I read something remarkable in the New York Times while looking for restaurant recommendations in New Orleans:
Though the city has fewer people than it did before Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, it has 70 percent more restaurants, according to a count by Tom Fitzmorris, a local expert who does not include fast-food or chain restaurants in his tally.
I believe it. When you announce you’re going there or recently returned, everyone mentions crawfish. Of course you had the etouffe, or the boil, or whatever, at some high-end Creole showplace. Nope. Not even one. This was only my second trip there, and I still remember the disappointment of our meal at Galatoire’s, which we visited more than 20 years ago. Maybe it was a bad night or something, but I have a feeling it has more to do with all that damn tradition. I always remember, poking through a heavy cream sauce at whatever lies beneath, that a lot of the details of classic cuisines evolved because frequently meat and fish arrived in the kitchen in…not the best of shape, shall we say.
(And pardon me for lowering the tone, but I try to remember that whatever I pay for this meal before me, in 12 to 24 hours it will be on its way to the sewage-treatment plant. It puts a $52 lobster thermidor, mentioned in that same NYT story, in perspective.)
So you can have your K-Paul’s and Galatoire’s and Antoine’s and so on. Give me the smaller places which are, in many ways, much closer to the new places popping up in Detroit and all over the country, where the emphasis is on the best local ingredients, imaginatively prepared but lightly messed with. The best thing I ate all week? The shaved brussels sprouts salad at Cochon, one of the hot new places but still requiring less of its diners than the old guard. We ate there with Laura Lippman, a part-time local who knows what’s what. (She also has a new book out, “After I’m Gone,” which I predict you will enjoy very much. More on that later, or maybe later this week.)
We also had good Vietnamese food, Mexican food and yes, Louisiana food — po’boys and red beans and rice and muffalettas and gumbo and beignets and coffee with chicory, because you have to go to Cafe du Monde, that’s like a law. The worst meals were in the French Quarter, because they can get away with it.
We had a nice time. I walked too much and wrecked my feet, but it’s the best way to see the city. We stayed in an Airbnb place Uptown that was sort of a dump, but very economical. It was just a few blocks off Magazine Street, a gentrifying neighborhood with construction going on everywhere. Besides the dozens of new restaurants, there were also vintage clothing shops and bars and clubs and the proverbial music everywhere. I came to appreciate the city’s tolerance of alcohol, because it’s nice to take a beer to go and just stroll and window-shop.
We toured Tulane, which Kate liked well enough to put on her short list. (Notable alumni: Newt Gingrich, Jerry Springer.) We saw a snake slithering across the sidewalk, and gathered this was a pretty typical thing, along with lizards. We tried to get into the storied music clubs on Frenchmen Street, but none would let 17-year-old Kate cross the threshold, even with her parents. Fortunately, there was a great brass band on one of the street corners just tearing it up — four trombones, three trumpets, two drummers and a Sousaphone. We were enjoying a cool sangria at a cafe on the same street two days later when an ambulance pulled up and took an obvious OD out of one of those same bars, so it’s good to know they were keeping the wrong element out.
One day as we were leaving a cab, I noted a pair of men’s pants sitting on the seat. “These yours?” I asked the driver. No, they were from an earlier customer who was “pretty messed up,” he reported in one of those what-can-you-do voices. Bourbon Street has either changed, or I have — it’s almost unbearable after dark. (It was NBA All-Star weekend when we arrived, so it’s possible this amped things up considerably.) We rented bikes and saw parts of Treme and, of course, the Louis Armstrong statue and St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 and Lafayette Cemetery, in the Garden District. We rode the streetcars all over, even when the city seemed bound and determined to make that as difficult as possible.
We saw a lot, but not everything. You never see everything. That’s why you go back.
And now we’re back. We left behind temperatures in the 70s and missed two significant snow/ice/thundersnow events in Michigan, which left the driveway buried in ice, so much that we literally couldn’t get into our gated back yard when we returned. And just when I think I’ve accepted that it’s cold again but it will soon be as warm as New Orleans, guess what’s coming? Polar Vortex III: The Freezening. I can’t stand it.
But I’m back. Cold, but back.