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Big Tiny insists on Emeril’s, the flagship restaurant of Chef Emeril Lagasse — Bam! — in the Warehouse District of New Orleans. Big Tiny knows good eating, and though Lagasse’s star may have dimmed in recent years, the guy’s food is phenomenal.
We know we’re in the right place when Jonathan Vilma and a few other New Orleans Saints brush past us at the bar to a private dining room in the back. They’ve got a home game on Sunday after a long stretch on the road, and these guys have their pick of any restaurant in the city. Tonight, as far as New Orleans is concerned, this is the absolute center of the universe.
I got some barbecue shrimp, a house specialty that had so much butter in it I could feel it in my lungs — in a good way. My flounder entrée, pan-fried and served with roasted acorn squash and caper butter, made a flavor together that to my taste buds was something entirely new. As usual, Big Tiny out-ordered me at every turn. As soon as I saw his scallop entrée I knew I should have gotten that. For an appetizer he shared a plate of sticky duck wings that I’ll remember forever.
We don’t have restaurants like this in the Triad — in fairness, very few cities in the world have the culinary depth of a place like New Orleans — and honestly, I’m not sure we have the consumer interest to sustain one.
But there’s a lot we can learn from New Orleans, much of which has bounced back with aplomb after the ravages of Hurricane Katrina.
The city’s economy is at full throttle, fueled in part by a boom in the film and television industry that’s been encouraged by a hefty tax rebate. Creative entrepreneurs fill out every niche in the market — on Friday I got a shave at my old friend Aidan Gill’s boutique barbershop, Aidan Gill for Men, upon which he has built a mini empire.
The unemployment rate is among the lowest of the country’s big cities, and the resulting gentrification of its aging neighborhoods is causing home prices to climb so quickly that longtime residents are starting to get displaced.
“Hipsters are killing the Bywater,” Big Tiny told me. Still he works in the Bywater, one of the few neighborhoods in the 9 th Ward that came back strong after Katrina, at the sort of business that might do well in the Triad if anyone had the courage to build it.
Bacchanal Fine Wine & Spirits began as a simple wine shop near where the train tracks run along the river, specializing in quality labels for discerning oenophiles. They started fixing up cheese plates and little dishes to serve to the customers who wanted to drink their wine at the little tables out back. Now a sea of tables fills an acre or more in a courtyard while live bands play classic New Orleans dirges, and high-end bar food like ceviche, bacon-wrapped dates and chocolate bark with extra-virgin olive oil and gray salt are available through a window to the courtyard.
Big Tiny makes craft cocktails and sodas in the bar upstairs, cooking up his own bitters and mixes, adding his own culinary flair to the recipes. He made me a pineapple-curry soda with fresh muddled mint that changed my life just a little bit. Big Tiny, who came up in some of the most noxious dive bars in the city, has never been happier.
I’d love for him to come back to North Carolina — he’s a Durham native — and open up a joint like this here in town. But he’s not gonna leave New Orleans, where food is a language and there are Saints prowling the streets, anytime soon.v
Emeril’s; 800 Tchoupitoulas St., New Orleans; emerilsrestaurants.com Bacchanal Fine Wine & Spirits; 600 Poland Ave., New Orleans; bacchanalwine.com