With respect to Socrates, my unexamined life is not worth living. The front room is the face we show everyone but we hide our true self in the back room.
We haven’t tried a real Creole brunch so this morning we’re on the hunt. I am partial to Café Pontalba, located right off Jackson Square, with seating outside along the promenade. My bride is game and we make our way down to the Square around 9am, their opening time.
The glass door is closed and locked but we can see waitresses slumped in chairs and on their smartphones. A busboy strolls by and they start talking to him. I check the St. Louis Cathedral clock. 9:15am. They clearly have no interest in opening.
We walk away in search of another but my bride, her heart set on eating outside, calls them on the phone. They tell her they will open in about 30 minutes.
Well… Blaze did talk about NOLA time. Living proof.
Across the Square is Stanley’s, but now, at near 9:30am, there is already a line leading outside. Our window is closing.
We go back on up to Dauphine where we know Vacherie is open. Unfortunately they only serve regular eggs, pancakes and bacon. Veto. We could get that for our hotel continental breakfast.
Thankfully, the weather is cool. Yesterday’s rain helped to break the morning heat. Running out of options I suggest Desire Oyster Bar. My bride is unsure having done no research on the place. We take a look and see it sitting nonchalant on the corner, the right amount of welcoming.
Of course, we’re met by friendly and attentive staff, immediately getting seating inside, by a window. We order the Jambalaya Breakfast Skillet and Bayou Benedict. Yes. This is what we’re talking about!
Delicious. The Skillet is a mixture of chicken, smoked sausage, crawfish, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, peppers, and cheddar cheese in an egg scramble with spicy remoulade. The Benedict has the right amount of kick – poached eggs, fried green tomatoes, and covered with crawfish hollandaise. Quick, tasty and historic place.
Our morning is spent getting some souvenirs so we can relax tomorrow before our flight. The temperature rises rapidly and by early afternoon (with the crush of people, even more now due to Memorial Day weekend) the area is sweltering.
We stop off in Tujague’s for lunch, near the French Market. Crowded in the bar but we get a seat in a galley-shaped room, taking a seat by the window.
Her interest piqued during the food tour earlier in the week, she orders a Grasshopper. Or rather, I order the drink and she takes healthy sips of it. The alcohol allergy has spread to her back and arms, showing tiny hive clusters. She says she’s a little itchy but not too bothered, after all the biggest issue is cosmetic. She really likes the Grasshopper.
I get a cup of the seafood gumbo. Excellent. Not too fishy with a nice bite to it. She gets the crawfish étouffée. Not too impressed, alright but a little too fishy, especially the accompanying squash slices.
After the soup, I had expectations for the po’ boy. I chose poorly. I got the beef brisket instead of the pork. Yes. I know. What was I thinking? And an undressed po’ boy? I must have been crazy from the heat. It was chopped beef slathered with horseradish remoulade on 2-3 inch thick bread. Too beefy and dry with an uncomfortable imbalance of horseradish.
Maybe it was anxiety about leaving soon, or being around so many people, but whatever the reason the meal was a letdown dumping us out on the street for something redeeming.
We found that in the form of the Voodoo Museum. A very cool place. We learned that much of the religious practice comes not from Haiti but from the slaves brought from Western Africa (Benin and Nigeria, respectively).
Many pictures of the famous dance Li Grand Zombi. The dance is done by a young woman, naked or barely clothed, and holding a python aloft, sways seductively to entice the male spirits to come down and possess her so fortune may be bestowed on her village.
Baron Samedi, the ominous storyteller played by Geoffrey Holder in the film Live and Let Die, as my frame of reference, is featured here in illustrations as a seer, advisor and guide towards the enlightenment of others.
The Museum is tiny and dark. One narrow dark hallway displays photos and news clippings of the two most famous New Orleans priestesses Marie Laveau and Maria Moto. The hallway empties into two even darker rooms. Inside are artifacts, skulls, canes, sculptures, dolls and offerings.
The offerings overflow with coins, make-up cases, alcohol bottles, and food cans. Saw a sculpture of a god with a cigar in his mouth, looked just the god Jobu from the film Major League.
It’s about this time I notice coins on the floor. I hadn’t noticed before, maybe because it’s so dark, but the two rooms and the hallway are littered with coins. Like water fountains in a park. Meanwhile, the rooms have voodoo-inspired jazz songs like “Marie Laveau” by King Papa Oscar Celestin, piped in for our listening pleasure.
In the 1980’s Pope John Paul II officially recognized traditional African religions, including voodoo. We had no idea the depth of the voodoo practice and its faith.
This delightful find definitely lifts our spirits and we feel buoyed to once again try to find Captain Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar for a late afternoon drink before dinner. We find the bar, already swarming with people in the beer garden, three or four people deep in the bar area, even oozing liquor arrogance out on the sidewalk. And the music is a deafening hard rock, a genre I know my bride does not care for.
We walk on a few blocks, ignoring the familiar “I bet I know where you got your shoes, man.” Cutting up from Bourbon to Dauphine St. we alight upon an unassuming corner bar, windows doors open and welcoming. Good Friends Bar. Yes.
We belly up and I order an Abita Amber on draft, my bride; a tall glass of ice water. The bartender is warm and amiable. I look around. Other than the lone man at the other end of the bar, the clientele is young guys in short haircuts and tight t-shirts. The television above is cheerily blasting techno music. The wall below has a painting of a centaur and a naked man in a garden. I glance behind me. Another video screen scrolls photographs of men, smiling, hugging, kissing or holding hands. I turn back. Another bartender comes down the stairs, his black shirt; like our bartender’s, save for the fact his is half-unbuttoned exposing his bare chest.
I look over at my bride. She calmly sips her water, looking peaceful. I rest my tired arms on the bar, making conversation with our bartender. He looks to be in his mid-40’s. He says he spent most of his life in Baton Rouge but probably wouldn’t return. He’s been in New Orleans for about five years and has no plans to leave. He asks us where we are from. When we say New Jersey, he says he used to live in Jersey City briefly.
I comment that this bar is so laid-back compared to Bourbon Street a mere block down. He grins, shaking his head. “That street is crazy. It’s so much worse at night!”
This is the relaxing conversation we’ve come to appreciate since arriving. The Big Easy, indeed. My bride taps her fingers on the bar to the music. “I think I know this one!” Together, we head bop to the bouncy ethereal sound.
Back on the street, after a brief rest and shower, we head towards our final dinner in New Orleans: Paul Prudhomme’s restaurant. K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen. Passing Arnaud’s, I stop in to see if they have glasses to commemorate our dinner. They only have to-go cups with their name. Better than nothing.
We make our way past Bourbon, Royal, to Chartres St. Step inside a 1/3 full restaurant with nary a dinner jacket seen. Sigh. At least no one in a baseball cap.
Our waitress is Patricia, a woman in her mid 60’s of feisty character. She sports earrings, square-shaped with the word NOLA. My bride compliments her and she tells her she got them at a local shop called Fleurty Girl.
For the drinks, I decide now is the time to inquire about Sazerac, a whiskey drink appearing in several menus throughout the week.
“So, Patricia, tell me about the Sazerac. What is it?”
She sighs. “Well, it’s a sweet-flavored whiskey. A lot like an Old-Fashioned?”
“I’ve never had an Old-Fashioned.”
She loudly blows out a puff of air. “I don’t know what to tell you then. Don’t get it.”
I smile and order the Magnolia Lemonade. It has Amaretto in it! My bride begins to ask if it has any fresh fruit because of my allergies.
Again, the puff of air.
“Well, what fruit are you allergic to?”
I cut her off and waving, say I’ll get it, no problem.
And my bride gets the Blueberry Lemon Balm.
With Stoli Blueberi, muddled blueberries, and infused lemon balm syrup, she finds it refreshing and delicious. My drink is equally ass-kicking.
For the appetizers, one last time, I get soup. Corn and crawfish bisque. Rabbit tenderloin with Creole mustard for my bride.
She is hesitant getting rabbit for the first time though she has always been curious. I reassure her the rabbit is fine with it, gesturing to our tablecloth which is a collection of illustrations describing certain dishes. One picture shows a well-dressed rabbit serving himself up on a platter, arms outstretched like a rabbit waiter. Her verdict: it looks and tastes like chicken. She likes it.
My bisque is ridiculously good. What a great idea to take corn chowder and add crawfish; tiny lobsters, for texture.
She drinks her blueberry vodka slowly, not tasting the alcohol but knowing she will be paying for it either way.
From the moment we opened the menu, the creamed salmon has been in our sights. When Patricia comes over for our order, probably because I am interested in seeing what she’ll do, I explain our predicament.
She twists her mouth slowly giving her hands time to beseech us, imploringly.
“You’re both gonna get the same thing? What’s the fun in that?”
She actually sounds pissed.
“Okay, if she’s getting the salmon what would you get?”
I look down at the menu.
“The pork stuffed with brie sounds good but-“
“Well, it says the pork has to be cooked medium to medium well, and that’s too tough for me.”
Puff of air.
“It’s because the brie needs time to melt inside.”
“Yes, yes. I understand that. I’m just not sure-“
Patricia abruptly leaves our table. I watch her walk over to another table in our section, with a mature couple finishing their dinner. She leans in to the man, speaking, and then removes his plate. Bringing it over to our table.
“This is the pork. Does it look alright to you?”
My bride is staring at me, her big beautiful brown eyes sharing my confusion. I glance at the plate, practically picked clean, though with fat still glistening off the bone. Then I look up and see the man grinning, giving me the thumbs-up.
“Listen. If it’s not good, then I’ll get you something else. That’s how I run my station.”
I smile, laughing inside, and acquiesce. At some point I have to trust her.
She leaves satisfied and returns with our bread. A formidable selection of sourdough, carrot-nut, and soft butter bread. My bride has a view of the restaurant noting that it is starting to get crowded.
The evening wears on. Our dinners are delivered by a new face, who identifies himself as the station manager. He places her meal down first and then mine.
“I am so sorry you had to wait. The pork needed time to cook but it sat about nine minutes longer than it should have. I am terribly sorry and please take advantage of dessert, on us.”
I nod dumbly, thanking him, until he walks away. What the fuck? I look at her first, then down at my pork dreading the certain toughness.
Actually, it starts out well. A nice tender chop with fried bacon potatoes and haricot verts. The salmon does not fare as well. It is rare. Too rare for her taste. My bride shakes her head, saying that when Patricia said, rather than asked, ‘rare’? she blurted out ‘medium rare’. “Next time I’ll just order my salmon medium. I’d rather not have my salmon taste like sushi,” she says, sadly.
Patricia comes over to me.
“Yeah? So, how is it?”
I am mindful of her previous promise.
Her nose crinkles, curling the corner of her lips into a sneer.
“Nice? Do you like it? Are you happy?”
She leans into my bride, conspiratorially.
“Is he happy?”
My bride giggles. “Yes. He’s happy.”
Patricia looks over at me like I’m a puzzle she can’t solve. Then walks away.
A few minutes later, cutting into the center, the meat does not have the same tenderness. Okay, fine. It’s tough. It’s tough and dry.
This sucks. Anxiety starts creeping in. Is it the alcohol? Last night jitters? Or simply a lack of assertiveness? Whatever it is, it’s still around ten minutes later, and I’ve only been able to get around half of the pork. The rest is too dry. I push the dry pieces around in the juice. Patricia happens by at this moment. She takes a patient few seconds observing my actions.
“Are you…playing a game?”
Now it’s my turn to sigh.
“Um… no. I’m, uh, I’m just pushing my food around. I do that sometimes. Um… but um… I’m trying to divide it away from these uh… tough center pieces. Trying to moisten them-“
She abruptly leaves, wordlessly.
I look across where my bride would be if she were not in the bathroom.
My bride returns, continuing to drink water by the liter, trying to erase the allergy spots. When Patricia comes back to refill water the mood is different. No banter. Not even eye contact. After Patricia leaves again, I tell her what happened.
The rest of the meal is strange. The potatoes and beans are delicious but I can only get through the same half of the pork. She offers me her salmon as consolation, and also because she’s full.
Patricia comes back and clears plates. Still nothing. Then she returns with the dessert menu.
“I don’t know… I’m full.”
“Well, just take a look at it.”
“Okay, I’m obligated to offer you dessert. As you know, it’s on us, so just take a look.”
This is new. Being bullied into dessert. Nothing speaks to us, but if we were pressed the Custard Marie sounds tempting. A version of crème brulee, with a browned top, custard inside and a pecan praline crust.
We share a cup, although my bride is really full and does not enjoy it.
A quick cleanup and exit dumps us back out on the street earlier than usual. Dazed from the surreal dinner we walk around Decatur Street, taking in the shops still open and buzzing with activity. The area is bonkers, with people drinking, yelling in aggression. And this is several blocks from Bourbon! Heading back to Dauphine, the din surrounds us. Must not just be tourists in for the weekend but locals letting off steam on a Friday. People are everywhere.
I suggest a swim in the pool. The hotel concierge reassures us the pool will remain open as long as people are in the hotel bar, May Baily’s. From the sound of carousing inside, a few steps from the pool, it seems a safe bet. The hotel valet sees us enter. “Just go in. That place ain’t breaking up anytime soon.”
The pool is cold but manageable after a few splashes. We have the pool to ourselves. For about forty-five minutes we swim, relax and slowly reflect on our week. Noise is all around us, but it’s peaceful in the water.
I tuck her legs under my arms as she leans forward resting her chin, piggy-backing to the other end of the pool. Moments like these fill my soul with thankfulness. Just me and my girl.