Thursday, January 06, 2005

Our trip to New Orleans

As promised, here's the recap of our New Year's weekend trip to New Orleans. It's long, so you might want to get some coffee or a snack first.


We left New York before dawn so we would have a full day to spend in New Orleans, so we arrived late Thursday morning. After checking into our hotel and finding our way around the French Quarter, we made our first stop: Central Grocery for a muffaletta. It's an Italian grocery that serves delicious muffaletta sandwiches to go. They make the sandwiches a day early and stack them behind the counter for quick access for hungry customers. Since there are only a few seats in the store, we took our sandwich over to the riverbank a block away to eat and people watch. The sandwich was almost 12" across and filled with ham, cheese, olive relish and fatty goodness. We split it and were comfortably full for an afternoon of sightseeing in the French Quarter. In the afternoon we had our first experience at Cafe du Monde, where we enjoyed coffee flavored with chicory and beignets covered in powdered sugar. Cafe du Monde is a huge outdoor cafe that was perpetually crowded with tourists. There was always a line, but it's misleading: if you could find an empty table, you could just bypass the line of unknowing tourists. The coffee is strong and the beignets are heavenly, and I can't think of a better breakfast or midafternoon snack. We went back to the hotel for a quick nap, then out to Acme Oyster House for po' boy sandwiches for dinner. Liz had a soft-shell crab sandwich, while I enjoyed fried shrimp on one half and fried catfish on the other half of my sandwich, and we split some red beans & rice. I tried some raw oysters as an appetizer, and they were tasty too. We wandered down Bourbon Street to Jean Laffite's Blacksmith Shop, which is actually a bar, and had a couple of voodoo daiquiris and soaked up the atmosphere of a bar that is still completely candlelit and dank. Rounding out our evening with some music, we caught the last set of the house jazz band at Preservation Hall. The hall is really just a large room with no seats, drinks, or other amenities. A sign behind the band lists $2 for requests, $5 for obscure requests, and $10 for "[Oh When] The Saints [Go Marching In]" saying that if they asked for less, the band would be playing it all night. The band played three songs and closed with "Saints," opting to play it for free.


We woke up late on Friday morning and took the St. Charles streetcar to the Garden District for a walking tour of the neighborhood. The Garden District is where Anne Rice used to live (she just moved out to a gated community) and where the wealthy Americans built their houses back when the city was still developing. We toured a cemetery and learned all about the peculiar burial habits of New Orleans (swampy ground means most people are buried in above-ground tombs instead of six feet under) and saw many beautiful old houses. Aside from Anne Rice's old house, we also saw where Archie Manning, Trent Reznor, and Ella Brennan (matriarch of the Brennan restaurant clan) live. Since we'd missed lunch, back in the Quarter we stopped at Napoleon House for a snack of Boudin sausage and a cheese board. We didn't want to fill up too much, as we had reservations at Commander's Palace at 8.

Commander's Palace is one of the top restaurants in the U.S., not just in New Orleans, and we were lucky to get a reservation there on New Year's Eve. Emeril Lagasse used to work there, as did Paul Prudhomme before him. The restaurant was festooned with balloons and banners, and the tables were adorned with streamers, poppers, bubbles, and party favors. And the food! This meal was one of the top five restaurant meals of my lifetime: turtle soup with sherry, veal chops with goat cheese grits, and bread pudding souffle for dessert. Liz had the best lobster bisque we've ever tasted, and a fantastic steak. We were done before 10 PM, so rather than stick around for the midnight toast, we went back to the Quarter to check out the celebration. Jackson Square was filling up with people, so we walked up to Bourbon Street to see how busy things were there. It was as rowdy as I expected, so we got some drinks and walked back to Jackson Square around 11:30. There we got caught in the crush of the now-massive throng, and we couldn't get to a place where we could watch the local ball drop. So we took shelter under a balcony in front of a bar and watched TV through the windows and listened to the noise. After midnight things eased up a bit, so we followed everyone back up to Bourbon. By now the street was really busy, and it was tough just to get out of the way. We quickly learned that staying in one place meant that we were accosted by drunks, especially since we were still dressed up from dinner. So we found a club where we could hang out, sit down, and avoid the mob for a few hours. Bourbon Street was still wild at 3 AM when we went back to our hotel.


We woke even later on New Year's Day. Our brunch reservation at Brennan's wasn't until 1 PM, so we had plenty of time to recuperate from our minor hangovers and find our way to the restaurant. Brennan's is another New Orleans institution, known as the birthplace of bananas foster. Again, we had an outstanding dining experience: I had oyster soup, eggs hussarde, and the aforementioned bananas foster. Liz had shrimp sardou, which was fried shrimp and creamed spinach, and crepes with strawberries. Since it was a holiday, none of the tourist sights we wanted to visit were open, so we walked around the Quarter and stopped at the Nokia Fan Fest tent to check out new cell phones and pick up freebies. I got a Sugar Bowl "koozie" which was a foam pouch to hold a water (or beer) bottle and attach it to your belt. (Too bad the New Orleans open-container laws don't let you take glass bottles out of the bars, or else I could have been all cool and stylin' with my beer bottle hanging off my belt.) Later that night we went to the Funky Pirate blues bar to hear Big Al Carson and his band. Big Al is nearly 500 pounds, and he's not shy about his weight or anything else. Let's just say he worked blue. Really blue. The between-song banter was quite raunchy. Around midnight we'd had enough blues (music and jokes) and had become afraid that the sixtyish woman wearing a belly shirt and a navel ring was going to take off the shirt entirely and show us what was left of her bosom. We went down the street to the Clover Grill, a 24-hour diner that, according to the marquee, served the best burgers in town, . At that hour anything would have tasted great, and the burgers were excellent. I can't remember the last time I ate a huge meal like that after midnight.


On Sunday morning we once again slept late and went out in search of breakfast before our scheduled afternoon of museums. Finding breakfast in short supply, we opted for an early lunch of jambalaya at Tujague's, a 150-year-old institution that serves a prix-fixe menu every day. Our first tourist stop was the Degas House on Esplanade Avenue. Edgar Degas lived with his American cousins for several months in 1872 and painted some of his works there, including Portraits in a New Orleans Cotton office. The house is actually two buildings now, as it was split in the last century into two houses and both were used for various purposes. In addition to a museum, one house is also a bed & breakfast, although a little too far away from the French Quarter to make it a realistic place for the casual tourist to stay. We also went to the Cabildo, which has served the governments of New Orleans and Louisiana in various capacities over the past 200 years. It was the location of the signing of the Louisiana Purchase and the seat of the state Supreme Court for many years. Now it's a museum. Among their exhibits is one of the four original death masks of Napoleon. It was an interesting museum but the displays were far too detailed for even the two hours we spent reading them.

Sunday's dinner was at Dominique's, yet another gourmet restaurant on our gastronomical tour of the city. The dishes here were the most creative that we'd eaten so far. I had a salmon and caviar appetizer and a main course of three different kinds of lamb: a lamb chop, merguez sausage, and some kind of lamb-potatoes-goat cheese thing that was delicious. Liz had a goat cheese pastry appetizer and a cracked conch entree. For dessert the restaurant brought us green apple cotton candy along with our chocolate souffle and cappamisu (tiramisu but with cappucino). For our last authentic New Orleans musical experience, we went to Fritzel's for more jazz, this time from Ryan Burrage and his band. Burrage played the clarinet, an older gentleman played the soprano sax, and two other guys on piano and drums. The soprano sax player repaired a lot of the damage Kenny G has done to the instrument's reputation over the years.

Throughout our vacation, we had to endure the rowdiness of Auburn and Virginia Tech fans along with the usual people one would expect to find in New Orleans on a holiday weekend. The number of football fans grew as the weekend went on, leading up to Monday night's Sugar Bowl, so each day there were more people in orange clothes stumbling around Bourbon Street and yelling at each other, either about the Hokies or "War Eagle" (which is either the old Auburn mascot or the fight song, I'm not sure which - nor do I care). Apparently if you're attending a bowl game, you're required to wear every single piece of clothing with your school's logo or colors on it all the time. To be fair, despite all the alcohol and competitiveness, everyone was polite, and we didn't see any unpleasant arguments or fights between fans from the two schools.

Bourbon Street is clearly the place to be in the French Quarter: all the great jazz, blues, and zydeco clubs are there or just around the corner, and most of the good bars and restaurants are in a five- or six-block stretch. But with the city's open container policy (anything in a plastic cup is OK), the constant stream of people, and the smell, it reminded me of block parties at Georgetown. Walking along Bourbon sampling music from the clubs and watching people go by was fun for a while, but by the second day and New Year's Eve it became too much to endure. We found ways to avoid the busiest sections of the street even during the day. If I were ten years younger, I would have absolutely loved it. But now that I'm an adult who doesn't like to drink eight hours a day, I had more fun sitting in the jazz clubs and relaxing than I did getting shoved by drunks. And the rules of public nudity applied to Bourbon Street as they did in Jamaica: the people you want to see showing off their chests for beads are never the ones who do. It's always the ones you'd prefer would keep their breasts covered that whip them out.


Monday was our last day in the city, so we spent it shopping for last-minute souvenirs and enjoying one last meal before our flight. We went to Johnny's Po' Boys for lunch, where Liz got the french fry sandwich and I had one with beef, sausage, and cheese. We took a short walk to burn off some of the calories, and stopped to listen to Mountain Sprout, a bluegrass band that played outside the A&P on Royal Street several times while we were there. We liked them so much we bought one of their albums. They looked like a bunch of hillbillies (the hound dogs laying at their feet helped with that image) but sounded like a professional touring band. By 2 PM we'd had enough of the football fans, the food, and walking, and we left for the airport. We brought back a can of Cafe du Monde coffee, some pralines for co-workers, and an increased risk of heart disease. But we had a great time, and would love to go back sometime. Just not at New Year's or Mardi Gras.

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