The Inquisitive Traveler
Laissez le bon temps roulez
By Patty Burness
The Big Easy is all about letting the good times roll. Even after Hurricane Katrina, and Gustav more recently, New Orleans hasn’t lost its soul. A welcome mat is out to eat, drink and listen to all that jazz. The local economy needs help, so not too long ago, my husband and I visited the city working hard to come back.
Since the hurricanes, there has been a slow, steady economic recovery. The streetcar named Desire is rolling again. The dining scene heated up – critics again use beans as their designation of what’s good and what’s not – and of course, cocktails reign! During our short stay, we were determined to experience as much as possible.
Sipping chicory cafe au lait and biting into warm beignets loaded with powdered sugar is the way to start your day, and nothing beats the celebrated Café du Monde. Located in the historic French Market, the cafe is almost always open (except for Christmas Day). The original coffee stand began in 1862, and the good news is, nothing much has changed since then. It’s still the place to enjoy delectable coffee and sweets while watching the world pass by.
People watching is also entertaining while strolling the streets of the French Quarter. And there are European and American influences everywhere – wrought iron railings, Victorian homes, antique shops. Jazz streams out of the clubs and people dance and sip their cocktails. For a maritime experience, catch a free ride on a local ferry and glide along with the ships making their way on the Mississippi – or simply watch the river traffic from Jackson Square.
When it’s time to eat again, there’s no better place than Central Grocery. Their muffuletta is one of New Orleans’s great traditions. The loaf of soft Italian bread is filled with ham, salami, mortadella, swiss cheese (to cut the salt of the olives) and a deliciously seasoned olive salad whose ingredients remain a secret to this day. Run by the same family for over 100 years, Central Grocery turns out 300 to 400 muffulettas every day.
Wanting to stay in the heart of the French Quarter, we checked in to the stylish and popular Omni Royal Orleans. With its roots dating back to the 1830s and its historic St. Louis arches and windows open to the street, the hotel is a relaxing place for an up-close view of local culture.
Classy Royal Street, ideal for shopping, is right there. Don’t miss the hotel’s rooftop deck: There are views of the French Quarter in every direction. Take a dip in the pool. Then relax, as we did, in a beautifully appointed guest room before it was time to indulge in the “Sumptuous Flavors of Argentina.”
Each year for the past five, Omni Hotels have celebrated different cuisines with its “Flavors of the World” program. The Royal Orleans’s executive chef, Anthony Spizale, spent much of the year exploring traditional ingredients, dishes and wines of Argentina – even visiting the region to learn preparation techniques and select wines for the menu. The results were outstanding. We began our Argentinean odyssey in the middle of the hotel’s plush Rib Room restaurant with chef Spizale demonstrating how to make beef empanadas, grilled beef rib eye steak with salsa criolla and chimichurri sauce, and sweet corn chowder. Our appetites were whetted as we prepared for more spectacular Argentinean cuisine.
Tender malbec-braised short ribs and grilled salmon with a succulent corn stew were the dinner stars. Paired with the perfect Argentinean wines, be they malbecs or torrontés, the flavors transported us to South America. We finished with a trio of creme brulees (dulce de leche, Paraguay tea and citrus). Starting this month, the Flavors of the World program spotlights France. No need to fly more than 10 hours to get there – simply visit a participating Omni for an unforgettable experience.
Time for all that jazz, which means heading to Faubourg Marigny, the hip neighborhood where clubs abound and people wander in and out listening to some of the greats. At Snug Harbor, we were lucky to hear pianist Ellis Marsalis. Two of his six sons joined his quartet that evening – Jason on drums, Delfeayo on trombone. The legendary club’s intimate atmosphere is a first-rate place to enjoy fabulous music.
Up early the next morning, we headed to MiLa’s for a hearty breakfast. Across Canal Street from the French Quarter, this art deco restaurant has a cool vibe with its sleek bar and jazz theme (even at 8 a.m.). The Louisiana crawfish omelette was sensational as were the whole wheat pancakes, dripping with syrup and topped with bananas and pecans.
From there it was on to the Crescent City Farmers Market, held Saturdays year round. Riding the St. Charles streetcar, we jumped off at the Warehouse Arts District and found ourselves in the midst of a bustling scene – nothing like the size of the Ferry Building market, but just as hearty, fresh and inviting.
Having walked up an appetite, and in search of Louisiana oysters, we went straight to another local institution, Felix’s in the heart of the French Quarter. At Felix’s, oysters are prepared any number of ways, but the best way to enjoy them is raw – standing at the bar, ice cold brew in hand, cocktail sauce laced with horseradish nearby.
It’s impossible to visit New Orleans without savoring Creole cuisine, so we chose the Brennan family’s Palace Cafe for its energetic and spirited atmosphere and contemporary spin on classic dishes. Inside, it’s like a typical Parisian brasserie. Signature dishes are luscious – crabmeat cheesecake, fried oyster loaf, andouille-crusted gulf fish, honey-glazed duck. We paired the food with another Argentinean torrontés and a Russian River pinot noir – ideal wines for a memorable meal. Don’t leave without trying the over-the-top white chocolate bread pudding or the Creole “Turtle” cheesecake.
And about Crescent City cocktails, the place to experience them is the Swizzle Stick Bar. Known for natural juices and exotic mixers, we began ordering. First was the Adelaide Swizzle made with local amber rum, freshly squeezed lime juice, bitters soda and a secret ingredient. Delicious. Up next: The Sazerac. This classic is now the official New Orleans cocktail.
Early the next morning, we passed Bourbon Street on the way to the airport – it was still hopping, and that says it all about New Orleans: Laissez le bon temps roulez.
Fly direct from San Francisco to New Orleans, www.expedia.com/gogreen, www.eco.orbitz.com, and www.travelgreener.com/.
Tourist Information: www.neworleanscvb.com/.
Where to Stay:
Omni Royal Orleans, 621 St. Louis Street, 888-444-6664; “Savor the Flavors of France” packages from $350 (Oct. 25, Nov. 8, Dec. 31, Jan. 17; also available at participating Omnis nationwide, but varies by location); pets under 25 lbs. accepted with a $50 cleaning fee (policy varies by location); www.omnihotels.com/FindAHotel/
Where to Eat:
Café du Monde, 800 Decatur Street, 504-525-4544, www.cafedumonde.com; cafe au lait and beignets from $1.82 each; Central Grocery, 923 Decatur Street, 504-523-1620; muffulettas $14.21/whole, $7.65/half; MiLa Restaurant, 817 Common Street, 504-412-2580, www.milaneworleans.com; breakfast specialties from $11 (also open for lunch and dinner); Felix’s Restaurant & Oyster Bar, 739 Iberville Street, 504-522-4440, www.felixs.com; oysters on the half shell from $6.25; Palace Cafe, 605 Canal Street, 504-523-1661, www.palacecafe.com; starters from $8, entrees from $17, desserts from $6, wines by the bottle from $20.
Not to Miss:
Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro, 626 Frenchman Street, 504-949-0696, www.snugjazz.com; covers from $15; St. Charles Streetcar, www.norta.com/StCharles/; tickets $1.25; Crescent City Farmers Market, corner of Magazine and Girod Streets; Saturdays 8 a.m.–12 p.m.; www.crescentcityfarmersmarket.org; Swizzle Stick Bar, 300 Poydras Street, 504-595-3005, www.swizzlestickbar.com; cocktails from $6.50.
Super Shuttle, 800-258-3826, www.supershuttle.com; it’s a fast trip to the airport, especially if you’re the last to be picked up.
Patty Burness is the travel writer for Northside San Francisco. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org