The Big Easy Does It
Forget moderation while in New Orleans. The Crescent city begs for excess. You'll either drink too much, party too much, or if you're anything like meI fantasize about my next meal and watch the Food Network for kickseat too much.
On my last trip to the Big Easy, I vowed to skip the obvious debauchery of Bourbon Street and spend my money on some good grub instead. I composed a mental checklist of everything I'd be eating. Jambalaya, blackened catfish, bread pudding . . . Per my calculations, I would have to consume breakfast, lunch, dinner, and several meals in between if I wanted to meet my quota of Creole cooking.
I enlisted a chef-friend who has served as my enabler on many occasions. We stayed in the French Quarter, a few blocks away from Acme Oyster House (724 Iberville Street, 504.522.5973, acmeoyster.com), where we proceeded immediately after checking in at the Alexa Hotel (119 Royal Street, 888.884.3366, alexahotelneworleans.com). The line forms early at this no-frills institution distinquished by checkered tablecloths and neon signs. Don't matter. We were there for the oysters on the half shell, which Acme takes very seriously. Expert shuckers, situated by the entrance, coax the beauties from their shells for all to see. This striptease of sorts adds to the anticipation. We immediately ordered two-dozen mollusks, which arrived plump, juicy, and tasted delicious with cocktail sauce and a couple of bottles of Abita Ambera smooth, malty local beer.
Shell-shocked: Acme's oysters
photo: Grace Bastidas
In search of dessert, we meandered through the French Quarter and made our way to the French Market's Café du Monde (800 Decatur Street, 504.525.4544, cafedumonde.com ). The open air coffee stand is famous for the beignet, a piece of fried dough shaped like a square and covered with powdered sugarlike most of the stand's floor. Open around the clock to accommodate 3 a.m. munchies, the café serves just coffee, milk, and orange juice, all to be used as chasers. Warning: Don't wear dark colors if you're planning to visit. We ended up with a light coating of powder all over our clothes.
Later that evening we gave in to temptation and did the other requisite N'awlins thing. We got pissed drunkon Bourbon Street no less. This episode led to a slight deviation from the plan. We ended up at McDonald's gorging on Big Macs and fries. Although my friend has a discerning palate and a degree from the French Culinary Institute to boot, he seemed to enjoy that burger like it was his last meal. What a few vodka tonics will do!
The next day my cohort and I continued to use menus as a substitute for the traditional guidebook. We didn't need to know where the Voodoo Museum was or when the Paddlewheel Queen steamboat departed. Our motivating force was food. Plus we figured we'd take in some history through the cuisine. At the Gumbo Shop (630 Saint Peter Street, 504.525.1486, gumboshop.com), we devoured a few bowls of the thick, stew-like dish the place is named for. Gumbo is the type of food that could rouse the dead or, in our case, simply help shake a hangover. Made with okra, tomatoes, onions, chicken, andouille sausage, and all sorts of goodies, this hearty soup is a blend of different cultures and tastesfrom African to French to Native American. If you want a side of New Orleans lore with your entrée, you'll be pleased to know Tennessee Williams completed A Streetcar Named Desire while living in an apartment next door at 632 Saint Peter.
In search of more food and culture, we were reminded that the Big Easy is credited as the birthplace of jazz (and Satchmo). No visit to this musical Mecca would be complete without hearing some of that swinging, syncopated beat. The jazz brunch at Commander's Palace (1403 Washington Avenue, 504.899.8221, commancerspalace.com) proved to be a worthy compromise. Past executive chefs at this Garden District mainstay have included Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse. Foodies salivate over the chef's table here. Typically booked a year in advance, it offers a front-row seat to all the action in the kitchen.
We were content to have secured reservations for a regular table and when the food began to arrive, we couldn't help but photograph each dish. The Egg Sardou appetizer (poached egg on creamed spinach and an artichoke bottom topped with hollandaise sauce) provided a complete sensory overhaul. Not to mention the Pecan Crusted Gulf Fish entrée (served with champagne-poached jumbo lump crabmeat with crushed corn cream and roasted pecans). This was a dish I hoped to remember long after I digested it. The grand finale came as a request from my traveling companion, who wanted to eat Banana's Foster, a hot little number meant for sharing.
We worked off the meal by strolling around the Garden District and checking out Greek revival homes along the tree-lined streets. While admiring a beautiful white home surrounded by long columns, my friend and I met the owner, who offered to show us inside if we helped her bring in some groceries. I immediately accepted. This corner house with its elaborate chandeliers and winding staircase evoked an antebellum period of high-falutin' society parties and girls in big-hooped dresses. Our hostess, Ginger, toured us around the house and recommended some of her favorite restaurants. She even offered her name as reference for making reservations.
Sugar rush: Café du Monde's beignets
At Restaurant Cuvee (322 Magazine Street, 504.587.9001, restaurantcuvee.com ), where any friend of Ginger's is a friend of theirs, we were enthusiastically greeted and given a semi-private table in the dark, brick-lined dining room. Our very knowledgeable waiter seemed genuinely happy to see us. "So you're friends with Ginger?" he asked. We nodded politely, grabbed our menus, and ordered from the chef's tasting menu, which includes wine pairings with each course. Among the standouts: the crème brulée of foie gras, the smoked duck breast and whole confit leg served with walnut risotto, and the braised veal cheeks with roasted garlic-white bean puree. Having left no room for dessert, we finally met our quota. But being that we were "friends" of the house, the chef didn't let us get away without some crème brulée.
Although it felt good to be so well connected, we couldn't help but go back to Acme Oyster House for a quick bite before our morning flight the next day. There's something almost naughty about sucking down a couple of raw oysters for breakfast. You almost feel like you're doing something taboowhich in New Orleans simply means you're doing everything right.
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