As I once learned at Mardi Gras, a visit to New Orleans is a marathon, not a sprint. Accordingly, it’s paramount to have a comfy place to relax at in between bouts at the city’s incredible Cajun restaurants and to relax in between sorties to Bourbon Street with a hurricane drink in hand.
Fortunately, just outside of the vaunted French Quarter lies the boutique hotel, Old No. 77. Once a warehouse, it is now a bustling place to stay that is just a few short blocks from the action of Bourbon Street, thanks to redevelopment.
First-class service was evident from the moment that I arrived as a porter warmly greeted me with a handshake and offered to help with my bags. (I was equally as impressed when he recalled my name hours later, along with dozens of other guests.) To my left in the lobby was Compere Lapin, where I would be having breakfast the following morning, and to the right, a cozy lounge where I spied people likely awaiting Ubers.
Check-in was brisk and delivered with no small amount of Southern charm. I made my way to the second floor to a room that was to be my quarters for the weekend. A fully stocked minibar was afore me, including local flourishes such as Cathead vodka from neighboring Mississippi.
Atypical of other luxury hotels that I have experienced, the floor here was of wood. The non-carpeted floor squeaked with my footfalls—a reminder of the oldness of this most unique of American cities—and I could hear my neighbors above moving around as well. (Or was it a haunting?)
However, it was a cozy, pleasant room, with generously sized bed and a large wall-mounted television for supine viewing. The room’s one window looked out into the hall, so I chose to keep it closed until I became better acquainted with my new surroundings.
It’s also key to learn more about what New Orleans has going on now as the Big Easy spirits ahead into its 300th anniversary, with 2018 marking three centuries since being founded by French explorers in 1718, who brought with them their language, their culture and Catholicism; all which continue to play its part as Louisiana is the only state divvied up into “parishes” versus counties.
Nearly as long as the city has been around, Antoine’s has been serving up Louisiana Creole food since 1840, which is no small accomplishment in a business notorious for its turnover. The sensibilities of French chef Antoine Alciatore, who immigrated to the New World in the 19th century, remain on display 177 years after it was founded. Among the popular dishes here were Oysters Rockefeller, Pompano en Papillote, Eggs Sardou and Pigeonneaux Paradis.
In the “original” dining room attached to Antoine’s, I met up with Lisa Blount, project manager at the establishment. The original dining room has since become the Hermes Bar, and is a great spot to enjoy a cocktail or a beer before a massive meal. I sipped on a Blonde Ale from the nearby NOLA Brewing and enjoyed the décor, much of which, Lisa told me, is on loan from the New Orleans Historical Association.
Lisa took me on a tour of the no less than 14—yes, 14!—dining rooms. They varied in size and opulence, from the comfy 1840 Room to the extremely exclusive RexRoom, which looked like something right out of Versailles, to the large and open dining room in the back for locals. Lisa pointed out old lamps above our heads that at first housed candlesticks, then gas, until finally joining the electrical revolution of the modern era. She also showed me the wine cellar, which stretches 165 feet from end to end, and whose complement, Lisa says, was severely depleted in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Lisa and I sat in the “locals” dining room. The wait staff was attired in tuxedos and unfailingly attentive. Lisa pointed to one older gentlemen with a button that said “50” and explained that he had in fact been waiting tables there for a half-century. As I sipped on a Sazerac, Lisa and I enjoyed the homemade bread, which was followed by crevettes remoulade, entailing chilled Louisiana gulf shrimp in an extraordinarily tasty remoulade dressing. I typically don’t enjoy cold shrimp, but I was in absolute food heaven — especially as the Hutires a la Foch, gulf oysters on toast buttered with pate arrived along with homemade frittes served with Bernaise sauce.
It’s criminal how amazing the food was here, with more showing up in the form of Epinards sauce crème, spinach in a light cream sauce that was topped with onions, garlic and romano cheese and then baked into a casserole. It was out of sight. The main course was a grilled filet of pompano fish served delicately, but then with a delicious bowl of gumbo on the side, as if I had not already overindulged.
This was precisely why I loved coming back to this amazing town. I had not even been in town for two hours, and I was already satiated.
So it made sense to keep right on eating.
For dessert I headed to Rooster Bar at Brennan’s and sidled up to the bar, where I enjoyed a refreshing Second Line Brewing Batture Blonde, made right there in town. I learned that this is where the original owner – Owen Brennan – decided to name a desserty dish after his friend, Richard Foster, and hence Bananas Foster was born. Needing to try the house’s singular dish, I watched as a server brought over a cart outfitted with a burner, frying pan, oil, brown sugar and all the ingredients needed for the dish. It was an artful and expertly realized process that turned individual ingredients into an absolutely stellar dessert.
I really needed to stop eating — for a little while anyway.
After a quick rest back at Old No. 77, I sauntered to Sac-a-Lait, located in a converted Cotton Mill in the Warehouse District, which was ranked “Restaurant of the Year” by New Orleans Magazine in 2015. I started out with a Tin Roof Brewing Voodoo APA beer before diving into the house-recommended alligator and mirliton served with spinach and pickled mustard. It was nicely spiced, but very creamy and therefore a heavy dish that was a meal all on its own.
Plus, I had to leave room for dessert at Commanders Palace, which has been an institution since 1893. Manager Kenny Meyer personally escorted me to a corner table and offered a quick history of the business. What he didn’t include, I was able to learn with a copy of the book “Miss Ella” that was tied with a bow at my place setting. “Miss Ella,” co-written by “grand dame” Ella Brennan and her daughter and business partner, Ti Martin, recounts the history behind this foodie institution. It’s a good read!
While I was ready for sweets, the outstanding garlic bread kept me company in the meantime. And even though I’m not much for coffee, I had to try the dessert coffee concoction of Kahlua and coffee that was prepped with an open flame at a cart tableside.
A cadre of four servers brought over a sugary buffet fit for Marie Antoinette, with each of them carrying an individual platter and thereby showing that extra attention to detail that is so crucial at this level of hospitality. (Did I mention that I’m a veteran of that industry?)
The bread pudding was so rich on flavor and taste, but somehow the sugar didn’t overwhelm its profile. The apple cobbler with pralines pecan was also a wonder, as was the pumpkin crème brulee — perfect as the autumn days were winding down. Its flavor was a symphony, and that extra effort of presentation was evident as a fleur de lis design in sugar graced the crust of the custard.
Now, I’m a chochoholic, so I had to also try the chocolate bar, which was so rich that even one or two bites seemed overwhelming. I wished that I could have finished them all, and when I asked Kenny if I could possibly take the chocolate bar with me, he smiled and said that none of their desserts will “travel well.”
His smirk practically said, “You silly man.”
Fully satisfied, I retired to the Old No. 77 to wait for my travel partner to arrive, and then find time for some rest before another day of eating and drinking our way through the city.
Saturday can mean brunch just as easily as Sunday, and fortunately for us, one of the great brunch restaurants in town was downstairs at the Old No. 77. Compere Lapin offers New World takes on old French favorites in a classy yet unstuffy setting. With Bellini and mimosa before us, Vicky and I could not believe our fortune at the amazing bounty. We selected the bagel tartar served with Calabrese crema, truffle fonduta and poached egg on Ciabatta — and many, many happy smiles traced themselves across our faces. To top it off, we ordered the smoked Hamachi “Everything Doughnut,” which was a tasty and an atypical food adventure—which is what New Orleans is all about.
Vicky and I hiked into the French Quarter and stopped by Pat O’Brien’s for, what else, hurricanes… the famous rum drink invented here. Be advised that they are tasty and delicious, but with their compliment of rum, you’ll be feeling no pain (or much of anything) if you pound these too quickly. And as the French Quarter has open carry laws, you can take your drink with you.
To continue our anesthetization we next visited the Old New Orleans Rum Distillery, which has been in business for 22 years, and has continued the rich tradition of that sugar cane-distilled beverage that has played such a massive role in the Gulf trade for centuries. Our tour guide, Bob, walked us through the history of rum in the Delta as we toured the stills, bottling line and, most importantly, the tasting room, where samples of Crystal, Amber, Gingeroo and Cajun Spice each offered a unique flavor of the Gulf.
Back on Bourbon Street, Vicky and I ducked into Desire Oyster Bar with its famous raw bar and unique twist on authentic NOLA cuisine. We sat at the bar, where Executive Chef Jeff Mattia and Chef de Cuisine Quinlin Williams met us to make introductions. These masters started us off with some raw Gulf oysters on the half shell and some jambalaya, followed by an excellent oyster po boy.
Chef Williams smiled as he worked the oyster grill, intent on serving us up something truly special. We watched as the chef shucked some oysters and then gingerly placed them on the grill to heat, and then topped them with garlic and crème sauce. I am not prone to hyperbole, but this might have been one of the most exquisite dishes that I have ever had the pleasure of being served. The taste sensation was incredible, with the heat melting the garlic that enhanced the taste of the oyster with the crème sauce for a truly magnificent taste experience.
I knew that I had found one of my new favorite restaurants.
After a quick rest, we had one final meal afore us at the world-famous Court of Two Sisters. During Mardi Gras 2010, I enjoyed an outstanding buffet here, with crawfish etouffee and delectable sweet potatoes — and I had been dreaming for years of a return. While it was a bit too windy to eat in the court itself that evening, we were shown to a table in the lively dining area. Cocktails are a must as a young man who, despite his youth, had already mastered the art of first-class service served us.
Vicky and I watched as he prepared a Caesar salad tableside, mixing the iconic dressing and infusing it with anchovies and then tossing the salad before serving it on two plates. It was simple, yet incredible; and then followed it up with Veal Oscar and the stuffed pork chop — neither disappointed (far from it). And somehow, even after eating constantly for two days, there was still room for the chocolate mousse and crème brulee for dessert.
I could barely move, but we knew that we must move on. I had a plane to catch in 12 hours, so we walked along Bourbon and traipsed by the Mississippi waterfront to experience more of this charming city as it sprints headlong into its tricentennnial.
Make plans to explore, dine and drink merrily, and discover the secrets of this waterfront metropolis at the mouth of the Mississippi.