Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler

There are plenty of reasons to visit New Orleans: history, culture, cuisine, music, and fine people, to name just a few. If you come with an open heart you will absorb all of this with very little effort. The easiest and most accessible sources for enjoying all of the above are the food (you gotta eat!) and jazz (whose roots are found in this very fine city).

One can eat a lot and cheaply in New Orleans, and we did some of that, but we also tried some of the city's finer restaurants since it has become famous for fine chefs who have reinvented uses for crawfish, sausage, rice and beans, hot sauce, and pork.  Best sandwich (or Po'boy, as they are known), hands down, was the Cochon de Lait at Cafe Amélie, whose beautiful courtyard only increases the pleasure of the meal.  Basically a pulled pork sandwich, the Cochon de Lait Po'boy is served on a perfectly toasted, freshly-baked roll with a spicy and creamy sauce, interspersed with pickles that cut that heat just the right amount.  Another New Orleans standard is the muffuletta, which is basically like the Italian sub sandwiches of my youth, only larger, and with a healthy dose of olives and dressing.  The "original" can be had at the Central Grocery on Decatur Street in the heart of the French Quarter.

Most people feel that a trip to New Orleans is not complete without having beignets at Cafe du Monde.  The beignets there were delicious, for sure, but the crowds of tourists are a turn-off for this traveler, so I refer you to Morning Call, at the location in City Park where you will also find a wonderful art museum, sculpture garden, and some of the largest and oldest oak trees in the country.

Then there are the memorable meals of finer cuisine.  Every meal we had was memorable, and the menus were diverse with choices for lovers of all kinds of food.  Having followed the story line of Chef Jeannette Desautel on the HBO series, "Treme", we were pleased to spot the actress, Kim Dickens, dining at the bar of Herbsaint, one of Donald Link's fine establishments.  One of my richer meals, I enjoyed a gumbo of chicken and andouille sausage for an appetizer, followed by a pasta served with a "fried poached egg".  As a lover of both fried and poached eggs, I was curious, and was fully satisfied by what amounted to a creamy and very fresh pasta carbonara.  Our other meal at a Donald Link restaurant was at his famous Cochon where my dining companions and I gorged ourselves on char-grilled oysters, crawfish pie, onion-braised beef shoulder, smoked pork ribs, and as my brother attested, "the best fish I've ever had."  There was even more to this meal, but you have to experience it to appreciate it.  If you go to New Orleans, put this one at the top of your list.  Casual in ambience, with friendly service, it hit all the right notes. And this list would be incomplete without mentioning Bayona, centrally located in the French Quarter, where my striped bass tasted like it was right off the line.

A couple of other restaurants worth mentioning are Lilette and Domenica.  When you are done ogling the beautiful homes in the Garden District, try out the first for lunch,  and when you want an early "happy hour" meal, try the second.  Domenica promises half price drinks and half-price pizzas between 3 and 6 p.m., and not just any pizzas -- trust me on this one.  They are huge, with the freshest of ingredients; mine had big, juicy clams with just enough grit to prove they were in the sea the day before if not that morning!  And there is a bonus here -- your wallet won't feel any pain.

While I will remember these meals for a little while, at least, I will remember my evenings in the NOLA jazz clubs forever. They know how to approach jazz in New Orleans, with casual soul and quality thrills.  If you're a fan of brass music, as much New Orleans jazz promises, I can recommend the Treme Brass Band, and Kermit Ruffins and the Barbecue Swingers, both easily found on any night around town to the tune of $5 and $10 !  We saw Kermit Ruffins and his band at The Blue Nile on Frenchman Streeet, where you hear jazz along with the locals, and he rocked the room for over two hours.  Take a short listen from one of my favorite numbers, the New Orleans classic, "St. James's Infirmary".

The Treme Brass Band was an even more casual set but, again, very long and satisfying.   We heard them at d.b.a. on Frenchmen Street, where we also heard John Boutté a couple of nights later.  There are no reservations at these clubs; just show up with a few bucks in your pocket and be prepared for a very special night.  For a somewhat more traditional, some might say classier, show, we heard Irvin Mayfield at his own club in the Sonesta Hotel.  Smoother jazz and a crowd that came from the hotels in the Quarter, it still came cheap at $15 a seat for another 2-hour set.  These clubs do not have drink minimums either; have as much or as little as you want.
Treme Brass Band
Last, but not least, you have a memorable night in store when you take a cab to Rock 'n' Bowl where you can bowl, if you want, but stick around for the rousing band and dancing.  There is a very large dance floor with dancers of all ages and walks of life.  The night we were there featured a fantastic zydeco band,
and the dancers ranged from stylized and trained to the last step, to teenagers brought by their parents for some good, clean fun.  In fact, it might have been the cleanest crowd I've been with in a very long time.  I felt like I was in a movie and any moment Kevin Costner and Sandra Bullock might appear. The taxi ride is a bit of a trek, but worth every minute and penny. Entrance fee is only $10 at the door -- do not miss this place.

On our last day in New Orleans we already began to plan another visit.  As music lovers, this place can't be beat. There are many other reasons beside music to visit, though, not the least of which is to help this unique American city recover from the mess that started with Hurricane Katrina. And here I must recommend the book "Nine Lives" by Dan Baum, which is a fitting accompaniment to anyone's interest in the good folks of New Orleans.  On the streets and clubs of New Orleans, the people are warm and generous, the climate is the same, and the atmosphere insists you have a good time.   Take your days slowly because your nights will be full and you will not want to miss a minute!