Feed your soul in Louisiana

My wife, Colleen, and I revisited New Orleans, a favorite destination of ours, to celebrate its tricentennial. One day, we wound up chatting over lunch with a local couple, Jim and Anne, who suggested we check out the restaurant scene across the lake in St. Tammany Parish. Known as Louisiana’s Northshore, the parish has long been popular with New Orleanians seeking outdoor fun and green spaces, but in the past few years, it has become a culinary destination, as well.

Up for adventure, we made our way to the Northshore via the 24-mile-long causeway bridge, the world’s longest continuous bridge over water. Once across Lake Pontchartrain, the scenery had changed and we found charming towns interspersed by forests of towering pines, oak, and cypress. Some visitors come to explore nature, renting kayaks, and bicycles. Others hunt treasure in the area’s antique stores and boutiques. But everyone comes to eat.

Day 1: First tastes

12pm: Lunch special

Jim and Anne had recommended a little place called LOLA, so we headed there for lunch. Operated by a husband-wife chef team, both of whom had previously worked for world-renowned Brennan’s in New Orleans’ French Quarter, LOLA is known for upscale comfort food and something else: it’s located in the town’s historic train depot, and the kitchen magic happens in an actual caboose.

Sitting in the charming, sun-lit dining room, Colleen ordered a muffuletta, the famous New Orleans sandwich piled high with ham, salami, provolone cheese, and olive salad. I dug into a “Hot Mess,” a cheesy, herby sandwich featuring Chisesi ham, pimento cheese, and veggies on house-made focaccia. We were stuffed but had to sample LOLA’s notoriously good hummingbird cake. We had no problems having our cake and eating it, too.

2pm: Artful selections

We worked off lunch by wandering through the district’s shops and places like the H.J. Smith’s Son General Store and Museum, operated by its seventh generation of Smiths. We checked out fine regional art in galleries and at the St. Tammany Art Association, and in a conversation with some friendly locals, learned about the Three Rivers Art Festival, held every November. The juried two-day show, now definitely on my list, features the works of more than 200 artists, from 20 states, set up along several blocks of scenic Columbia Street.

The chat also yielded extra insight into the culinary scene. Our new friends pulled out a cell phone for a little online show and tell. From August 1–31, local restaurants and craft breweries celebrate Tammany Taste of Summer, a month-long celebration of the culinary scene in St. Tammany. Special prix fixe menus, happy hours, and vintner dinners will make August a great time for a food-lovers getaway. I saw the info page full of videos showcasing the culinary scene. We’re definitely planning our trip back (and we’ll be prepared)!

4pm: Where to next, beer?

Thirsty, we stopped to sample the goods at Covington Brewhouse microbrewery. I had the Bayou Bock, a coppery, sweet, malty brew that we were told is one of their most popular. Colleen asked the bartender for a recommendation, which landed her the Strawberry Ale, a mix of strawberry puree with classic cream ale. Both were winners.

Getting hungry, we talked about food. I was all set for a lengthy “what’s for dinner?” conversation, but Colleen was ready. Apparently, she’d done a little research on our drive across the lake.

Del Porto Ristorante. It’s run by an award-winning husband and wife chef team, and is known for using local ingredients,” she said. “And they make their own pastas.”

Sounds good to me.

6pm: Good and fresh

Del Porto sits on Boston Street in the heart of Covington and, like the town itself, exudes casual elegance. Glass-and-steel lights hang from the high ceiling, and windows look out on a street scene that showcases the graceful lines of the restored Mission-style boutique Southern Hotel, where we’d be spending the night.

When our food arrived, fragrant steam was rising from my perfectly flaky grilled yellowfin tuna. Lemon-whipped potatoes complemented the fish beautifully. Colleen savored her garlic and rosemary chicken, which we learned was sourced from nearby Good Food Farm.

The chefs are known for their support of local produce and of the Covington Farmer’s Market, held just blocks from Del Porto. The freshness was evident.

Day 2: Eat, drink, and be merry

10am: Stroll and snack

The next morning, we made our way to the Covington Farmers Market for our own look at the Northshore’s bounty. “I wish we were going to be here longer and had a kitchen!” Colleen said in appreciation of stalls full of gorgeous, picked-that-morning produce and an array of prepared foods: regional specialties like stuffed artichokes, Delta tamales, and Creole cream cheese. We wandered, drinking dark Louisiana coffee, sampling Italian fig cookies and listening to live music played in the gazebo in the middle of it all. We bought souvenirs—amazing local raw honey and blueberry jam—before heading to cute and quirky Abita Springs, just 10 minutes east of Covington.

1pm: Hops, a skip, and a jump away

At Abita Brew Pub, we chatted with friendly locals and tasted almost everything on tap. It’s the original home of Abita Brewery, which outgrew the space a long time ago and moved a short way down the road (and offers popular tours). The pub is a great spot to try Abita’s numerous brews. In the end, we each went for one of the pub’s eight flagship brews—for me, the Amber lager, made with German Perle hops with a malty, slightly caramel flavor. Colleen ordered Purple Haze, a mixture of pilsner and wheat malts with a swirl of real raspberries.

6:30pm: Another winner

We couldn’t resist fitting in one last meal to top off our trip. Oxlot 9’s multiple-award-winning chef, Jeffrey Hansell, is a true southerner, having grown up on the Gulf Coast, and his dinner offering did not disappoint. We sat at the Chef’s Table, where we could see everything assembled right in front of us.

The food is not only delicious but also visually stunning. Colleen had the pan-fried rabbit—rabbit rolled into a sphere with sweet ham and mozzarella and then breaded and pan-fried, served with a side of sweet potato hash. I dug into the roasted chicken and dumplings made of creole cream cheese potato gnocchi. As if all that hadn’t been indulgent enough, we ended with wine and Oxlot 9’s famous Campfire dessert: house-made graham cracker crust, chocolate ganache, smoked ice cream—I didn’t know such a thing existed—toasted meringue and caramel sauce. I don’t think I’ll rightly call anything else “dessert” again for the rest of my life.

As we sipped our wine, I thought of Jim and Anne, who had prompted our St. Tammany side trip. They told us we’d find authentic Louisiana and great food, and we did. We clinked in their honor.

Next, discover outdoor adventure on Louisiana’s coast.

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