Saturday, January 05, 2008

Is there any other place on earth like New Orleans?

Is there any other city that could go through so much and yet still be one of the few places on earth where you feel the current of life running through it the moment you step off the plane?

Is there any other city where the people embrace that life and the inevitability of death with passion, humour and warmth?

And, most importantly, well for me on this trip, is there any place where it is possible to eat so incredibly well from the moment you wake up to the moment you finally and reluctantly have to lay your head down on the pillow at the end of the day?

This was my second visit to New Orleans. Last time I visited, it seeped into my system and remained there like a benign virus. I could not shake off the feelings I developed for the city and, even if I had not been heading off to EAT MY GLOBE, I knew I would be back one day.

Little did I know that, this time when I returned, the city I had fallen head over heals for would have been battered by storms, subjected to a flood that would have made Noah nervous and, shamefully, all but abandoned by its government.

It would be fair to say that I was nervous as my plane touched down at NOLA airport early in the morning. The scenes we all witnessed on TV were apocalyptic, more like those you would see being beamed in from deepest, darkest somewhere or other, not from the world’s richest nation.

On top of which, internet research showed that precious little had been done to restore the city even in the two years since the storms abated.

I had no idea what to expect.

What I found, to my surprise was a city that seemed little different from my previous visit. Admittedly, I was staying in The French Quarter, which had not experienced anything like the damage of places nearer the lake and I was not to see the full extent of the damage until later.

I settled in a large, comfortable room in my hotel, The Le Richelieu in the heart of The Quarter and went out to explore for myself.

It was, of course, hot and humid as Hell, and there were constant threats of thunderstorms. Threats which were carried out every ninety minutes or so with a loud cloudburst and a short, sharp downpour. Fortunately, being British, I had been given a brolly the moment I plopped out of the womb, so was better prepared than many.

In New Orleans, there are certain things you really must eat and drink if you are to say you have been to the city at all. On the side occupied by Mr Booze, it is, of course, The Sazerac. I had that all planned for later. For now, my plan was to get the Beignet out of the way.

A Beignet, to all intents and purposes, is a doughnut with pretensions. I had not liked them on previous visits and I was pretty sure I would not like them now. But, I am out to eat the good, the bad and the sugary, so set off to the one and only, Café Du Monde.

It is a local legend and, although now strictly on the tourist trail, one of those things that a visitor really ought to try. Once.

I could not bring myself to sit down, so ordered $4 worth and a hot chocolate and sat on a wall behind the café where I could watch the balls of fried dough being made. They were no better or no worse than I recall and, after a couple of bites, I deposited the bag next to someone sleeping on a bench and headed off for a wander sipping on the slightly watery hot chocolate.

The local government has obviously worked hard to restore both the city’s infrastructure and its reputation. Large posters for the conference centre were in full affect and there did seem to be an upbeat air about the place. However, the impact of Katrina is still very much in evidence particularly when you see the unused lines, which used to guide the famous trams.

By early afternoon, I was both shattered from my 5am start and from my walk in the humid air. I returned to the comfort of my room, switched the TV and the air conditioning on and promptly fell asleep.

By the time I awoke, it was dark outside and my liver was telling me it was time for my first Sazerac.

A few months before, at The London Bar Show, I had been lucky enough to meet a New Orleans legend, Chris McMillan who is not only a fourth generation NOLA bar tender, currently working the Library Bar at The Ritz Carlton, but also a director of The Museum of The American Cocktail. If there is anything about the history of cocktails Chris does not know, then it is simply not worth knowing.

He is also recognised as one of the best makers of Sazerac’s in the world. Not a bad accolade.

The Sazerac takes its place in my pantheon of five drinks I order to test any bartender’s chops. Other drinks may be tasty but you can hide a lot with fruits and syrups. The classic five are, The Martini, The Manhattan, The Old Fashioned, The Sazerac and The Daiquiri. With these drinks, it is all about the balance. There is nowhere to hide if you get it wrong.

Well, Chris does not get it wrong. Originally, the drink, created by Antoine Peychaud, was made with Cognac. No surprise given the French influence over the city. Over time, as brandy became harder to source and more expensive, the drink was made with rye whiskey as it is to this day. Add the spirit to an Absinthe washed glass, sugar syrup, a slug of bitters bearing Peychaud’s,name, dress with a lemon twist and you have one of the truly great cocktail experiences. New Orleans in a glass.

Chris’ version did not disappoint. It was cold and the initial hit was of the spirit. Then the sugar and the bitters kicked in to give balance and the lemon oil from the twist gave the required citrus note. It really is an astonishing experience and one that is all to regularly served without care and attention.

By the time I had enjoyed my second drink of the evening, an exquisitely made Martini, Chris wife, Laura had arrived and the three of us chatted while Chris also kept an eye out on the busy bar.

My stomach was rumbling by now. I had nothing to eat but that doughnut thingy at lunchtime. Chris had to work until later but Laura suggested I join her for supper at Café Adelaide, in the plush Loews Hotel, where chef Kevin Vizard was overseeing the restaurant and The Swizzle Stick Bar.

The restaurant is named for another local legend, Adelaide Brennan, whose motto for life was “Eating, Drinking & Carrying On” As a set of rules for life go, it is one of the better ones and the food certainly lives up to its NOLA legacy. It reminded me of why I loved the place on my first visit.

It could not be more New Orleans if it tried. Oysters come “crispy”, Turtle soup is spiced up with a glug of sherry and gumbo is introduced to fried okra on a regular basis.

A NOLA version of dirty rice called Calas came with duck giblets and, thank The Lord, they had soft shell crab on the menu. In the UK, we seldom see these beauties unless you set foot in a Chinese restaurant. However, since I tried my first on an early visit to New York, I have ordered them just about every time I have seen them on a menu.

The ones at Café Adelaide did not disappoint although, as is often the case in the US, I did have to deconstruct a tower of food to get to the main event. It was worth the effort though, with crunchy outsides giving way to meltingly sweet flesh.

I could not face dessert and, so after saying my farewells to Laura and thanking sous chef, Raoul who presented me with a bottle of local sugar cane vinegar, I set out to walk back to my hotel.

I decided to give the piss & vomit perfume of Bourbon St a miss. My inevitable visit there could wait until the next night. I walked home along some of the quieter streets of The Quarter and arrived in my room just as the heaven’s opened and the rains poured

The next day, Chris had promised to take me on a tour of “his” New Orleans. I was as excited as Hell, but the booze and the travelling had taken its toll and I was asleep almost before I undressed. Just pleased as a Po’Boy to be back in this incredible city.

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