Get your fill
Though memories of Katrina linger, the hallmarks of New Orleans carry on: sincere hospitality, a lively nightlife and sumptuous food. Oh, the food.
By LENNIE BENNETT
Published April 29, 2007
NEW ORLEANS - Telling friends I had recently returned from a vacation in New Orleans elicited furrowed brows and the note of concern in the inevitable question: How is it?
We see lots of news about the city's struggle to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina's devastating blow in 2005. But if you stay mostly in the French Quarter, which has always been the best place for a holiday, you can almost believe there was no Hurricane Katrina.
There is plenty of evidence of Katrina elsewhere of course, much nearby, and it's a common denominator of any conversation you have with locals. It's subtly present in the French Quarter, too, though ironically, the Quarter has never been a more delightful place to be, its charm intact, restaurants, galleries and shops open. The biggest difference I and a traveling companion found was its relative quietness and civility. The hordes of years past who roamed Bourbon Street once the sun went down sometimes before are gone. There are respectable crowds and not once was I jostled by someone who had one too many Hurricanes (the drink) at Pat O'Brien's.
A huge police presence made me feel safe, even when I was by myself. And reservations to the most popular restaurants were easy to come by, often even unnecessary. Most amazing to my friend, who lived in New Orleans for many years, was the absence of a line outside the legendary Galatoire's, which does not take reservations and always had a crowd waiting patiently to be admitted to its dining room.
It helped that I visited midweek; the temporary population is larger on weekends now that cruise ships have returned. Do avoid Mondays; almost everything is closed.
The Quarter has many excellent hotels and small bed-and-breakfasts. We stayed at the Royal Sonesta on Bourbon Street, an elegant full-service hotel with a four-diamond rating from AAA.
Day One: the streets of the Big Easy
You don't need a car in New Orleans, though street parking is no longer the impossible dream it used to be. We strolled to Jackson Square midmorning. The beignets and chicory coffee are still great (and cheap); the muffuletta at Central Grocery is still a big, messy indulgence (also cheap); the Mardi Gras bead sellers still proliferate (yes, cheaply); and the interior of St. Louis Cathedral still awes (it's free).
Nearby Royal and Chartres streets continue to be the source for fine shopping, with blocks of art and antique galleries and speciality boutiques. These, generally, are not cheap. Still, it's the go-to place if you want to find something special. George Rodrigue, creator of the Blue Dog paintings and one of New Orleans' most famous artists, is headquartered at 721 Royal. In the window, along with his well-known array of Blue Dogs, was one with the epithet "Throw me Something F.E.M.A." It's one of several limited editions for fund-raising relief efforts.
Hove (pronounced hoVAY) Parfumeur is a personal favorite, located on Royal between Dumaine and St. Ann streets. Opened in 1931 several blocks from its current address, it is owned and operated by fourth-generation family members and sells the delicate, old-fashioned fragrances such as tea olive and vetivert developed by matriarch and founder Mrs. Alvin Hovey-King.
The Quarter is loaded with historic buildings but most have been converted to businesses or private residences. Two distinguished mansions have been preserved as museums. Gallier House, 1132 Royal St., and Hermann-Grima House, 820 Louis St., offer tours every hour. Both, ornately furnished, give a real feeling for 19th century luxe life in the Vieux Carre.
But let's get to the real reason I was walking around. To get to the food. New Orleans, more than any other city I have visited, is the quintessential restaurant town. I could have eaten five meals each day and not gotten through my list of favorites, even confined to the Quarter. Add to it the many outstanding ones in other neighborhoods. You might as well let a random dart throw determine your choices.
So for dinner I chose Bayona on Dauphine Street. It's one of the newer institutions, "newer" meaning it has been around a mere 17 years. Chef and owner Susan Spicer's award-winning, global-fusion menu has a following that extends well beyond the city. I did not regret my choice as I made my way through goat cheese crouton with mushrooms in Madeira cream; garlic soup (both long-standing menu favorites); crispy smoked quail salad with pears and bourbon molasses dressing; and boudin-stuffed rabbit tenderloin and fried leg with creole mustard sauce, stone-ground grits and smothered greens. Frangelica sabayon, and, what the heck, housemade vanilla ice cream with really fresh strawberries. (I think Ted, our estimable waiter, picked them himself.)
The return to our hotel was more waddle than walk and I suppressed a burp when my friend suggested a Ramos gin fizz (invented in New Orleans in the 1880s by bartender Henry C. Ramos) as a nostalgic nightcap. Not long after the last slurp, the burp became at some point, I'm sure, a snore.
Day Two: leaving the Quarter
So how does one top the previous near-perfect day? With the prospect of another near-perfect one. As I said, you can have a great trip staying within the boundaries of the Quarter. Yet there are many good reasons to venture beyond: National D-Day Museum, Aquarium of the Americas, Audubon Park and Zoo, Magazine Street (lots of shops), the Garden District (and newly refurbished Commander's Palace - brunch and Bananas Foster!) and Harrah's Casino are a few examples. If you are so inclined, which I was not, you can do a devastation tour.
There are caveats. Streetcar service has resumed along Canal Street but the St. Charles line doesn't run very far yet, so you won't be able to get to Commander's Palace, for example, via trolley. Walking in certain areas is not advised. The best mode is taxi but labor shortages have made them scarce and New Orleans is not New York where you can hail one. Have specific destinations in mind, with phone availability and numbers, so you can call for one. (And be patient.)
As interesting as the other options are, it was the New Orleans Museum of Art that propelled me, by cab, outside the Quarter. Located in City Park near Lake Pontchartrain, it had basement flooding during Katrina but its stately building was not badly damaged. In addition to its good permanent collection, the museum has an outstanding special exhibition of paintings on loan from the French government. (See review, Page 4L.)
Since we were already cabbing, we opted for a meal at one of the many fine non-Quarter restaurants. Another caveat: Most are still not open for lunch, again because of post-Katrina labor shortages. A happy exception is Cochon on Tchoupitoulas Street in the Warehouse District. Open less than a year, it is up for two James Beard Awards. This newbie has provenance, though; it's co-owned by Donald Link, who is chef at the acclaimed Herbsaint. French for pork, Cochon celebrates all things porcine along with other interpretations of the Louisiana country cooking on which Link was raised.
Plan on cochoning-out here on more than pig, which they butcher whole several times weekly to make their own sausages and cure or smoke the pork. Abita, a local beer, is pretty much de rigueur with this food. Our meal: jalapeno cala (a sauteed rice cake) mixed with root vegetables and served with apple remoulade; fried chicken livers with pepper jelly on toast; wood-fired oyster roast; grilled pork ribs with watermelon pickle; Louisiana cochon (pulled pork) with turnips, cabbage and cracklins. I know, I know, but in my defense, two of the dishes were "small plates."
We could have - and should have - walked the 1.37 miles back to the hotel. Instead, blisters necessitated a 1-mile cab ride to Shoppes on Canal Street for a pair of shoes.
You would be right in questioning our determination to make dinner plans after so much midday bounty. Folks, this is New Orleans, a city that discourages food denial even during Lent.
Following a five-block walk back to the hotel, a (nostalgic) milk punch and a good foot soak, we were back in a cab headed for Bon Ton Cafe in the Central Business District, a longtime local favorite, for classic New Orleans fare, including Bon Ton's eggplant, shrimp and crabmeat etouffee and bread pudding with whiskey sauce.
A younger me would have extended the evening with a stop at Tipitina's in the Garden District (the most historic dive in New Orleans) or the touristy, franchised-but-still-good House of Blues in the Quarter. Then a sentimental journey in the early morning hours to the Camella Grill for breakfast. But this is 50-something me and besides, the Camella Grill has not yet reopened.
Last Day: savoring traditional tastes
We couldn't leave before getting some basic fixes - raw oysters at Acme Oyster House, a po'boy at Felix's (so regretted not getting to Parkway Bakery in midtown for that one) and gumbo at the Gumbo Shop, all in the Quarter.
At each place we encountered some remarkable people, a reminder that for all the consumable pleasures of the city, New Orleans locals - waiters, cab drivers, proprietors - have always made the city uniquely hospitable and continue to do so despite personal hardships. The most touching conversation was with a baggage handler at the airport.
"Did you enjoy yourselves?" he asked without the usual pro forma indifference of a rhetorical question.
We assured him we did.
"I can't thank you enough for coming," he said, clearly meaning it. "We are so appreciative."
The New Orleans I found in that brief stay retains its bonhomie. There is, additionally, a gallantry now among those who make it so.
Go to New Orleans. Have fun. Eat well. And, please, tip generously.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or firstname.lastname@example.org
If you go
There are many places to stay and even more at which to eat in New Orleans. All the venues in the story are good places to try with many worthy alternatives. Go to www. neworleansonline.com, the official tourism site for the city, for good overviews and specifics. Other search sites include www.nola.com (the Times-Picayune Web site) and www.experienceneworleans.com. Also helpful are www.fodors.com and www.frommers.com.
Note that the second weekend of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Friday through May 6, will briefly bring big crowds to the city.