With all the great eating and restaurants in New Orleans, you know I had a long list to eat at. Cochon, Luke and some other nationally-known favorites. But after a couple of days hitting up some of the more popular restaurants in the city, it was time to go a bit more local and try some lesser-known but good spots: Three Muses, Lilly's Cafe and Melange! Because in the end, eating where the locals eat means getting a more-rounded experience and typically it also means, saving some dollars. But you know what? All of these places were pretty darn good even if they aren't profiled on the Food Network!
Located just a bit north of the French Market, I stumbled into Three Muses after a cocktail tour in the French Quarter. Lively, boisterous and local, it's hard not to really like this cool, funky gastropub. With a jazz trio playing up front, I grabbed a seat at the bar and ordered up some eats! Three Muses has a really eclectic menu spanning a breadth of cuisine types and interesting flavors. Checking out the crowd from the bar, it looks like more locals than tourists which is usually a good thing in my book...
I ordered up a couple of delicious sounding small plates: a tempura shrimp tossed with chinese mustard and kurobuta pork belly on scallion pancakes. The shrimp was well fried and tender with some kick from the mustard, I pretty much inhaled these. And the pork belly was wonderful in terms of the soft, savory, fatty marinated belly against crispy, pancakes. Two of my favorite Asian items stacked together, yum! The slivers of cucumber on top is a nice touch of Asian. And of course I couldn't resist dessert being in New Orleans, so I finished up with a pistachio banana empanada, which was solid. Overall, I love what they're trying to do at Three Muses. Fun, global plates in an environment that's all New Orleans. And it appears that the neighborhood loves them too, check 'em out if you can during a visit.
The next restaurant on my list was Lilly's Cafe. My stomach was sort of overwhelmed with the richness of what I had been eating so I decide to go for some more basic comfort food which is in my book, Vietnamese (go figure)! Located in the Lower Garden district, I walked nearly two miles over to Lilly's Cafe in this interesting neighborhood. I'm pretty sure most tourists don't come down this way, it reminded me of a slightly gentrified outpost in old New Orleans. Inside, Lilly's is your typical Vietnamese cafe with low-cost patio furniture, hand-written signs and more. But it's a bright little spot and the owners are friendly which is not always the case and hole-in-the-wall VN joints. The lady taking my order suggests I order quickly due to the large crowd that has just stepped in. They've got the usuals here: pho, bun and com. I'm quick like a bunny and go for my usual: lemonade, summer rolls, and grilled pork with an egg on top.
The place is busy for a Thursday nights lots of locals which is always a good sign for me. My summer rolls come out first and they look decent. Tightly wrapped and with a nice translucent skin showing off the colorful shrimp, Lilly's may use pork pate slices in their summer rolls instead of pork. Overall it's a tasty version of Vietnamese summer rolls but I thought the peanut sauce was a bit lightweight and could have used more punch. My entree of grilled pork and rice (com) was a large platter with plenty of meat and some vegetable sides. A slightly different presentation, it didn't look like the pork was grilled, more like roasted and sliced but I'll work with what I've got! Overall a still tasty and generous meal, but not quite totally authentic for me...
The owners seem to work the place so they're super attentive and nice, you definitely get the personal touch eating at Lilly's Cafe. And this little neighborhood has some bar-club options in its two blocks here so you have some after-dinner choices after your meal. All in all, Lilly's Cafe is a decent rendition of Vietnamese cuisine but there were some small misses. I've heard that there are plenty of Vietnamese people in the New Orleans area so you may be better served getting out of the city for the best VN cuisine the area has to offer. But Lilly's Cafe does a decent job if you're not willing to travel far. It's hard to go wrong with flavorful and fresh Vietnamese when the craving strikes...
My final restaurant in New Orleans that lies off the beaten path is Melange, back on Frenchman Street. I had such a good time at Three Muses that I decided to come back for a return visit. This area was really lively on a Saturday night with an outside market in addition to all the great music blaring out of each club. Located on a side-street, Melange opens up into a large open dining room with classic bar on the left-hand side. Lots of people eating and milling about, there was a live jazz trio playing classic tunes for entertainment, very cool!
A seat at the bar and I check out the menu, mostly Southern classics so I go with the sausage of the day (chorizo) along with tje shrimp and grits. Apparently sausage is pretty popular in New Orleans and getting a nice, grilled version at Melange along with some sauteed onion, sour cream-mustard dip made for a nice start to the meal. The shrimp and grits at Melange is one of their more popular dishes and it's a bit different than what I'm used to. A darker sauce with the plump shrimp along with some very creamy grits makes for a great spoonful. Accompanied by the great music for the meal, I really enjoyed my night at Melange as a low-key but nicer dining experience in New Orleans.
So while the French Quarter may be where all the tourist action is at, I highly recommend checking out some quieter areas around downtown New Orleans to get a feel for how the locals live. Whether you head north to Frenchmen Street for music and eats or south to the Lower Garden district and down-home cuisine, you'll find great food beyond what's listed in your guidebook. And how can you resist experiencing ALL of what this lovely city has to offer, laissez les bons temps rouller!
Three Muses 536 Frenchmen Street New Orleans, LA 70116 504.298.8746
Lilly's Cafe 1813 Magazine Street New Orleans, LA 70130 504.599.9999
Melange 2106 Chartres Street New Orleans, LA 70116 504.309.7335