If you were last here in, say, July 2005, everything will seem to be mostly where you left it.
The French Quarter still hums with booze and brass bands. Carnival still owns the city’s heart every February, culminating with the joyful, raucous Mardi Gras celebration on Fat Tuesday. Streetcars still clatter up stately St. Charles Avenue beneath the broad live oaks.
But squint, and New Orleans is a subtly though significantly different place since Hurricane Katrina overwhelmed the city’s levies Aug. 29, 2005, and left 80 percent of the streets underwater. From dozens of new restaurants and bars to booming startup and real estate industries to a new park along the long-underutilized Mississippi riverfront, the Crescent City – the nickname most locals prefer to the Big Easy – has seen an unlikely transformation rooted in both the opportunity, and the need, to rebuild. New Orleans always played the role of Southern siren with its endemic joys: jazz, revelry and rich food. But the city also was sort of stuck in that pose; few visited New Orleans for what was new.
While music still echoes down Frenchmen Street and beignets buried in powered sugar remain a delight, the fabric of New Orleans in 2015 runs as broad and deep as ever. Instead of mostly looking back, new New Orleans also looks forward – particularly when it comes to food and drink. It’s no accident that the city’s most buzzed-about restaurants don’t serve Sazeracs and Gulf fish drowned in cream sauce; they’re more akin to Shaya, a contemporary Israeli restaurant in the Garden District that redefines the joys of pita with each steaming, pillowy circle pulled from its wood-fired oven. (Seriously – it’s the best pita I’ve ever had and better still when mushed in the olive oil, thyme, sumac, oregano and sesame seed mixture that arrives alongside it.)
Shaya’s owner and chef, Alon Shaya, already had opened two Italian spots popular with tourists and locals alike – Domenica (just outside of the French Quarter) and Pizza Domenica (Garden District) – before opening his namesake restaurant. He doubts that New Orleans would have embraced an Israeli restaurant serving matzo ball soup in duck broth 10 years ago, let alone that it would have become such a hit that the wait for a Thursday night table can stretch to two hours. He was skeptical it would even work in 2015.
“I was nervous is the truth,” Shaya, 36, said of opening the restaurant in February. “But if we were going to take a risk, this seemed like the time. The city is becoming more cosmopolitan. People came after Katrina with big ideas to get the city back on its feet and exceed where it was.”
Good news: Those people like duck broth matzo ball soup.
I sat at the bar one early Friday evening in Shaya’s rustic-yet-sleek dining room and discovered a microcosm of the changed New Orleans: In addition to that unlikely Southern cuisine, the staff swirling around me with plates of neatly arranged chicken and lamb was almost completely from somewhere else – cities like Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland and Portsmouth, N.H. – and had mostly arrived since Katrina.
Source: Chicago Tribune | Josh Noel