Sunday, May 25, 2008

A Tale of Two Cities

In April, my husband and I travelled to New Orleans for the first time since Katrina for the International Association of Culinary Professionals. Anyone who read my post detailing our trip to Newport, RI for the Women Chefs and Restaurateurs conference may sense a trend in our vacation travels (busman’s holiday, maybe?).

We weren’t certain what to expect, at least in regards to the condition of the city. One of our closest friends had lived in New Orleans prior to Katrina as did his entire family. Their Lakeview neighborhood home was completely destroyed and they relocated to Lake Charles, Louisiana. As a result, I hadn’t talked to anyone who lived there to know what things really looked like.

Initially, we were pleasantly surprised. The tourist-friendly areas of the French Quarter, Uptown and the Warehouse District never looked better. The streets were cleaner than I had recalled, new businesses had opened and the bars were full with visitors. If you remained in these neighborhoods, you might actually believe President Bush’s celebration of New Orleans’ “comeback” in his visit shortly after our stay.

If, however, you ventured outside of these areas, a different tale emerged, one of two cities. On our third day there, we booked a van tour through the Katrina-ravaged neighborhoods. In far too many areas, it seemed from our eyes that the storm could have happened months if not weeks before. Houses ripped off of their foundations pushed into fences or even rolling over other houses. Overgrown weeds provided the only cover for debris. And worst of all, many of the homes, if we can call them that nowadays, still bore the spray-painted markers of the rescue workers to inventorying the contents (i.e. dead or not dead). Of course, there were some bright spots: Musician’s Village with its brightly-colored bungalows most bearing Obama 2008 signs on their front lawns. But those signs of progress were few and far between.

Now, I admit that I’m the most consummate of travelers. Nevertheless, the only other place in the world that I’ve seen such a contrast was in South Africa a few years after apartheid ended. It had a similar disparity of beautiful, well-maintained tourist areas full of world class restaurants and luxury hotels with the shanty towns next to the highway. I certainly understand the need of a city so dependent upon the hospitality industry to put on a good face for the world. Once tourists return, the rebuilding can commence with greater speed. Nevertheless, it was a very sad day for me to see so vividly the failings of our own government. Let’s certainly hope that whomever becomes our next president (perhaps one whose name rhymes with yo’ mama), will make New Orleans a greater priority than the current administration.

On to the positives, the City has thankfully retained its wonderful quirky character so visibly demonstrated by the pirate convention, which was going on at the same time as IACP. We stayed largely in the French Quarter, being in walking distance from our lovely hotel, the Lowes across from the Windsor Court. However, some of our best meals were had in the Warehouse District, including our first Crescent City meal at Couchon. If I ate nothing more than the butter-dripped dinner rolls, I could have been happy. Ah but there was so much more. Barbecued oysters, veal cheeks and beef brisket. Absolutely wonderful. In the evening, we had a disappointingly uneven meal at August. Although my shrimp bisque was silken and rich, my entrĂ©e was unmemorable evidenced by the fact that I can’t recall what I ate. My dessert, a trio of strawberries, was disappointing in its execution given the high quality of the ingredients. Across the table, my husband’s lamb was outstanding and his cheese plate well-chosen. My second favorite meal was at the old French Quarter stand-by, Mr. B’s Bistro. My catfish paired with unctuously rich black-eyed peas was by far one of the best things I’ve eaten thus far this year.

Obviously, the New Orleans’ experience cannot only be summed up by food – drinks play a big part of it as well, whether Pimm’s Cups at Napoleon House or a Hurricane at Pat O’Brien’s. Our two best drinking experiences this trip were at W.I.N.O. (Wine Institute New Orleans) in the Warehouse District and a Sazerac at Arnaud’s. Pictured above, WINO, a self-serve wine bar, with a hundred or so bottles of fine wine was a New Orleans original, especially because many cities, Chicago included, would not allow its existence because of dramshop laws. The Sazerac was my first and, while I’m not much of a cocktail drinker, it was wonderful, slightly reminiscent of my grandmother’s Manhattans.

And on to the third of New Orleans’ great pleasures, in my view: music. We had the wonderful opportunity to pick up two CDs from street musicians who were playing outside of Brennan’s. I was able to pick up one of the two bands on tape, enhanced only by the very talented jitterbugging groupies. Enjoy!

1 comment:

  1. Great balanced post about NOLA. There is the good, the delicious and the tragic, isn't there?