Saturday, January 9, 2016

New Orleans ~ Better than Ever!

My husband and I had the opportunity to travel to New Orleans recently, having not been there since prior to hurricane Katrina. I'm pleased to report that the city is better than ever. There has been significant construction and investment in infrastructure since my last visit in 2005. Many entrepreneurs have moved to the area and great chefs have flocked to the city, which has always been rich in food history.

Julian in Jackson Square
New Orleans is unique in America. It doesn't feel so much like a Southern city, but perhaps more of a Caribbean city. The area once populated by the Choctaw, Houmas, and other Indians, was strongly influenced by the French, French-Canadians and Spanish during colonial periods and the introduction of African slaves in the 18th century. Here all these cultures intermingled and yet survived together.

Creole or Cajun?

Cajuns were the French colonists who settled the Canadian maritime provinces (Nova Scotia and New Brunswick) in the 1600s. The settlers named their region "Acadia," and were known as Acadians. The name "Acadian" eventually became known as "Cajun." They developed their own distinct lifestyle in the swamps and surrounding areas of South Louisiana.

Creoles as an ethnic group are harder to define than Cajuns. "Creole" can mean anything from individuals born in New Orleans with French and Spanish ancestry to those who descended from African/Caribbean/French/Spanish heritage.

Both groups have contributed greatly to the local cuisine. A simplified way to describe the two cuisines is to deem Creole cuisine as fancier “city food” while Cajun cuisine is often referred to as rural “country food.” While many of the ingredients in Cajun and Creole dishes are similar, the real difference between the two styles is the people behind these famous cuisines and their preparation and presentation techniques.

Carnival Parade Costumes Based on Historical Tribal Wear


There are many things to see and do in New Orleans, and I'll just give you a few highlights. Get a good tour book before you go and review all of your options.

French Quarter: Of course you can't miss the French Quarter. Travel down Royal Street on foot and enjoy the many shops, most all of them local. Parallel to Royal is the famous Bourbon Street, home to the city's night life. There isn't too much going on here during the day, but some shops are interspersed and it's a good time to take photos or enjoy an buggy ride with guide, which you can catch in nearby Jackson Square.

Classic French Quarter Design
The square faces the Mississippi River and is surrounded by historic buildings, including the St. Louis Cathedral, the Presbytere and Cabildo (Louisiana State Museums), and the Lower and Upper Pontalba Apartments, the oldest apartment buildings in the United States. The Pontalba Apartments offer retail shops, museums, galleries and restaurants on the ground level; their second and third floors still house a selection of prestigious apartments.
Jackson Square
For well over a half-century, there has been an open-air artist colony around Jackson Square. Local artists paint, draw, create portraits and caricatures, and display their work on the square's iron fence.

Tremé and Louis Armstrong Park: The French Quarter borders North Rampart and Louis Armstrong Park, and is adjacent to America's oldest black neighborhood called Tremé . As the area is the site of significant economic, cultural, political, social, and legal events that shaped the course of events in Black America for the past two centuries, I suggest you get a local guide to walk you through the neighborhood and park. The guide will describe all of the significant events, buildings and architecture in the area, making your foot tour more meaningful.

Julian and Louis Armstrong
Riverwalk, Aquarium and Outlet Mall: If you have the time, walk from the French Quarter's Jackson Square along the river until you reach the aquarium and entrance to the riverfront outlet mall. On the river you'll see everything from classic river paddle boats (now for tourist tours and dinner cruises... take one if you have time) to colossal container ships. The Mississippi is a working river and the amount of traffic and cargo making their way up and down the river is impressive. If you have children, stop into the aquarium which is also popular. And if you enjoy outlet shopping, work your way through the outlet shopping mall, which provides for duty free shopping (rebate desk) if you are not from the USA.

Tourist Cruise on the Mississippi
WWII Museum: If you'd like to take a break from local culture, visit the National WWII Museum, formerly known as the D-Day Museum, which is a military history museum located in the Central Business District of New Orleans. Founded in 2000, it was later designated by the U.S. Congress as America's official National World War II Museum in 2003. The Museum is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution and is an excellent way to spend at least half of a day.

Hotel, Dining and Nightlife

Like touring, there really is too much to enjoy on the food and nightlife front to do all in one trip. So again, I'll give you my favorite highlights, but do your research before you go and plan accordingly.

Brennan's Egg Sardou
Brennan's:  At least once during your visit, start your day with breakfast (or brunch if you've had a late night Brennan's in the French Quarter. Make a reservation in advance as it can be busy, especially on Sunday mornings. The restaurant opened in 1946 where bananas foster became the signature dessert. Originally located in the Old Absinthe House, after ten years it moved to the present location at 417 Royal Street.  Brennan's classic breakfast includes a baked apple or turtle soup, followed by eggs sardou,  a Creole dish made with poached eggs, artichoke bottoms, creamed spinach and Hollandaise sauce. Many other options are available, most of which are unique and intriguing. Be adventurous!

My husband, Kevin, at Cafe Du Monde
Café du Monde: A coffee shop on Decatur Street across from Jackson Square in the French Quarter is known for its café au lait and its French-style beignets, a local pastry akin to a freshly fried doughnut (without the hole) and coated in powdered sugar. There is always a long line. Riverside is the line for take out, and street side is the line for seating. Both move pretty quickly due to the limited menu. If you don't feel like waiting, there is another new location in the outlet mall at the end of the riverwalk. It has a better view (you can actually see the river) but of course it is not the original.

Cafe Du Mond's Cafe au Lait and Beignets
Royal Sonesta Hotel: If you are looking to stay in the heart of the tourist area (French Quarter) then the best choice is the Royal Sonesta, which combines timeless elegance, southern refinement and modern facilities. It is also home to Restaurant R’evolution which takes a modern approach to Cajun and Creole cuisine, and comes highly recommended. We had a superb dinner here followed by an evening at Irvin Mayfield's Jazz Playhouse, also located in the hotel. Even if you don't stay at the Royal Sonesta, do enjoy her restaurant and jazz. Superb!

Chargrilled Oysters: There are at least a dozen restaurants famous for grilled oysters in New Orleans, and you should sample as many as possible. Some call them charbroiled and others chargrilled, but they are basically the same technique. Cooking oysters in their shells over a grill's fire, topped with some mixture of butter and garlic, seasoning and sometimes cheese, yields meat that is firmer but just as juicy as raw.

If you can get a seat with a view, the grilling itself is dramatic, becoming part of the show at places like Drago's and Neyow's Creole Café, where the grills sit in plain view of diners.  If you're near the outlet shopping mall which connects to the Hilton hotel, Drago's is located inside the lobby. You can even have cocktails in the hotel lounge and order a platter of Drago's oysters mid-day, should you need a little refreshment. Highly recommended!

Drago's Charbroiled Oysters
Expert Chefs: New Orleans is brimming with celebrity chefs. Many have made national fame while others are known only to locals and foodies. Of course, the most famous of these is Emeril Lagasse. As much a celebrity and entrepreneur, as an actual chef, Emeril has built an empire and uses his celebrity and corporate operations to support charities in New Orleans.

Kevin at Lagasse Foundation Fundraiser
We were there for his fundraiser called Boudin, Bourbon & Beer, which was a sold-out event. His restaurants include Emeril's New Orleans, Emeril's Delmonico and NOLA. All three are well established and the food is good. The crowds can be large and the restaurants noisy, but if you haven't ever been to one it's worth the visit. It's unlikely you'll see Emeril onsite, but if you do he'll gladly autograph your purchased cookbook. Otherwise, check out some of the other options I've mentioned above.

Other Local Favorites: Of course do make sure you have enough time to take in the many other local favorite foods. I don't know of any city in America with so many local specialties. Of course you must have the seafood and andouille sausage gumbo, blackened alligator, and a low-country crawfish boil. Fried chicken and jambalaya should also be on your menu.

Crawfish Boil
Enjoy the crawfish étouffée (gumbo's spiced-up cousin), shrimp creole, a muffaletta (Italian sandwich on French bread usually with salami, ham, provolone and olive spread) , a PoBoy (sandwich piled high with meat such as roast beef, turkey or sausage, with gravy or sometimes seafood), red beans and rice, bread pudding, and bananas foster. And for a local candy, you must have the Creole pralines (pecans in a caramel base).

As I said, there is much to sample in New Orleans. And while you're at it, there is live music of all kinds everywhere you turn. What could make the city more perfect!

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