Thursday, January 3, 2013

Nurse the Hate: New Orleans

I have been to 47 of the Top 50 media markets in the United States, yet had somehow never been to New Orleans.  I had avoided going in the past, feeling some kind of bad juju that left me unwilling to pull the trigger on a trip.  Something about the self-satisfied way New Orleans musical community portrays themselves cooled me off as well.  Not to be a dick, but has New Orleans really made a big contribution since Louis Armstrong left Storyville in 1928?  It’s been a long time since Fats Domino cranked out a hit, you know what I mean?  The Neville Brothers?  I mean, come on...  My bad attitude and I jumped on an early morning direct flight on Sunday to New Orleans to spend an extended New Years checking out New Orleans and finding out first hand what the fuss is all about.

Home base was the Hotel Monteleone on Royal Street in the French Quarter.  The hotel is very much the Grande Dame of the French Quarter, well known for the Carousal Bar off the lobby.  The damn thing looks like a merry-go-round, rotates, and has been there since 1948.  Like all great old hotels, it is reportedly haunted with the 14th floor the site of regular sightings of the ghost of a ten year old boy that likes to play hide n seek with another spirit.  Our room?  1439.  I did not spot any ghosts during the three-night stay, but I did see a couple of “escorts” leave a room down the hall late one night.  One of them was kinda spooky. 

The literature provided by the hotel made sure to let guests know that many celebrities have enjoyed spending time at the hotel as well as the Carousal Bar.  These include Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote, and Sheryl Crow.  Hmm.  Two of those are more impressive than the other.  The hotel did have the good sense to stock first editions of Hemingway and Capote books on display yet had no gold records of “If It Makes You Happy”.  It’s a real scene in there.  I strongly recommend this hotel on any stay. 

I was tired as hell upon arrival after playing a show at the Grog the night before, and then hopping on the early morning flight down.  After check-in the #1 goal was getting some food.  The walk down Royal Street was noteworthy for coming into contact with the first of a thousand buskers.  “Busker” is a term for someone performing for tips tossed into a hat.  Some of these buskers are really good.  Some of them are annoying pests that are clearly in love with they consider the romance of being a street performer.  I saw a few young white kids trying really hard to earn some kind of blues cred strumming acoustic guitars in a rather undistinguished fashion.  They should spend less time on their Hobo outfits.  They should go home and woodshed.

There are a few really good jugglers and acrobat types.  These are greatly outnumbered by the current New Orleans hipster look, the Hippie Appalachian Hobo.  I can’t tell you how many dirty heavily tattooed dudes with unkempt beards there are in tourist areas of New Orleans playing in glorified jugbands.  Tourists really seem to like them though, and a few of them can play like motherfuckers.  I also liked that they had dirty little girlfriends with dreads and obedient dogs sitting at their feet.  It’s like the Grateful Dead meets Ralph Stanley meets Primus.

Stumbling into the first place that looked like would serve a quick po-boy sandwich; we luckily scored a table at 801 Royal.  I immediately noted the glass light fixture by what looked to be glass artist Dale Chihuly.  Weird.  It was the last Saints Gameday of the year, and everywhere you looked there were people in their Saints gear.  They clearly had not received the memo that this was an insignificant game and they were out of the Playoffs.  I had no idea that the entire city loved the Saints as much as they appeared to love the Saints.  Jerseys, flags, banners are apparent everywhere in the city.  Maybe they just jumped on the bandwagon during that Super Bowl run, but right now folks are down with the Saints.  How down?  So much so that every time the Saints scored the bartender gave out kamikaze shots to the entire bar.  This became a real situation when the Saints scored three times in about five minutes and our food was nowhere in sight.  Three kamikaze shots on an empty stomach was not how I planned to roll on Sunday, but when in Rome…   

Most of Sunday was spent walking around the French Quarter and Treme. The French Quarter is really awesome.  It looks exactly you thought it was going to, but is somehow even better.  Houses all have individual character, and the same slow beautiful decay sort of reminded me of Venice.  It’s the kind of place you walk around and think, “I ought to get a place down here, work on an ultimately doomed novel, and start wearing eccentric outfits like top hats with candy striped tights.”  It’s a place that has a vibe of danger, decadence, and not knowing for sure what is going on below the surface.  I really like it.

Royal Street has a lot of antique shops.  When some people think of antiques, they think of partially broken furniture from the 1960s that sells for $35 at some shitty garage sale.  These antiques are more like chandeliers from French Estates from the late 1700s.  It’s odd how certain items can seem to find you.  Steps after leaving the kamikaze fueled lunch, I noticed three giant Plantation keys displayed in a window.  I stepped into the antique gun and curio dealer to take a look, but ultimately decided the bad magic and hefty price tag to be too high a price.  There are plenty of good things to look at in these stores.  There aren’t quite as many good things to actually buy.  If you are in the market for a $7500 vase, Royal Street is a good place for you to go.  If not, you may want to take a left and go to Bourbon Street. 

Bourbon Street is probably the greatest place in Earth for people that like four-wheel drive mudder trucks, Kenny Chesney, using words like “Bro”, and enjoy terrible dance music at tooth rattling volume.  The Sugar Bowl was in a couple days, so the fan base from Florida and Louisville had descended on the area like locusts.  You could spot the Louisville fans easily enough.  They were, to the one, dressed in red Louisville gear and grossly overweight.  I’m not bullshitting you.  If you saw anyone in red, you knew they were 40 pounds overweight and Louisville fans.  Florida fans, on the other hand, were almost exclusively big strong looking boys that clearly were there to 1) get wasted 2) try to get laid and 3) confidently watch their Florida Gators paste Louisville (in that order).  All of these people were swaying around Bourbon Street drinking sugary drinks from tall plastic souvenir glasses.  These were not “my people”, but I made a few passes down the street just to say I saw it. 

I have been lucky enough to eat at some of the finest restaurants in the world.  New Orleans has some of the most celebrated chefs in America, so a real effort was made to secure a few good tables.  An outstanding lunch was had at Luke, a John Besh bistro concept restaurant.  I had some unbelievable oysters on the half shell, a pressed pulled pork/ham sandwich that was about as good a sandwich that you could ever hope for, and washed it down with a couple Stoudt’s Pale Ales.  

New Year’s Eve was spent at Emeril Lagasse’s Delmonico in the Garden District, first at their very comfortable bar listening to some dude play piano while making up histories of the other patrons.  Dinner itself was terrific.  A braised rabbit with shitake mushrooms, caramelized onion and shaved aged Parmesan over sweet potato and ricotta gnocchi was awesome.   The jerk spiced Colorado lamb loin with pork braised collard greens and mac-n-cheese was as good as it sounds.  I wasn’t even jealous looking at the chorizo stuffed pork loin across the table.  OK.  Maybe a little jealous.  The wine list was impressive, with a 2001 Chateau Musar an excellent decision to go with the meal.  

After dinner it seemed irresponsible to not walk down Bourbon Street to see what that crowd scene would be like.  It was, as I hoped, a great collection of Lost Souls.  Imagine strippers, hustlers, drunks, losers, tourists, Southern Gals with giant hair, Bros with ballcaps, packs of shift eyed young black men, and cops all packed together with too much light and sound coming from every direction.  It was complete sensory overload.  There were lots of people screaming at nothing, eyes darting around taking it all in, and predators looking for a score.  It was great. 

The scene at the Hotel Monteleone was chaotic as well.  The Carousal Bar was a much more upscale scene.  It was wild, but you didn’t feel like someone was going to barf on you at any second.  I secured a bottle of Taittinger champagne, and figured out how to slip past security on the roof to watch the Fireworks go off at midnight from maybe the best vantage point in the city.  As part of the “Allstate Sugar Bowl”, Allstate created a “Fan Fest” free concert and fireworks from Jackson Square, a few blocks away.  The bad news to all of those not viewing comfortably from the 15th floor of the Hotel Monteleone is that they had to listen to Huey Lewis and the News in a crowd of Rubes.  Thanks Allstate...   You couldn't get Flock of Seagulls?  Meanwhile we watched the massive fireworks display reflect off the Mississippi River while on the horizon line multiple small parishes shot of their own modest displays.  There was nothing wrong with being at that spot at Midnight.  It was way better than watching Ryan Seacrest countdown to ten on TV and having to view the exhumed naked corpse of Dick Clark descend in Times Square clutching the ball (as per Dick’s last will and testament).        

Dinner last night at August, John Besh’s flagship restaurant, was among the best meals I have had in the last few years.  This is a place where grownups go to eat.  The prices in this joint can strangle a horse, so before you suggest to your friends “Let’s go to eat at August!  My treat!”, check your bank account or credit rating.  There was a cadre of “Official Sugar Bowl Courtesy Vehicles” out front; so various university dignitaries ate well while their players ostensibly were out drinking high alcohol sugary drinks and performing sexual assaults on Bourbon Street.  I had a tortelli appetizer that had caviar and truffled butter perched on a delicate pasta with egg yolk in the middle that melted out when you bit into it.  This may have been the single best thing I have ever eaten.  The potato gnocchi tossed with blue crab and truffle was no slouch either.  The perfectly seared pork loin came with black-eyed peas that I could have eaten a bowl of alone for dinner.  I got the “deconstructed” banana pudding out of sheer culinary curiosity.  I’ll go back here, especially if you are buying.  It’s awesome.     

With just a few days, most of the obvious tourist spots were hit.  Yeah, I had a beignet at Café-du-Monde with café au lait.  So what?  It may be touristy, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t good.  Yes, I walked around the World War II Museum that wasn’t nearly as good as the WWI Museum in Kansas City.  The real hit was the Ogden Museum of Southern Art that just happened to have a gigantic installation of Tav Falco photographs from the early 1970s.  Falco’s notes on each photo were grandiose and sarcastic.  What an unexpected treat it was to check that out.  There was also a good outsider art section worth your consideration. 

There is no reason to go to the Riverwalk unless you need to buy cheap New Orleans souvenirs that were made by political prisoners in China or want to eat at a food court.  I wonder what those poor stiffs in China are thinking as they are held in soul crushing conditions at gunpoint painting smiling alligators or creepy Louis Armstrong busts?  They must think everyone in America has one in their home.  If you look close enough at these items, you can see the Chinese tears.  There is a lot of real crap on sale to sell to tourists.  I don’t know who buys these ugly t-shirts and stupid knick-knack brick a brack, but someone must be because there are roughly 749 stores selling this shit. 

Here’s another tip.  I would try to avoid any restaurant with a line of people that are from out of town.  You can get oysters on the half shell at around 80 reputable places.  There is no reason to stand on the urine and vomit soaked streets of Bourbon waiting to get into one in particular.  Yet most of The Rubes of the South will do just this.  I cannot explain this, I only observed it.  There must be some guidebook or maybe that douche from “Diners, Drive Ins, and Dives” tells people to go to certain joints.  All I know is if I see a bunch of Louisville t-shirts and fanny packs, I’m going the other way. 

Overall New Orleans definitely exceeded my expectations.  I would have liked to have gotten out to Franklin Street and gone local, but there just wasn’t enough time.  This is a town that is perfect to visit for about three days, sort of like Vegas.  The French Quarter is expensive.  Like I mentioned earlier about Venice, this is their St Mark’s Square, and they have been ripping off tourists forever.  You can't win.  Take the pain.  As long as you understand you are being fleeced, just sit back and take in the vibe.  That’s what you are really there for anyway. 
As I check the cities off of my list, I somehow doubt Oklahoma City is going to live up to this last trip...





At March 7, 2013 at 5:31:00 PM EST , Blogger Paul said...

I'm glad your visit to my little city on the river exceeded expectations and hope you come back for even more amazing meals. But in your last paragraph I suspect you mean that you wish you had gone to Frenchman Street. Franklin Ave is nothing to write home about (though there are some nice dives there and Mimi's). Frenchman is where locals go instead of Bourbon.

At August 5, 2013 at 5:16:00 PM EDT , Blogger injun2 said...

As a 30 year resident of the French Quarter, I was most intrigued at your take on our neighborhood. Someday you should come back and visit the residential part of the Quarter if you like the architecture. I got a chuckle out of your line about the "749 (T-shirt) stores selling this shit." When the plethora of Tee-shirt/souvenir shops started popping up all over the Quarter in the late 80's (mostly owned by ONE Pakistani/Indian guy, mind you), I said the same thing. WHO would buy all this shit? Ah, the eternal question....

At August 27, 2013 at 8:29:00 AM EDT , Blogger Greg Miller said...

That Riverwalk area reeks of broken dreams and mismanaged expectations.


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