“I’ve lost my orientation. Where are we?” my travel companion asks as we stumble in search of an afternoon libation and snack. Though I’ve passed through this city countless times, and even twice briefly called it home, I can’t point with certitude in any general direction.
I have always found Baton Rouge to be geographically and culturally unorientable, with a river lined by casinos and industry, a farrago of congested highways, infamously corrupt government, and a massive university plunked in its midst.
Ask most Louisianans what to do in Baton Rouge and your question will most likely be met with a shrug. (Football game at LSU’s Tiger Stadium? Lobby for the oil and gas industry?) Ask them for a restaurant recommendation and you’ll most likely receive a laugh. A barkeep friend recently responded to this query with: “You know what Ignatius Reilly said in A Confederacy of Dunces, don’t you?” He did not have to remind me—New Orleanians, including me, love to spout author John Kennedy Toole’s punch lines: Baton Rouge is “the whirlpool of despair” and, if that was not cruel enough, “the inner station of the ultimate horror.”
Sandwiched between Lafayette and New Orleans, the twin capitals of Cajun and Creole cuisine, Louisiana’s capital has never held the same allure for visitors, especially when it comes to exemplary eating. But today, an hour’s drive from these more celebrated destinations will bring you to a new and rapidly evolving food-and-drink scene—one even the temperamental Toole might appreciate.
Since Hurricane Katrina’s community-scattering winds, Baton Rouge has witnessed large numbers of formerly itinerant, culinary-minded young professionals root themselves in this city rather than New Orleans. And these chefs, farmers, and other entrepreneurs are redistricting the city’s gastronomic map.
“You lived here for college, industry, or government,” says William McGehee, co-owner of Tin Roof Brewing Co. “If you weren’t into those, you left.” McGehee and his lifelong friend Charles Caldwell launched their brewery
in a deserted downtown warehouse in 2010. The duo are young, business savvy, and attuned to the nation’s changing appetites. They also, with brewmaster Tom Daigrepont, craft some outstanding beer. My choice is the mocha-creamy seasonal Parade Ground Coffee Porter, made with a cold-pressed blend from New Orleans Coffee Company. The fruit in Tin Roof’s summertime Watermelon Wheat comes from just down the road.
Not far from Tin Roof, I find Bogdan Mocanu at Dolce Vita, slinging sizzling wood-fired pizza slices (two for $5) out of a trailer parked in the shadow of the phallic art deco state capitol that former governor Huey Long had built. A global goulash in a traditionally not-so-cosmopolitan city, the scene mirrors the harmonious incongruity of the brightly colored Warholesque pizza slices that decorate the food truck’s exterior.
Mocanu hails from Constana, Romania, via Italy and New Orleans, while the stone in his pecan- and red-oak-fueled oven originated in Naples. On weekdays, downtown workers queue up dozens deep for thin, crispy slices that hold up wonderfully under toppings traditional and Southern-tinged, such as duck confit with peaches and Wild Turkey bourbon gastrique.
Across downtown, Restaurant IPO serves up small plates with elemental traces of the Louisiana boot print. Deviled Bayou Eggs include crawfish and tasso, while the Pequeno Tacos are topped with andouille bacon bits.
Closer to LSU’s campus, at Magpie Café, I graze on garden vegetable quiche and quinoa salad in a room full of coeds. All reclaimed wood, bird-centric art, and pour-over coffee, Magpie is the place I wish existed back when I was a freshman here, more than a dozen years ago.
Even the grande dame of Baton Rouge restaurants, Juban’s, which celebrates three decades of service this year, is changing. Two years ago chef Jaime Hernandez took over and set out to alter what the Louisiana native calls “the little things”: buying meat and greens from local farmers; drying, toasting, and grinding his own herbs. Hernandez refined the kitchen’s substance without altering its style, reviving forgotten dishes he remembered eating here as a kid. Sitting at the brilliantly sunlit courtyard bar, I order one such classic dish, the Hallelujah Crab, a flash-fried soft shell stuffed with crawfish tails, shrimp, and more crab. I shout a hymn of praise at the fresh yet familiar flavors and push on.
Located in a Mid City shopping center along a heavily trafficked thoroughfare, Beausoleil Restaurant & Bar and chef Nathan Gresham dish up the city’s most ambitious fare. Originally from Louisville, Mississippi, Gresham landed here in 2005 to attend the Louisiana Culinary Institute. He settled in Baton Rouge on the one-year plan—the Big Easy, where he hoped to relocate, made more sense for an aspiring cook. Five years later, after witnessing Baton Rouge’s Red Stick Farmers Market rapidly expand and eaters’ tastes broaden, he opened Beausoleil with the intent of further pushing the city’s palates in new directions.
This past year, many of Gresham’s dishes contained components that cleverly toyed with Louisiana conventions: purple rice waffles, gumbo butter, tasso-and-cane-syrup vinaigrette. Flooded with the taste memories of his Puerto Rican grandmother’s kitchen, the chef’s latest offerings are Spanish-inflected, such as lamb meatballs topped with sherry cream and Manchego, and scallops paired with chorizo risotto and chile butter. “Nowadays there isn’t a limit,” he tells me.
Gresham credits farmers with a lion’s share of this ongoing transformation of Baton Rouge’s dining options. “Farmers saw a clean slate,” he says, “and we all found each other.”
Beausoleil’s pork and chicken come from Iverstine Family Farms, located northeast in tiny Kentwood, Louisiana. On fifty-five acres of grasslands and timber, Baton Rouge–born farmer Galen Iverstine raises poultry, hogs, and cattle in a pasture rotation system he learned from Virginia’s holistic livestock husbandry guru Joel Salatin. Three years ago, Iverstine skipped his final credit hours toward a degree in political science and bought a ramshackle farm. Red Stick Farmers Market manager Copper Alvarez calls him a “rock star” for his determination to change his city’s food culture by recognizing the “value of what the farmer can contribute to the community.”
Tom Ange, owner of the Cove, is perhaps the single greatest example of Baton Rouge’s dynamic new direction. Deep in a dismal, labyrinthine strip mall attached to the aptly named Corporate Boulevard, Ange operates one of the nation’s most comprehensive liquor libraries but considers the word mixologist a blight on the modern world. Spread among three bars stocked with three thousand–plus different bottles of liquor (including shelves labeled “Pricey Whiskeys” and “Unaffordable Scotches”) and more than eight hundred beers, the Cove is awe-inspiring and a bit weird—in a good way.
Ange is a collector, an accumulator of coffee and comic books and college degrees (he’s earned five) in addition to spirits. “I try to get one of everything,” he explains, meaning every bottle available for resale in Louisiana. His stockpile outgrew his original outpost, Port Royal, which, it should be noted, is perhaps the only bar in the universe attached to a Waffle House.
On my first visit, Cove bartender Briana Sicard hands me a twenty-four-page menu titled Les Bons Vivants: Cocktails, Volume 1. From classic gin drinks to frozen concoctions, there are 224 cocktails listed.
“Wow!” I tease. “Is there a second volume?”
“I didn’t want to overwhelm you,” she deadpans, and lays before me the just-released Volume 2, a compendium of flips, fizzes, and fruit cups.
I put both volumes aside for another day and, much to Ange’s chagrin, order the most stereotypical of New Orleans cocktails: a Sazerac.
On this evening in Baton Rouge, it tastes just as good as one prepared at home.