One of the great things about food festivals is the opportunity to taste dishes from a variety of chefs. Unfortunately when tucking into a plate at an outdoor event, you miss out on all the other pleasures of dining in a restaurant: the music, the lighting, the flowers, the linen, the china and crystal. You also miss the conviviality of sharing food across a table with friends and family. A chef’s repertoire is also limited at outdoor events, narrowing a guest’s opportunity to experience the full spectrum of a restaurant’s menu.
Enter the Bon Appetit Grub Crawl. Conceived along the lines of a pub crawl, where participants move from one location to another, the Grub Crawl allows guests to sample a restaurant’s signature dishes in their original setting. Originally launched in Brooklyn, with plans to expand to L.A. and other cities, New Orleans played host to the second incarnation last weekend, rolling through the Central Business District Friday night, the French Quarter Saturday, and Uptown on Sunday.
I was lucky to attend one leg of that savory journey in my favorite neighborhood: The French Quarter. Along the way, participants cooled off with some delicious Belvedere Vodka cocktails. (Belevedere reps gave us several recipes for tasty drinks. Stay tuned for those.)
The Saturday Bon Appetit Grub Crawl snaked through the French Quarter beginning at Domenica, the John Besh restaurant located in the Roosevelt Hotel. We were greeted by Chef Alon Shaya who offered us a stunning array of house-made charcuterie, relishes, pate, cheeses, and a refreshingly bubbly Lambrusco. I quickly appreciated an additional benefit of the Grub Crawl format: face time with each restaurant’s chef, when Chef Alon told us how the prosciutto was made from locally raised hogs and cured in-house.
Wanting to save room for the next stops, I initially shared a plate with my friend and guest Monique Leon. But as we tore through the three-year aged prosciutto and Taleggio, it quickly became apparent that neither of us was in a sharing mood. Of particular note was the pate, so delicious that we contemplated stealing the jar to nosh on at home, but decided transportation would be messy. So we had seconds. And thirds. No kidding. And then came the artisan pizzas and at that point we were just eating on principal because it was all so delicious.
Though our bellies were full, we rallied and headed over to the Napoleon House to sample its signature muffaletta and Pimm’s Cup. We were served by third-generation owner Sal Impastato who regaled us with stories of his family restaurant’s. From there we walked a few blocks to Sylvain. It was a nice contrast to leave the Napoleon House — operated by the Impastato family since 1914 — for Sylvain, which has been open less than a year.
The French Quarter is usually viewed as the most traditional neighborhood in New Orleans, but there is plenty of room to start something new here, as we learned when owner Sean McCusker recounted his professional arc from New York writer to New Orleans restaurateur. We savored a tasty portion of crispy pork shoulder served with tangy greens and creamy Coosa Valley grits. Chef Alex Harrell not only told us how he made his dishes, but also where to get his grits (sourced from near his home in central Alabama). But my favorite bite at Sylvain was of perfectly pickled okra. Unlike its soggier, commercially-made cousins, this okra remained crisp, and though pleasantly sour, it wasn’t aggressively pickled. All I could think about was how delicious it would be in a gin martini. But we had more drinking and eating to. Onward!
We marched down Chartres, crossing Jackson Square to Stanley, the bistro across from St. Louis Cathedral, and enjoyed the Breaux Bridge Benedict, a riff on the traditional dish with a base of boudin. The lively atmosphere was amped up by the appearance of a brass band leading a wedding party who second lined their way in front of the restaurant. Monique and I observed that the guests must be from out of town because nobody was dancing much. We got our backfield in motion for a song or two, to show visitors how it’s done, but soon returned inside to have another taste of the lemony, tea-based Stanley Screamer cocktail.
Our tour ended at Stanley’s classy older sister restaurant: Stella. There, chef Scott Boswell is pushing the boundaries of New Orleans cuisine. The punch bowl-turned-cauldron, filled with smoky dry ice, contained a raspberry-based champagne punch, served with egg salad sandwiches adorned with caviar.
But though the sampling was over, the night hadn’t ended for the Grub Crawlers. The rest of the group boarded a bus bound for a concert at the recently renovated Joy Theater, but Monique and I had other local commitments, so we walked through the Quarter back to the car.
What we talked about wasn’t the food, though it was all delicious. We had known going into the evening that the food would be great. What surprised us was the conviviality of the experience. When you move as a group for four hours through the French Quarter, it doesn’t matter who you came with: by the end of the tour, you’ve visited with almost everyone in your party. At each new restaurant we ended up seated next to different folks, chatting with visitors from Baltimore, New Jersey, New York, and Houston as well as locals from across the city. The Bon Appetit Grub Crawl created a most unlikely, surprising and delightful dinner party, one where I started out knowing one guest and ended up with a room full of amiable dinner companions. And that might have been the tastiest bite of the night.