If you were to blindfold a group of visitors, put them on a bus and give them a magical mystery tour of restaurants around town, they likely would have no idea that anything was still amiss in New Orleans all this time after Hurricane Katrina.
This eating tour could visit the hardest-hit areas of the community and still visitors would find great quantities of remarkable New Orleans cuisine and dining rooms teaming with eager patrons. They could go for boiled crawfish and shrimp po-boys at Zimmer's Seafood in Gentilly, bowls of roasted pork with rice noodles and savory Vietnamese turnovers at Doung Phoung in eastern New Orleans or heaving plates of macaroni and cheese and fried oysters at the unsinkable Rocky & Carlo's Restaurant in Chalmette and -- with a fictional focus purely on the food -- remain insulated from the vistas of destruction just outside.
Indeed, in Mid-City, one would need the powers of total recall to notice any difference between Liuzza's Restaurant today and Liuzza's Restaurant before it was flooded up to its neck by the levee failures. From the frosted beer mugs to the Frenchuletta sandwich to the elbow-to-elbow crowd of patrons, the place offers few clues to the disaster, even if the shuttered Lindy Boggs Medical Center still sits right across the street like the darkened hull of an abandoned ship.
The little worlds created by restaurants both grand and homespun function these days like preserves of antediluvian life, their dining rooms like snow-globe scenes of what was taken for granted before Katrina. Even if they have had to struggle against difficulties and losses as trying as any, local restaurant owners and their employees have thus far accomplished the post-Katrina trick of mastering their own recovery, getting back in business by their own grit.
New Orleans' pre-storm restaurant scene has not been completely resuscitated. Some people's favorite restaurants remain closed or in some cases gone for good. Staffing problems persist and some restaurants have found key areas of their pre-storm customer base sorely lacking. But at the same time the scene may now be at its most dynamic. It's not completely the same now, but in the flux of change over the past 17 months it has added new diversity and seen the introduction or rise of new culinary stars.
Change is happening everywhere, and for people who make their living in the restaurant business, this has spelled opportunity. For people who like to dine out, it has been a bonanza. Hardly a week seems to pass without news of a fresh contender. In many cases, these new restaurants are taking over the location of a business that did not reopen after the storm.
Some are run by well-known local chefs with their own followings, like Kevin Vizard's latest restaurant, Vizard's on the Avenue. Others are the result of people making their first plunge as business owners. For instance, the Carrollton-area bistro Iris is here today because owners Ian Schnoebelen and Laurie Casebonne took a look around devastated New Orleans in the fall of 2005 and decided it was a now-or-never time to open their first restaurant.
Many of the new ventures are gunning for niches that have been lacking or nonexistent in the city in recent years and, not coincidently, they are often among the most exciting restaurants in town right now.
Chef Adolfo Garcia has been demonstrating just how severe a smack-down chimichurri can give to American-style steak sauce at his Argentine-style steakhouse La Boca. Savvy Gourmet, the combination cooking school/restaurant/kitchen store, has emerged as a rumpus room for food geeks and the switchboard of the local culinary scene since opening in the aftermath of the hurricane. St. James Cheese Company is the gourmet cheese shop New Orleans always wanted -- not a department of a larger concern but a place where cheese is the whole point. And no one in the city had such a sharp focus on rural Cajun boucherie until chefs Donald Link and Stephen Stryjewski opened Cochon in the Warehouse District. The appeal of Cochon has proven much more than local: the yearling restaurant is nominated for the Best New Restaurant award from the James Beard Foundation, which will be presented in May.
There is out-of-town money coming in with celebrity-based restaurants like Shula's Steakhouse fronted by the former NFL coach Don Shula and Riche, a French restaurant cooked up through a deal between Harrah's Casino and restaurant empire-builder Todd English. However, most of the new restaurants to take root in the well-churned post-Katrina soil are local endeavors, from high-end, Uptown restaurants like Alberta to down-home ventures like Jazz Tacos in the French Quarter to The Steak Knife's new location in Lakeview.
The most prevalent of new noshes in New Orleans after the storm, is, of course, the taco. Despite the city's reputation for gumbo and jambalaya, despite the Cochon chefs' work popularizing fried boudin balls and despite the lore around the Lucky Dog-brand hot dog, when it comes to fast, cheap street food, it is easier now to get a good taco al pastor on soft corn tortillas around New Orleans than anything a tourist would recognize as Crescent City cooking. The next phase has already arrived with the growing number of storefront taquerias that function something like taco trucks without the wheels. When the satirical Krewe du Vieux runs a Mardi Gras float lampooning a food theme as specifically as the "Laissez le Bon Temps Ol" taco truck that was part of this year's parade, you know a trend has established street credibility.
Even some of the things avid New Orleans diners thought they had pretty well pegged before the storm have gone topsy turvy. Chef Peter Vasquez is in his second year working al fresco over a collection of grills in the garden of the Bywater wine shop Bacchanal on Sunday evenings, cooking perhaps the most exotic food you'll find served on a paper plate as he continues his ongoing residency as the mad scientist of backyard culinary creations. Meanwhile, his former restaurant Marisol, a Katrina casualty, has reopened under new ownership as the completely different Mexican cantina-styled Tomatillo's. Then there's former Bella Luna owner Horst Pfeifer, due this week to take over Middendorf's Restaurant in Manchac. This unforeseen turn of events puts a German-born chef known for his upscale Italian food, French Quarter herb gardens and tableside fettuccine preparations in charge of a 1930s-vintage seafood hall known for its catfish, hushpuppies and country store ambience.
Still, the restaurant news that seems to get people talking the most around New Orleans is the return of well-established places. There are only a very few of those left on the list to reopen, such as Mr. B's Bistro and Dooky Chase Restaurant. If other recently returned restaurants serve as any guide, the next batch can expect a crowd when they do resume business.
It's a good thing New Orleans people eat out as often as they do and prize their favorite places so highly. If a lot of other things in locals' lives don't feel normal these days, even their own homes, at least their homes-away-from-home are preserving the veneer of smooth sailing. When we need a reminder of the irreplaceable richness of New Orleans life, we can always just go have a po-boy.