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Sunday, May 5, 2013

Layover in N'Awleans

Late last year, we had to make an unexpected trip to the US.  The business side of the itinerary was to go to Utah and Alabama, but in between, we stayed for a total of 20 hours in the Big Easy.  The city in a word?  Unforgettable.  Allow me to reminisce.

 We took this red-eye flight via Delta from Las Vegas, and it seems that even in the dead of night, the plane was fully booked.  Everyone seems to have a reason to go there.  Arriving at New Orleans airport at around 10 o'clock in the morning, we bought one-way tickets for the airport shuttle that will take us, and others, to our respective hotels.  This is way cheaper than getting your own taxi too.  (Tip: If you're leaving New Orleans via plane as well, its better to get the two-way ticket since you will be able to get a considerable discount.)

We booked ourselves online at the Chateau Hotel in the French Quarter, and we were completely beguiled by its 18th century architectural charm. Its rooms used to be slaves quarters which were reconstructed into comfortable enclaves with an open-air patio café and swimming pool.  While it took some time for them to check us in (they were late in cleaning up our room for our use), the hotel staff made it up to us by being attentive and gracious.  The double we got was a bit small, but it was tastefully furnished in 18th century French, with complete amenities, including a machine for brewing coffee (with a choice of caffeinated or decaffeinated). It was enough reason to stay in.
For lunch, we went to Coop's Place at Decatur Street, just a turn of the corner from Chateau Hotel.  The restaurant-bar is a 1983 staple and has been recommended by Zagat New Orleans Guide 2009 as a go-to place for creole cooking at "down home" prices.  We stepped into a dark, honky-tonk looking place that smelled of mold  and probably mildew seeping through the corners, but the food was awesome.  We couldn't get enough of the crab claws that was perfectly fried with a crispy crumb, but retained and preserved the tender and fresh meat within.  The mild chilly sauce enhanced the sweet-salty bites. 

Of course, one can't go to Coop's without getting a load of at least one of their signature
dishes.  The Rabbit and Sausage Jambalaya was our choice and we certainly found out why Coop's is famous for it.  We requested the Supreme version, where aside from the expected tomatoes, onion, bell pepper, and local seasonings mixed into the creole rice dish with the boneless rabbit and smoked pork sausage, the Supreme means you get shrimp and tasso (Cajun seasoning ham) into the mix as well.  Since this is America, you get generous servings and thus, can be shared between my husband and I.  Eat with local brews, and feel like a local.

To walk off the meal, we strolled towards the French Market and breathed in the local flavors brought on by spices, fresh vegetables. local crafts, including Voodoo trinkets, henna or permanent tattoo stations, and the mighty Mississippi River, no less.  (I can almost hear Paul Robeson singing "Ol' Man River" here.)  This market has been in the same site since 1791 and has truly been a witness to so many shifts and changes in American history.  However, it has always stood the test of time and continues to be the venue for New Orleans' cultural, commercial and historical events.
The festive air of the French Market continues on towards the many artisanal shops along the length of Decatur Street.  Many provide tasting samples of their many sauce and praline selections, so be ready for a load of food shopping.  Bring enough to take home their ready-mix bags for making beignets and the city's famous and number one cocktail - the Hurricane.
And speaking of which, I got myself a huge plastic glass of this heavily rummed citrusy buzz to start off my tour of Bourbon Street at 3 o'clock in the afternoon.  Although I didn't get it at the inventor's bar itself, at Pat O'Briens, we certainly sat there and gobbled up their superbly spicy buffalo wings, and seafood gumbo, while my husband had more of the local beers.  We slid off our bar stools and tipsied on our merry way towards the far end of Bourbon street admiring the well-preserved period apartments and buildings along that lane.
To balance off our inebriated state, we walked into Café Beignet as the aroma of strong coffee and freshly-baked beignets wafted into our noses.  The rich taste of the coffee and the doughy texture of the sweet beignets was just the right breather from all that walking. And to complete the scene as we exuent right, the live jazz band had to play "When the Saints Go Marching In". 
We rounded our walk with a return to the opposite side of Decatur Street and reached Jackson Square, one of New Orleans' historical landmarks that was built in the 17th century, designed after the Places de Vosges in Paris, France.  It retained the original landscape designed by the Baroness Micaela Almonester-Pontalba, whose famous residence, the Pontalbo Apartments, is standing right beside it.  The Pontalbo Apartments itself retained its 17th century charm, and is considered one of the oldest, if not THE oldest apartment building in America. Right in front of it is the St. Louis Cathedral, already nominated as a basilica by Pope Pius VI.

For dinner, we went back to the French Market where at the Market Café, we had the Crawfish Etouffee, another must-eat dish in the Big Easy.  While we are much aware that the place is a tourist trap, we still have to be able to say that we tried out the Etouffee.  It was savory, and therefore competent.  We had to share the dish since we weren't hungry yet, plus, there's still one more item in the agenda - the Muffuletta, the classic New Orleans' sandwich made from its own brand of circular ciabatta bread with layers and layers of pastrami, jalapenos, olives, and coleslaw seasoned with vinaigrette, instead of a creamy mayonnaisy dressing.  These Muffalettas are available everywhere within the city so just take your pick from the many restaurants or stalls.
As the evening wore on, so did the revelry all over the French Quarter, it would seem.  We, however, had to go back to our cozy hotel and call it a night.  We were going to have an early morning ahead of us.  But New Orleans is a place we will go back to, and spend more time in.  Totally.

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