In New Orleans, grit and glamour often live side-by-side so effortlessly that it's hard to imagine one without the other. This is particularly true in the dining world, where some of the best meals come from some of the most unexpected places.
In Exchange Alley — the pedestrian-only breezeway in the French Quarter — the city's study in contrasts is particularly evident. One side of the walkway is home to a traditional fine dining restaurant featuring a dress code and heavy duty, surf-and-turf entrees. On the other side lives Green Goddess, a hole-in-the-wall oasis turning out some of New Orleans' most ethereal, internationally inspired dishes with an approach to meat-free dining unlike anywhere else in the city.
In an era when so many restaurants pigeonhole themselves into niche markets, Green Goddess' approach is refreshingly simple and straightforward: Let the food do the talking. The restaurant offers a bevy of vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options, and almost everything on the menu can be prepared to accommodate any diner. But there's no need to lead with labels when the food is imaginative and flavorful enough to make even the most raging carnivore consider some meatless detox.
Although the interior space at Green Goddess features colorful, eclectic decor, it is dauntingly tiny, with a handful of tables featuring worn, mix-and-match furniture. The close proximity of cooktop-to-tabletop also means that it gets quite warm, which is exacerbated when the restaurant gets crowded. The option to dine al fresco offers some relief.
What it lacks in size, Green Goddess makes up for in heart. The drinks menu features a robust stable of wine, beer and cocktail options. A commitment to herbal and floral notes across the board ensures the cocktail flavors — which often feature a laundry list of ingredients — aren't terribly muddled. The Elysian Fields may read like a saccharine hangover in the making, but the combination of orange cream bitters, honeysuckle vodka, basil, apricot liqueur, lime and a splash of Fentimans mandarin soda is light and refreshing.
The commitment to fresh, locally sourced ingredients is evident in the frequent turnover of seasonal dishes. A recently installed iteration of the menu includes shrimp "funnel cake," a playful, savory take on the classic carnival treat, featuring crisp, wafer-thin cakes, a smattering of shrimp and crunchy, pungent mirliton slaw.
A standout from the sizeable selection of salads is the pairing of burrata and watermelon, with juicy, ruby-colored hunks of fruit sprinkled with sea salt and topped with creamy burrata, kale chips, honey and roasted almonds. It's a testament to how pairing sweet and salty flavors can create a very satisfying flavor profile.
Wild mushroom cheesecake is another tangy riff on a sweet classic, with the plump, umami bite of mushrooms dappled throughout a generous wedge of fluffy chevre. The dish's best element, however, is the cheesecake's crackly, salted balsamic-sugar bruleed top, which is so delicious it could be packaged into crackers and sold in bulk.
Tender, fragrantly spiced Mediterranean lamb meatloaf will erase any flavorless cafeteria specials from your culinary nightmares. Bubble gum-pink pomegranate and beet hummus with smoky notes works as a palate primer for the menu's heavier dishes. One disappointment is the disappearance of the bibimbap from the summertime menu, which included an egg soft-poached in crab boil that was indicative of Green Goddess' commitment to quirky detail.
While the meaty bacon sundae is one kind of post-meal splurge, the range of after-dinner drinks is worth exploring if you're willing to drop some cash. Sipping the honey-colored Milla Marolo grappa and chamomile liqueur ($16) is a soul-warming, full-body sensory experience, and the perfect cap to a happily intoxicating dinner at Green Goddess.