What are the flavors that speak to the holiday season in New Orleans? Peruse the special Reveillon menus now being prepared at local restaurants, and you can find interpretation as varied and tempting as Creole daube glacé from a classic restaurant, a Cajun mixed grill from a newer one, a Mexican-style citrus salad with local fruit at a modern taqueria, a stuffed quail at a cozy bistro and a boozy or island-inspired eggnog interlude within a French Quarter feast.
Reveillon has a long history in New Orleans and one that’s changed a great deal from the days when it implied a Catholic Creole family’s holiday meal at home following midnight Mass. Today it takes place in restaurants, close to 50 this year, and takes the form of special, multicourse, prix fixe menus served from Dec. 1-31.
The variety of restaurants serving Reveillon this year reflects the diversity across the city’s dining scene, and chefs have been adding their own distinctive stamp on their festive menus.
All in the family
At SoBou (310 Chartes St., (504) 552-4095; sobounola.com), chef Juan Carlos Gonzalez works plenty of references from his Puerto Rican heritage into his Reveillon menu. There’s his octopus en escabeche, for example, and pollo borracho — or drunken chicken, infused with bourbon and served with a smoked chicken and root vegetable fricassee. Gonzalez credits his mother and her penchant for injecting her holiday turkeys with Champagne and Cointreau for the inspiration behind this boozy dish.
Toward the middle of the spirited feast, Gonzalez will serve Puerto Rican-style eggnog, known as coquito.
“The recipe I’m using has been in my family for generations,” Gonzalez said of this mid-meal “pick me up.” “Every Christmas, we make this in my household, and since I like it so much, I make it in the restaurant.”
Latin American flavors are also on prime display at Johnny Sánchez (930 Poydras St., (504) 304-6615; johnny sanchezrestaurant.com), where chef Miles Landrem prepares traditional Mexican cuisine by using contemporary techniques and local ingredients. That includes citrus picked from his family’s farm in Plaquemines Parish.
For the opening course of his Reveillon menu, grapefruit and naval oranges are paired with kale, avocado and goat cheese and tossed with satsuma vinaigrette. Meanwhile, the slow-cooked lamb shank birria entrée stems from a recipe by Zarela Martinez, the restaurateur and cookbook author who happens to be the mother of Johnny Sánchez co-owner Aarón Sánchez. Landrem’s intrepretation of the dish calls for tender lamb, flash fried in pork fat for a subtle crispness, all swathed with a spiced sauce and chilies.
Combining different threads of family traditions on a Reveillon menu feels in synch with the holiday spirit to Landrem. The New Orleans native recalls the holiday feasts he enjoyed with family at long-established restaurants, steeped in tradition. When his culinary career led him to Oaxaca, Mexico, he found himself once again participating in large family gatherings there, which were also centered around food.
“Mexico is similar to New Orleans in that regard,” he said. “Everybody loves to cook for each other, and they love to eat.”
Cajun, Creole, contemporary
Others find inspiration closer to Louisiana. Chef Nathan Richard, of Kingfish Kitchen & Cocktails, (337 Chartres St., (504) 598-5005; kingfishneworleans.com) is from Thibodaux and proudly notes that his cooking “doesn’t shy away from Cajun.”
That shines in the boudin-stuffed quail, served with sweet potato casserole and coated in a house-made cane syrup. Similarly, the boucherie mix grill entrée is built around braised pork roast and smoked sausage, with dirty rice farro and a barbecue sauce that incorporates Swamp Pop cola, made in Lafayette.
“Growing up, we always had a boucherie around this time of the year. So this dish pays homage to that,” Richard said.
Situated in a shotgun house on Carrollton Avenue, Rue 127 (127 N. Carrollton Ave., (504) 483-1571; rue127.com) strays from Reveillon traditions … for the most part. Chef Ray Gruezke creates variations of local classics, like turtle soup, but his menu is dominated by unconventional items, suitable for winter weather.
“The menu has a lot of things that I want to eat when it’s cold outside, like stuffed quail and lamb,” said Gruezke. He called out the scallops with fennel and the feuillette (a composition of puff pastry) with frog legs and sweetbreads as some of his favorites for this season’s menu.
With a history reaching back to 1918, Arnaud’s Restaurant (813 Bienville St., (504) 523-5433; arnaudsrestaurant.com) naturally offers a Reveillon dinner more aligned with the classics.
“We try to honor the time-honored tradition of Reveillon,” chef Tommy DiGiovanni said.
Even within this framework, though, the chef is able to update the Creole menu with contemporary touches, making it overall a bit lighter, as with his courtbouillon with Louisiana drum, simmered in tomato puree with Gulf shrimp and oysters and plated with popcorn rice.
Yet, the Arnaud’s holiday menu begins with an amuse bouche inspired by a dish that was once part of the original Creole Reveillon celebrations: daube glacé.
“That’s about as classical Creole and traditional as you can get,” DiGiovanni said. “I’m sure you’d find a daube glacé somewhere on their table.”