There’s nothing like having a visitor to push you to take advantage of the city as much as possible in a week. My mom and stepdad came to town and we went to 2 festivals, a number of concerts, a bunch of restaurants and plenty of cool shops. We even visited the set of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. If you’re planning to visit New Orleans or if you’re a New Orleanian looking for some ideas of how to entertain your guests, here are some highlights from our week.
We sent my parents to Camellia Grill for breakfast and they ended up liking it so much, they returned there every morning. Thanks to Ricky and the gang for taking such good care of them!
Our first meal all-together was the “deli style” lunch at K. Paul’s. Paul Prudhomme’s restaurant has been serving great suppers since 1979 and recently added a lunch service. With styrofoam plates and self-serve plastic flatware, they serve fine dining fare at prices around $13.
After filling our bellies, we walked to the French Market to shop for local treasures. The market was established in 1791 as a Native American trading post and is America’s oldest public market. Whether you’re looking for pralines, Mardi Gras beads or a soy candle, you’ll find that and the plant hanging rack and sunglasses Mom bought.
Then it was off to Cafe du Monde for beignets and cafe au lait. Yum. My Louisiana-born mother has been coming to New Orleans since she was a girl and she’s been getting that powdered sugar on her clothes for just as long. Cafe du Monde has been selling their French donuts since 1862 and the prices haven’t changes so much over the years. A plate of 3 donuts runs just over $2.
The French Quarter is filled with unique shops, many that have been there for generations. We walked past art galleries and jewelry shops on Royal St. and stopped into Maskarade, a superb mask shop with everything from laser cut metal to hand tooled leather masks in every imaginable shape, character and animal likeness. We tried on floral gardens and peacock feathers, spider’s webs and may other creations perfect for Mardi Gras, Halloween, parties and balls. The owner also has a perfume shop across the corner, Bourbon French Parfums. Featuring custom blending and gift sets, the store has been selling dainty bottles and one of a kind scents since 1845. They even sell Voodoo Love, a recreation of Voodoo Queen, Marie Laveau’s love potion.
We finished the day with supper at Muriel’s on Jackson Square. A tasty 3 course meal runs about $35 and it’s fun to sit by the windows and watch the world go by.
The next day was a trip across the lake to visit my Aunt Norma. It was a gorgeous day so we sat outside for lunch at Rip’s on Lake Pontchartrain to order fresh seafood from the Gulf. Afterward, we enjoyed the back porch of my aunt’s house and watched a beautiful white crane looking for fish in the pond. It was a lazy day followed by a walk through the French Quarter to the Louisiana Pizza Kitchen. Yes, they have good pizza, but I can’t get enough of the Grilled Italian Artichokes ($7.50) and Shrimp and Corn Maque Choux ($8.50).
Sunday was a walk around the Garden District. We passed the houses of John Goodman and Sandra Bullock then wandered the aisles of Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 (established 1833) before heading to La Divina for some gelato made fresh with local ingredients whenever possible. Then it was off to the Oyster Fest, which I’ve already blogged about. A festival is like a mini-tour of the city. There are always artists and craftsmen selling their wares, plenty of outdoor concerts and food booths galore from all over the city. Since I usually blog about most of the festivals, it was like taking my mom to “work” with me.
The next day, I took her and my stepdad to my actual work when we visited the set of Django Unchained. My stepdad was stunned to see how many people it takes to make a movie and how much goes into it. We also went to City Park to sit under the Singing Oak by Jim Hart. The Singing Oak is an instrument/art piece made of an old live oak filled with wind chimes up to 14 feet tall, tuned to the Pentatonic scale (5 pitches per octave). From under the canopy of branches, a symphony unfolds to the beat of breezes. Click to watch a video and hear the meditative treat.
We also stopped into Meltdown Gourmet Popsicles for one of their fancy frozen treats made from fresh locally grown ingredients. Heaven on a stick.
The next day, we had a nice lunch at Gott Gourmet. By this point, I’d gotten my stepdad totally hooked on Abita Strawberry beer, a local brewery offering that only exists a few months and is made with amazing local Ponchatoula strawberries. Desert was a sno-ball at SnoWizard, my stepfather’s first. There are very few things in the world more refreshing on a June day in New Orleans than a sno-ball.
We hit a few more stores in the French Quarter including Photoworks, a gallery full of beautiful photos of the city and it’s moments. I took them to 3 of my favorite NOLA keepsake stores starting with Fleurty Girl, a Who Dat shop with style. Then we wandered through Forever New Orleans, a cute shop filled with candles, jewelry, frames and other fun fleur de lis-festooned delights. Their sister store further down Royal St. is Roux Royale, a kitchen-centric version of the same. They’re all great places to find reminders of the city and other fun things at reasonable prices.
We finished the evening at Deanie’s, the go-to spot for giant servings of seafood in the French Quarter. Arrive at least half an hour before you hope to be seated and plan to enjoy a drink at the bar first because this place has been known for its bounty for 50 years. If you don’t live in the area, you can still experience their food as they ship to anywhere in the U.S.
Friday, we returned to Muriel’s for my favorite lunch salad, the Shrimp and Jumbo Lump Crab Salad with asparagus, mixed greens and lime-mango vinaigrette ($16.50). Because the film community here is so much smaller than L.A., you end up working with the same people over and over. I met Wendy from the wardrobe department when we were both working on Loft last year. Now, we’re doing Django Unchained together after enjoying going to Saints games, festivals and concerts together for the last year, so she joined us for lunch. We all split a Pain Perdu Bread Pudding with candied pecans and rum sauce ($8.00) and a Flourless Chocolate Cake with creme anglaise and raspberry coulis ($8.00) for a sweet ending to a great meal.
Running with the theme of eating ourselves silly, we had supper at Venezia in Mid-City, a traditional Italian family-friendly restaurant featuring favorites like Spaghetti and Meatballs. Though the heaping portions are tasty, the real reason we go to Venezia is to have dessert down the street at Angelo Brocato’s. A quaint Italian ice cream parlor and confection shop established in 1905, they sell the best Almond Macaroons I’ve had since when I lived near Vaccaro’s in Baltimore’s Little Italy.
Mom’s last weekend in town started with a stroke of great fortune as she was, once again, invited to watch The Roots of Music kids rehearse. After my mom and niece’s last action-packed visit that included them working a day on the movie Brawler, they both said their favorite thing was watching The Roots of Music kids being put through their paces. This wonderful non-profit offers music history, theory and lessons as well as tutoring, a hot meal and a ride home to over 100 children. Their talented and disciplined marching band is a highlight during Mardi Gras season so it was great witnessing the work that goes into those perfected performances.
It was also time for the annual Vieux To Do and it’s amazing Creole Tomato Fest. Creole Tomatoes are defined by their growing conditions rather than their seed strain. To be a true Creole Tomato, it must be grown in the soil and climate of the southern-Louisiana river parishes. Giant and meaty, I remember my MawMaw plucking them from the vine in her backyard. She’d cut them and sprinkle a little salt which would dissolve into the sun-heated slices. It’s still one of my favorite things to eat.
Food highlights included the Sliced Creole Tomatoes topped w/lump crabmeat and Remoulade Dressing ($7) from the friendly folks at George’s Farmers’ Market as well as a return of my favorite dish from last year. I actually clapped and skipped when I saw the Covey Rise Farm booth sitting just where it had last year and offering the same amazing Heirloom Tomato Salad ($8). To call the colorful plate of greens and veggies “fresh” is to understate the exuberance of flavor packed into just one piece of lettuce. One of theses days, I’m going to have to try their restaurant and explore the grounds of their 400 acres of wilderness in Husser, LA.
Next up was the new consignment shop, Bon Castor in the Bywater in search of another Kaia original painting. Kaia Martin-Paternoster is a 12 year-old painter who I first met last year at Chaz Fest. She calls her charming big-eyed square-headed characters “dudes and dudettes.” This year, we snagged her annual portrait of Washboard Chaz and I was eager to see what else she might have. I left thrilled with my latest acquisition from this young talent and impressed with owner, Amy Knoll’s shop. It seems like everyone in New Orleans knows their way around crafting and has the whimsy and imagination to create something worth selling. Amy has an eye for spotting an eclectic cornucopia of voices in jewelry, artwork, chotchkies and clothing. I even spotted a few garments by Bearded Oyster Mother Shucker, Katrina Brees.
Our last big dinner was my stepdad’s choice, Ruth’s Chris Steak House. The chain was founded by New Orleanian, Ruth Fertel in 1965 when she mortgaged her house to buy a corner steak house. In 1975, she opened her first franchise, a Ruth’s Chris in Baton Rouge. By 1985, there were Ruth’s Chris’ all over the world, including Hong Kong. Ruth passed in 2002, but her humble corner steak house has become a publicly traded company of over 100 locations and is considered the “world’s largest fine dining company.” My filet of corn-fed Midwestern beef was outstanding, tender and flavorful. I also enjoyed my Harvest Salad of mixed greens with roasted corn, dried cherries, crispy bacon and tomatoes in a white balsamic vinaigrette, topped with goat cheese and Cajun pecans. It was the culinary grand finalé of a truly great week of eating.
Sunday, our last day, we joined some of the Django Unchained cast and crew for a movie screening from Quentin’s private collection. By the time we got out, the rain storm had ended and we headed down to the Creole Tomato Fest at closing time for a light bite. I bought a giant sack of tomatoes for $5 then we all had another helping of the Creole Tomatoes with lump crabmeat and remoulade from George’s.
I’m always sad to see my mother go, but it’s so wonderful to share my city with her and her husband – who was open to trying anything once, twice if he liked it. For Mom, New Orleans is filled with memories, including being courted by my dad when they were students at LSU. It’s a nice reminder that, if not for the magic of this city, I might never have been born.