your photo blog! ... of when a friend and I rode the Crescent from Birmingham to NOLA the last week of August, 2004 - 3 days. Don't know why I didn't take my little HP digicam. I want to go again! Have you seen "Hurricane on the Bayou?" I saw it here at the IMAX. The director thought "what if" and during filming, the "what if" happened in the form of Hurricane Katrina - so he got both before and after shots. So good that I bought the DVD.