When we decided to explore America by train, the first stopover on our Amtrak train journey from Dallas was New Orleans. The city that typhoon Katrina devastated in 2005 was always on our- ‘must visit before it’s too late’- list. Celebrity travel writer Paul Theroux wouldn’t have approved of our planned itinerary as it was really jam-packed and resembled a typical ‘tourist junket’ of things to see in 3 days. A traveller would, as Theroux says in his books, observe, blend in with the locals and learn as much about the destination and its soul. Well, in this instance, we didn’t want to pretend. We wanted to see it all in 3 days with ‘food’ first and foremost on our minds .We figured this would surely reveal what New Orleans’s complex heart and soul are made of. Layers and layers of history and heritage are reflected in food and its preparation, right? We wanted to take a few bites of typical New Orleans food and guzzle their beverages to have some insight on this town’s eclectic and fascinating heritage.
After settling in at the Doubletree by Hilton, we wandered off to Bourbon St. in the old part of the city otherwise known as the French Quarter. Notorious for its hedonistic attractions: bars, strip clubs and so close to the red light district on Basin St, we would have loved to be right in the heart of the French Quarter for the Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) , the annual carnival celebrated, the day before ash Wednesday. But as we were there in early Spring, we missed out but coincidentally, the annual New Orleans Jazz festival was starting on our last day there which kind of makes up for the missed Mardi Gras opportunity. What luck!
A friend recommended we start the bar hopping at the historic Sazerac Bar, Grand Roosevelt Hotel. The setting and décor is homage to the magnificence and opulence of classic days gone by. The Sazerac bar is named after what many think is America’s first mixed drink, created by Antoine Peychaud way back in 1838 from his favourite French brandy, Sazerac de-Forge et fils. Sazerac is the designated cocktail ‘must have’ when in New Orleans and synonymous to this party town. Its main ingredient is of course the brandy or cognac but some bars substitute rye whiskey. It is mixed with sugar cube, and Pechaud’s bitters in a glass swirled with absinthe or Herbsaint…the result which many say is interesting. (the jury is still out on that)
We were then in search of a meal and headed straight to Court of Two Sisters primarily because we wanted to experience the ambience of this historic property and dine al fresco in what is said to be New Orleans’ largest outdoor dining courtyard. The building itself has a long history dating back to the 18th century and the restaurant is named after two sisters who belonged to a prominent Creole family.
The Creole seafood gumbo on the menu caught our eye, a stew of seafood served on rice. What gives this food a distinct flavour are the mixture of spices such as sassafras and bay leaves and the okra, a vegetable from West Africa which were introduced to the Americas by the West African slaves. For our first meal in New Orleans, we shared this as starters followed by the Corn fried Louisiana Catfish for me and the Charboiled Tenderloin of Beef served with marchand de vin and béarnaise sauces, potato mash and haricorts verts for my husband. I thought my catfish was typical New Orleans food more so than my husband’s tenderloin beef. Nevertheless, enjoying the dinner was not a big ask. Who could complain when we dined in a superb setting; relaxed by the soothing sound of the water in the fountain, entranced by the fragrance of flowering shrubs under the trees which were adorned with fairylights. The ambience was just fantastic! The French Quarter reminded us of its many distinct French heritage but caught glimpses of Spanish too. The food and drink we’ve had so far had the eclectic characteristics of the colonial past of New Orleans peppered with the distinct influence of the African slaves bought to the Americas in the early 17th century.
Next on our list was breakfast at the historic Café du Monde known for its beignet and chicory flavoured coffee. Once again, the undeniable French influence was evident insofar as Beignets are square-cut pieces of yeast dough heavily dusted with powdered sugar, much like donuts but do not have a hole in them. This treat was introduced by the Acadians, (descendants of the French colonialists) and has become somewhat of another ‘must try’ when in New Orleans. The chicory flavoured coffee by tradition must be served ‘au lait’ (although some have been know to order this ‘black’) and according to the Café du Monde, coffee was also introduced to the Americas by the French and sometime during the American Civil War, they added the roasted and ground root of the endive plant into the coffee to soften its bitter taste. This resulted to the unique blend of coffee and chicory.
Fortified with these, we explored the city, in and around Jackson Square, taking in the party atmosphere and enjoying the music from different buskers.
Most interesting was this man.
We then ventured on to Canal Street and hopped on a cruise along the (muddy) Mississippi River aboard the Steam Boat Natchez, with one of the remaining four steamboats with the celebrated ‘Steam Calliope’. Considered a uniquely American instrument and linked to steamboats since 1865, the ‘Steam Calliope’s ‘music came from the steam plumes shooting from each whistle played. It aint jazz or rock n roll, but this quaint sound added to a distinct atmosphere to our cruise.
Our concierge was kind enough to get us a table at Arnaud’s that evening . Located at the French Quarter just a few meters away from Bourbon St, this fine establishment boasts of classic Creole food, allowing diners to choose from any of their 3 dining areas; the more relaxed atmosphere at their Jazz Bistro, fine dining at the main dining room or simply sipping cocktails at their French 75 Bar. We chose to dine casual at the Jazz Bistro and was entertained by live jazz music. After all, isn’t New Orleans the birthplace of jazz? (Memphis and Chicago will disagree). But we really came for the food. We couldn’t go past the ‘Arnaud’s signature dish’, a starter of Shrimp Arnaud , marinated shrimp in tangy Creole remoulade sauce and mains of Speckled Trout Meunière for me and the Roast Louisiana Quail Elzey for my husband. Both didn’t disappoint, our dinner was delicious! We skipped dessert to make room for an intended night cap at the Old Absinthe House.
On our last day, we shunned the organised tours. Instead we took the streetcar to have glimpses of the past, of days gone by. There are 3 streetcar lines operating in New Orleans: St. Charles, Canal Street, and the Riverfront. Our interest was in the antebellum mansions so it was the St Charles line for us. The 13.2-mile route (21.2 km) from Carondelet at Canal Street in the Central Business district through to the oldest section of uptown New Orleans and through St Charles Avenue can only be described as ‘grand’. Populating the St. Charles Avenue has got to be the most superb collection of historic mansions in the South of the USA. Lined beautifully with old trees covered with Spanish moss, St Charles Avenue stretches from Uptown to Downtown . The surrounds and antebellum houses do take one back to the glorious epoch of 19th century New Orleans.
It was indeed a sight to behold and later, while I devoured my Po- Boy for lunch, still impressed with what we saw, images of the likes of Scarlet O’Hara and Rhett Butler came to mind. I couldn’t shake of this imagery for some reason.
The quintessential Po-Boy, a typical New Orleans sandwich has a history that dates back to the Great Depression. Legend has it that during that era, enterprising streetcar workers who were on strike opened a sandwich shop for a means to survive. They used cut potatoes and roast beef gravy for fillings at the time. However this popular New orleans sandwich has evolved since then. Ask any native of New Orleans and he will tell you that the Po-Boy is the best sandwich in the world. Yet , what is sacred about the Po-Boy is the quality of the bread. It has to be crunchy and crusty on the outside and soft in the inside. Add the filling of whatever you may fancy, may it be fried shrimp, ousters, catfish, soft shell crab, or roast beef, the finale will have to be the “fixin’s” – pickles, hot sauce, lettuce, mayo, etc. We were advised to order and eat the Po-boys the way locals do and that is ‘dressed’ or ‘with all of the toppings.
The final evening was spent at the Snug Harbour Jazz Bistro along Frenchman St. We could have gone to the famous Preservation Hall but wanting to see and feel the heartbeat of the famed ‘hub of jazz and culture’ in New Orleans, we chose to walk to our destination. The party atmosphere was palpable and felt as though the hype on the heavily touted jazz festival was paying off. Pity we were only going to witness glimpses of it as we were set to take our train to Memphis the next morning.