Late on Thursday afternoon, March 11, we got on our Southwest flight to New Orleans excited about our adventure. JS had been there over 10 years ago, but the rest of us were visiting this town for the first time. The weeks preceding the trip, we had made arrangements for dinner at this Southern capital of cuisine.
We began the first day in New Orleans by going for lunch at Uglesich's, located some distance from the French Quarter on Baronne Street at Erato. We walked there, passing through the business district, and we arrived around 11 AM, early enough to avoid the lunch rush. We sat outside to take in the flavor of this neighborhood, which is clearly undergoing a facelift. The sassy waiter shared his opinion of our choices freely, while the owner sat next to us and talked to the local regulars. We sampled appetizers of shrimp & grits (southern-fried grits with shrimp in cream sauce), fried oysters with blue cheese dressing on greens (yummy, and one of the oysters had a malformed pearl!), fried green tomatoes with shrimp and a remoulade sauce (JSs favorite), and crawfish balls (whole crawfish tails rolled in seasoned bred crumbs). All appetizers were a hit except for the crawfish. The shrimp had a nice kick and their batter was light. As for our entrees, we tried the oyster po-boy, the shrimp uggie (crushed red pepper, hot sauce, onion, bell pepper with new potatoes), the catfish-and-trout muddy water (the muddy water consisted of chicken broth, garlic, anchovies and jalapenos with parmesan cheese), the nicely named and waiter-recommended Paul's Fantasy (fried catfish with grilled shrimp and potatoes). All these were good, though the Muddy Waters and Shrimp Uggie were the best.
Stuffed from lunch at Uglesich's, we strolled over to St Charles and followed the trolley line toward the Garden District. JS and LJ stopped at a local bar and partook on that famous NOLA pastime of buying drinks and taking them for our walk. Once at the District, we followed HMs self-guided walking tour of many of the amazing homes there. It is truly a spectacular collection of architectural gems with lovely wrought-iron fences and beautiful touches. We tired ourselves out by around 5 PM, so we headed back to the hotel on the trolley to get ready for dinner. Before heading back to the hotel, we walked a bit on Bourbon Street, which was slowly coming to life in the early evening.
Dressed in our fine threads, we headed back on the trolley to Brigtsen's. The trolley was SLOW; in fact, this was my only real complaint with NOLA, as the trolley was both snail-like and unreliable. But we eventually arrived at Brigtsens, a few blocks west of the near-end of St. Charles trolley line. We waited for our table a bit, but it was well worth it! We began with appetizers of spinach Caesar with oysters and apple-wood bacon (delicious), shrimp butternut bisque (absolutely lovely, nice shrimp taste), and a house salad with sweetbreads (delicious, with perfect-texture sweetbreads). The entrees consisted of gulf fish (sheeps head and asparagus with a crab breading), rabbit, and seafood platters. We loved these, particularly the gulf fish dish. We finished dinner with what would become the dessert against which all others would pale in comparison, the home-made pecan pie with home-made ice cream. We also sampled chocolate cake and the cafe au lait creme brulee. During dessert, we were visited at our table by the owner and chef, Frank Brigtsen. Content from dinner, we took the trolley back to the hotel.
Saturday came as a gorgeous, sunny, and dry day! We dressed and returned to the Garden District for brunch at Commander's Palace, an New Orleans institution across the street from Lafayette Cemetery. We were taken to our seats by going through the bustling kitchen busy with brunch preparations, then heading to the back dining room. We ordered drinks, which included the Commander's Bloody Mary (spectacularly garnished with peppers and served tableside with frozen cold vodka. It was OK, but the show of serving this drink was worth it!), Raymond's Gin Fizz, Champagne, and Planters Punch (good, but not quiet Mamas Fishhouse ). While a wonderful musician trio regaled us with jazz standards, we sampled the appetizers: soup sampler (sweet potato bisque, turtle soup, gumbo with okra; they were all outstanding with the turtle soup being amazing), chicken livers crusted with chestnuts (surprisingly tasty), and a seafood timbale (crab, gulf fish, which was nice and light). The brunch entrees consisted of Garden Eggs (poached eggs over mushroom cakes), cray fish, pecan-crusted sheeps head, and quail; all were wonderful. Finally, for dessert we had praline with home-made ice cream, creole bread pudding soufflé (awesome, though not quite the Brigtsens pecan pie), strawberry shortcake, and a cheese plate with praline pecans. Amazingly, the Commanders Palace chef also came out to greet us while we had dessert accompanied with chicory coffee.
After brunch, we walked back to St. Charles through the St Patricks Day parade. The floats were fun, with lots of beads and cabbage being tossed into the crowd. After watching the parade for some time, we took a cab to the hotel, changed, and headed into the French Quarter. We walked along Royal and Chartres, eventually ending up at another New Orleans institution, Café Du Monde, where we sampled the famous beignets with chicory coffee. We split up here, caught another parade (St. Josephs Day parade!), and eventually met up at the hotel to prepare for dinner.
We walked to Bella Luna that night, which is located along the river in the French Quarter, for what would turn out to be a decent dinner with disappointing service compared to the other restaurants we visited. This is a beautiful restaurant, though, with pretty views of the mighty Mississippi. We started by ordering a 2001 Kendall Jackson merlot, which was accidentally spilled on Dan. However, DS was not offered a complimentary glass, and the service remained oddly stiff for the rest of the night. We moved then to the appetizers, which included fried green tomatoes with jumbo crab meat remoulade (the tomatoes had a heavier crust than those at Uglesichs) and ceviche (wonderful). The next course consisted of a nice black bean soup, a very buttery lobster bisque, a non-descript mixed green salad (light dressing but hit-and-miss croutons), and a farmers salad with lovely blue cheese. The entrees were mahi mahi (perhaps the best fish JJ had all weekend), a veal chop special, a veal with asparagus with jumbo lump crab meat (both were unremarkable), and a pork chop. On the way back to the hotel, we walked on Bourbon to see what it was like at night wow
Sunday, our last full day in NOLA, began with a quest for more beignets. Finding the line at Café Du Monde impossibly long, we headed down the street to Café Beignet. HM, DS, LJ, and MM stopped at Central Grocery to purchase muffalettas for lunch later that day and the flight back on Monday. JS and JJ headed to Café Beignet to reserve a table. The beignets here were good, too, though more misshapen than the ones at Café Du Monde. After a pastry-filled breakfast, we walked to the French Market, where we split up to explore the French Quarter. The market itself was a little disappointing, as it mostly amounted to a tchotchke-filled quasi flea market, though JJ purchased some good spices there. JS and JJ liked the artisan market next door much better. After walking around the northeastern, quieter portion of the quarter, JS and JJ made it back to the room to eat the muffelettas while waiting for Dan, Lorna, Hali and Michael who had walked over to Acme Oyster House for some fresh oysters. A light rain fell that afternoon as we got ready for dinner.
We got on the St Charles trolley again and headed for Upperline (located past the Garden District in the University district) for our last dinner. JoAnn Clevenger, the restaurants owner and general manager, made us feel welcome and comfortable. We had two wines with dinner (a McMurray Pinot Noir 2001 and a Ramsey 2000 Merlot). Some of us tried the Taste of New Orleans menu, which consisted of a sampler menu in 3 courses. The choices of first courses were a duck etouffe (wonderful!), corn cakes with Louisiana pepper jelly, turtle soup (smoky and wonderful), and an andouille sausage gumbo. The second course included choices of the Original fried green tomatoes with shrimp remoulade (supposedly Uglesichs copied this recipe!), spicy shrimp with jalapeno cornbread, and roast duck with ginger peach sauce (all great). The dessert course had a choice of warm bread pudding with toffee sauce or Upperline pecan pie. The rest of us had the Thomas Jefferson Lousiana Purchase Dinner of four fixed courses. The starters were the turtle soup with sherry and a Louisiana oyster soup with watercress and Pernod (lighter). The second course was sweetbreads with mushroom ragout. The third course was Third Cane-River country shrimp, roast duck with pecan sweet potatoes and peach sauce (yummy and sweet). This dinner closed with a choice of Louisiana pecan pie, a Stilton cheese with pecans, sorbets, or bread pudding. The food at Upperline was wonderful, but the service was incredible. And, as we closed the restaurant, Ken Smith, the chef, came out and said hello.
Departing the following morning was tough, but the trip was uneventful and we had the rest of our muffalettas to quench our appetites for New Orleans food for the flight back!