Last night, I went to a wonderful restaurant, Upperline, owned and operated by the fascinating JoAnn Clevenger. Outside, it’s a lovely Uptown home with whimsical wild flowers; pink, yellow and orange with tiny tall stalks. Miss JoAnn has lived a storied life and the evidence is all over the walls of her charming gallery/restaurant.
The mostly local artwork includes quirky sculptures and hundreds of paintings, some of “sexy” tomatoes (JoAnn’s adjective) and one of a stark paper bag that drew me in beyond reason. There are portraits of local fixtures; musicians, neighbors and a painting Miss JoAnn commissioned of Saints’ quarterback, Drew Brees, as King of Bacchus. The most fascinating painting (other than that dang paper bag) is a collection of faces from a 2 block radius in the French Quarter (did she say St. Peter?) She introduced each face like they were friends, and most were – Noel Rockmore (the painter of the piece), Ruthie the Duck Girl followed by a duck and a pelican, JoAnn’s first husband, and on and on.
Ruthie the Duck Girl was before my time, but her legend remains. A roller skating elderly woman with a duck, she was known to roll through the Quarter bumming cigarettes and drinks, as she had since her youth.
If you’d like to see a tiny version of the extraordinary and very large painting:
And for an interview of Miss JoAnn (and a chance to fall in love with her and her stories) and video of quite a few of the paintings as well as footage of the restaurant:
But restaurants aren’t only about paintings or owners, they’re about food. I chose the tasting menu so I could have one of everything. For the low price of $38.50, I had 7 items: duck etouffée with corn cakes and pepper jelly, andouille gumbo, fried green tomatoes with shrimp remoulade, spicy shrimp with jalapeño cornbread and roast duck with ginger peach sauce with pecan pie for dessert. I also had sauteed baby drum meuniere topped with lump crabmeat on a bed of mustard greens and cornbread and sitting in a pool of brown butter sauce with warm bread pudding with toffee sauce for more dessert.
Gluttonous? Maybe. But I live by the rule – everything in moderation, including moderation. I almost didn’t try that third piece of cornbread, the one under the fish, but each cornbread was a different preparation and that last one was drizzled with some sweet syrup that made it my favorite of the 3. Even the French bread and butter on the table was extraordinary. And the toffee syrup on the bread pudding was so good, I almost forgot where I was and licked the plate.
Miss JoAnn came by just as I was finishing the syrup and I told her it reminded me of a dessert at The Ivy in Beverly Hills. She had been there years ago (she was obviously a worldly woman so this came as no surprised) and we talked about it being the only restaurant I could think of in L.A. that was in a house, as SO many are in New Orleans.
It was a wonderful dining experience as well as a trip to a great local art gallery and as I shook hands and thanked our host for the whole journey, I felt I’d been invited to a dinner party in her eccentric home. After all, I’d practically “met” her first husband, Ruthie the Duck Girl, a neighborhood of characters and the painter she obviously admired (she paid more for that piece than any other after tracking it down for decades) but stayed away from because he was a “Don Juan.” As we shook hands (I had to restrain myself from hugging her, though I’m guessing she wouldn’t have minded it), I felt like I was saying goodnight to a new friend. I will be suggesting it to anyone wanting a full culinary and cultural New Orleans experience. For more info:
Today, I went for a walk hoping to take a photo of a playful sign on a weedy mound at the corner of Magazine and Jackson reading “Future Site of the Mosque.” When I got there, it was gone, but several crosses caught my eye. First, a cross with BP at the top, encrusted with empty oyster shells. Then, behind it, a cross for Vera, a woman who’d been killed on that corner by a hit and run driver during the panic to exit the city during Katrina. She lay by the side of the road for 4 days until the residents took charge. They shoveled some dirt on her body, covered it with a sheet reading, “Here lies Vera. God help us,” in letters big enough for the helicopters to see, then dug bricks from a nearby garden and made a tomb of sorts.
Vera became a local symbol for the lack of dignity in the Katrina deaths. I never saw her on the national news, I remember Ethel, the MawMaw left dead in her wheelchair outside the Convention Center. Watching the last moments of Spike Lee’s 8 hour opus on Katrina, I saw dozens of Vera and Ethels, loved ones left bloated and rotting like common sewer rats. Awful.
The sign and crosses were made by local artist, Simon, a transplant from France. He had come to America hoping to be a chef but people liked the hand-painted signs behind the register more than his restaurant, so he went with the flow… much to the dismay of Dr. Bob I’m sure, a transplant from Kansas best known for his omnipresent signs reading, “Be Nice Or Leave.”
For more on Dr. Bob:
And for Simon:
It’s wonderful to live in a place so rich in folk art signs that it can support a rivalry.
Having participated recently in knowing and then losing Albert, the Moses of Magazine Street, I have loved being part of a community where everyone counts. Though many people assumed Albert was homeless (he wasn’t), the community reacted as if a beloved Mayor had passed. His memorial was maintained for almost two weeks with new items being placed on the makeshift alter everyday. The neighborhood paid for his second line, complete with the Hot 8 Brass Band and a Mardi Gras Indian. And the police shut down a busy commercial section of street to allow everyone to come out and dance in the streets.
If you’ve heard about New Orleans, you’ve already heard about the food and the music but it’s the people who are the greatest thing about this city. They love this city with lions hearts and they live unique, individualized existences. I used to say I was moving here to become more “average.” I wanted to live in a place where I was the norm. In a town where people like Albert, JoAnn Clevenger and Ruthie the Duck Girl live, I’m hardly a stand-out anymore, just another storied character.