oyster sampler
French 75
French 75. Photo courtesy of Arnaud’s Restaurant. 

“Can I start you with a drink? Our signature cocktail is the ‘French 75,’ made with Courvoisier, Sugar, Lemon Juice, Moet and Chandon Champagne.”

I’m in New Orleans sitting at French 75, an old world cocktail bar known for its thoughtful drinks precisely crafted with high-quality ingredients and premium spirits. The venue is part of the famous Arnaud’s Restaurant, a New Orleans institution since 1918, and was once a gentlemen-only club. While the bar’s philosophy has changed (women are now allowed inside), much of the decor has not as it features with monkey lamps, dark varnished woods, a vintage bar, low tables and settees and tiled floors..

While the “French 75” sounds good, I’m in the mood for something with a bit of spice. I opt instead for a “Winter Waltz” made with Rye Whiskey, Averna Amaro, Allspice Dram and Angostura Bitters, thoroughly shaken and strained into a chilled martini glass. As I bend down to inhale the aromas of the drink my body is flooded with a sense of pleasant warmth. The spices from the rye and allspice, bittersweetness of the amaro and earthiness of the bitters combine to create a well-balanced cocktail that perfectly tells the story of its name.

I love the feeling of going back in time to when making drinks was an art form, and French 75 is the ideal place to savor this. This also goes for the food, as many dishes on both French 75s and Arnaud’s menu have been served since 1918. I opt to sample the “Oysters Bienville,” an invention create by Arnaud’s in response to Restaurant Antoine’s claim they invented the “Oysters Rockefeller.” I also choose this appetizer as New Orleans is world-renowned for their fresh seafood. The dish features broiled oysters combined with shrimp, mushrooms, spices, white wine and heavy cream. Once I finish my cocktail I continue my epicurious pursuits in Arnaud’s main dining room, but not before ordering one more craft cocktail from French 75. This time I opt for a “Sazarac,” which was supposedly the first cocktail ever created and an invention of New Orleans. The drink is extremely strong, made with rye whiskey, sugar and bitters, muddled and served in a chilled old-fashioned glass.

French 75
French 75. Photo courtesy of Arnaud’s Restaurant. 

I sip it slowly, letting the flavors roll over my tongue. There’s no doubt this drink tells a story. In the early 1800s, a Creole apothocary named Antoine Peychaud invented a drink named after his favorite French brandy, Sazerac-de-Forge et fils. In 1870 when French grapes were destroyed by phylloxera and cognac became hard to obtain a bartender named Leon Lamothe altered the cocktail a bit, substiuting the cognac for American Rye whiskey and adding a dash of absinthe; however, in 1912 absinthe was banned. This is when Herbsaint was added in to make up for its absence. And this is how I come to drink a cocktail that tells of important events through history.

Arnaud’s food menu tells a story, as well, one that begins at the beginning of the 20th century and goes until modern times, with a mix of original recipes, modern creations and old dishes altered to keep up with the changing palate.”As time passes and ingredients change, as do taste profiles, some of the recipes have been altered a bit but for the most part are the same,” explains Katy Casbarian, one of the co-owners of Arnaud’s. “We understand that guests come here and want to indulge in the tradition of original menu items but also appreciate the variety of the other Creole-style dishes that we offer. We also understand that guests want to eat lighter fare, locally-sourced products and interesting preparations using newer technical preparations, and those certainly factor into our menu mix.”

shrimp arnaud
Shrimp Arnaud. Photo courtesy of Sarah Essex.

I decide to start the Shrimp Arnaud, an appetizer on the menu since 1918 featuring Gulf shrimp marinated in a tangy Creole Remoulade sauce, as well as a more modern starter, the alligator sausage, seasoned and served with smoked onion, apple relish and Arnaud’s housemade Creole Mustard.

Suddenly, the mixologist that had been serving me before walks over. “I have something I would like for you to try. It’s a “Brandy Crusta,” which was the first in a long line of cocktails.”

It was said by “Professor” Jerry Thomas in his 1862 “Bar-Tender’s Guide” to be an “improvement on the cocktail,” although many others believe the drink was an embellishment on the cocktail, which later led to the “Sidecar” which led to the “Margarita.” Whatever you’re take on the drink is, there’s no denying the mix of cognac, Grand Marnier, Maraschino, simple syrup, lemon juice and bitters certainly tells a story, and at Arnaud’s they tell it well.

They also serve a similar “Pompano Duarte” fish dish featuring a sauteed filet topped with Gulf shrimp. Photo courtesy of Sarah Essex.

My entree soon arrives, a hearty filet of sautéed redfish topped with fresh Louisiana crabmeat. Redfish is a specialty in New Orleans, as it is plentiful in the Gulf and provide much meat with just one fish as they’re typically about 25 to 35 pounds. The fish is offers a mild, sweet flavor, and is not quite flaky, but not quite firm. Combined with the crab meat, it’s a hearty and satisfying dish.

Arnaud’s “Chocolate Devastation,” one of their many decadent desserts. Photo courtesy of Sarah Essex.

And no experience at Arnaud’s would be complete without dessert. For this I sample an array of decadent choices: Praline crepes served with roasted pecans and caramel sauce; bread pudding with rum-soaked raisins and custard with warm Walker’s Imperial Bourbon Sauce; flourless chocolate cake featuring Belgian dark chocolates and espresso; and a sundae glass filled with fresh strawberries marinaded in port, red wine, spices and topped with Brocato’s homemade French vanilla ice cream.

While all delicious, the highlight is undoubtedly the Cafe Brulot, which literally translates to “Burnt Coffee.” I’m not a coffee drinker, however, the handmade coffee drink tasted more of cinnamon, sweetness ad spice than the usual bitter coffee bean — not to mention it’s laced with orange liqueur. Watching the waiter prepare it table side is like watching a Broadway show, as he cooks together lemon peel, a clove-studded orange peel and cinnamon sticks, setting it all on fire for the finale. To put the fire out, he pours fresh coffee over the colorful flame.

Whether serving up thoughtful classic cocktails or more modern show-stopping fare, there’s one thing that’s certain: Arnaud’s tells a story through its menu. One that is undeniably captivating, and can only truly be understood through the palate.

*Featured image of Arnaud’s “Oysters on the Half Shell” sampler. Photo courtesy of Sarah Essex. 

Jessica Festa

Jessica Festa is the editor of Epicure & Culture as well as Jessie on a Journey. She enjoys getting lost in new cities and having experiences you don’t read about in guidebooks. Some of her favorite travel experiences have been teaching English in Thailand, trekking her way through South America, backpacking Europe solo, road tripping through Australia, agritouring through Tuscany, and volunteering in Ghana.

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