Saturday, December 31, 2011

New Orleans for (in-between) the holidays

The latest in a continuing series of Diddie travelogues.

For the past few years we have chosen to give ourselves as a Christmas present an out-of-town trip. It works well for us in contrarian fashion; we like to go when traffic and hotel room demand is light and no long lines for restaurants or excursions. Last year it was San Antone, this year we picked N'awlins as our end-of-the-year holiday vacay. We drove over last Tuesday, pausing in Lake Charles for lunch at Steamboat Bill's. I have somehow managed never to have stopped here even though its reputation is large, offline and on (Southern Living magazine and USA Today have raved about it in years past). It was as reputed: tasty, huge portions, inexpensive and fast -- off and back on I-10 in 40 minutes. I had a bowl of shrimp gumbo and some chicken strips but Madam Diddie splurged ahead of NOLA's gastronomia with a seafood platter of fried catfish, stuffed shrimp and crab, and about ten decent-sized fried shrimp.

Arriving in the Big Easy early -- around 3:30, we waited for our room at the Dauphine to be ready with a cocktail in May Baily's. From the site...

May Baily's Place, once one of the better known bordellos in the wildly infamous red-light district known as Storyville, now serves as our hotel bar. Our "Bordello" guest suite takes an appropriate featured place above May Baily's, and a red light still burns in the courtyard next to it as a testimony to its sordid history. Today guests are provided with a copy of the license issued to May in 1857, when sporting houses were legal in the Storyville district of New Orleans.

Dinner Tuesday was going to be oysters no matter what, and while we considered the Acme, we chose the less-popular-but-no-less spectacular Royal House Oyster Bar, and yours truly selected the baked ones three different ways: Rockefeller (topped with spinach sautéed with bacon and sambucca stuffing), Royale (shrimp, crawfish, and crabmeat stuffing), and Pepperoni (smoked chipotle peppers, green onions and parmesan cheese stuffing). The scrumptiousness defied description. The wife couldn't be convinced to sample those, or the bubbling char-broiled ones either, and had her usual dozen raw. Gumbo for me and shrimp bisque for her rounded out the light dining. A stroll down Rue de Bourbon and the expected chicanery and debauchery completed the evening and got us both in the proper festive attitude.

Breakfast, after bypassing the hotel's continental, was had at Cafe Fleur De Lis, based strictly on glowing online reviews and proximity to the Dauphine. I have always enjoyed ambling the Qwawtah in the early hours -- as in dawn, 6-8 a.m. -- when the drunks have laid it down, the early-risers like me are poking about, the working men and women are making deliveries, cleaning up from last night inside and out, and so on. We made our way back a different way, passing by the NOPD station on Royal Street and the upscale galleries and antique shops there, up to the Hotel Monteleone on the corner at Iberville Street. Since we have done all of the ghost and cemetery tours in prior visits, and also since my damned Meneire's-induced vertigo precludes any swamp boat rides or dinner cruises, we found two good options: Oak Alley Plantation for Wednesday and a Treme' walking tour for Thursday.

The antebellum period homes have entranced me ever since I first went through the Bishop's Palace, Ashton Villa, and the Menard home in Galveston, and going all the way back to the Mamie McFaddin Ward home in Beaumont. When we last visited Louisiana just a few years ago our itinerary then was Lafayette and Baton Rouge, where we toured Magnolia Mound. All of these come highly recommended if you like that sort of thing. (Probably nothing tops all the antebellum homes one can go through in Natchez MS, which we've also done, but that's another post.) Oak Alley has been the scene of a handful of movies but today is set up mostly for tours and special events like weddings and the like. The 200-year-old oaks that line the approach are the most magnificent I have ever seen. The grounds and home reflect the period: old Southern charm ... if you were Caucasian and wealthy, of course. There's a listing of the 100+ slaves who lived and worked on the plantation, their names, ages, and value recorded in a county archived tax disclosure filed in 1848.

Our fancy dinner Wednesday was one of the old-timers we had not yet been to: Arnaud's. I thought I was going to have the courtbouillon posted on the website as part of the Vermillion Reveillon Dinner menu, but when we were seated I was told that the prix-fixe had gone away after Christmas. Good news: it was replaced by a better and less expensive one. So we both had Shrimp Arnaud to appetize us; camarones frio doused in their renowned special remoulade. I picked the shrimp creole and Mrs. Diddie went for the pork tenderloin Robichaux, which was finished with a quick sear in the skillet to give it a little crunch on the edges. We closed with suitably decadent and diabetes-enhancing desserts: pecan pie a la mode (pecan praline ice cream) and profiterole, a pastry filled with vanilla ice cream and drenched in chocolate syrup. Hope my doctor isn't reading this.

Thursday I let the wife sleep in and wandered the Quarter before trucking back to the Dauphine for the complimentary breakfast (at least it was little healthier) and then we made Eat New Orleans for lunch (crawfish boulettes, butterbeans with shrimp, red beans and rice with sausage) before our Treme' tour.

It was really one of the best tours I have ever done, in NOLA or anywhere else. Our guide started us at the old J&M recording studio -- which is now, ridiculously enough, a washateria -- where proprietor Cosimo Matassa played host to the legends of the music of the time: Fats Domino, Dave Bartholomew, Ray Charles, Little Richard, Sam Cooke, Allen Toussaint, Jerry Lee Lewis, Professor Longhair, Dr. John, Guitar Slim, and many more. From there we moved into the historic African-American neighborhood to the north of the French Quarter and the scene of the HBO series of the same name. The Treme' has been gentrified somewhat since the rebuilding of New Orleans after Katrina, but remains mostly a lower middle-class AA neighborhood and the center of the city's historical music and culture. Much of the early (as in pre-Civil War) struggles for civil rights were waged here, and after the Anglo-Americans took over from the French -- and before them, the Spanish -- in 1803, black people had quite obviously a much more miserable existence. Slave auction houses were prevalent, the War of 1812 where Andrew Jackson's ragtag bunch repelled British forces cemented the Americans' stranglehold on the port city, and Louisiana became a state of the Union later that year.

Things got no better until the Civil War of course, and even up to the 1960s, when the construction of Interstate 10 bisected the Treme' just as it did Old South Baton Rouge, and virtually everywhere else the highway was built in the cities -- right through the minority neighborhoods -- and the area continued to suffer the erosion of its culture and heritage. Post-Katrina, the neighborhood is getting some attention and investment to preserve its legacy. There's a wonderful African American Museum on Governor Nicholls Street, housed in Treme' Villa, one of the city's best examples of an authentic Creole mansion.

On our way back we went past Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop but were too tired to even stop for a drink, preferring a nap instead before dinner. We walked just a block away from the Dauphine to Louisiana Bistro, where the wife had a lip-smackingly delicious puppy drum and I finally had the elusive courtbouillion. Another really magnificent meal.

On the way back to Houston on Friday we stopped again in Lake Charles at the Isle of Capri so Mrs. Diddie and Mother Diddie could feed the slots. We all hit the buffet and I sacrificed, having a large salad, the only vegetables I consumed all week.

When we picked up the furkids at the PetsHotel, we got those looks that said, "You went to New Orleans and didn't bring us a doggy bag?!"

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