Move over, shrimp and grits
When I was living in New York and working in restaurants, my New Orleans upbringing would often come up in conversations with new friends, inevitably leading us to talk about food with the kind of heated passions and convictions the likes of which rival incendiary revolutionary rhetoric. “I had the best roast beef debris po-boy at THIS PLACE!” they’d say and hammer down a clenched fist to prove their sincerity, or “I absolutely refuse to leave the city without gaining at least five pounds in fried oyster weight,” and very often, “Oh my God, I could never live in New Orleans… I’d eat myself to death, I swear.” And then our fervor would steer the topic to soft-shell crabs, muffalettas, or crawfish, until, inevitably, we’d all need to find the nearest Popeyes.
But the one New Orleans food topic that always makes me raise an eyebrow is when someone invariably mentions authoritatively that their favorite “real New Orleans” dish is shrimp and grits. To a native of the Crescent City, this seems a bit odd. It’s not because these hungry, impassioned people didn’t have an amazing bowl of shrimp and grits in New Orleans, it’s just that, well, it’s not really a storied New Orleans dish. Yes, we have shrimp, and yes, we have grits, but the pairing of the two was born in the lowcountry of the Carolinas—not down in the Mississippi Delta. In fact, shrimp and grits wasn’t even popular here until it became popular everywhere else in the South, and then the rest of the country, at some point in the mid-80’s, when the New York times published a glowing review of the dish at a place called Crook’s Corner, in South Carolina. But do you know what really is a native New Orleans dish, a grits pairing par excellence that almost no hopped-up hungry Yankee has ever once mentioned to me? Not shrimp and grits. Grillades and grits.
When I tell people about the decadent pleasures of creamy grits paired with grillades in a sinfully rich sauce, they’re wont to say something to the effect of, “Um... gree-what, now?”
Simply put, grillades—pronounced GREE-yahds, not GRILL-ahds or, god forbid, grill-AIDES—are medallions of meat, usually pork, beef or veal—pan-fried and then gently braised in a rich brown or tomato-based Creole sauce (or a combination of the two, similar to an espagnole). Spooned over grits and often topped with scattering of scallions and sometimes a poached egg, it’s a classic as beloved by brunch-hungry New Orleanians as Eggs Sardou, pain perdu, or a cup of turtle soup generously spiked with sherry. So many enthusiastic visitors to this city are quick to gush about those dishes, but few have ever done so about grillades, at least not to me. The dish seems like such a mystery to them, when to me it’s so essential.
The mere existence of this dish seems like something of a knowing handshake between people who have a marrow-deep appreciation of Creole food. Every New Orleanian worth their roux spoon is intimately familiar with grillades (some to the point of obsession), but it glides stealthily under the radar to those only glancingly familiar with the cuisine of the Crescent City. And, to be honest, part of me is a little offended on the behalf of grillades that they don’t get the adoration and respect by the masses that they genuinely deserve.
For a second, I thought I might be crazy for loving grillades as much as I do. But there’s something about it that’s so comforting and familiar, friendly and a little saucy, not unlike the city herself. It turns out, unsurprisingly, I’m not the only one with a massive grillades crush.
“It’s absolutely one of my favorite creole dishes. In classic Creole, it’s easily in my top five or ten,” said Chef Frank Brigtsen when I asked him about the New Orleans staple. If anyone should know a thing or two about grillades and Creole cooking, it’s Frank, who literally made his bones under Paul Prudhomme at Commander’s Palace in the '70s and has been the co-owner and chef at Brigtsen’s, handily one of the best Creole restaurants in New Orleans, since 1986. Unsurprisingly, Brigtsen’s was my very first favorite restaurant as a kid growing up in the Crescent City. So I knew Frank would have something to say about this.
“The first time I had grillades was as a kid at Brennan’s,” Brigtsen said. “When we had Charlie’s Seafood restaurant, I loved the dish so much I made it our Wednesday lunch special, and it really took off. People would come religiously for that dish, and we’d serve it for dinner as well.”
This gets the heart of what we grillades aficionados understand. It’s an egalitarian dish, not just for for the poor, not just for the rich, and while it’s most famous as a breakfast or brunch specialty, it’s never out of place on a lunch or dinner table, at someone’s house during Mardi Gras parades or at a 150 year-old Grand Dame restaurant. There’s something so quintessentially New Orleanian about a food that loves everyone equally at all times, it’s impossible not to love it right back. As Frank put it, “It’s really appropriate anytime, anywhere. It fits in an elegant setting and also a home setting. There’s a universal appeal that I find really lovely.”
The proper preparation of grillades also becomes a real culinary equalizer. According to Brigtsen, “It’s a great example of Creole cooking because it’s not about exotic, expensive ingredients; it’s about humble ingredients and good technique. Any inexpensive cut of meat can be braised, smothered, and made into grillades, so you’re not spending a lot of money.”
As for the history of grillades, that’s where things get even more interesting, since there is no definitive history of the dish, and it’s often the subject of debate among people who study Creole cooking. And that sense of mystery only adds to its charm. “It tickles me that nobody really knows the origins of it,” Frank said. “There’s nothing there! The word sounds French, but it’s not really a literal translation of the actual dish. And grits are of course a southern staple, so what you have is really a typical Creole concoction, which is multicultural.”
Then, of course, you can’t forget the pairing of grits, which is vital to such a saucy lady as grillades. If the grits fail, so do the grillades, and then we’re talking downright scandal, a deep and shameful travesty. They should be soft, creamy and polenta-like, never stiff or gloppy. Brigtsen claims to eat at least a few spoonfuls of grits every single day, as his restaurant always has them on the menu in one fashion or the other (the current incarnation at Brigtsen’s employs locally sourced stone-ground grits cooked in whole milk until tender and finished with Fontina cheese).
Ultimately, you simply can’t explain a love for grits and grillades to someone who’s never experienced it, a quintessential, “if you have to ask, you’ll never know” dish. If you’re unfamiliar and you happen to be in New Orleans, do yourself a favor and seek it out, but only if you’re comfortable beginning a culinary love affair that might last a lifetime. I know I’m smitten, and so is Frank Brigtsen, even after so many years of cooking Creole. “If I see it on a menu,” said the chef, “I’m pretty sure I’m gonna order it.”
Or, as I like to put it: Once you go grillades, you never go back.