Charles Siskin: Nostalgia, The Perfect Birthday Present

Saturday, March 26, 2016 - by Charles Siskin

We were on our way to New Orleans to celebrate my birthday several weeks early. (At my age you never know so celebrate it when you can!) Every time we cross Lake Pontchartrain on our way into New Orleans suddenly I’m Marcel Proust (Remembrance of Things Past).

Too French? Ok John Toole and the time was the late 50s and early 60s. 

Toole got it right, the French Quarters was home to those authentic Bohemian citizens he wrote about in Confederacy of Dunces while in Metairie and along St. Charles Avenue and Lake Pontchartrain lived those  gracious families who took in those neophyte Tulane freshmen like myself.

Fifty odd years and one shattering hurricane later maybe the Bohemians have mostly cleared out of the Quarters leaving it instead to those rowdies who arrive from out-of-town believing that Bourbon Street is the center of the New Orleans universe.

I haven’t  for a long time ventured very far into that area.  But I still like to visit  those mansions along St. Charles Avenue are still splendiferous and those trolley rides that take you there still move at their own pace.  Sometimes the trolley will come clanging along after a long wait or sometime three will arrive all at the same time. The message being, relax you’ll get there when you get there. Keep remembering you’re in New Orleans not Atlanta or New York.

We came on this particular trip to see a musical play at the Saenger. The Saenger is one of those magical theaters, like the Tivoli in Chattanooga, not quite as ornate as the Fox in Atlanta but by no means shabby. Built back in the 20s and restored first in the 80s it had its second restoration after Katrina reopening in 2013.

I remember when the Saenger was the place for movies before it fell into disrepair with the advent of television as happened to so many theaters at that time. But the good people of New Orleans, like those in Chattanooga, have great respect for architecture along with a sense of pride plus a good bit of nostalgia that these buildings are part of the heritage of their cities.

Since we caught a Sunday afternoon matinee we planned to stay downtown for dinner at a restaurant a few blocks down Rampart Street.  The weather being perfect and with time to kill before our 6 pm reservation, we made our way through the mass of tourists that filled Canal Street. It’s obvious the city has made it back “big time” 10 plus years later.

My bride is the travel writer in the family so we did a little hotel fact-checking at a few of the more famous hotels along Canal Street. Our first stop was the Roosevelt Hotel now renamed for the umpteenth time the Waldorf Roosevelt. It has gone through a number of incarnations but I do remember going to my first Crewe Ball that occurred prior to Mardi Gras Day itself.

I had my first introduction to Asti Spumante that sweet Italian champagne at the Roosevelt as well. That made sense because this ball was sponsored by well-known and well-heeled New Orleans families of Italian heritage. Did I drink too much? Maybe a bit more than I should have and I’ve never indulged in that particular drink since.

I spotted Antoine’s the venerable 176 year old restaurant just inside the Quarters. It was there on my first trip to New Orleans with my dad for a Sugar Bowl game that I had Baked Alaska. The presentation was amazing, so amazing in fact, that I remember to this day that flaming dessert being brought to our table. An impressionable 10-year-old can remember traveling back in time to that special occasion. ( FYI, Oklahoma beat LSU 35 zip)

We decided after our dinner to walk over a couple of blocks from Rampart into the Quarters and then up to St. Charles to get the trolley back to our hotel in the Garden District. As we strolled along we came across a large group of locals congregated on the steps and along the sidewalk outside of their neighbor’s house.

Had we lingered longer than we did more than likely we could have joined the conversation. However we did have a chance to see inside of the home and it was exquisite. That is representative of the best part of the Quarters. Really elegant homes hidden behind their crumbling facades kept that way because of the stringent rules that prevent change without oversight. That’s what keeps the French Quarters free of high rises or structures that would compromise its integrity as has happened in New York City’s Greenwich Village.

Food of course is what New Orleans is all about and for me and eating where the locals eat is just as important. A breakfast at the St. Charles Tavern was totally unexpected. A 3-egg Greek omelet was perfection. Stuffed with lots of feta cheese, peppers and tomatoes it was enough for two. The biscuits weren’t shabby either.

An order of red beans and rice topped with andouille sausage at the next table was true New Orleans fare even for that time of the morning. A JAX Beer would have been perfect alongside the beans and rice but unfortunately that brewery closed and has reopened as a tourist location with lots of shops and restaurants.

Thinking back had it been many years ago a JAX could have been gotten directly from the brewery down in the Quarters. It was the perfect accompaniment late at night to your hot dog right off the cart parked nearby on Bourbon Street. I believe the hot dog carts are still around but the brewery has, as noted, sadly given way to a shopping center.

At dinner I had the most delicious bread and I asked the wait staff where to purchase it? I was told it came from the Bellegarde Bakery and was available at several locations in New Orleans including the St. James Cheese Company on Prytania Street. Since our hotel was on Prytania it was an obvious no-brainer to head there on our way out-of-town.

The St. James is located in a thriving area of shops along with an art house movie theater nearby. Inside were a gazillion cheeses most of which I was not familiar. However the young lady behind the counter was extremely informative and with her help sampling the types of cheeses we liked we were able to select several to put into our cooler for the trip home. Incidentally never take a trip, especially to New Orleans, and not be prepared to bring home foodstuffs not available here in Destin.

(Footnote: Whole Foods will be opening here shortly and that will bring, hopefully, more opportunity to purchase heretofore items such as cheeses and breads not currently available at prices of course heretofore not seen in this area!)

As we were leaving the cheese shop headed back to I-10 and the trip home we asked if there was a restaurant nearby were we could have some local seafood as we had worked up an appetite with all that sampling. Absolutely, we were told. Just ahead down St. Charles to Carrollton and Cooter Browns.

You have got to be kidding, I thought, my bride hanging out at a dive bar? When it comes to fresh oysters the lady can make an exception. As it turned out, this particular dive bar served the best seafood we’d encountered in quite some time. And the good news for us, we could sit outside in the sunlight while feasting on some terrific oysters and shrimp.

If ever there was a local’s hangout, Cooter’s is the place. Because we were there during the day we more than likely missed what I would like to imagine is a colorful evening scene. Of  course at that hour of the day there was no one inside but the sweet young lady who help me decide on the perfect beer, a local amberbock, to go with my totally delish oyster and shrimp  Radiator Special sandwich.  That puppy was topped with melted cheese and had a remoulade sauce under the seafood. OMG it gives me the vapors just to describe it.

Vapors aside we did however get chatted up by a gentleman at the next picnic table who splits his time between New Orleans and a ranch out in Texas. While telling us all about his life he managed to down a sizeable po’boy and a dozen oysters. This dude was no heavyweight but the food is so darn good you can understand how he could pack it away.

Since my bride was the designated driver on the trip back, I snoozed like who wouldn’t after packing away that meal? We don’t go often enough to New Orleans and we don’t stay long enough which can be a good thing because you can pack on serious pounds in just over 24 hours.

I’m already thinking about our next trip to the Crescent City or maybe it is the real Emerald City at least for one day. Whether it is a pre or post B’day celebration I cannot think of a better place to hang out. Really!

 IF YOU GO

Where to stay:

Check out Travelocity or any number of on line options like the dude in the sweater who comes on the television every couple of minutes advertising “Trivago” or however you pronounce it?

I’ve never really considered Airb&b because I just don’t like the idea of being in some stranger’s home. To me it’s like Breaking and Entering.  Okay it weird’s me out.

Where to Eat:

Cooter Brown’s Black Pearl New Orleans Tavern and Oyster Bar

509 South Carrollton Avenue

504-866-9104

St. Charles Tavern

1433 St. Charles Avenue

504-523-9823

Where to Shop for your breads and cheeses:

St. James Cheese Company Uptown or in the Warehouse District

5004 Prytania -Uptown or 641 Tchoupitoulas-Downtown

504-899-4737

Check for the bread from Bellegarde Bakery (they don’t bake on Mondays-who knew?)

So many cheeses so little time but check out the Un-pasteurized varieties, totally worth the princely prices.

If you are downtown on Tchoupitoulas (pronounced as only locals can, “Chop-a-toulas”) head over to Cochon

It has become a New Orleans staple. Grab one of their exceptional sandwiches and check out the butcher shop as well.



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