“Few people go to New Orleans because it’s a ‘normal’ city – or a ‘perfect’ or ‘safe’ one. They go because it’s crazy, borderline dysfunctional, permissive, shabby, alcoholic, and bat shit crazy – and because it looks like nowhere else.” – Anthony Bourdain
I mean, we admire the late Anthony Bourdain, but what would we make of his comments after we’d been to New Orleans for the first time? In truth, we were looking for Bourdain Nawlins clips once we got back and only stumbled upon this quote after the holiday!
Anyway, here is my journal on the last five days including my birthday on Wednesday…
Marie drove us to her family’s house in Queens on the Monday morning, Valentines Day, where we could say a quick hi and leave the car for a few days whilst we got taxis to and from La Guardia Airport. The plane was not too small, but nevertheless cramped and the Boston-based crew quite indifferent really. It got us there, and we had a Cadbury’s crème egg on the plane.
We were staying at a new Kimpton Hotel in the Central Business District (CBD) of New Orleans, and it didn’t disappoint at all! Clarissa on the Front Desk was very friendly, and the hotel looked very impressive with an ornately decorated lounge bar (that we actually never got around to going to!). Marie had tipped off the hotel that it was my “big” birthday, and they had left a bottle of cava on ice and some Kingcake cookies in the room, all complimentary!
We were up on the 18th floor, with a dizzying view.
Off out next to explore the French Quarter area about ten minutes walk. We took photos of Jackson Square. France had controlled the city since 1699, but it acquired the territory in 1803 at the Jackson Square (park) site. We had no idea that the name Louisiana comes from King Louis!
Nearby is one of the celebrated eating landmarks: Cafe Du Monde. I was surprised that it was so basic. A French Market coffee and beignet kitchen serving a large space. A beignet is, as most know, a deep-fried doughnut covered in mounds of powdered (that’s “caster” in the UK) sugar. It’s been going since 1862, and is open 7 days a week, 24 hours a day! Mind you, if you have a bug phobia I can only imagine what it’s like in August because there’s powdered sugar everywhere and now look at the soles of your shoes! Delicious though, and we’d be back for more.
Both of us imagined the French Quarter would be much cleaner and smarter. Bourbon Street in particular is a bit of a shock if you go with those notions (it looks better at night with the daylight turned off!). It’s bordering on tacky-touristy, and you wonder what’s in those puddles you accidentally step in. Contradicting that, though, there are some very fancy, iconic and historic restaurants and hotels on Bourbon or off it. We preferred to be off it really.
By the way, the French chose Bourbon Street as a centre of importance because the land was higher up and safer from flooding.
Marie and I had a plan for most of the following five days. Her family, when her grandmother was a child, started Broussard’s restaurant and bar and also ran the Monteleone Hotel, restaurant and bar in I believe the 1920s and 30s. We came across the latter, and asked the doorman about how to get in and whether we might even gets seats at the famous “Carousel Bar”, where the stools slowly rotate around the bar. Both Broussards and Monteleone are quite “high end”. At first we were happy to get seats in the lounge, but then a young couple kindly pointed out to us that a couple had just got up at the Carousel, and we jumped in!
It made a for a wonderful couple of hours, as we made our $18 cocktails last as long as we could, along with small plates of oysters Rockefeller (three oysters between us) and a cup of tasty gumbo.
The bar staff literally have to jump over the bar – about four feet high – when they need to get out! And they very nicely ask you to move aside.
A walk back to our hotel, and we were still hungry so we got a Ferdi sandwich from down-to-earth (but also famous) Mothers diner across the street from the hotel to bring back; it’s a ham and beef sandwich with beef “debris” and gravy in a side cup to dip in. Back in the room late on, we ate half of the sandwich and had some of the cava and cookies.
Day 2 –
We found a great little place for breakfast: Streetcar Cafe. Excellent fare, Marie chose bacon and grits and I blueberry pancakes and bacon. Some of the best breakfast we’d ever had out, and not punishing portions. We then took a long walk and had a browse in two or three of the many antique shops around the French Quarter.
Cafe du Monde again next, as we just happened to be passing by (honest, m’lord!).
Then it was a re-group and out to a neighbouring hotel to wait for our four hour minibus tour of the city. There are many tours, and we went for a highly recommended one by Louisiana Tours. The bus soon started to fill up. Our driver and guide was very good, taking us through the Warehouse District, the Garden District, Treme and a cemetery (where we got out), City Park for a Cafe Du Monde break, Lake Pontchartrain, then a detailed ride through the 9th Ward where he explained and showed us the damage during Hurricane Katrina and the recovery. Our only complaint is that he spoke quickly, and not always that clearly so we missed a lot. Still, we’d enjoyed it and we had a far better idea of the city as a whole now!
Back at the hotel, we had a very good free cocktail!
Then out for our dinner, which was to be at the popular, quite trendy Cochon (French for pork) restaurant in the Warehouse District. It’s a casual place with wooden tables and a butcher close by, but run by a well-known, local chef.
We had a terrific meal of oysters in chilli butter sauce, crispy pork belly (appetiser size) and catfish. The pork was probably the biggest star, and was amazing. Oh, and the soft, warm pillowy rolls and whipped butter. The place got quite full and has a real buzz.
They’re better at savoury food than desserts perhaps, because the pineapple upside-down sponge we ordered to take away was nowhere near as good as the rest of the meal.
Cochon – we found out later – was also an Anthony Bourdain favourite.
Day 3 –
And happy birthday to me! We debated where to go for breakfast, and Marie suggested the Ruby Slipper close by. Her friend, Cathy, had loved it when she came to NOLA and said she was “still dreaming of the eggs benedict”.
Anyway, yes, it was really good though we liked Streetcar Cafe better. Still, my fried green tomatoes with eggs benedict was delicious. Marie had French toast with syrup and I think bacon. The large, frothy cappuccinos a-la-British-greasy-spoon went down very well.
We then went back to the hotel, where I opened cards and presents.
It was hard to decide what to do with the rest of the time before lunch. Marie came up with a perfect suggestion of going to the Garden District on a street car, and also shop along Magazine Street.
It was frustrating for a while though, because a) it was difficult to find the bus stop to the street car, b) the bus took forever and c) strong, chilly winds had started whipping up (they completely died down out of town). It all worked out in the end though. We made the transfer on to the street car (much like a tram, but a celebrated icon in the city; ours wasn’t named Desire as far as we knew).
I forget to mention that we stopped for a light lunch at a slightly grungey, alternative Jewish deli called Steins (a “hole in the wall” kind of place). The youngish, long haired chap serving us liked my War On Drugs t-shirt. We sat outside, had an amazingly delicious, Italian but New Orleans staple sandwich: a muffelata. It was so good. A large, round and flat-ish roll (like a big, flat bap) filled with various Italian meats, strong provolone cheese and a pickled olive relish which is the key to its unique flavour. And crab crisps (chips).
A well-spoken woman in her 60s sat next to us and we got talking. Interesting lady, who spends her time in Nashville, New York and New Orleans. We guessed she might be quite rich.
Fast-forwarding back to now, about an hour later or less, we got ice creams at Parish Parlour. I think Marie got espresso flavour, myself Mexican hot (spicy) cocoa. Both were flavourful and exceptional. This was maybe a semi-hipster area.
Back to our hotel room again, next, as we got ready for a posh evening! Marie said I could pick anywhere to go for my birthday evening. We both agreed that sitting at a bar at one of the several classy, age-old restaurants in the city would be the most fun. We’d really gotten into sitting at bars more the past year or two, more even than at tables in restaurants sometimes; it’s more sociable, and you feel more a part of the action. Plus bar bites and smaller meals work well for us. And we sometimes love cocktails.
Out of the few I considered, I’d chosen Arnaud’s. Lonely Planet also likes it the best of the fancy restaurants and Arnaud’s bar – French 75 – has won awards for its bar service.
It didn’t disappoint! Bar stewards were friendly and chatty, and the place exudes understated high style. It’s all antique, dark wood and there was plenty of chatter around us adding to the ambience without spoiling it. We had several cocktails, all with a depth of mysterious flavour (we even ate the sage leaf in Marie’s, we don’t care!). We had:
to start, Marie…
Dorothy Parker Gin, Cranberry Cordial, Meletti, Darjeeling Syrup, Lemon Juice
Duck Fat Fashioned
Duck Fat Washed Sacred Bond Brandy, Brown Sugar, Port, Thyme, Angostura and Orange Bitters
Yes, duck fat! The bartenders suggest you eat the cherry with the piece of dried duck fat together – it works!
Monkey Shoulder Scotch, Laphroaig, Dubonnet, Amer Pico, Apricot Liquor
The Longest Night
Rittenhouse Rye, Amer Picon, Brandy, Benedictine, House Allspice Dram, frogs breath (not really)
To eat, we shared three small plates. Their famous potato souffle bites (hollowed out parcels, deep fried and taste like British roast potatoes), wontons and shrimp Arnaud.
We weren’t done yet, and we had a dessert which for us is rooted in childhood mythology but which we’d never actually had: baked alaska! A mint one. A mini taste bomb. Marie also fancied sharing one more cocktail, as she hadn’t had a grasshopper in years and it was a favourite of her grandmother’s. The minty grasshopper of course went perfectly with the minty dessert.
We must have been there at least two hours! To round off the night, we wanted to find live jazz (my suggestion). The band at the Royal Sonesta, as we passed by, didn’t sound the ticket. Unbeknownst to me, Marie had researched beforehand. I wasn’t all that confident that Fritzel’s would be all that good but it was fantastic! Even the band themselves had glints in their eyes, and really loved their craft. They served up some steamin’, old ragtime jazz. Humourous, often, in the Fats Waller style. The place was rocking. Our friend Chris recommended Preservation Hall, which is said to be a fine experience but – in any case – it’s now $40 admission at P.H, and no drinking. At Fritzel’s music is free so long as it’s one drink minimum. We had hurricanes and mules, and Marie even bought two very nice and friendly 20-something girls (sat next to us, who we got talking to and who live in Hells Kitchen NYC) cocktails too. In fact, we saved them from a British bloke who looked a bit like Gordon Ramsay and who was trying to make a move on them. Turned out the girls had just got engaged to each other, so the bloke was definitely on to a forlorn attempt anyway.
We stayed at Fritzels for 2 hours too, at the end chatting in the back patio/alley to a couple from California and we met the giant, ginger resident cat.
Even Marie said that the spirit of jazz had entered her mind and body for two hours!
One of my best birthdays ever!
Day 4 –
After the highs of last night, we were feeling mellow and ready for a different kind of day. It was a big museum day, the World War 2 one a few minutes walk from our hotel.
French Truck Coffee for breakfast (avocado toast and a chocolate babka muffin) and, of course coffee! Nice, small chain place and very yellow.
As we approach the WW2 Museum, we have to stop before we can cross over the road. There is a fleet of police motorcycles, probably 20 or so! What’s going on, is the president in town, Kermit the Frog or Prince Harry but, no, it turned out to be just half a dozen of the (empty) Mardi Gras floats being driven in! They take their parades seriously here!!
The museum was as you can imagine, in a way: much was about the South Pacific action, the Pearl Harbour bombing and the struggle against Japan. It’s excellently done, and we learned a lot. We had no idea that Japan was such a stern, indefatigable enemy.
We didn’t get around to seeing the other section, ‘The Road To Berlin’.
We paid the extra $7 to see the grand, 48 minute film – with lots of 4D extras, and literal planes lowered from the ceiling on wire in front of the film as part of the action, seat motion and simulated snow etc. Introduction by Tom Hanks. It was really the highlight of the museum visit.
Okay, almost 3 hours of history was enough for us, and it was play time again.
It was to Broussard’s bar that we went next! Marie talked with the reception staff and let them know about her family history with the hotel. She showed the staff a photo of her great great grandmother in a group photo with Rosalie Borrello, who founded the restaurant with her husband in 1920 (I found the actual date, finally, on their website). The staff were delighted.
The restaurant and bar are lovely, like the other old grand places in the city, though Arnaud’s is better in our opinion! Mind you, it was happy hour here so $5 cocktails instead of the $14 it had been at Arnaud’s. We had one each at the Empire Bar, 1920s Bees Knees for Marie (1920s theme), Broussard’s Smile for me (2020!).
After all that elegance, we were ready for down-to-earth prices and settings. Marie said she wanted down and dirty food. We made for Bourbon Street, and to a place we’d originally meant to go to on the first night: Olde Nola Cookery. We had big platefuls of food, Marie fried shrimp and french fries, me blackened cat fish and collard greens (and an Abita Purple Haze ale). It was very good, and a lot of food!
Then on the way back to the hotel, we stopped for 20 minute massages at one of the many parlours (open to the street). Marie neck and shoulders and me feet.
We shopped at a Rouses supermarket next, and bought some king cake for Marie’s family and for us, some Cajun spicy crisps etc.
Back to the hotel extra early, as we were ready to save our energies for a big push tomorrow! It was only 7.50pm!
Day 5 (last full day) –
The Streetcar Cafe again for breakfast. It was much busier now though than it had been three days ago. It was now Friday, and also a little closer to Mardi Gras. That wouldn’t be until March 1st onwards, but there was going to be a parade tonight.
Then, after Chase Bank, we went to a hat shop! Meyer’s. Sam Meyer himself, aged 97 and a little batty and cranky, helped us! What a character. With some hats he was saying I shouldn’t even bother to try the hat on (“nah, that’s not you, forget about it”) and others he was getting impatient about. Marie helped me make the decision to eventually go for a very tasteful grey pork pie hat with black band! I’m not sure about feathers, but they’re only a dollar so we added a blue and black one.
Then a walk to the ferry in the cold and wind. The weather had been all-over-the-place over the five days! The ferry to Algiers takes no time at all, but I’m not a good swimmer. $2 each way. On a day when there are loads of tourists in town, it’s nice to go to a quiet, small residential island. We knew there were some cafes, shops and a British pub though. We soon made our way to the Crown and Anchor! The owners are Whoovians, Dr. who fans. And from Coventry, we were told! Marie had a Sonic Screwdriver cocktail! Me a local IPA, then we shared a curry infused gin!! It was pretty good, but only Brits could think up such a thing. Nice pub and very friendly, we chatted quite a bit to the barmaid then a couple from St. Louis who had just put in an offer for a house around the corner from the Crown and Anchor. They were excited. The wife has the same birthday as me.
Algiers hadn’t been flooded at all after Katrina!
Back on the ferry again. This time we eschewed Bourbon, but walked along much nicer – but still a little random – French Street. We entered a bar and live venue, Bamboulas. A beer each (rich dark beer for Marie), and the live band – Hot Toddy and His Fully Dressed Po’Boys – were very good.
Then we did walk along Bourbon Street but the end away from the madness. We didn’t even know there were nice homes. We came out in the neighbourhood of Fauborg/Maurigny which was quirky, leafy and cool. And then along the market area towards Jackson Square again. Crowds were much more obvious today.
A little tired, we regrouped at the Kimpton and Marie asked about the best time and way to get a taxi to the airport tomorrow morning (we had to take into account any more parades…streets are blocked off at those times and we couldn’t even send Marie’s postcard to her family because the city had physically removed all mail boxes – just leaving the bolts on the footpaths which were a hazard – to stop revellers from stuffing dangerous items inside).
Then, dark now, we walked out and down a couple or so streets to wait for the parade to come along. It was to be the Cleopatra Krewe.
The bit of the procession we saw was underwhelming, and we waited quite a long time in the cold but were enjoying talking to a nice family (some of them gave up waiting for the floats to show up). Marie and I did catch some beads though, when finally the parade reached us! Krewes traditionally throw items into the watching crowds, most especially Mardi Gras beads in the three colours, purple for justice, green for faith and gold or yellow for power.
We could certainly do one more meal. The famous chef, Arron Sanchez, has his own restaurant here but it’s very casual. It was a reasonable walk through the crowds, and we saw a few more – and better – parades as we went. Johnny Sanchez was excellent! It’s nice but basic on the ground, deliberately humble, but it has a large wall-sized Mexican mural which is beautiful and Chihuly glass lights hanging from the ceiling. We had guacamole, salsa and tortilla starter and three tacos: albondigas, steak and shrimp. All superb really, though it often seems that Marie and I are enthusiastic about eating out whilst we look around and other diners might look bored. There’s only one Johnny Sanchez as far as we know, but we hope another opens in New York.
Back to the hotel at 9.55pm, and we watched some more of the pre-Mardi Gras processions from our 18th floor hotel room window! It went on until about midnight or beyond!
We had just the morning before getting the taxi to the airport at 11am (we got a breakfast sandwich from across the street at Mothers, queuing on the pavement but very cold out). The flight was rocky, and at La Guardia we had to circle for about 45 minutes in turbulence so we were both a bit nervous, but finally the pilot did a stellar job to land. Hassle with Lyft (like Uber) at Ground Transportation. Two cars cancelled on us, and it was freezing but we eventually got to Queens and shared pizza with Marie’s family before the hour drive back to Suffolk County where we stayed up until quite late (I think we watched Taskmaster).
Hand-on-heart, we had some amazing, really great times in New Orleans but would we hurry back? You can see why some get addicted – a lot of visitors do, including some of our friends – but…not really! We like the gracefulness and charm of Charleston and Savannah much more! We’re very happy that we went though!