Archive for February, 2012

Eat Me, N’awlin’

February 26, 2012

“Mardi Gras? Really? Yeah, I’d go to New Orleans, but no way during Mardi Gras. You must be nuts…” This pretty much sums up the comments we got when I announced our vacation plans. Nola wasn’t on my radar either for February. I was thinking sun, sand and surf – the holy trinity of relaxing vacations – but Pam got a Groupon for a limo ride from a hotel to the airport in New Orleans and she hates to pass up a bargain.

I stopped surfing for an island oasis and started looking for rooms. If we were going to vacation with nearly one million of my closest friends I wanted to be in the thick of it, in the French Quarter. We booked a “king” room at the family owned Hotel Monteleone, home to many authors from Truman Capote to Tennessee Williams. “King” here meant only the size of the bed, though room didn’t even have a window it had a great shower with enough water pressure to wash the guilt off each morning.

No, not that kind of guilt. Though Mardi Gras and the French Quarter are synonymous with “flash-your-boobs-for-beads” hedonism and an anything goes attitude fuelled by 24 oz. GO cups (portable drinks, not a new bra size) it was the food that got us.

N’awlins is sin city and the sin is gluttony. Po’boys, beignets, muffalettas, oysters any style, beignets, crayfish étouffée-omelette-boil, beignets… Our first morning we felt a hardy breakfast was in order in preparation for the Lundi Gras parade. After wandering around working up an appetite shopping on Canal Street we headed back into the quarter and found Huck Finn’s, promising to be a good choice because a few people were lined up waiting. We were quickly accommodated to a table with a street view and a menu with local delicacies. I had the Atchafalaya Omelet – “crawfish and pepperjack cheese topped with an etouffee sauce.” It came with grits and toast. Pam had a “build your own” bacon and cheddar omelet with potatoes and toast. With large OJs instead of mimosas we were good to go for a day of parade watching without falling asleep.

Walking around this city wearing a faux fur purple cape and matching bejeweled crown does not garner a second look or any special dispensation along the parade fence, so we walked quite a while to find our spot. All afternoon we watched one crazy float followed by an even crazier float, caught all the beads we could and dinnertime began to loom. We wanted to eat before the fireworks began that evening. Heading back toward our hotel we were feeling a bit like little Red Riding Hood, passing over restaurant after restaurant because none was just right. Too expensive, too everyday, too crowded, too weird, but eventually “too hungry” won us over while in front of the Original French Market restaurant.We were led upstairs to a noisy sportsbar-like room when Pam noticed the outside balcony.

Can we sit outside? Sure!

We got a spot right on the corner and as soon as I ordered an Abita Turbodog we realized we had front row seats to the fireworks over the Mississippi. With a quick check of the menu and specials, we ordered. Pam had the chicken and I went with the waitress’s suggestion of the crayfish étouffée. Mine was OK, but Pam’s chicken was spectacular – spicy, moist and served with some excellent Cajun potatoes (seasoned red potatoes, Andouille sausage, peppers and onions). After the meal, we thought maybe a drink or dessert from across the street to get closer to the classic jazz that had been our backing tracks during dinner and the fireworks.

The jazz turned out to be a quartet playing for tips under a tent. We sat for a bit, put a few bucks in the jar, but with no wait staff and only beer flavored water on tap (Bud, Bud Lite, Miller Lite) we felt it was best to get back to the hotel. Mardi Gras was tomorrow and the parades start at 8AM so we grabbed a six of Turbodog to take back to the room. Our first full day of Nola and we were sound asleep by 9:30. We were just getting acclimated and had yet to be drawn into gastronomic excesses this town offers. The showers could still be short. Mardi Gras morning came, we donned our royal regalia, draped our newly acquired beads and headed out.

Breakfast? Are you really hungry? Not really. OK, let’s find a spot to watch the parade.

Did I mention one million people come to New Orleans for the carnival season? None of them must sleep Monday night because we could not get any closer than a spot with four people in front of us. Now the “sweet spot” criteria was how short the people in front of us would be. As much as we hoped for a family of little people, we could only find a group of heavy-set women in chairs with their kids.

Mardi Gras is all day, we would have to find sustenance on location. Parades mean parade food – hot dogs and funnel cakes. A 24oz beer for me and a Sprite for Pam to quench our thirst. First, the Krewe of Zulu, then the Krewe of Rex and then a slew of pain from the interesting sunburn on my head left by my crown. We had to take a break a dinner break. We had hoped for NOLA, K-Paul’s, Galatoire’s, or Arnaud’s,  but others had planned far better and in advance. We were winging it.

I spied a couple leaving a packed hot spot and restaurants abhor a vacuum. We stepped into the Original Pierre Maspero’s Restaurant. After perusing the menu Pam chose the Roast Beef Po’Boy and I had the Blackened Red Fish. The veggies that came with mine were so good Pam ordered a side for herself. My red fish was swimming in blackened Cajun awesomeness, but Pam found out a Po’Boy is just an over stuffed sub. I was gloating over my meal so much I knew the only way to keep Pam happy was dessert. Our first step into decadence; the meal just a gateway drug, triple layer chocolate cake was our ticket to the culinary Sodom and Gomorrah of New Orleans.

Fully fortified to walk Bourbon Street undaunted by flashed titties, stumbling drunks and all manner of dropped beads underfoot we began to plan our next meal. All we could see were restaurant signs and we were consumed with recalling restaurant reviews. We walked half way down Bourbon on one side, turned around and walked back on the other. We had seen enough. We were hooked. We needed to plan.

Back at the hotel by 7:30, we booked an early morning walking tour. We would learn from an expert.  Our guide would meet us at the Café Beignet in the Music Legends Courtyard on Bourbon. We arrived early. From the menu Pam had the Ham and Cheese omelet with a large OJ and an order of beignets. I had the Cajun Hash-browns, OJ and an order of beignets. I make better hash browns, but the beignets were great. We were covered in powdered sugar while Lee “Plink” Floyd serenaded us with his four-string banjo and witty repartee. Sugar high at 9AM! I bought his CD.

We walked past Brennan’s, Stella, the New Orleans School of Cooking, Nola, Antoine’s, Johnny’s Po’Boys, the Court of Two Sisters, Acme Oysters and our heads were dizzy with possibilities. Oh, and we learned some fascinating history of the area along the way, that Irene’s has a great Osso Buco special on Thursdays and any of the local restaurateur Dickie Brennan’s places are safe bets. We settled on some dinner choices for our last two nights, Brennan’s Bourbon Street for Wednesday and Irene’s for Thursday. I called ahead to reserve an Osso Buco for 6:45.

We know New Orleans isn’t just a food junkie’s paradise, It has depth. It has roots. It has outskirts. We felt a need to visit the outskirts to a sugar plantation. Sweet! On our way over to book the bus trip to the Laura Plantation we stopped and split a muffaletta. I had a Hurricane and Pam threw back a Piña Colada with ice cream from the Gazebo Café menu then we sampled some pralines at Southern Candy Makers. At the Greyline Tours’ booth we considered the dinner cruise on the riverboat, Natchez, but thought better of it. Back to the Hotel to get changed up and on to Bourbon Street, the restaurant.

Our timing was stupendous! We were eating during late blue-hair or 6PM and were quickly whisked into the large dining room. Our very attentive servers got my Abita Amber pronto and then presented the menu and the specials. Pam started with the corn and crab soup and I had the crystal gator with bleu cheese for starters. For the main course Pam went with the Beef Tournedos Oscar and I with the signature Redfish on the Half Shell adding the “jumbo lump crab meat” on top. Excellent on all counts, but wait there’s more… Dessert. We were about to cross a line we didn’t know existed.

I pick a special, the chocolate praline crunch, a three-layer concoction of chocolate cake, praline and chocolate mousse served with a wide smear of caramel leading to sliced strawberries and shredded fresh mint. OMG (Oh My Gut)

Pam’s turn. Let me be clear, my wife is very hard to satisfy. She knows what she wants and how she wants it. She wants it dark. She wants it smooth with a slight bite. Her desire is chocolate – unadorned or unadulterated by fruit. The dessert menu option – flourless chocolate cake – is serve drizzled with raspberry sauce and a scoop of ice cream is recommended. Pam orders it naked, stripped of all pretense, allowing just a tiny dollop of whipped cream to grace the top. To be gentlemanly, I will only say that we both needed towels when we were through. I don’t want to cheapen the moment any more than that. Satiated, we waddle back to our room to promptly dose off with a smile on our face and stretch marks on our bellies.

Thursday, our full last day in New Orleans, and we head straight to the famous Café du Monde to get some beignets for breakfast. Our walking tour guide intimated that they check you at the airport before you leave for powdered sugar residue and if you don’t have it they will send you back. Our stop at the Café assured that we were well coated. It was time to hop on the bus to find out all we could about where life sustaining sugar got its start in Louisiana. We are enroute to a creole sugar plantation when I get a text – our flight out is cancelled. A powdery coating of another sort, snow, stopped all air traffic through Chicago. That was how our flight was routed.

Well, Mr Smith, I can get you on a plane right now to Dallas. Spend the night there and I can get you on a flight back to Boston the next morning.

There are two problems with this. First, Pam and I are on a bus now 30 minutes out of New Orleans so getting to the airport “right now” would be difficult. Second, I’ve got a 6:45 reservation with a plate of osso buco at Irene’s. I book passage home with Southwest and ask for a refund from United. All of this consumes the entire trip out to the plantation. I missed all the interesting tidbits, the local color, the fact that there is nothing to eat… Really – a sugar plantation and they’ve got nothing! After the tour we are deposited in the gift shop. Candied popcorn and a water for Pam and me. We have to get back, we begin hovering around the bus. We have needs.

At our hotel, we change up and head out to find Irene’s. While walking works up an appetite it only adds to ours. The pace quickens as we realize it is farther than we remembered and the cravings urge us ever faster. We make it.

Step right on through folks. All the way through to the room on the left.

We are ushered into tight quarters in the back with a piano player and twenty others waiting to be seated. Where is our table? We have a reservation for 6:45 and it’s only 6:50. I want to sit. I want my osso. I want a drink. The waiter brings me a Hendricks and tonic, it calms my nerves. But I can smell the food. It taunts me. Finally, our table is ready.

As we sit a plate of bruschetta arrives only to be emptied seconds later. Nancy, our waitress, presents menus while taking our drink order. We share a plate of Oysters Irene for an appetizer. Pam orders the Chicken Rosemarino and I stick with the Osso Buco. Everything is perfect. Pam’s half a chicken was falling off the bone into a sea of garlic and rosemary. My massive veal shank similarly required no knife and is accompanied by an exquisite risotto.  Full, yet we have just begun. Our waitress concurs with Pam about the purity of chocolate and brings her the Chocolate Truffle with Crème anglaise and whipped cream.*· I go with an old friend, Crème Brulée, complete with a small pile of blueberries. Pam lets me taste hers. It’s the inside of a truffle in all its creamy smoothness out in the open. I savor it. My dish is empty and now Pam’s is too, over all too soon. We have to pack. We fly out tomorrow.

In the morning before we head to the airport we went back to Café Beignet. This time the one right around the corner from the hotel. I had the crayfish omelet, Pam again had the ham and cheese. We split an order of beignets. The last step before we go cold turkey.

*· The picture is this dessert in its natural state – raspberry sauce, strawberries and mint leaves.