Thursday, May 9, 2013

From the Big Apple to the Big Easy

I was recently told of a vacationing couple from abroad that was touring some of the southeastern region of the United States.  Upon being informed that the couple had planned a visit to New Orleans as part of their itinerary, my own memories of a week well spent in the Big Easy flooded to the surface.  I immediately recalled all of the things that Brian and I saw, the tours we embarked on and the food.  Oh, the food!  We’re from New York.  Long Island, to be more specific, but the Big Apple is just over an hour’s train ride away.  With access to some of the most global cuisine prepared by some amazing culinary geniuses, food consumed in another city really should not have impressed us that much, but it did.  New Orleans is, hands down, second only to New York’s metropolitan area when it comes to extraordinary dining experiences.  Since this couple is actually friends with my parents, I immediately passed along a few choice recommendations to make their brief stay in New Orleans a memorable and flavorful experience.

Inspired, I have chosen to generously share some of these recommendations with my readers.  It was ten years ago when Brian and I visited New Orleans, before hurricane Katrina perilously ravaged through.  Fortunately, New Orleans has since rebuilt.  Most of the places we enjoyed were not permanent victims of complete devastation and remain in business today.  Several friends of mine have experienced an equally wonderful time in New Orleans within the past three years.  The French Quarter remains alive and festive around the clock and still offers sheer gastronomic rapture at several restaurants.

We stayed at the beautiful Mariott resort located on Canal Street.  This is a perfect location for accommodations because there is so much to see and do within walking distance from that block.  Once we dropped our bags, we immediately did an about face and exited the hotel to begin exploring and familiarizing ourselves of the surrounding area.  Our stroll brought us to Riverwalk, a lengthy shopping mall filled with shops peddling all manner of New Orleans souvenirs.  Some of the shops were very specialized, such as one that was right up my alley where I purchased a cat-themed New Orleans t-shirts and coffee mugs and even a catnip toy for my pampered feline, stitched from swaths of fabric bearing jazz cat musicians in the pattern.  There was a cooking shop, selling New Orleans themed aprons, cookbooks, cookware and Cajun and Creole spices and condiments.  Our first meal in New Orleans was taken in the food court of Riverwalk, where a jazz combo of musicians sashayed through with lively tunes while I savored a shrimp po’boy.  On the river side of this mall is an outdoor promenade that spans the length of the mall and overlooks the Mississippi River, hence the name Riverwalk.

That evening, we dined lavishly on what was most definitely the finest meal in town at Emeril’s Delmonico, located in the lower Garden District.  This is one of several restaurants owned by the celebrity chef within the city.  His original establishment, Emeril’s New Orleans can be found in the Warehouse District and the more casual NOLA is situated in the French Quarter.

The following night’s dinner was spent in the elegantly styled dining room of the historical building that houses Arnaud’s.  The menu features stellar classic Creole fare and diners are treated to live jazz.  The traditional dessert of bananas Foster is prepared and flambéed with visual flourish at your tableside.

When pounding the pavement to take in such photographic opportunities as Jackson Square with the Saint Louis Cathedral towering in the background or the splashing fountain near Riverwalk, be sure to take a respite at the famed Café du Monde.  Fashioned after the sidewalk cafes for which Paris is world famous, there is no better spot to relax in the fresh air sipping chicory cafe au lait and enjoying a plate of powdered sugar-dusted beignets.  Before resuming your sightseeing tour, be sure to browse the shop for such souvenirs as cans of ground chicory coffee, beignet batter mix, coffee mugs, barista aprons and t-shirts.

One of the requisite beverages to throw back with reckless abandon is the original Hurricane cocktail from Pat O’Brien’s, the place where it was created during World War II.  Located in the heart of party central on Bourbon Street, this place is always hopping and hosting festive celebrations.  Any excuse is a great excuse to throw a party, and Pat Obrien’s delivers.  Many local bars and restaurants create a similar drink, but due to copyright laws they are not allowed to call their incarnation a hurricane, even if the impostor cocktail looks and tastes identical to the original.

For lunches and casual dinners, we delved into such Cajun delights as turtle soup, po’boys, jambalaya, fried alligator, gumbos and oysters in restaurants and pubs that were alive with the energetic rhythms and sounds of zydeco.  The three things that New Orleans is never lacking are good food, good drinks and good music.

For the ultimate in fine dining, we retained a reservation at Commander’s Palace, located in the Garden District.  With its strict dress code, Brian was definitely feeling the warmth in the southern heat as we opted for a table in the outside courtyard.  Once the first bite of epicurean delight touched his lips, however, all focus turned to savoring the most sumptuous offerings of haute Creole cuisine.  This family-run establishment is where a young Emeril once began his culinary career.

Our last dinner in New Orleans was in the dining room of the iconic Brennans.  Since 1946, this culinary jewel of the French Quarter has been serving up sublime innovations of entrees that will propel any foodie to immediate ecstasy.  The extensive wine list and spectacular menu choices make this restaurant yet another mandatory dinner stop.

After checking out of the hotel, with our flight not scheduled to depart for several hours, we opted to partake in one last meal.  It was very well chosen, it turned out, and I highly recommend this for any tourist’s final farewell.  The Court of Two Sisters is a historic restaurant nestled around a courtyard in the heart of the French Quarter.  Their award-winning daily courtyard brunch put every brunch we had ever dined in through life to shame.  Buffet station after buffet station offered the most extensive choices of food to satisfy the heartiest of appetites.  The cooling sounds of a splashing fountain and a live jazz band provided a mesmerizing and relaxing ambience.  It was during this meal when wait staff began calling on anyone in the courtyard who could speak French to help them communicate with a couple of touring patrons.  Feeling that my language skills were rusty, I only rose to the challenge when no one else present volunteered.  I was led to a table where two older ladies from France sat.  They reminded me of my French grandmother and my heart immediately reached out to them.  They were eternally grateful as I helped them place their drink order and we shared a nice conversation before I bid them Bon Appetit and returned to my on-looking husband, my confidence in my French speaking skills restored once again.

Since this is a food blog, I naturally focused primarily on edible recommendations.  For those who are curious about what there is to see during the day in New Orleans, just start walking through the French Quarter.  The architecture displaying elaborate iron scrollwork in the balconies is a site in itself.  Jackson Square is a gathering place for street artists, tarot card readers, fortunetellers and musicians, their sultry notes drifting from their saxophones and trumpets.  The Saint Louis Cathedral is situated on the edge of the square.  Horse-drawn carriages will whisk you away on a historical guided tour of the Quarter.  Visit the Mardi Gras museum to learn the history behind the annual carnival and to peruse a host of Mardi Gras exhibits featuring props and costumes. Animal lovers such as myself won’t want to miss the New Orleans Zoo and the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas.  Take a guided tour, if you dare, through the oldest cemeteries in the city to learn about the unusual traditional burial practices and visit the tomb of alleged Voodoo queen Marie Laveau.  We also took another tour that took us on a riverboat ride through the alligator dwellings of the Louisiana swamp, a picturesque experience with the surrounding backdrop of Spanish moss draped from every tree.  We also toured a couple of old Creole plantations, one of which was conducted by the most engaging and effective tour guide I have ever followed.  He made the subject matter so fascinating that I proceeded to purchase his historical book to learn more.  For nighttime entertainment, the streets are lined with jazz and zydeco clubs.  There are no laws in New Orleans regarding consumption of alcohol in the streets, so you can take a drink outside and stroll through the dynamic environ of Bourbon Street.

There is so much to see, do, eat and drink in New Orleans.  The city, like New York, never sleeps.  Because most things are either in walking proximity or accessible with a short ride in a cable trolley or taxi, one can take in every activity and location that I’ve mentioned at a leisurely pace over even a short span of four days.  I highly recommend a trip to New Orleans and adhere strictly to their daily mantra of ‘Laissez les bon temps rouler!’  English speakers are all familiar with the translation of this sage advise: Let the Good Times Roll!

If you need a little inspiration via a taste of the Big Easy at home, try my recipe for jambalaya.  My variation of the traditional Cajun entrée is one of Brian’s favorite requests.  For another sample of Cajun flavor, here’s a recipe for Andouille sausage and red beans.  Finally, serve up a plate of Creole goodness by preparing shrimp creole:

Shrimp Creole
2 pounds large shrimp, peeled and cleaned
1 onion, chopped
2 green bell peppers, diced
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes, drained
½ cup white wine
4 large garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 15-ounce can tomato sauce
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
½ cup chopped fresh parsley
Bottled hot sauce, such as Tobasco, Frank’s or Lousiana

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the onions and sauté until translucent.  Stir in the garlic and sauté for another two minutes.  Stir in the wine and boil for one minute.  Stir in the tomatoes, tomato sauce, salt, pepper and thyme.  Season to taste with hot sauce.  Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Remove the cover and add the peppers and the shrimp.  Cook and stir until the shrimp have all turned pink.  Stir in the parsley and serve over cooked rice or, for southern flare, cooked grits.  Pass the bottle of hot sauce at the table for those who revel in punishing their palates.  Serves four.

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