Until around 1978, cream soups were not often encountered in New Orleans restaurants. If you saw a bisque on the menu, it was probably the Creole-Cajun kind, made with a medium-dark roux and neither cream nor pureed rice, as the French chefs would have had it. Those guys–who ran much fancier, more expensive restaurants than they do now–usually had one or two cream soups, made either with pureed vegetables or seafood. Neither was especially popular.
And then Chef Paul Prudhomme made a pot of crab and corn soup at Commander’s Palace. It was a big bang, spreading across town to any restaurant even thinking about grabbing the trends. The Uptown bistros springing up around then served crab and corn soup as often as they did gumbo.
The cream soup craze ended quite some time ago. But cream soups are no less delicious, and it’s always a pleasure to encounter a good one. Of course, crab and corn soup is still very popular. I have a few of those on this list. Otherwise, I’ve limited myself to one each of most of the other varieties of this pleasurable potage.
The amount of cream varies widely, from just enough to add richness to the very, very creamy. One has no cream at all, the role being played by coconut milk.
1. Ristorante Filippo. Metairie 2: Orleans Line To Houma Blvd: 1917 Ridgelake. 504-835-4008. Zuppa Phillippa is an eminently delicious, creamy seafood soup studded with generous pieces of shrimp and crabmeat. It’s named after chef-owner Phil Gagliano’s mother. In any Italian restaurant, the dish so named is usually the best dish in the house.
2. Vincent’s. Uptown 4: Riverbend, Carrollton & Broadmoor: 7839 St Charles Ave. 504-866-9313. When Vincent Catalanotto first served this, he put it in a bowl made by cutting a round loaf of French bread in half, hollowing it out, and pouring the soup into it. That’s a good gimmick, but the soup stands on its own as a textbook version of what is now a local classic.
2. Vincent’s. Metairie 3: Houma Blvd To Kenner Line: 4411 Chastant St. 504-885-2984.
3. Le Foret. CBD: 129 Camp. 504-553-6738. Le Foret reaches back into the past for a lot of its dishes, and its crab bisque is a good example. It’s really a chowder, made with both corn and potatoes. The crabmeat component is the biggest jumbo lump crabmeat imaginable.
4. Dakota. Covington: 629 N US 190. 985-892-3712. One of the signature dishes of the restaurant, the crabmeat and brie soup at Dakota is the richest soup on this list. I’m only barely joking when I say that you might be able to turn the bowl upside down without the soup flowing out. Don’t try this, because you’ll miss the pleasure of eating it. Widely copied around town, but this is the original.
5. Latil’s Landing. River Parishes: In Houmas House Plantation. 225-473-9380. Bisque of curried pumpkin, crawfish, and corn is the house soup at the restaurant of Houmas House Plantation. Rich, chunky, with a marvelous hint of fall in the air.
6. Café B. Metairie 1: Old Metairie: 2700 Metairie Road. 504-934-4700. Shrimp (or crawfish, in season) and tomato bisque is one of those under-remarked-upon dishes that bring tomatoes and cream together. It’s always nice, and with the seafood in there to make it substantial, you will be happy they brought you a bowl.
7. Brigtsen’s. Uptown 4: Riverbend, Carrollton & Broadmoor: 723 Dante. 504-861-7610. Butternut squash and shrimp bisque is a signature item for Frank Brigtsen, at his restaurant since it opened. It’s a harbinger of fall, with the ripeness of the heavy squash playing in harmony with the shrimp, while the cream adds elegance.
8. Criollo. French Quarter: 214 Royal. 504-523-3341. Artichoke and Camembert bisque is a rich soup whose flavors straddle those of oyster-artichoke soup and crab and Brie soup. The tang of the artichoke makes it happen. They also make a fantastic butternut squash cream soup here in season.
9. La Thai Cuisine. Uptown 3: Napoleon To Audubon: 4938 Prytania. 504-899-8886 . Tom kar gai is the name of one of the two universal soups on Thai menus. It’s made with chicken or shrimp, a little green curry paste, chicken stock, coconut milk, and lemongrass. It’s spicy and superb. La Thai does it best, but I can’t think of ever having had a bad one in any other Thai restaurant.
10. Bayona. French Quarter: 430 Dauphine. 504-525-4455. The first dish I ever ate that made me think, “This Susan Spicer woman has got it going on!” was this soup, on the menu at the first restaurant she managed, Savoir-Faire. She has kept it as part of her repertoire ever since, and it’s as exciting as ever. The garlic is cooked until it gets nutty and sweet, and some chips of sauteed garlic float on the surface.
11. Arnaud’s. French Quarter: 813 Bienville. 504-523-5433. The shrimp bisque is famous here, made in an old style with just a little cream. Even better is Arnaud’s oyster stew in cream. Unfortunately, it has fallen off the menu, but with a little advance notice and enough people at your table they might make it.
12. Steak Knife. Lakeview: 888 Harrison Ave. 504-488-8981. The crab cream soup here has been a house specialty since long before the crab-and-corn revolution, and remains excellent.