ANTOINE’S — “”Who is your regular server, Sir?” the maitre de asks. Actually, my regular server is the voice behind the bulletproof glass at the drive-thru, but I simply smile my world-weary smile and say nothing. Later, after a dinner of crab with shrimp, and shrimp with crab, my waitress takes me on a backdoor tour of this 174 year-old establishment. “This private room is where Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, also Bill Clinton, have their dinner.”
Ah, yes, New Orleans, the Crescent City, post-Katrina. You and I are going to eat and drink our way down Bourbon Street, and take in a little culture. No, we are not going to view the remains of the storm. As the sensitive Spiro Agnew once said, “If you’ve seen one slum you’ve seen them all.” Moving on, this is a small restaurant called Lilette in the Garden District. They have breaded and fried sardines. No thanks. Soft shell crab. Oysters any way you wish. Wonderful. A tourist tip: My hotel charges $35 a day to park my car, which I have to do since it is impossible to drive around town. Take a cab. They have four. Or take a streetcar. This route seems like a good one — it travels along the riverfront so I can view all the ships and riverboats on the Mississippi and chat with colorful dockside characters. All I see are walls and warehouses. But there is a colorful character: a mad man is sitting across from me who talks loudly and constantly.
Arnaud’s no longer serves lunch. “We tried it after Katrina but never could drum up enough business.” Hehehe. Another tip: Literally just around the corner from Arnaud’s is its offspring, Remoulade, at 309 Bourbon Street. (Arnaud’s is famous for its remoulade sauce.) Come here for lunch. It’s a more causal place and around half the price. Get the shrimp remoulade. Every Texan has visited New Orleans, which includes the French Market. You have never seen so much you can do without, but it is a wonderful place to people watch. Here is the famous Cafe duMonde. Taking in the local coffee and beignets is required. Oddly enough, in this most French of the French Quarter, the waitresses are Asian.
I first came to New Orleans as a small tad with my parents and have re-visited here many times since. The French Quarter always smelled of cigar butts, stale beer and vomit from Ole Miss fans celebrating Archie Manning’s latest triumph in the Sugar Bowl. Nice surprise: The town is clean, the French Quarter is clean, I am clean. Perhaps this is due to a change in mayorship — the former mayor has been convicted of bribery and is awaiting sentencing. It’s a tradition in Louisiana. Now we go to another restaurant, August. A few years ago my wife and I drove to NOLA (as the locals might call it), and were tired, dirty, wet and hungry. My wife recalled we had just wandered by some unknown eatery, so we ended up here looking like leftovers from the Last Supper. They let us in, first counting the silverware at our table. Great meal, and today, thanks to our recommendation, some critics say August is one of the top 10 restaurants in the nation.
I am sitting in an open air cafe sipping coffee and enjoying a splendid morning. The weather is perfect, which reminds me that New Orleans’ climate is about the same as Houston’s or Calcutta’s, so come before it gets too hot. Time for some couth. This is St. Louis Cathedral on Jackson Square. It’s the church you see in all the postcards and travel brochures. A wonderful docent tells us the history of the church, the present structure is not really that old (1850), history of the city, and explains all the flags lining the rafters. She claims the Bonnie Blue Flag — solid blue with a white star in the middle — actually was designed by a Louisianan for Louisiana. Like she knows anything about Texas history.
Next door to this really magnificent church is the Presbytere (equal time for us Protestants), which is a two-part museum. Bottom floor is given way to Katrina. I just knew we couldn’t avoid it. Very well done, including lots of TV film. These clips remind me of FEMA explaining why it couldn’t get into NOLA because of high water, lack of power and flooded roads. Meanwhile we turned on our TV to see: “Brian, I am standing in five feet of water on Canal Street along with my cameraman, sound technicians, makeup artist and light crew. Our catering service is preparing….” The upper floor of the Presbytere is Mardi Gras — costumes, pictures, beads. I love a parade.
It’s been a full 30 minutes since we ate, so we are off to Galatoire’s. More gumbo and soft shell crab. Too much is not enough. NOLA (are you getting the hang of it?) is home to the National WWII Museum, and you shouldn’t skip it, even if you dodged the draft. “Have you ever been in the military?” the ticket lady asks. “Yes,” I say, and get a discount for both me and my wife. Good thing the ticket lady didn’t ask which side I was on. This museum is big, spit polished, full of everything there is about the Greatest Generation, although the Eastern Front seems to be given short shrift. Can’t trust the Ruskies.
Last stop. Casamento’s, a small mom-and-pop third generation out-of-the-way eatery, and worth the trip. No, it’s not Tex-Mex, it’s an Italian name with Gulf seafood. Start with crab bisque, then fried crab legs, fried shrimp. Cash only. I order a Dixie beer to be local. “Any good?” I ask the waitress. “It’s terrible.” Heineken goes great with anything. OK, campers, our trip through gourmet gulch is over and it’s time to drive back to Texas. Odd, but my seatbelt seems tighter.
Ashby is touring at firstname.lastname@example.org