Sunday, August 28, 2011

Alex and Jeff's Excellent Adventure

Some time in the spring my son, Alex, asked me if I wanted to travel with him to Tales of the Cocktail, a bartenders' convention. In New Orleans. In late July. I scoffed.

Weeks later I gave it more serious thought. After all, how many times in my life would I have the opportunity to go on a real adventure with one of my kids? Here was the opportunity to share our mutual enjoyment of cocktails and food in a city and a culture neither of us had ever experienced. I wasn't particularly interested in attending programs at Tales, but I figured I could do a little exploration on my own while Alex and two of his friends soaked up knowledge, booze and networking connections. I was only worried that it would be so godawful hot and muggy that I'd never go anywhere.As it turned out, the friends dropped out and neither Alex or I attended Tales. We did, however, have a great time and my preconceptions and view of New Orleans were turned upside down.

Wednesday--We have landed

Although I was braced for the sort of horrid humidity and heat I faced in DC last year, when we landed at mid-afternoon it was warm and almost cozy outdoors. Our cabbie seemed eager to get rid of us, one way or the other, and rocketed along well over the speed limit. The hotel was a great score, thanks to Hotwire, very quiet and located a short walk from the French Quarter. And, as it turned out, our first destination, Herbsaint, was only a few blocks in the other direction on St. Charles. The highpoint at this little bistro would have been the frogs' legs but the day's amphibians were too wily for Herbsaint. I did, however, get my first Louisiana gumbo and it was good. It also reassured me that I was on the right track at home.

Next stop, and one of our primary destinations was Cure, a fairly new and serious cocktail bar on Freret. Just getting there was entertaining enough; our cabbie was full of information and advice delivered from the filthiest mouth I've ever heard. Driving everywhere, over some seriously torn up roads, he insisted we tour the Garden Distrct, which is filled with the most beautiful and exotic mansions I've ever seen. (Sorry, no pictures. Look it up.)

Cure was everything we'd hoped for and more and immediately moved to my short list of best American bars. Fantastic service for food and drinks, an enormous selection of spirits and cocktail ingredients, homemade bitters and terrific original cocktails. I was ready to stay the week.

First up for me was the Gun Shop Fizz on the right, and Alex's Disappearing Ink (Dolin Blanc, Sherry, Strawberry Bitters, Rosewater, Lemon Peel, Mint) on the left. Cocktails are generally made with one or two dashes of bitters, but the fizz uses two ounces of Peychaud's. I expected a puckering challenge to my mouth, but the Gun Shop is bright and refreshing. More wonderful drinks followed, including Rhiannon Enlil's delicious Bees for Pele. (Rhum Agricole, Yellow Chartreuse, Lemon, Honey, Spice Bitters, Angostura Bitters) and a Sazerac made with Thomas H. Handy rye.

We had chosen to sit on the short side of the bar, opposite the kitchen rather than the bottle display. This made it very handy when the cooks reached over to deposit our small plates, including the fresh crab and watermelon salad. We were later given a dish of white chocolate-dipped blackberries with crumbled bleu cheese and walnuts.

Later, our server told Alex and I we should follow Rhiannon and it didn't appear that we were being ejected. Instead, we were taken to a pair of tall glass-fronted cabinets near the door which was storage of their most special beverages. "Do you see anything you're interested in?" Well, yeah, hell yeah, but it was too overwhelming to focus. Rhiannon ended up choosing a bottle of Byrrh, a rich and delicious aperitif, and then offered to make us each our drink of choice using the Byrrh. Alex was served a variation on the Negroni, and I on the Manhattan. And I've run out of superlatives.

Rhiannon above, Alex's Negroni below.

Off we went to the hotel and off I went to deep sleep. As it turned out, Alex was restless and went for a walk, thereby discovering that the French Quarter was only a few blocks away and that drunken college boys fling strings of beads even when it's not Mardi Gras.

More to come.

Alex and Jeff's Excellent Adventure, Part II

Thursday--A Full Day

Although New Orleans was our primary destination, I wasn't going to travel that far into the Deep South without seeing countryside and the Gulf, and knocking another state off my list (it's now down to six unvisited). Thursday was a beautiful sunny day, and we drove our rented car east on Hwy 90, through the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge, past Lake St Catherine into Mississippi and along the Gulf Coast's Long Beach.The car's air conditioning was very welcome, for as beautiful as the day was it was also hot and humid.

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 Hwy 90 bridge over Chef Menteur Pass, which connects Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Borgne. The highway then travels along an isthmus bordering Pontchartrain and soon enters Mississippi.

We saw ample evidence of the rebuilding along the coastal areas with homes built on platforms high above the ground. Virtually every residence we saw was brand new or under construction.

A long stretch of white sand (appropriately called Long Beach) runs from the mouth of Bay St. Louis all the way to Gulfport, Mississippi, and almost certainly all the way to Biloxi. It was hot and nearly empty. In contrast to the ocean I'm most familiar with, the Gulf was extraordinarily warm and murky. The temperature really was like a bath, but neither of us was tempted to swim in it.

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.

And a busy evening

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!)

It's almost impossible for me to describe 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.

Which seems like a good time to apologize for the general craptastic nature of the photos. I've come to the conclusion that a combination of good photos and a rousing night out is difficult to pull off. Bacchanal has much better photos on their website and their Facebook page. Check them out.

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.

Alex and Jeff's Excellent Adventure, Part III

Friday it rained

Living in Oregon for years has gulled me into thinking I know something about rain. After all, everyone knows it rains constantly here, day after day. In New Orleans, apparently, they've decided it's more efficient to pack two weeks worth of rain into two hours. Step out in it and you will be soaked to the skin in minutes and scampering from balcony to awning just doesn't cut it. (Note: next time bring an umbrella.)

Since walking around town was a really poor option, we decided to travel north to Abita Springs and visit their brewpub. First stop, though, was the justifiably famous Cafe du Monde in the French Market, where it has resided since 1862. Open 24/7 except for Christmas and days when hurricanes "pass too close to New Orleans." Most of the seating is outdoors, under a roof, and most of what is served is a cup of café au lait (with chicory) and three beignets buried under a cloud of powdered sugar. It's all just as delicious as it looks.

As the rain started in earnest, we drove for about 30 minutes to cross the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, the longest continuous bridge over water in the world. Along the way, Alex discovered WWOZ on the radio, a listener-sponsored station playing an amazing blend of New Orleans music and local culture--and it's available streaming on the Internet! All of which made for great entertainment while driving over an endless bridge through pouring rain.

And more pouring rain. All I can say about Abita Springs, other than the rain, is that they have a very nice brewpub and a lot of very pretty houses. And cats. They have at least four (one ran off) trying to find a dry spot to sit outside the pub. None of them looked happy and particularly not about being disturbed.

As the day dried out, we headed back to New Orleans and our date with piggies.

Alex had gotten us early dinner reservations at Cochon, a restaurant specializing in, uh, pork. (And I note that the owner/chef has been awarded the James Beard Award for Best Chef South, 2011.) And thanks to Alex, we received a warm greeting from the lovely Naomi aka Elaine (ask Alex), one of his former co-workers. Most of the menu items were "small plates", which can be a relative term. Oysters the size of my hand. Below that, pork cheeks and something yummy. An amuse-bouche with they called head cheese, which has no resemblance to any thing I've ever seen with that name and was delicious (as was the pickled okra). And finally, the main dish, braised pork with cracklings and peaches. I probably could have had apple fritters with southern pecan sherbet if there I had any room.

The rest of Friday involves drink.

After porking out, we found another bar on Alex's list, which turned out to be a not very exciting hotel bar where I had an indifferent Sazerac (I think). We got excellent advice from the bartender, however, including a warning that we really did not want to walk to the next bar on the list, down a very sketchy street. Instead, he suggested Arnaud's French 75 bar in the French Quarter next to Arnaud's Creole Restaurant, which has been in the location since 1918--a beautiful and elegant bar with a superb and attentive staff. In the spirit of Tales, the bartender had created some new specialties. I think (but can't guarantee) that the new drinks included a specific Amer. I got stuck on their version of a Martinez and never wavered.

Arnaud's was a perfect place to spend the evening, with a lively crowd that included spill-overs from the restaurant (a wedding rehearsal dinner with exceptionally lovely Southern Belles), a friend from Portland, and more people from Portland! And to top it off, it was only a few blocks (stumbling distance) from our hotel.

A little bit more to come, although mostly much quieter, and perhaps some deep thoughts.