Dozen Best Signature Dishes
The first time I heard the expression “signature dish” was at Mr. B’s in the early 1980s. It was uttered by Ralph Brennan, who ran Mr. B’s with his sisters at the time. He was bemoaning the recent total ban on commercial fishing of redfish, and scouting around for replacements. The still-new Mr. B’s had established its hickory-grilled redfish–the first wood-grilled fish served anywhere in New Orleans in the modern era–as one of the most talked-about and imitated dishes in town. “They’re taking away our signature dish!” Ralph complained.
Mr. B’s found other fish to grill, and restaurants set about developing signature dishes. This was not a new endeavor. Chefs dearly hoped that their creations would become perceived as unique classics. Dishes you’d have to go to the creating restaurant to enjoy.
Quite a few signature dishes were already long established. Oysters Rockefeller was an international hit for Antoine’s since they invented it in 1899. Nobody could remember when Commander’s Palace didn’t have great turtle soup. Probably the most valuable signature dish back then was Pascal’s Manale’s barbecue shrimp. Its signature status was rivaled only by K-Paul’s blackened redfish (which had the same problem Mr. B’s had.)
Here is a list of the best signature dishes in the restaurants of 2012 New Orleans. I say best, not most famous. Neither Antoine’s oysters Rockefeller nor Manale’s barbecue shrimp make the list; too many better versions can now be found. The good news there is that instead of having one great version of the best signature dishes of the past, we now have many. That happens faster than it used to: the Number One dish on this list is as widely copied as any other signature dish in history.
I’d better say what I intentionally left off, because this got to be a very long list the first time through. Dishes that play minor roles in a meal were left behind. La Petite Grocery’s pommes frites, Impastato’s fettuccine alfredo, the garlic bread at Commander’s Palace are certainly good enough, but you have to draw the line somewhere. I also left off signature dishes that are eclipsed by the rest of the menu (turtle soup at Commander’s, prime rib at the Rib Room, sweetbreads at Bayona).
Maybe I should have done two dozen.
1. Drago’s. CBD: 2 Poydras. 504-584-3911. ||Metairie: 3232 N Arnoult Rd. 504-888-9254. Char-broiled oysters are so simple–garlic and pepper butter with parmesan cheese on top of grilled oysters on the half shell–its seems amazing that nobody ever did them before. Now it seems as though everybody’s doing it. I’ve never seen a wider or more rapid spread than this dish has had around New Orleans. And, lately, the rest of the country.
2. Restaurant August. CBD: 301 Tchoupitoulas. 504-299-9777. Gnocchi with jumbo lump crabmeat and truffle cream sauce. Many orders of this dish are served as a complimentary amuse bouche, which is the way people discover it. Then Chef John Besh has you hooked. You’ll want it every time thereafter. The name of the dish about explains it. It’s outrageously good, but too rich to eat much more than an appetizer’s worth.
3. Cafe Giovanni. French Quarter: 117 Decatur. 504-529-2154. The first time I saw Oysters Giovanni , I thought it ridiculous. The sauce was painted onto the plate and resembled stained glass. The oysters are–fried! But the flavor combination is unique, original, and unforgettable.
4. Chateau Du Lac. Old Metairie: 2037 Metairie Rd. 504-831-3773. When first hear the words foie gras gumbo, you fear for the worst. But foie gras is duck, and duck gumbo is a classic, so why not? The richness and faint liver flavor sets this apart. A total original.
5. Mr. B’s Bistro. French Quarter: 201 Royal. 504-523-2078. Mr. B’s menu is full of best-in-town dishes. But that trend-setting hickory-grilled fish (“hickfish,” as they call it) still stands alone. Few restaurants even attempt a full wood-burning grill, let alone get the fish right all the time.
6. Arnaud’s. French Quarter: 813 Bienville. 504-523-5433. Shrimp Arnaud is either the best or second-best shrimp remoulade in town (Galatoire’s makes a strong case). But the sauce–a sharp, orange-brown mixture of Creole mustard, paprika, pureed vegetables, and a few secrets–can’t be beat.
7. Gautreau’s. Uptown: 1728 Soniat St. 504-899-7397. The confit of duck leg is mind-bendingly good, enough so that it’s served as an appetizer. They’re initially cooked in duck fat, making them absurdly tender. A quick pan-broiling in duck fat crisps the skin like cracklins. A double order as an entree is not a bad idea.
8. Pelican Club. French Quarter: 615 Bienville. 504-523-1504. Scallop-stuffed artichoke. Chef-owner Richard Hughes was the first guy I met who made a big deal about the relative merits of scallops. He buys the best diver scallops for this unique appetizer, in which baby artichoke leaves and a grown-up artichoke heart are surrounded by the bivalves and goosed up with garlic beurre blanc.
9. Galatoire’s. French Quarter: 209 Bourbon. 504-525-2021. Crabmeat maison is the most widely-admired of the many great specialties at Galatoire’s. The lightest mayonnaise and capers form a light robe of flavor around the jumbo lump crabmeat. It’s generously served and always great.
10. Redemption. Mid-City: 3835 Iberville St. 504-309-3570. Here is the reborn smoked soft-shell crab, the great signature dish at the in-limbo Christian’s, and the restaurant that used to be in this old Mid-City church. Chef Greg Picolo re-invented the process of cold-smoking the crabs. After that, he fries them and sends them out with a little brown butter. Hard to imagine being in this place and not getting this.
11. Muriel’s. French Quarter: 801 Chartres. 504-568-1885. Crawfish and goat cheese crepes don’t sound all that appealing. All it takes is one bite to understand why it’s the most popular appetizer here, and why Muriel’s serves them at every festival its chef attends. Out of crawfish season, they make them with shrimp, which also works.
12. Antoine’s. French Quarter: 713 St Louis. 504-581-4422. Pommes de terre soufflees, potato puffs, or whatever you call them. They’re exciting, original, hard to make well (which is why so few other restaurants even bother), and great with cocktails. The best French fries imaginable, blown up like balloons, served with bearnaise.