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Travel New Orleans: Big Easy known for its crazed debauchery, but the food is outstanding

When I go to Montreal I have to get one of those perfect, chewy bagels. When I head to visit my Dad in the San Francisco Bay Area, it’s de rigeur to stop (usually on the way in from the airport) at a hot dog place called Casper’s, which my family has frequented for a half-century and makes the tastiest, steamed hot dogs on the planet, with perfect spice and a crisp casing.

Food is such an integral part of our travel experience, for good or bad.

As much as my mind floods with great memories when I sit down at Sea Sea Rider’s in Dunedin, Fla., for a simple, blackened grouper sandwich, I also have a good laugh at myself for showing up in the south of France in 1979, speaking no French, and ordering a salade de tomates. To my horror, I discovered it was a salad not with tomatoes but entirely of tomatoes, this being a problem for someone whose relationship with raw tomatoes is somewhat akin to the friendliness between Barack Obama and the U.S. gun lobby.

I raise all this not so much to take up space in my weekly Saturday column, but because I had the privilege of spending last weekend in New Orleans. I absolutely adore Cajun and Creole food, being a big fan of spice, andouille sausage, shrimp and thick, rich gumbo.

New Orleans has a reputation as a place of great debauchery and craziness. Mardi Gras. Bourbon St. Those are unmistakable parts of the city. But the old French influences are still there, and the tried-and-true tourist spots with waiters in tuxedoes that have been serving the same dishes for generations still pump it out on a daily basis. For that, we should be thankful.

At Brennan’s, I watched as they whipped up their specialty, Bananas Foster, at the side of my table, with flames rising a couple of metres above the rum, bananas, butter, sugar and cinnamon (and banana liqueur).

They must have a thing for fire in The Big Easy as, that same day, I went for dinner at Arnaud’s, another icon in New Orleans cuisine, and had an incredible coffee with orange rind, lemon, cloves and cinnamon, and more flaming liqueur, which took a guy five minutes to create at the side of my table.

At R’evolution, they have what looks like four or five restaurants in one, with a series of distinctive, cool rooms and a kitchen that puts a fresh twist on classic Cajun and Creole dishes. I had a dish called “Death by Gumbo,” which featured a small quail stuffed with rice that sat in a bowl of thick, rich soup.

At a small deli down in the French Market, I finally had my first muffaletta, a New Orleans tradition with perfect bread, Italian deli meats and olive oil mixed with a combination of chopped green olives and carrots on top. Utterly fabulous, especially if eaten at the covered market while you listen to a brass band playing old-time jazz.

Toss in the powdered sugar beignets at the legendary Café du Monde and maybe a shrimp po’boy along the way somewhere, and you’ve got a town that’s justifiably famous for its food.

I’ll have more in upcoming pages of Star Travel. And you can read more about my belt-loosening extravaganza on my blog at thestar.com/travel. If there’s a favourite food place you have in the world, please drop me a line.

You can reach Jim Byers at jbyers@thestar.ca and follow him on Twitter @jimbyerstravel.

thestar.com – Travel