Saturday, August 2, 2008

Music and Food: New Orleans

Music and Food: New Orleans My first trip to New Orleans was on a lark. I had a free long weekend and wanted to go somewhere I've never been, but somewhere not too far away. I'd never had a strong desire to go, but was, nevertheless, curious about the city so much in the news the past few years.

Think about great cities of the United States. The first that comes to mind must surely be New York City, the gateway to America, city of skyscrapers and bridges. The next might be San Francisco with it's fabulous topography and charming architecture. What comes to mind in third place? Los Angeles has sprawled to the point of no longer being a city, Miami has become a condominium trailer park, Boston is great but looks like so many other New England cities, Houston is in Texas, Atlanta is nothing but conference centers and parking garages, but New Orleans stands out like a Can Can girl in a D├ębutante Ball.
The French got things started here nearly three hundred years ago, but about fifty years later it was handed over to the Spanish. The French got it back forty years after that but turned right around and sold it to the United States. In addition to the earliest French settlers, large populations of Spaniards and Haitians added to the population mix. This assortment of different people heavily influenced the architecture, language, music and cuisine. By the mid 1800's it was the third largest city in the US. It was also fortunate to escape the ravages of the civil war so many of the old structures were spared.
The heart of New Orleans is the French Quarter, about half a square mile of low buildings tucked between the river and Canal Street. The buildings here were originally designed during the Spanish era of the city and have a curious Caribbean feel to them.
The heart of the French Quarter is Jackson Square (originally Place d' Armes) and the three spires of St. Louis Cathedral. Musicians, fortune tellers and artists hang out around the square providing entertainment for a few bucks.
There are surprising few shops around the square, most of the commercial properties are a block or two away. One of the landmarks just across from the square is Cafe du Monde. This, or a coffee shop much like it, has occupied the space since the late 1800's. Being old is not enough, however, and Cafe du Monde is famous for being open 24hrs, serving coffee with chicory and having something called a beignet (basically a French-style doughnut). "Oh, you have to go there!" all the locals advised me. I only wanted one, but I had to buy three for around a buck fifty. The coffee was OK, the beignet interesting but not worth the hype.
What is interesting about the place is that so many people go there. It's a great place to just sit and people watch.
You can only sit for so long and New Orleans is about exploring; there's a lot to see, hear and eat. Some of the "Quarter" streets are closed to traffic on weekend afternoons and any number of performers can be found playing there.
One of the other gems of New Orleans is the trolley car system. A ride costs about a dollar but you an get an all-day pass for five bucks. That's a good deal for for a tour to some of the interesting parts of the city.
The Charles street trolley goes through the stately homes of the "garden district." The whole area is laden with beautiful old trees and stately manors. In fact, it's one of the best collections of southern mansions in the US. There are also a few parks, restaurants and two universities along the route.
At one point, the St. Charles St. trolley makes a 90 degree turn. Looking out the window I saw a lineup of people waiting to get into what looked like a restaurant. I hopped off and asked the folks up what the fuss was about. "You've never been to The Camilla Grill?" I recognized the name from the list of restaurants some locals gave me. I was a bit put off by the size of the line, though. "It's worth it!" someone told me. I spent about ten minutes waiting in the line, chatting with folks about what I should get. The number one suggestion was the chili omelet. There's no table service in the place, just counter dining. Because I was alone, I was able to get a seat within five minutes of getting inside.
My omelet was cooked right in front of me. They use a blender to whip up the egg until it's fluffy, pour it on the grill and, when done, transfer it to a plate and pour a ladle of chili over the top. I must admit it was pretty good, but it was the fun staff and happy customers that really made the experience. Another interesting place to eat is the Port of Call restaurant. I discovered it on my own but had no idea as to its reputation with locals.
One of my favorite places to eat is Drago's, at the bottom of Canal St. Their specialty is grilled oysters. I get a seat at the grill to watch the guys in action.
I missed out on the crayfish on both my trips, arriving just before and just after they were in season. So, I had to satisfy myself with shrimp and oysters. I was quite satisfied. Another favorite oyster dish is Oysters Rockefeller at the Bourbon St. Grill. They shuck them right at the bar. I became painfully aware of how bad an oyster shucker I am. These pros have it down to an art.
I wandered into Deanies during a heavy rain. I had no idea what to get so I wandered around the tables looking to see what everyone was eating. The most interesting dish was something served in a skillet. The couple eating it were regulars and assured me that the BBQ shrimp was amazing. It's also messy as you have to peel them yourself. Absolutely delicious though!
One of the most surprising dishes I ate came from a restaurant called Luke (attached to a Hilton on Charles St.). The person who recommended it was positive I'd enjoy it. Shrimp and grits for breakfast? It didn't sound appealing, but I promised I'd try it. Wow! Talk about yummy!
I walked a lot on my two weekends in New Orleans, but there's no way I burned off all those calories. Maybe next time I should walk home.

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