NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana ♦ The French Quarter of New Orleans is one of America’s great misnomers.
Its structural roots were laid during the city’s Spanish period in the 18th century, and its urban design is reminiscent of the great cities in Latin America: Murals, music and mercados fill the grid around the centrally located St. Joseph’s cathedral, the culture as colorful as the postcard-perfect houses.
At once trendy and enduring, New Orleans is finding new and old ways to get in touch with its Spanish roots. As is often the case here, alcohol is a good place to begin.
The pisco sour is a simple cocktail, a mixture of pisco (a Peruvian spirit), simple syrup, lime juice, egg white and angostura bitters. Said to be invented around 1900, the Pisco sour is more sweet than sour. In Peru, it’s the national cocktail. In New Orleans, it’s becoming the most popular drink in town.
At the recently opened Catahoula Hotel and restaurant (914 Union St.), food and beverage director Nathan Dalton could have driven the menu in any of a thousand directions. After all, this is New Orleans. Almost anything goes.
Dalton really wanted to go Peruvian, anticipating what he believes will become a trend. So if you want the best pisco sour in town, check out the Catahoula’s pisco bar, still a rarity in the great American cities.
It’s too early to know, but the Catahoula might be on to something. The pisco bar combines with a coffee bar, rooftop lounge and a 35-room boutique hotel to create something universally hip. New Orleans is nothing if not a breeding ground for such gathering spaces. The number of restaurants in town has skyrocketed — from approximately 800 before Hurricane Katrina landed in 2005, to 1,500 and counting today.
It would be easy to blame tourists for the explosion of eats. The popularity of another recently opened restaurant, Compère Lapin — “brother rabbit” in French Creole, named after the title character of a St. Lucian children’s fable — proves this isn’t necessarily true.
A Harrah’s casino is steps away, and a modern 167-room hotel fills the high-rise above, yet almost 80% of Compère Lapin patrons are New Orleans residents.
The restaurant is the brainchild of Nina Compton, a “Top Chef” runner-up and a native of St. Lucia, and her husband Larry Miller. The menu is small, the wine and spirit lists are long, and each portion packs a mean punch. The Caribbean seafood pepper pot is a can’t-miss.
Of course, Compère Lapin (535 Tchoupitoulas St.) serves its own twist on a Pisco sour called the Andromeda. The exotic taste and stunning presentation combine to make it the most popular cocktail on the menu.
Wandering from the restaurant into the lobby of the hotel (the Old No. 77 Hotel and Chandlery), patrons are greeted by an art installation. During our stay, the featured artist was Leroy Miranda Jr. — a self-taught local painter with an eye for color and a distinct Mexican influence.
All of this isn’t quite a “revival” of Hispanic influence in New Orleans. Lola’s (3312 Esplanade Ave.), an authentic Spanish restaurant several blocks north of the French Quarter tourist traps, has been around for more than 20 years.
La Boca (870 Tchoupitoulas St.) is an Argentinian steakhouse that’s called the American Quarter home for more than 10 years. And scholars contend the city’s native art form — jazz — has incorporated Latin American rhythms since the 19th century.
New Orleans prides itself on being woven from a multitude of cultural fabrics, and the Hispanic spool is longer than any. The thread is only growing stronger.
Note: This story also appeared on nydailynews.com.