I admit to real bigotry about the region, wondering why the hell anyone would want to live there, especially outside New Orleans. I also admit to being a dumbass. The drive to Gulfport, through a wide variety of woods and waterways and beaches, was utterly beautiful (and some of the most picturesque, seen from bridges and causeways, frustrated the photographer).
The "goal" of the trip, or at least the target, was lunch at the Half Shell Oyster House. Lunch turned out to be very late, and we were ravenous. Grilled oysters got us started. Alex had a seafood pie and I ordered the Royal Red shrimp, which were luckily in season. Big shrimp, with a flavor more like lobster than the usual taste. The only downside was that they resisted peeling.And grits.
And for dessert, my first-ever real Key Lime Pie. It was good. Alex had to get his own.
Our great friend, Jenaya, had recently repatriated to New Orleans, having been washed out by Katrina in 2005. She had made us promise to give her one night to get a taste for her city, which we looked forward to eagerly. Jenaya picked us up at our hotel and drove us on an apparently random and twisted path through the French Quarter to the Bywater neighborhood. On the way, we saw our first "second line", this one for well-loved club owner Ray Deter, and a huge brass band of youngsters in bright yellow t-shirts. (Our first brass band but by no means the last. Music everywhere!)
Bacchanal, other than to say it's just about the coolest place I've ever been. From my perspective, it's in the midst of nowhere immediately across from an old Army depot, railroad tracks and the Mississippi River. It seems obvious that Chris, the owner, isn't relying on pedestrian traffic for customers. This is a place that you make an effort to go to, because you've been there, or you've heard great things about it, or you're fortunate enough to be taken there by a friend. If you were looking for it, you might easily pass by entirely.
When you watch the first season of Treme (which you absolutely must), Bacchanal is featured in at least two scenes. In the first, Sonny buys his girlfriend a bottle of wine--the interior of this brick building is a funky and well-stocked wine shop, and was the original Bacchanal. Customers enter, choose a bottle of wine or two and take them and their glassware out to the large and wild backyard. We got there early enough to select a table, but later on, with the band playing and the chef knocking out superb food, it was filled with happy guests in the warm and sticky night. Many of the guests were attractive women of all ages.
Jenaya's friend Chris had been out fishing the day before, and provided 60 pounds of tuna for the chef. And, oh god, was it good, along with our ceviche and flatiron steak. And wine. Lots and lots of rosés. In Episode 9 of Treme, there is an entire scene set in the back yard, and Janette's portable kitchen is set up exactly where the new outdoor kitchen is now located.
Update (9/15): Bacchanal is having some problems because of their live music. There's a good piece here.
Much of what followed is a bit blurry. The three of us walked through the neighborhood, visited her shotgun house, and then two of her local dive bars. In the process we twice passed the bar in which Kermit Ruffins was playing, with a huge crowd spilling outside during a break. Both the bars were called JP's or JJ's. I think. The one we landed in was packed and the music being played was excellent. In New Orleans, the rules about smoking in bars are very different than they are in Portland. As far as I can tell, the rule is: whatever the owner wants is fine. I think people in this bar were required to smoke. Next to the jukebox was something I hadn't seen in years, a cigarette vending machine.
Still more to come after a good night's sleep.