Day Seven – No Rest for the Weary

Back from NOLA yesterday. Sarah and her sister Anne were due to spend a week in Costa Rica. Anne’s wife Barb had another seizure Tuesday night. Rachel got in touch with them and they got off the plane in Costa Rica, got back on and flew back to Atlanta where Anne got to say good-bye. Barbara died early this morning. She was a kind, generous, and loving person, younger than me, and we will all miss her terribly. I am so glad that Sarah is there for Anne.

Day Seven NOLA post will be a little delayed.

Day Six – In Which the Titanic Approaches the Iceberg

Gumbo

Gumbo

So originally we were supposed to eat at Antoine’s, an old school New Orleans restaurant. A chance to taste the classics as they’ve been done for 170 years. However, after checking a lot of the on-line reviews, the major comment by most posters was that the ambiance was fantastic, the food ranged from good to great, the servers from friendly to rude, but the price never approached less expensive. So we shifted to Donald Link’s oldest restaurant, Herbsaint, on St. Charles at the edge of the Central Business District.

Wow. To quote several grandchildren out of context, “that was a good decision.” We had what we all agreed was the best dinner we’ve had this week. When we got there, Donald himself was having a glass of wine with someone at one of the outside tables. Later on, we saw him duck into the kitchen. Now, we’re not thinking he personally cooked our meal, but just the fact that he was around was comforting.

Rabbit Fricassee

Rabbit Fricassee

We’ve been eating a mess of appetizers and splitting one or two entrees and that’s what we did here. We started with the chicken and sausage gumbo, a dark, chocolate brown roux with a touch of heat, a gnocchi with lamb Bolognese, soft and creamy gnocchi but not a strong taste of lamb in the sauce, sprinkled with a little lemon zest that kicked it, well, that’s someone else’s shtick. And a rabbit fricassee. There is a lot of rabbit on New Orleans menus and this dish out ate all the others. Some crusty tasso (spiced Louisiana ham) dice, lemon zest, fresh, rolled pasta curls, and chunks of rabbit in a light brown cream sauce. If I had to choose, this would be the best thing I’ve eaten this trip.

We moved on to a crusty short rib of beef on roesti, a touch of horseradish cream under the potatoes, and some flavored oil on the place. Our entrée was a lamb neck. Brought to the table, it dwarfed anything that I’ve seen. Dark and crusty on the outside, tender and moist meat that fell off the bones, a touch of marrow when you separated the bones, I don’t see how one of us could have eaten it alone. It sat on fideo (a Spanish dish that cooks short angel hair-like pasta pieces like a risotto) and was topped by diced tomatoes in vinaigrette, some white mustard seeds adding a little pop.

IMG_0904Dessert was three small Meyer lemon curd filled doughnuts with a strawberry jam and a malted milk dark chocolate mousse ball on a crème Angelaise dusted with more malt. Herbsaint is a nice space, loud without being noisy. The service was prompt and efficient and the entire experience exactly what you want at the higher end of the scale.

I’ll remember that rabbit for a long time, and the other dishes nearly as long.

David Doucet and Al Tharp

David Doucet and Al Tharp

After dinner, we head over to The Columns to hear David Doucet (currently) and Al Tharp (formerly) of BeauSoleil play an acoustic set. Cajun guitar and fiddle and accordion songs all in French, then bluegrass with banjo and guitar, and then old folk songs. The Columns started as a grand old home, then became a rooming house, hotel, and now is a B n B with some dining rooms and a bar. Bill’s grandmother ran it in the 50’s and he remembers taking the St. Charles streetcar from his house to hang out there. Based on that, we got to walk around and see the murals between the second and third floor and use the giant New Orleans map to review where we’ve been all week. Doucet and Tharp are playing in a side room, ornate and set with small tables.

It is a hometown crowd and the duo seems to know half the audience. I don’t know the Cajun tunes, but the bluegrass and folk stuff is familiar. Doucet’s fingers are walking all over the frets and Tharp’s violin work is first rate. I’m with every riff until one Mississippi John Hurt song comes flying by. A ballad about a mother and a dead son. It brings up a random image from one of our trips around town. A skinny black girl, pig-tailed, no more than 12, in a wheelchair working her way down the potholed street. She looks otherwise OK which probably means a drive-by intended for someone else. No one taught this girl how to take a bullet comes the thought, dialog from Reflections, a play by Oliver Thomas we saw a couple of nights ago, a political rehabilitation he wrote and acted in. All I can see is this girl’s mother and how she must look at her daughter every morning. I don’t even want to know what she must be thinking. This vacation is drawing to a close and real life is getting nearer if it indeed ever left.

Day Five-Pigeon Town Steppers and Gumbo Z’Herbes

So here we are at the Maple Leaf bar, waiting for the Pigeon Town Steppers second line to come through. It’s twenty to five and their permit runs until five and there are several other stops still to go, so the question is will they make it or will they just turn off and head for the Blue Flame Lounge where they disband? We’ve run into friends of Bill and Cindy’s and been invited over for some gumbo z’herbes, had some grilled oysters from one of the BBQ grills on pickup truck beds that seem ubiquitous at every outdoor event, and followed the rumors back and forth.

At the Maple Leaf

At the Maple Leaf

“They extended the permit until seven,” comes the latest word and suddenly, NOPD is blocking off the side streets, the crowd has grown and the brass band gets louder and louder. We were there at the start of the second line, at Silky’s Lounge on Magnolia Street, which was a milling crowd of the well dressed and the casual, BBQ trucks and Flexible Flier wagons with “Cold Cold” beer and “Ice Cold” soda, a full bar on the cab roof of a pickup truck, the competing smells of hickory smoke, sizzling fat and weed, and, off to the side, some floats. It started as a semi-chaotic affair, with maybe a hundred or so following the floats and the music. We joined for a while and then peeled off.

Pigeon Town, a neighborhood near Bill and Cindy, was originally called Pension Town because of all the black WW II vets who settled there. Like all things, time has wrought it’s changes. This, their 19th Easter, the theme of the Pigeon Town Steppers second line is change:  “20 Years in Da Game, Time Brings Change.” Continue reading

Day Four – In Which Our Hero Collides with the Local Flavors

OK, so I’ve been told I am somewhat demanding when it comes to food. I was looking forward to Vincent’s, an old school Italian place and especially the bracialoni , a roll of veal around stuffing and touted by Gumbo Tales as the New Orleans Italian dish to have. So, of course, we had some.
IMG_0810Vincent’s is old school. Green, red and white, Jerry Vale on the sound system, second generation run. All I wanted and more. The breadsticks and softened garlic-scallion butter on the table to start was a superb touch. The Rose of Sicily (a breaded deep fried artichoke heart draped with shaved parmesan in a garlic olive oil was quite tasty and the parmesan was good quality. The crabmeat stuffed mirlton (chayote) in a white sauce was also quite good and I got a sense of mirlton’s taste (subtle) and texture (like the pepper in a chile relleno). The duck carbonara was loaded with bacon and duck in a homemade wide pasta. Even the blue cheese vinegrette on the salad was good, a touch sweet from balsamic, and Gorgonzola blue cheese.

Bracialoni

Bracialoni

But the bracialoni. The veal was tender and well cooked. The angel hair pasta the dish sat on was cooked al dente. The stuffing contained some tender artichoke leaves and chunks of heart, which was a nice surprise.  But there is something about New Orleans bread that when put into stuffing stays a little too moist for my tastes. The sauce, however, was sweet. Too sweet. It was a beautiful looking sauce and quite clearly intended to be sweet, but a little too much for my tastes. The dish is a good one and I am eager to get home and make it. Some rose veal, panko breadcrumbs and my own marinara sauce. I’m sure it will be everything and more. I’m totally ill equipped to critique gumbo, but I do have some experience with Italian red sauce so I feel I can weigh in here.

During the day, we spent some time walking around, first on the levee, looking at the Mississippi and then through some more neighborhoods. We stopped at the New Orleans Arts Council show where Cindy was helping out, selling donated books to help fund the local library. Had a good soft shell crab po’ boy, some boiled crawfish, also good and spicy, and, a watermelon-limeade. I chatted with the woman who was making it, muddling chunks of watermelon and slices of lime in a silvery cocktail shaker. At the end, she added some sugar and a lot of ice and converted me. That was damn good and going to be on my drink list all summer. Plus, my hands smelled of crawfish all day and what could be bad about that?

Oh yeah, I had a nectar flavored sno cone ball. “What flavor is nectar?” I asked the girl who was making it. “Old style cream soda,” said her father. Vivid red in color, it was cream soda, thick and sweet and vanilla and good.

The art, by the way, was colorful and exuberant and extremely good quality. Even the photorealist paintings with dark backgrounds somehow had a vibrancy of color that was so so different from what I see in New England. There was music, of course, a good singer with an acoustic guitar and an electric guitar accompaniment loud enough to follow us around the park. Jazz Fest, coming next week, plus Easter, had kept some vendors at home, getting ready, and probably some browsers as well. But it was a warm afternoon and what could be better than that?

Day Three – Lower Ninth, High-Class Dinner

Some friends of Bill and Cindy’s came by so we got off to a late start after trading lies and telling stories. Lil Dizzy’s for lunch. So far, the best meals we’ve had have been neighborhood lunch places. I’ve come to love the restaurants tucked into residential street, not all corner stores, like Lil Dizzy’s, but in the middle of the street, we’ll pass by a place that Bill or Cindy will immediately identify as a great place to eat.

Lil dizzys Fried ChickenLil Dizzy’s buffet—fried chicken, little crawfish pies in tiny throwaway pie tins, macaroni and cheese, sautéed vegetables, shrimp Creole, crab and crawfish gumbo, and bread pudding—again accompanied by giant iced teas, sweetened this time—was all that and more. Don’t know why the giant sodas in movie theaters, etc. piss me off so and the giant teas seem quite fitting here, especially on the second refill.

People who seem to think “to die for” is a good expression for food always annoy me. “Freedom is to die for; good fried chicken is not,” but I’d commit a little mayhem to get back to Lil Dizzy’s fried chicken. Nice crust, juicy, not greasy at all, I’d’ve had more if the crawfish pie and lil dizzys gumbogumbo weren’t so good. I never understood why the gumbo recipes have you cook the crab pieces for the entire hour of simmer time and then add the shrimp at the last minute, but I finally got it. The meat fell out of the crab bodies and the flavor was crab, dark roux and fish broth. Cindy thought she spotted Errol Laborde and his wife Carol, publisher of several New Orleans magazines and moderator of Lost Restaurants of New Orleans respectively at the next table so it wasn’t just this easily impressed Yankee. Continue reading

New Orleans Day Two – Empty Vessels

IMG_0682Like an empty pot, a half-empty bar waiting for the musicians can turn into anything—Ed Wills playing blues, a Buster Keaton film with accompaniment by Tom McDermott and Aurora Nealand, or a drunk trumpet player trying to commandeer a gig. It can go anywhere. Like the hexagram says, “The Corners of the Mouth. Pay heed to what a man seeks to fill his own mouth with. Perseverance brings good fortune.”

There’s been some method to Bill’s madness, trying to pack as much as he can into this trip. Everywhere we go, there is the overlay of history, his own, Cindy’s, the city’s centuries, Katrina, who is present in many stories that begin “before” or “after.” Like an empty pan, echoes of meals gone by and of meals still to come.

Gumbo at Liuzza's

Gumbo at Liuzza’s

Yesterday, we went to the Museum of Art, in whose stone lobby Bill took art lessons as a boy then to Liuzza’s by the Track, just a corner bar with fried oyster salad, gumbo, a dark turtle soup that just might be the best thing I’ve eaten so far, and glasses of unsweetened ice tea deep enough to swim in to Longue Vue gardens for the tail end of the iris show and a stop at Angelo Brocato’s for ices and gelato.

Continue reading

Day One-Wednesday in NOLA

Day One of the New Orleans trip started at 5:30 AM in Amherst, scraping frozen slush off my windshield from an mid-April snow. Landed around 11:30 in an unseasonably cold New Orleans at 11:30 AM.Paneed Rabbit

Bill and Cindy live in the Carrollton neighborhood and driving to the library in an old silent film star’s mansion where Cindy was volunteering, we drove down big streets like St. Charles and Carrollton, with old grand houses, shotgun houses, and live oaks. The air smelled a little like Far Rockaway did, when I’d go to our family’s bungalow some cold March day to get a jump on summer. The streets seemed a little like a beach town as well—the pastel colored houses, the low buildings, the restaurants on every corner as well as tucked into residential neighborhoods, one house now sporting a sign and windows papered with coming events.

After an indifferent shrimp po’ boy (no oysters today), Bill and I hit the stores, stopping at a pizza place where he had some work hanging and to Rouses for some local shopping. One of the best things Sarah and I do is hit the markets in a new town and Rouses was no different. I had to hold back a lot, but I did buy some Tasso to freeze and take home. Donald Link has a recipe for it in Real Cajun, but I want some experience with how it tastes before I try to make my own.

We passed a couple of places he’d lived as a boy, the Lusher school where he went, and the stories became a swirl of when he was a boy, Treme scenes, before Katrina, after Katrina, and his new residence. You can’t go home again, but it is good to see him happy in a place he so clearly loves. His parents are long-gone, but looking at a window where his mother did typing for Tulane dissertations, wife of a professor, or the area rode his bike as a kid, you know that he is seeing not only what is there today, but what was there, that overlay of memories of a place you’ve known and loved over the years.

Shrimp EtouffeeWent to Jacques Imo for dinner. Sensory overload on the walls, sprawling to what used to be a backyard and to what used to be a fish store next door, early in the evening, but nearly full. You gotta love a place where you have to walk through the kitchen to get to your table.

We had Fried Eggplant—a bread stuffing shot through with cooked eggplant and covered in a thin cream sauce and an Alligator sausage cheesecake, more like a savory cake than a cheesecake, with the ubiquitous cream sauce. Bill and Cindy are coming up north for a visit this summer and I can do something with that Eggplant. The house salad-spinach with black and white sesame seeds, a sesame oil/balsamic dressing, topped with a single fried oyster is something else I can do something with. And I intend to.Spinach Salad

We split a Paneed Rabbit over shrimp and Tasso pasta shells and the Crawfish Etouffee. More like garlic crawfish, with a medium roux, but good solid food. Great mashed sweet potatoes, sweet, nutmeg and clove spiced, good Corn Macque Chou and some creamy red beans. With something like 12,000 restaurants in New Orleans, it’s hard to go back to a place so you take your flavors and move on. Dessert was a coconut bread pudding, crème brulee, and cheesecake with raspberry sauce trio, just enough.

Bill’s been taking photographs of musicians and then painting portraits from the pics. We were going to see Ed Wills at BMC-Balcony Music Club, near Frenchman Street, and we got there early so Bill could give him the second picture he’d painted. (First one is on his Facebook page.) Got to hear the end of Mykia Jovan’s set-a beautiful and powerfully voiced jazz singer who Bill’s seen singing with Kermit for the last couple of years.

Wills played for two and half hours basically without stopping. He’s an old-school bluesman and everything he plays sounds familiar without sounding like anyone else-bluesy Unchain My Heart, Crossroads, All Along the Watchtower, Albert King and his own stuff. He got funkier as the set wore one, announcing before his last song, Family Affair, that if you know the words, you probably were a grandparent, which pretty much capped it. Hey Pocky Way for the encore, with a verse of Saints thrown in.

Walked around Frenchman Street a bit, then headed home. Cindy, who taught kindergarten for years, kept meeting people—the drummer for the Iguanas whose kids she taught, another of her students all grown up now and playing on stage—but enough street people and college age kids to make me feel my age.

Looking out the window as we drove, I kept thinking, if I leave tomorrow morning, I’d’ve had a full trip. But it’s only just begun.