Saturday, May 19, 2012

Who Dat? New Orleans Calling

The Crescent City. Big Easy. NoLa. N'awlins. Whatever you call it, you can be sure there is no place like it.

I got the pleasure of experiencing this amazing city over the weekend, and I can verify that I have never been anywhere like it before in my life. New Orleans dances to its own beat, speaks its own language, and certainly has its own flavor.

I flew into town on Friday afternoon and was picked up by a limo service set up by the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. They took me to my hotel, the Roosevelt Hotel, a Waldorf-Astoria property. It was beautiful, elaborate red and gold drapes, sparkling crystal chandeliers, marbled flooring. I had a queen suite, which included a sitting room and sleeping room, large closet and bathroom. Pretty swanky, I felt lucky.

After dropping off my stuff and quickly changing into some more weather appropriate clothes, I decided to walk around a little before meeting a representative from the CVB for dinner. I headed over to the infamous Bourbon Street...and it was everything and nothing like I imagined, all at the same time. I was told it was an ongoing party, and it certainly was, but it was one of the most insane parties I've ever witnessed. Five o'clock on a Friday, and people were out in throngs, drinking, dancing, wandering through the streets with drinks in hand, without a care in the world. I felt out of my element, I must say, I was in desperate need of a drink.

So I headed over to Tropical Isle--a recommendation from the girl who checked me in at the hotel--and purchased my first Hand Grenade. It came in a tall, plastic, bright green container with a grenade for the base. I knew that New Orleans had an open container policy, and that I was free to walk on the street with my drink, and yet I was hesitant. The stricter rules of Chicago were ingrained in my head, and I found myself hovering around the door for a couple minutes before finally stepping back on the street. I blended into the crowd much better, that's for sure. The drink was pretty strong, and I am ashamed to say that I could not finish it before heading over to dinner. (In my defense though, this was a work dinner, and it would be unprofessional to show up drunk.)

I met Jenn from the NOCVB at Palace Cafe on Canal Street for dinner. This three-floor venue was quite elaborate, with a winding staircase in the middle of the room, retro-style tiled flooring and subtle decorations that hinted at the building's musical roots.

The first thing we ordered was a bottle of Pinot Noir--since we both love red wine--and then we started the meal off with a fresh loaf of bread and a signature appetizer, the crabmeat cheesecake. The chef also brought out a complimentary tuna tartar for us to sample, which was quite good. But the cheesecake was certainly different, but oh so delicious. I opted for Andouille Crusted Fish as my entree, a pan-roasted fillet served with crystal beurre-blanc, chive aïoli, rissole potatoes and vegetables. Jenn went for the Rib-eye and shrimp, and requested that it be topped with crab meat. I quickly learned that many locals ask for this on their dishes, since crab can be added to basically anything. Even though I didn't add crab, my dinner was incredible. The fish was cooked perfectly, and the potatoes and vegetables were super flavorful. I tried a little of Jenn's dish, too, even though I'm not the biggest shrimp fan. I was feeling pretty full by the end of it, when suddenly the waitress brought out a platter with three different desserts--compliments of the chef, again--and my belly was somehow able to make room. We tasted the Pecan Pie, the Strawberry "Cobbler" Cheesecake and a Spotted Lemon Cream Cake. All so scrumptious.
Appetizer: Crabmeat Cheesecake

Dinner: Andouille Crusted Fish

Dessert: Pecan Pie, Cheesecake, Lemon Pie


I got a tour of the venue, and the manager took us up to the second and third floor to see the rooms that were available to rent out for group events. My favorite was the wine cellar, a wood-paneled room with shelves of wine bottles that reached to the ceiling. In the center was a large round table set up nicely with placemats, dishware and candles. It had a classic, almost msyterious feel to it, and Jenn noted that it smelled like New Orleans. I wouldn't really know what that smells like, but since she's a native, I trusted her instinctive nose.


On Saturday, I woke up early and went for a quick run down Canal and over to the riverfront. It was a beautiful morning, but pretty humid, which I was not used to. After my workout, I made my way over to Cafe Du Mond, the place in New Orleans to get Beignets. The line was already pretty long by the time I arrived at 9:30, but luckily there was a to-go window, which wasn't as long of a wait. And it was a good thing, too, because just as I got under the patio roof, the rain started pouring down. So I asked for my cafe au lait and order of beignets--they come in threes, no other option--and nestled myself on two chairs in the corner near the kitchen, stuffing my face with the delectable powdered-sugar covered fried dough. I can see why they come in orders of three, it's tough to have just one. Still, the thought that I was squatting, while other people stood and waited for tables made me gobble down one of the donuts and quickly vacate the spot in case someone else needed it. The rain was starting to lighten up, but since I didn't have to be to my next destination for another hour, I decided to check out some of the local shops.

The first shop I entered had free samples of a local treat called pralines, a combination of carmelized sugar and nuts, sometimes mixed with milk or cream, creating a consistency similar to fudge. I tried almost every available variety--chocolate, original, banana. All so good. Then there were a couple samples of hot sauce, so I took a chance and dipped a piece of popcorn in one of them. My tongue has never known such pain. But I guess New Orleans is known for its spicy food.

I walked down magazine street to the World War II Museum, where I watched a film called "Beyond All Boundaries," which chronicled the U.S. through its journey in the war. It was a 4D experience, so the seats vibrated when there were intense battle scenes, lights flashed all around to represent bombs going off, and props moved on and off the stage with every changing montage. It was really well done. Then I walked through the museum and read through the thousands of facts and figures about the war, glanced at all the pictures, artifacts and trinkets from soldiers and their families. I went over to the restaurant attached to the museum, The American Sector, a John Besh establishment. I enjoyed the Crab Ravigote, a light crab-topped salad with avocado and bacon, and a small bowl of jalapeno cheese grits.

After lunch, I walked over to catch the rail car and rode it down Charles Street to see all the beautiful homes that line the road. Unfortunately, the rain clouds rolled back in right as I was about to board the car, so while I stayed dry, the view was a little ruined by the torrential downpour outside. Still, I didn't let the rain ruin the experience, it was still enjoyable.

I returned to the French Quarter and did a little bit of shopping before meeting the sales manager for the Red Fish Grill, a popular local restaurant. I stepped into the vibrantly loud spot and was immediately transported into a festive party. With exposed brick walls covered in old photograph clippings and fish paintings, a sea-colored floor, oyster mirrors and metal fish hanging from the ceiling, the restaurant was certainly eclectic and fun.

A fresh loaf of bread was brought to the table, and Lauren ordered us a bottle of wine and asked to start us out with the green onion shrimp toast. As I glanced over the menu, I decided I had to try gumbo, since I'd never had it before, and Lauren agreed. And, to come full circle with it, I opted for the Alligator Sausage and Seafood Gumbo, might as well go all out. For my entree, the waitress suggested that I try a house specialty, the Hickory Grilled Redfish, with tasso and wild mushroom Pontalba potatoes, topped with sautéed Louisiana jumbo lump crabmeat (there it is again) and a lemon butter sauce. It was absolutely amazing. The mixture of the richly seasoned fish and the fresh crab meat, on top of the potatoes was delectable, and I had trouble slowing myself down as I shoveled bite after bite into my mouth. But I knew I had to leave room, because we had dessert coming up. I ordered the signature double chocolate bread pudding--which requires 20 minutes to prepare--and Lauren went for the bananas foster ice cream sandwich. When the treats arrived at the table, the indulgence truly began. Mine came in a tin bowl, topped with vanilla ice cream and a piece of chocolate almond bark, and then the waitress poured white and dark chocolate sauces on top. The bananas foster was served with rum caramel, which was lit on fire and then drizzled around the sandwich of ice cream and fresh bananas.
Dinner

Bananas Foster

Double Chocolate Bread Pudding



Lauren gave me a tour of the restaurant and its rooms upstairs, which were pretty cool. Then she showed me a bar area, and had the bartender make me a cosmopolitan to go. Since I'd already had half a bottle of wine, I really didn't need the drink, but since it would be rude to refuse--and it was free--I took it along with me as I walked back to the hotel.

Sunday, I woke up early and visited the hotel fitness center for a quick workout. The room was very nice, with plenty of cardio machines, free weights and lifting machines. They kept it nicely stocked with bottled water, fresh fruit and towels. I finished my workout, got ready and headed downstairs to meet my driver who took me out of the city to visit Nottoway Plantation, the largest remaining antebellum mansion. The 64-room, three-story mansion was built in 1859 by John Hampden Randolph, where he lived with his wife Emily and their 11 children. It was built using the wood from local cypress trees, which was incredibly durable and had an impressive resistance to termites. The home was designed in Greek and Italian style and features 15 1/2-foot high ceilings and 11-foot doors, as well as ornamental iron railings, 12 hand-carved marble fireplaces, hand-painted Dresden porcelain doorknobs, brass and crystal chandeliers, hogany stairways with velvet carpet and even a bowling alley installed for the children. It was was truly a castle.

I enjoyed a lovely brunch in the resort restaurant, complete with a crawfish topped omelette, sausage jumbalaya, slices of smoked salmon, fresh fruit and warm rolls of bread. I finished the meal off with a scrumptious piece of carrot cake, and then headed over to the mansion for the tour. Our guide was super charismatic, knowledgeable, and passionate about the plantation's previous residents. She also had some interesting opinions about racial concerns in the area, which I felt could have been kept to herself. However, they did not dampen the experience in the least, and I really enjoyed walking through the house and learning about all the various rooms and artifacts. When the tour finished, I spent a little time walking around the grounds and taking pictures. My driver was suppose to pick me up at three to head back to New Orleans, but since I didn't require all that time, I decided to give him a call so we could return a little earlier. That way I could see a few more sites around the city before my final dinner.


When I got back to New Orleans, I hopped on the rail car again and made my way to the Garden District, which boasts some of the most gorgeous homes in the city. There are also a lot of great antique shops and cute boutiques. If I had more time--and everything wasn't closed because it was Sunday--I would have shopped around a little bit. I made my way through the neighborhood, enjoying the beautiful homes and quaint eateries. Then I headed over to the World of Mardi Gras, where all the floats for the parades are created. They toured us through all the various stages of the building process, from conception and design, to construction, painting and decorating. As we were walking through the warehouse, the show Top Gear was filming some scenes for its small cars episode, where the guys weave through the floats. It was pretty cool to see a show filming live, right in front of you.



My last dinner was at Tujague's Restaurant, a New Orleans tradition since 1856. It serves a nightly six-course dinner with the choice of four entrees. I wanted a drink, something sweet and refreshing, so I went with a Pimm's Cup, and it was very good, so good I had to remind myself to sip slowly. True to form, I was brought a roll of fresh French bread and butter, as well as my first course, a delicious shrimp remoulade, with a red and white sauce. As I've mentioned, I'm not the biggest shrimp fan, but this dish certainly made me favor the crustacean a little bit more. Then I was brought the soup of the day, creole shrimp, followed by a sample of their house specialty, the beef brisket with special creole sauce. I seriously think they need to bottle that sauce and sell it, I would buy it. I selected the fresh, crusted white fish entree, with mashed potatoes and steamed vegetables. The chef also wanted me to try the chicken breast with home-made potato chips, so I actually had two main dishes. I tried to eat as much of both as I could, but I figured as long as I tried both, it didn't really matter if I actually finished them. Before I was completely stuffed, they brought me chicory coffee and strawberry sauvignon topped with fresh whipped cream for dessert. All in all, a very satisfying meal. The only problem was eating by myself, but not the worst thing, since it was free.

Before I left, the bartender made me a Ramos Gin Fizz, made with gin, lemon and lime juice, egg white, sugar cream, orange flower water, and soda water, a very traditional New Orleans drink. If I was more of a whiskey drinker, I would have tried a Sazerac, but unfortunately it's not my liquor of choice. But if you want something truly New Orleans, go for that, it's one of the oldest cocktails in the country.

On Monday morning, my final day, I walked over to the Old U.S. Mint to meet the communications and marketing director for Louisiana State Museums, Arthur. There was some kind of miscommunication, and he did not show up at our scheduled time. So, I walked around the French Market for a little bit until my meeting with the director of marketing for the French Market Corporation. She was right on time, and gave me some background information about the district. Encompassing six blocks, it includes 20 retail shops, performance venues, restaurants, cafes, a flea market and a farmers' market. It also features a number of historical monuments scattered throughout, as well as scenic walkways and public art displays. I was able to connect with Arthur briefly before I had to return to my hotel. He quickly took me through a couple floors of the U.S. Mint, and then we nearly sprinted over to The Presbytere, another of the museums in the French Quarter. It's closed on Mondays, but I was able to walk through a couple exhibits, including "Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond," covering the history and science of the storms, as well as chronicling the aftermath of Katrina through eyewitness accounts, artifacts, and multimedia displays. I also got to see "Mardi Gras: Its Carnival Time in Louisiana!" which traces the story of the parades and balls from their inception to present day. It was a whirlwind tour, for sure, and I would have liked to see more. (Just one more thing I'll add to the list of things to do when I return.)

After a quick stop at Cafe Beignet to grab a catfish po'boy for lunch, I booked it back to the hotel to pick up my luggage and meet my driver to take to the airport. As the car drove me away from the city center, I couldn't help but feel a slight twinge of regret. There was so much I didn't experience, so much more I wanted to see. I knew I would like New Orleans, but it still took me by surprise in so many ways. My dad always said there were a select number of cities in this country that are truly unique, and New Orleans is one of them. I now see what he was talking about, and I am eager to write this article for my freelance job so I can spread the word about just how special it is.


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