(The following guest travel column has been written by noted travel writer and journalist SI LIBERMAN)
NEW ORLEANS -- “You’ve heard the song, ‘I left my heart in San Francisco,’ ” said the tour guide bus driver. “Well, here in New Orleans is where you’ll find your heart.” And that we did this summer after checking into the recently renovated 254-room Hyatt French Quarter Hotel and touring Hurricane Katrina’s devastated ninth ward and other neighborhoods before hitting some of the city’s most popular restaurants.
Seeing an increasing number of unique small new homes popping up on empty lots where pre-Katrina buildings once stood was encouraging. So is the handiwork of young volunteers who still show up on weekends to clean up and help rebuild areas inundated by 15 feet of water in the 2005 storm’s wake. The hurricane claimed more than 2,000 lives in the city and forced evacuation of thousands of residents. At least 100,000 never returned.
Gerald Douglass, the personable 64-year-old Gray Line guide who’s a New Orleans native, is one who did return. “We suffered plenty of wind damage but not much flood damage,” he said. “Our house is on higher ground near the airport. Without electricity and fresh food during the hottest days of the year, my wife and I joined the exodus and stayed with friends in St. Louis for four months. We were lucky. Just had to replace some trees and get a new roof.”
Resilience is the word that comes to mind and best describes the 344,000 remaining residents and mood of this amazing southeastern Louisiana city, straddling the mighty Mississippi River.
Seven years and billions of dollars in aid from FEMA and various charities have erased almost all traces of the horrible mess Katrina left. And once again the joie de vivre that traditionally characterized the Big Easy was very much in evidence during our five days there.
Last year the city welcomed 8.75 million visitors, a 5.6 percent increase over 2010, according to the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp. but that was still more than a million shy of the 10 million recorded the year before the storm. Nearly a decade had elapsed since my wife and I last vacationed in the centuries old French Quarter, which luckily escaped flood damage.
Jazz, extraordinary dining, history and the raucous, quirky and, yes, notorious allure of Bourbon Street beckoned. It’s all alive and well, thank you. Just around the corner from our four-story, no smoking hotel, Bourbon Street at night morphed into a parade of curious, fun-loving persons as jazz and thumping music poured out of its 13 blocks of honky-tonk saloons, strip joints, gay bars, souvenir shops and restaurants.
Storefront signs like “Beautiful Girls Inside & Some Ugly Ones” and “Free Beer Tomorrow” also pushed “he man” drinks called Hurricanes, Hand Grenades and Big Ass Beer. Contrary to popular belief the street isn’t named after the Kentucky Whisky. Histories of the 78-block French Quarter, also called vieux carré by locals, tell us it was named as a tribute to the French Royal Family known as the “House of Bourbon.”
With more than 1,000 dining establishments, some of which are national landmarks, finding a good place to eat was a no-brainer. New Orleans has long enjoyed a reputation as the culinary capital of the Southeast. Two of the eight restaurants we sampled were on Bourbon Street -- Redfish Grill and Bourbon House. Both are owned by members of the Brennan clan, the city’s best known restaurateurs.
At the more casual Redfish Grill, moist, hickory grilled, snapper-like redfish topped with jumbo lump crabmeat in a butter sauce ($27) and warm double chocolate bread pudding with ice cream ($10) were winners. Fruits de Mer for two ($19), the signature Bourbon House appetizer of iced fresh oysters, Gulf caviar, boiled shrimp, mussels, marinated crab fingers and salad was more than satisfying and left little room for entrées.
As a Dixieland trio performed at Arnaud‘s jazz bistro, we sipped Champagne and feasted on escargots en casserole ($10), oysters Rockefeller ($13), sautéed pompano with shrimp, tomatoes, herbs and crushed chili peppers ($32.95) and a platter called Veal Wohl ($34.95) that included three of Arnaud’s specialties, veal, crab cake and crawfish. This is a place where an oenologist can select and have a nice 1949 bottle of Chateau Margaux red wine uncorked for a cool $5,300. Its menu, we were told, is essentially the same as the original, legendary Arnaud’s Restaurant next door.
The bistro meal was a rare treat, especially when the table-hopping musicians favored my wife, a former French teacher, with a soothing musical and vocal rendition of “C’est Si Bon” and then watching our server prepare café brulot ($7.50), coffee concoction flavored with lemon and orange peels and laced with a flaming mix of Grand Marnier, cognac and brandy
. Breakfast at Brennan’s and the Court of Two Sisters, Royal Street landmark restaurants, has long been a must for tourists, and it was easy to see why. The renowned Bananas Foster dessert, a favorite of those with a sweet tooth, was born at Brennan’s more than 60 years ago and remains its most frequently ordered item. It came after a nicely chilled glass of cranberry champagne, fresh fruit, turtle soup and eggs benedict. Watching our waiter do his thing was part for the fun, as he sauteed bananas in butter, added brown sugar, cinnamon and banana liquor, then flamed it with rum and topped it with scoops of ice cream. The a la carte choices came to nearly $100.
The Court of Two Sisters jazz brunch ($29) included choices of 60 items. Its courtyard ambiance and music exuded a festive vibe as we dined under a wisteria tree near a fountain surrounded by flowers. The Bananas Foster here didn’t measure up to Brennan’s, and a seafood omelet highly touted by our waiter who said it was specially prepared, had a spicy, mushy taste. The pecan pie, though, was smothered with pecans and very good.
We spent a good part of one afternoon at the Audubon Insectarium museum ($16 adult admission), viewing all kinds of live creepy crawlers and learning of the critical roles they play in the environmental scheme of things. One room simulated a serene Asian garden with real fluttering butterflies and a pond containing king-sized goldfish. In another room you could sample “some delicacies” made with bugs -- offerings like “chocolate cricket cookies“, “queen ant topped hors d’oeuvres” and “six-legged salsa“. A more adventurous couple than us said the insects tasted like the seasoning they were made in and, for the most part, were crispy and dry like potato chips.That section of the museum, naturally, was called Bug Appetit.