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Sunday, August 17, 2014

A Very Southern... Tradition

first stop: Hotel Royal, French Quarter

A few weeks ago, a tradition continued. David and I boarded a Brooklyn-bound A train and were shuttled toward JFK Airport to celebrate our one year wedding anniversary, in New Orleans and meet with David's family along the Gulf shores. It was our fourth trip together to NOLA, so there was no question of What should we do first?, we simply continued with our tried-and-true traditions.

carrying on with tradition, our first meal 
in NOLA was at Mother's in the CBD
For our stay in New Orleans, David and I booked a room at Hotel Royal--a renovated 1827 Creole townhouse at which we'd stayed during our honeymoon. Being one block from Bourbon Street and a short walk to Café Du Monde, Hotel Royal--simply put--is the ideal place for David and I whenever we're in NOLA. And we always request a room with a street-facing balcony; our room this year shared the same balcony as the room we'd stayed in just a year prior.

the view from our room  in 2013
... and the view in 2014
Pleasantly surprised that we were


allowed an early check-in (3 hours early!), unloaded of our luggage, David and I changed into more weather-appropriate clothing and headed to Mother's Restaurant in the central business district (the CBD) for "brunch." This time around, feeling like more of a 'seasoned' New Orleans-er, I started with a bloody Mary--Mother's "World Famous." I let David do (most of) the ordering... as long as he ordered me the oyster & shrimp po'boy!


While David chowed down on a turkey ferdi po'boy (turkey, ham, debris and gravy), seafood gumbo and turnip greens, I was reliving NOLA trips past with that unmistakably Gulf waters-tasting shrimp (comparably, Gulf shrimp can make all other shrimp taste as exciting as poached tilapia)! Almost instantly (or perhaps that afternoon--the French Quarter is so "intimate" that you can geotag a location whilst being on the other side of town), I posted on Twitter:


I've yet to taste one that can compare

AFTER about a four-hour nap (David and I opted for an early, 8 a. m. flight, as to have more daylight time on our first day in NOLA), David and I dressed ourselves in semi-casual "evening attire" for cocktails at the French 75 Bar at Arnaud's. Depending on whom you choose to collect your information from, the French 75 cocktail was first concocted at Arnaud's. Regardless, the French 75 Bar was recommended to me by a colleague, formerly of New Orleans; but when David and I had tried to visit the bar last year, it was closed for renovations. 

great minds think alike

Aside from visiting the French 75 Bar for a taste of their signature beverage (made with cognac, not gin), impressively topped off with real (Moët & Chandon) champagne, I was told by my friend that we must also order the soufflé potatoes.

soufflé potatoes at French 75 Bar

Handsome indeed, pommes soufflées are a classic French recipe and I'd tasted them years earlier on my first trip to "21." Yet, David and I lingered still for at least another drink while we enjoyed additional nibbly bits...

shrimp and andouille calas at French 75 Bar

Truly, it was the atmosphere of the French 75 Bar that did it for me--I'd remarked to David that if I were wealthy and retired (and lived in New Orleans), I could probably be found there nearly every day.

The following morning, after sleeping in thanks to a night of bourbon, gin and dancing along to the sounds of Treme Brass Band on Frenchmen Street, David and I finally enjoyed a beignets and café au lait breakfast at Café Du Monde (of which there are now several imitations throughout New Orleans--the original Café Du Monde is at 800 Decatur Street).

this year, David insisted we each get our own order

































But while it is David who has perfected his order of beignets, it is I who have perfected the process of eating them (to a science):

  • Place your beignets at the center of the table.
  • Do not inhale as you take a bite.
  • And if you're wearing black (and didn't already spread a napkin across your lap), too bad for you.

WHILE our second day in NOLA was dedicated to a trip uptown to Magazine Street, for lunch at Lily's Café (quite possibly the best Vietnamese food either of us have ever had), our third afternoon was reserved for lunch at the renowned Commander's Palace!


Located in the Garden District, David and I hopped on an upriver-bound bus (we'd learned from our trip to Magazine St., the day before, that there was work along the St. Charles Ave. streetcar line) for our early lunch appointment. Along an oak tree-lined street in the heart of the faubourg, lies the grand, iconic turquoise-and-white-striped two-storied building. Upon entering, David and I were quickly greeted with a warm, southern welcome by the lead hostess who'd asked, Whose name should I put the table under? She then scribbled some notes onto a rectangle of white paper and handed it to another hostess who'd led David and I into one of the several dining rooms. Upon settling in at our table, "The bird room," David had mentioned; it wasn't until later in our meal that I'd noticed the several faux birds perched upon tiny wooden dowels all along the perimeter of the dining room.

© Chuck Taggart - flickr

Although a close colleague of mine, Frances Bridges recommended, You have to go to Commander's Palace!, it was an article I'd happened upon in Food & Wine, several years prior, mentioning 25¢ martinis (yes, you read that right) that first piqued my interest. Upon researching the restaurant ahead of our trip, I'd learned that they also have a lunch prix fixe menu (which sounded just as enticing as the à la carte menu) for around $22... I decided that lunch at Commander's Palace was something that we simply could not miss!

Commander's Turtle Soup

After being taken in by the alluring surroundings (even unto the plates), David and I soon narrowed down our lunch selections. Once we'd confirmed with our server that the Commander's Turtle Soup (which takes "3 days to make") was an allowable option with our prix fixe menus, we decided that we'd each begin with a bowl. Throughout the dining room I had been noticing synchronized food drops (which greatly impressed me) and when our first course was served (by our server and the maître d'), David and I were given no less. Adding to the showmanship: once our bowls were placed before us, held within each was an unassuming, stout tin cup filled with turtle soup, which was then poured into the respective bowls; I'd wondered about what could have appeared as mere falderal, but my concluding guess was that it was so the edge of the soup could meet its bowl in a perfect, opaque line. If I'd not been impressed already, I was by then.

parmesan-crusted oyster salad

The second opportunity that Commander's had to impress me was when it was time for another drink. While David and I were enjoying the turtle soup au sherry, I had asked another front-of-house member for a wine list. After being given a moment to browse the selections, I selected a glass of Charles de Cazanove champagne, but added that I'd like to have it with my next course. Another moment later, our server returned and asked David if he would like another drink, but did not ask me. Whomever I had placed my order for champagne with, had seamlessly (and invisibly) communicated it to our server.

As our meal continued, so did the impressions: sipped water glasses were replaced with fresh, filled ones; the maître d' perpetually circled the room in search of the slightest imperfection (even impressing David: He noticed a clear [cocktail pick] on a white tablecloth!)... but it was my main course that kept me talking for days!

trying hard to save half for David

































When my parmesan crusted oyster salad had arrived, I'd thought that it looked pleasant enough. But after the first few forkfuls, I soon realized that my entrée was delivering well past its comparatively 'austere' appearance. (This is one of those moments that I wish I'd taken some notes on the menu, or at least snapped a shot of it!) The delightfully fresh oysters were fried to perfection in their herbed parmesan crusts; but it was when I'd gotten to tasting the vegetables of the dish that I'd become truly impressed! First of all: I don't remember the variety of lettuce that was in the salad, but I do believe that it's quite possible that I may never again taste a lettuce as sublimely divine as the one that was in this salad! And in addition to the pickled cucumber (pickled ever so judiciously) and the blue cheese (proving itself of markedly fine quality), I could not forget the portions of basil-marinated tomato that tasted distinctly of basil, without so much as a shard of a basil being present on the plate!

two gin martinis and one glass of champagne had
me wading in gastronomical pleasure

Yet, as lunch at Commander's Palace was at the top of my New Orleans short list, our last lunch in New Orleans was not to be outshone by open-handed service and veritably sublime veggies...

'Gulf brunch'

ON OUR FINAL DAY in NOLA, David and I ended up at "brunch" (it was the right time for it) at The Original French Market Restaurant & Bar. We had ended up there "unwittingly" (in a way), because while I had noticed the restaurant on every previous visit to New Orleans, I had always marked it off as a tourist trap--the same way New Yorkers avoid Bubba Gump in Times Square like the plague! But during our last visit, David and I would pass the restaurant daily and each time the most heady of cooking smells would waft through the air like one impenetrable, savory mass! By the third day, David remarked, "Anything that smells that good has to taste good." Then and there, I'd known we would end up there by the week's end.

how they do in the deep south

Again, David being the Louisiana native, I let him do the ordering (and let his nose do the hunting). After pointing out oysters on the half shell (I'd tried--in vain--to consume some on our last visit), David noticed the section on the menu, FROM OUR BOILING POT. "Now, that's what we've been smelling!" David's nose knew. After we'd ordered a duo of bloody Mary's, David placed an order for a half-dozen of oysters and two pounds of boiled, jumbo shrimp, as well as some boiled corn, potatoes and sausage. (Initially, David tried to order three pounds of shrimp, until our server'd mentioned, Well... people usually get one pound per person.)

our two-pound boat

The first dish to arrive was the local, Gulf oysters on the half shell. With a still muddy outer shell, this was not the kind of oyster to slide into your mouth, directly from its cup. Following David's example, I dislodged my first Gulf oyster from its shell, and transported it onto a singular saltine cracker: Is this how they eat them down here? Yes, was David's short response. Meatier, more toothsome--indeed--than the kind of oysters I'd been used to; and not as sweet... but with more of a "brackish waters" taste. With just three assigned to each of us, our oysters had disappeared as quickly as they'd come.

from M.F.K. Fisher to Edward Behr,
seafood should taste of the sea

But in no time: our two pounds of shrimp had arrived, along with corn, potatoes and sausage. Checking in with David, You'll be mad if I don't peel these, right? (I have a gastronomical habit of eating shrimp with the shell and tail still attached). Again following suit, I removed the morsel from its shell, and placed the late crustacean directly into my mouth. Similar to what I'd experienced earlier in the week at Mother's, with my first bite, my mouth was flooded with that unmistakable Gulf waters taste (seafood should taste of from where it comes)! 


DAVID AND I WERE GLAD that we'd found yet another not-to-be-missed place for future trips to NOLA... and on our final day, I was able to check off the last item on our short list: a performance at Preservation Hall. The next morning, David and I were up early for one last beignets-and-café-au-lait breakfast at Café Du Monde, before departing for a week-long stay on the Gulf shores of Alabama.

If anyone needs me, I'll be right here

To be continued...
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