A happy habit has developed in my family. In January, my sister-in-law Valerie, who lives in Fairfax, California, has gone as long as she can possibly stand not seeing my incredible children. At that exact same celestial moment, I have gone as long as I can possibly stand without a small break from seeing my incredible children. She comes. We go. Mirth ensues.
In years past, we have usually gone quail hunting in South Carolina. It is a good thing. But this year we opted for a short jaunt with a four great friends and hopped on Southwest for a few days (and nights) in the Big Easy. A fairy godmother, in the guise of one John Kirkendoll, one of my husband’s pals from days and adventures gone by, gave us invaluable tips on lodging and food and other secrets of the city about which I will not necessarily write. After all, I cannot expect your unlimited patience. Nor do I wish to subject you to a family slide show. But, I will tell you a bit about the fantastic meals we shared and some of the great sights we enjoyed. I am also going to attach a list of restaurants which were suggested by friends near and far, that we didn’t quite make it to. This way, I will have a list for next time. And, perhaps if I inspire you to go, it will give you a place to start.
Oddly, I will start at the end. Our final meal in the city had the advantage of being a completely un-hyped and unexpected jewel. When our aforementioned fairy godmother found out we would still be in town for brunch on Sunday, before flying home, he said we simply must…so we did. Through an unassuming door at 625 Chartres Street we stepped straight into the unadorned dining room of Sylvain. The building was in turns a carriage house and a brothel and an everything else under the sun. There are not so many places in Dallas that are as old and storied as practically every building in the French Quarter, and there is music and ghosts of days past seeping through every unplastered crack in the wall. This city takes its age and patina seriously and even the newest establishments pay homage to history.
The reason I mention Sylvain first is that, we all agreed, we enjoyed it best of all. Much like the Olympics, restaurants can be judged on any number of factors. But on a tired Sunday, this was an informal landing place. And, every single thing on the menu of modest but appropriate depth was stupendous. A simple bowl of stone ground grits was so creamy and thick I almost wept. Sometimes doing something simple, perfectly, is so much nicer than doing something extravagant in a mediocre way. I had a massive cheeseburger with a simple poached egg on top. My friend Tina enjoyed a shaved Brussels Sprout salad with apples and hazelnuts that was the best of its breed in both of our estimations. Pitts had cream biscuits and gravy with poached eggs. Pancakes topped with fruit. Bloody Mary’s that were more like gazpacho. Homemade hot sauce. Pickled grapes on the cheese service. Good coffee. One thing after the other was simply done right. The place was decorated sparingly, allowing the building’s bones to do the talking. The back patio was lovely and looked right in on the kitchen staff, busily doing what they do so well. I saw executive chef Alex Harrell in passing, but didn’t have time to congratulate him, mostly on his staff, because our meal was served prior to his arrival. But, after my meal, one of the servers was kind enough to show me the unfinished upstairs portion of the building and the balcony overlooking Chartres. I saw Chef Harrell busily slicing fat green tomatoes in the upstairs prep kitchen and was left to only wonder what great things he was up to in there. I loved this place. It was fresh, easy, low key, and utterly without pretense.
Next up, and truly the last thing I did prior to catching a cab for the airport was the coincidental and quite accidental discovery of Kitchen Witch, a charming little bookstore on Toulouse that is packed to the gills with the objects of my passion: used cookbooks. I had the good fortune of getting to talk to Philipe LaMancusa, the proprietor. He is a chef in his own right and seems to have done the restaurant trade from top to bottom and back again. Yet in the months following Katrina, he chose to open this modest and warm little nook, initially powered by his own swollen collection of food tomes. He has chef’s books, church cookbooks, Junior League cookbooks, Southern Living annual cookbooks, and every single type of cookbook in between. They are arranged in part by region and it would take hours to effectively see the inventory. There were vinyl records for sale in a bin along one wall and local art all over the walls. And in two sparks of fate, there was a rescue dog named Scout (the name of a beloved and departed dog of Valerie’s), hiding out in safety behind the register, and when I asked the owner which of all his books I needed to buy, he selected a book which my mother once owned (and which I just finally remember was covered in some noxious liquid and sadly disposed of at some point), La Bonne Cuisine by The Women of All Saints Episcopal Church. He selected a second book which is a little piece of Louisiana beauty which I think I will have forever. Suffice to say, this is my imaginary alternate life business, right down to the giant rubber band ball.
Now, back to the beginning, to get things in order. We stayed at the Ritz Carlton on Canal Street, which was perfectly in the action and yet removed from the action of Bourbon Street, a mere two blocks away. It is a nice property. But its real beauty was that its employees were outstanding. Most notably, the gentlemen at the bell stand were up for any challenge and no task was to big or small. When you asked where to buy a band aid, the answer was, “go relax and get a cocktail and I’ll bring you one.” Pitts and I stayed on the club level which I mention only to tell you that committed consumers of espresso and snacks can easily make up the cost of the upgrade. There was food and drink available for the taking all day long, and it was good. Again, these accommodations were arranged by our friend and I believe we were offered a “friend of his” rate, but given it to do again, I would still gladly book there.
Bourbon Street needs to be seen in all of its incarnations, I believe. It is one thing at noon and another, similar, but entirely more insane thing, at one in the morning. I saw bars that I had visited in my youth. I was happy to walk on by this time, but the memories are fond ones. And despite the bawdy nature of the street, the buildings and lights and action are worth seeing. And the streets surrounding it are peppered with a blatantly and unrepentantly aged beauty and architectural details that can keep a macro- and detail-oriented photographer busy for days. And on that note, I suppose one has to choose at some point whether they are traveling as a tourist or a photographer. They are not the same thing. I fear that my tourist role took primacy here and my photography suffered. However, the blessing of that is that I relied a great deal on my phone camera and my Instagram and related applications to record many of my favorite moments, and more and more I find it to be a completely legitimate part of my photography arsenal. More on that in the notes.
Our first meal was at Lilette. It is a small, warm, French-ish bistro on Magazine Street. I had my very first Kumamoto oysters, which are a Pacific variety that are wonderfully tiny creatures in beautifully armored shells. Beausoleil oysters were also served. They were very mild and sweet. Of course, I am now an unrepentant supporter of Gulf oysters. I wished there had been a few to taste alongside these lovely out-of-towners. The winner of the ordering contest at our table had Braciola on polenta. It was, perhaps, the most simple of our entrees, but it was done well and had a wonderful tomato sauce. I was lucky to be in a group of good friends who happily passed the plates around for any takers. It was a lovely meal in a festive little spot. The wait-staff was knowledgeable and helpful and present when needed. It was an easy-going meal and a fun night.
We ladies spent the next day walking up and down Magazine Street just to see what was there to be seen. It is a nice street with lovely homes, and plenty of cute shops scattered about. We ventured through an antique mall and window-shopped all along the way. Our favorite little shop was a brand new little stationery boutique called Box Paper Scissors. It was a nicely selected inventory of cards, wrapping papers, and other writing goodies. They very recently opened and I wish them the best. Do visit.
We grabbed a little snack at a restaurant called Salu which had the selling point of serving “small plates” and petite servings of interesting dishes. Usually I am allergic to small servings but since we were facing a major dinner, a small plate was exactly what we needed. I usually wouldn’t crow about a restaurant in which I ate merely one small appetizer. But the crispy artichokes were perfect. Spot on. I don’t care what else they have because I was so happy with that one little thing.
Cafe Du Monde, well of course we did. I pigged out on Beignet’s with my companions and watched the incredible speed and agility of the servers. How people don’t get covered in hot cafe au lait and mountains of powdered sugar is a mystery. The servers are fast and purposeful. Grab a table fast, hold onto your stuff and dig in. It is busy and touristy, but it is delicious. By the way, if you have never had Beignet’s, think exceptional funnel cakes covered in confectioners’ sugar. I’m serious. Did I just ruin it for you? I just happen to like funnel cakes…a lot.
We were fortunate to have a meal at the extremely well reviewed Bayona, Susan Spicer’s beautiful restaurant. And, it was all that it was cracked up to be. I had a salmon dish that was, without a doubt, the best I’ve ever had. It was perfectly prepared and had a salty crust that was wonderful. If you have never dined in New Orleans, be prepared to stay awhile. Dallas is something of a table turning town and it left me unprepared for the lolly-gagging nature of a New Orleans meal. You are expected to actually enjoy the company of your companions, have a few leisurely cocktails, and unwind thoroughly. It is a very nice pace.
Our final dinner was at the world renowned Commander’s Palace. The pomp and circumstance of this meal is fun to witness. It is rather old school. Well, it is very old school, in a slightly country club fashion. I’m glad that it was one of our many good meals. It was a good contrast to the somewhat hip and local and lower-key spots. I have to say I enjoyed the hip, local and lower-key spots a tad more, but this restaurant is worth being on the list if you are trying to get a good feel for the entirety of the NOLA culinary scene. It is a legend. The wall paper has hand stitching and tassels on it. There are colorful stuffed birds perched discretely on the walls. The wait-staff delivers meals in tandem to the entire table. The precision of the delivery rivaled the choreography of a Busby Berkeley film. I must say that we were there as the Saints fell to the 49’ers and it cast a pall on the entire staff. Plus, there was a completely inebriated table of college kids to entertain the dining room.
I’m not sure that I’ve ever felt before that a restaurant would be well served to actually enforce a dress code, but CP is supposed to be a coat and tie affair. Or perhaps, I would rather that people actually celebrated dining in one of the few remaining true dining rooms, and dressed the part. Ask the gentleman in his Marine service uniform who was at the table next to us with a date. I think if he is going to follow the rules and show up looking that dapper and refined, he should be able to expect to be seated in a dining room with other men in jackets (if not gentlemen in jackets, as I will admit some of our table banter was totally out of bounds), not some yay-hoo in a hula shirt. That said, it was the classic Commander’s Palace meal, and a fun evening.
Also, for the gullible amongst us, if someone tells you he knows exactly where you got your shoes at…run, or you are in for an expensive “education.” The answer: “I got my shoes right here on the street covering my feet.” And if someone says that you can’t take a photo of him playing a trumpet unless you give money to his church, well, just know he might be about to tell you that you are going to go to hell for letting your kid read Harry Potter, and there might be better street musicians to support. Also, please wear closed shoes (blech) and leave your five inch heels at home unless you want to walk home down Bourbon barefooted (double blech). But also know, that if you are walking the path of the (self) righteous in New Orleans, you are going to miss an awful lot of the most interesting things about it. Get out there and get in it. Enjoy it and feel it.
We were fed like kings and queens. I asked friends about the “can’t miss” spots before we left for our trip and we were only able to try a fraction of them. But, in case you are heading in that direction any time soon, here are some of the other suggestions, in no particular order: (forgive me friends, I went in order and left out repeats…there was A LOT of overlap. My friends know what is good to eat!)
Brennan’s, Irene’s (Juli Taylor, a high school pal)
Oceana Grill, Canti (David Buckley, 10th grade pal)
Lucky Dog Stand on the corner of Bourbon and Royal (Durrell Johnson, college pal)
Herbisaint (Rob Price…I heard a few stories on this trip about RP, who generously hosted his friends (Pitts) in NO when needed)
GW Fins (my cousin…or rather my cousin’s beautiful bride…same thing, right?)
Willie Mae’s Scotch House (Main Street Fish Camp)
Mr. B’s (Paige McDaniel, the fearless leader of Community Partner’s of Dallas)
Le Petit Grocery, Gautreau’s, Mandina’s, Liuzza’s, Parkway for Po’Boys. Stanley (The inimitable Jim Gossen of Louisiana Foods mentioned these as well as some others already on the list. You would be wise to note his suggestions, because he is truly plugged into this city).
Many thanks also to Mona Graue, Amy Moeller Jeffries, Nancy Reed Krabill, Chef Melissa Phillips, and Ann Richardson for weighing in, as well…all of theirs are noted above, too. I’ve got good friends.