Last month, my husband realized that he had a hefty balance on JetBlue from a nonrefundable trip that he had canceled. As the forgotten cash cache was about to expire, he pulled up the airline's route map on his computer and said, "Here. Pick a destination. Let's invent a vacation."
What a no-brainer! Rejecting the usual suspects, I chose New Orleans for its great music, warm weather and legendary culinary scene. When you stay in the French Quarter, most of the fun places are walkable. It's the perfect two- or three-day city.
We were outta here.
Check the Convention & Visitors Bureau Web site, www.neworleanscvb.com, for up-to-date lists of clubs, restaurants, hotels, festivals and happenings.
We expected to see signs of hurricane damage from Katrina that struck in late August 2005. But since we kept to the Quarter, we saw nothing, not a damaged roof, street, shutter or landscape. Although we intended to taxi up to the Ninth Ward (where there still is considerable damage to be repaired) to catch lunch at Leah and Dooky Chase's soul food eatery, we never made it.
From this tourist's eye, New Orleans is bright, clean and ready to party.
With some 30,000 medical types attending an American Heart Association convention, getting a hotel room was a challenge. We eventually lucked out, booking a room at Soniat House, a charming boutique hotel that comprises three connected 19th-century townhouses in a quiet section of the Quarter.
Breakfast is served in an inner courtyard surrounded by iron balconies and worth the supplement of $12.50 per person. Beneath lush, tropical greenery, we read the morning Times-Picayune at a white linen-covered table, sipped OJ and ate homemade hot, crispy buttermilk biscuits and preserves along with dark, rich chicory coffee.
On the last morning, Jesse Palmore, our server who has been making the biscuits at the hotel for 15 years, shared his baking secret. The kitchen oven is lined with about a dozen 8-ounce, palm-size stones. At service, a hot stone is wrapped in a napkin and placed in the bottom of the lidded biscuit basket.
In the evenings, we would return to the courtyard, now candlelit, pour a drink from the honor bar and rehash the day.
1133 Chartres St., 1-504-522-0570; www.soniathouse.com
Of course this is a tourist mecca. It's a tradition to stop by for cafe au lait and beignets, the latter a cross between a doughnut and a funnel cake, smothered in a drift of confectioners' sugar that splotches all over your clothes. Then wander from the French Market over to St. Louis Cathedral and the park. Just steps away is the Mississippi River, at the crescent of the Crescent City, and never mightier-looking than from this vantage point. (You think the Ohio is wide?)
800 Decatur St., 1-504-525-4544; www.cafedumonde.com
Remember the interior of the original Pennsylvania Macaroni Co. in the Strip? The Sunseris opened in 1902 and renovated in 2000, but I still miss the ratty wooden floors, canned goods piled all around and bushels and pecks spilling out their contents.
New Orleans' Central Grocery, established in 1906, looks just like that. Crowded, with Italian goodies piled high as the ceiling and low as your shoes. This is the place to sample a classic muffuletta sandwich, packed with layers of provolone and mortadella, olive salad, pickled vegetables, salami and ham. There's a savory vegetarian version, too.
923 Decatur St., 1-504-523-1620
Down-home, comfortable and family-run, the Bon Ton is NOLA's oldest Cajun restaurant. It opened in the early 1900s, and the Pierce family took it over in the '50s. They introduced recipes that their families had created while living in Cajun country, a move that challenged the city's staple, Creole cooking.
Bayou specialities include authentic crawfish etouffee (when the mudbugs are in season), oyster jambalaya and a knock-out bread pudding with whiskey sauce. The gas lights, checkered red-and-white tablecloths, brick walls and wrought-iron chandeliers just add to the pleasure. A member of the family will likely drop by your table to say hello and "Where y'all from?"
401 Magazine St., 1-504-524-3386; www.thebontoncafe.com
Tack your business card on the wall of this wonderful, shabby old bar. It's the ideal place to hop on a barstool and sip a Sazarac. The drink, pink, is composed of rye whiskey, simple syrup, Herbsaint or absinthe, Peychaud's Bitters and a lemon twist. Antoine Peychaud, the pharmacist who concocted the bitters as a cure for stomachaches, invented the cocktail. His original Sazarac contained absinthe, the potion often blamed for mystical and hallucinatory powers and called "the green fairy."
Absinthe became illegal in the United States in 1912, and here it is replaced by the liqueur Herbsaint. In 1998, chemist Ted Breaux analyzed and developed a modern legal formula for absinthe. His brew is on hand at the bar, but you have to ask for it in your Sazarac. Spring for the extra buck. It makes a delicious difference.
240 Bourbon St., 1-504-523-3181 or 1-504-523-0103; www.oldabsinthehouse.com
One of the goals of our trip was to "eat local" and support local businesses. The first stop on the list had to be any one of Chef John Besh's four restaurants. (His creds include whomping Mario Batali on "Iron Chef America" and being named James Beard Best Chef in the Southeast in 2006.) Besh, a son of Louisiana, raises his own lamb, goats and chickens and uses locally made artisanal products in his kitchens.
Luke is a true French brasserie -- energetic, happily boisterous -- just off the lobby of the Hilton Hotel. Sitting in the back dining room just a long arm's length from the line, we caught the eye of the Chef de Cuisine, Jared Tees. "Pick us some of the food you like best, heavy on the charcuterie," we said. He did. Big time. We feasted on rillete of Berkshire pork, pate of wild boar, pied de cochon, and shrimp and white corn grits with mascarpone.
It was at Luke that we had the Best Dish of the Trip: Louisiana rabbit and duck liver pate with truffle and country bread croutons. I vow to return for Southern breakfast. Luke makes a doozy: country ham, biscuits, grits, andouille sausage and artisan cheeses all washed down with a Bloody Mary. (Be still my heart.)
333 St. Charles Ave., 1-504-378-2840; www.lukeneworleans.com
Zydeco, Cajun, Dixieland, gospel, rock, samba, R&B, country, folk, bluegrass, reggae and jazz. Your pick. You can hear the city's soundtrack in dozens of locations. Either go online before you arrive, check the local music mag, Offbeat, or ask the hotel concierge who's playing what, where. Keep an eye out for trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, soul queen Irma Thomas and Ellis Marsalis, daddy-o of Wynton and Branford. You may end up in one of these venues: Preservation Hall, Palm Court Jazz Cafe, House of Blues, Mulate's Cajun, Snug Harbor, Tipitina's, Maple Leaf, Spotted Cat or Arnaud's Jazz Bistro.
Prospect.1, the first biennial of international contemporary art ever organized in the United States, runs through Jan. 18. It is taking place in museums, historic buildings and sites around the city, 25 in all, with some 81 artists from 30 countries participating. The art is free, but some venues require reservations.
If you miss the show, the Warehouse and Arts District offers plenty else to do. Walk from the Quarter, across Canal Street and mosey through the Arts District for museums: Contemporary Arts Center, the National World War II Museum and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. Then catch a streetcar (guaranteed to make you pine for Pittsburgh's long-gone cars). Take the St. Charles Street line up to Louisiana Street. Walk slowly through the Garden District to admire the residential mansions, cast-iron fences, balconies and shotgun houses, all signatures of New Orleans architecture. Aim your walk to Magazine Street, bordering the District on the far side, for coffee, gifts and jewelry shops along with antiques and great funky stuff.
This Brennan family classic across the street from Hotel Monteleone in the antiques district is anything but antique. Recently reopened after considerable Katrina water damage, Mr. B's has just the right feel for a laid-back bistro. The menu is both contemporary and Creole. My husband, a member of Ernest Hemingway's Royal Order of Shrimp Eaters (people who eat the heads), spent a blissful half hour bent over a bowl of big, fat, barbecued shrimp, happily crunching the tails and sucking the heads.
Paul Prudhomme, in his pre-celebrity days, helped open Mr. B's Bistro in 1979, when he was chef at the Brennan family's Commander's Palace. It was to be an alternative to the showcase property. But now, the tables may be turned, as many people, including me, much prefer the bistro atmosphere to the fancy-schmantzy Palace.
201 Royal St., 1-504-523-2078; www.mrbsbistro.com
Try to ignore the casino rats, the slots, the Vegas-comes-to-the-Gulf gambling circus. The food is fabulous. The Southern servers ask if you want your steak "Pittsburgh rare." (Who knew they knew?) My husband loved the ribeye served with a 4-inch-long marrow bone and a stack of beer-battered onion rings. I almost fell for the "Mixed Grill," Berkshire pork belly, crispy duck and demi New York strip, but who wants beef (even though it's locally raised and pastured) when the seafood is so delicious? My Besh Barbecued Gulf Shrimp, the house signature dish, was served in a sauce as multilayered and nuanced as a Oaxaca mole (MOH-lay).
At Besh Steak, even the art is local. Three walls hold five gigunda blue dog paintings by Cajun artist George Rodrigue. The series of yellow-eyed, blue-coated terrier paintings has made him world-famous. Besides being one of Louisiana's favorite sons, Rodrigue (whose studio is in the Quarter) has been a fundraiser and campaigner for Hurricane Katrina relief, contributing more than $2.5 million to post-Katrina causes through the sale of Blue Dog prints.
8 Canal St., inside Harrah's New Orleans Casino, 1-504-533-6111
Next day, time to go. Maybe next time:
• Acme Oyster House, where oysters are shelled as fast as you can slurp them. Hang at the marble-top bar for fried oyster po'boys and gumbo Poopa, a French bread bowl filled with red beans and rice.
• Bayona. Chef Susan Spicer's fabulous restaurant. Make reservations as soon as you get airline tickets; it's hugely popular. Same thing for Cochon, an homage to all things hog: homemade sausage, headcheese, belly, suckling pig, and pig latkes, for starters. Really, pig latkes.
• Audubon Insectarium. Across the street from Harrah's casino on Canal Street is the largest freestanding museum in the United States dedicated to insects. The multisensory insectarium is ecumenical. The 74 display terrariums scattered throughout the galleries include a swarm of cockroaches, black widow spiders, oversized scorpions, giant millipedes and furry tarantulas. Being grossed out and disgusted is part of the draw. A must if you are traveling with kids.
Marlene Parrish can be reached at email@example.com or 412-481-1620.