A fortuitous journey is just seeing me home from 24 hours in the Big Easy (well, more like 22 hours to be exact, but let’s not split hairs).
How do I even begin to describe New Orleans? She’s a grand old dame of a city, showy and decadent and seductive. Historic and storied. Mysterious. Dangerous. Excessive in everything from the lacy ironwork that adorns the endless balconies to the rivers of booze that flow through the French Quarter to the ungodly sticky weather. The thick, honeyed Acadian patois of the local residents is as mellifluous and musical as the jazz and blues and zydeco that waft from the street corners. There’s a stink to the streets, distinctive and not entirely unpleasant. A survivor, like the mighty river that flows along, as it always has and always will. There’s nowhere else like it.
I’d been to NoLa twice before, and had a few ideas about how best to spend this short amount of time in the city. My traveling companion had never been here, so a quick tour of the main highlights was in order. We pulled into town on the train around 3 p.m. and were out and exploring by 4.
Our first priority was a stroll down Bourbon Street, stopping in the fern-filled courtyard at Pat O’Brien’s for a signature cocktail. That means one thing. A hurricane. This is where the near-lethal rum concoction originated (4 oz. of rum in each serving – ouch!), cleverly disguised to taste like punch. So you don’t realize exactly how quickly you’re getting drunk. A couple of these babies will take you from “Hm, this tastes good.” to “Hello. I’m wasted.” before you even get around to nibbling the maraschino cherry. I’m proud to say, my friend did an admirable job of drinking hers down without any ill effects.
I ordered a Sazerac, a retro cocktail made with rye, bitters, licorice-y anise-flavored liqueur and a lemon twist. Icy cold and heavenly on a hot day.
After more wandering and explorations that included a quick pop into Marie Laveau’s Voodoo Shop and photo ops of the majestic St. Louis Cathedral, Jackson Square and the riverfront, we started searching for food. For me, New Orleans means Cajun food and seafood, often simultaneously. The sheer number of restaurants in this town makes deciding where to eat a downright dizzying task. In spite of soliciting a dozen or so suggestions before we’d arrived (which we forgot and left back in the hotel room), we ended up just picking a place in the French Quarter near the pub where our ghost tour was due to kick off shortly after. Pere Antoine’s. Not bad. Not great. I figure this is a typical example of the Cajun Creole fare most places in the city serve, some better than others.
I ordered barbecued shrimp, and if I’d known ahead of time how much work they were going to be, I’d have gotten something else. I knew I’d have to peel them myself, but naively, I figured they’d already have the heads removed. Nope. This was a whole plateful of huge full-bodied prawns atop a scoop of white rice with a couple pieces of greasy garlic bread to sop up the broth. The shrimp were overcooked and although the broth was spicy, it didn’t have the depth of flavor I’d hoped for. Sticky up to my elbows with shrimp juice running down my chin, I gave up wrestling with the whole thing halfway through and called it quits.
Janet got the jambalaya, the better of our two entrees. My fork kept sneaking into her dish to snag bites of her sweet small shrimp and kicky tomato sauce.
Another round of drinks in the hotel bar after our ghost tour entailed a hurricane for me (much more fruity and sweet with pineapple juice flavor than Pat O’Brien’s version), and a strawberry margarita for Janet. It had been a long day and night, and these nightcaps ensured we’d sleep well.
Breakfast was a no-brainer. When in New Orleans, you HAVE to come to Café du Monde for coffee and beignets. If not for breakfast, then any old time; the place stays open 24-7. Beignets are insanely simple but addictively delicious squares of puffy fried dough buried under an avalanche of powdered sugar. You can get them elsewhere in town, but really, why would you?
Part of New Orleans’ original French Market, Cafe du Monde has been continuously operating since the 1860s. They serve coffee (black or au lait) and beignets. That’s it. And they do an excellent job. They churn plates out like an assembly line – I actually got a peek at the deep-fry station when I went to the restroom, and they are just popping these things out of the grease non-stop so that every order is served fresh and still-warm. When you add in the historical factor, quick service and the fact that an order of three plus coffee will only set you back about $5… well, you’ve just got to come here. That’s all there is to it.
We lunched today at the Palace Café, a New Orleans dining institution from what I understand. Situated in a former department store in the warehouse district and part of the Brennan’s fine-dining empire, this place cuts a dashing figure with a gorgeous staircase that winds through the main-floor dining room up to more seating on the second level. This seems to be a popular destination for business lunches and jazz brunches, and I can see why. The food was outstanding. Classic old-style New Orleans dishes like shrimp remoulade, gumbo and pan-roasted oysters made it hard to decide what to order.
Janet got the Werlein salad, a house specialty that looks and sounds for all the world like a Caesar, with big chunky croutons and fried oysters scattered around the edges. She enjoyed it, and the oyster I tasted was piping hot and delish.
I went with a special appetizer composed of popcorn-fried crawfish tails atop an heirloom tomato Caprese salad. Yum. The crawfish tails weren’t at all greasy or overpowered by spice and breading, just sweet little bites of meat. If you didn’t know it was crawfish, you might think it was tiny tender shrimp. The tomatoes and mozzarella underneath were fresh and flavorful. There was so much crawfish, I’m sad to say I couldn’t even finish it all.
Palace Café also lets diners order “sides of seafood.” I LOVE this idea. Let’s say you really want to order a shrimp entrée, but the jumbo lump crabmeat sounds tempting, too. The seafood sides are basically a small bonus dish of whatever seafood you want to taste without having to order another full entrée of it. Like seafood a la carte. Janet and I split a side of sautéed jumbo lump crabmeat, and it was fabulous.
And with that, my whirlwind trip to New Orleans came to an end and now I’m heading back home. I certainly won’t miss the 95-degree/75-percent-humidity weather, and I could never imagine myself living here (and wouldn’t even dream of bringing my son). But I’m sure at some point, that sweet temptress of a city will once again start singing her siren song, and I’ll find her impossible to resist. Until then, au revoir, ma chere.