There are places that I know without ever being there that I will love. They are inevitably places of history, places of culture, places of tradition, places of music, places of food, places of art, places that are no one's but their own. On paper, I could check each one of these items off for New Orleans. But walking around its streets, shoulder to shoulder with its people, well that's a different thing entirely. The real deal.
[Sidenote: The angst I have about the place I currently live and why it's not happening for me? Reference against the above list and get an idea of the disconnect.]
We arrived under the guise of celebrating T's birthday, but we really just needed an excuse to get out of town. As expected, Dean and Jeanne were quite the traveling companions, full of the inside scoop thanks to Jeanne's sister and brother-in-law, who teach at Tulane, and their own storied history of Nola adventures, dating back to the late 1960s.
Eating, of course, was of primary importance. On Friday night we ended up at K-Paul's, an old-school Cajun restaurant where I sampled my first-ever shrimp etouffee and had the first of many delicious cocktails. Our favorite morsel of the night? Fried oysters in "Hot Fanny Sauce," which we jokingly ordered because one of our cats is named Fanny, but quickly realized the sauce is so delicious we might have named Fanny after it had we tried it first.
After dinner we walked around the city for hours, poking around little streets and taking it all in. D&J took us to a stretch known for tiny jazz clubs, where we found out that because we were in low (read: hurricane-prone) season, a bunch of places were taking their annual vacation. So instead, we headed back to Bourbon to our hotel. I decided that for my first trip to Nola, we should stay right in the middle of the party, and the Sonesta did not disappoint. Inside the hotel is Irvin Mayfield's Jazz Playhouse, so we spent the rest of the night wildly applauding incredible musicians and sampling more delicious Nola drinks.
Saturday... such a full day! We started with brunch at Elizabeth's, a fantastic hole-in-the-wall, locals kind of place recommended by J's sister.
HEAVEN. Funky and art-filled and low-down (I wanted to buy at least two pieces hanging on the wall), and the kind of menu I love... we're talking crab and grits and fried green tomatoes and sausage and strong bloody marys and rich coffee and PRALINE BACON. Nomnomnomnom. With a menu like that, the four of us spent hours sampling and chatting. It's to Elizabeth's, also, that I credit my new obsession: boudin balls.
Boudin balls are a local and regional specialty; they're sausage-balls, in essence, served in a mustard sauce. It's safe to say that I'm about to begin an in-depth study on how to make the best boudin balls outside of Cajun country. It turns out that Central Market sells boudin sausage (love you CM!!!), so I don't have to worry about making my own authentic boudin and can simply begin to fry balls (ha!) and concoct mustard sauces to my heart's content. Watch out, arteries.
After brunch, we drove around New Orleans so I could get my head around the city a little bit. We spent nearly an hour driving through the Lower Ninth Ward, and I think my heart was breaking the entire time. I have friends who visited Nola shortly after Katrina and still talk about how overwhelming the destruction was to see at that point. Four years later, it's humbling to admit that I'm not sure I could have handled seeing the area right after the catastrophe. Nearly all of the homes still standing are marked with the rescue tags from various agencies - "3 Dead" spraypainted on one house, "Dead dog" on another, and then thankfully, "0" on the next. It was raining when we drove through the Lower Ninth Ward, which seemed fitting for the tragedy still taking place there, and also eerily unsettling. The area is so far below the sea level that an average rainstorm like the one that afternoon was already filling up lawns with water. The place truly makes you think about the struggle between humanity and nature. It's ever-present there.
But then, amidst the horror still spraypainted on homes, there is progress. There are blocks of brand-new development sponsored by universities and sustainability programs and yep, Brad Pitt. There are people out and about, looking onto a levee that seemed perilously close to full from our perch on the bridge above it, but which locals are accustomed to as their front door to the rest of the city. Maybe that's the Lower Ninth Ward in a nutshell: beside one emptied-out home missing glass in its windows and marked by death, there is a new home, brightly painted and looking forward. Both face that levee. One was lucky. One was not. I did the best I could to get my head around that kind of force-of-nature nonchalance that says more about human intervention than blanket natural disaster. Again: humbling.
Here's the thing about New Orleans, though. As leveling as seeing "3 Dead" spraypainted on the side of a home is, you cross the bridge and you don't see it anymore. Our day was structured like that - that night's hotly anticipated event was eating at John Besh's Restaurant August. Did I forget what I saw? Temporarily, sure. But the spraypaint stays with me, I can assure you.
On to August... oh, August. We all know that I've been crushing on John Besh for some time now. After eating at his restaurant? It's on.
We dined with Dean, Jeanne, Judy, and Ken, and even our locals hadn't eaten there yet.We each ordered a starter and an entree, and really... I just can't say more. Except that I will eat there again. Soon. Very, very soon.
A funny note on the chef: John Besh wasn't at August during our meal. The chef de cuisine responsible? An equally charming and handsome kitchen magician named Michael Gulotta. How do I know that he's charming and handsome? Because our table requested a kitchen tour, to which we were greeted by applause in the kitchen and whereupon Jeanne and I took turns flirting with Michael, who showed Jeanne how he made the foam accompanying her fish dish. I'm not sure if Michael is single or not, but he's around 30 and single ladies... you might want to go and request that kitchen tour. Pronto.
Saturday night there was more music and more cocktails. My first Sazerac... hello! We witnessed an extremely awkward marriage proposal and saw a girl wearing a dress that was begging for a "What Not to Wear" intervention. People-watching is fantastic in New Orleans, actually... there's just the funniest mix of high- and low-end on every corner. I love that kind of juxtaposition. I don't care about seeing designer gowns and shoes at every turn. But a designer gown next to a guy wearing terrible shorts and a tacky t-shirt? Now that intrigues me.
On Sunday morning, we were supposed to get up early and walk to Cafe du Monde for beignets and coffee, but a torrential downpour made walking impossible (note on Nola flooding: an hour of rain and the streets in the French Quarter were flooding the sidewalks... and that's on high ground). Once the rain let up, T and I found a local beignet spot near the hotel, aptly named Cafe Beignet, and got our sugar high on for the day. Yum.
The day revolved around Sunday Jazz Brunch at Antoine's, a legendary New Orleans establishment. This history of this place is just extraordinary. We were probably cheating by going for afternoon brunch instead of dinner, but they were closed until Saturday for their annual vacation week, and it was the best we could do. Brunch was delightful - Oysters Rockefeller, invented at Antoine's, eggs in decadent sauces and crabcakes made to perfection... all very good. The music was good, the service good... but our tour of the restaurant after brunch was over? Now that was the stuff of legend. There are fourteen dining rooms at Antoine's - really, go see - and it would take days to look at every item on the walls in every room. Days. We laughed at the icky pairing of middle-aged "Kings" with teenage "Queens," were in awe at the amazing artifacts about prohibition and various festivals and secret societies and Nola ruling classes. We peeked into a wine cellar that stretches an entire city block. The rooms are like stepping back in time, quite literally. The mind transports back even though you're clutching a plastic takeout bag and wearing a decidedly modern sundress. The place just stands still. Amazing.
Our last stop on Sunday before heading out of town was to The Columns, a legendary old hotel in the Garden District, for a last New Orleans cocktail. Like every other place in town, this building is so chock-full of history that the mind boggles... the perfect setting for a goodbye drink. Once inside, we realized it was where Pretty Baby was filmed, and the place really does still look exactly like an early-century brothel.
So... we're planning another trip. Because we have to go back. And honestly, we made a deal that as long as we live in a city we don't love, we might as well take advantage of traveling to cities that are relatively close by that we do love, which someday might be more difficult to travel to. That said, we're returning later this fall or winter. On tap?
- Staying at The Roosevelt, which is oozing with history and was recently reopened post-Katrina
- Eating at August again (duh) for more Frech-Creole deliciousness
- Eating at Domenica, John Besh's newest restaurant, conveniently located inside the Roosevelt
- Eating at Galatoire's, which rivals Antoine's for the most legendary New Orleans restaurant award
- Eating at Cochon! Eating at Bayona!
- Eating at Willie Mae's Scotch House... and Mother's, too
- Sandwiches, sandwiches, sandwiches - po boys and a Central Grocery muffaletta
- Hitting up Kitchen Witch, this fantastic out-of-print cookbook store we found... but this time with a list! I was unprepared in heaven!
- More music!
- More art!
- More history!
- (Okay, this might take a few more trips)