Thursday, January 14, 2010

Making friends in the Crescent City

Sometimes you wander around trying to think of stuff to do, taking into consideration time of day, weather, meal options, and so forth, and sometimes you wander into a cool-looking bar and find yourself becoming immersed in the scene. Ciprian and I were hanging out in the French Quarter on Monday. The weather was finally becoming a bit more normal for this part of the world. I think it even got into the upper 40s or lower 50s.

We'd had an awesome tour of Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 earlier in the afternoon with a smart and witty tour guide named Joyce (highly recommended) and we'd just eaten a fantastic fried shrimp po-boy from Verdi-Marte on Royal St. (which apparently never closes and does not have a lock for the door), when we stumbled upon a bar called Pirate's Alley (sub-name is the Old Absinthe House). It's a tiny bar with pirate-themed decor on a little street that runs alongside St. Louis Cathedral between Chartres and Royal. We ordered mojitos, then margaritas. The bartender, a young woman named Alicia, is a great conversationalist. We sat at the bar where it turned out there were 3 other tourists from the NY area. There was also a local man named Keith. Keith is a public defender in New Orleans and clearly a regular at the bar. He and Alicia appeared to be old buddies and he was clearly old enough to be her father. Keith had some sausage (I assume it was locally made) that he shared with everyone there, including us. We sat and discussed things like the legal system in Louisiana and the pros and cons of Mardi Gras season. One of the other tourists was very into the haunted tours offered around the French Quarter. I expressed skepticism but did not want to spoil his fun. I did try to restrain myself.

After leaving the pirate bar, we headed back to the Garden District to a place called the Columns Hotel. It is a grand old hotel in the Greek revival architectural tradition with massive columns out front and exquisite wood paneling inside. We'd gone to hear David Doucet play guitar. He is a member of the band Beau Soleil with Michael Doucet. Unfortunately, we were told that he'd had some sort of accident where he'd injured his hand and so there would not be a show that night. We were disappointed, but decided to sit in the bar and have a drink. Once again, sitting in a bar turned into quite an interesting event. There was an older couple to my left who I struck up a conversation with; new to NOLA and eager to share info on great restaurants and music venues. I had a great time talking to them and even exchanged contact info. To Ciprian's right there was a group of four people in their 40s and 50s with whom he began chatting away. After about an hour, we were being driven by these folk to a sushi restaurant about a mile away to have a late dinner. They "kidnapped" us as they put it, and took us to a sushi place on Magazine St. (Sake Cafe, I was excellent!).  Boy were these people a riot; a lawyer, an English professor, a pianist and a former personal assistant to celebrities. We had such fun with them, even if they were a little bit crazy.

The next day was Tuesday, our last day in New Orleans. Once again the weather was gorgeous. We got up too late for our B&B breakfast (just like almost every other day) and walked down to Magazine St. to catch the bus to Audubon Park. We were on a mission to go to the zoo! The Audubon Zoo is, of course, part of the Audubon Society, as is the Insectarium, mentioned in my previous post. Audubon is a major presence in New Orleans. I'm not sure of the history. Maybe Mr. Audubon was a New Orleanian? If anyone knows, please share a comment. Audubon Park is big...maybe not as big as Central Park, but pretty damn big. Perhaps the size of Prospect Park, and the zoo itself is a bit smaller than the Bronx Zoo, or that would be my guess anyway. They don't have as many large herbivores as the Bronx, for which you really need a lot of space. However, they have a fantastic array of animals and a killer swamp exhibit. Highlights for me included the white Bengal tigers, the Asiatic lions, the cougars, the jaguars (okay, ALL of the cats), and the gators...they have two adult white gators and a false gharial (South African gator relative). They also have several foxes and some African Wild dogs. Oh and primates! I almost forgot. Geez. Look at me, yes, I'm an anthropologist. They have siamangs ("lesser apes" from SE Asia), gorillas, orangutans, and lots of different South American and African monkeys including, but not limited to, howlers, dianas, black and whites, tamarins and sakis. The best part about the primate exhibits is that they are all outside! Benefits of living in the south. Even the tamarins (tiny little monkeys the size of...oh, I don't know, the size of a kitten) have an outdoor habitat! They share it with two saki monkeys. Really cool. So, the zoo was a big hit with us. We enjoyed it tremendously, plus we had it all to ourselves since it was "cold" out and so hardly anyone was there.

Post-zoo, we wandered back down Magazine to find some lunch. We were hoping to go to a place called Guys Po-boys which I'd heard was really good, but we got there a bit late because they'd just closed. We kept on walking and a few blocks later we came upon a place with a short menu in the window. It was just a bakery of sorts with some standard NOLA dishes listed (i.e., gumbo, jambalaya, red beans and rice). We went in and there were three people waiting on their orders. So we waited. We waited about 10 minutes or so before we ordered and during that time, Ciprian looked up the name of the place (Tee Eva's). Turned out that this place is kind of famous (apparently thanks to Anthony Bourdain) and Ms. Tee Eva herself has gotten quite a lot of attention from the travel industry. We thought, well, there's no way that Tee Eva is back there doing all the cooking, but sure enough, there she was, a little lady with a whole lot of character and chutzpah. Her husband works there with her. Both are of indeterminate age, I'd say. We ordered a mini crawfish pie, two pralines to go (as gifts), one gumbo and one jambalaya. The jambalaya was fantastic. Probably the best I had in NOLA. Simpler that the version that Coops serves (in terms of the number of ingredients), but really tasty. The gumbo was intense...maybe a little too intense for us. We did not manage to finish it, but I would still recommend Tee Eva's place. It's inexpensive and you get a real "taste" for New Orleans...culturally and epicuriously.

We ended up hanging out in Tee Eva's for about an hour. Some other folk came in including a musician and his french lady friend who we chatted up a bit. We ordered a second jambalaya and headed back up to St. Charles for the streetcar. I was on a candy mission - I needed to make it to Southern Candymakers before they closed. I actually had plenty of time and we made it without any trouble. Even had time to pop into an old used book store on Chartres just a block or two off Canal. Southern Candymakers are, in my opinion, probably the best praline makers in the city if not the world (does anyone outside of NOLA even make pralines?). They also make amazing fudge and saltwater taffy. I got several little samples of various sweeties. Ciprian waited patiently. He does not have much of a sweet tooth, something I cannot relate to at all.

By that point we'd decided that we would just commit ourselves to spending the rest of the evening in the French Quarter. It may be touristy, but it is also magical and we knew we were going to miss it. We popped into an old bar called the Napoleon House, got a drink, discovered yet another New Yorker (the bartender), and then headed to Preservation Hall to witness the ultimate in traditional jazz.

Preservation Hall is an organization dedicated to the preservation of New Orleans style jazz and some of the best musicians in the biz have been through this place. The band leader for the evening was Shannon Powell (drummer). The Hall presents several 45 minute sets every night for $10 each. That's $10 for a band that you'd pay probably $50+ for if you saw them on tour in your own town. They are so good. And they have an incredible dynamic musically and in terms of their personalities. There were two young men, but most of the guys were over 40, and a couple were probably over 55 or even 60. But they were all amazing. 45 minutes flew by and it was so sad to leave. I strongly recommend going for at least one set if you ever go to NOLA.  One last note about this experience...there is a sign on the wall behind the drummer that says: "Traditional Requests - $2.00, Other - $5.00, The Saints - $10.00."  Some of you might find that amusing.

We were beginning to get a bit peckish, so we walked past a jazz place we'd been referred to (Fritzels...a Euro-style jazz joint), but decided we'd better eat first and headed down to Decatur back to the scene of our first NOLA meal - Coops. And true to our expectations, the food was exceptional and reasonably priced. We ordered the seafood platter (fried, of course), and cajun fried chicken which comes with jambalaya (with rabbit and sausage) and coleslaw. The resident kitty cat, Stella, is seen in some of the photos I took.

One kind of music that we'd really wanted to hear but had yet to experience is the Blues. There's a tiny little music venue on Frenchmen St. called the Apple Barrel where a blues band just happened to be playing that night. The band was Ken Swartz and the Palace of Sin and man were they good. We stayed for about an hour and a half and honestly we would've stayed later if I hadn't had a cold and if we were getting up early the next morning to leave. Because they were excellent. Plus, we'd met more new people! Yep, sitting at the bar...meeting local folk. The level of openness and friendliness among people was remarkable. Everyone was willing to talk, was interested and wanted to was refreshing. One occasionally comes across that in NYC, but I think it's rare. In New Orleans it is the norm.

Last note...our cab driver on the way back to our B&B that night was a New Jersey native. He shared a lot of the more sobering facts about living in New Orleans...such as the economic dire straits that so many people remain in, the terrible public schools, and the general neglect of the government (state and city). It was good to hear that. We'd been existing in a little bit of a bubble during our visit despite our interactions with locals and few ventures outside of the regular tourist haunts. But part of visiting a place is learning about its ugly underbelly, and every place has one. I hope New Orleans and Louisiana can get it together to support their citizens more effectively...they are an amazing group of people. We'll most definitely be going back, hopefully soon.

Until next time.

1 comment:

Redcat said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.