By Joanne Lusted

I am a tropical weather type of gal. Call me crazy, but there is something so relaxing about the heat and stickiness that I am completely addicted to. After years of trips to the Caribbean, I decided that this would be the winter to hit some southern US destinations. New Orleans has been on my travel bucket list for years, so when an impossibly inexpensive flight popped up on a random search, I double checked my calendar and whipped out the old credit card.

As with any trip, I had a list of must-eat restaurants, and plenty of room for exploration. I quickly discovered that the New Orleans food scene is decidedly vast, with well-established classic haunts such as Commander’s Palace and Liuzza’s by the Track to a slew of bistros, each boasting unique menus bursting with house made meats and preserves, local seafood, and market-fresh produce.

First stop, Cochon. Chef Donald Link and co-owner Chef Stephen Stryjewski run the show, overseeing an in-house Boucherie, breaking down whole pigs to prepare their own boudin, andouille, bacon, and head cheese. Link, a German of Acadiana descendant, showcases a menu inspired by dishes he prepared growing up with his grandfather. If you don’t mind the blasting heat of a massive wood-fired oven, sit at the Chef’s Counter in front of the kitchen for a bird’s eye view of the action, and the best service.

The Wood-Fired Oyster Roast ranks as one of the best things I have ever eaten – plump juicy oysters swimming in a tangy lemon-chili butter with a gorgeous hint of smoke from the oven. Link’s Cochon de Lait (simply Cochon on the menu) is a mouth-watering Acadian classic; marinated, pit-roasted suckling pig served simply with turnips, cabbage, and cracklin’s.

The servers are superb and knowledgeable, ours making no bones about telling us what we HAD to order, also sending over a few gratis welcome treats as first-timers to the city. You really can’t go wrong on the menu, Link and Stryjewski love what they’re doing and it shows. There is plenty of time for kale smoothies, so check your skinny jeans at the hotel and enjoy. This is a meal worth every extra minute on the treadmill.

If casually romantic is what you’re after, then neighbourhood favourite, Patois fits the bill perfectly. Nestled in a residential area well off the tourist-beaten path, my first glance of Patois was love at first sight.  Stepping through the tiny door reveals distressed wood accents, flickering candles, jars of pickles adorning the mantles and intermingling aromas of roasted pheasant and panéed rabbit.

A completely disarming gentleman sporting a navy retro gas station attendant shirt greets guests with a big smile. Instantly you know, stuffiness or French pretence will not be a part of the evening. Chef Aaron Burgau helms the kitchen and is committed to using fresh, locally sourced ingredients to prepare classic French fare with a local accent, or patois. The short cocktail list is creative and refreshing for those warm NOLA nights, featured fresh herbs, house made pickles, and fresh fruit purees. Being a pickle fanatic, I had to start with a ‘Pickled Patois’, an addictive combo of ice-cold gin and a semi-sweet house made pickle juice with pickle garnish. Perfect to sip with their Charcuterie plate.

Our server makes a few excellent suggestions, one being the Panéed Rabbit & Pork Confit Cake. Panéed is a much lovelier way of saying ‘breaded and pan-fried’, and the cake is perfectly crisp on the outside, served with a bright Fennel Marmalade. I would normally shy away from ordering pasta, but the Housemade Fettucine with Gulf Shrimp, floated by our table and smelled incredible. Lovingly prepared, the shrimp was showcased beautifully with local spring onion, Creole tomatoes, and favva beans. Save room for dessert, their elegant and ever-changing dessert menu has a little something for everyone and is perfect for sharing with a bold cup of French Press Coffee.

After a few great dinners and a few too many Sazeracs, a hearty brunch was in order. On the suggestion of food-buddy, Chef Jonathon Chovancek, we headed to Dante’s Kitchen for re-fueling. Dante’s is best reached by taking the St. Charles streetcar, the oldest running streetcar in North America, and disembarking around Maple Street. Sit by the front for a breezy, beautiful ride past stately antebellum mansions and blankets of hundred year old trees. Dante’s is an adorable white cottage-style home, converted into a restaurant with a beautiful garden patio, and bright, cheery interior.

We arrived on a Sunday, and there was a happily chattering crowd patiently waiting on the street sipping Mimosas and house-made-pickle garnished Bloody Mary’s. Walking into Dante’s you are immediately greeted with warm Southern hospitality, and feel as if you are invited into someone’s home. The host team hand-delivers drinks outside to those waiting for a table – huge bonus points in my book! All the breads are made in house at Dante’s, an impressive feat in what can only be a tiny kitchen at best. Chef Eman Loubier also boasts house made butter, alligator sausage, gravlax, and hot pepper infused vodka.

The creative menu has something for everyone, from Alligator Sausage Breakfast Sliders with habanero pepper jelly on foccacia to Roasted Banana Pecan Pancakes with fresh made butter and cane syrup. We opt for an omnivorous combo of a Country Breakfast and a Veggie Omelette, to share. The Country Breakfast is a perfect portion of 2 eggs, duck & alligator sausage, bacon, grilled ham, grits, and a buttermilk biscuit. I’ve had some good grits in my day, but spiked with Vermont cheddar (my perky server’s suggestion), these were seriously the creamiest and best I have ever had. The Vegetable Omelette was also fluffy and gorgeous, stuffed with peppery arugula, sweet slow-roasted tomatoes, shitake mushrooms, and oozing with gruyere cheese.

With little comments on the menu like ‘No Low Calorie Diets Please’ and Lemonade ‘made with actual fresh lemons’, Dante’s is a happy, slightly cheeky place you can’t help but love. If you can’t make it for their Weekend Brunch, go check them out for dinner; a little birdie told me that their Chicken Roasted Under a Brick and Redfish on the Halfshell are pretty darn fine.

A trip to New Orleans wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the French Quarter and the crowded bead-laden debauchery of Bourban street. Save that for a day-time stroll, cocktail in hand, to watch local musicians belt out jazz or for a sometimes X-rated evening of people watching. New Orleans residents are genuinely excited to show off their city, and for anyone wondering, post-Katrina NOLA is rebuilt, ready and optimistic about the steady increase of visitors and tourism. Venture to the cozy outlying neighbourhoods for the best local food, devoid of neon signs and pants-dropping tourists. I will always love the beach, but for the time being will happily trade my sarong and beach-wear for a few more cosmopolitan adventures down south. The sunny skies, warm summer nights, and genuine hospitality fit my travel criteria perfectly.

Described as a veritable bundle of creative energy, Jo Lusted is the Resident Chef for Clean Eating Magazine, regular guest Chef on CBC’s Steven & Chris, and avid Food & Travel Writer. A Toronto native, Jo loves to travel, and is always on the hunt for a food-driven adventure.  Follow Jo’s antics: