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Kristen Essig’s Low-Key Big Easy

Where the 2019 Beard Award nominee dines in New Orleans

Leah Koenig

May 16, 2019

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Kristen Essig photo by Sara Essex Bradley
Photo: Sara Essex Bradley

Kristen Essig doesn’t want to talk about the newest or hottest places to eat in New Orleans. As co-chef and co-owner (along with her partner Michael Stoltzfus) of the contemporary Southern restaurant, Coquette, Essig is arguably one of the most influential chefs in town. But she and Stoltzfus pride themselves on transcending the noise of trendy “it lists,” and instead focusing on what they do best: cooking delicious, sustainability-minded Southern food, and offering killer hospitality. And the New Orleans restaurants Essig loves—and frequents—mostly do the same.

Essig and Stoltzfus are set to open Thalia, a sister restaurant to Coquette with a cozy neighborhood vibe, in the early summer. Meanwhile, they make time to visit their favorite spots around the city. “More often than not, we find ourselves back at the same four to five places,” Essig said. “Places [where] we can tune out, have a great meal, and support our friends.”

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My number-one pick is Marjie’s Grill on Broad Street, which is Vietnamese cooking with Cajun and Creole influences. One of my favorites is the pig’s ear sandwich. It is served on soft white bread, the filling is super crispy, and it is layered with thinly sliced cucumber and herbs. It is basically a big old sandwich full of pig ears, and it is delicious. They also make a Vietnamese-style crawfish, which instead of the traditional boiling, they stir fry in a hot pan and add drawn butter. I inhale them. I also love their large-format charred pork shoulder, which is served with a bunch of herbs and chile sauce.

Crawfish from Marjie's Grill photo courtesy of Marjie's Grill
Photo courtesy of Marjie's Grill

Another favorite is the Colombian restaurant, Maïs Arepas. The chef, David Mantilla, has an incredible garden—he often drops off edible flowers with me at Coquette because he has so many extras. They make these beautiful arepas that are as big as your face and come split and stuffed with fried plantains and avocado, chorizo and cheese, or about a dozen other options. I always order the same thing—a traditional potato and chicken soup called ajiaco. There’s a chicken broth base, shredded chicken, small creamer potatoes, slices of Yukon gold potato, and hunks of sweet corn. You season it with briny capers, which come on the side.

For traditional Southern-Creole cooking, Brigtsen’s is the best. The owners Frank and Marna are just incredibly kind and supportive people, and that makes their food taste even better. They make classics like warm pecan pie, strawberry shortcake, and paneed rabbit, which they coat in a sesame crust and serve with Creole mustard sauce. They also offer this giant seafood platter that they call the Shell Beach Diet, named after the Louisiana shoreline. The cooking is confident, and they absolutely crush at hospitality.

Another great, very neighborhood-driven place is Paladar 511. Their menu is Italian-esque with a lot of pizzas, pastas, and seafood dishes. They have this gorgeous tricolore salad made with bitter greens, anchovy, lemon vinaigrette, and a ton of shaved Parmesan. When we put lots of cheese on something at Coquette we call it “Paladar-ing it!”

Ajiaco soup from Mais Arepas
Ajiaco soup (Photo courtesy of Maïs Arepas)

The salad at Bistro Daisy also stands out. It’s this tiny, fine-dining restaurant serving French bistro-inspired food—like filet mignon with foie gras butter, or duck confit. Eating there feels like stepping back in time in the best way. For their endive salad with apple, blue cheese, and walnuts, chef Anton Schulte removes the papery skins from the toasted walnuts. No one really bothers to take that step anymore, but it removes some bitterness and completely influences the taste of the walnut. I order the salad every time I go, and it is just perfection.

For drinks I love this tiny Cuban bar called Manolito, which is right off Decatur in the French Quarter. They make the most amazing frozen daiquiris—the mint daiquiri, which has fresh mint and crème de menthe, is so refreshing in the summer when it’s hot. The space is compact, beautiful, and endearingly loud since they blend everything to order. They make another great cocktail called a Papa Doble, which uses sugarcane rum, grapefruit, and maraschino liqueur—it is insane. So delicious.

Kristen Essig’s New Orleans Dining Guide

Bistro Daisy (French)
5831 Magazine St; 504-899-6987

Britgsen’s (Southern-Creole)
723 Dante St; 504-861-7610

Coquette (Contemporary Southern)
2800 Magazine St; 504-265-0421

Maïs Arepas (Colombian)
1200 Carondelet St; 504-523-6247

Manolito (Cocktails)
508 Dumaine St; 504-603-2740

Marjie’s Grill (Vietnamese-Creole)
320 S Broad St; 504-603-2234

Paladar 511 (Italian-American)
511 Marigny St; 504-509-6782

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Leah Koenig is a food writer, author of several cookbooks including Modern Jewish Cooking (Chronicle Books), and cooking instructor living in Brooklyn, NY. Follow her on Instagram at @leah.koenig.