Shaya (New Orleans)

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Do not be mistaken upon planning your New Orleans itinerary. Sure, you can tell yourself it's vital to squeeze in the cup of gumbo or po-boy; but in my opinion, those Creole rituals can be pushed aside. Shaya should be prioritized.

An homage to Chef Alon Shaya's (and my) nostalgia-inducing Israeli homeland, the highly-acclaimed restaurant exceeds expected cultural depths of today's modern dining experience while remaining ever-so humble and grounded from small plate to entrée.

"Pillows of perfection" is, after much thought, the most appropriate description of  Shaya's pita. The culinary canvas for shared tapas of spices, spreads and salads, each piece eludes a piece of art, honoring Mediterranean cuisine and reintroducing flavors once forgotten in the New Orleans neighborhood.

As the pita was kneaded and baked fresh in a blue-tiled oven in the main dining room, I quickly understood the need for three chefs in the exposed prep area. The unlimited pita service is a diner's challenge and, in my opinion, a reward.

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A portion of the menu is dedicated entirely to hummus; topping ranged from lamb ragü to soft-boiled egg or butternut squash. We delved into the fried cauliflower version, which was drizzled in fresh cilantro and fragrant olive oil. I was reminded of Alon Shaya's last mark at Domenica, where the cauliflower side is a crowd favorite.

We also managed to dominate the table tasters of Israeli salad, brussels sprouts and tabouleh bowls, continuously dunking our pita in each to ensure full appreciation.

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My absolute favorite portion of the meal was the crispy halloumi, plated perfectly atop celery root and pomegranate and balsamic reduction. The cheese is such a rarity in the United States, though it's celebrated at Shaya in a preparation similar to fried mozzarella...but so much more phenomenal.

Here's my opinion: Get a table on the patio for lunch during your next visit to New Orleans. Load up on the tapas and a couple of main courses, and you'll have plenty of room by 4 p.m. for a Creole app. Don't miss this spot; it's a national winner for reason.

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Josephine Estelle (New Orleans)

A girls' weekend to New Orleans this past weekend was met with an unexpected, unnoticed coincidence--my hometown heroes (in the culinary category, to say the least) Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman were opening their newest establishment at the new Ace Hotel New Orleans that very weekend. Thus, I ensured our dinner at Peche was pushed late enough to allow for a cocktail, appetizer and appreciation for the New Orleans stunner, Josephine Estelle.

I'm accustomed to the small-space designs in the exisitng Andy Ticer & Michael Hudman portfolio, including Porcellino's one-room, one-stop shop and Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen's renovated home buildout.

Down in the Big Easy, however, the space grew bigger. At Josephine Estelle, the striking design boasts high ceilings, waves of green velvet banquettes, and 1920s art deco finishes. Ornate brass bulbs, which line the grand wraparound bar and surrounding tables, are reminiscent of a grand Southern train station.

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The bustling kitchen, clearly visible along the back wall of the perimeter, performs like a symphony--the right side preps, and the left side assembles and plates. The process is aesthetically eye-catching and functionally impressive. I was grateful enough to be led through the kitchen by Andy and Michael's Memphis team, and I was lucky to meet Josephine Estelle's executive chef Phillip Mariano while in the back. The camaraderie truly radiated between chefs, spotted culinary celebrity guests and regular 'ole diners like myself.

I'm especially fond of the restaurant's name, reflecting Andy and Michael's family-first intentions upon expanding their restaurateur careers. Named after their daughters, Josephine Estelle opens only months before their Downtown Memphis concept Catherine & Mary's, named for the two women (their grandmothers) who taught them how to prepare pastas and Italian staples. It all comes full-circle, especially in the kitchen. Andy and Michael practice a fine and grounded mentality.

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The cocktail and hors d'oeuvre were delightful. The menu makes it tough to choose just one, especially with a lengthy list of innovative small plates and Southern-infused pasta options. We went with the absolutely stunning asparagus presentation, nested around a fried egg, pimento, trout roe and country ham. Salty yet light, we could have ordered another.

To drink, I found myself infatuated with the "Lemons Never Forget" cocktail. Citrusy and spicy blends of honey, calvados and apertif wine were wholesome and sinful. I will never forget.

Though we Memphians might be tempted to stick with creole itineraries while in New Orleans, make the Ace stop for a drink and dish.

St. Roch Market (New Orleans)

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset Built in the late 1800s as an open-air seafood market, St. Roch's Bywater doors were closed as soon as Hurricane Katrina hit. Now as a true refurbishment and rekindling of New Orleans' charming spirit, St. Roch Market stands as an elegant and airy centerpiece for all things food and drink, all hours of the day.

The space, as you can see, is simply stunning. I'm a sucker for white and natural light. We floated through the gallery of marble countertops and chalkboard menus. I was in awe of the concept that vendors functioned individually yet collectively created a cohesive, complete environment.

The thirteen vendors highlight small menus of specialty items, hand-prepared on the back counters of their established booths. While Alex ordered our Coast Roast coffee drinks, I picked up a slice of extra cinnamon-y coffee cake from The Sweet Spot, and Ashley picked up avocado toasts with red pepper flakes and hard boiled egg from Juice Nola. We brought our brunch offerings to a small marble table in the center of the building and dug in.

Yet throughout the space, you can choose between raw oysters, cold-pressed juice, baked confections, West-African cuisine, artisanal meats and cheeses, crepes, Korean-Creole fusion, and crawfish mac and cheese. Produce at the market entrance is available, too.

Now, I'm ready to bring one to Memphis. Who's with me?

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Toast (New Orleans)

Lately, I've lost the precious time to savor morning meals before work. The 6:45 a.m. workouts are taking over my rituals of coffee sipping and egg scrambling (though, yes, that should be a good thing), and the snooze button has become my best friend on days off. Combine that lack of time with my desire to drive back to New Orleans for Jazz Fest... Take me back to Toast.

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Ashley and I stumbled upon this peachy pink house right off of our Magazine Street route, which entertained us throughout the relaxing weekend. We chose Toast as the finale of my trip...and yes, it was a lovely choice. The avocado toast with sunny side up egg was a given, but I was equally enthralled by other menu items: crispy bacon, homemade grits, and an omelet special with goat cheese and roasted red peppers.

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Naturally, we split every dish. This was a challenging yet worthwhile feat, for I never turn down the chance to try multiple menu items at once! The toast was perfectly crisp, and I enjoyed the thick cut of sourdough to soak up egg yolk and catch bright green avocado slices. As we all know in the food world, avocado toast would list among the most popular dishes if ever to be left on a deserted island. I have definitely joined the bandwagon. And the Toast bandwagon.

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The omelet special was delicious, though goat cheese's rich overtones always seem to overwhelm my plate at breakfast. The pineapple was spectacularly sweet compared to the crispy, savory bacon on the side.

I'm looking forward to cooking a Toast-inspired breakfast at the lakehouse over Valentine's weekend. What's your favorite kind of toast?!

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St. James Cheese Company (New Orleans)

In case you were not aware, cheese is essentially one of my favorite creations on this earth. I managed to live on it (with a baguette) throughout my summer in Paris, and I could definitely manage living on it (with traditional accompaniments, of course) if ever stranded on a deserted island. When introduced to St. James Cheese Company last weekend in New Orleans, I quickly reconfirmed my love for the food group. IMG_2405

The Uptown restaurant, which takes orders at the quaint counter, lined up regulars against the overwhelmingly wonderful cheese displays and counters. I couldn't fathom the variety; but I loved it! Local and regional jams, honey, cheese boards, crackers, spices, and olives filled the walls. A large chalkboard describes the menu in its entirety...The Croque Monster and macaroni and cheese sounded out of this world, but I needed lighter fare to get me through the New Orleans weekend.

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I ordered the parmesan reggiano salad with artichokes hearts, scrumptious black olives, Fra Mani salami, walnuts, dijon vinaigrette, and plenty of parmesan. The portion was mighty generous. If St. James were situated near me, I'd entitle this salad my new "go-to." I don't think I could ever get tired of the desirable flavor combination.

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Riley ordered us a cheese board -- I love how St. James simply asks if you'd like three, five, or seven cheeses. We opted for three: a bleu, a brie, and a gouda. And that cherry compote...Perfection.

I typically vow to only try new restaurants in new cities. Here, I am declaring an exception. I will be going back to St. James during my next New Orleans road trip, and I could not be more excited for it!

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