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Dining Under the Rising Sun

Galatoire's Imre Szalai
Indoctrinated with Manhattan's tight-lipped transportation etiquette, it came as a pleasant shock when the woman next to me on a plane to New Orleans struck up a conversation.

Her name was Debi Trichel and she was headed to New Orleans for an annual meeting of friends, but mostly for the illustrious famed cuisine. "Think of the crawfish," she said to calm my pretakeoff jitters.

A few days later, sitting in Ralph's on the Park and enjoying a Sunday dinner to the tune of jazz and Dixieland, I realized what she meant.

Sultry green light, reflecting from the park's Spanish moss, came through the windows as I dug into my Pontchatoula strawberry panna cotta, an Italian custard paired up with Louisiana strawberries and a balsamic reduction.

My only regret was not having ordered my dining partner's house-baked creamy cheesecake lollipops -- complete with wooden stems -- as well.

There's no room for culinary classicism in a city where food is king. Whether beignets (a French take on doughnuts) and cafe au lait (coffee with chicory) from Cafe du Monde , or muffulettas (sandwiches of Sicilian bread, marinated olives, meats and cheeses) -- which I dare say rival a New York slice -- all cuisine in New Orleans is enjoyed equally.

"People who come to New Orleans come to eat," says Ralph's executive chef, Gus Martin.

Ralph's on the Park, voted Best Restaurant Post-Katrina by the readers of local New Orleans paper City Business , and Galatoire's , which calls itself the grand dame of New Orleans' old-line restaurants, are two serious staples of the city's cuisine.

Steeped in History

Part of New Orleans' epicurean equality comes from long-standing traditions that blend unlikely continents and people.

Martin, for instance, has a 25-year history working for the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group , the family business that runs nine New Orleans-style restaurants in the city, including Ralph's on the Park.

One of Ralph's historic wall murals depicts a time before Ralph Brennan, when The Ball of Two Well Known Gentlemen was hosted there and the building was a place for "fancy ladies and society gentlemen" to mingle.

While you don't see society ladies around here anymore, locals will still come in and have a glass of bourbon at the bar to a backdrop of live piano music.

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