I can’t believe we’re heading into the last week of February. I mean, didn’t we just put away the party hats and noisemakers with which we raucously welcomed 2017? Well, I hope you remember where you stored them because Tuesday is Mardi Gras, every penitent partier’s last chance for debauchery before the Lenten season begins. Come Wednesday morning, we’re supposed to turn our thoughts to more serious and somber subjects, like how to become better people and how to forgive other folks for their faults. (At least that’s the idea . . . .)
But that’s a week away. And between now and then, New Orleans will transform herself into a sorceress, one capable of the most exotic sort of magic. She will cast her spell on visitors and locals alike, weaving a web of wizardry where anyone can disappear – at least for a while. No slouch in the entertainment category during normal times, the Crescent City goes into hyper-drive during Mardi Gras. Majestically decorated floats take over the streets, powered by lilting Cajun music and the electric energy of their krewes. And don’t forget about the beads, and the breasts, and the boorishness – they’re a time-honored part of the tradition. Inhibitions are checked at the gate, where they’re exchanged for a laissez-faire attitude of “go with the flow.” It’s all good fun – at least until the photos show up on social media. But I digress . . . .
While New Orleans is perhaps best known as the free-wheeling hostess of Mardi Gras revelry, she has much more to offer: a thriving music culture, a top-notch World War II museum, and maybe the best restaurant scene of any city I’ve visited lately. This will, of course, come as no surprise to foodies who’ve already made the pilgrimage to “Nawlins” specifically for the inventive cuisine based on local ingredients. And there’s been no shortage of media buzz about the food here: local chefs appear regularly on cooking shows like Top Chef, and were featured in an entire storyline in the post-Katrina HBO drama, Tremé.
Not long ago, I had the good fortune to spend an entire week in New Orleans, which hosted the annual conference of the Society of Wine Educators. Our base was the Crowne Plaza, ideally situated in the French Quarter, right at the corner of Canal and Bourbon Streets. My husband accompanied me, working from his mobile office (our hotel room) while I attended conference sessions, and planning our dinner adventures each night. Neither one of us had been to the city before, so we were eager to discover as much as we could during the evenings. We had in hand suggestions from friends and colleagues who were delighted to share their favorite finds with us. Turns out, we could have used three weeks to see and do it all!
Here’s the virtual highlight reel of our eating and drinking excursions in the dynamic city of New Orleans:
After checking into the hotel, my husband and I set out to explore the French Quarter. It was mid-afternoon on a Sunday, and we were starving. The bellman who hauled our bags to the room suggested a casual place on Bourbon Street, Oceana Grill for a late lunch. Specializing in traditional Cajun dishes like blackened fish, fried oysters, and the famous Po’ Boy sandwiches, Oceana Grill left us feeling fat and happy. I enjoyed the heck out of a Fried Oyster Po’ Boy, washing it down with a swig of the local Abita Jockamo IPA. My hubby chose the blackened fish version and a glass of sweet tea. Service was relaxed and friendly, just what we needed on an August day with temperatures rising into the 90s, and humidity to match.
Having filled up our tanks, we ventured out for a stroll in the hopes of finding a cup of strong coffee (or two.) Imagine our delight when we came upon this French pastry shop, Sucré, which itself looked good enough to eat. Gabe (my better half) has a real sweet tooth, and he was speechless for a moment as he took in all the delicious possibilities.
We made ourselves comfortable at a table and ordered tea and macarons (for me) and coffee and an éclair (for him.) During the week, while I attended tasting sessions and learned about wine regions, Gabe retraced his path to Sucré a few times (to say the least!)
It was a full day of “work” for me, learning about wines from Georgia (the country) and listening to a Master of Wine discuss the finer points of Bordeaux so I was excited to hear what Gabe had planned for dinner. Our Uber driver whisked us away to Cochon (which means pig, in French) one of the jewels in the Link Restaurant Group run by chefs Stephen Stryjewski and Donald Link. Despite the name, this eatery boasts a diverse menu including seafood and vegetables. We, however, went right for the pork! Gabe, whose favorite food is bacon, wasted no time in selecting the Bacon and Oyster Sandwich which, as you can see from the photo, he did not enjoy at all. My choice was called Louisiana Cochon with Cabbage, Cracklins, and Pickled Peaches, and was sublime. After a day of tasting dozens of wines, my palate craved something different: Four Roses Bourbon, straight up.
For dinner we wanted to try a restaurant recommended by one of my friends. It had been a really long day for us both and we were heartened by the fact that this place was only a block away from the hotel. Located in the Roosevelt Hotel, Domenica promised a traditional Italian meal with a local New Orleans twist. It did not disappoint! Homemade pasta, salumi and cheese, fresh seafood and more tempted us from the menu. We took our waiter’s recommendation and shared some small plates – the fried Tuscan kale, octopus carpaccio, and squid ink tagliolini – which was really enough. But then we had to try the special Berkshire pork chop topped with pickled peaches.
I’ve never had a more delicious pork chop in my life! The wine list was quite extensive, with bottles from each of the 20 wine regions of Italy. I found this 2012 Passopisciaro IGT Terre Siciliane from Sicily, made from 100% Nerello Mascalese (80 year-old vines) which was so lively with bright cherry fruit and spice. And I swear I could taste an ashy, mineral component in the wine. After all, the grapes were grown on the slopes of the active volcano Mt. Etna!) Despite an alcohol-by-volume of 15.5%, it tasted fresh and worked really well with the food. And it was a new wine experience for me, too. Highest marks all around!
By this time Gabe had embraced his role as de facto tour manager, and had reserved a table for us at Herbsaint, another of the Link Restaurant Group outposts. We went to dinner on the early side and the restaurant was rather quiet, which suited us both fine. While I don’t drink cocktails often, I knew I wanted to sample the signature drink of New Orleans – the Sazerac.
Made with rye whiskey, Peychaud’s bitters, sugar, and a breath of absinthe, this drink was a nice departure from the over-sweet concoctions I detest. It was quite refreshing and went down very easily after a long day. Note to self: try this one again.
For dinner we shared a plate of raw oysters, then Gabe went right for the gumbo with tasso and andouille sausage; I went a little lighter with a roasted beet salad with citrus yogurt and pistachios. The verdict? Darned delicious!
As I perused the wine list I noticed a flight of summer white wines, two from Austria and the third from the Savoie region of France. While not new to me, these wines are not my normal fare, so it was fun to try them:
- Apremont Savoie: made from the Jacquère grape, this wine hails from the Savoie, located along France’s border with Switzerland. A light, crisp, floral wine, it was perfect for a sweaty southern afternoon.
- Ecker Gelber Muskateller: from Austria, this wine was a breath of fresh air, all lemon zest and green apple flavors.
- Landhaus Mayer Grüner Veltliner: from the Wagram region of Austria, this medium-bodied wine was redolent of grapefruit and white pepper. Really nice food wine.
Since it was Friday, we both took a half-day and went for lunch to a cool place we had passed earlier in the week: Juan’s Flying Burrito. A small, brightly decorated eatery that looks more like a roadside food stand than fancy café, Juan’s serves a lunch crowd that flows in non-stop from 11:30 until after 2 pm. But the service is low-key and friendly, as are the patrons. The food is 100% amazing. There are several locations throughout the city. If you travel to New Orleans, don’t miss out on this treat.
Our only free day of the week found us both tired but determined not to miss out on anything. Gabe is a big military history buff, so a visit to the National World War II Museum was a must. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t anything on the scale of this place. It’s enormous but chock-full of fascinating exhibits and multi-media experiences. They even have an actual B-17 bomber (aka the Flying Fortress) on display, which resonated with me because my grandfather was a tail-gunner on one of those planes. Other displays include German weapons and vehicles, as well as a whole collection of war posters. This museum is a must-see.
After several hours, though, we were hungry. Really hungry. So we meandered around the neighborhood near the museum looking for a casual place to eat. In our travels we stumbled upon an unusual public art installation – a sculpture of sorts – that pays homage to those who lost their lives during Hurricane Katrina. It’s a small house that seems to have gotten caught in the branches of a tree, something that apparently happened a lot during the floods. The piece is strange and discomfiting and at the same time, compelling.
Much to our stomachs’ relief, we made our way around the corner to Butcher, the more casual and crowd-friendly cousin of Cochon, where we had dined a few days before. This place is counter service only: order your food, sit down and, when they call your number, go fetch it. But that’s when you realize the coy, casual personality of the restaurant is just a façade. The food is freaking fantastic! The menu may be more Po’ Boy than braised pork belly, but there’s no less attention paid to the ingredients and flavors. I enjoyed a Cubano sandwich that was half-gone before I could snap a photo of it! And to wash it down, I tried something new: Brunn Grüner Veltliner from Austria, bottled under a star cap closure (you know, those old-fashioned metal bottle caps). Fresh, but with a little richness to it, this wine from the Niederosterreich area of Austria spends a short time in large Slovenian oak vats. Its lively green apple and citrus flavors worked nicely with the tangy pickles and ham on the Cubano. All good.
Back to Reality
Saturday evening we ordered a take-out pizza from Domenica, which we ate while lying in front of the television, completely exhausted. We talked about when we would come back to the Crescent City, hopefully when we had more free time to dig a little deeper into what makes her tick. We’re still trying to plan our next trip, but we’ll get there eventually. And so should you, in case you haven’t been paying attention!