Wednesday, January 30, 2013

New Orleans Social Diary

The streets of New Orleans, particularly in the French Quarter, torn up for Super Bowl renovation.
by Carol Joynt

If a perfect storm is when two powerful weather systems collide, creating an even bigger storm, then New Orleans is about to have its own perfect storm. But this time it won't be a hurricane and a flood. This time it will be a party storm, one that is festive, fun and — particularly important to this city — money making. In a rare confluence, the Super Bowl and Mardi Gras are happening practically on top of each other and are expected to bring more than 1 million people and maybe as much as $1 billion to the "Big Easy."

The two iconic events should put the exclamation mark to the end of the sentence: "New Orleans is back!"
Instead of jazz in the French Quarter, the pre-Super Bowl "music" was the sound of jack hammers.
Carnival season got rolling last Friday and peaks with Fat Tuesday on February 12. The Super Bowl comes to town this week, with the championship game on Sunday at the Superdome. Some 100 million viewers worldwide are expected to watch the game. Appropriately, Mayor Mitch Landrieu called it a "global" moment. He'll be beaming and eager to have his face replace the memory of Katrina-era mayor Ray Nagin who, in an interesting bit of timing, was indicted twelve days ago on 21 counts of corruption. Like Louisiana itself, there's nothing boring about politics in New Orleans.

It will be politically complicated for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, though, who faces some love and loathing in NoLa. Saints fans know he worked hard to get the Superdome repaired and reopened after 2005's Hurricane Katrina, and got the team back home after they re-located to San Antonio. That effort garnered a certain amount of "hero" status.

But on the other hand, he came down hard on the Saints in the "bounty" scandal, sidelining coach Sean Payton in a year-long suspension, among other staff suspensions and punishments he handed out. The Saints, who won the Super Bowl in 2009, and hoped to play in another Super Bowl this year on their home field, instead ended the 2012 season with a 7-9 record and did not make it into the play-offs. Who better to blame than Goodell? The fans who blame him do so fiercely.

But that's only the back story. The headline is that New Orleans is more than ready for these next couple of weeks. On a recent week-long visit my son, Spencer, and I made during the Christmas holidays, staying with friends in the French Quarter, we woke each morning to the sounds of jack hammers, a result of the $90 million "Paths to Progress" infrastructure rehabilitation project. There were detour signs clogging traffic everywhere for an overhaul of the streetcar lines. Streets and sidewalks were torn up for repaving. Residents and cab drivers grumbled, but visitors will be rewarded. And isn't that the point? A gleaming French Quarter. Imagine that?
My view from inside a beautiful New Orleans streetcar.
Inside Lafitte's on Bourbon Street, which is said to be New Orleans's oldest bar.
While one end of Bourbon Street is all bars and tourist brawl, the other end is mostly gay, and with a sense of humor.
The actual Bourbon Street signs get stolen so often that the solution is to write the name in marker.
The on-going work did not deter us from enjoying the fruits of New Orleans — good food, good music, good drinking, charming architecture, beautiful weather, walks along the Mississippi and the general, uplifting spirit of "laissez les bon temps rouler." What was especially memorable was visiting three of the "grand dames" of the city's restaurant scene to enjoy their holiday atmosphere — Commander's Palace, Antoine's and Galatoire's. The rooms are so beautiful at each, with or without holiday decorations. Better still, they had $20.13 prix fix specials with excellent choices and 25-cent martinis. Yes, you read that right. Twenty-five-cent martinis. Let the good times roll, indeed. I can picture the scenes those elegant restuarants will be during Super Bowl-Mardi Gras, but worth the schmear to snag a table.
A tray of 25-cent martinis at lunch at Commander's Palace in the Garden District.
Shrimp with grits at Commander's Palace.
Shrimp remoulade at Commander's Palace.
Oysters in herbed cream sauce and puff pastry at Commander's Palace.
Strawberry shortcake at Commander's Palace.
The mint julep at the Hermes Bar at Antoine's. A Cajun Bloody Mary at Galatoire's.
Galatoire's at Christmas time. It will be just as handsome for the Super Bowl and Mardi Gras, but also packed.
Making the Cafe Brûlot at Galatoire's.
Spencer Joynt, with appropriate expression of appreciation, as the Cafe Brûlot is finished and prepared to be served. It's a New Orleans tradition and served at the end of a meal, as you would Irish Coffee. (And potent!)
What you eat in New Orleans. A pot of shellfish boil, cooking on the side of the street in the French Quarter.
... inside the pot, shrimp, crawfish and crab.
We returned to some other favorites, including K-Paul's, Nola and Bayona, and tried a popular new hot spot, Cochon, which specializes in, as you might guess, pork. I had sensational roast suckling pig. Cafe Amelie's garden remains one of the most romantic, pleasant and delicious places to eat in the Quarter. If you hanker for grilled oysters, by all means head to Drago's. In the morning, for coffee and beignets, I favor Café Beignet over the better-known Café du Monde. For music, places I've been to and enjoyed include The Spotted Cat, Snug Harbor, One Eyed Jacks, Cafe Negril, Vaso. On this last visit we also experienced the brilliant funk and R&B of pianist Jon Cleary at d.b.a. bar on Frenchman Street. Walk the Marigny and you pretty much can't go wrong.

I asked our friends, both professional musicians, to make some recommendations. "Irvin Mayfield's Jazz Showcase at the Royal Sonesta on Bourbon ST is a classy jazz room. The Little Gem Saloon on Poydras and Baronne is a newly opened, beautifully restored historic jazz venue with nice eats as well. The Maple Leaf is the Uptown music venue where Tuesday nights the Rebirth Brass Band tears the place up." These are good tips.
Discreet, delicious Bayona restaurant on Dauphine Street in the Quarter.
The brilliant garlic soup at Bayona. It's a classic.
Deviled eggs at Bayona. Pork roulade with brussels sprouts and grits at Bayona.
Fresh Gulf shrimp at Bayona.
Cafe Amelie's romantic and pleasant garden.
Gumbo at Cafe Amelie.
Shrimp with grits and corn at Cafe Amelie.
Cafe Amelie's cochon de lait sandwich.
The interior of Cafe Amelie.
Rain does not deter the making of music in New Orleans.
Spotted on a weekday morning along the banks of the Mississippi River
An amusing anecdote about our meal at Bayona. As we were leaving the restaurant the maitre' d mentioned that the night before a group was in that included actors Chris Noth and Shirley MacLaine. He showed us Noth's message in the guest book: "I love your food. I want to get fat here ..." Smart man.

Remember this about Mardi Gras: on Fat Tuesday at midnight the party ends. Period. The bars close and Lent begins. That won't be an issue during Super Bowl weekend, however.
Actor Chris Noth's message in the Bayona guest book: "I love your food!! I want to get fat here ..."
When bars and liquor stores lock-up for the night/morning in New Orleans, they lock-up.
And an endnote to all football fans and New Yorkers. Next year the Super Bowl is back where some people (including yours truly) believe it should be -- out in the elements, under an open sky, rather than in a temperature-controlled, domed stadium. The venue will be MetLife Stadium, aka "The New Meadowlands." It's being touted as a New York-New Jersey "cold weather" Super Bowl, and that's fantastic, including all the delights that Manhattan has to offer an invasion of fans and high rollers: great food and shopping, ice-skating, cozy bars, gridlock! Actually, what I'm hoping for is a blizzard Bowl.
Horse and carriage, still a great way to tour the French Quarter.
Follow Carol on twitter @caroljoynt