Dozen Best Soups Du Jour
At the next table in a restaurant one night, a young man who was trying to impress his date had a complaint about the soup before him.
“I’m sorry,” said the waitress. “What’s the problem?”
“Well, this isn’t really soup du jour,” the man said.
“What do you mean?
“Look. I’ve been all over the world. I’ve had soup du jour in the best restaurants in New York, Paris, San Francisco, and London. And it was nothing like this!”
I encountered the words “soup du jour” on a menu for the first time when I was nineteen, lunching in the Flambeau Room on the campus of UNO. Fortunately for me, the waitress explained the concept before I could make a fool of myself. If I remember right, it was vegetable soup that day, and broccoli soup the next. I’ve liked soups of the day ever since. I ask about its makeup almost the first thing whenever I sit down in a restaurant.
Soups du jour are, as the name implies, an element of European restaurant service. They appear throughout the entire price spectrum, from neighborhood joints to the grandest gourmet houses. On the other hand, you don’t see them much in Asian or Latin American places.
Almost all restaurants serving a soup du jour have a repertoire of such soups. Some are seasonal–butternut squash soup and crawfish bisque, to name two popular local examples. You never know exactly when they’ll appear, but they are familiar. Others are in a standard rotation, so that you know that red bean soup is on at Zea every Monday, shrimp and corn maquechoux on Thursday, tomato basil on Sunday, etc.
The best soups du jour are those made by restaurants that either invent new soups frequently, or have such enormous soup repertoires that you’re not likely to run into the same soup twice unless you eat in the place all the time.
By their nature, soups of the day are so numerous and unpredictable that making up a top-twelve list is highly approximate. Below are restaurants where this soup lover has found memorable potages. I hope that it will trigger many other suggestions from readers, who I’m sure have had some great soups I wasn’t lucky enough to find when I went to the restaurants involved.
This is the soup-eating season. Enjoy!
1. Brigtsen’s. Riverbend: 723 Dante. 504-861-7610. Frank Brigtsen is a master soupmaker. Like most of his menu, the single soup entry changes day by day. Some have become famous–the shrimp and squash bisque and the backyard crawfish boil soup in particular. His oyster soups know no equals.
2. Commander’s Palace. Garden District: 1403 Washington Ave. 504-899-8221. Maybe there’s a rotation of soups at Commander’s Palace, but I haven’t been able to track it down. Even with competition from the famous turtle soup and gumbo, the soups of the day are always worth trying. The only regret is that it is quickly gone, and you may never pass this way again.
3. Mat & Naddie’s. Riverbend: 937 Leonidas. 504-861-9600. The inventiveness of this shack on the dry side of the levee in Riverbend has been escalating in recent years. Most of the specials–the soups du jour included–are so offbeat that you have to think about them for awhile to imagine what they must taste like. This is a safe exercise.
4. Ristorante Del Porto. Covington: 501 E Boston St. 985-875-1006. This small, excellent trattoria–the best Italian restaurant in the New Orleans area, I’d say–only has one soup: the del giorno. It’s usually Tuscan in style, with beans and herbs and a concentrated broth. But not always. Whatever it is, it’s a must-eat course. Especially in winter, when every opening of the door admits another gust of chill.
5. Casablanca. Metairie: 3030 Severn Ave. 504-888-2209. Chef-owner Linda Waknin makes at least two soups every day, about which all of the following can be said: they’re strictly kosher, meatless, homestyle, and wonderful. The flavor she coaxes out of her lentil, split pea, and harira soups–all of which start with a vegetable broth–is astonishing. This is the place to go when you have a cold. Or when it’s cold outside.
6. Creole Grille. Metairie: 5241 Veterans Memorial Blvd. 504-889-7992. This Metairie bistro started under the management of “Mr. Ed” McIntyre, whose restaurant always had great soups, even though he took advantage of the easy availability of ready-made soups from wholesale distributors. (This is a widespread phenomenon, and not altogether a bad one.) The place changed hands some years ago, but the good soups–made in house now–have continued to add an extra pleasure to even a poor boy had here.
7. Orleans Grapevine. French Quarter: 720 Orleans. 504-523-1930. In almost the exact center of the French Quarter, this likable, atmospheric bistro takes its daily soups seriously, and brings a wide range of styles and ingredients to the task. Seafood is a common element, as is the Italian flavor pallette.
8. Drago’s. CBD: 2 Poydras. 504-584-3911. ||Metairie: 3232 N Arnoult Rd. 504-888-9254. Drago’s soup du jour recipe book is thin, but the soups that result are so good that its regular customers try to keep track of which day features which soup. The best of them is the stuffed artichoke soup–all the elements of a stuffed artichoke in a bowl with a lot of cream.
9. Arnaud’s. French Quarter: 813 Bienville. 504-523-5433. Arnaud’s and its casual adjunct Remoulade have always had a strong soup department. The shrimp bisque, turtle soup and gumbo are all first-class. With all those, why do they need a soup du jour? I don’t know, but I’m glad they do. The one to watch for is oysters stewed in cream. The one in the picture is onion soup under a pastry dome.
10. K Gee’s Oyster Bar. Mandeville: 2534 Florida. 985-626-0530. There’s a seafood gumbo and a soup du jour. The latter is probably either a seafood soup or a homestyle sort of thing. The best was an oyster-artichoke soup with many of the quality of the old-time oyster stew in milk.
11. Maple Street Cafe. Riverbend: 7623 Maple. 504-314-9003. This little cafe rotates a half-dozen or so soups unpredictably. The best of them sounds the least interesting: cream of mushroom. But they like mushrooms here, buying many varieties. When they wind up in the soup, get it–not a cup, but a bowl. It’s light and marvelous.
12. The Chimes. Covington: 19130 W Front St. 985-892-5396. The only heavy-sports restaurant I can stand to dine in has a spotty record across the menu as a whole, but cooks many dishes very well. Its soups are a high point. I’ve never had the same one twice, and almost all of them have been eminently edible. A few have even been brilliant. On at least two occasions, the soup du jour changed between the time I ordered it and the time it was delivered, and even then I was happy with what came out.