Savor St. Tammany Parish’s sublime restaurants, shops, and diversions.
Back in the day, New Orleans residents traveled to the north shore of Louisiana’s Lake Pontchartrain as a country outing, a chance to get back to nature, enjoy fresh seafood from the lake’s bounty, and escape the travails of city living.
Today, St. Tammany Parish – Louisiana’s Northshore – booms with development, especially in fine dining options and other culinary attractions. And while the parish is only about 40 minutes north of New Orleans via the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, it remains a world away.
Accommodations are many and varied, but a good landing place is the newly restored Southern Hotel in downtown Covington, La. The boutique property exudes Southern charm with its comfortable veranda, elegant bar with murals based on old hand-tinted postcards of Covington, a quaint book nook, and a day spa. Visitors can easily park their car and enjoy a host of great meals, shops, and attractions; about 30 restaurants are within walking distance of the hotel, said Renée Kientz, vice president of communications, marketing, and public relations for the St. Tammany Tourist and Convention Commission.
“Covington is a real walkable town,” said Southern Hotel owner Lisa Condrey. “A lot of guests use the hotel as home base for culinary travel.”
Occupying a ground-floor corner of the hotel is Oxlot 9, a fine-dining restaurant that’s operated by chef Jeffrey Hansell and his wife, Amy. The restaurant, named after the ox lots that once dotted Covington, serves up entrées such as warm-water lobster, filet mignon with Hollandaise, and an almond flour-dusted pompano. One of the most popular menu items is the campfire dessert, a graham cookie topped with chocolate ganache and cold-smoked vanilla ice cream surrounded by meringue that’s flame-toasted.
Catty-corner from Oxlot 9 is the long-running Del Porto Ristorante, a popular spot for locals that’s run by married chefs David and Torre Solazzo, three-time James Beard nominees. The food merges Louisiana with Tuscany, offering house-made salumi (Italian cold cuts), pastas, and desserts. Many ingredients used in their dishes are acquired at the Saturday Covington Farmer’s Market.
In January, both the Solazzos and Hansells combined talents to offer “Supper Under the Stars,” a community dinner served beneath ancient live oak trees along the old Covington Courthouse lawn. The five-course meal will be repeated at least one more time this year, Jeffrey Hansell said.
A few blocks from the hotel, in what used to be the Covington train depot, another couple offers a unique twist on Southern and Louisiana dishes at LOLA. Keith and Nealy Frentz have also been recently recognized for their talents – Nealy Frentz appeared on Food Network’s Chopped, and both chefs were crowned king and queen of Louisiana seafood by the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board. The more casual lunch and upscale dinner offerings are created in the small but unusual restaurant kitchen, a train caboose. Plans are in the works for an additional vintage train car to be used for dining space.
The historical district of Covington offers numerous boutiques and shops, a coffee house, and the fun H.J. Smith’s Sons General Store and Museum. A great spot to pause and relax is the English Tea Room & Eatery, where the list of available teas is staggering. Located in an old house filled with English memorabilia, not to mention a life-sized cutout of Queen Elizabeth, the restaurant serves up breakfast, lunch, “Lil’ Brits” food items for youngsters, and a variety of tea services, including moist and delicious scones accented by lemon curd, jams, and butter.
Abita Beer, Louisiana’s first craft brewery, no doubt is familiar to many. The beer derives its great taste from the aquifer beneath the small town of 2,700, according to tour guide Dennis Ledet.
“Because of the natural artisan aquifer, there are no additives in the beer,” Ledet explained. “It’s because of the water that Abita started brewing here.”
The brewery began as a small brewpub in 1986 (which operates separately as Abita Brew Pub in Abita Springs) and today sells its beer in 43 states and 13 countries. The enlarged production facility in Covington utilizes a state-of-the-art Steinecker system from Germany, 70 percent more efficient than a traditional brewing system, Ledet said. The brewery’s roof also holds the largest array of solar panels in the state.
Brewery tours happen every day, and included in the $5 price are four tastings of Abita beers, some of which are only available within the state. The brewpub sells beer and food and offers special events, such as trivia nights, throughout the year.
Enjoy a brew with a view at Mandeville’s Barley Oak Old World Draft Haus. In addition to a good selection of Louisiana beers – St. Tammany Parish is home to several craft breweries besides Abita Beer – Barley Oak guests will enjoy the German-style sandwiches, burgers, and other brewpub fare.
After lunch, check out the shops of Old Mandeville’s Girod Street or explore the 2,800 acres of Fontainebleau State Park, which offers great lakefront vistas, a pier, and sandy beach. There are numerous hiking trails, and the 31-mile Tammany Trace hiking and biking trail runs through the park, both offering chances to spot migratory birds that visit this section of Louisiana every spring and fall. New waterfront cabins have been added as well.
In nearby Lacombe, La Provence is as much a destination as it is an upscale French country-style restaurant. The restaurant’s farm features rows of vegetables and herbs, beehives, and pens of chickens and pigs, the latter of which customers may feed. Chef Erick Loos IV commands the kitchen, serving dishes that utilize the property’s produce and animals. Loos recently won the national Cochon555 competition, and he assisted owner, chef John Besh, when he competed for the Iron Chef America title.
There are two weekly Covington Farmers Markets, from 8 a.m. to noon Saturdays at the Covington City Hall and from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesdays at the Covington Trailhead of the Tammany Trace.
Neighboring towns offer farmers markets as well, such as the Mandeville Trailhead Community Market, the Camellia City Farmers Market in Slidell, the Folsom Village Market on Saturdays, and the Abita Springs Farmers Market, held Sunday afternoon.
The annual St. Tammany Crab Festival, a celebration of Louisiana’s blue crabs, will be Sept. 9 and 10 at Slidell’s Heritage Park.
Overall, there’s no bad time to visit Louisiana’s Northshore, particularly when it comes to culinary travel.
Cheré Coen is a contributor from Lafayette, La.
May/June 2017 Issue
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