The piece of wisdom I picked up on my latest trip to New Orleans is “If you don’t start drinking in the morning, you can’t drink all day.” Of course, the remark was tongue in cheek, but many do join the party and have a specialty cocktail with their breakfast. The Big Easy is a place to unwind and celebrate.
I tend to stay in or near the French Quarter but away from the noise of Bourbon Street. My base of operations for five days was the Maison Dupuy (www.maisondupuy.com), located on a quiet residential street a couple of blocks away from the clamor. The staff is exceptionally helpful and the hotel is modern and clean, while conveying a sense of the past with its artwork depicting local sights. During my December visit, the lobby was decorated for Christmas. One nice touch is the free coffee and tea in the mornings and the water infused with fresh fruit, offered for the rest of the day. Other amenities include a heated pool and fitness center. From the hotel, I walked to all but one of my meals (Commander’s Palace in the Garden District, a bus or cab ride away).
For my last day, I moved to the Bourbon Orleans Hotel (www.bourbonorleans.com), also on a quiet street in the French Quarter. This snazzy hotel (with a heated pool and fitness center) is a member of the New Orleans Hotel Collection. Guests are welcomed with a free drink at the bar. There is also an excellent on-site restaurant, Roux, where I dined on my last trip.
The main reason that New Orleans is my favorite American city to visit is the food.
Within an hour after my plane landed, I was seated at Galatoire’s (www.galatoires.com), where the waiters are dressed in tuxedos and jackets are required for male diners. This is a venue for special occasions; it was announced that a couple was celebrating their 50th anniversary and everyone applauded and sang happy anniversary. The same thing happens for birthdays. The menu is classic Creole with some new ideas: a duck crepe with boursin reminded me of my mother’s blintzes. The redfish with crabmeat Yvonne was sublime, and the meal ended with bread pudding in whiskey sauce.
Breakfast at Brennan’s (www.brennansneworleans.com) is world famous and justifiably so. Executive chef Slade Rushing makes sure that traditional dishes are up to par and has brought in new ones of his own. The refreshing Mr. Funk cocktail is made with cranberry juice, peach schnapps, and sparkling wine. I continued my seafood obsession by starting with barbecued lobster (served out of the shell in a mildly spicy sauce) followed by black drum fish topped with crabmeat. For dessert my choice here is always Bananas Foster, which was created at Brennan’s and is still prepared tableside.
Luke (www.lukeneworleans.com) is celebrity chef John Besh’s brasserie, which served one memorable and unique dish after another. I never liked Brussels sprouts until I tasted his crispy version. That was followed by stuffed oysters and then jumbo shrimp served on cheese grits. The meal ended with a Pavlova dessert, which Luke makes with pomegranate seeds. (I picked up a copy of the Besh Big Easy cookbook and can’t wait to try some of his recipes.)
The Court of Two Sisters (www.courtoftwosisters.com) presents a bountiful brunch buffet with about 80 dishes. The children’s buffet (with chicken tenders, mac and cheese, etc.) is a nice touch. There is also traditional jazz by the Amy Sharp Trio (bass, clarinet, and banjo), playing swing tunes. When the weather is good, sit in the lovely courtyard.
The most innovative meal—and also among the tastiest—was the one prepared by master chef Tariq Hanna at Salon by Sucre (www.restaurantsalon.com). There is a pastry/ice cream shop on the street level, but upstairs is a restaurant and lounge, where they serve lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner. In addition to the cocktails and wines, the menu has both grazing dishes (delicious sliderettes, charcuterie, and artisanal cheeses) and large plates (I had scallops with olives, bacon, and potato dumplings). For dessert, a molten chocolate soufflé was sinfully good. I was relieved that the way out involved going down a staircase rather than up.
Commander’s Palace (www.commanderspalace.com), in the Garden District, is a must and the jazz brunch is especially joyful, with balloons on the tables and a number of families with children. An appetizer of three cups of soup (turtle, gumbo, and butternut squash) is a nice sampler. Pecan-crusted gulf fish was exceptional and, for a dramatic finish, creole bread pudding soufflé with whiskey cream sauce.
Mr. B’s Bistro (www.mrbsbistro.com) is another great restaurant owned by the Brennan family. Barbecued shrimp, served in their shells with peppery butter sauce, is a messy delight. Waiters supply diners with bibs for this dish and I certainly needed it. Braised rabbit, falling off the bone, was a rare treat and profiteroles were a refreshing end to another wonderful meal.
Several of my days began with a visit to Café du Monde in the French Market for café au lait and beignets, which are served hot and covered in powdered sugar.
Antoine’s (www.antoines.com) has been in business for 175 years, so they are obviously doing something right. This is the place to eat Oysters Rockefeller, since it was created here. The cuisine is French-Creole and the snails (escargots Bourguignon) and soft shell crabs almondine I had were from the French side. For dessert, why not the signature dish: baked Alaska? It’s rich and tremendous.
Before Katrina, on each of our visits, we dined at Alex Patout’s Restaurant on Royal Street. After ten years, he has now returned to New Orleans and is happily ensconced at New Orleans Creole Cookery (neworleanscreolecookery.com), which he runs along with two members of the Tusa restaurant family: A.J. and Anna Tusa. It was my last dinner in the city and so I had to overindulge: shrimp remoulade, crabmeat maison, duck and oyster gumbo, a baked crab cake, eggplant casserole with crabmeat and shrimp, and finally, bananas foster bread pudding. Welcome back, Alex!
Visitors should reserve the better part of a day to go through the World War II Museum (www.nationalww2museum.org). You will learn about the heroism and sacrifice of “the greatest generation,” in bios, artifacts, and first-person narratives. The exhibits also reveal the brave African-American soldiers who fought despite segregation back home, as well as in the army, and the Japanese-Americans who risked their lives while their families were sent to internment camps. There is an immersive movie experience that will make you feel as if you are in the midst of battle.
The Historic New Orleans Collection is worth a visit for a peek into the city’s past, and Audubon Aquarium of the Americas displays the incredible beauty of sea life. On every trip to the Big Easy, I attend a performance at Preservation Hall. This time, I caught a performance by trumpeter/singer Leroy Jones and his group, playing holiday songs and chestnuts from Louis Armstrong, such as “When it’s Sleepy Time Down South.”
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Photos courtesy of New Orleans CVP