In the French Quarter of New Orleans, lacy wrought-iron balconies adorn three-century-old buildings, and the smell of sweet pralines and fried food permeates the air. On every second block you'll spot famous restaurants like Galatoire's, Brennan's, Antoine's, Arnaud's and K-Paul's.
Though not quite the Gone with the Wind movie set of southern cities like Charleston or Savannah, New Orleans does not disappoint. This is a city where food culture rivals its famous music culture -- its Creole cuisine is recognized as one of America's most authentic and local seafood is served in everything from the fanciest restaurants to the humblest fry shacks.
It's also a city that's been through hell and is still struggling to rebuild. Happily, the restaurant sector is one that's back in action.
When hurricane Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005, close to 2,000 people lost their lives in the storm and ensuing floods. Every New Orleanian I spoke to lost his or her home, and most restaurant owners were forced to gut their restaurants and rebuild.
Even in the French Quarter, one of the few areas in the city that was not flooded, restaurateurs lost their wine cellars and refrigeration systems due to loss of power and overheating. Due to the mass evacuation, restaurant employees were scattered all over the country.
"We're sensitive to the fact that the rest of the world is sick of hearing about it," says Times-Picayune restaurant critic Brett Anderson. "New Orleans is still a city in the process of rebuilding. The first signs of progress have been in the opening of restaurants. These people took it upon themselves to do something about it."
In the warehouse district along the streetcar line on St. Charles Avenue, you'll find the chic bistro Herbsaint. Owned by one of New Orleans's most acclaimed chefs, Donald Link, Herbsaint is the destination for modern Cajun and Creole fare including gumbo, Louisiana shrimp and grits, and banana brown butter tart with fleur de sel caramel.
Three nights before Katrina struck, Herbsaint had 250 reservations on the book.
"On Saturday, it was a Category 2 storm," says Link, "so most people I spoke to were staying put. But after watching the satellite images, I shut down the kitchen and left immediately with no change of clothes, no toothbrush, no nothing."
"The streets were empty," Link says. "No one was leaving. By Sunday morning, it was a Category 5 headed straight for the city."
Link took refuge north of the city, and when he called his neighbours in the Lakeview district the day after the storm to inquire about his house, they told him the water flowing in from the broken levees was at door height. Two hours later it was over his roof.
"I took a couple days off," says Link. "My staff was freaking out. I smoked packs of cigarettes and drank like a fish."
The chef's immediate plan was to get back into the city. The problem was that it was technically illegal to return and there were soldiers with machine guns waiting on corners. Determined, Link made his own passes to get in because, he says, "I knew I'd go insane if I didn't get back to work."
Though his house was eventually torn down and rebuilt, his restaurant incurred little damage.
Yet there were still six refrigerators to clean out. "Cleaning out the restaurant was the most disgusting thing I've ever done," says Link. "I thought of burning down the place."
After a second evacuation when hurricane Rita hit on Sept. 24, Link reopened on Oct. 5, 2005. Ninety per cent of Herbsaint's staff was back within a month. His first customers were mainly reporters, insurance adjusters and locals.
"I thought if we're going to open, we're going to do it right. The first day, we did 200 customers. I had friends who were bankers washing my dishes. We were back to the original menus within 10 days. But every night we would sit at the bar and have group therapy."
Included in those customers was James O'Byrne, Sunday editor of the Times-Picayune, who was covering events for the paper: "You'd go to a restaurant and they'd serve you a meal, and you'd just cry. Forty of my neighbours died trapped in their attics. The hurricane made the clichés of life no longer clichés. Music, food, and culture became precious in a way that was unexpected to us."
Link's restaurant was the first to open post-Katrina, but for others, recovery took months and even years.
At Mandina's restaurant on Canal Street in the heart of Mid-City, fourth-generation owner Cindy Mandina came close to demolishing her 77-year-old restaurant. A family-style Creole/Italian eatery where locals dine on dishes like spaghetti and meatballs, Creole catfish, and corned beef and cabbage, Mandina's is situated in two buildings that were flooded with more than two metres of water.
"My father is 64," says Mandina. "He lived above the restaurant and it was looted. After the hurricane, he was done. It stunk, it was gross, but I met with an architect. We gutted it and rebuilt. It cost $1.8 million to rebuild, and now I have the bloggers complaining that we changed it. What about the blood, sweat and tears?"
For Mandina, the biggest challenge was finding her employees, who were now all over the country. For the ones who did come back, there was often no place to live. But eventually things picked up.
"Our first year back in business was phenomenal."
When you enter the Angelo Brocato Ice Cream and Confectionary just up the street from Mandina's, the water line left from the flooding is marked by a gold plaque on the door.
"We lost a lot of employees," says Arthur Brocato. "My family lived in Houston for four months. We didn't know if people would come back. The bank said to wait six months because maybe they wouldn't come back. Not one car drove by."
It's hard to imagine the devastation at this bustling confectionary, which specializes in Sicilian pastries and gelato. The store was closed for 13 months, but when it opened again, the response was phenomenal.
"We were crazy busy. We have a long-standing relationship with the Italian community and people missed the product so much. We've been building the business all over again. But since Katrina, people don't go out as late anymore. Before we had people coming in until 11, but now it slows down at 9:45. It's 'the new normal.' That's what we call it."
But nothing seems quite normal when you head down to the more downtrodden areas of the city, including the 5th Ward, where you'll find one of New Orleans' most famous restaurants, Dooky Chase. Home to a woman considered the queen of Creole cuisine, 82-year-old Leah Chase (better known to locals as Miss Leah), Dooky Chase is renowned for Creole dishes like gumbo z'herbes, fried catfish and fried chicken rivalled only by that of Willie Mae's Scotch House two blocks north.
To see the many abandoned houses on these streets tagged with post-Katrina spray paint (identifying search dates and number of bodies found in the homes) is a sobering reminder of the devastation and long road to recovery.
Yet Miss Leah's restaurant is an oasis in this neighbourhood of despair. With ruby-red walls, chandeliers, smart chairs and an impressive art collection, Dooky Chase is fancy enough to rival any temple of haute cuisine.
"It took us 2 1/2 years to get back into business," says Chase, "and half a million dollars to get back on my feet. The bar alone cost $40,000 to rebuild."
Thanks to donations from companies like Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks, as well as private donations from local patrons, Chase continues to host celebrities and politicians as well as school girls from the local convent who come to Miss Leah's to celebrate birthdays. During Barack Obama's visit to New Orleans recently, Chase prepared a takeout order for the U.S. president that included shrimp creole, fried chicken and gumbo.
It may be "the new normal" in New Orleans, but judging by the crowds on Bourbon Street, the wait for tables at upscale restaurants like August and Bayona, and lines at popular haunts like the Acme Seafood Bar for oysters, the Central Grocery store for muffuletta sandwiches, the Cafe du Monde for icing sugar-doused beignets, and Aunt Sally's for pralines, it appears the Big Easy's food scene is back on track.
And the chefs are thrilled.
"Our business has been better since the hurricane," says Link. "Outside it may have been crap, but inside the walls of my kitchen, it was always normal life."
-- Canwest News Service