When I was invited to attend the annual Tales of the Cocktail event in New Orleans in July of 2007, I was beyond thrilled. I hadn't been to New Orleans in years, and to visit the birthplace of the cocktail was like a trip to Mecca for me. Yeah, it was going to be hot and humid, but that's what sundresses and air conditioning are for.
Before I left, I asked some former Nawlins residents for recommendations, like Brenda Buenviaje of Brenda's and Jan Birnbaum of Epic. I barely made a dent in my lengthy list, but boy, did I try.
This trip was so moving, and downright bittersweet--most of the conference events were held in the ever-atmospheric French Quarter, which really gives you a weird semblance of normalcy, and that everything in the city is fine. No. It. Isn't. As soon as I took my first trolley ride up Canal Street, and a ride out to Mid-City, everything in my chest got tight.
You see entire first floors of office buildings that are boarded up, and residential streets with houses elevated, eerily vacant, and so many for sale. Countless homes still have those cryptic symbols that were spray-painted on their front doors that only the National Guard or recovery efforts could decipher. I couldn't believe how many people I saw still living out of their FEMA trailers. You still see the telltale water line on so many homes and buildings like some naughty child went around to thousands of homes and drew a big fat line across them. Each line is like a bleak horizon of sadness, measuring the amount of tears on each house. Still. Still. Still. It's like Katrina happened six months ago, but it didn't.
Ask people about "the storm," and everyone has a story to tell, each and every one heartbreaking. It just makes you want to hold people, hug them, make the hurt and suffering go away.
I had a chance to speak with chef-owner Donald Link of Cochon (many know him from his years here in San Francisco), and I also spoke with his staff at Herbsaint, his first restaurant. I was so touched with their tales of reopening Herbsaint. The story they told of cleaning up the restaurant, and the walk-in, after weeks of not being able to access it were harrowing to say the least. The hard-working folks at Herbsaint managed to reopen five weeks after Katrina, and they said you have no idea how powerful it was for them to be able to host guests at the restaurant, with white tablecloths, and nice stemware their customers were just thrilled to be in a restaurant, like it was the first time they ever ate in a nice establishment--they said the excitement was just palpable. Guests could pretend things were normal for a little while, at least for the time they were dining there.
My last morning in New Orleans, I was taken out to the Lower Ninth Ward by a friend and former resident who had a car. It was beyond haunting, like a ghost town that nature is slowly and steadily taking over, weeds climbing high, with people's clothes and personal effects blending in the soft soil. The backsides of houses were ripped open, spilling their guts, a jumble of destroyed furniture, torn curtains, broken dishes. Homes were picked up by the water, and then dropped off blocks away. The elements that remained steadfast were front stairs, now to nowhere, and a few brick houses. A school bus lies on its side like a carcass, cars nosedive under houses. It's now a neighborhood of chaos, none of it makes sense. It makes you feel sick. I am also posting a link here to some of my pictures so you can see--words sometimes aren't enough to accurately portray the awful.
One of the most important things we can do to help New Orleans in their efforts to rebuild is to support their local economy. Restaurants are trying to open, or staying closed, or closing, businesses are struggling each and every business that manages to open, or stay open, is a major victory. If you are at all considering a trip somewhere, I can't encourage you enough to visit New Orleans. You'd be able to afford it more than you might think.
I was blown away with the true Southern hospitality I encountered, the kindness, the helpfulness, the warmth. It really resonates. People call you sweetheart and darling and ma'am there (even if you should be "miss"). It's a beautiful, old, and mysterious city, with such interesting history, and character. This city is special, and unique, and we need to preserve it and appreciate it like the national treasure it is.
I haven't had a sense of local and regional cuisine like I did in New Orleans in a long, long time. The food there has such a sense of place; talk about terroir. The history runs deep--heck, it's not every day you meet a daughter of the woman who created Bananas Foster (be sure to visit Brennan's for the original!). At one of the Tales of the Cocktail events I attended about the history of New Orleans's regional cuisine, the irrepressible Poppy Tooker, the founder and leader of the NOLA Slow Food convivium, said, "Eat it to save it." So here's how I did my part in saving it. I ate. A lot.
Let's start with a visit to the ~NAPOLEON HOUSE~, known for their Pimm's Cup, which reinforces the timeless importance of a place having a good signature drink. It's one of the most atmospheric bars I've ever been in, with spinning fans, wood tables, old-school bartenders, and a dusky, intimate feeling--the building dates back to 1797. I would have a drink here every afternoon if I could. In fact, Dave Wondrich called it, "A New Orleans day spa." Some folks don't know they also serve one hell of a muffuletta (which I heard pronounced as "muff-ah-lot-a"), a ridiculously stacked (and warm) sesame-studded sandwich of Italian cold cuts, plus cheeses like provolone, and the famed chopped olive salad. I tried a bunch of these while I was in New Orleans; this was one of the best. You can even rent out the apartment upstairs, formerly the living quarters of Joe Impastato who bought the Napoleon House in 1914--his family runs it still. This place is pure class.
500 Chartres St.
Cross: St. Louis
Since we're on sandwiches, one of my passions, I also made the trek one day out to ~LIUZZA'S~ to try their Frenchuletta (they grill the meat while the French bread toasts)! This place was the picture of a neighborhood restaurant, with the same family running it for almost 30 years, and a great mix of folks hanging out in the cute vintage space that dates back to 1947. The sandwich was big, my schooner of Abita amber was ice cold, and the fried green tomatoes with crawfish remoulade, simply delish! Another amazing story: they were under six feet of water, but managed to renovate and reopen in July, a year after the storm. Good people, here.
3636 Bienville St.
Cross: N. Telemachus
A lot of people talk about ~MOTHER'S RESTAURANT~ in the Quarter for po' boys, good home cookin', and breakfast (served all day). I will say the incredible baked ham po' boy I brought to go on the flight home with me was the envy of the plane--so good with their Creole mustard. They are also famous for their "debris" sandwich of all the yummy bits that come off when you carve a roast, and the Ferdi special of ham AND roast beast. They did win for my favorite picture of the trip (seen here). If you have a chance, you should read their account of reopening after Katrina--they impressively managed to do so on October 15.
401 Poydras St.
Cross: Tchoupitoulas (say Chop-a-TOO-lis)
My po' boy mission also included a trip to the much-adored ~PARKWAY BAKERY & TAVERN~ in Mid-City. Talk about a local hangout. I learned this place was pivotal in keeping people fed in the area after the storm, especially the throngs of construction workers, who were still ordering lunch when I was there in 2007. The famous hot roast beef with gravy po' boy here was as scrumptious as it was messy, ditto on the golden shrimp and oyster combo version (just ask for it 50/50), served on a Leidenheimer's roll, heaven with a few shakes of sauce picante (either local Crystal or Tabasco), plus Zapp's chips on the side, a Barq's longneck to drink, and Hubig's pie for dessert! Make the trek to eat here!
Parkway Bakery & Tavern
538 Hagan Ave.
The smell upon entering ~COCHON~ was bliss: meat and oven. Come and get it! Clean industrial style, with brick walls and a concrete floor, plus wood slat chairs and booths that made me feel a little like a pig in my own (very happy) pen. We loved the spicy fried alligator ($10), fried boudin balls ($7), supple and creamy head cheese ($6) with house-made mustard, plus smoked ham hocks and grits ($16), and the namesake Louisiana cochon with cracklins ($18). Dessert was $6, if you can make it that far. I'm putting the prices in so you can see how affordable it is to dine well here. Loved, loved, loved. Co-owners and chefs Donald Link and Stephen Stryjewski kick (pork) butt.
930 Tchoupitoulas St.
Cross: Andrew Higgins Drive
One of my favorite evenings was dining at the bar at ~HERBSAINT~, Donald Link's first restaurant, which turned seven years old in October 2007. The menu was the picture of appetizing, with a stunning gumbo of the day with andouille and a touch of brandy, braised beef shortribs on a crispy potato cake, house-made spaghetti (!) with crispy guanciale and a fried-poached farm egg, and remarkable jumbo shrimp from Dino the shrimper, whose motto is "If it swims in the water, place yer order!" (I think I love Dino), served with scallion spoonbread and roasted corn salad. Oh, and the dirty rice is Link's family's rice. Don't miss some absinthe service at the end of dinner, natch. Killer cocktails, classy wine list, too.
701 Saint Charles Ave.
What on earth were we thinking? We weren't. ~MANDINA'S RESTAURANT~ took us down. We got excited. This is what happens when you have a legit Creole-Italian menu, full of things to order like turtle soup (be sure to request a light pour on the sherry), seafood gumbo, crab fingers in wine sauce (read: a ton of butter), a half and half (oyster and shrimp) loaf (a po' boy), and fried chicken with onion rings. Ouch! This honest family joint dates back to 1932, and as it says on the website, "There was a concern that Mandina's wouldn't come back after the storm. [Fourth-generation owner] Cindy Mandina insisted on it. 'It was a financial risk, but I had to reinvest in my city.'" The pictures on their site of the post-storm damage are intense to say the least (be sure to slide your cursor over them).
3800 Canal St.
Cross: N. Cortez
After killing myself at Mandina's, I experienced a first: I was too ill to eat dinner. Seriously. I sat at the table, but upon my first bite, both liver and stomach said, "Hells no!" All I could bear was to sip soda and bitters while my dinner pals ate--we called it DBP (Dining By Proxy). Big shame, because chef-owner John Harris's ~LILETTE~ in Uptown was darling--a former drugstore, with tiled floors, a painted tin ceiling, rust-colored walls, creamy booths with black piping, a jazzy/bluesy soundtrack, all in a neighborhood that exuded pure Southern charm--cicadas included. Here's what the table raved about: marrow toasts with mushrooms and veal glace ($9.50), cool corn soup with avocado and crab, gnocchi with sage brown butter ($8.50), and a roasted poulet breast ($21). Licorice ice cream for dessert was brilliant. Charmed, you will be.
3637 Magazine St.
Cross: Napoleon St.
How can a place this famous, and this overloaded with tourists, still remain so cool? I treasured my breakfast at ~CAFÉ DU MONDE~ of wondrous eggy and spongy beignets in a pile of powdered sugar and my chicory coffee au lait (with half and half and hot milk), so creamy you don't need sugar. You will end up with powdered sugar on you, no matter how hard you try to avoid it, as if you were partying up late with Pablo Escobar. Adored the vintage 50s-era chairs in olive drab with chrome legs, the jazz trumpeter playing over the hubbub of people, the cheerful green and white striped awningâ¦ you can take it all in for $1.59 for three beignets, and $1.59 for coffee ($2.73 for an iced one). Open 24 hours!
Café du Monde
800 Decatur St.
Cross: St. Anne
I also adored my croissant at ~CROISSANT D'OR PATISSERIE~. Charming place. The croissant, was quite legit. Buttery goodness. And warm, yay! Check out the old separate entrance for ladies, what a trip.
Croissant D'Or Patisserie
617 Ursulines St.
Cross: Chartres St.
Sometimes you need a dark, cool, shady hideout, especially the day after, when you require some sustenance, but no sunlight--yet. ~COOP'S PLACE~ totally hooked me up one afternoon--it's a divey little bar complete with pool table and Ozzy the lazy brindle bulldog sacked out on the brick floor. It's all about their spicy rabbit and smoked pork sausage jambalaya. Of course I made mine "supreme," with crawfish, shrimp, and house-made tasso (smoked Cajun ham). $9.25, done. Oh, and a salad with thick house-made green goddess dressing with a little kick from their house pepper blend. And naturally, a cold Abita. Loved this place--the bar means business (complete with menacing signs like "Be Nice or Bleed"), and the food means business too, with the local scene here tucking into fried fish, jambalaya, po' boys, whatever makes you feel better. Open late too.
1109 Decatur St.
Cross: Ursuline St.
My final send-off meal (thank god, because after five days I was going to keel over) was brunch at ~ELIZABETH'S RESTAURANT~ a down-home little joint with a bit of a hippie vibe. It's just a tiny bit in the outskirts, in the Bywater. And famous for their praline bacon (as good as it sounds, oh yes), callas (an obscure type of beignet made here with rice flour, waffle mix, nutmeg, cinnamon, and powdered sugar), grillades and grits (steak and a tasty gravy with peppers and celery), and all kinds of things covered in hollandaise and cheese. As they say, "Real Food Done Real Good." Uh huh.
601 Gallier St.
Cross: Chartres St.
A big thank you to Harrah's New Orleans for generously hosting me as a media guest at their hotel on this trip--and they had one of the nicest doormen I've ever met.
Some great places for drinks:
Alan, the bar maestro who was presiding over the tiny bar at ~IRIS~ restaurant set me up with a memorable cocktail of cilantro-infused triple sec, tequila, and watermelon, with chopped cilantro and a salt rim, yum, more please! All kinds of unique and refreshing culinary cocktails here, like kaffir-cayenne limeade, and a blood orange and basil martini. The menu looked good for dinner too--a sweet little space.
Don't miss some of the expertly made cocktails at the ~SWIZZLE STICK BAR AT CAFÉ ADELAIDE~. The huge block of ice behind the bar says it all. (I also had a wicked brunch here, blue crab scrambled eggs with oyster mushrooms and leeks, with buttered brioche toast and Brie fondue, yes, it knocked me out, and I can't blame it on the eye-opener of brandied rum milk punch, good morning!)
I enjoyed the gentleman's club atmosphere of ~THE BOMBAY CLUB~--the drinks were fine, it was more about having a nice place to relax, tucked away in the Prince Conti Hotel.
Here's an extensive list of places to drink in NOLA from Difford's.
A few things to know:
Most of the clocks run slow in New Orleans. Hotels can even miss your wake-up call.
Po' boys get their name from the 1927 streetcar strike, when Martin's Grocers wanted to offer free meals for the "poor boys" who were striking. The owner sat down with the baker to determine what would be the correct size to feed a family. Hence the huge size of po' boy sandwiches. If you order one "dressed," that means yes on mayo, lettuce, and tomato. Oh, and no giggles when you hear mayonnaise pronounced "my-on-ezz."
There is a strong Italian population and presence here, partly because it was the second port for immigrants besides Ellis Island back in the day (that's what I was told--guess who hasn't fact-checked this!). A muffuletta sandwich is a perfect example of the Creole-Italian style of cuisine that has developed here. Genius, that sandwich.
In the summer, thunderstorms and crazy rain can come out of nowhere--total downpours. Carry a small umbrella in your bag if you want to be prepared.
~A muffuletta from Central Grocery, the reputed home of the darned thing--I tried to go once but the lines were long and my time was short. (Vegetarians: you can get one with just olive salad and cheese!)
~Have a Café Brulot at Arnaud's French 75 Bar
~Visit the Crescent City Farmers' Market
~Oysters Rockefeller at Antoine's--the oldest continuing restaurant in the US, with six generations of the same family running it since 1840, and many waiters have been there for forty years.
~Café Freret (I had a bite of their muffuletta, I think it was the best!)
~Bayona for Susan Spicer's acclaimed cuisine
~Restaurant August, a high-end resto from John Besh
~Lüke, a brasserie from John Besh
~Peristyle--Tom Wolfe's casual yet classy Creole outpost
~Brigtsen's--James Beard award-winning chef, restaurant is in a cool old shotgun house way uptown
~Li'l Dizzy's for gumbo and authentic southern cooking
~Cafe Rani on Magazine for some healthy eating (shocking!)
~Bon Ton Cafe for their combo fried crawfish and catfish with remoulade dipping sauce, and crawfish etouffée
~Johnny's PO-Boys for classic po' boys
~Domilise Sandwich Shop & Bar for famed po' boys--everyone has their favorite place!
~Casamento's for oyster loaf
~Surrey's Juice Bar for breakfast--healthy stuff too!
~Galatoire's, a classic since 1905--to order: pommes soufflé, crabmeat maison, broiled pompano with crab on top
~Camellia Grill--a popular landmark diner dating back to 1946, reopened in 2007
~R&O's in Bucktown for a ham, roast beef, and turkey po' boy (a Donald Link favorite)--216 Metairie Hammond Hwy., Metairie, 504-831-1248
Saturn Bar in Bywater
Maple Leaf Bar
How to help:
Donate/volunteer/help with their wish list: commongroundrelief.org/
Contribute to Slow Food's Terra Madre Katrina Relief Fund to Benefit Gulf Region Food Producers: slowfoodusa.org/katrina_relief.html
Support the New Orleans Food & Farm Network, helping to provide access to fresh food to neighborhoods: noffn.org/
Become a member: museumoftheamericancocktail.org
Book a trip: neworleansonline.com
Go to Jazz Fest (April 25-May 4) or Tales of the Cocktail (July 16-20)
Read 1 Dead in Attic: After Katrina by Chris Rose
More thoughts, and quotes:
You know it's time to stop eating when the waitress at Mandina's says she's impressed.
I overheard people talking about the evacuation while sitting at a bar, "Really, it only took you four hours?"
"It can be sweet, but sometimes you hit some minty pockets." -Camper English on the Starfish Cooler, the official cocktail of Tales of the Cocktail, 2007
"Without the cocktail, how would we have jazz?" -Ti Martin