By Mary Jo Plouf
New Orleans is like no other city in the world. It is a seamless and exquisite mixture of French, Spanish, Irish, Italian, African, Caribbean and even a touch of Native American. It is an old city which has incorporated the best of the European traditions and melded them with the time- honored Southern hospitality of the plantation and sugar cane eras. But without a doubt, what defines the City of New Orleans best is the food and music that permeate the very foundations of the city. When you hear words like Jazz, Creole, Gumbo, Pralines, Jambalaya, Oysters Rockefeller, red beans and rice, beignets, and etouffee, the blues, saxaphones, trumpets and trombones, it is all there on every street and woven into the fabric of New Orleans. Twenty-four hours a day there is food and music to be found somewhere within the city. It is the City that never sleeps and certainly never goes hungry.
The abundance of food to be discovered and savored is matched by the proliferation of exotic beverages available in the many bars, bistros and cafes. And thanks to the “only in New Orleans” open container laws it is not unusual to see visitors and locals alike strolling down the streets of the French Quarter munching on a Po-Boy and enjoying a beer or perhaps something stronger. Surprisingly, all this “living dangerously” and “walking on the edge” mentality seem to be, for the most part, quite orderly and under control. Late nights in New Orleans are legendary and usually the only damage incurred is the inevitable suffering the following morning. But never fear, the pain eases and as the sun sets another long, gala night begins. Let the good times roll.
But New Orleans is about families also. The many family friendly restaurants tempt the youngsters with far more than pizza, hamburgers and French fries. Beignets are popular with visitors of all ages. These “French doughnuts” were brought to Louisiana by the Acadians and are still a New Orleans favorite in both the sweet and savory versions. Let them try a new sandwich…the Muffuletta , or a simple mixture of red beans and rice. And for dessert, they are sure to love the pralines.
And there are more attractions for the younger set and the parents they have in tow than they could possibly visit in a week. Mom and dad are sure to have fun too, and maybe even learn a thing or two.
The Audubon Aquarium of the Americas is the perfect family attraction and it is conveniently located near the French Quarter. This is an attraction where you can spend a few hours or all day. There are fish of every description, penguins, seals and sharks. Children can touch the stingrays and watch the feeding of the sharks. They can stroll through the glass tunnel surrounded on all sides by exotic ocean creatures and colorful coral. There is even an IMAX theater. If you tire of the fish and still have time, visit the Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectorium where you can see over 900,000 species of insects. That’s a lot of bugs that are guaranteed to hold the interest of most children. New Orleans has one of the coolest Zoos in the world which features a wild and wet splash park in the summer. The animals are pretty cool too. There are 58 acres of animals in their natural habitats including lots of alligators which you can see close-up from a Cajun houseboat. If you are up for a short road trip or bus ride, take the younger generation on one of the many swamp and bayou tours, where you travel by boat deep into the backwater bayous of Louisiana. You can even touch an alligator…. but just a small one Adults and kids alike love to browse through the French Quarter. And no vacation is complete without shopping for a few souvenirs.
IMMEDIATELY upon arrival all visitors should become acquainted with the bright red Hop on-Hop off bus. The bus makes twelve stops at various points of interest and you can stop and visit each and every one if you choose. This is the quickest and easiest way to get to know the city. Once you know where everything is….they provide you with a map….you can return day after day on walking tours. The bus covers the French Quarter, the Waterfront and the Garden District. For me, Mardi Gras World is one of the most interesting attractions. I have never been to the actual Mardi Gras Parade because I am intimidated by the huge crowds, but you can see it all at Mardi Gras World. There are actually fifteen warehouses filled with floats from the past. No float is used twice, but many of the parts are re-used. At Mardi Gras World you can actually watch artists designing next year’s entries and constructing intricate figures from Styrofoam and paper mache. The opportunities for photography and unlimited, so be sure to bring your camera. Steamboat Natchez allows you to savor the beauty and romance of New Orleans as you sit back and watch centuries of history and legend float by. This two-hour cruise can even include dinner and a jazz concert. A Plantation tour really allows you to see the South as it was in the great sugar cane eras. The Jewel of Louisiana’s River Road and Queen of the Plantations is Houmas House Plantation and Gardens. Keven Kelly has filled his plantation houses with priceless antiques and his gardens with exquisite tropical plants and trees. Tours are available and it is possible to reach the plantation by car in approximately 45 minutes or on a tour bus from the French Quarter. Another “do not miss” adventure” is the New Orleans Cooking School. This two hour activity is fun, informative and the best thing is that you can take it home with you. My husband and I absolutely loved it and I bought all of the ingredients at the attached General Store so I can now make authentic New Orleans Gumbo, Chicken Creole and Pralines at home.
They say to leave the best until last and it is now time to write about the FOOD in New Orleans. There is so much of it and it is so varied that I cannot cover it all, but I will tell you about a few of our favorite restaurants. You will certainly get off to a good start with “brunch” at Brennan’s. With the highest rating possible by food critics Brennan’s has been serving an exotic blend of French and Creole specialties for the past 50 years. Their Bananas Foster is legendary. Their specialty egg dishes include shrimp, crab, veal and oysters. I could not decide between the turtle soup, which I have so rarely, and the oyster cream soup. So I had an absolutely spectacular and different onion soup. I tried both the chocolate pecan pie and the creole chocolate cake. Dinner at Antoines has also been around for a long time….176 years being operated by the same family to be exact. It is a tradition and a New Orleans landmark. There are 14 dining rooms, each with its unique history and distinctive décor. Oysters Rockefeller was invented here and of course served to Rockerfeller. It is just as good today as is the traditional Escargot with lots of garlic sauce. August, with Chef John Besh, is a relative newcomer after 12 years, and is definitely the best of the best. We chose the Degustation menu and dined, in the best sense of the word, on tuna, crab, lamb, duckling, foie gras, crawfish, shrimp, oysters, trout and grass-fed beef. All of this was with the proper and excellent wine, followed by dessert….in three flavors. I definitely want to go back. Another great place for brunch, lunch or dinner is The Irish House. This authentic Irish Pub has better food than most of the pubs in Ireland, thanks to Matt Murphy, the chef and owner. Matt is an award wining chef from the T.V. food program “Chopped” We had lunch at the Palace Café, another favorite. This classic and contemporary Creole restaurant is located near the French Quarter. Another on the list of Brennan restaurants, it is impossible to get less than great food. On our last evening we ventured into the Garden District on the St. Charles Streetcar and visited an old favorite…the Upperline Restaurant. Owner, JoAnn Clevenger was there to greet us as usual. This restaurant has consistently received rave reviews and is a favorite with the locals. Filled with an assortment of art and flowers this cozy, two level restaurant has always been on my list of “musts” I started with crispy P&J fried oysters and moved on to Duckling with ginger peach sauce. Dessert was definitely the most unusual I have even tried….Garlic and Honey Sundae. Yes, I actually tried it and it was delicious. I never miss Upperline when I am in New Orleans.
“Let The Good Times Roll” The fun, food entertainment and music never stop in New Orleans. Take home a few recipes, a few extra pounds and irreplaceable memories. And be sure to come back again and again.