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How I Got My Mojo Back After a Trip to N'awlins
WHEN TO GO
The biggest mistake first time New Orleans travelers make is going during Mardi Gras. No argument that itís not the best party on earth (I wouldnít trade my party gras experiences for the world) but itís also the most crowded, hardest to get hotel rooms and restaurant reservations, and there are so many outside visitors (I mean millions) that you get a very different, less Níawlins experience than you would much of the rest of the year.
Valentine's Day does happen to fall during the Mardi Gras season, if you want to celebrate in one of the most romantic cities around (Mardi Gras is February 17, but parades and balls lead up to that date). Just be warned hotel rooms may be pricier (for example: a room at Bourbon Orleans, smack in the middle of the French Quarter, from February 13-18 is $439 a night as of this writing, versus $139 at other times of year; a room at the Hyatt for the same dates is $319, although you have to take the trolley to the Quarter).
Holidays with Papa Noel bonfires across the Mississippi are amazing, both Jazzfest and the Essence Festival are blasts, and thereís literally a festival or gathering of some sort in New Orleans nearly every weekend. So pick a time that works for you. Thereís a list of events at New Orleans visitorís bureau page, and a great run down of festivals (including LGBT-specific ones like the not-to-be-missed Southern Decadence, as well as festivals celebrating food, music, theater, literature, African-American and Creole history, and more).
WHERE TO EAT
SoBou was so hot when it opened in 2012 that Esquire called it the best new restaurant in the country. Located in the W French Quarter, SoBouís got the credentials: itís from the famed Commanderís Palace family, and that restaurantís Tory McPhail is a consulting chef. But ďcocktail chickĒ Ti Adelaide Martin, executive chef Juan Carlos Gonzalez, and bar chef Abigail Gullo deserve the credit for their delicious high-end, small plate Creole-Cajun-Southern street food take. The foie gras burgers and alligator corn dogs are a must, the yellowfin tuna cone with avocado ice cream is amazing, and the unique dining experience includes self-serve wine machines, a hidden courtyard, and a beer garden.
For me though, itís all about cocktail chef Abigail and her amazing state-of-the-art cocktail program that treats alcohol and fresh ingredients with the care of a master mixologist. Bar-goers can enjoy inspired drinks, from the whimsical King Cake Old Fashioned, to sophisticated concoctions like the Georgia OíKeeffe, made with Cathead honeysuckle vodka, elderflower, hibiscus, citrus, and cava. It's the preferred drink of out actor and SoBou regular Bryan Batt, from 12 Years a Slave and Mad Men, who also co-owns of a local boutique, Hazelnut, which is definitely worth visiting while you're in town.
Offering New Orleans home-cooking since 1938, Motherís still makes the best po-boy in the state of Louisiana. The Ferdi Special combines the house-made caramelized baked ham, roast beef, gravy, and debris (which is the roast beef that falls into the gravy while itís being cooked) all into a sandwich. Mother's excels at other Southern dishes, from shrimp etoufe and red beans to bread pudding, but itís not just the food that makes this place great. Itís the people too, who operate a lot like a family ó from their wonderfully effervescent gay manager to the chefs and servers.
After Hurricane Katrina flooded the city, the restaurantís owners and manager came back to the city, and helped find their employees, many of whom lost their homes. The restaurant kept nine FEMA trailers in its parking lot for their homeless employees and for nearly a year after, forming their own neighborhood of sorts. That loyalty is a two-way street. More than 17 of the current employees have been there over 20 years. The day we visited, our cook had been there for more than 30 years, and was the niece of the original 1938 cook (for whom Maeís File Gumbo is named); our waitress had been there for 22 years.
The thing is, this kind of camaraderie isnít just heartwarming, it shows in the food and the service. Every single meal at Mother's is consistent. Even when thereís a line around the block to get in, I know that the food will taste the same each time I visit, and since Iíve now been going there since 1986, itís like a taste of home ó New Orleans comfort food at its finest. In addition to Central Grocery (the cityís best muffaletta maker), Motherís is hands-down the one eatery we go to in New Orleans on every trip. Itís fast, itís delicious, LGBT-friendly, good for families, and itís inexpensive.
One of the first restaurants to reopen after Katrina, 97-year-old Arnaudís is one of the cityís biggest institutions, a fine dining experience from the largest restaurant in the city ó there are more than a dozen private dining rooms. The maÓtre d's are in tuxedos, the tables surrounded by chandeliers and drapes, and after you break some of the house-made bread, someone scoops away the crumbs that youíre supposed to make (itís lucky). And while you wouldnít know it, Arnaudís is also one of the few eateries there that serves classic Creole cuisine (no hybrids here, just the food native to New Orleans), which means lots of butter and spices and flour and deliciousness.
Thereís a Dixieland dinner each night, a Sunday jazz brunch, and more. Top menu choices include Shrimp Arnaud ó Gulf shrimp marinated in a tangy Creole Remoulade sauce; Oysters Arnaud (one each of the eatery's signature baked oysters); Crawfish OíConnor, which is baked in a Brandy-infused classic Creole tomato-based sauce; and the Soufflť Potatoes, considered one of the cityís most iconic dishes by locals.
Legend has it that the chef for French King Louis Phillipe (circa early 1800s) unintentionally created soufflé potatoes by plunging already fried potatoes into extremely hot oil to reheat them when the King arrived late for dinner one night. The potatoes puffed up like little balloons, the king loved them, and Arnaud's now serves a ton of them, with béarnaise sauce, of course. We also were thrilled with our after-dinner treats, including the Cafť BrŻlot, a concoction of coffee, lemon and orange rinds, cloves, cinnamon sticks, and Orange Curacao thatís flamed with brandy. The drink's preparation is a theatrical show, which reportedly began with pirate Jean Lafitte, who would make the drink to enrapture people, so his crew of thieves could pick their pockets.
While youíre there, take a gander upstairs at the Germaine Cazenave Wells Mardi Gras Museum, named for the daughter of Count Arnaud, who took over the restaurant after his death. She was a legendary local ó loud, brash, sexy, hard-drinking, and a powerful boss ó who ruled over 22 Mardi Gras balls and started her own Easter parade to show off her latest hats, a pageant that still happens every year.
This LGBT-owned Creole restaurant is set in an historic building from the late 1700s in the Faubourg-Marigny, an area just outside the Quarter thatís as close to a little ďgayborhoodĒ in the city as youíll get. Feelings is housed in a former plantation building, with a fantastic patio bar and courtyard where you can enjoy a wonderfully romantic feel, a famous peanut butter pie, and a piano player every weekend.
If you go before Lent begins (the day after Fat Tuesday), stop at Cochon Butcher for dessert: pastry chef Maggie Scales has created an amazing new version of the traditional Mardi Gras pastry known as the king cake, dubbed the Elvis because itís filled with peanut butter, banana, and house-cured bacon topped with marshmallow and traditional Mardi Gras decoration. They do some fine house-cured meats, too.
It doesnít have the dress code of some of the other high-end eateries in the French Quarter ó no sleeveless shirts, cut-off or athletic shorts, but dress shorts and polos are fine. But what GW Fins does have is some of the best seafood. In a city where seafood often means crab, crawfish, redfish, and shrimp in heavy sauces or deep friend, GW Fins stands out for serving a premium variety of superb fish and shellfish from the Gulf and beyond without all that dressing or frying. The lobster dumplings are like butter, and the wood-grilled local Barracuda (with Thai-style mirliton slaw, blue crab fritters, and pepper jelly) is an exciting surprise, but Iíll never go back without ordering our tableís hands-down favorite: wood-grilled New Bedford sea scallops with mushroom risotto and wild mushroom butter.
The oldest French-Creole restaurant in the city, Antoineís is 175 years old and still operated by fifth-generation relatives of the original founder, Antoine Alciatore, and dare I say itís as special now as it was then. Itís romantic, delicious, incomparable, and a bit of a time-capsule. Our meal was topped off with a very special Omelette Alaska Antoine, a dish made for lovers if ever there was one. The restaurantís version of Baked Alaska, has to be ordered in advance. If, like me, you had no idea that included ice cream, let me describe the dish: this dessert is filled with vanilla ice cream with pound cake on the bottom and egg white meringue on top flambayed on the outside to crusty perfection.
I was devastated when this restaurant, my favorite place on Earth to have breakfast and Brandy Punch, closed in 2013 amid financial turmoil after it took a heavy hit in Katrina. The Irish-American Brennan family is a restaurant dynasty, though infighting and competition have led to many different Brennan-owned restaurants that donít necessarily have any connection to each other. Brennanís, the eatery that originated the Bananas Foster, among other dishes, was revived by Ralph Brennan (a cousin of the former owners) and Terry White, and many of the iconic dishes are back. Donít miss breakfast here ó itís a sheer experience and will take you literally hours. I havenít been since it was retooled but Iím thinking the artisanal eggs benedict is still the best bet.
Youíll have to go Uptown for New Orleansí only five ďAĒ restaurant, but Atchafalaya is worth it. A fun spot for the weekend brunches, with live music and a Bloody Mary bar, this joint boasts contemporary Creole cuisine and craft cocktails ó but I am in love with their breakfast. Try the Eggs Atchafalaya (poached eggs, fried green tomatoes, jumbo lump crab, hollandaise sauce) or the Cochon Du L'Eggs (sunny-side up eggs, pulled pork, cornbread pudding, creole coleslaw, blackberry-cane syrup). Yum.
Sage advice for New Orleansí visitors: you cannot go wrong with a Brennan-owned restaurant. The family has tentacles all over the cityís cuisine trade, and many of them are very good, including Red Fish Grill (start with the seafood sampler), Dickie Brennanís Steak House (try the house filet with flash-fried oysters), and Bourbon House Seafood (which has a massive selection of small-batch and single-barrel bourbons and the cityís best Frozen Bourbon Milk Punch).