Beyond the beignets: New Orleans' modern food movement

New Orleans is a food city, no question; it always has been. No offense to those hearty regional faves – gumbo, jambalaya and the ubiquitous beignets – but the association has long been one of over-indulgence rather than variety and refinement. The good news: a number of the city's recently opened establishments are now breaking with convention. Championing a global outlook and a love for regional produce, NOLA's new crop of inventive chefs are serving up crisp interpretations of local staples, and doing so with mouthwatering results.

Salad of fresh greens and carrots with pecans and goat cheese at Maurepas Foods. Photo by José Fernandes / Lonely Planet.

'We are New Orleans-trained cooks but we don't accept the orthodoxy of food traditions,' confirms Michael Doyle, chef at Maurepas Foods (www.maurepasfoods.com). 'I decided I wanted to rethink the corner joint,' he says of the inspiration behind his buzzing Bywater restaurant. With a highly seasonal menu, favorites come and go but the goat tacos with pickled green tomatoes and a harissa-inspired sauce (Doyle loves condiments!) have proved such a hit that Doyle had to devise a network of goat farmers in Louisiana and Mississippi to keep up with demand. The chicken leg quarter served with greens and grits and a slow-poached egg is Southern cooking at its best, and in Doyle's words, 'allows me to show off that not everything we do is esoteric.'

Interior of ROOT as they ready for service. Photo by José Fernandes / Lonely Planet.

The idea behind ROOT (www.rootnola.com), which opened in late 2011, is to draw on the flavors of all the diverse ethnic backgrounds of New Orleans, like Vietnamese, Cuban, Honduran, Indian and German, to name a few. 'The New Orleans' palate is very strong,' states chef Phillip Lopez, 'we love spice and flavor, and at ROOT we continue that tradition but steer clear of the usual Creole spice and lean towards freshly made garam masalas, Moroccan spices, Spanish pimentón or Japanese togarashi.' Here, scallops are smoked with real Cohiba cigars and served with pimentón patatas bravas, and the vegetable salad is a symphony of textures – raw, roasted, grilled, pickled, burnt and smoked. Both dishes are testament to Lopez's progressive take on NOLA cuisine – a unique pairing of modern technique and fresh local flavor (98% of ingredients are sourced within a 160-mile radius).

Chef Dominique Macquet dredges soft-shell crabs at Dominique's on Magazine. Photo by José Fernandes / Lonely Planet.

Top chef Dominique Macquet sees locals and tourists embracing the food revolution in New Orleans, and loves how the use of local ingredients both pleases the customers while sustaining hardworking farmers. With cooking experience from five continents, putting a global spin on the traditional is instinctive to the Mauritius-born chef. Highlights at the eponymous Dominique's on Magazine (www.dominiquesonmag.com) include royal red shrimp ceviche, delicious deep-water shrimp marinated in lime juice and fresh habañero peppers, or the renowned spaghetti and wagyu beef meatballs, covered in a oven-roasted tomato sauce. Housed in a former Art Deco fire station, the candle-lit courtyard is flanked by hydroponic towers to satisfy Macquet's demand for homegrown herbs.

Away from the established restaurant scene, the up-and-comers are stirring up their own gustatory uprising. Roaming supper club Al Fresceaux (www.alfresceauxnola.com) allows the city's lesser-known culinary talents to show off their own concepts. The monthly events held at private residences might feature standout Tex-Mex or traditional Thai. Jacqueline Blanchard – an executive sous chef, who likes to do her own sourcing like crab 'fishing' – dazzled guests with a real-deal Louisiana menu made up of all local ingredients like brown shrimp with samphire, crawfish pansotti with sunchoke and snapper with Pierre Part caviar.

Keeping the New Orleans' entrepreneurial spirit trucking along is My House NOLA (www.myhousenola.com). Their 'Rolling Through: A Mobile Series' (www.nolafoodtrucks.com) spotlights the mobile food truck movement and draws attention to various New Orleans' neighborhoods. 'We are a city obsessed with food and creativity, and food trucks embody the DIY culture of New Orleans,' says event organizer Barrie Schwartz. The weekly community building events also inject diversity to the food scene with international street-food stars like empanadas, falafel or arepas.

Crawfish-stuffed flounder napoleon at R'evolution. Photo by José Fernandes / Lonely Planet.

Back on the upscale side, the newest additions on the restaurant scene affirm NOLA's new culinary direction. At R'evolution (www.revolutionnola.com), chefs John Folse and Rick Tramonto present an imaginative modern menu. Classical ingredients such as Gulf shrimp and oysters, andouille sausage and catfish appear alongside the indigenous and adventurous like alligator, frog, kumquats, sassafras and persimmons.

Newly opened with a promise of delivering 'favorite New Orleans dishes elevated to a new level' is Tableau (www.tableaufrenchquarter.com). Sitting there on the Tableau balcony overlooking Jackson Square, as you finish off the oysters en brochette and gradually turn your attention to the tournedos rossini (petite filets atop croutons with seared foie gras), it might be a good moment to ask yourself, 'Was it all really better back in the day?'

An award-winning travel writer, New York-based Anja Mutić (aka EverTheNomad) has written for The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, National Geographic Traveler, Condé Nast Traveler, and New York Magazine. She has also contributed to a dozen Lonely Planet guidebooks.