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Taste of the Big Easy

Posted Aug 26 2012 7:00am
I've spent four days in New Orleans so far and I'm already blown away. It's an amazing city filled with so much culture. It's just unfortunate that people (including me, to be honest) thought of it as only offering blocks and blocks of sleazy bars. Thanks a lot, Bourbon St. There is so much more to the French Quarter than this row of debauchery and I'm so excited to explore it further. I've already fallen in love with Royal St, filled with little antique stores and small cafes. And I know that every Sunday will be spent at the French Market trying to bargain my way into some good jams and preserves, and watching whatever food-related demo is set at 2pm. Just warning you: this is a long post filled with food porn. You have been warned.

For now, I should start at the beginning of the journey. I got my acceptance letter into Tulane around 4pm at work. This could have been the best time I had at work the whole year I worked there. Maybe it didn't happen right away, but my mind was reeling trying to figure out how I was going to relocate my entire life to New Orleans, a city known for its partying and food, and a city that's still in recovery. Fast forward 4 or so months and I was signing my lease at my new apartment in a new city. Thankfully, my parents and Spencer flew in the very next day so we could begin our New Orleans adventures.

St. Louis Cathedral
The first stop was to check out what the French Quarter had to offer. We made the mistake of being completely unprepared for what Bourbon Street was. It was, for the sake of comparison, horrible as it may be, like Chicago's Wrigleyville on crack. It wasn't as fratty but it was just so full of dirty dive bars and people who would regret their life choices the next morning. I'm not even going to mention the clubs promoting "love acts." The silver lining? We cut through a side street and escaped Bourbon St and ventured into Jackson Square. We stopped inside the St. Louis Cathedral for a bit to admire the interiors. If there's anything New Orleans isn't lacking in, it's art. You can see it in the wrought and cast-iron fences and frames that adorn the houses, the Spanish and French influence in the buildings all along the French Quarter, and, of course, the paintings on the ceilings and walls of this cathedral.

Why would we not check out Cafe Du Monde ? We were a little confused with the setup at first and weren't sure if we needed to be seated and handed menus 'til it became clear that we were to seat ourselves and have the many helpful Asian women hand us our coffee and beignets. My mom bought a boxed mix without knowing these doughnuts were fried. Never mind, though, I'm sure she will find a way to cook a batch despite her dislike of deep frying. The beignets were good. Not mind-blowing. Not life-changing. Still delicious. I'm sure these are just one of the things a tourist must do upon visiting New Orleans. The same goes for the coffee.
Sugary puffs of fried dough: beignets, Cafe du Monde
After strolling the streets throughout the hot afternoon, we decided to ask for a place that was good for dinner and live music. We were not given what we were promised. We walked over to The Bombay Club expecting a classy jazz lounge with lots of good food. Although the cocktails were pretty well-made they weren't anything memorable. My Death in the Afternoon cocktail had a little too much Absinthe and my mom's Aviator martini was too bitter. My dad's Moscow Mule, however was right on the money. Serving it in a tiny copper mug was a little extra and added something special to the drink. Our food was tasty, but also nothing I would fight my way to taste again. That is, except for the gator and grits. This alligator étouffée was served in a bed of creamy grits. This was so delicious. I've never had étouffée before and this was a perfect introduction. The gator wasn't tough and the dish was flavorful. The grits wasn't lumpy, either. Besides this dish, though, I don't think there was much to this restaurant.

Char-grilled oysters at Acme Oyster House
The next day promised scattered thunderstorms. This was something I would need to get used to. We had a packed schedule, and getting lunch at Acme Oyster House was first on the agenda. You walk into this dark, red-lighted bar and the smell of oysters hits you. Looking around there are "15 Dozen Oyster Club" posters proudly boasting the brave souls who dared eat 15 dozen oysters or more. The reigning champ had 31 dozen oysters consumed. Our grilled oysters were delicious. Cheesy and slightly crispy. This was the first time I'd ever eaten oysters that weren't raw. Our po' boys, however, left much to the imagination. Too bad, too. I'm not sure if this is for every po' boy, but ours were just lacking in some sort of dressing or remoulade. Fried (insert meat here) packed into a roll a delicious sandwich does not make. It was dry and a little too salty. The gumbo wasn't special, either. My mom's smoked porked po' boy saved the meal just a bit. The meat was flavorful, but not served in a way that makes the most of it. Bottom line: come here for the oysters. Maybe try an entree. But the sandwiches leave you wishing you ordered something else. The line out the door at 12pm suggests that this place is capable of providing a good time to its patrons, but perhaps more in the bar area. This is yet to be determined.

Our first street car ride
Later that afternoon we decided to hop in on a city tour from Southern Style Tours . Our amazing tour guide, John, took us all around the sights--and not just the wonderful tourist attractions, either. There was the obvious ride through the French Quarter, where we learned about other streets that held some amazing jazz bars, delicious food, and quaint shops. These places were all written down for future exploration. Anybody know a good place along Frenchmen Street? Our guide recommended just strolling through it.

We also saw the beautiful Garden District where all the homes were a feast for the eyes. I'm pretty sure I imagined myself living in about 10 of the houses we saw on this tour. Another picturesque neighborhood? Lake Terrace. I think this was part of Metairie. The houses were gigantic, sitting majestically on a huge lawn and protected by intricate iron fences. It wasn't all fun, though. We, of course, were shown the destruction that Hurricane Katrina left in the 9th Ward. There were homes with water stains all the way up to the roof, and the graffiti markings on the sides of the homes that notified the number of people, pets, and date visited by rescuers broke my heart. It was a wonderful tour and I got to see the city as a whole, for its good and its bad, and especially its potential for growth.

Clockwise from top: vanilla pork belly and grits with chicory butter, turtle soup, and crabmeat cheesecakeAfter the bus tour we strolled through Riverwalk Plaza for a bit before finalizing where to eat for dinner. I was told that Palace Cafe would be a great place to eat. It was an establishment owned by the Brennans , the restaurateur family of New Orleans. The recommendation was on point. We were definitely not dressed for dinner, and while we didn't look like sewer rats, we were still not as well-dressed as we could have been for this restaurant. The restaurant offered French/Cajun food. Our appetizers included turtle soup (what?!) and crabmeat cheesecake (double what?!). The former had a flavor reminiscent of Chinese hot sour soup and the latter was a rich slice of heaven. Imagine a crab rangoon and turn it into a cake. Now drizzle some meunière sauce all over it. Yum. There was also this pork belly and grits. I know, it sounds so carnivorous and gross. Fear not. The coffee chicory butter swirled into the grits and the vanilla crust on the pork belly made this super-fatty appetizer sweet. I'd say you don't really notice/taste the fat, but I'd be lying. Just focus on the perfume of the dish and you'll be golden.

My Shrimp Tchefuncte (left), a specialty dish of shrimp and mushroom in meunière sauce, was in their cookbook . Rightly so. This is definitely something I'd need to learn how to make. It was a Cajun-seasoned plate of shrimp with mushrooms and scallions. A scoop of popcorn rice was almost this little island in the sea of sauce. So good, but I couldn't finish it all. My dad, being the brave caveman he is, ordered the pork shank. This was cooked in root beer and drizzled with a strawberry glaze. This giant hunk of meat was served on a hot plate to my dad's shock and awe. Did I mention he finished it? The bone-in slab kept the meat moist and flavorful and the strawberry sauce cut through all the grease. The verdict? Well, other tables looked on with a mixture of envy, disgust, and confusion. But don't order this if you do not have the patience or stomach for it. To end this feast, we settled on some pecan pie and a white chocolate bread pudding. And although both delicious, there is something so special about pecan pie that it basically trumps anything else. This version was pretty gooey. It didn't hold together as much as a pie but the flavor was spot-on. It was sweet without that cavity-inducing flavor, and it was just the right amount of gooey that it didn't stick to your teeth.

Friday rolled in kind of ominously. It was also supposed to rain. I tried to not be sad knowing this was the last day my family gets to spend time with me before they fly out the next day. We tried to pack in as much walking around and sightseeing as possible. I had my heart set on visiting the  French Market  so we had that on our schedule. But first, brunch. We had walked past  Stanley  a few times and decided to try it. This here was your dressed-up diner. You had wooden tables instead of formica countertops. The food here was good, no doubt, but I think I need to visit this place again to try how their specialty items really taste.

At Stanley for brunch
I did, after all, order an omelet sandwich after the recommendation of a customer. It was delicious, but it was what it sounded like. An omelet in a sandwich. My order of Creole breakfast potatoes wasn't bad. The potatoes were boiled and tossed in seasonings and scallions. I needed to drizzle a TON of hot sauce on this, though. Spencer's pancakes were a little special. A scoop of vanilla ice cream and a generous swirl of Louisiana cane sugar syrup added a sophisticated sweetness to something that was otherwise a diner regular. My dad's bananas foster french toast was my favorite although he seemed fairly unmoved by the meal. I should probably add that although my dad has a sweet tooth, he has been rarely known to consume an entire sweet breakfast. Tahitian vanilla bean ice cream and foster sauce doused all over your bananas and battered toast? That's a winner for me.

Clockwise from upper left: muffaletta poor boy, bananas foster french toast, pancakes with vanilla ice cream & Louisiana cane syrup, and Creole breakfast potatoes Next was the French Market. This area of New Orleans is something I'm sure I'll visit constantly. There are stalls selling all sorts of yummy goodies, ranging from jars of pepper jelly to gator on a stick, African black soap to Mardi Gras masks, and fresh produce to praline candies. If you want to pick up some food, come here. If you want artisanal products, come here. If you want cheap knick-knacks and houseware, come here. I don't think I'd get sick of this place. I just need to remember to come early enough before all the food is cleaned out. Each Sunday at 2pm there's some sort of food-related demo going on in the market. You know where I'll be on Sundays, then.

Our next stop was a steamboat cruise on the Natchez . We picked a daytime Jazz cruise that departed and docked right when it started to rain. Womp womp. We were welcomed aboard with a steamboat whistle calliope concert.

It was the first time I'd ever heard anything like that. I was definitely annoyed at first, and even alarmed at the high pitch of the whistles, but I learned to appreciate it about 20 minutes later when it was over. Ha! It was a great time to learn about the naval and trading history of New Orleans as the boat sailed along the Mississippi River.

Now, what were we to do at 4:30pm in New Orleans? Head on down to Pat O'Brien's for a Hurricane and some pianos. Duh. We got two giant 26oz glasses filled with this famous Hurricane, and my parents ordered a much more subdued SoCo and lemonade. Inside the piano bar the ceilings were lined with over-sized beer steins and the tables were all pushed together pretty closely. The pianists played all the classics, much to my parents' amusement. They couldn't stop raving about the place later. It was a lucky break that we caught a good time for this bar on a Friday when it wasn't so rowdy and filled to the brim with drunkards falling all over the place. Once the song, "Call Me Maybe" came on, though, I'm pretty sure my whole day was made. Granted, I was also done with my Hurricane, but still. We got to keep our giant souvenir glasses and some green beads to commemorate a Bourbon Street bar we were actually glad to have visited.

We were definitely still pretty full from downing those drinks at the bar, but we were hungry enough to have dinner. We tried another Brennan restaurant, Mr. B's Bistro , offering French/Creole food. I swear, we didn't go to one place for either lunch or dinner where Spencer or my dad didn't order gumbo. Having had some seafood gumbo, Spencer went with the Gumbo Ya Ya, which was chicken and sausage. It was so tasty. I don't think one could ever go wrong with Andouille sausage. I'm going to just say this now: our dishes were extraordinary. They were not just delicious, they were so memorable. We were recounting the details of the meals well after dinner was over, and even onto the next day.

Spencer got bibbed for his Barbecue Shrimp, served in a bowl of smokey and peppery barbecue sauce. Get your fingers dirty for this one 'cause it's well worth it. My shrimp and grits was turned up a notch with the bacon wrapped around all of the shrimp. The grits had some red-eye gravy poured over it and I could not stop eating. When has bacon been a bad addition to a meal, anyway? My mom's pork chop was a thick chunk of meat but it managed to stay juicy and moist all throughout. The sweet Asian-flavored sauce that crusted the chop was a unique flavor that we hadn't had this whole trip. My dad is pretty steadfast on not showing much emotion when it comes to the food he eats. He can enjoy a meal and think it's tasty, but he isn't going to go out of his way to praise it if it doesn't change his life. His garlic chicken was the exception. This juicy half chicken was roasted with tons of garlic and served with dried Roma tomatoes. It wasn't particularly spicy or fatty or New Orleans, but it was delicious, and his face (and plate) showed it.

Barbecued shrimp and honey-ginger-glazed pork chop Dessert? Just keeping it simple with a mango-pineapple sorbet and a lemon icebox cake, much to Spencer's chagrin. No indulgent chocolate cakes here. I have to say, though, the icebox cake had the perfect lemon flavor and reminded me of my sweeter lemon bars. Just tart enough to call it lemony but nothing too overpowering. The sorbet was a good palate cleanser after that feast we just consumed.

After days of nonstop eating and walking around I've found some relaxation time. I'll be back on a routine (albeit a new routine) on Monday when classes start. I'm looking forward to being back in school, and yes, I did just say that. This city has plenty to offer me. I just need to know where to look. And soon enough, some friends and family will visit to make exploring the Big Easy all that more memorable.

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