Four Nights in New Orleans

January 26, 2014

Oysters and caviar at Bourbon House.

Oysters and caviar at Bourbon House.

“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.” — Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

There you have it, from a master indulger: Happiness is a raw oyster and a bracing white wine. Lucky for us, then, that almost a year to the day after the commencement of the Grand Gavage, we pilgrims of the palate found ourselves reunited around a table, sipping, slurping and smiling deliriously amid the fray of Bourbon Street.

Our time would be short, our mission focused: venture out into beautiful, historic New Orleans in search of edible bivalves and other delectables. Our base was the quaint St. James Hotel on Magazine Street, far enough away from Bourbon to comfortably decompress, but near enough when the spirits moved us to quickly get back in the game.

Day 1 — The Arrival

J and I arrived in New Orleans around 8pm, checked in and met up briefly with our accomplices. Bob and Dorothy had enjoyed an early dinner with James and Zandra and were ready to tuck in. So after a quick reunion in their suite, the four of us bid them goodnight and set off for Bourbon Street in search of oysters. Our first stop: bright, bustling Bourbon House, one of several Dickie Brennan-owned establishments in the French Quarter. We took seats at the curved bar and fell into conversation with the gold-toothed oyster wrangler behind the counter. He was making short work of the iced pile in front of him. “Stick it in and wiggle,” he said with a smile, holding up his knife.

Two dozen to start: one dozen plain, the other topped with two kinds of caviar — catfish and choupique — which lent the oysters a salty richness and a textural pop. Next, alligator boudin served with a piquant chipotle aioli; and shrimp and crab gratin, a creamy, cheesy goop irresistible on crostini. A second dozen oysters with caviar appeared, apparently a mistake by the kitchen. We slurped those down too and ambled out into the night.

Lucky Dog

Lucky Dog, happy man.

We detoured for a drink in the dimness of the famed Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop before heading to Frenchman’s Street, where the sound of music enticed us into raucous Cafe Negril. The room was gyrating under the supervision of a tight blues band and its priestly looking frontman. After a set or two, and one or two beverages, we started back along Bourbon toward Poydras Street. We stopped at one of the ubiquitous Lucky Dogs carts for a couple of juicy franks on steamed buns, a tasty introduction to the late-night options available. Found-beads around our necks, bellies full and happily weary, we made our way back to the hotel.

Day 2 — Exploring

Canal Street streetcar.

Canal Street streetcar.

Wednesday. A quiet knock at our door announced the arrival of coffee, orange juice and croissants — a delicious start to the morning. The six of us met in the lobby and headed out for the day. We walked up to St. Charles Avenue and caught one of the vintage streetcars bound for the Garden District for lunch and a walkabout.

At one of the stops along St. Charles, the driver shut off the engine, shouldered her purse, exited the car and trotted across the street into a Wendy’s. We and the dozen other passengers looked at each other, puzzled. We chatted. Mostly tourists, folks from Illinois, folks from Iowa. We waited.

Sitting in the rear of the car, one of the few locals aboard began flirting through the window, shamelessly, in a fetching Cajun accent, with a pretty, exceedingly polite brunette waiting for the streetcar going the other direction. “You quite something,” the man said. “Thank you so much,” the girl answered. We learned from her reluctant responses that she was Canadian. “Is cold in Canada, yeah?” the man said. “I’ll keep you warm.” The girl laughed self-consciously. She was finally rescued by the arrival of her car.

In our car, it began to get stuffy. Our resident Casanova rose and sauntered to the front and switched on the engine, activating ventilation. Smirking, he dropped languidly onto a bench. When our driver reappeared — it seemed like 20 minutes but was probably closer to 10 — he welcomed her with a slow clap, to which she responded: “I don’t know about you, but I don’t wear no diapers to work!” And off we went.

Shrimp and grits at Coquette.

Shrimp and grits at Coquette.

Fried chicken sandwich.

Fried chicken sandwich.

At Washington Avenue we got off and strolled a bit before lunch. Our initial destination, Commander’s Palace, turned us away — a couple of us were wearing shorts — but offered a recommendation for nearby Coquette, a sweet corner bistro with a smoker billowing on the curb. At our sidewalk table for six, we started with wine and a tangy pickle plate (okra, cucumbers, shallots, green beans) with fresh potato chips and ranch dressing. Entrees included a spicy mushroom gumbo, crisp Russian kale salad, shrimp and grits, tomato sandwiches on toasted white bread and, for James, a massive fried-chicken sandwich with fries, the table favorite. Dessert was, for most of us, chocolate beignets and mini banana milkshakes.

Lafayette Cemetery.

Lafayette Cemetery.

Sated (stuffed, really), we started our tour of the Garden District, beginning in Lafayette Cemetery, with its crumbling, time-stained vaults and distinct air of the supernatural. Our guide proved to be a font of information about the city, seasoning his stories with references to long-dead Confederate officers, Louis Armstrong, Katrina, Anne Rice, Nicolas Cage, Sandra Bullock, John Goodman, Mr. and Mrs. Angelina Jolie, the Manning boys, and on and on. Out into the neighborhood we wended amid the twisting, towering live oaks and the enormous wrought-iron-frilled mansions. Once again, we were the beneficiaries of Dorothy’s knack for finding interesting people, places and things to do.

Spicy, sticky duck wings.

Emeril’s spicy duck wings.

That evening, we had reservations at Emeril’s, a large lively space with a small army of waiters for each  of the white-linen-topped tables. For openers, sticky-spicy duck wings, one of our favorite dishes of the evening, and of the trip. Among the refined clientele, we felt a little out of place sucking sauce from our fingers, but it couldn’t be helped. Hot wet towels appeared, restoring decorum.

Entrees included baseball-size filets for James and Zandra; a mountain of crisp fried chicken and sweet-potato fries for Dorothy; buttery sea scallops served in a steaming oversize escargot plate for J; and for me, squid-ink fettuccine Nero laden with shrimp, mussels and cheese. The dinner was memorable, but the highlight was the shared desserts: fluffy chocolate soufflé, and a delectable wedge of banana cream pie. The pie stood 6 inches tall and featured thick-sliced fruit suspended in custard.

We waddled down the street for a nightcap at W.I.N.O. (Wine Institute New Orleans), a newish-concept wine bar with vending machines that dispense tasting-size (or glass-size) pours of dozens of wines from around the world. There we toasted the close of our first full day in New Orleans.

Day 3 — Halloween

Bob and Dorothy steppin' out on Bourbon Street.

Bob and Dorothy steppin’ out on Bourbon Street.

Halloween started blustery and overcast. We headed out on foot toward the river, where an enormous tanker glided gulfward. We browsed through the French Market — Cafe du Monde overflowed with patrons — and in and out of several art galleries on our way back to Bourbon Street. As the costumed crowds and street performers started to converge, our appetites prompted us into Royal House Oyster Bar for sustenance. Our waitress, a very friendly witch, brought us the day’s first installment of oysters: two dozen on the half-shell, one dozen Rockefeller, a half-dozen grilled and a half-dozen Royale. These, a couple of redfish beignets, a cup of seafood gumbo and two bottles of white wine, and we were content. Onward.

Next, Pat O’Brien’s, where we took seats in the dim, cavernous piano bar. Despite the small crowd (it was early), the drinks and song requests were flowing. Naturally, Hurricanes were in order — they lubricate the singalong muscles, don’t you know.

Improvised costumes

Who dat?

We hummed our way back to Bourbon Street and into My Bar@635, lured by more live music. After a couple of cocktails and a dance or two — one of the regulars took Dorothy and me for a turn around the floor, to the amusement of the crowd — we realized we were out of place without costumes. Luckily we didn’t have to venture far to find glittery masks, sequin hats and other wacky adornments in the Carnival capital of the United States.

Dozen raw at Acme Oyster House.

A dozen raw under the neon at Acme Oyster House.

After a short respite at Musical Legends Park it was time for an early dinner. Fortunately, the queue for Acme Oyster House was less than half a block long, and we were seated relatively quickly. Our order eerily resembled lunch: two dozen raw oysters, two dozen grilled and a couple of oyster po’boys to share. And, Lord help us, drinks all around.

By dinner’s end, Dorothy and Bob were spent. We pointed them in the direction of the hotel and off they toddled, soon swallowed by the crowd. The remaining four of us bumped along with the masses, dazzled by the noise, the spectacle, the alcohol and the astonishing number of bustiers. Over the next few hours, we patronized several drinking establishments, watched a Halloween parade materialize on Decatur Street — beads rained from truck windows and from the beds of floats — and wound our way back to Cafe Negril on Frenchman’s, where we briefly escaped the onset of rain. By the time we stepped out of the bar, it was pouring — though certainly nothing four Portlanders couldn’t manage.

Rainy Halloween on Bourbon Street.

Rainy Halloween on Bourbon Street.

We slogged onward, stopping again at My Bar to watch the Bourbon Street party from under an umbrella on the balcony. Throngs of costumed partiers meandered along the street, unfazed by the downpour: A bubbly pair dressed as Jeannie and Major Tony Nelson from “I Dream of Jeannie” and a school of ephemeral jellyfish under clear bubble umbrellas, cleverly lighted from within, won our votes for best getups.

Having survived upright until the respectable hour of 11, we needed something to buffer the effects of the alcohol. Burgers, of course. Bourbon House had a table but no beef, so the sympathetic waiter recommended Yo Mama’s Bar and Grill on St. Peter Street.

Yo Mama's classic.

Yo Mama’s classic.

We walked the five blocks in a light shower, slid into a booth and ordered massive half-pounders: blue cheese burger for James; mushroom burger for Zandra; the bullfighter, piled with cheddar, salsa, avocado and jalapeños for J; and the classic Yo Mama’s burger for me. Despite its obvious restorative properties, the peanut butter burger with bacon tempted no one. Surprisingly, Yo Mama’s doesn’t serve fries — sides comprise baked potato, potato salad or green salad. Most of us opted for potato salad, with J going all in with a baked potato.

Stuffed after a second but wholly necessary dinner, we plodded back to the hotel and dropped into bed.

Day 4 — Winding Down

Amazingly, we awakened little worse for the wear and set out for breakfast. Friends had recommended Mother’s, a popular cafeteria-style operation nearby where you line up and order your meal at the counter before claiming a table in one of the cavernous dining areas. I had anticipated the famed Ferdi sandwich (ham, roast beef, debris — the bits that fall off the roast when carving — and gravy) but it was not on the breakfast menu. So we all ordered eggs in some form, dense, flaky biscuits, ham or sausage, and grits. Turns out, grits are not beloved by the Weises or the Waltons. Still, the meal was filling.

Thick, rich gumbo.

Thick, rich gumbo.

The rest of the morning was spent touring the massive, impressive WWII museum — a must-see for history buffs like Bob. We then headed back to the French Quarter for lunch, landing a table at Tableau, which with its sturdy dark-wood furnishings and contrasting thick white plaster walls exuded a stately Southern charm. The menu featured classic French Creole cooking, and we ordered a variety: Salade Lyonnaise with perfectly oozing egg; fried oyster salad; rich duck and andouille gumbo.

Marinated, truffled crab claws.

Marinated, truffled crab claws.

The most memorable dish of the day, and for me, of the trip, was the truffled crab fingers — peeled crab claws marinated and chilled in a white-truffle vinaigrette. I could have eaten these all day long with crusty bread to sop the sauce.

After lunch, we walked through the cathedral and Jackson Square, then made a shopping stop or two on Decatur Street before returning to the hotel for a nap. That evening, lacking dinner reservations and competing with a horde of American Dental Association conventioneers for a table, we ended up at Desire Bistro and Oyster House — a large, lively spot with closely spaced tables, a retro tin ceiling and black-and-white tiles underfoot. It being an oyster house, oysters were in order: three dozen to start — a dozen for Bob and two for the rest of us. Another kitchen mix-up resulted in an additional dozen, which, of course, we slurped without hesitation. At that point, the rest of the dinner was an afterthought, but tasty nonetheless. I had a delicious muffuletta half-sandwich, an addictively salty pile of ham, mortadella, salami and provolone with a thick spread of olive paste on crusty bread. Zandra went light with a trio of sliders from the appetizer menu — kobe beef, pulled pork and alligator. J chose a rich crawfish étouffé. A fine and casual dinner to cap off a memorable trip.

New Orleans is a banquet — not only its irresistible cuisine, but also its spicy mix of colorful locals and uninhibited tourists, its weather, its open-container laxity and live music at every turn. The perfect destination for a food adventure, and we were lucky enough to have been invited. Bob, Dorothy, James and Zandra — we couldn’t invent better travel and dining companions. Our minds operate alike: Start with a nice bottle of wine, then get down to the business of eating.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: