Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Laissez les bon temps rouler

I know I still owe you a story about Budapest, but first I’ve got to tell you about last week’s vacation. P and I got back late Sunday night from the most incredible four days in hot, steamy, glorious New Orleans. The idea for the trip was born last New Year’s eve. P and I happened to watch the PBS Great Performances episode “Let Them Talk.” It’s a love letter to New Orleans jazz and blues by the British actor Hugh Laurie. As soon as the show ended, I turned to P and announced that in 2012 we were going to visit New Orleans. I’d never been to NOLA before. I’d always wanted to listen to great jazz, enjoy the famous restaurants, have an order of CafĂ© Du Monde’s famous beignets by the banks of the Mississippi, and generally soak in the essence of the Big Easy.

Last week, we made it all a reality. P and I enjoyed some extraordinary meals. If you go, make sure you get a table at Ralph's on the Park (across the street from City Park). You need to order their BBQ Shrimp. It’s the best anywhere. Above and beyond the rest was one truly memorable meal at Commander's Palace. I started with a soup sampler of shrimp and okra Louisiana gumbo, their signature turtle soup (finished with aged Spanish sherry), and a shrimp & fennel bisque. That soup sampler was paired with a perfectly balanced glass of wine (a Barolo). My entree was pistachio crusted duck breast over a bed of rice and dried bing cherries. For dessert, Commander’s Palace’s famous bread pudding soufflĂ© and the classic New Orleans coffee with chicory. The whole meal was topped off by our wait captain giving us a tour of the kitchen, wine room, and presenting us with a signed menu from the executive chef.

Of course I made a couple pilgrimages to Cafe du Monde. After the first visit to the original location on Decatur Street just off Jackson Square, we took a short trip up the Mississippi on the Steamboat Natchez (the Natchez happens to be the first camera shot in “Let Them Talk.”)

You can’t spend any quality time in NOLA without hearing great jazz, and we certainly did. Just walking along the street you’re bound to catch some good musician, but the real music neighborhood is Frenchmen Street. It’s hard to find a bad club there. You can wander into The Spotted Cat, d.b.a., Three Muses, and so many more.

Before we flew home on Sunday, we had a great time at the House of Blues’ long-running gospel brunch, but the biggest musical highlight was Saturday night. For a whopping $15 each, P and I stepped into the hallowed Preservation Hall, where we quite literally sat at the feet of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. It was like seeing the Hall of Fame gallery in Cooperstown for the first time, only the players had suddenly come alive and were playing in front of us, at the top of their game. Preservation Hall is tiny. It seats, perhaps, a hundred guests. The ceiling is low. The accommodations are spartan. It’s an ascetic chapel dedicated to the worship of jazz. The picture at the top of this post was our vantage point. I could easily have just extended my arm and hit the clarinetist.

We stayed in the Quarter for two nights, and then went to Ashton's, our originally reserved bed and breakfast on Esplanade Street, for the last two nights. The B&B had lost power in Hurricane Isaac, and so we improvised a little. That was a brilliant decision, as it turned out. The Hotel Monteleone in the French Quarter was a perfect choice, and along with its legendary history for hosting great writers and artists, it is also home to the Carousel Bar, which rotates. Definitely worth seeing. Most everyone wants to stay in or near the Quarter, and for good reason. However, I'm so glad we spent two nights at Ashton's. The hosts were gracious, and the house is spectacular. Also, the breakfasts are to die for.

On Friday, we took a walking tour of the Quarter and St. Louis Cemetery #1, which houses the tombs of Marie Laveau, Homer Plessy (of Plessy vs. Ferguson fame), and former mayor (and New Orleans’ first African American to hold the position) Dutch Morial. Dutch is right next to Marie Laveau -- that was a neat trick. The oddest sight was the future tomb of Nicolas Cage -- given its location, it's one of the strangest things I've ever seen. See the link "explaining" it. There are so many things we didn't get to see or do, restaurants we still need to visit, and I know we have to go back.

Now I get what people have told me for years - there is no place on earth like New Orleans. You can't describe it, you just have to experience it. So yeah, P and I need to return, probably many, many times. I'm hooked now.


Vicky said...

I'm truly glad you had such a wonderful time. New Orleans was easily one of the best vacations I've ever had, and I've been dreaming of going back ever since. I think people either "get it" or they don't. Glad you're one of the former.

Herb Collins said...

Loved your New Orleans comments and photos on Facebook. So you! Thanks for adding the blog info to complete the picture.

Gordo said...

what did you bring me back ?