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Frying's easy in the Big Easy

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Examiner food critic Patricia Unterman checks in with her latest report from her culinary adventures around the world. TODAY: New Orleans.

In winter, the crawfish are meaty; the oysters, plump, and the shrimp are sweet. So what are you waiting for? Get down to New Orleans now. The city is ready to take care of you. You may want to avoid the madness of Mardi Gras on Feb. 20, but maybe not. Either way, here's the eating plan:

Check into a hotel in the French Quarter and walk over to ACME Oyster House (724 Iberville St., 504-522-5973). Go in the afternoon to avoid a line. Order a dozen oysters on the half-shell ($9.99/dozen) and ask for small ones, best for eating raw. At this price you can eat as many as you like, chased by a cleansing martini. Also, try a half-dozen grilled oysters ($8.99), warm, smoky, veiled in butter and romano cheese. They're fabulous.

Fortified, amble over to the historic Napoleon House (500 Chartres St., 504-524-9752) which opens at 6 p.m. Admire the evocative, mottled 17th-century walls while sipping a sugary Sazerac — rye, licorice-y Herbsaint, bitters and a twist of lemon — served straight up in short glasses.

Then walk 16 blocks or hop a cab to Cochon (930 Tchoupitoulas St., 504-588-2123), a new restaurant in the Warehouse District that buoys traditional New Orleans cooking by incorporating lots of local vegetables and letting up on buttery sauces. Chef/owner Stephen Stryjewski, in California style, allows the fire from a big wood-burning oven to season the food.

But we’re not talking low-fat here. Cochon means “pig” and the star dish is a bowl of fork-tender roasted Louisiana pork garnished with squares of ecstacy-inducing pork cracklin, baby turnips and cabbage ($18).

Cochon makes its own boucherie — cured meats and pates — as well as Louisiana-style boudin, a soft, velvety sausage with rice inside the casing, deep-fried of course, with bracing pickled peppers on the side ($7). Cochon's exciting fried chicken livers ($7), soft and crisp at the same time, perch on toasts spread with hot/sweet pepper jelly — an incandescent combo.

Begin any Saturday by walking over to the Crescent City Farmers' Market (700 Tchoupitoulas St.) where farmers and vendors set up tables in the parking lot of an old brick warehouse in nice weather, inside when it rains. In winter you'll find Ponchatoula strawberries, Louisiana satsumas and pristine small shrimp sold by the shrimper. Buttery, intensely sweet soft-textured pecan pralines and crisp croissants are other treasures.

Then walk over to Mother's (401 Poydras St., 504-523-9656) for scrambled eggs, juicy fried ham — which deserves Mother's claim as the world’s best baked ham — and grits, with coffee and soft, bready biscuits ($7.50).

This will place you at the start of colorful Magazine Street, which becomes full of antique and clothing shops. You can follow it on foot for five miles through the Garden District and uptown out to Casamento’s (4330 Magazine St., 504-895-9761), a classic, white-tiled New Orleans oyster bar so meticulous, it closes when the oysters aren’t good enough.

Since the oysters this year happen to be the best I've tasted in New Orleans for decades, dig into a dozen on the half shell ($7.90), move on to a cup of oyster stew ($5), with cream, oyster liquor, lots of poached oysters and some aromatics. Finish with a half oyster loaf ($5.95) featuring crispy fried oysters, lettuce, tomato and pickley creole tartar sauce on soft white bread. Be sure to tip the spectacularly muscled oyster shucker at the marble bar as you leave.

For dinner, you mustn’t miss Jacques-Imo (pronounced “Jockomo,” 8324 Oak St. 504-861-0886) near the end of the St. Charles street car line. If you are a party of five or more you can reserve a table. Otherwise you have to wait. This place is the most popular restaurant in town right now. It reminds me of the old K-Paul’s, a funky, cobbled together restaurant on the ground floor of an ancient wooden house with a second floor balcony. Diners crowd in at oil cloth-covered tables to devour fried chicken with a spectacular spicy, salty crust ($16.95), and superb local greens, long cooked with pork and a whisper of vinegar.

Of course you must share the famous shrimp and alligator cheesecake ($7.50), two layers of seafood — and reptile — stuffing with a stratum of creole cream cheese in the middle; the irresistible eggplant Jacques-Imo, a scoop of soft oyster dressing on toast bathed in hollandaise-mushroom-cream sauce; and a velvety, smoked boudin ($6.50) which you suck out of the casing. Leaving, we ran smack into a small impromptu carnival parade.

I could give you many more days of eating in New Orleans, but I recommend a day trip to Houma, La., the shrimp port on the coastal wetlands of the Mississippi delta about an hour and a half south of New Orleans. It’s a fascinating drive with an educational payoff at the W.J. DeFelice Marine Center in Cocodrie, with its tower and observation center. But the real reason to take this field trip is lunch at Big Al’s (1226 Grand Caillou Road, Houma, 985-876-7942), an extended shack on a highway of strip malls where locals crowd in for huge platters of boiled shrimp ($9) and mountains of boiled crawfish ($8) infused with peppery pot seasonings.

Since all the seafood is boiled, consider Al’s a diet lunch, though you must start with at least one order of deep fried monster frog legs ($6.95), so crisp, so juicy, so astonishingly long. If you have the slightest craving for a hot doughnut, stop at Mr. Ronnie's (1171 West Tunnel Blvd., Houma 985-868-9065) for a glazed doughnut, or three, warm from the fryer, and a cup of excellent coffee, just to tide you over until dinner back in town.

One thing you should understand about southern Louisiana: These people know how to fry.

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