Trips to New Orleans always are a feast for the senses, with a guarantee of vivid, priceless memories. Regardless of the impetus – jazz fest, a business trip, NCAA basketball, or a special occasion – a Big Easy visit never disappoints. This trip proved no exception, and in many respects, raised my level of affection for the city to new levels.
Unlike most trips, this ‘high style’ adventure allowed my wife and I the opportunity to not worry about budget and sample some of the city’s finest cuisine and libations, all in one three-day long celebration. And so we did.
The adventure started mid-afternoon on Thursday at Mr. B’s, where we decamped after dropping our bags at the Monteleone while our room was readied. With a reservation for August later that evening, we did not want to overindulge. Moreover, a work crisis temporarily interrupted the start of fun, delaying us just enough that we missed the lunch hour, which necessitated a seat at the bar.
Thankfully, all was just perfect when we moseyed across the street, starting with my wife’s glass of chardonnay and a Sazerac for me. The latter provided a piquant burst of rye flavor followed by a sweet after taste with more than a hint of absinthe flavor. Sazeracs are a relative novelty for me – who can really be an expert when they have something once every three years? – but this certainly delivered what I wanted.
The very helpful bartender not only mixed a great cocktail, he provided interesting banter (a trait shared by all Big Easy mixologists?) as we waited for our half order of Barbecue Shrimp and Duck Spring Roll app. Upon the shrimp’s arrival, I was immediately reminded about the power this buttery, zingy dish holds over my taste buds. Thank goodness we had a warm, crusty loaf of French bread to mop up the copious sauce in all of its garlicky, aromatic goodness. The accompanying duck spring rolls provided the perfect savory complement to the shrimp, especially the smoky/sweet “duck sauce.” This was the perfect foil for the rich shrimp and taken together, both were the perfect portion to whet our appetites.
Sated, we hit the street for a late afternoon of antiquing, sight-seeing, and basking, as the temperature was a balmy 68 (the warm weather lingered throughout our stay!) We eventually found our way to Muriel’s bar, for an early evening drink where we enjoyed a glass of red wine and the amusing chatter of a very animated, lovely, charming bartendress, all while soaking in the ambiance.
After a quick trip to the hotel for formal check in and a wardrobe change, we headed to August for an 8:30 reservation with the highest of expectations. Which may have been the trouble, as the meal fell short (in fact, far short) of the anticipated experience. The first sign that the experience might not equal the expectation began as soon as we were seated at a corner round with six chairs. On the one hand, it was very nice that the staff would place us in the corner for a more cozy experience. With its 18-foot high ceilings, beautiful chandeliers, and tasteful appointments, I wanted to imbibe the refinement. On the other, it was hard to ignore the four empty seats surrounding us, not to mention the adjacent tables of boisterous business people on either side. My wife was fine with this arrangement; I felt the Feng Shui was a more than bit awkward.
When the wine list arrived, we leisurely perused it before opting for a lovely Volnay, a De Reyane et Pascal Bouley Pommard (2004), which was reasonably priced, even at $100. Both of us agreed that we’d made a nice choice, as the burgundy offered deep color, strong cherry and spice flavor, and lingered nicely on the tongue. Better still, the lead server, a professional in every sense of the word right down to his almost-stony façade, had us sipping in no time. Soon thereafter, we place our orders and tucked into the freshly baked French bread and awaiting the amuse bouche. The display (seafood mousse in egg shell topped with shards of dark truffle) was arresting and I enjoyed this rich, cream-based (undoubtedly, heavy) treat. My wife could barely get a bit of it down. Different strokes, as they say. My lone comment is that the tasty three-bite offering is the richest three-bite pre-meal morsel I’ve ever had in my life. My god, that was filling! And not in a great way. I’d much rather have been presented with something that landed more lightly.
The next course provided both the highlight and lowlight of the meal. Yes, the handmade gnocchi appetizer draped in crab/truffle/butter/cream was nothing short of luscious. Everybody should be lucky enough to enjoy that dish once in a lifetime. The “chop” salad, on the other hand, suffered from 1) out of season veggies on the plate (ergo, the yellow tomatoes were particularly not ripe); 2) odd combinations (pomegranate seeds with citrus fruit? Really?); and 3) a dearth of alleged champagne herb vinaigrette.
Elated and disappointed, we looked forward to the mains – Texas Elk loin for me, Redfish Courtboullion for my wife. And look forward we did, for some 30 minutes … which is where the awkward table set up comes in … let’s just say, my seat was angled toward the business men enjoying their meals, which meant twisting sideways in my seat to enjoy my wife’s company. E
The elk was a first for me and I really found it to be a wonderful cut, vivid in flavor and texture. Better still, the accompanying huckleberry jus provided a splendid, southern spin on classic French cuisine. Even the baby root veggies were a pleasure. So what to make of the unfortunate “brioche crepinette” which surrounded the elk? Nothing that gummy and difficult to cut belonged on a plate with this fine food. There is no way to put it nicely. Memo to Chef Besh: 86 the brioche wrap. The Redfish Courtboullion suffered no such tragic flaw. The nicely sized, perfectly prepared fish in a gentle broth topped with jumbo shrimp, blue crab was perfectly good. My wife felt it should have been, well, more distinctive. Nothing about this dish offended, yet it did not distinguish itself. Especially when compared to the best part of the meal (did I mention the heavenly gnocchi? You simply must try it!)
Having room for dessert, and still sipping our Volnay, we selected the “Père Roux’” banana rum cake with “Creole” cream-cheese icing. This high-craft fare tasted dizzyingly scrumptious, a delicate rum flavor blending nicely into dense banana cake. This dessert was meant to leave a smile behind. Unfortunately, we could not leave, as we waited 20 more minutes, still sipping the last drops of wine, hoping the server might bring the check. Eventually, we flagged him to do so, and then waited another five minutes for credit card processing. We left exhausted, opting to head back to the hotel room for a nightcap and the promise of more adventure the next day.
And what an escapade we enjoyed! We eschewed a big breakfast (room service coffee and toast) in favor of more antiquing, a visit to the very impressive WWII Museum, a trolley car ride, and a late lunch at Commander’s Palace, where a table awaiting us in the partially sunlit Garden Room overlooking the courtyard. There, we were seated amongst a gaily festive, ebullient, crowd of lunching ladies enjoying colorful martinis, lively conversation and the unseasonably warm temperatures. We had a front row seat to what seemed the most fun event in town! The service was also a pleasure, smiles abounding from the staff as we were plied with water, bread, cocktails (Bloody Mary for me; Cosmo for the wife), and great cheer. Southern hospitality thy name is Commander’s Palace.
We did not wait long before the first of our two courses arrived, the Turtle Soup for me, served table side and then topped with a dab of sherry, and the Commander’s Salad for her, a delight that included romaine, parmesan, bacon, French bread croutons, grated Swiss and cream black pepper dressing. She declared it the best salad she’d tasted in months. I did not disagree. This was a lovely starter. My Turtle Soup was no slouch, a beautifully crafted, thick broth that boasted a superior roux; nice garlic/butter/thyme flavor; and chunks of meat (I will stipulate the meat came from a turtle, though I’ve never actually tried turtle before.) In a sound, yum.
Not soon after we finished the delightful appetizers, a steaming plate of Creole Courtboullion studded with shrimp, oysters, fish, and rice arrived alongside an open-faced Cochon de Lait “po boy." Having agreed to split the dishes, my envious side reared its head a smidgen when the server placed the most desirable pork dish I’d seen in some time before my wife.
I allowed that silly feeling to pass. After all, the very tasty courtboullion awaited. Thankfully, the dish more than held its own against the promise of the pork, owing largely to a perfectly seasoned broth and tender seafood. Besides, it was not long before I was dipping my fork into the thick slabs of smoked pork slathered in “okra chow chow” and “sticky bourbon jam” (code for perfect blend of savory and sweet) atop a slab of surprising boudin. I savored each rich bite.
Quite full, I needed to be convinced that a slice of pecan pie accompanied by a scoop of homemade ice cream would not be too much. I’m thankful my wife did. We devoured the single best slice of pecan pie we’d ever had, and made us curse our native New England’s inferior desserts.
The pleasure of this meal would have been more than enough. Somehow, the experience elevated again when, while waiting in the lobby for my wife to powder her nose, I struck up a conversation with a kitchen manager standing at the host station. Minutes later, my wife and I were whisked into the kitchen for an impromptu tour. There, we watched Chef Tory McPhail oversee a staff of 15, which was wrapping up a 450-cover lunch. The chef even took a minute to have his picture snapped with us. He graciously shared his time, along with a preview for a new $500-per-head wine room the restaurant will soon open. We left with the warmest feeling imaginable, which was fitting, as the weather allowed us to delight in a self-guided Garden District walking tour.
The rest of the afternoon flowed by lazily, but before long, it was time to get ready for our long-awaited return to Brigsten’s. Ten years prior, we had shared a memorable experience in the coziest, homiest restaurant we’d ever visited. The food seemed to us to be the highest form of Southern cuisine, and stood out, (along with a visit to Ugliesich’s) among the finest meals we’d ever experienced. We could not imagine this meal would be as memorable, and in some respects, it was not. Time rarely stands still, but at Brigsten’s, it can be said that little has changed in the past, most notably the lyrical Creole food of Chef Frank Brigsten.
If anything, we had a slight quibble about the service, which moved a little too quickly for our taste (we had an 8:30 reservation, were seated 20 minutes late, and as the last party seated, it seemed things were a tad bit rushed thereafter.) While we waited for the table, we sipped well-made Pimms Cup and soon were seated in the lovely front room. Feeling a bit hungry, we opted for two appetizers, the fried catfish with jalapeño tartar and a gratin of scallop and shrimps. Water arrived quickly, as did the New Orleans staple, fresh baked French bread. The appetizers arrived a few minutes later, and we quickly devoured them. The gratin in particular was a doozy, a sinfully rich delight (butter, cheese) with a hint of Cajun spice.
Soon after, we gazed upon my wife’s Seafood Platter, a dish which I recalled being on the menu a decade before. Even as she placed the order, my wife knew she could not possibly finish the feast of meal to come, which is comprised of grilled drum in a crawfish pistachio sauce; a pile of shrimp aboard a pile of cornbread infused with jalapeño infused butter, a baked oyster/shrimp/crabmeat concoction, another baked oyster (Bienville, known for its rich béchamel, wine, and cheese sauce), and a seared sea scallop whose accompanying sauce escapes me. Smiling when she ordered, she said, there will be plenty for you. Smiling back, I said, perhaps, but we’ll have to see how I do with mine.
Indeed, the paneed veal I ordered, which was topped with a hearty Osso Bucco gravy and spears of soft grilled asparagus, and accompanied by velvety cheese grits, was as rich a meal as I’ve ever eaten, especially the butter-infused, deep brown roux specked with fresh thyme. This dish can only be imagined in the Deep South. Where else would one think of slow cooking veal shanks to use as gravy for a top-quality cutlet? This was so wonderful, I could not do more than sample but a bite of scallop and the obscenely creamy oyster/shrimp/crab dish. Much too full for dessert, we bid adieu and headed to the Carousel Bar where we found a scene dominated by drunken wedding and rehearsal dinner parties. Somehow, we lucked into two bar seats and enjoyed a night cap, savoring the best eating day we’d had in many a year.
Awaking the next day and still feeling full, we again eschewed breakfast, instead grabbing a quick cup of coffee before wandering out into the 70-degree weather. Eventually, we grew hungry and headed to Luke for an early brunch in advance of a busy afternoon (a second line, holiday shopping, and a visit to the Ogden). Seated by a lovely hostess, an eager young waiter soon took our drink and appetizer order. We opted for a half-dozen marvelous fresh oysters, which we were assured were local Gulf variety, a mint julep for me, and a Bloody Mary for her. While waiting for the drinks, we realized the space was much different than the others we’d experienced, very much a hotel feel (which made sense, given its hotel setting.) The eatery's austere surroundings belied the excellent fare to come, notably the pork cheek entrée served atop two dense biscuits, a pile of braised collards, and a tasso infused hollandaise. This was another stellar smoky meal, with the slow cooked pork starring amid a perfect ensemble of accompanying flavors. (We later learned the pork is broken down over 12 hours Amen.) My wife kept trying to steal bites, which was not to say that she did not enjoy her crabcakes and poached eggs. But who could blame her? The mint julep is worth special mention, an icy delight made with a high-quality bourbon.
The day’s activities were lovely, but over too soon, and as darkness descended, we decided to freshen up quickly back at the hotel before heading out for a libation at Bar Tonique. This was an unexpected highlight of the trip, as we were treated to a show by an intense barkeep, whose style and skill were beyond compare. So too was the Frenchmen’s Dark & Stormy, which featured two types of rum and a serious ginger syrup, and the Corpse Reviver #4, something not on the menu but a twist on the gin, lillet blanc, Cointreau and absinthe concoction that's called #2.
Feeling vigorous, we soon headed to Herbsaint with a plan to skip mains and save our appetite for our one blowout night of the trip (three sets of Glenn David Andrews, followed by two by the Kinfolk Brass Band.) Herbsaint’s menu was more than up to meeting our requirement, as we ordered four small plates and a gumbo, the latter which featured an astral, complex roux along with chicken, tasso and andouille. The others were equally memorable – a velvety shrimp and grits; a lovely beef short rib; a baked garganelli pasta dish with shitake mushrooms and pancetta; and a roasted oyster, which featured four plump bivalves flecked with jalapeno and a hint of cayenne. All terrific, just what we wanted prior to an evening of revelry.
Fast forward to 1:30 a.m., our hunger up after plenty of carousing, when we made our way over to the brand spanking new French Quarter outpost of Camelia Grill on Chartes Street (we happened to walk by 24 hours earlier when the doors opened for the first time.) My wife ordered a burger; I had the chocolate freeze. Great late night diner fare, the quarter is beffter off for it.
The next morning, our last in the city before heading back home, we enjoyed a bottle of champagne while deciding whether to brave the suddenly chilly weather (mid 40s wind chill) or stick close to the hotel. The choice was easy when my wife voiced a desire for an oyster po boy. Bingo, Felix’s!
I’ve always had a soft spot for this old-school place, especially having wound up there the day it re-opened, post-Katrina, in 2007. So we walked a half-block, ordered bloody’s, coffee, a fried oyster po boy, a half-dozen char grilled oysters, crawfish etouffee, and fried catfish appetizer, and took in the sights and sounds of a place that time has passed by. Decidedly non-high-style, this toothsome feast was perfect for a lazy Sunday as was the fading, ramshackle setting. Felix's fry cooks know their stuff, and the resutls showed it.
Like Felix’s, New Orleans’ charm is beguiling. The Big Easy is a great big stew of warmth and hospitality. It’s façade may be weathered, its flaws pronounced, yet its heart beats strong. The city always feels like a friend whose spirit will not be denied. A friendly friend at that, with a great sense of taste and flair.
In other words, I can’t wait to do this again soon!
701 Saint Charles Avenue, New Orleans, LA 70130
820 N Rampart St, New Orleans, LA 70116