Thursday, March 19, 2009

NOLA......the one...the only...New Orleans

Never has an acronym so poorly represented something. NOLA. New Orleans Louisiana. Bah. This place defies description. The amount of musical talent alone send chills down my spine. I can’t believe I was 27 the first time I went(last month to be more exact). I’m ashamed. I’ve been to Australia, I’ve traveled all over Europe. I’ve been to 49 of 50 states in the US and all of the Canadian provinces, and never, until last month, have I been to New Orleans. This place is a Mecca for people who like to party and have a good time. For people who love good food, good drinks and DAMN good music. We were lucky, no, downright blessed to have been there with some good friends of ours who have been to New Orleans close to 2 dozen times. Clare, our friend/tour guide, is about as close to a local as you can get without living there 12 months a year. She took us to some amazing places and showed us one hell of a time. So Clare(and Eric of course)….thanks!!! Now……if you go, WHEN you go, please, pretty please, find your way off the beaten path. Sure, go to Bourbon street for the experience, but also go where the locals go. Eat where the locals eat. And listen to music where the locals do. Now here’s a disclaimer: this blog entry is long….but if I were a first time NOLA visitor again, I think this info would help me immensely. So if you’re planning a trip to NOLA, or if you’ve just always wondered what it’s like….read on.
My husband and I landed in good ‘ol New Orleans at about 9:30 on a Thursday night. Unfortunately we arrived during a freak cold spell and weren’t welcomed by a balmy breeze, but at the time Philadelphia, where we are from, was a chilly 18 degrees, and so by that comparison, we were happy. We stayed at the W on Poydras Street in the convention center/business district. Now I know this isn’t a very “classic New Orleans” place to stay, but it was dreamy. The hotel was great and the reception couldn’t have been more perfect at 10pm. We walked through the large double doors into a modern, hip, drapery ensconced lobby. My husband commented that it seemed to be a hotel lobby taken directly out of a David Lynch movie. Techno music was pumping away, candles were lit EVERYWHERE and projectors were streaming random images on the ceilings and walls. We were immediately put in “the mood”. We dropped off our bags in the ultra modern room and met our friends in the lobby. First order of business…
Since we arrived so late there wasn’t a plethora of dining options in the area so our friends took the bartender’s advice and we headed to Rambla:
International House Hotel
221 Camp Street New Orleans, Louisiana 70130
Tel. 504 553 9550
Convention center/ business district
Rambla is housed in the International House Hotel, a lovely and grand building. We sat down very close to closing time, but the wait staff was friendly and certainly didn’t rush us in the least. The décor was rustic, bohemian and cozy, with lots of modern touches thrown in. We were so rushed to get some sustenance that we didn’t even realize until we sat down that the menu was tapas. I have to admit that I’ve had some good and some horrible tapas, and so I’m always wearing my judges robe when I sit down for some small plates. We perused the menu and were immediately pleased. The prices were very, very reasonable ($8/$10/$12 plates) and the influence wasn’t just Spanish, but French as well. I’ve always thought that classic French cuisine is perfect for small plates and I was happy to see that this restaurant shared my belief. The menu was full of classics and we ordered four very classic plates, and two other plates. We had steak tartar, pork rillettes, escargot and empanadas, plus a bowl of sautéed mushrooms and a flatbread. All were fantastic. The empanadas were tender, flaky, buttery and filled with a braised greens and pulled brisket mixture. They were delicious, and in my opinion had to be if they were on a tapas menu. The steak tartar did not disappoint. It was a classic tartar with capers and Dijon, and the portion was very generous for a small plate. Steak tartar is one of my favorite dishes and this was comparable to the tartar I have eaten at the sidewalk cafés of streets like Rue Clair in Paris. Fresh ingredients were easily the show of this dish. The pork rillettes were good. My husband and I recently visited Quebec City and Montreal, and had some top notch rillettes of all types while there so I’m a bit spoiled, but Rambla’s execution was just fine and certainly tasty. The escargot arrived in the crock it was cooked in and was swimming in a rich, buttery herb sauce. They were fresh and mild tasting and in a generous quantity. There was enough for 4 people to pick and be satisfied. The mushrooms were cooked in sherry and were adorned with slivered almonds. They were nothing special but good, and a nice filler. The flatbread followed along the same lines. It was a large, crisp flat bread with good quality toppings of fresh spinach, tomato and a tangy chevre’. This was the perfect menu item for someone in your party that didn’t “do” snails or raw beef, but I enjoyed it thoroughly as well. All of the dishes were classically prepared and met with our lip licking approval. The wine list was good and well matched for the cuisine. $20 bottles abounded, which made the whole experience a “good deal”. This was just a last minute recommendation by the hotel staff as a good place to grab a bite late at night and ended up being a fantastic find. We showed up close to closing and the food was still wonderfully prepared and the quality obviously wasn’t sacrificed at that late hour. Rambla just opened on October 1, 2008, and I expect great things from them. It’s a great place to grab a bite late night, or any time.
8324 Oak Street
New Orleans, LA 70118
Where do I start? This place was the epitome of “word of mouth” advertising. EVERYONE knew about it and EVERYONE came into the restaurant with at least one “I heard that….” story that they had been told on the street about the owner, or cuisine, or old man that stands out front and tells your fortune, etc. We showed up at 7pm on a Friday night….and that being said, it was entirely our fault that we had to wait 2, yes, 2 whole hours to eat. But the bartender poured MAMOTH drinks and the fellow waiting diners were great company. We were even lucky enough to have a little run-in with the famed owner, Jacque. We heard stories that Jacque was a happy, sloppily dressed man who loved to drink and if given the chance would buy a round of tequila shots for some lucky patrons. We were such patrons, and Jacque was, as it had been told, a happy, very sloppily dressed man who was absolutely intoxicated. At first glance I couldn’t figure out why the staff wasn’t politely escorting this obviously underdressed and fall down drunk man out of the establishment. Then when he began playing with my hair and saying that he was Jacque, and he could “do whatever he wanted” we realized he was the proud owner. And he did, in fact, buy us a round of tequila(Petrone for that matter!). But I digress. Everyone that passed us by on their way to the dining room emphatically assured us that it was worth the two hour wait. When we finally sat down the hype had built to enormous proportions. We were ready to have an almost orgasmic meal. Before I talk about the food I have to say that it has to be near impossible for any place to live up to the kind of hype that New Orleanians put on this place. So here goes…. Jacques-Imo’s is housed in an old row house in uptown NOLA. The unassuming exterior and signature pickup truck parked outside is always a good sign in my opinion of a good place to eat. As soon as you step foot in the place you’re hit by a wall of people…all waiting for the famed Jacques-Imo’s experience. When told that you’ll be waiting for two hours the only reasonable next step is to belly up to the bar(if you can get to it). The drinks were plentiful and CHEAP and as I said before, the bar-side company was charming and warm. When your name is finally called you feel as though you need to run to your table to avoid losing it by some cruel twist of fate. You are led through the kitchen to the dining room which is a sprawling enclosed “porch” that is packed with tables. The wait staff was friendly and we decided that we needed to start our meal off with the talk of the town… a shrimp and alligator sausage cheesecake, priced at a reasonable $7.50. When it arrived it certainly resembled a cheesecake. It was a LARGE “cheesecake” slice of pie…and it was good. But like I said before…nothing could ever live up to the hype that preceded it. It was more of a quiche and less of a cheesecake but it was flavorful and complex and certainly hit the spot. Next the waitress brought out the house salad of baby spinach leaves dressed with a worscheshire based dressing. It was a palate cleanser of sorts and not so much a salad but after the rich appetizer it was a welcome course. Then came the mains. My husband ordered a foie gras stuffed quail, I ordered the crispy rabbit over creamy pasta and our friends ordered the seared scallops and mahi. Our food was good. Actually our food was very good, but there was a slight problem. It was 9:30pm and we had become a bit weary from the wait, and the hype(and dare I say the booze), and so, I fear, didn’t give the food it just desserts. But it was well cooked, flavorful, imaginatively classic Creole food. And it was yummy. My rabbit was whole and de-boned, deep fried in a spicy Creole crust and served over mild and creamy pasta. It was heavy but tasty and for about $18 not a bad deal. My husband’s quail was cooked perfectly, although unfortunately he stated that he was unable to taste much, if any of the foie stuffing which was quite disappointing. I tasted my friend’s scallops and they were seared well and plentiful. Oh, I almost forgot to mention the side dishes. I can’t tell you the last time I’ve been to a “fine dining” establishment that let you pick your own sides, but Jacques-Imo’s seems to defy all norms. They allowed you a choice of two sides from a myriad of southern/Creole classics like greens, red beans or butter beans and rice, corn maquechoux, mashed sweet potatoes, beets, the list goes on. My side of corn maquechoux was delicious, as was my side of greens. Perfectly seasoned and cooked. And the only reason I didn’t lick my husband’s empty plate of butter beans and rice is because we were with friends whom I respect and didn’t want to see the very unapologetically “chunky monkey” that hides deep within me. I don’t even know if they had dessert on the menu as I was blinded by a gut busting full belly and a sleepy, but happy demeanor. If we hadn’t been staying in a hotel I would have taken my entire table’s leftovers home as there was ample left on our plates. So walk, don’t run to Jacques-Imo’s, and be sure to get there early. It was good, plentiful southern food with a bit of a twist served in an unassuming but warm environment…… and I think that about sums it up.

Casamento’s Restaurant:
4330 Magazine St.
New Orleans, Louisiana 70115
Commanders Palace:
I had a list of things I wanted to eat in New Orleans, as with almost every one of my trips. Unfortunately I would have had to live there for a few years to complete said list, but I did my best. One such list item was oysters, and lots of them. Local oysters are seasonal in NOLA, and while some restaurants will simply ship in some out of town oysters to keep their establishments open, Casamento's closes shop. Yup. They close during the summer and open during the winter months. After hearing this we decided we had to visit. We took a cab to what felt like the ends of the earth. “Are we even still in New Orleans” was a phrase uttered during the trip. Then the cab stopped in a very residential area and we arrived at a small shop front on a dark street. We had arrived, bellies empty and ready to be filled with some cold, raw, briny goodness. I'm happy to report we weren't disappointed. This place is apparently a NOLA icon, and for good reason. It's a tiny, old place with tiled walls from floor to ceiling. Honestly. The entire place is tiled. Some said it reminded them of their grandmother's bathroom, but I though it was more reminiscent of an old hospital or morgue. Cold and sterile inside and the wait staff's personalities fit that description to a T. I'm sure you've seen the type. They act like taking your order is an inconvenience and like if they were to smile they might pass out from the shock. But after we sat down and opened the menus we were in heaven. Cheap! Fresh! Local! Good beer selection! And that was all we were really looking for. Oysters on a half shell were an amazing $8.50/dozen. $8.50!! And they were mammoth! The rest of the seafood on the menu was primarily deep fried so we ordered a seafood platter to pick at as filler. It was good and fresh, as was everything I saw leave the kitchen, but the oysters were the star of the show. So if you're a raw bar fiend, or if you're just looking for a cheap libido lift, I highly recommend Casamento's. My only word of advice is to take a beer with you in the makes the ride more enjoyable, and hell, it's probably the only place in the US where doing so won't even get you a second look.

Commanders Palace:
“In defense of decadence”. That was the title for a NY Times restaurant review of the famed Le Cirque in NY city when it re-opened a few years ago. It was faulted for being, well, decadent, or, too decadent for that matter. I used to hate restaurants like that. I love eating in jeans and a t-shirt. Hell, I almost got married in jeans and a t-shirt(no shit…I‘ll post about it later…stay tuned…it‘s a good read). So when I walk into a place and feel underdressed, and as if all eyes are on me for just that reason, I get uneasy. But I've recently fallen in love with decadence, and I'm head over heels. Thank you Commanders Palace....thank you. My friend Clare said we must, simply must go to the Commanders Palace for Jazz Brunch, and of course I said, “yes please”. I say yes please to everything and I'm happy I do. We took the street car to the garden district on a lovely Sunday afternoon. We strolled a few blocks down the beautifully manicured streets and sat our weary little hung over butts down in one of the most amazing dining rooms I've ever seen.....and didn't feel underdressed ;) Instead we felt transported. The Commanders Palace is amazing. It's another “true” New Orleans landmark. It was opened in 1880 and had been renowned ever since. Still feeling my head swimming from the night before I decided to start my brunch experience off with a mimosa, and maybe another, and, “you know what, just keep 'em coming”. With a smile on my face and a mimosa in my hand I stared starry eyed at the menu. Turtle soup, shrimp and Tasso henican, oyster & absinthe dome, eggs Sardou, bourbon lacquered Mississippi quail, pecan roasted gulf fish, roasted pecan flap jacks topped with duck....and the list goes on. For the price of the entree you get an appetizer, main and dessert(if you can fit in down your gullet when all is said and done). Now, the prices are, unfortunately, a bit up there and I think the drink prices were even more “up there” since a brunch for 4 turned out to be $280.00, BUT, and I can't believe I'm saying this as I‘m about as frugal as them come…… was worth every penny. Yes, I said it, and I don’t regret it. The experience was wonderful from the word go. I started with the Shrimp and Tasso Henican. Now, I know this is a food blog and I'm supposed to describe my meals, but this was almost indescribable. It was delicious. No, orgasmic. My husband was ready to ship me off to another table if I didn't stop ooing and ahhing over it. It was Tasso(a Cajun smoked pork from the shoulder butt...they call it ham but it's is, however, amazing) stuffed shrimp in a spicy beurre blanc of sorts with pickled okra(my new addiction) and five pepper jelly. There's no way this description does it any sort of justice. It was sweet and Smokey and spicy and tender and juicy and I want to marry it and have babies with it. Once again, if I wasn't in public, I would have licked the plate clean and, if I wasn't married, would have proceeded to make out with the chef. I still haven't had the guts to try to re-create it at home, but when I do I'll keep y'all updated. If I do it even half as well as the chef at Commanders, I may never eat anything else ever again. Whew, sorry about that rant, I'll continue. My husband had the Classic Eggs Sardou and it too was delectable. It was a soft poached egg on a steamed artichoke heart in a hollandaise sauce. It was, as the name states, classic and perfectly prepared. It was rich and buttery with the welcome tang of the artichoke heart and the lemon juice in the hollandaise. He enjoyed it thoroughly. For the main I enjoyed the special which was, and hold onto your hats, Pecan crusted fish(some local catch of the morning...remember, I was pounding mimosas...but it was apparently alive about 5 mins prior to cooking) topped with champagne poached crab and swimming in the most rich and oh so very not fat free sauce I've had in a while. It was sprinkled with edible flowers and almost too beautiful to eat....but not quite. The fish was perfection. The crab was the sweetest crab I think I've ever had, and considering I used to go crabbing in Maryland every summer and steam the crabs I caught almost as soon as they came out of the water, that's saying a lot. It was perfect. I hate using that word, but it was. My hubby had the duck topped pecan flap jacks and he cleaned his plate. It was IHOP on crack. A flap jack the size of a car tire, rich yet fluffy, covered in moist, shredded duck and sprinkled with fresh toasted pecans and a delectable sauce. I would call it the quintessential brunch item as it was a wonderful mix of sweet and savory. By this time we're ready for our “comfy pants”, but we are told we can't leave without tasting the bread pudding soufflé with bourbon cream sauce. Our friend said he never eats more than a spoonful or two of it and orders it primarily because he likes drizzling the bourbon cream sauce in his coffee. The rest of the table took heed. And a bite or two is really all you need. It's rich and flavorful and a great flavor cap to the meal. I loved it. I loved it all. Every bite. Every sight. Every sound(the jazz trio that wandered through the dining room was wonderful). If there is such a thing as reincarnation I have added another “I want to come back as” to my list. I want to come back as a bird that lives in the beautiful courtyard of Commanders Palace. Feasting on delectable dropped bits of heavenly food and listening to the sweet sounds of jazz brunch.

The Rest::::
Now it isn't all yummy in my tummy experiences in NOLA. We had some very mediocre po boys at a crappy restaurant in the French Quarter(so uninspiring I don't even remember the name). We also had some less than hospitable service at Pat O' Brien's(AKA the home of the hurricane) and I honestly wasn't all that impressed with the beneigs at Cafe' Du Mond. Fried dough covered in sugar is, well, fried dough covered in sugar. Oh, and although this is a food blog, and at the risk of ruining your appetite, I have to mention the overflowing sewers that seemed to pop up at every turn. No shit. Well, actually, yes, shit…..everywhere. But I suppose there’s a price to pay to eat, drink and party like kings and queens folks.
Get to bourbon street, but, don't stay on bourbon street. Get out of the French Quarter. See where the locals spend time. Go to the Spotted Cat and see the Jazz Vipers play. They're for sure a local favorite. If you're lucky some random legend will walk through the door and sit in for a “session”. NOLA residents love their city. Take time to get to know the parts of the city THEY love.

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