It's hard to know what to tell you about New Orleans. If you haven't been, you just have to go to experience it for yourself. It's amazing on many levels. This was my first trip and I can't wait to go back; there was so much I didn't get to see or do. I was there for a conference but I had done some homework before I went (read Gumbo Tales by Sara Roahen; checked out the regional Louisana dining forums on eGullet; read the Eyewitness Travel Guide; received recommendations from my friend Sarah) and knew what I wanted to try to do or see or eat in the short time I was there. I was disappointed not to be able to do a swamp tour or cemetery tour or Garden District tour -- these all needed a block of more time than I had free on any of the days I was there. I had thought I would be able to do at least one of these on the Tuesday afternoon when I arrived but I arrived too late in the day to take advantage. But I did get quite a bit in! I documented what I could without advertising "hey, I'm a tourist" (I don't think anyone was fooled.)
Day 1 - Arrived around 1 pm and my first stop was Cochon, which was a mere block away from my hotel as happy circumstances would have it.
I had a fantastic meal: a Nawlins Whisky Sour (Cherry Bounce, Bonnheim wheat whisky, and house made sour mix), hen and andouille gumbo, "everything but the kitchen sink" headcheese with pickles and mustard and garlic crisps, fried alligator with chili garlic aioli, two fresh buns, and some Jefferson Stout beer (from Lazy Magnolia Brewing Company). A fantastic meal. I'm still thinking about it. Unfortunately I did not have room for the root beer parfait for dessert, one of the main reasons I wanted to go there!
Following this meal, I went for a long, long walk. Followed the Riverwalk down to the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, where I hung out with the sea horses, sting rays and white alligators for awhile.
Then on to Woldenberg Riverfront Park, and then up into the French Quarter - hit all the highlights like Jackson Square, Royal Street, Bourbon Street. Just checked everything out - so much to see!
Of course ended up at Cafe du Monde and had an order of beignets covered in a mountain of icing sugar as well as a cafe au lait. CDM is one of the few places that still makes coffee with chicory in it. It was good.
Eventually I dragged my crippled self back to the hotel via Canal, Camp, Magazine, Julia. At some point along the way I did some shopping for pralines and other NO delicacies, and I stopped in at Fifi Mahony's Wig and Makeup Emporium to check out the cool wigs and accessories. (I'm hearing a Mardi Gras theme in Koko's future...) Back at the hotel. Too full to contemplate dinner. Too sore to move.
Day 2 - Conference. One of the opening speakers was the President of Xavier University of Louisiana. Dr Norman Francis has been the president of this university for over 40 years and recently was honored as one of "America's Best Leaders". It was truly moving to hear him welcome us to his city, to hear about the impact of Katrina on him, his city, his school. He spoke about how important the work we do is and how much of an impact we have on the students we work with and the communities they are from, which he has seen first hand at XULA. It was moving to hear his story of Katrina; you realize once you are here how this event has permanently altered each and every person here, and the city itself. You can see physical evidence of it everywhere, even in those areas not as affected as others - broken sidewalks, warped siding, empty, boarded up buildings.
(The Marriott in the background is where the conference was held; the building in the foreground is my hotel room view.)
You see it on empty streets, since many NOLA residents have not yet been able to return to their homes and are scattered throughout the USA (I think I heard that about 35% of the population has yet to return). You hear it from the New Orleanians who thank you for coming back to their city, and thank you for holding your conference there.
No pictures from Day 2. I spent a long day at the conference, attending interesting and inspiring sessions, and meeting colleagues from across the USA. I meet a fellow "foodie" who, when I told him about my meal at Cochon, and how I intended to eat every available meal there, told me the same thing about Coop's Place and how he had eaten there the night before and felt the same way! Eventually I think we both ended up visiting the other restaurant, and I am glad I did. But that's a Day 3 story.
After the conference ended on Wednesday, I headed over to Cochon to have an appetizer and a few drinks. I tried some of the classic southern drinks: "Joy Juice" made with moonshine, blackberry vinegar and hibiscus tea; "Sazerac" made with a basic rye whisky, Peychaud bitters, simple syrup and a couple of things I missed (possibly Herbsaint, an absinthe substitute and possibly also Angostura bitters), and a traditional "Mint Julep". All were fantastic. I enjoyed an artichoke stuffed crab appetizer as well. The bartender at Cochon that day was a nice guy named Manny, who came to NOLA from New Jersey about six years ago to go to university. We had a nice chat until the restaurant got busy and he got hopping. I shared the bar with a German gentleman from Atlanta who sells neurosurgery supplies, like 7 mm ceramic scissors for $900. He was in town for another conference but is the North American sales rep. We had a good chat about the food and drink in NOLA, and it turns out he's a fan of Toronto, having been here many times. He loves Scaramouche, but I think I've convinced him to branch out the next time he is here and go to Canoe, Le Select Bistro and Mildred's Temple Kitchen.
After my stop at Cochon, I took a cab ride up to the mid-City area to a coffee house called the Fairgrinds Coffee House, to join the NOLA Ravelry Group for a knit night. The knitters I met that night were nice and welcoming (they are knitters after all!) and I spent a lovely evening knitting with them. This is one of the things I like about knitting (besides knitting) -- I get an opportunity to meet people from all walks of life, people I would probably never meet otherwise. I didn't really get a chance to see much of the area around the Fairgrinds since it was pretty dark even by the time I got there, but it was a lovely, relaxed place to knit, and the neighborhood looked really nice. Funny story, I had this odd cabbie take me out there; at first he didn't want to, then when we were on the small street going to the coffee house, he seemed very suspect about where I was asking him to take me...he told me not to walk around the neighborhood and even gave me his number and told me to call him about a half hour before I wanted to leave and he would come and get me. I didn't call him because one of the knitters very kindly offered to take me back to the hotel, but he still showed up to pick me up! We couldn't decide if this was super-nice or creepy or both, but I think it was actually kind of nice, although I think there were a few more raised eyebrows and creepy votes than nice votes...
The sad thing about this outing is that I had read about the Fairgrinds and how they had three tasty vegan dinner options every night. I had been looking forward to this, especially since it was one of only two places I could identify in NOLA that was wholly vegetarian or vegan (and after two visits to Cochon, I kind of felt some karmic cleansing was in order!). Unfortunately the vegan cook no longer works there, so I didn't really have any non-dessert food options...which meant that when I returned to the hotel I had an emergency dinner of nuked Kraft Dinner (which they call Mac N Cheese) which I bought from the front desk.
Day 3 - More conference. Fortunately non-members of the association hosting the conference had a long break over the lunch hour, so I scooted off to Central Grocery on Decatur, having heard that the muffuletta there was THE one to have.
It was. The store has been owned for three generations by a Sicilian family and they are still serving up their olive salad drenched muffuletta - it's the only thing on the menu and your only option is what size you get (whole or half). It's worth the trip. It smells like olive heaven in Central Grocery. You can eat your muffuletta at the counter in the back amidst all the grocery items, or take it to go. I did both (ate and quarter, took a quarter!).
After I left Central, a display in the window next door caught my eye - a showcase of absinthe! Sidney's Wine Cellar had an extensive selection of absinthe, which makes sense since it features quite strongly in New Orleanian history and culture. I bought a bottle of Swiss Kubler's (which arrived home intact) and was invited to an absinthe tasting in the evening at Montrel's.
This pit-stop at Sidney's reminded me that I had wanted to visit the Absinthe Museum, a few streets up on Royal.
It had been closed on Tuesday by the time I walked by there. It was pretty cool to see the collection of absinthe spoons, glasses, fountains, bottles and other ephemera in the museum. I also watched a short video featuring Ted Breaux who is a New Orleanian making a very traditional absinthe called Lucid featuring grand wormwood from Switzerland, star anise from Spain and fennel from Provence (if I recall correctly). I picked up a few little things from the shop, including a signed copy of the 2009 Tales of the Cocktail poster.
Since it was a couple of doors down from the Absinthe Museum, I also stopped in at Erzulie's VouDou Shop to meet Anna the voodoo priestess who was featured on Brent Baudean's Audissey tour of New Orleans (which I listened to TWICE on the plane ride there!). A few steps away from Erzulie's is St. Anthony's Garden, and then Pirate's Alley where I swear I could hear Brent Baudean talking at the bar. I resisted the urge to stop in for an absinthe, and hopped a cab back to the conference.
After the conference finished for the day, I headed back into the French Quarter went to the Market which hadn't quite yet closed down for the day. I had a fresh strawberry margarita while I scoped out the market wares. When I was on Bourbon street with all the drunken frat boys, I was not convinced that the "go-cup" was such a fabulous concept, but drinking that margarita while I strolled about the market in the steamy hot sun convinced me otherwise!
My dinner destination was Coop's Place, also on Decatur near the Market.
Well known for its "ambivalent" service and ambiance, the food more than makes it worth the visit. I had been planning on trying the gumbo there, however, my colleague from Boston had convinced me to try the supreme jambalaya - with rabbit, smoked sausage, tiny shrimp, prawns, craw fish, and tasso - and I'm glad he did. It was out of this world; I've never tasted anything so smokily sublime.(The accompanying mint julep was not; I'd recommend a bottled beer instead.)
I was pretty full after that meal, so afterwards I headed down to the river so watch night fall. I debated going to the absinthe tasting, however, wisdom prevailed. I was pretty sure adding absinthe to my stomach contents would result in a Molotov cocktails the likes of which I have already seen this year...my 40th birthday wasn't so long ago that I don't remember what happened. As sad as I was to miss the absinthe tasting, I made up for it by visiting Cafe du Monde, and enjoying round two of cafe au lait and beignets, listening to jazz in the cool evening breeze. I took the Riverfront streetcar back to the Central Business District since it is nigh on impossible to flag a cab down in the Quarter.
Day 4. Final day of conference. My suitcase considerably heavier going than it was coming. I stopped by Butcher, Cochon's little sister restaurant on Andrew Higgins Street - a sWine Bar and deli counter.
I had another muffuletta (damn these things are addictive) and a root beer. Fantastic.
Espied Donald Link; I think there was a celebrity at the bar...possibly someone from the Food Network. It was someone I vague recognized and am still trying to place. Anyway, after inhaling my sandwich (and wishing I had room and time for one of the delectable looking chocolate cupcakes), I departed NOLA.
Even though I think I did quite a bit between and around conference sessions, there is so much of New Orleans that I missed. I'll definitely be going back, the sooner the better!
The full set of pictures from my trip is here on Flickr.