Saturday, April 5th
It is a two hour drive from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, the last stop on our “farm to the table” cultural and culinary journey. New Orleans is hungry for visitors, and I am hungry for New Orleans. It is a welcome treat to check into the Omni Royal New Orleans Hotel for a three night stay. The hotel is conveniently located in the heart of the French Quarter, within walking distance of the best restaurants, galleries, shops and Bourbon Street clubs.
It is easy to fall in love with New Orleans: a feast for the palate and the soul, rich in culture and history, and a great place to get lost discovering its architectural treasures, local artists, jazz legends and lounges. It is also a city of festivals that take place every month; some of the most popular:
Mardi Gras (2-9-2009),
the New Orleans Jazz Festival,
New Orleans French Quarter Festival,
the Food & Wine Festival.
The Brennan family, the most recognizable restaurant name in America, owns and runs many famous restaurants in New Orleans, including Ralph’s On the Park. Ralph Brennan joins our group for cocktails on the second floor terrace overlooking the park. Dinner, graciously served in the dining room, is a delicious medley of flavorful New Orleans specialties, including city park salad, turtle soup, crawfish tails and cast iron blackened redfish.
Brennans on Royal Street, run by 4th generation Ted Brennan, seats 550 in twelve dining rooms. Loyalty runs deep; service is attentive. Mario Alvarado has been a waiter for 37 years; five chefs have worked in the kitchen 30 years or more; and Bonnie Warren, formerly a food writer, has been handling public relations for 21 years.
The menu, unpretentious French with a heavy Louisiana influence, is so mouth watering; it is difficult to make a decision. I order sweet ripe strawberries in thick fresh cream as a decadent starter, then “eggs a la nouvelle New Orleans” (poached eggs on a bed of lump crab meat topped with Brennans famous brandy cream sauce). I taste Carole’s Creole onion soup … thick and hearty. The banana foster was invented here, and we watch the flaming ritual prepared at our table.
Portions are huge; the philosophy being “our customers come here to eat an 1833 breakfast, not a 2008 one”. The building dates back to Andrew Jackson and 1795. Ted Brennan tells me “if these walls could talk, they would scream”. Stop by any Sunday 5 -7 for a Gospel concert and a free helping of rice and beans.
We cross the world’s longest continuous over water bridge (24 miles) to St. Tammany Parish on the Northshore for a much anticipated early dinner at La Provence, owned by John Besh and Rene Bajeux. Rene, one of the 50 French Master Chefs in America (there are only 300 in the world), established the gardens, farmyard, orchard and kitchen, which serves authentic terroir (of the earth) cuisine. Rene greets us with champagne; we carry our glasses out to the farm’s pig pens, chickens coops, and sausage, meat and pecan smoke house. There’s a science to everything and it takes two and a half months to cure salami. From the farm we tour the kitchen; a sous chef hacks a rack of lamb into chops; fresh farm vegetables, chicken and pork are in preparation. Three tables have been set on the restaurant’s veranda for our al fresco country dinner. This is indeed a rarified world for Rene … from a farm in Lorraine, France to a farm in New Orleans. “It is just the beginning. I have been cooking since I’m 14; it’s all about passion; at 50 I have more passion than ever. We just cook, I don’t care about titles. Our appreciation for local ingredients has increased since Katrina”. My lamb chops are tender, succulent and delicately seasoned; the salad ingredients no doubt picked that morning.
Monday early morning
We begin the day at Café Du Monde in the French Market, famous for their hot crusty beignets sprinkled with powdered sugar and steaming hot cups of chicory coffee, then board our vans for a run through the garden district to Magazine Street, a trendy neighborhood with an eclectic mix of antique shops, boutiques and restaurants.
Savvy Gourmet, a cooking school, catering company, restaurant, and high-end kitchen design store reopened on Magazine Street after Katrina to feed relief workers. Co- owner
Peter Menge and Chef
Matt Breton are on hand to teach us how to make a roux, the gravy base of all gumbos and jambalayas.
Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu drops by to share some of his goals: “there’s something about the authenticity here, my job is to make Louisiana a great place to live and to create jobs through culture. We are in the process of rebuilding ourselves correctly”.
The New Orleans Museum of Art’s
current major exhibition is the work of local and renowned artist
George Rodrigue. . . from his charming Cajun life folk art to his now world famous “blue dogs”. Elvis became famous singing “you ain’t nothing but a hound dog”; George is finding life ain’t nothing but a “blue dog.”
The Southern Food and Beverage Museum permanent home in the Riverwalk Mall is scheduled to open June 7th. The University of New Orleans has established a Gastronomy Program to create a menu of foods across the south. The museum, the only one of its kind, will showcase how people migrated to Louisiana, the many foods originating in the south that have traveled around the world, politics and nutrition. A highlight “ White House Exhibit” will focus on chefs and kitchens, with a historical table set as it was during Thomas Jefferson’s Presidency. The museum will bring all races and ethnicities to the table to tell their story . . . from the farmer to the homemaker to the line cook and celebrity chef.
The Audubon Insectarium, in the U.S. Custom’s House, soon to be the largest free standing museum in the United States with 900,000 known species, promises to be an encounter with nature like no other in the world. It will feature thousands of live insects, mounted specimens, interactive experiences, and a diversity of habitats, a life underground exhibit, and a cooking cafe with a zany chef cooking insects. I taste mushroom pasta seasoned with crunchy chopped crickets.
Monday, April 7th
Cocktails poolside at the Omni offers sweeping views of the city and the promise of yet another exciting evening of local cuisine.
Cochon, with its open kitchen and rustic décor, serves food the owner Donald Link (of German Acadiana decent) grew up with. Chef Link and co-owner Chef Stephen Stryjewski cook whole pigs, create boudin, andouille, smoked bacon, and head cheeses. Starter appetizers are passed around the table: crawfish pie, dumplings, roasted oysters and gulf fish cooked in the wood-burning oven. I order the restaurant’s special Cochon shredded suckling pig. Their classic Cochon lemonade and the wide variety of bourbons compliment the spicy food. I am truly in “pig heaven”.
Tuesday, April 8th
I move to Hotel Monteleone on Royal Street in the French Quarter, fourth generation family owned and operated. My corner room is huge, bright and sunny with wonderful views of the city. Some of the rooms are said to be haunted, and the carousel bar in the lobby does rotate every so slowly, but it’s a mechanical devise not the prank of a mischievous ghost. The rooftop pool and bar is great for a dip after a day of wandering, and the Aria Spa on the mezzanine has an impressive menu of treatments; my seventy minute pedicure leaves my feet tinkling and appreciative.
Hotel Monteleone’s publicity director, Andrea Thornton and food and beverage director Gary Schwartz join me for lunch. Executive Chef Randy Buck, with the hotel for 14 years, tries his hand at impressing me and succeeds. He serves a thick oyster and artichoke soup, made with heavy cream, lots of butter, fresh chives and tarragon; (hard to resist, in spite of the calories), roasted trout (crusted with a mixture of French bread dried in the oven, chopped pecans, salt, white pepper, cayenne, ½ cup of olive oil, half an egg), served with roasted red peppers, shitake mushrooms and tomato. He tells me; “I build menus with local food and fresh ingredients as much as I can, fusing Creole with different foods, inventing my own different styles. My specialty is fish; I only buy whole fish delivered daily so I can check the eyes, press the skin and smell its freshness. The flavors of my batters are very unique; I use pecans, dried bread I grind, a good olive oil to coat the insides to prevent dryness. In winter, I move to seasonal game. This is a mecca for tomatoes; Creole tomatoes grown here have no comparison. ”. Randy surprises me with crème broule in an edible pastry shells.
My last three days in New Orleans are spent exploring the French Quarter: browsing galleries and shops on Chartres, Royal and Bourbon Streets, discovering tucked away courtyard restaurants like the Two Sisters and the Bombay Club. Mena’s Restaurant, on the corner of Iberville and Chartres is crowded with locals having breakfast before work; a for sale sign hangs at # 431; Creole Townhouses line the streets; camera’s roll in the third most popular place to film in the USA.
Artist Jamie Hayes lost a lifetime of work during Katrina, lived in exile for one and a half years following the storm, but has made an amazing comeback since opening his new gallery at 621 Chartres Street one year ago. His intensely colorful whimsical characters and animal drawings are as zany as Jamie; they come alive from the pages of his children’s books, the latest: “ Up in the Air with the Flying Mingling Brothers”.
Mark Bercier's work catches my eye as I pass the windows of his Café Baby Gallery at 239 Chartres Street; his work depicts “life as a series of choices”. More than twenty images and words evolve into what he calls the “ Healing Series”; his figure of “ Baby” taken from a self portrait his daughter drew when she was five. This pure symbol of innocence is dominant in all of Mark’s original pieces, connecting life’s paths for those who want to grow.
I find myself dancing down the streets; musicians are stompin on just about every corner, playing Zydeco music from Africa, the clear simple rhythms of Creole music or the many variations of Cajun music.
The line is long at the Central Grocery Store; I buy half a muffuletta (New Orleans’s take on a hero sandwich filled with meats, cheese and their secret ingredient olive salad) and carry it into Jackson Square Park for my own private picnic. A card reader tells me he is ready for me, but I prefer to sit on a bench solo, munch on my first muffuletta and enjoy the sounds, smells and taste of New Orleans on a balmy afternoon.
The Bombay Club, Restaurant and Martini bistro on Conti Street is a “not to be missed.” popular spot for locals and visitors. I sit at the bar; the calamari served with a sour cream, lime and chili paste dip is succulent and zippy; owner Richard Fiske and his wife love company, and the piano player will sing your favorite songs.
My Voodoo Love Massage at the Ritz Carlton Hotel Spa is worth noting. The history of Voodoo priestess Marie Leveau, who died in 1881, is shrouded in mystery, as are her legendary powers, the inspiration for the spa’s signature Voodoo love potion oil massage. As legend has it, this deep earthy potion was given to her favored clients to gain the love of those they desired.
Sandy Blum, owner of the Aria Spa in the Monteleone Hotel, and Dr. Vikki Ashley drive me to the 9th Ward, one of the most devastated by Katrina. I speak with many struggling to rebuild their lives and their homes.
August Restaurant hits high notes on my gourmet culinary scale.
Chef/owner John Besh greets me and his other guests, stopping to chat at each table. A light shines brightly on his southern Louisiana charm; confidence radiates from his smile. Mike Galato, chef du cuisine, suggests a tasting menu. Beginning with the seafood zabaglione amuse bouche, the flow of flavors surpasses my expectations; delicate and subtle they seduce my taste buds. Foie gras three ways is a teaser and a pleaser, even the bread is toasted a special way for smearing . . . ravioli in a cheese sauce is stuffed with crunchy stems of morel mushrooms … heirloom beets in a smoky sauce with quail eggs, bacon and crab meat are served over greens . . . parmesan encrusted lemon fish (cobia) topped with lobster and celery salad is moist and tangy . . . sugar and spice medallions of duck breast, coated with Moroccan spices are crisp and exotic. I sip an excellent pinot noir; each course is flawless and worthy of superlatives; “Amazing” is the single word that describes my dining experience.
Thursday, April 10th
The French Quarter Festival’s 25th Anniversary gets off to a stompin start with a charity bash on the docked Steamboat Natchez. Cajun and Creole dishes from the ship’s kitchen and local restaurants are served on each deck; the night is balmy; everyone is festively dressed; and the zydeco band keeps the crowd energized. Following Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu’s advice “I let my taste buds be my guide” as I “rock” to the rhythms of the zydeco band and the magic of New Orleans, my last night in town.
Your Own Land…Your Own Destiny
New Orleans is far from thriving, as it was before Katrina. Tourism is slow to rise; businesses that reopened early to support relief workers and fellow neighbors are struggling; many have been unable to move back into damaged homes or rebuild their land and lives; others are simply surviving.
Thirawer Duplessis’s family has title to 1837 Tennessee Street; a now empty lot. The pastor of his church, also lost in the storm, he is rebuilding with the help of Mennonite student volunteers who traveled here during spring break. His faith remains strong, but he doesn’t have the funds to furnish his home once it is rebuilt. It is a slow and painful journey.
The city of New Orleans is working hard to recapture its reputation as one of the “greatest music and culinary destinations in the world”, which it well deserves. It must also stay focused on the future of its citizens.Louisiana offers Tax Free Shopping to International visitors on tangible goods leaving the country.
For more info on New Orleans, festivals and tours: www.neworleanscvb.com or 1-800-672-6124
Article and photographs by Babbie De Derian, Travel, Food & Spa Editor