Aside from Austin, Texas and a weekend in Las Vegas, I have had no other experience of the US of A until recently, when the fine opportunity to celebrate New Year’s Eve in “N’awlins” presented itself. I am sure like many others before, I speculated upon what NOLA had to offer (NOLA is the informal reference for New-Orleans-Louisiana), basing much of my knowledge from films, books and hearsay.  So many extraordinary musicians have come from and duly returned to New Orleans, a list that baffles with such legacies as Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino & Professor Longhair.  Much like the river that soaks the paving stones you merrily walk across, music spills out of every bar and restaurant you come across.  Turn a corner and a brass band leads a hanky shaking parade with their booming horns.  At another corner, kids with bottle-top tap shoes seduce tourists with their eagerness to perform (and their tipping hat).  If there is one thing to be impressed by with New Orleans, it is the fearlessness of the people that reside there.  Skirting around with a quiet voice and lack of smile is best reserved for funerals.  Here even the funerals throw a proper party, so be prepared to be exposed to LOUD and PROUD residents as this is not a city for wallflowers!

Magazine Street

The linguistics are also something to get your tongue around, as these statements are said with gusto, encouraging repartee from all around.  ‘Who DAT?!’ is blazoned liberally, with the highly excitable response of ‘Yeah you right!’, so enjoy these bellows as you partake in the local life; this enthusiasm is their life-blood.  My inauguration began on arrival from the airport when I was whisked off for my first (and definitely not last) alcoholic beverage at Fat Tuesdays, a frozen daiquiri establishment where you can purchase a delicious, smile-inducing cocktail ‘to-go’.  I learnt early on from this trip that alcohol consumption was as common as a cup of morning Joe and perfectly acceptable most places; in the back of a taxi, in the street… even if you want to change bar location, simple! The bar will happily pour your drink in a to-go cup so you can carry on drinking en route.  This, needless to say, was not conducive to a sober week but then again, it was the holidays after all.

Fat Tuesdays

Following my mango daiquiri experience, I was then off to taste a prolific seafood offering at Drago’s Seafood Restaurant, in the form of their infamous Charbroiled Oysters.  These glorious shells are ideal for those not partial to the raw kind, brought out nestled in warm seasoned butter and filled with sprinkles of melting parmesan and garlic that simply MUST be wiped clean with a torn piece of warm French bread.  You will find an abundance of oysters in New Orleans, from raw to battered and fried within a po’boy (a French bread submarine sandwich aka ‘poor boy’) and I implore you to consume frequently, a consumption of which only compliments the heady romance you gain from the City itself.

Dragos

For a caffeine boost (which of course must also contain alcohol), a pit-stop at Molly’s at the Market on Decatur Street (pronounced dee-kay-turr, although I happily continued with de-cat-turr) will provide you with a fine frozen Irish Coffee, although you most certainly can have it hot like I did.  Another wonderful thing I noted from this bar was like SO many others in New Orleans, they contain a jukebox.  And not only that but it’s a GOOD jukebox, so your ears can continue to be filled with musical goodness.

Irish Coffee

Live music venues are a-plenty, but the street of preference this visit was that on Frenchman, which hosts excellent venues such as d.b.a, Blue Nile, the Spotted Cat and Snug Harbor.  Stumble into one and behold a ‘Bayou Americana’ group such as the Honey Island Swamp Band, stirring the crowd up with their guitar twangs and boundless enthusiasm.  Stroll past another and stare right through the window at another band, whilst various inebriated bystanders regale stories to you of how much they love NOLA (just beware of over-enthusiastic brandishing of lit-cigarettes).  It is certainly something to note though that smoking cigarettes is quite acceptable still in many bars in the area.  As an ex-smoker, I did find my recovering lungs struggling a bit however you literally have to ‘suck it up’, with even the bar staff strolling over with cig in mouth before their free pour your drink (another thing of note, measures do NOT happen in most bars so try to avoid driving if you are heading out for beverages).  You sincerely have to accept these habits; sneering or tut-tutting will not achieve any special treatment.

Blue Nile

spotted cat

It is perfectly acceptable to consume more caffeine too based on the glass-to-liver interactions, so sidle over to Café Du Monde for a chicory based cup, along with their notorious sugared beignets (follow the white powdered markers that regularly bomb the pavements outside).  We went late which is more advisable as it is another pilgrimage for many tourists to tick off their list.

cafe du monde

Aperitivo the next evening was consumed at the Royal House Oyster Bar, more of a stumbled-upon find than a concerted effort.  The sole dish of crab-claws eaten (which complimented my excellent glass of Riesling), filled the air with groans of satisfaction, with its simple concoction of a creamy, buttery garlic sauce smothering mini crab claws, which you MUST pick up with your fingers to suck off the flavoursome white meat.  Crusty bread is of course standard and will sweep up the dregs that you will become quite territorial over.  Recommended.

Cochon was next up for the nose-bag and I had heard many fine reviews of the place.  Food though, like so many experiences must be tested in person, so I was once again a willing mouth-to-feed.  The menu presents itself as a swine-based tapas selection, so a large amount of food was suitably ordered, specifically Grilled Shrimp with pickled squash, chilies & peanuts, Oyster and Meat pie (similar to an empanada), Fried Boudin with pickled peppers (similar to risotto balls and the rice-based blood sausage Morcilla), Mushroom Salad with deep-fried jerky & lemon vinaigrette and sides of creamy grits and the roasted broccoli with lemon & herbs.  All of these dishes were mouthfuls of saliva-inducing delight, even the vegetable offerings succeeded to convert a non-green eater (not myself) to the joys of garden-based produce, so Cochon has even more to tempt you with than just meat.  Take a short walk around the corner too and you will find the Butcher shop for Cochon which stocks further carnivorous treats in the form of cured meats and sandwiches in a more casual setting.

Cochon

The Po’Boy inauguration I had was quite the initiation too.  There are various places you can go, my 2nd spot being at Mahony’s on the charming and easy to wander around Magazine Street.  My Grilled Shrimp Po’Boy with fried green tomatoes and remoulade (a mustard based creamy sauce which has a tart-sweetness tying perfectly with the greasier occupants of the crisp French bread) served as a mighty New Year’s Day meal, along with Roast Beef Debris fries (gravy pools at the bottom of this basket to soak through the shredded pieces of beef and fries that you will be awe over) and string onion rings that melt in the mouth.  These po-boys are highly acclaimed in New Orleans, HOWEVER, I had my induction to this Louisiana sandwich at Parkway Bakery, serving Po-Boys since 1929.  This spot is slightly further out but well worth a visit and we both opted for a regular and full-size version of the ‘Parkway Surf & Turf’; slow cooked Roast Beef topped with Golden Shrimp covered in gravy.  A side order of Sweet Potato fries were also added, all of which I splattered with lashings of NOLA’s Crystal Hot Sauce (It’s the BEST City for a spicy tongue.  I like me some hot sauce, it must be known).  The setting for this foodie moment could not have been more perfect.  The Saints were playing on the TV (the Fleur-De-Lys emblazoned Football team of New Orleans that fills every resident near and far with extraordinary pride and admirable loyalty) and were winning so the mood was good, in particular with the animated crowd guzzling and munching at the bar.  Happy Hour starts early and finishes late and at every touchdown, shots of Butterball were handed out for FREE by the friendly and conversational staff to every bar resident.  I must have consumed at least 3 for the duration, so it’s just as well that the meal was heavy to soak up the alcohol.  The meal was not only heavy enough to fill my belly until late into the night, it was balanced in flavour, generously filled with both meat and shrimp and saturated perfectly with the wonderful gravy drizzled all throughout to soak through the break stick. I had mine ‘dressed’ too with salad ingredients to balance my meat and vegetable ratio (perhaps more an attempt than achievement). The memory of every second spent chewing it brings back happy thoughts even now.  Wonderful.

Mahonys

Barq Rootbeer

Parkway Po'Boy

Locals know local places, and although tourism creeps in at some point which inevitably boosts economy but can somewhat decline quality, there were some stalwart establishments that I was implored to visit.  One such was Jacque Imo’s, located on Oak Street, within the Riverbend/Carrollton area, another neighbourhood worth venturing to offering excellent choices of food, drink and shopping.  Jacque Imo’s promises another ‘real’ Nawlin’ food experience and I eagerly looked forward to testing the offerings of the French/Italian heritage owner Jacques Leonardi.  Be warned: queuing is almost inevitable so book or show up early.  Nearby bars such as the Maple Leaf will distract from the wait, resolution often seems to come from the bottom of a bottle. Our party of 4 was first greeted with complimentary cornbread and menu choices soon followed including appetizers of the infamous Shrimp & Alligator Sausage Cheesecake, Fried Green tomatoes with shrimp remoulade and Calamari, followed with more Shrimp Dishes, Blackened Redfish and sides of red beans, rice & corn.  There was no shortage of food and do not fear the cheesecake.  Thoughts of New York or sweet options may come to mind, but the offering is more in-keeping with a creamy rich slice of quiche.  The casing is a combination of cheese, breadcrumbs and butter which is filled with the meaty, creamy concoction of diced alligator sausage, shrimp and diced vegetables.  It is rather moreish and will be eagerly snapped up (apologies for the pun). With a full belly, shake off the steam and stroll back to the Maple Leaf as it is a great venue and you might catch a cool legend such as George Porter Jnr (The Meters) performing, as we did.  It is Nawlin’s after all.

Cornbread Shrimp & Alligator Cake Calamari Blackened Redfish Fried Green Tomatoes & Shrimp Shrimp Sides at Jacque Imo's

Liberal music, liberal drinking and liberal sleeping all equates to more EATING in this city and I was not to be allowed to leave without trying out Coop’s Place in the French Quarter.  By some divine miracle, our party of 3 managed to jump to the front of the already formed queue and be sat smugly within the wooden fixtures and neon lit tables.  Coop’s Place on entry is something straight out of an indie flick, where you can’t help but gaze upon the tongue-in-cheek wall fixtures and staff t-shirts (Be Nice or Starve; how I wish this honesty could be inflected on British establishments). Hunger was tantamount so ordering became central focus and (in the waitress’ own words), we ordered a ‘mountain’ of food.  We were primed for it though.  The order should be of legend and dictates as follows: cup of Seafood Gumbo, Marinated Louisiana Crab Claws x 2, Crabmeat Stuffed Jalapeno Peppers, House Salad (x 2 with Green Goddess dressing), Cajun Fried Chicken 3 Piece (x 2 and served with coleslaw and rabbit/sausage jambalaya) and Chicken Tchoupitoulas.  Silence when eating is universally known as absolute contentment.  Aside from murmurs of satiety and sheer happiness at what we put in our mouths, the meal was savoured and given the respect it deserved; plates were left clean.  The stuffed peppers were crisp pouches filled with shredded crab meat that melted beneath their casing.  The Fried Chicken was already much revered and it is easy to understand why with its crisp skin and bayou seasoning that sated my companions well (excellently paired with coleslaw and jambalaya).  My personal piece-de-resistance though was the Chicken Tchoupitoulas; a tender breast of bird, topped off with grilled shrimp and tasso (tasso is quite similar to pancetta or smoked lardons) and sat on its plate with creole green beans in bacon sauce.  Covered with a creamy sauce, you will be left only with tears of joy after the last bite enters your mouth.  It was GLORIOUS.

crabmeat stuffed jalapenos Crab Claws Fried Chicken Chicken Tchoupiltoulas

Strolling around the French Quarter is recommended and not just for a spot of exercise either.  Take in the beautiful balconies dripping with foliage that twist around the intricate ironwork or observe the locals that perform real-life interactions that are so humorous they could have been scripted (1 older lady wearing a sign around her neck stops a car in the street.  Said lady is inebriated and starts gesticulating to her imaginary appendage to the driver before stumbling off to another bar no doubt.  You had to be there).  Walking past one bar blasting out Prince’s ‘Kiss’ at the pinnacle part where the guitar crescendo leads to ‘KISS’ and find yourself miming at the same point with another passer-by as you stop outside.  These moments occur frequently here; New Orleans is utterly vibrant and pulsates with activity and sound.  There are hubs of cliché activity such as on Bourbon Street however I did not come here for novelty or the tourist experience.  I was lucky enough to be led through it by locals, residents who carry the history in their veins and preach about it on a regular basis.  As an outsider, you become silenced somewhat by their knowledge of its history, but not out of timidity, mainly due to awe and its distinctive uniqueness compared to other American cities.  You tune into the local radio station WWOZ to immerse yourself with the sounds as often as possible, with DJs introducing songs as soulful as their own dulcet tones.  By the time you have to leave, your mind is intoxicated with the sights and sounds you have consumed (as well as the Cajun cooking).

hotsaucelove

You can pick up a book and learn a language.  You can watch a TV programme and learn about cooking.  But you HAVE to come to New Orleans to get the full experience.  Stories will always be passed around, but like most legends, you best witness them in your lifetime as there will be many more Armstrongs and Dominos to come.  You just need to support it, sip it and live it.  Ya heard?

YEAH

YOU

RIGHT!

house rules

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