New Orleans, or The Big Easy as it is affectionately called, is to my mind one of the world’s great places for its combination of food, music and bars.
In the 17th Century, France occupied a vast swathe North to South through the middle of North America from the Gulf of Mexico to the Rockies and on to the Great Lakes and what is now Canada. The Mississippi River was their main route into the country and control of the delta region was essential to keeping the trade routes open to France. And so the port city of New Orleans was established as a major French colony. It was relatively recently in historical terms, 1803 to be precise, that France was persuaded by the then President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, to sell back the territories they occupied under a scheme known as the Louisiana Purchase. Since that time the political and mercantile influences of France declined but the French culture remained and is still abundantly evident to this day. And the style of the restaurants and the food epitomises that French influence.
On our recent trip to New Orleans some excellent food was consumed, we listened to great music in clubs and on the street and, occasionally, visited the odd drinking establishment. The bars are now a bit of a haze but the food and the music have left clearer memories.
We did, of course, revisit Stanley’s, for brunch. The Stanley experience is described in last year’s blog. However, being Memorial Weekend the wait time was about 1½ hours. There was nothing for it but to put our names on the wait-list and visit Stanley’s coffee bar next door to sample their superb Bloody Marys. These Bloody Marys are not only strong in alcohol terms but strong on the chilli front as well. You’re encouraged to add as much hot sauce, chillies, etc as you like – or as the glass can hold. The food, when we got it, was exactly as we remembered right down to the crispy fried fresh oysters in Hollandaise sauce.
The Hilton St Charles hotel has a classy restaurant on the ground floor by the name of Lüke, described on its website as a “homage to the grand old Franco-German brasseries that once reigned in New Orleans “. It certainly did not disappoint. We shared a large, multi-tiered seafood platter laden with oysters, mussels, crab, shrimps, clams and ceviche. The accompanying horseradish sauce had a real hot kick. For main courses we made our own choices. I stuck to the seafood theme and had a massive bowl of mussels steamed with garlic & thyme and a side dish of house-made French fries. Delicious. When the bill, or should I say the check, came it was a pleasant surprise. Including wine it was under $50 a head. Excellent.
Another great eating place with a French brasserie atmosphere, was the Palace Café. In fact it was so good we visited twice. We came across it by accident when looking along the famous Canal Street for a place that might sell snacks other than the fast-food joints. There are tables on the street in Parisienne café style but with the crowds passing and the car fumes only feet away, they did not appeal. Inside was a totally different story. The first sign of a good place is the attire of the waiters and waitresses – in this case smart black and white – and the welcome – in this case both warm and courteous. They had passed the test. There is a main dining area spread over three floors where grand meals are on offer. Towards the back an area is set aside with bar stools and high tables where drinks and snacks are on offer. Exactly what we were looking for – and it was child-friendly.
On one visit we chose from the savoury snack part of the menu and on the other from the desserts. Apart from the speciality bread, everything else is made on the premises in a kitchen that was visible to all through a wall-to-wall glass screen. It looked very well managed and there was no sense of an autocratic head chef a la Gordon Ramsay but that didn’t detract from the quality and inventiveness of the end product. The savoury menu included Crabmeat Cheesecake, Oyster Pan Roast, Crab Claws Bordelaise and Fried Oyster Loaf, of which the latter was the winner by a short head. The dessert menu included White Chocolate Bread Pudding, Bananas Foster – a house speciality and the runaway favourite of the youngest member of our party – White Chocolate Crème Brulée and Pecan Pie. The Palace Café, in my book, is reason in itself to visit New Orleans.
The last place on this list is Mulate’s, “The Original Cajun Restaurant and Dance Hall”. As I mentioned much earlier, the reason we went to NOLA at this time was to witness the National Quiz Bowl event in which our grandson was participating. On the Sunday night there was a team dinner to which family supporters were invited. And so around 6pm, which is rather early in the evening by European standards, we assembled at Mulate’s to join the team and their parents for dinner. Mulate’s is a cavernous hall with big rows of tables and seats for well over 100 people. At the far end there is a stage with rather garish Cajun scenery and a small band which, as the evening went on, got louder and louder.
The food is in the Cajun tradition. At our end of the table we nearly all homed in on the Crawfish Etouffée which is peeled crawfish tails smothered in a stew or roux and white rice and served with a platter of sautéed vegetables. What I would call a tasty seafood podge. In true American style, the portions were designed for the healthier end of the appetite scale – great for the teenager contestants but over-the-top for the septuagenarian grandparents. We would have been easily satisfied with one plate between us. Whilst we were eating a number of assorted age-group couples took to the dance floor. There were three tables of quiz bowl teams from different parts of the country. They were all young teenagers in the 13 to 15 age range and roughly 50/50 boys and girls. One or two were brave enough to get onto the floor but, for the most part, the boys gathered together in a separate group, as did the girls. One girl, from a school in Oklahoma, homed in on our Henry as her preferred dancing partner. Before long he was persuaded onto the floor and, to the best of our knowledge, we witnessed a young man having his first dancehall experience. He equipped himself well – watch out girls!!
Music, mostly jazz, is everywhere in New Orleans. And I’m not talking about piped muzak, it’s 99% live. It’s on the streets, in the bars, in restaurants and in clubs. The only place it is not is on Bourbon Street where the emphasis is on gangs of men and women out to get drunk on over-priced cocktails and a number of strip joints. All very seedy.
Street music forms the core of New Orleans jazz and folk. There’s an excellent article on the Huffington Post blog site. It describes the variety and skill of the artists. You get surprises all the time. One night we were walking in the street near the hotel when we heard the sound of a Swing Band coming from the next block. On closer inspection the band was marching along the road, with police motorcycle outriders, as part of a wedding celebration. The music and rhythm were of such high quality that we fell into line and marched with them right into the middle of the French Quarter.
The best place for lots of good music in a small area is Frenchman Street on the eastern boundary of the French Quarter. There must be twenty or more clubs and bars mostly offering free entry and you can even bring your drink, in a plastic glass, with you from the last place you visited. The style of jazz and the quality of the players varies from one place to the next but enthusiasm knows no bounds. Some of the groups obviously play together all the time whilst others are jam session bands.
We visited three places starting with the Spotted Cat Music Club. The club is one crowded room with most people standing, a bar near the back and the stage beside the door. Pushing through the crowd to the bar, then having your order heard against the noise and your British English understood is quite a trial, but it’s all very worthwhile. The music tonight was high calibre. I don’t know if it has a particular style label but let’s just say it was contemporary blues. The tunes were not old favourites, the solos were highly individual but the underlying rhythm was blues and the overall experience was top class.
Our next port of call was the Blue Nile. This was a much bigger location with a long bar and a large stage. The band was much bigger with about ten players. Rather oddly, it was an all-black crew except for the leader who was white. They played a more funky form of jazz with a lot of noise and lots of interplay between the band members. The overall effect was great but the noise generated was a bit over the top and we left after two numbers.
The third and final stop was at the Balcony Music Club which is not on Frenchman Street but technically back in the French Quarter. On our last visit to New Orleans it was the place we tended to end up in each night as it was just round the corner from our hotel. The music played there is of every style from jazz and blues to rock and folk. Tonight it was nearer to the latter. Whether it was the hour – now after 2am – or the crowd – now a bit unruly – we soon tired of the music and headed out to catch a taxi back to our hotel.
On this visit the Quiz Bowl took up a fair chunk of the day time when we might have done a bit of sightseeing, so there wasn’t much time to absorb the cultural or historic aspects of NOLA. That will have to be left for next time.
The visitor is spoilt for choice when it comes to finding eating and drinking places. Although many are in the French Quarter, other areas such as the Warehouse District and the Garden District are also good hunting grounds. We had a great brunch in the Garden District at Trolley Stop Café which served traditional diner style food. In the Warehouse District we had a snack at Cochon Butchers which is a stylish dining place (Cochon) and a canteen style fast food place (Butchers). This two-part eating place is on Tchoupitoulas Street, a bit of a mouthful in itself.
I must just mention one bar, Corporation Bar & Grille, much more ‘bar’ than ‘grille’. It is close to the Convention Centre and sandwiched between modern hotels. It occupies a single-storey, concrete, very unprepossessing building on a corner plot. Once inside, it had all the appeal of a seedy saloon with a long bar and plenty of battered, leather high-stools – great. And it was remarkably clean and shiny. The lady bartender gave us a great welcome on both visits. The Makers Mark Kentucky Bourbon fitted the bill the first time whilst the Reyka Icelandic vodka, a new drink for me with a clean and slightly peppery flavour, was an excellent experience on the second occasion.
New Orleans may be at the mouth of the mighty Mississippi and the river may flow right through the centre of the city but during the four days we were there, we never caught sight of it. This is mostly because of the high levees that have been constructed to protect the city from flooding. It’s just not like the Thames in London or the Seine in Paris where the rivers form a centre-piece of the whole experience. In New Orleans, if you want to see the river you have to make an effort. Next time.