Let the good times roll! This joyous credo of New Orleans has inspired me to write about the city, now frequently called NOLA (for New Orleans, LA).
I’ll begin with the fabulous food.
Any visit to the Big Easy simply has to include eating at some of the city’s famed restaurants. During our recent trip, my companion and I reveled in the food offered at a handful of the best. Although some highly praised restaurants exist outside the French Quarter, most of the time we chose spots within the very colorful F.Q.
One of our first stops was Antoine’s, which claims to be the oldest continuously operating restaurant in NOLA. It traces its founding to Antoine Alciatore, who arrived from Marseilles, France, in 1840. Using the bounty of locally available seafood, he developed a cuisine featuring sauces never used before, creating such dishes as crawfish etouffeé and shrimp rémoulade. Today Antoine’s occupies several high-ceilinged dining rooms in which its servers treat you to astounding food. Much of it still features locally caught seafood. I chose the three-course $20.15 Fall Lunch Special, which included an appetizer (oysters, salad, or sweet potato bisque), an entrée of seafood or meat, and dessert. My companion chose a bowl of delicious crawfish bisque from the a la carte menu (and shared my ice-cream-sundae dessert). We both took advantage of the black-cherry martinis for a mere 25 cents each.
Another venerable NOLA restaurant is Galatoire’s, which has featured classic Creole cuisine for over 100 years. In its charming dining room on Bourbon Street, diners noisily celebrate birthdays and other happy occasions, creating a din that only slightly detracts from the excellent food and outstanding service. I savored my crawfish salad and shrimp etouffeé, while my companion enjoyed grilled redfish and a specialty, crabmeat Yvonne.
Somewhat uncertain, we dined at a restaurant on Decatur Street with the odd name of Tujague’s. We discovered that the name is pronounced “two-jacks,” and the place (the second oldest in NOLA) has a fascinating history. Guillaume and Marie Tujague arrived from France and opened their restaurant across from the French Market in 1856. It’s now famous for its own version of shrimp rémoulade and—surprisingly—a succulent beef brisket boiled with veggies in a creole sauce. We ordered blackened fish and had no regrets.
After a disappointing Sunday “jazz brunch” at a spot in the F.Q., we headed the next day for the Garden District. We loved taking the St. Charles streetcar, strolling around the neighborhood, and admiring its historic houses. But the real highlight of our visit was lunch at Commander’s Palace. The food, service, and ambiance were all spectacular. CP is rightly famous for its turtle soup (which my companion ordered), while I indulged in the 3-soup offering, which included not only turtle but also seafood gumbo and shrimp bisque, each of which was superb. My companion and I both had blackened fish—yum!–plus 25-cent cocktails (cosmopolitans and martinis). We ran out of room for dessert and gingerly walked our very full selves back to the St. Charles streetcar.
If you’re hankering for oysters, and the line in front of the Acme Oyster House is forbidding, try Felix’s just across the street. We arrived there near its closing time of 10 p.m., but we were graciously served great food despite the late hour. The shrimp po’boy was very good and the crawfish etouffeé excellent. Although the ambiance is bare-bones, the place is clean and well run, patronized by a wide range of colorful locals. We thoroughly enjoyed our late-night experience there.
Café du Monde is justly famous around the world. Perched on Decatur Street across from beautiful Jackson Square, it welcomes long lines of visitors seeking its beignets and café au lait every morning. We avoided the long lines and headed for the café after dinner one night. It was the perfect nightcap. The warm beignets, fresh from the oven and coated in powdered sugar, were just as wonderful as you’ve always heard, and the café au lait (regular or decaf) is terrific. By the way, the world-famed café now has a location outside the French Quarter. The large Hilton Riverside hotel is linked to an outlet mall called Riverwalk, and Café du Monde has established a small outpost there. The ambiance isn’t quite the same, but the beignets and hot coffee are.
On our last day in NOLA, we lunched at the venerable Palace Café. Located on the fringes of the French Quarter, where busy Canal Street meets Chartres Street, the two-story café features contemporary Creole dishes. We couldn’t resist another opportunity to imbibe turtle soup (almost as good as the one at Commander’s Palace), followed by one more helping of delicious grilled fish. But the real lure for us was Bananas Foster. As our server, Matt, prepared it tableside, he related its history: the dessert originated in New Orleans in the early 1950s, when NOLA was the major port of entry for bananas shipped from Central and South America. Restauranteur Owen Brennan asked his chef to prepare a new dessert that included bananas. Bananas Flambé later became Bananas Foster as a tribute to Brennan’s friend and dessert enthusiast, Richard Foster. It features not only bananas but also rum, banana liqueur, and vanilla ice cream, and it’s great fun to watch it cooking, especially when the rum ignites. The Palace Café’s version was sublime.
Needless to say, NOLA offers much more than world-class food. Its not-quite-complete recovery from Hurricane Katrina has been remarkable. (You can trace the recovery in an exhibit at the Presbytère museum, where you’ll also find a colorful exhibit related to Mardi Gras.)
NOLA offers museums, an aquarium, a zoo, and other big-city delights. But don’t forget the music. Harry Connick Jr. calls NOLA the only city he knows that has “a constant backdrop of music,” a backdrop you can witness for yourself. Musicians seem to pop up everywhere, sometimes creating what appear to be impromptu musical performances. This musical backdrop includes jazz, of course. The city’s legacy of great jazz survives in polished nightspots like Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse as well as unique settings like Preservation Hall.
Finally, let’s not forget NOLA’s literary connections. If you’ve ever seen the stunning film, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” or the play that inspired it, you can view the wrought-iron balcony where Tennessee Williams wrote the original play. (I envision him typing away on a cheap typewriter while he sat on that lovely balcony.) It’s on St. Peter Street, not far from Jackson Square. Other literary luminaries include William Faulkner, who lived on nearby Pirate’s Alley in 1925, working on his early novels while he wrote for the Times-Picayune newspaper. You’ll find a busy bookstore on the ground floor of the house he lived in. Another notable but troubled writer, John Kennedy Toole, wrote “A Confederacy of Dunces,” set in NOLA during the 1960s. Finally published in 1980, years after Toole’s suicide, his book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1981.
“Laissez les bons temps rouler!” I carried home a shiny coffee mug inscribed with this Cajun expression (no, it’s not classic French). Sitting on a shelf in plain view, it will unfailingly remind me of the great food and good times my companion and I relished during our astonishing visit to New Orleans.