Monday, December 8, 2008

Plantations and Po-boys (Trip report, part 6-Final)

After a great night’s sleep, Ali and I awoke early for a trip out to a real southern plantation. Or rather, a former plantation. Oak Alley Plantation is about 45 minutes outside of the city on tranquil grounds a few hundred yards from the Mississippi river. The house, featured in Interview With A Vampire, and countless photo spreads and real estate magazines, is probably the best surviving example of an anti-bellum (Pre-Civil War) plantation house in the country.

Ok, you got me. I have nearly no basis of comparison. But I can’t imagine other houses being any better than this. A perfectly wrought example of Greek Revivalism, the house features a second floor veranda which wraps 360 degrees around the home, huge columns and most spectacularly, 30 separate oak trees, 300 years old, perfectly spaced to form a romantic canopy leading from the front door of the house to the river. The oaks, for which the plantation derives its name, were actually in place before the plantation was built, planted by the former land owner. The property was purchased by a wealthy man from New Orleans after seeing the trees and the house was built to showcase the beauty of the land. Sugar cane fields lie to one side of the house and beautiful park-like grounds are on another side. Ali and I drove up to this magnificent plantation, took a tour and then relaxed on the grounds sipping Mint Juleps, which were made for us just outside. The strong bourbon, mint and simple syrup concoction, coupled with the unusual 80 degree heat we were experiencing, made me feel very much like a plantation owner. You know, without the slaves and stuff. Incidentally, this plantation was a slave owning plantation, though the slave’s quarters had long since been destroyed by time, weather and floods. There was a large placard on the grounds which detailed the inventory of slaves that had gone through this plantation, along with the prices paid for each slave and their particular uses/skills. Not surprisingly, skilled tradesmen, like blacksmiths and carpenters, fetched the highest price if they were young and in good health. Also prized were young mothers of child bearing age and their young children. One family, consisting of a mother, aged 26 and 3 children, went for $1300. This would have been around 1850 or so, and it was a considerable sum. A modest middle class house could be had for that amount! On the low end of the totem pole were older unskilled workers, old ladies who cooked and disabled men. Joseph, a man of 69 who was listed as having one arm and having the skills of a laborer, was purchased for $25.

After window shopping the prices of slaves and taking a walk along the Mississippi (where we saw an authentic riverboat dropping off tourists), we made our way back into the city. It was time for lunch and we were very very hungry. We made our way up to Bourbon street and walked a few blocks east to Felix’s. My brother Darren had turned me on to this the last time I was in New Orleans. Felix’s is a smallish shop which makes excellent po-boys out of fresh shucked shellfish that they open right in front of you. It has a great bar counter where Ali and I sat and ate. I had a Shrimp and Oyster po-boy while Ali opted just for the shrimp. We also had a plate of fresh onion rings and two beers and the whole meal was outstanding. Just what the doctor ordered.

We spent the rest of the afternoon roaming through the French Quarter. Ali, who’d never been to New Orleans, was endlessly fascinated by the unique architecture of the quarter, with it’s ramshackle shabbiness and ornate wrought iron balconies. We took lots of pictures and we even ended up walking through the French Market and past Jackson Square and Café du Monde. We didn’t have time for any beignets though since we had a 7:00pm dinner reservation at Nola’s, Emeril Lagasse’s restaurant in the Quarter.

We hurried back to the hotel, changed into better outfits, and hightailed it back to Nola’s, arriving precisely on time. Our table was ready for us and we were seated on the second floor. The restaurant itself is perfect for the town. Nestled in a converted warehouse, the restaurant features a glass elevator right in the center to ferry customers to the three exposed floors where seating is arranged tastefully. The noise is at a deafening pitch as the conversations of the patrons bounce around on wooden floors and exposed brick walls. The kitchen, on the first floor, is fully exposed and the high flames and whirling activity can’t hide the wonderful aromas that penetrate the space. We were seated on the second floor, overlooking the balcony, and feasted our eyes on the menu. We opted for the stuffed chicken wing appetizers (WAY better than it sounds), a bowl of Reggiano-Parmesean soup and two separate entrees. I had the barbecued shrimp and grits and Ali had the filet mignon. Both were insanely good and the meal was heavenly. Desert was a slice of the absolute best pecan pie I’ve EVER had.

Sated and stuffed (like those amazing chicken wings), we stumbled from the Nola’s like two satisfied foxes who’d been let loose for an evening in the henhouse. The night was young and we still had a ways to go before retiring. Ali wanted to hear some authentic jazz and I was about to take her walking to a club I knew about when it hit me. Preservation Hall. For those of you not in the know, Preservation Hall is a small little club in the quarter that is literally dedicated to preserving the music and musical culture of old New Orleans. The ‘club’ is nothing more than a single room, maybe 20 feet by 15 feet, with a few old benches in it and few chairs for the performers. You come into an alleyway after buying your ticket and sit (if you can get a seat) just a few feet away. There is no stage and no microphones. The performers come shuffling in, a rotating cast of local New Orleans professional musicians and the show is underway. On the night we went, there were five old guys sitting in on drums, trombone, saxophone, piano and upright bass. The lead vocalist and trumpeter was a younger guy whose father had been a famous local musician. After the introductions, the group went into their first number, a jumpy jazz tune and I looked over at Ali. She had a smile ten feet wide on her face and I was very happy. I wasn’t sure if the authentic jazz stuff would be her style but she loved every minute of it. Halfway through the third number, a somber saxophone version of “Somewhere over the Rainbow”, Ali leaned over and kissed me. It was the best kiss of my life. Full of good food and wine and surrounded by incredible music in one of the most romantic cities in America, I was as happy as I’ve ever been.

After the show, we called Matty Ebs, who was in town visiting college friends to see if he’s want to go out for a drink. We ended up hooking up with him and two of his friends and driving out to a bar that the locals go to, about 15 minutes away. It was a somewhat hectic scene, with an outdoor fountain featuring about 45 beer taps flowing with water, but the beer was good and the company was better. We stayed, getting our drink on, until nearly 2AM when we broke it up and went home.

The next day, we got up early again to hit a cemetery tour I had booked. But we were a little late getting out the door and we ended up missing the tour by a few minutes. As luck would have it, though, another tour was starting in a few minutes which worked out even better for us. It was a Garden District/Cemetery tour and combined the two things I wanted to see that day. The tickets were transferable and we were on our way shortly. The tour featured a two hour walk through the Garden District, which is a 30-40 block neighborhood of the most ridiculously awesome mansions you’ve ever seen. The tour guide had thoughtfully brought price listings of quite a few of the homes and I wasn’t shocked to hear they homes listed for anywhere between 2 and 6 million dollars each. A bunch of the houses had famous residents as well, like Nicholas Cage, Trent Reznor, Anne Rice (though she sold hers), and Archie Manning (father to Peyton and Eli). The tour also featured a walk through the Garden district cemetery, which is directly adjacent to the famous Commander’s Palace restaurant. The cemetery was fascinating and the tour guide did a good job explaining the whys and wherefores of New Orleans famous above-ground burial system. It turns out, there were two equally valid reasons for burying citizens above ground in crypts, both of which remain in effect today. The first was cultural. The French Creole citizens were used to this burial system, though I never understood why. The second is New Orleans high water table, which precludes most below ground burials, unless you like the thought of your loved ones’ arm popping up occasionally. For religions that require in-ground burial, like Judaism, they simply build a mound on the ground, surround it with concrete, and bury the person in the mound!

After the tour, we took a trolley car back to the Quarter and walked around a bit more. We ate beignets at Café Du Monde (a must), drank chicory coffee, and did a longer walk of the rest of the French Quarter. I bought Ali a beautiful red dress for her birthday that she had seen in a shop window the day before and we also purchased a few yards of pretty knitting cloth for her mother for Christmas. After returning to the hotel, we met up again wit Matty and his friends for dinner at Port of Call, a bar and restaurant on the east end of the Quarter on Esplanade Avenue.

Port of Call is not your average bar/restaurant. For one thing, there’s a wait of nearly TWO HOURS for a table. I asked what they could possibly serve to justify this wait and I was told, “Burgers and Baked Potatoes”. What? Are you shitting me? WTF?!?! “Seriously, you will *not* be disappointed”. I figured all those people can’t be wrong and after a very long and crowded wait, we ordered our burgers and baked potatoes. Ali decided on a drink which was the equivalent of New Orleans famed ‘Hurricane’. I forget the name but I saw the bartender take a big plastic cup out (so you can walk outside with it, if you choose), take three bottles of hard liquor and turn them over, for like 15 seconds. Then two seconds of some various fruit juices and voila! A drink is born. A scary drink, though. Ali was all like, “I can’t taste the alcohol at all!”. I’ve been down this road though and I warned her of the potency but she ignored me, taking hits on her straw like that cup had *the* medicine. To make a long story short, she was completely wasted before the burgers were finished. Oh yeah, about those burgers. They came and they were monstrously good. Perfectly medium rare and insanely delicious. But honestly, the baked potatoes are the real draw. It was like eating carb candy. After an hour of gorging on this goodness, we stumbled outside like wayward children, fat and happy and drunk.

We wandered outside a bit, heading over to Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, a bar nearby which was Jean Lafitte’s actual blacksmith shop way back in the late 1700’s and converted into a bar, with the original blacksmith furnace still intact. Matty, Ali and I had a few quiet drinks before calling it a night. Ali and I stumbled home and passed out.

We got up Sunday morning, sad that our trip was nearing an end. But before we left, we had one more delicious meal to ingest; a Jazz Brunch at Mr. B’s Bistro. We arrived for our noon reservation at the very stately Mr. B’s and were treated to brunch drinks (Bloody Mary for me) and a really really good brunch meal, New Orleans style. That meant eggs benedict served over fried eggplant rounds with an Oyster sauce for me. Insanely decadent. Ali had never had a Bloody Mary before and she took to it quickly. A nip of the dog, I say, heals morning blues. We munched on our eggy goodness and listened to the fabulous Jazz quartet playing in the restaurant as we took in our last hours in the Big Easy.

The flight home was easy as pie and we went home with a fabulous weekend in the books. {Sigh}. I wish I was still there.

1 comment:

genomeboy said...

Sadly, last time I was in NOLA, Mr. B's ( I assume the one on Royale St) was still closed from Katrina. They have the most insane BBQ shrimp there...sigh

Sounds like a nice trip