Friday, February 1, 2013

Best of New Orleans, the 2013 Report

Last year, I made a week long walking, dancing and eating pilgrimage to New Orleans. This year, I returned, for a much shorter trip and the difference from January, 2012 to January, 2013 is remarkable. It feels like, finally, after Katrina and the federal flood, the city has turned a corner. I was hoping to revisit some of the joints I went to last year, particularly Liuzza's (for the world's greatest gumbo) and Parkway for the astronomically great Po'Boys. However, there is only so much eating that one can pack into a short trip, so we hit all new spots.

If you're in New Orleans for the Super Bowl insanity, or will be there for the Mardi Gras insanity, or are planning a trip just because (as I do), these are the some of the highlights of my recent vigil.

Cake Bakery
Cake Bakery. This trip was not the first time I've been to Cake Bakery. It's right around the corner from where I stay in the Crescent City, but proximity is hardly the main recommendation for me. It's a charming little joint full of a diverse clientele -- ordinary looking workaday folks, older people, tattooed crusty punks, transgendered people and even David Simon. (Seriously, we chatted at Cake last year.) But although the clientele is fun, it isn't the main recommendation:  the biscuits are.

Freshly baked biscuits as big as your head, with homeade jam, which is not overly sweet, but rather is very fruity and tart and perfect on these amazing biscuits. Just a biscuit, jam and a side of bacon is plenty of breakfast to get you going all day long.

The other food is great, too. I've tried the grits, first with the traditional NOLA preparation of shrimp and grits, and then the 'healthy' grits, topped with roasted vegetables and goat cheese. The coffee is self-serve and if it's not a crazy weekend morning, you can sit for a long while chatting over coffee.

They also have lots of baked goods. I'm not much of a sweets eater, but Geargirl tried the cinnamon roll one morning and I can honestly say that it is everything you hope and dream of when you think 'cinnamon roll.' It was moist and flaky, with lots of cinnamon and just the right amount of sweetness.

What you need to know:  Cake Bakery is located in the Faubourg Marigny (the neighborhood adjacent to the French Quarter) at the corner of Chartres and Spain. They are open seven days a week from 7:00 am until 3:00 pm. The Marigny is one of my favorite neighborhoods in all of NOLA. Head over, eat yourself silly, and then walk off all the yumminess in this lovely neighborhood.

Maurepas Foods cheese plate
Maurepas Foods. Maurepas Foods is the latest fantastic joint to open in this food crazy city. Located in the tremendously cool Bywater (just next to the Marigny), Maurepas Foods has great mojo and atmosphere, with lots of reclaimed wood, copper and light fixtures, a cocktail menu full of ridiculous (and strangely tasty) concoctions and some seriously delicious food.

The first day we went (yes, we went twice), we were there for lunch. Maurepas has a pickle plate, which may sound odd, but there were all kinds of pickled things which came on the plate:  pickled blueberries, turnips, broccoli slaw, edamame beans, shitake mushrooms, cucumber and a few things I've forgotten. (I should always take notes.) What I do remember is thinking that what might arrive would be a sort of one-note plate -- with all the various items pickled the same way and with the same flavor. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The broccoli had a peppery hot bite to it; the blueberries were gently pickled with the vinegar just elevating the tartness you find in fresh fruit; and the turnips turned almost sweet.

We paired the pickle plate with a small cheese plate. The cheeses change regularly, so ask your server what cheese they have on tap, as it were. We were served three different types of cheese -- one a creamy cheese, like a really stinky version of brie; one a hard cheese, like a pecorino; and the last a blue. All the cheeses were amazing, particularly the blue, but the real star of the plate was the mostarda. A mostarda is a candied fruit jelly made with mustard and which originates in northern Italy. I should note that a few years ago, we were in Mantua, Italy and next to our inn was a shop that sold nothing but mostarda. They had countless varieties. I know that we brought some home, but I believe we gave it away as a present to a family member or the neighbor who watched the cats. Clearly, THAT was a mistake.

The mostarda at Maurepas (at least when we were there) was made with figs and probably some other fruit (possibly apricots), but I'm not sure. You know how a hot mustard hits you in your sinuses? Well this mustard hit just short of that, right on the edge of making my nostrils flare, but not actually crossing that line. It was a perfect kind of sweet heat and paired with a small piece of bread and the blue cheese ... it was the party of the decade in my mouth.

Other highlights at Maurepas:
-- Get the goat tacos. If you're one of those people who eats nothing but beef, chicken and tilapia, step outside the comfort zone and get the goat tacos. Don't be afraid. Goat is not gamely and in fact, it's much milder than lamb. This goat, in particular, is slow roasted and melts in your mouth. The tortillas are fresh and it's served with a cilantro harissa and some pickled green tomatoes. The dish manages to elevate tacos as we know them as street food, while still being true to the spirit of the humble taco. I could eat these every day.

-- The oysters, which are fried perfectly, served with a basil and cabbage slaw, with blue cheese. If none of that (basil or blue cheese) sounds like it goes with oysters, I'll admit it's an odd combination which completely works.

What you need to know:  Maurepas is in the Bywater, a neighborhood which is more gentrified minute by minute, at the corner of Burgundy and Louisa Streets. It is insanely jammed on Friday and Saturday nights and even on Sunday night, the joint was hopping. Bear all that in mind when making plans. They are open for lunch and dinner (from 11 am until midnight), every day except Wednesday.

We've Got Soul. What Maurepas has in atmosphere, We've Got Soul lacks. Never fear, the food more than makes up for that and I should point out that We've Got Soul is a pop up restaurant serving out of the backroom of a dive bar. There are about five small tables and the food is served on paper plates with plastic silverware. And let me say this -- Who cares?

The service, courtesy of chef Tres Bernard's girlfriend Emily Reichely, is warm, friendly and knowledgeable. Emily told us a bit about Bernard's cooking routine. He starts hitting the local produce markets -- everything is local -- on Tuesdays. After that, he builds his menu. I think it's refreshing that he builds his menu around vegetables, rather than around proteins. That kind of care shows up in his food.

Did you ever go to a restaurant and order some fancy dish wherein the protein was lovingly cooked, but the veggies were overdone? Or underdone? Or under-seasoned? And clearly an afterthought? Yeah, me too. It pisses me off.

Tres does not treat his side dishes as just something to fill up the plate. Last week, he served mustard greens cooked with delicious porky deliciousness. (In truth, I don't think it was smoked; it was meatier, more like a roasted pork shoulder.) The mustard greens were the best greens I have ever had, in a lifetime of chasing a soulfood dream. I would love to go back and just ask for a giant bowl of greens and some cornbread. That there is my idea of good eats.

He also served cabbage braised with bacon and tomatoes, which was smoky and sweet and tangy. Oh, yeah. There was meat, too. I had the pork chop, which had been brined for 24 hours, then grilled and served with a jalapeno ginger glaze. It was a truly great meal -- every element of it. I will be back wherever Tres Bernard is cooking. So Tres, if you're reading this -- see you next January!

[When I got home, I did a bit of googling and came across this very heartwarming story about Bernard. What I'm saying is -- go spend your money at We've Got Soul. You'll love the food and you may be helping the next big thing in the New Orleans food scene.]

What you need to know:  At the moment, the restaurant is operating out of the back of Marie's Bar, at the corner of Burgundy and St. Roch in the Marigny. As a pop up, things might change, so check out We've Got Soul on facebook to be sure you have up to date information:  We've Got Soul FB Page

Bayona. Renowned chef Susan Spicer hardly needs little old me shilling for her, but holy bullshit that smoked duck puff pastry thing is mind-blowingly good!

Let me back up. Susan Spicer's restaurant, Bayona, is a high-end New Orleans eatery and Spicer has created a lunch item which has become a Crescent City cult classic:  the smoked duck with cashew-peanut butter and pepper jelly. During the week, it's served as a sandwich on fresh wheat bread, a brilliant riff on PB and J. We went for the Saturday lunch menu and on Saturdays, she does a riff on that riff, wherein she serves the smoked duck and cashew-peanut butter cooked inside a puffed pastry, with roasted granny smith apples and the pepper jelly on the side. Again, and I cannot stress this enough, it blew my mind. I will spend the next 11 months dreaming about that dish and when I can get back to Bayona.

Everything else is great, too, and I can strongly recommend the Caesar's salad. It's bright and fresh and just when you think you've had enough Caesar's salads to last a lifetime, along comes Spicer to breathe new life into this ubiquitous dish. But really, if you go at lunch and don't get the duck, somebody should take you out back, beat you and dress you in funny clothes.

What you need to know:  This is the only restaurant in the French Quarter to make my list, at 430 Dauphine Street. The restaurant is elegant, so dress accordingly, which is to say -- leave your "I got wasted on Bourbon Street" t-shirts at home and wear something more along the lines of business casual. And you'll probably want reservations, particularly at this time of year. The Saturday lunch menu is three plates for $25. It's a very reasonable way to experience Bayona.

Glen David Andrews on the bar at DBA
DBA. DBA on Frenchman Street is my favorite single place in the entire world. Other than my own bed, of course. DBA is the perfect venue to see live music. The acoustics are great. The place is beautiful, with lots of reclaimed wood. It has tremendous sightlines and lots of room to shake your ass. Also, they have a killer beer selection. Most importantly, they book some of the best music in the area. I have seen at DBA:  The Pine Leaf Boys, Glen David Andrews, Mardi Gras Indian practice and, on this most recent trip, The Stooges

Go to DBA. Drink NOLA Blonde. Dance your ass off. You're welcome.

What you need to know:  If you're in NOLA, you should be on Frenchman Street to hear music anyway. DBA often charges a cover ($5 or $10 and totally worth it.) They don't have Coors Light or Bud Light but they have about a dozen or so beers on tap, and hundreds in bottles. If you can't find something to drink at DBA, you should have yourself checked out by a medical professional. 

Kermit at Vaughn's
Thursday Night with Kermit at Vaughn's. The irrepressible trumpeter and lead man Kermit Ruffins is a celebrity in New Orleans and you can catch him at various spots through the city (Blue Nile and also his own joint, Kermit's Treme Speakeasy), but Thursday nights at Vaughn's are a tradition. 

Vaughn's is a tiny joint. Some might even characterize it as a dive. It's small. It's cramped. It's hot. And it's a blast. The night we were there, the Treme Baby Dolls were there as well. [I don't think that I can do the Baby Dolls justice, so for a quick glimpse, check out this post about the Baby Dolls exhibit at the Presbetere.] The night we saw Kermit, we jammed on the dance floor right in front of Kermit's amazing piano player, Z-2, an incredible talent from Osaka, Japan. We were shaking our asses, taking in the scene, and marveling at Z-2, whose hands were literally a blur on the keys. 

"Excuse me, I'm a Baby Doll."

When you hear that sort of thing behind you, at a place like Vaughn's, you make room. And the Baby Dolls, about five of them, made their way right up by Kermit. Of course, they took us under their wings and we danced with them all night. They shared their stories. Admittedly, these were drunken, rambling stories, but that just made them all the more charming. You may not always get the Baby Dolls if you hit Vaughn's on a Thursday night, but you will get Kermit, the latest  of New Orleans' great showmen and goodwill ambassadors. 

What you need to know:  Vaughn's is in the Bywater at the corner of Dauphine and Lesseps Streets. It's safe to walk around, but if you're out dancing, you may want to cab it there and back. Cover is $10 on Thursdays (I think.) Oh, and do wear your dancing shoes. 

The Tomb of the Unknown Slave at St. Augustine
St. Augustine's Catholic Church. I realize it's kind of a shocking thing to find here -- a Catholic Church -- but after reading about this parish, I was far too intrigued to sleep in and pass this up. We arrived at St. Augustine's about 20 minutes before mass and the jazz choir was in full throat, singing away, accompanied by an organ, drums and sax player. I have to admit that I was moved, quite literally, to tears.

St. Augustine's original congregation included free people of color, white people and slaves. You can read a more detailed history of St. Augustine's here.

Whether you believe in God or a higher power or are an atheist, that history is an amazing one. None of us can even conceive of just how difficult it was to survive as a slave. I don't know that anybody can ever fully understand what it would do to your soul to live with that constant threat of violence and death; to live with the very real fear of being sold or having a loved one be sold; and to navigate the dangerous waters of the caprice of white people.

I was thinking of all of that and then thought about what it might have been like for one of those slaves to sit in this very parish, in this very spot where I was seated so comfortably. I wondered what it was like for them to mix with free people of color. And I know that the message of Beatitudes ('Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven ... Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth ...') must have sounded different to them than it does to me.

I wondered what it felt like to be enslaved and then hear the words, "we are all equal in God's eyes."  I am not a religious person. Heck, I'm not even a spiritual person. But I can tell you that the spirit of those slaves are there, quite palpable, at St. Augustine. You feel our nation's shameful history and also a tremendous sense of hope, too. All of that, combined with the amazing music moved me to tears.

I sometimes think of relocating to New Orleans. If I ever do, I will become a parishioner, an atheist in the pews, at St. Augustine.

Lest you think you might be intruding on a private church service, no worries. The parishioners welcome all visitors and many made a point to say hello and shake hands. However, this is Sunday mass. My point being, again, don't dress like an idiot or act like one. And if the idea of sitting through a Catholic mass isn't your cup of tea (I could certainly understand that), you can go listen in to choir practice on Tuesday evenings at 6:00.

What you need to know:  St. Augustine's is located in the heart of the Treme. If you're staying hotel central along Canal Street, or in the Quarter, or in the Marigny, it's an easy walk to the corner of Gov. Nicholls and Henriette Delille Streets. Sunday mass is at 10:00 am.

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