Monday, March 24, 2014

New Orleans

New Orleans, Louisiana is one-of-a-kind. It's a city of celebration and music, of perfectly-crafted cocktails and bold, chicory coffee. A city of grit and glitter: streetcars and riverboats, sprawling Southern mansions, and dive bars that are open 24/7. It's a city of voodoo and spirits, the shadows of ghosts and angels passing on the street. Put simply, it's a magical place. 

Whether it’s your first visit or your tenth, the options of what to eat, drink, and do in “The Big Easy” are endless. If you’d rather not spend your day barhopping with bachelorettes and frat boys and instead experience NOLA without feeling like a total tourist, I’ve got the ultimate list for you. And yes, if you find yourself in New Orleans sometime soon, you should do/eat/drink everything on it.


Bloody Marys at The Hotel Monteleone's Carousel Bar & Lounge

Ten NOLA Must-Dos:  


Kickoff Cocktails at the Carousel Bar & Lounge
Start your visit (and your day) off right with a Bloody Mary (or two) at The Hotel Monteleone’s Carousel Bar. If you aren’t lucky enough to score a seat at the revolving bar, grab a table by the windows and people watch. If you want to kick it up a notch, try the bar’s other fantastic cocktails, like the best Sazerac in town (rye whiskey, Herbsaint, bitters and simple syrup) or “Death in the Afternoon” (a mix of absinthe and Champagne). On your way out, take in the historic hotel’s lobby and pay homage to its previous guests: distinguished Southern writers including Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, and Truman Capote. 214 Royal Street. (504) 523-3341, www.hotelmonteleone.com. Bar opens at 11:00 a.m. daily.


Morning Walking Tour
If you’re not quite ready for a morning cocktail, make your way to the much-celebrated Café du Monde, New Orleans’ “original French Market coffee stand.” Avoid the devastatingly long lines and baby stroller traffic jams: get your “Coffee and Chicory” to go. And, don’t forget an order of beignets: powdered-sugar-coated fried dough goodness. With coffee and still-warm fritters in hand, start a walking tour of the city. You can book a local guide to take you around, or do like we did and use one of several self-guided walking tours available online. Then, take your time savoring the enthralling history and captivating architecture of the French Quarter.


Head on over to Jackson Square (a short walk from Café du Monde) and admire the St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest cathedral in the United States. Be sure to stop and admire the statue of General Jackson and his rearing horse across the square. If you picked a good tour, you’ll learn what’s so special about the statue. (I’ll give you a hint: it has something to do with the horse.) If you come across the Merieult House (533 Royal Street), take a minute to take it in. It is one of only two buildings that weren’t damaged in the fire of 1794. And, if you dare, spend some time peeking into the windows of the LaLaurie House (1140 Royal Street). It’s the city’s most-famous privately owned home, and also referred to as “The Haunted House” due to terrible happenings there in the 1830s. Café du Monde, 800 Decatur Street. (504) 525-4544, www.cafedumonde.com. Open 24 hours. Self-Guided Walking Tour Map of the French Quarter available here.


Go Big Easy Shopping
No getaway is complete without a little shopping. Whether you’re in search of a first-edition of Mastering the Art of French Cooking or yellow pumps from the 1950s, there’s something in New Orleans for everyone. Fill your closet with retro finds from Trashy Diva  (537 Royal Street, (504) 522-4233, www.trashydiva.com) and load up on delicate fragrances, soaps, lotions, and more at Hové Parfumeur (434 Chartres St., (504) 525-7827, www.hoveparfumeur.com). Not sure which scent to choose? Try the Creole favorite, Vetivert, or perhaps the Magnolia, or Spanish Moss. And, don’t forget to buy your favorite guy hand-rolled cigars from The Cigar Factory (415 Decatur St., (504) 568-1003, www.cigarfactoryneworleans.com/dev/). Looking for something to read on the flight home? Stay a while at Faulkner House Books in the historic Pirate’s Alley (624 Pirate's Alley, (504) 524-2940, www.faulknerhouse.net) or browse to your heart’s delight at Kitchen Witch Cookbooks (631 Toulouse Street, (504) 528-8382, www.kwcookbooks.com, closed on Tuesday).


Make a Sandwich Stop
Nothing heals a day-drinking hangover like one of Central Grocery’s “Original Muffuletta” sandwiches. There’s just something about the combination of Italian meats and cheeses and a briny olive salad all piled between round slices of thick bread that perks you up and gets you ready for another round of whatever NOLA throws your way. Order a whole portion for take-out and share it on a bench by the river while you watch the riverboats and barges come and go on the mighty Mississippi. 923 Decatur St, (504) 523-1620, www.centralgroceryneworleans.com. Closed Sundays and Mondays.


Be Seen at the Local Music Scene
When you’ve had your fill of Bourbon Street, find your way to Frenchmen Street for the quintessential New Orleans’ local music scene. Drinks and shows are inexpensive (usually no cover fees) and you just might find yourself in the front row of class acts like Charmaine Neville, Ellis Marsalis, Kristina Morales and more. Favorite spots: The Spotted Cat Music Club, 623 Frenchmen Street, www.spottedcatmusicclub.com or Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro, 626 Frenchmen Street, (504) 949-0696, www.snugjazz.com.


Take a Streetcar to Brunch
If you’re in NOLA on a Saturday or Sunday, grab the St. Charles Streetcar line ($1.25/ride) and head out to the Garden District for brunch. Get off at the Washington Avenue stop, and make your way down the pretty tree-lined streets (you can do a walking tour of the Garden District, too – there are gorgeous Southern mansions and their landscaped gardens to admire). Stop for a reverent stroll through Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, the oldest of the seven city-operated aboveground cemeteries in New Orleans. (The dead are buried above the ground to avoid flooding problems due to the city being below sea level.)


Time your visit to the Garden District with your coveted reservations for Jazz Brunch at the renowned Commander's Palace. Even the locals will tell you: if there is one place you MUST go when you visit New Orleans, this would be it. Commander’s Palace offers the true definition of Southern hospitality, with an impeccably trained staff and decadently tasty food. If you’re lucky, you’ll score a corner table in the sunny garden room. Or, if it’s a nice day, try for the outdoor patio. Either way, you’ll find your toes-a-tapping to the live jazz while you order another cocktail and contemplate having dessert. (Yes, do it.) NOLA streetcar info and schedules at www.norta.com; Lafayette Cemetery No. 1,1400 Washington Ave., (504) 525-3377; Commander’s Palace, 1403 Washington Ave., (504) 899-8221, www.commanderspalace.com. Reservations a must and jackets for men preferred. Get the “Pork Belly Apple Pie” appetizer.


Try NOLA-Style Tapas
The Brennan family scores big with Commander’s Palace, but SoBou, one of their newest (and top-rated) restaurants offers up “Louisiana Street Food Inspired Small Plates.” Stop in for Executive Chef Juan Carlos Gonzalez’s playful spin on tuna tartare: “Yellow Fin Tuna Cones” served with a creamy basil-avocado ice cream, and get an order or two of the addicting “Crispy Boudin Balls.” And, who knew that beignets are even better when they’re savory? Made with butternut squash and served up with “duck debris” and a “chicory coffee ganache,” this NOLA staple has been transformed. Still hungry? Do yourself a favor and order the “Foie Gras Burger.” It’s spectacular and comes with crunchy pork cracklings and a tiny root beer float made with foie gras ice cream (of course). It’s one of those dishes you’ll wake up craving weeks from now. Trust me. After stuffing your face, waddle up to the bar and let ultra-cool, mega-talented head “bar chef” Abigail Deirdre Gullo craft you a special cocktail. She’s pretty much famous around town and beyond, and knows her stuff. In other words, you’ll stay for hours, but you’ll leave happy. 310 Rue Chartres (504) 552-4095, www.sobounola.com. Get the “Foie Gras Burger,” ask for Abi at the bar.


Laze Around at the French Market
Spend a lazy afternoon at The French Market, where you can shop more than six blocks worth of vendors and stock up on everything from freshly made Creole pralines (pronounced “praw-leens”), Louisiana hot sauce, and Zapp’s potato chips (try the Spicy Cajun Crawtator flavor), to handmade jewelry and other flea market finds. Pull up a stool at one of the many food stalls for a Southern treat or two. We devoured a “Fried Green Tomato Po’ Boy,” “Crawfish Mac ‘N’ Cheese,” and “Apple Pie Beignets” at the friendly Mother Nature’s Cupboard (1100 N. Peters St. Bay #35, (504) 239-7583), just one of many great options. The French Market, 1235 N. Peters St, (504) 596-3420, www.frenchmarket.org.


Get a Gris-Gris from Dr. John
No trip to New Orleans would be complete without a little black magic. There are numerous voodoo shops, tarot card readers, and fortune tellers in the French Quarter, but we weren’t really interested in spending time with any of them. But, on our third day in town, we received a call from our home security company: our burglar alarm was going off (we were a 3-hour flight away from home). The owner of the shop I had stepped into to answer the call overheard the conversation and suggested we make a detour and go directly to see Dr. John at the Voodoo Museum. Dr. John, a high voodoo priest, blessed us, and instructed us to buy an UnHex/Protection gris-gris bag to ward off evil. (According to the museum’s website, a “gris-gris” is used to attract and influence the Voodoo spirits.) As we left the museum, my phone rang – it was the police telling me it was a false alarm. (Believe what you want, but the gris-gris is now hanging up in our house.) Even if you don’t have a reason like we did to stop in, it’s worth making a visit to the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum. Spend a few dollars to tour it if you’re into that kind of thing. But, the real draw is chatting with Dr. John. He’ll be the one with the live snake around his neck. 724 Dumaine Street (504) 680-0128, www.voodoomuseum.com, open 7 days.


Take it Easy at Dinner
There’s no better way to end a great vacation than with a fabulous farewell dinner. But, leave the swanky tasting menu restaurants to New York and Chicago, and enjoy a fantastic meal in a landmark building that better reflects the laid-back vibe of “The Big Easy.” Sylvain is cool and cozy, and its chef, Alex Harrell, sources “the best ingredients from the southern United States.” He does his job superbly well, turning out salads piled high with local produce and main courses like a fantastic and enormous “Country Fried Steak,” served up with more of those local greens. Make sure you get an order of the Buffalo-style veal sweetbreads. They taste like your favorite spicy wings, but better. (Even if you don’t think you like sweetbreads, these are worth a try.) Service is attentive without being intrusive, the cocktail menu is inspired, and the bar is always packed. Plus, any place that offers “Champagne and French Fries” on their menu is a must for me. Santé! Cheers! 625 Chartres St, (504) 265-8123, www.sylvainnola.com. Try the sweetbreads.


Happy Travels!
xoxo


       This article was previously published by La Petite Gourmess on www.beyondtravelwriting.com

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