Tuesday, April 24, 2012

NEW ORLEANS: The City Where Care is Forgotten - Part One: Doing the Big Easy Dance

Bloody Mary
at Restaurant Stanley

My sandals catch in the cracks of the uneven sidewalks, even though I’m walking slowly. The wind blows in gusts that tug at my shade hat like invisible fingers, causing me to cup my free hand over my head to keep it on. My other hand is clutching my "to geaux" cup, but I am successful in maintaining my shade, as the sun is bright. My skin feels covered in what can only be described as dusty butter. I am sticky with the cling of powdered cobblestone and Mississippi mud. It is as though the mud-butter is my skin, and I think for a moment that I may never feel clean again. The air here is heavy, so the breeze off the river that follows me down Decatur is a welcome one.

I’m a bit unsteady on my feet. Perhaps it’s the "jungle juice" we got from the vendor at Jackson Square. Iced, fruity comfort (laced with Everclear) to fend off the hot spring sun of New Orleans. Several sips and I no longer mind the heat. In fact, my mood is spectacular. That’s the magic of this place. There’s a "to geaux" cup for everything, even worry, in the "City that Care Forgot."

We arrived for Quarter Fest on Thursday afternoon, and after rapidly checking into our room at the Place d’Armes, were off to catch a set by Amanda Shaw, a red-headed Louisiana teen who plays cajun fiddle. In fact, she plays it very, very well. Walking back toward the river, a now familiar journey that signals our arrival we pass the gates at Jackson Square, which are festooned with an abundance of colorful local art. Like the entrance to Disneyland, this spot connotes for me a passage. From my daily life to something more personal, a place that welcomes me with open arms, and brings my spirit immediately to a place of inner peace. Where the people are convivial, the music is abundant and the food (oh the food) is plentiful, and always good.

at Cafe DuMonde
 Bright canvases, their colors the vibrant primaries in a box of melted crayons, evoke images of cast-off mardi gras beads sparkling in the Southern sun. Depicting mostly musicians, familiar street scenes (and signs), the paintings are displayed along the fence with a determined brand of New Orleans abandon. There to be enjoyed, but also purchased, as indicated by the hand-lettered placards requesting "no pictures, please" to remind the visitor that such sales are the sole means for the artists here to make their living. Taking a picture is like stealing a canvas. The sign translates "A little respect, if you will, traveler." The many fortune-tellers that line St. Anne bark their services with various levels of intensity at passers by. "Let me tell your fortune, if I’m not a hundred percent accurate, it’s on me," a bearded man in a blue shirt, fisherman cap and shorts shouts at me with a crooked, cigarette-stained smile. I smile in response. I think to myself if you only knew. In another life I told fortunes. "I’d rather not know how the rest plays out, but thank you!" I cheerfully respond. He smiles and wishes me good day. There are musicians. Clowns. A magician with small children crowded around him. So much talent. Like a traveling circus, no two shows alike at any one time, but many I have seen before, and I am sure, will see again. They crowd together to fill the open space beside the park. A large sign now proclaims "No traffic after January 2012. Strictly enforced." It’s new. I can’t imagine how they ever let traffic through all the people, but apparently the City just gave up. Or gave in. To itself. To a part of its identity.

By the time I reached the stage Amanda and her band were performing on I felt like I should have reached Uptown already.  Or at least the Garden Distrist.  It was the far end of the River Walk, almost to the Casino, but our jet lagged feet felt every step. Until we were we at the stage and she began to play. There’s something in the music here that makes the feet move. You see it everywhere. They dance. The music starts somewhere and people’s feet move as though they all wore a pair of magic red slippers, but there is no force. No fear. Only joy. I had it too. The fiddle started and I began to dance. The reality began to sink in. I was back in the Big Easy. And it was time to eat.

BBQ Shrimp
at Muriel's Jackson Square
 The first place we stopped was not our usual Coops. We were tired and there was a very long line. So we walked back down towards the hotel and tried Muriel’s, which though smack in the middle of the quarter, is actually a decent restaurant. We ordered drinks, of course. After all, we were in New Orleans. A hurricane and a brandy milk punch. For appetizers, we started with Muriel’s specialty, a goat cheese and crawfish crepe. I also had a lovely blackened catfish covered in perfectly sweet, moist blue crab. The BH had ::drum roll:: a plate of beautiful barbequed shrimp. I’ve had beautiful versions of these dishes elsewhere, but frankly, they just don’t taste the same anywhere else.
After our meal, we wandered down to the river, our annual pilgrimage to Café du Monde. There is no better way to polish off a meal of spicy Southern food than with a little fat fried dough and some cane sugar. Beignets are steaming hot puff-pillows of sugary perfection. They should be their own food group.

at Cure Nola
 The next morning was Quarter Fest, so we needed to eat and hit the road. We didn’t have to rise early, since our first show was Irene Sage’s tribute to Coco Robichheaux. If you know where to go in the city, eating well can done efficiently, even without a reservation. We made a bee-line to Stanley and hit just after breakfast and before the lunch rush. They don’t take reservations, but they serve the same menu until closing, so nothing was lost by going just at 11:30. We breezed to a table and I had my annual Breaux Bridge Benedict. It may be the prettiest breakfast dish on the planet, and it tastes as good as it looks. This delectable concoction is a mashup of Charlie T’s Boudin sausage, some smoked ham, served with a perfect gravy of creole hollandaise and American cheese, set within the puffiest flaky bread towers on g-d’s earth. With this feast I had my first Bloody Mary, which in the south always comes with pickled peppers and loads of spice. After we ate, we hit Irene Sage’s set right on time. It was set for 2:15 and amazingly the acts were starting on time this year. We were able to stay almost to the end before hitting MyNameIsJohnMichael who was playing at the Mint at the other end of town, where Decatur collides with the sea of sound that is Frenchman Street. Hang a right to No. Peters and there’s the Mint, with it’s lovely stages on the grass, the smaller crowds and the best views of the stage. When we got there, we managed to catch the end of Cosimo Effect a great little cajun band whose music again set my feet to tapping. I pulled into the park for an Abita Purple Haze and settled into the grass for some music. What a spectacular day that was, and we’d been in New Orleans less than 24 hours.  Life was Big Easy good.

Seared Foie
at Galatoire's
 After a nice afternoon siesta, we headed to Cure, a sleek new hipster joint uptown, at the recommendation of @Mr_Cocktail, master of Tales of the Cocktail. When the Quarter is crowded and music schedules prevent the tight-schedule of reservation, it’s good to know a few locals. Cure is primarily a wine bar, but don’t let that turn you away if you’re in need of a stronger libation, as the mixology here is superb. Their full menu of small plates the perfect foil for our burgeoning appetites, we ordered three: the Charcuterie Platter, Valdeon & Tomato Salad and some Bacon & Bleu Cheese Tartines. It was definitely the Cure. Delicious and fulfilling. After eating, we took a cab back to Frenchman Street. There’s always music at Frenchman, and much of it can be experienced for a only small cover. (But if you enjoy the set, please tip the band). We’ve enjoyed various artists at Snug Harbor, the Blue Nile, and d.b.a. There is always something that appeals at one of them, and tonight was no exception. We quickly discovered Kermit Ruffins was blowing at Blue Nile. The traveler in line before us wanted to know if the act within was "Dixieland," and when the attendant said no, he moved on. We were amused and gleefully turned over our ten bucks each. More room for us. Once in the Nile, Kermit shouted his famous "All Aboooaard!" and the party was on. The whole place was rocking and rolling to the strains of jazzed up standards and some of Kermit’s original pieces. Our own private dance party. And dancing has never been— So. Much. Fun.

Saturday morning brought with it another perfect day. Sunshine sky, the temperature hovering just around 80 and the humidity tolerable. This time of year is usually fairly turbulent, thunderstorms and sun, sun and thunderstorms. But Saturday was picture perfect. We were off to see Kelsey Mae at the Mint. Folk music fills the air as I sit on the grass, and stare up at the bright sun shining through the lush Louisiana trees. Kelsey sings a song about trees and sunshine. I drink an Abita, I dance, I repeat.

Bleu Cheese & Bacon Tartine
at Cure Nola
 With a nice break before we were scheduled to check out our next selected act, we dropped by the famous Johnny’s Po-Boys. My younger generation had checked them out on our last visit and reported that they were indeed all their illustrious reputation would imply. After about fifteen minutes in line, we were able to place our order. The menu is a bit confusing, as it is extensive and questions are greeted with something between disdain and boredom. Most of the older "fast food" places in New Orleans are like this. The employees don’t seem terribly happy to be dealing with so many tourists, but they turn out a beautiful product, so who cares? It’s not a white table cloth kind joint and the price reflect that. We ordered the Muffaletta and the Sausage Po-boy and both were delicious, tho the portions were impossibly large. What makes a po-boy special is the bread, the meat and the toppings, otherwise it just another sandwich. Their bread is fresh and warm, their meat all home made or locally-sourced, produce is properly ripe and the olive "dressing" tapenade used on their muffelata is the most flavorful version of this ingredient I’ve tasted to date. Well worth the wait, folks.

After a day in the sun we have learned a valuable lesson. Drink a lot of water to offset the alcohol and the heat. Dehydration is a bitch in the humidity of the South. A short nap can’t hurt either. On our way back to our room, we stopped at Jackson Square to catch Irvin Mayfield. This bandstand is a little harder to negotiate than some of the others, as it is tucked away in a far corner and requires threading through the hordes of people to find a place on the pathway where the musicians can be seen. But the best part of festivals is that one can hear the music, even if the view isn’t perfect. We didn’t really mind the crowds, as somehow they make the Square come alive. All of us together, listening to music and walking on history. Magical stuff.

Scallops & Corn Maque Choux
at Marigny Brasserie
 That evening we were again on our own in a crowded Quarter seeking food without reservations. My plan had been to head out of the Quarter during Fest, but I wondered if Frenchman was far enough away from the crush to find an early dinner. It was. I’d heard good things about the Marigny Brasserie, and they had a table. We walked over to the edge of the Treme and were seated promptly. We shared an appetizer, Scallops with Corn Maque Choux and I had an Angel Hair Pasta with Blackened Chicken. Food lived up to its rep. Solid, well prepared and delicious. Bar made nice cocktails, what more can a girl ask?

Sunday morning already. Fest was ending all too soon, but at least it was time for our planned brunch at Galatoires. When in Rome... well, okay New Orleans, ya gotta do one of the big three. Arnaud’s, Galatoire’s or Antoine’s at least for cocktails, although my recommendation would be to check out a classic Southern jazz brunch. Music, champagne and something with eggs. Galatoire’s has racks for the men’s hats and still requires suit jackets for men, ties optional. I haven’t seen the "jacket closet" in a restaurant since I was a kid and Man Men was for real. Their seared Foie Gras was to die for. And yes, I had foie gras for Breakfast. See above. I’m in New Orleans, y’all.

Sunday brought both the end, and the best, of Fest, a performance by local favorite Susan Cowsill. Her voice carries out over the Mississippi as she sings love songs to the City that claimed her brother in ‘05, another victim of Katrina’s raging floods. They never found his body, so she sings to the River that took him, and I swear the Big Muddy answers back.  "I've got him, girl. He's with me now." the River whispers in the breeze that blows her hair across her face as she sings.  The thing that broke her heart now cradles her brother in its tides.  It's Circle of Life thing. Susan's songs reflect an understanding of that circle that is at the same time heart-wrenching and uplifting.

Breaux Bridge Benedict
at Restaurant Stanley

We closed our Sunday with a trip to Upperline for a late dinner. It’s been on my list since my last visit, where the waiter at Pascale’s Manale said it was his personal favorite in New Orleans. I always listen to the locals for food recommendations and this place was a great find. Joanne, the owner, makes the rounds to every table, checking on her guests. Part Grandmother, part Queen, Joanne embodies Southern Hospitality, but in a lovely folksy, Berkeley sort of way. A former costumer herself, we exchanged stories of shows we’d done and life upon (or in the wings of) the wicked stage. Her chef is a master, and I was treated to another magnificent Foie Gras, a Beautiful Fillet of Drum that blew my mind, and several stolen bites of the BH’s immaculate Sweet Potatoes. Sweet, succulent and butter they melted on my tongue in the most pleasant sensation of fluffy, spicy goodness. My BH adored them, and he just doesn’t eat orange food. We agonized over the formidable dessert menu, finally deciding on simple. BH had the Sundae Eugene and I had the Bread Pudding with Caramel. Have you ever had bread pudding? It’s the best of the sweet tooth comfort food, and like so many things, it's better in New Orleans. Both desserts were simple in their elegance, and completely satisfying.

Seared Foie Gras
at Upperline

We caught a cab back to the hotel and collapsed on our beds, exhausted after four marvelous days in the sun. Fest was over, but our visit to New Orleans had just begun. Now for the serious eating...

—end of Part One.
 Below are the addresses of the restaurants at which we ate during Quarter Fest. (Part Two coming soon. I promise)

4905 Freret Street
New Orleans, LA 70115
(504) 302-2357

209 Bourbon Street
New Orleans, LA
504.525.2021 (No reservations for Sunday Brunch)

Johnny’s Po-Boy
511 St. Louis St
New Orleans, LA 70130
(504) 524-8129

Marigny Brasserie
640 Frenchman Street
New Orleans, CA 70116
(504) 945-4472

Muriel’s Jackson Square
801 Chartres St
New Orleans, LA 70116
(504) 568-1885

Restaurant Stanley @
547 St Ann St
New Orleans, LA 70116
Chef: Scott Boswell

Upperline Restaurant
1413 Upperline St
New Orleans, LA 70115
(504) 891-9822
Jackson Square
New Orleans