“We’ll never get a table,” I shouted, after reading a tweet from my Los Angeles foodie friend who always seems to be on top of breaking news in the culinary world. She knew I was headed to New Orleans in a few days and just a few minutes prior, she’d seen that the James Beard Foundation announced it’s 2014 winners, and Pêche Seafood Grill was at the top of the list, the best restaurant in New Orleans, along with their Chef Ryan Prewitt, named best new chef in the south. Her tweet suggested we go, but with the award being announced, I had little hope of getting in.
You see I’d carefully planned every day of our trip with three meals a day, and some days I threw in a snack for good measure. Jonathan’s mouth dropped when he first saw the lineup, not because he knew anything about where we were going, but because he thought it was way too much food. Boucherie, Elizabeth’s, August, Sylvain, Herbsaint, Cochon, etc.
“You’re gonna need one of those airplane seatbelt extensions,” he said, raising his eyebrows as if it were something I seriously needed to consider as a plausible outcome considering the amount of food I was prepared to consume.
The thought of being so obese that a standard airplane seatbelt wouldn’t fit made me cringe. Then I imagined my lovehandles spilling over the armrests into the seats on either side of me, and how claustrophobic the middle seat would feel at that size….it was horrifying. So without letting him know he’d convinced me to cut things back a little, I crept into the office and discretely fired off a few “thanks but we’re not gonna be able to make it” emails to the restaurants on my tier two list. Sorry Emeril.
While in the process, I figured I’d leave the least desirable weeknight open and try my luck at a table for two at Pêche. It was too late in the evening to call them at that point, so I went to their website and filled out the reservation request form, making it clear we’d take whatever time we could get. We just wanted to get in! From the instructions on Pêche’s website, no reservation is confirmed until you receive an email or a phone call confirming the date and time, so, needless to say, I went to bed on pins and needles.
A few days passed and I still hadn’t heard anything from the restaurant. Knowing how things are in San Francisco when a restaurant wins an award, I figured it was a long shot. Everyone and their mom wanted to eat at the best new restaurant in America according to some old guy with a stache and waddled-neck (James Beard that is), and I couldn’t blame them. Here I am, a foodie in San Francisco, and thanks to the speed with which information travels, I was trying to get a reservation for the following week at one of the best new restaurants in America. Knowing how us agro foodies can be, I expected the restaurant to be booked solid for the next six months. I didn’t like the idea, but this was par for the course considering how it is in San Francisco when awards of culinary merit are doled out. We were lucky getting into State Bird Provisions in San Francisco before Bon Appetit named it the best new restaurant in America, and ever since it’s been packed like sardines. If only the James Beard awards had been announced the week after our trip!
“Oh well,” I said to Jonathan, “we gave it a shot.”
He assured me there would be plenty of other delicious food in New Orleans to stuff my face with, and with that I found a small amount of comfort.
The next morning we boarded our plain, regular seatbelt and all, and traveled through two airports, and a humid-as-fuck cab ride to make it to the French Quarter, where we checked into our hotel room, dropped our bags, wiped our foreheads, and headed out for our first Crescent City adventure. We had plans to meet Jonathan’s sister and some friends on Magazine Street in the Lower Garden District. It was 85° out with 100% humidity. Being the delicate chubby kid from Southern California that I am, the hot moist air was like kryptonite. I literally wanted to jump into a vat of antifreeze and call it a night, but not before eating something. We decided it didn’t make sense to take a cab, because it was walking distance from where we were and walking is a better way to take in the city. Besides, Jonathan swore the humidity would break at sunset. And within a few minutes I realized two things: guidebook maps are not to scale, and my boyfriend knows how to wield my gullible babe-in-the-woods mentality to his every whim as long as the promise of food is dangled like a carrot somewhere off in the distance.
As bodily fluids seeped through every breathable, and unbreathable, fiber of clothing, I great big gulps of the gulf air in and hoped we’d be there soon. And at a the corner of Magazine and Julia Streets I looked up and saw a sign from god—the Pêche Seafood Grill. This was my reward. For all the pain I’d endured, walking such a long distance (four blocks at that point) in those form-over-function Cole Hann shoes. This was my chance a securing our reservation.
“I’m going in there,” I said to Jonathan, running faster than a teenager charging the stage of a One Direction Concert.
Once inside, the host was friendly and asked how she could help. I congratulated them on the James Beard award, to which she took credit as if she played a big role in the achievement (I know it’s a team effort, but you know what I mean). I explained I was visiting from San Francisco and that I’d emailed and called and never heard back. She apologized for any miscommunication on their part, and took a look at the reservations they had for that coming Tuesday night.
Her silence was deadly. My fingers were crossed on my side of the podium and my teeth chattered as if my mouth was tap dancing the Charleston.
“The only time….” she said, before taking a pause. I immediately turned to Jonathan with a frown thinking it wasn’t going to happen, and then she continued, “the only time I don’t have this coming Tuesday is 7:30pm….what works best for you?”
I literally screamed in shock at how much availability there was. She confirmed the restaurant would be packed come Tuesday night, but that we were a few days out so bookings were still light. We put our name down for 8pm and continued on to meet our group for dinner at Boucherie in the Garden District. And the rest of that evening I wore our reservation at Pêche like a badge of honor for the world to see.
Pêche—Best Restaurant in New Orleans
It’s refreshing to see some of the best new restaurants in America are getting selected primarily for their food and less for their ambiance. New Orleans’ Pêche Seafood and Grill is the perfect example. A totally casual environment—think hipster fishing dock along the Mississippi—and some of the most delicious seafood you’ll ever have. Plates are unpretentious and nicely portioned (which is key with seafood being so light!) offering a great value for diners who’d rather hum through dinner without screaming at the bill. Small plates range from $5-$10 with entrees anywhere from $14-$28. The informative staff is friendly and genuinely seems to be happy to serve. The dining rooms and bar are one large expansive space, separated by the occasional support column or beam, which make it a little loud at times; but who needs to talk when you’ve got $1.35 Louisiana oysters to slurp down, and Royal Red shrimp grilled in garlic butter to peel and suck? If I lived in New Orleans, Pêche would be my go-to seafood restaurant nearly any night of the week. Its welcoming staff and fun vibe are deserving of whatever accolades come next!
We started off with some Louisiana gulf oysters (which are larger and creamier than I typically like) and some Prince Edward Island (PEI) oysters. The gulf oysters were huge, and one in particular was the size of my hand. There were all very fresh, shucked perfectly (IE: no shell broken off inside) and delicious.
The seafood gumbo was good, but not the best we’d had in New Orleans. It was done in the Cajun style with a slightly looser, darker broth but it wasn’t anything to write home about. Again, it was very good, but nothing to write home about.
One of the specials that evening was the royal red shrimp. This dish doesn’t look like much. Shrimp and some garnish of parsley…but it was so much more. Yes you’ll have to get your hands a little dirty, but that’s not only part of the fun of eating super fresh shellfish, but that’s where so much of the flavor comes from. These royal red shrimp were grilled with garlic butter until the flesh inside was just opaque and soft. We devoured these and sucked on the heads for a minute or two, trying to savor the simplest of magical pairings—garlic and shrimp.
And have no fear, they bring you hand towels pressed down to Altoids size and a mini bucket of hot water. When you’re ready, you drop the towel tablet into the water, it reconstitutes and you can use it to wipe down your hands and face.
Then we shared a small plate of the crawfish and jalapeno capellini. This dish was spicy and rich but bright with citrus and cilantro notes. I couldn’t get it into my mouth fast enough.
The Louisiana shrimp roll was huge! The buttery bun was soft, sweet, and grilled to perfection. The heaping mount of chopped lettuce got pushed down into the bread with the cold creamy shrimp salad. Yum!
Per the suggestion of the waitress we had the baked drum with spring onion and tomatoes. This is a white fish we don’t see so much on the west coast so I wasn’t too sure about it, but the spring onion and tomato broth it’s served in created the party in my mouth. The char from the cast iron dish it’s cooked in gives everything a hint of smoke, leaving the fish moist and flaky, with creole meets French onion soup flavor permeating everything.
Because I’m obsessed with side dishes I threw Jonathan a curve ball and ordered the marinated beets with horseradish cream. This was one of the best preparations of beets I’ve ever had. If you don’t like horseradish, then you should skip this dish, because the beets are carrying some serious heat. Each bite of blood red beets with a little cream sauce was a palate cleanser for the next.
For dessert we had the salted caramel cake with caramel buttercream. This was technically assembled beautifully, but it was almost too rich and too sweet. That didn’t stop us from eating it all up, but this is definitely a dessert worth sharing, because you’ll only need a bite or two.
And we had the chocolate peanut butter banana pie with butterfinger crumbles. This came highly recommended by our waitress who’d made some awesome savory recommendations earlier. The combination of banana, chocolate and peanut butter was heavenly. This dessert was also rich, maybe a little less than the salted caramel cake, but only because there’s actual fruit—even if it’s a tiny amount—in this one.