Friday, November 27, 2009

Voyager Bien: New Orleans, Day 2

Day two started bright and early when the shuttle from Airboat Adventures swamp tours tooted their horn outside of the St. Philip at an ungodly cruel hour for vacation. We picked up a few more adventurers outside of hotels around the French Quarter and were off to the swamp. An hour or so outside of town, and just past the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve we pulled up to a dock with a handful of airboats and a cabin-like lobby housing an albino gator and a host of striped baby gators.Within minutes we were off. What I immediately appreciated about the tour was the small size - with just 8 passengers and a guide, we were flying across the water at high speeds unlike the clunky Jungle Cruise type "party boats" I'd seen docked at some more commercial swamp tour spots along the drive out. Our small agile boat also let us explore some of the more hidden and mysterious narrow and shallow waterways with ease, even hopping the occasional log when necessary.Hard to capture on film was the abundance of wildlife flitting about us, great blue herons and egrets silently ascending through the Spanish Moss, a few piles of baby gators sunning on cypress roots, golf ball size bumble bees bouncing upon lily pads (yet surprisingly few mosquitos! I got just one bite on my elbow the entire day). Our first large gator was a treat to discover (little did we know how many we would see). It was the first warm sunny day in some time, so the reclusive reptiles were out to catch some rays.This BIG guy came this close - no zoom used here. Our guide (who'd grown up in these swamplands) fed him jumbo marshmallows and eventually got his head up, scratching under his chin.The beautiful two hour exploration was a blast, something I'd definitely recommend. I drew the line however back at the lobby when handed a menu for Gator Me Crazy, a cafe the swamp tour owners just opened in the French Quarter serving nothing but gator in all its forms, supposedly famous for something called the Swamp Roll. Hmm, no thanks!We got dropped off back in the Quarter, famished, so decided to grab a bite at the famous Napoleon House.Housed in a historic landmark dating from 1797 and family owned since 1914, the history was omnipresent in this space.The two house specialties claimed on the menu here are the Pimm's Cup (a British cocktail of Pimm's No. 1 Cup, lemonade, splash of 7, cucumber garnish) and New Orleans' own Muffaletta. Naturally, I ordered one of each.The crisp Pimm's Cup was well made, perfectly refreshing for a muggy day with a slight swamp sunburn.The Muffaletta was ENORMOUS. What you see here is half - thank goodness I had decided to share with Michael. Each of these quarters piled with ham, Genoa salami, pastrami, swiss cheese, provolone cheese, and housemade Italian olive salad was about the size of a large hamburger. The bread proved to be a bit much for me and I folded by the second half, scraping the olive salad out to finish. Tasty, but I decided then to try the "original" at Central Grocery before closing the Muffaletta book this trip.
After lunch, we strolled a couple of blocks to Laura's Candies - New Orleans' oldest candy store and factory - that sells handmade chocolates, truffles, and of course pralines. The counter proudly displays their winsome pralines (pronounced praw-leens) with samples of the various flavors: maple, creamy, rum, chocolate, extra chewy, and of course the original (a 200 year old recipe). All were absolutely incredible, but I favored the rum, creamy, and original so got one of each - but to eat much later!
Sugar coma taking effect, the guys all decided it was nap time, but I was high on the city, so set off on my own for the first time, stopping in Rev Zombie's Voodoo Shop and Skully'z Recordz before wandering back.As the sun began to set I arrived back at the St. Philip to wash the swamp silt off and get ready for the first Halloween 26 benefit kick-off event.
The cocktail party was mainly a meet and greet/registration for the rest of the weekend, with a sassy lounge singer and silent auction for patrons. But I immediately gravitated to (well, first the open bar and then) the "Taste of New Orleans" court featuring small bites from several of the Quarters' most popular establishments.
I started with Broussard's corn, shrimp, and sweet potato bisque was heavenly - silky and spicy/sweet. Palace Café's rich Turtle Soup with fresh lemon and sherry was - well, for starters my first turtle soup ever - but multi-layered and incredibly decadent. I skipped the Muffaletta table because I was still digesting the bread from the one at lunch. And though I probably also wouldn't have approached the brownie table, a local tipped me off that I wouldn't regret it - They were from the Louisiana Pizza Kitchen, famous for this perfect moist, frosted brownie. Yum.
The table I went back to several times though (the belle of this ball) was sautéing fresh batches of fragrant brown-buttery BBQ Creole Shrimp courtesy of Ralph's On The Park. This absolutely flawless recipe actually made me want to urgently dine at Ralph's (alas we did not) or else buy the cookbook sitting beside the chafing dish. The woman tossing the shrimp informed me not to be fooled by the name and confuse this with your typical idea of "BBQ" - this quintessential New Orleans recipe is achieved mainly with LOTS of butter, Worcestershire sauce, and Creole seasoning. Divine!!!
Following the cocktail party was even more bourbon on Bourbon Street and the end of another magical day in my new favorite city.

Napoleon House Bar & Cafe
500 Chartres St. New Orleans, LA; 504.524.9752
Napoleon House Bar & Cafe on Urbanspoon

Laura's Candies
331 Chartres St. New Orleans, LA; 504.525.3880

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Voyager Bien: New Orleans, Day 1

Through the filmy cab window I watched an above-ground cemetery of compacted marble mausoleums tick by in rhythm. The air was thick and warm, my sinuses and taught skin eased. A few more ticks outside and then a visual break into open swampland. Moss-draped Cypresses seemed to wave their Halloween limbs as we zipped by on the freeway as if by speedboat, the furry green surface of the water a technicolor carpet as far as the eye could see. And out in the middle of that marsh, a small weathered hut on stilts. I couldn't take a photo, just sit with my camera in-hand, jaw a little slack. What was this place??
"OK, drive-thru daiquiri time!" I said to the guys, swivelling forward. Alas, we had already passed Veterans Boulevard, where I was told they are peppered along the roadside. "Well.. we'll grab one in the French Quarter," they said (spoiler: I leave Louisiana without getting my daiquiri!). We exited the freeway, turned a corner and suddenly were in even another country.Past two sentinel live oaks, we were suddenly driving alongside Creole cottages hundreds of years old, casually nestled together like sleeping cats. Forgetting about the daiquiri, my eyes were glued out the smudgy window once more. We passed a French cottage-style corner pub with flickering gas lamps and open shuttered doors, all it was missing was the cobblestones and some smarmy swashbucklers. "That's Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop, one of the oldest bars in the country," the front seat said. I had heard of this place, and I wanted to sit in that circa 1772 building and enjoy a pint. I grinned.Another block and we're in front of The St Philip French Quarter Apartments, a four story pink Creole townhouse, plant-festooned ironwork verandas wrapped with cotton cobwebs, a Saints flag flapping in the breeze. A bigger grin. I didn't realize we would be staying in the true heart of the French Quarter! A horse-drawn carriage clopped past as we wrestled our luggage through the gate. The small courtyard was eclectically dressed up for Halloween, shafts of sun catching a large metal crayfish fountain on the back wall draped with Mardi Gras beads. A freshly carved pumpkin sat on the patio table."We're alll the way up," Michael said ominously motioning to the narrow and steep wooden stairwell.
Post-workout, I wiped the sweat from my brow and observed our room, the 2 bedroom attic apartment may not have had a veranda, but the views in all directions over the French Quarter, toward downtown, and to the Mississippi and Crescent City Connection (formerly the Greater New Orleans Bridge) were fantastic. I opened the windows and let the muggy warmth in. I wanted to feel the city.After settling into our rooms, the boys and I were feeling peckish. We took a stroll two blocks down to Decateur, a main drag that borders the Mississippi. In front of us was the French Market, with the world famous Cafe Du Monde and Central Grocery Co. We took a left and ducked into Coop's Place, a charming, divey watering hole and cafe. I should mention that I was lucky enough to be experiencing New Orleans for the first time with trained professionals. Halloween aside, the big draw of the weekend and reason for my friends' trip was a 4 day lineup of events: Halloween 26 - New Orleans, a benefit for Project Lazarus, a home for Louisiana men and women living with AIDS. So you see, my travel mates here were well seasoned, having attended this charity weekend (always at Halloween) for countless years in a row now. They knew exactly where to go, what to do, how long it would take, what it would cost, what the best route was, why x was better than y, and then charmingly bicker over the finer details. One thing they all seemed to agree on though was Coop's.We were told to sit anywhere by a brawny redheaded woman who exuded N'awlins' unique charm. We circled a round table by the open door and immediately noticed a sleeping kitten on the windowsill. "Stella" our redhead nodded from behind the bar as their kitten stood up, stretching, over sized collar dwarfing her petite frame. Above and all over the walls were colorful bottle-cap-encrusted frames with hand-painted phrases like "Be Nice or Leave!" and "Be Nice or Starve!" displayed in them - something I found to be a commonality throughout the week. A TV over the bar had a local channel airing classic slasher movies, Jason's mask stalking a frantic camper through staticky trees, leaking an occasional muffled scream. A rubber bat bobbed above our heads from the ceiling fan. Halloween was omnipresent in this town, and I loved it. On the right side of the cafe, a massive chalk board menu filled one entire wall, a plethora of delicious sounding Southern delights to choose from. It was my first meal in New Orleans though, and I only needed a snack to tide me over until dinner, so it was a no brainer. I ordered the chicken and andouille sausage gumbo. And a Sazerac, another NOLA staple.The gumbo was bold, flavorful and quite spicy. The Sazerac was prepared properly, but plastic tumblers don't keep strained cocktails chilled and I realized over the course of the meal that it was a bit like taming a fire with kerosene. I began to drool across the table at Michael and Alex's Abita beers. Taking a break from the gumbo's heat, I sampled Michael's side of duck and andouille sausage jambalaya. It had a deliciously complicated smoked flavor that wreaked of family secret - definitely the best jambalaya I tasted on my trip.
Stella wove in between our legs as we ate and sat herself in the doorway as tourists and gutter punks wandered past outside. She perfectly encapsulated the lackadaisical vibe we were happily adjusting to.After a leisurely late afternoon stroll soaking up the pre-Halloween electricity in the air, the sun slipped behind St. Louis Cathedral casting Jackson Square in shadow, the dinner hour already fast upon us. We scurried back to the St. Philip as the goblins began to come out, scrubbed up and called a cab to take us across town to my most anticipated dining locale - the infamous Jacques-Imo's for some "REAL N'awlins food"!We definitely were not in the French Quarter anymore Toto, I thought as we pulled up to the brightly lit shabby Creole townhouse on an otherwise dark street. A mural-painted pick up truck out front with a table for two in the back immediately conveyed the whimsy that is Jacques-Imo's. As they do not take reservations, we were met with an expected wait and strolled next door to the Maple Leaf bar.As real and divey as they come, the Maple Leaf is a fine companion to the rough-around-the-edges Jacques-Imo's, rusty tin plates covering the ceiling and walls, locals seated down the heavy wood bar behind which a man was pouring well drinks into plastic cups. No frills here! As soon as the bourbon was in-hand, our name was being called down the block - thank heavens for the to-go cup.We were walked through Jacques-Imo's kitchen to a back-porch-like room where every inch of wall and ceiling were mural-painted, creating an illusion of some kind of festive swamp party. As soon as we were seated a plate of warm corn bread muffins were dropped, fragrantly dripping with butter and garlic. After a bite I opened the menu, realizing how difficult selecting an entrée would be.Our waiter followed the pattern of sweet, hard-working service, helping us make those last couple of decisions. Mike had been the first to pick his entree, his own little tradition for the past several years - a giant-size pork chop stuffed with ground beef and shrimp. Whoa! I was beginning to get very excited, noticing every table in the packed room chattering with the contagious elation that accompanies a mighty fine meal.The first starter I sampled were the crab-stuffed shrimp with magnolia sauce - which were explosively tasty! I wished there were more, as I sucked on the tail.. The smoked Boudin with Creole mustard sauce was also tasty with a great depth of flavor... But ladies and gentlemen, it was the shrimp and alligator sausage cheesecake - yes, cheesecake - that blew my mind tonight. Initially not completely sure I was up for trying reptile, I watched and heard the faces and sounds around the table as each took their first bite. "OH OK pass the plate!" I finally squawked reaching across the table (which was only the beginning of my adventurous eating this charmed week). Technically a cheesecake, remove all notions of expected flavor and texture here - this dish was rich, warm and smooth, tantalizing and savory without a hint of fishiness or gaminess (which I feared). My eyes rolled up and I literally savored each bite of this. I will go back if for this modest starter alone.For my entrée I selected the paneed rabbit with oyster Tasso pasta - a huge piece of rabbit pounded flat and tender before breaded and fried. The pasta was incredible, chock full of butter-sauteed oysters (which were suspiciously more like mussels) and shreds of spicy smokey cajun Tasso ham. For my sides I couldn't not get the mashed sweet potatoes and mixed greens (collards/mustard). Both were exceptional, though moot as this was enough food here for three.We were certainly going to skip dessert, but since one of the entrées was slightly late coming out, our server brought out a spread on the house immediately following our meal, a crème brûlée with a strawberry coulis, fresh mini strawberry shortcakes, and the winner: a sweet potato pecan pie. I couldn't resist, as crème brûlée is my favorite, and the pie was Southern perfection. I knew I would regret it... By the time we climbed the 3 flights of stairs back at the St. Philip I was hurtin' pretty bad. Bless my dear roomie for having emergency alka-seltzer on hand to ease my pain!I couldn't believe the day's adventures had only been within several hours since my arrival. I watched as some michevious rain clouds descended over downtown, curiously peeking in like my anticipation over what else this magical city had in store for me...

Coop's Place
1109 Decatur St
New Orleans, LA; 504.525.9053
Coop's Place on Urbanspoon

Jacques-Imos Cafe
8324 Oak St
New Orleans, LA; 504.861.0886
Jacques-Imo's Cafe on Urbanspoon