New OrleansWords by Jennifer Stein
New Orleans: Big Fun in the Big Easy
By: Carolyn Gerin
I landed at Louis Armstrong International Airport intentionally hungry, thirsty and ready to rumble in America’s oldest bohemia, New Orleans French Quarter. Also known as "Vieux Carre" (or "old square" in French) it is a living museum of classic, subversive Southern charm, gothic decadence, a slight whiff of scandal, a sense of small town intimacy, and a herculean ability to celebrate life 24-7. Within these parameters is more sheer pleasure per square foot than any place on earth.
An aficionado of the road less travelled, I wasn’t sure if the Quarter would be a sea of team-shirt-clad-revelers with Hurricanes in go cups, or a little something more sublime? I planned on making no plans: to carouse through the Quarter and see what would be revealed. I was happy to find it restored, with shops and restaurants thriving. In 5 short days, I cracked the code to what makes New Orleans tick: they love to live, and live to love (food, spirits, friendship, parties, a bawdy joke, a well told tale, a flirtatious glance, a great band). This bon vivant philosophy of living in the present (because as it was explained to me: anything can happen, so you need to enjoy your life now) is key to the soul of “The Big Easy.”
Our Creole Cab driver (“from the Swamps,” he states) in a lyrical patois, gives us a short list of some of his favorite dives to get gumbo and etoufee, Mother’s being his favorite. We head into the Quarter as the sun slants low in the sky over black iron-trellised porches spilling over with begonias. The streets are lined with wedding cake inspired French Colonial buildings in pale pastels, and everyone is in a gregarious mood.
Our first stop is the W French Quarter, an oasis of hip on Chartres Street. A favorite of rock stars and celebs, this 98 room nouveau-retro hotel clusters around a lushly landscaped courtyard with clusters of cabanas, pool, and a dramatic fire fountain. Sipping a complimentary champagne and fabulous people watching is de rigueur. The décor is bordello retro-mod, (think Louis XVI meets Couregges): Red velvet walls, sparkling chandeliers, oversized Victorian mirrors, striped wallpaper, and hot pink coverlets. Our room is spectacular: a private balcony overlooking the cobble stoned street and facing an ancient pink and green shuttered building. The staff feels like family: they are so attentive and delightful; you could eat them with a spoon. www.whotels.com.
Dinner at Bacco's is extraordinary, a fusion cuisine that New Orleans native Executive Chef Chris Montero calls Creole Italian and is inspired by his Grandmother. His signature style is using the abundant local seafood and produce and marrying them with homemade pastas, and sauces. The BBQ Shrimp in Abita Amber butter sauce, the Grilled Red Fish and Lobster Shrimp Ravioli are a must.
Roaming around the Quarter, I pop in and out of boutiques meeting a warm and eclectic mix of people who are fiercely opinionated about what I should eat, drink, and see, making us feel immediately accepted, adored, and downright cosseted. New Orleans natives are rightfully proud of their city and what it has to offer, and since many stayed to help rebuild it, have well deserved bragging rights. The city also has a seriously spooky vibe, and fascination with the afterlife: people speak of hauntings and ghost sightings, like we talk about the weather. The eccentricity is charming and endlessly entertaining if you keep an open mind.
Hungry and thirsty, it’s time for a Muffletta, ettoufee and a Pimms cup at the Napoleon House or Gumbo and homemade Praline bread pudding across the street at Pierre Masperos. After three days in the Quarter, I realize that I don’t really say no to anything consumable, and maybe this isn’t a good thing. But being on a diet or on the wagon in New Orleans is like trying to breathe underwater: quite impossible.
Fortified, we begin the hunt for a Venetian mask, and our new friends, said, look no further than Maskerade, where fantasy meets decadence. There is an entire industry set up to adorn the revelers who attend around the city’s many balls, festivals and parties; a walk down Magazine Street will reveal a treasure trove of dusty antique shops flanking hip boutiques that have every type of glittering, impractical, fashion accoutrement your heart desires.
The owners of The Absinthe Museum invite us in for afternoon cocktails, and show us vintage paraphernalia used to prepare the decadent libation. I’m getting the sense that every nook and cranny of NOLA is a good time waiting to happen.
After a spectacular dinner of Oysters Rockefeller, jambalaya and cold Abitas, at Star Steak and Lobster we wander over to One Eyed Jacks, a gorgeous red velvet, chandeliered, music hall channeling a Victorian burlesque club, and jam packed with attitude-free hipsters and great local music.
The next morning, we’re starving for beignets and chicory coffee, and a bike ride through the Garden District. First stop, Café Du Monde for the coveted steaming hot treats and next, a tour of the cities storied cemeteries downtown where we discover the final resting place for many prolific writers and musicians.
Local legend, Galatoire's is a destination dining experience with a menu that hasn’t changed since 1905. Tuxedo clad waiters, black and white checkered floors, creamed spinach, crab au gratin, icy manhattans, a 50th wedding anniversary announced every 5 minutes, and jackets for gentlemen required, go, if only to soak up the ambiance of a bygone era.
Afterwards, we hit the hip and happening Le Phare for fresh blueberry mohitos and champagne as we sit in a sleek banquette and watch the cream of the demi-monde groove to inspired DJ mixes. Team Decadence votes “Oui” on the subject of a nightcap, so we order up one last round at the lavish W Poydras Whiskey Blue cocktail lounge.
I washed back up on the shores of S.F. sporting an extra 5 lbs, a little fuzzier in the head, some great new friends, and a certainty I would be heading back soon to one of my all time favorite cities, the elusive, elegant and eccentric exception to every rule, New Orleans, Louisiana.
W Hotel French Quarter, Kenneth Pool, Austin Scarlett, Bad Habit/High Flyer Wines, X Rated Fusion Liqueur, Chronicle Books, Avant Guides, Destination I Do Magazine, Future of Music Coalition, Sweet Home New Orleans and Anti-Bride Productions for the spectacular Operation Aisle Style Event at the W French Quarter Oct. 30, 2008.
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