Chef Nina Compton traveled to New Orleans in 2013 to compete in Top Chef, the reality TV competition that actually matters inside the culinary world. After finishing in second place, she left the Big Easy—but New Orleans didn’t leave her. “The city just stuck in my head,” she says. And for good reason: The St. Lucia native saw in Nola a little bit of home. “I love the similarities to the Caribbean—the warmth of the people, the emphasis and energy around sharing food and drinks.”
The chef returned two years later and opened Compère Lapin, which mashes up her Caribbean, French, New Orleans and Italian influences. Following its success, last year she opened Bywater American Bistro, already a local favorite for its homey dishes like spaghetti pomodoro and fried Gulf oysters. When she isn’t cooking, Compton is exploring one of America’s favorite food cities. Here, she takes us on a culinary tour of her top spots, from old-school N’awlins classics to modern fusion finds.
Check out Nina Compton’s favorite Big Easy bites below.
“Kelly Fields is such a talented baker, and though I don’t really eat breakfast, when I do, I go to Willa Jean. The pastries are killer, and all of the doughs are excellent. You could definitely get just a latte and a pastry, but if you wanted something heavy, get the shrimp and grits with étouffée sauce.”
“When I want a solid, no-frills lunch or dinner, this is my go-to. I love the way Marcus Jacobs cooks. It’s a laid-back place with a tiki-bar, surf kind of feel. They do a really good job with local shrimp, which they grill shell on with a bit of Thai chili and lime; they’re nice and sweet.”
“This is a fun restaurant that focuses on Louisiana ingredients with a lot of Asian technique. They do a dirty rice, which is a very Southern thing, but it has Vietnamese techniques. For me, any noodle dish on the menu is great because it’s packed with so much flavor. And the setting itself is very chic; there’s a lot of people- watching going on.”
Arnaud’s and Arnaud’s French 75
“French 75 is a cocktail bar, and Arnaud’s is the restaurant next door. There are so many older restaurants like Galatoire’s, Commander’s Palace or Arnaud’s where you have to get dressed up, and it’s a nice feeling. The dining room is so ornate and glamorous. Order the pommes soufflé, because that’s what they’re known for. And I love fish stuffed with crabmeat and a beurre blanc that’s so decadent. It’s reminiscent of that old-school French menu that transports you back in time.”
Turkey and the Wolf
“They do amazing sandwiches. They are just so carefree and don’t take themselves too seriously, and the food is playful. The collard-green melt is amazing, and they make a great lamb-neck roti, with beautiful braised lamb, shaved cucumbers, dill and yogurt. It reminds me of home.”
“This is a red-sauce Italian restaurant that’s been around for almost 75 years. It’s a bit of a trek, but when you go in you feel like you need to kiss a mob boss’s pinkie ring, because it has this very old-school Italian setting. It’s such a nice little hidden treat. You have to get the oysters Mosca. It’s oysters in a creamy sauce with bread crumbs on top. I asked for the recipe and they said, ‘We can’t tell anybody.’”
Willie Mae’s Scotch House
“When people talk about fried chicken in New Orleans, it’s either Dooky Chase or Willie Mae’s. At Willie Mae’s there’s a line out the door and all it is is just fried chicken and a bunch of sides. But it’s so light, airy and crispy with just the right amount of spices.”