New Orleans remains one of my all-time favorite destinations. I’ve been returning regularly for over 20 years. Spring seems to be one of the most pleasant times to visit in terms of weather, and my long-time friend Sena Mourad-Friedman and I visited during French Quarter Fest in April.
This festival has charmed New Orleanians since it first began in 1984, designed to remind locals how fabulous and fun the French Quarter can be. Stages are set up throughout the French Quarter, food from the city’s finest restaurants fills booths in Jackson Square and all along the river in Woldenberg Riverfront Park. It was a secret for a while, rewarding tourists who happened to be in town anyway the second weekend in April. Now this grand fete has evolved into something everyone adores – visitors and locals alike.
Bring your appetite to the festival’s signature event, the “world’s largest jazz brunch” in Woldenberg Riverfront Park, Jackson Square and nearby — a tantalizing spread of beverages and specialty items from some of the best known restaurants in the Crescent City. Sample Pat O’Brien’s Hurricanes, Barbecue Oysters from Red Fish Grill, Prime Rib Po-boy from the Rib Room, Baked Alaska from Antoine’s, Shrimp Remoulade from Galatoire’s and Oysters Rockefeller from Desire Oyster Bar. You can’t try all the restaurants individually during one trip to New Orleans, but you can try a lot of them during this weekend. There’s jambalaya, blackened catfish po-boys, crawfish étouffée, Cajun meat pies, deep fried cupcakes, white chocolate bread pudding and more. More than 60 food and beverage booths are scattered throughout the historic French Quarter and the riverfront. All dishes are priced to sample and savor. Where else can you order Baked Alaska with chocolate sauce at an outdoor food stand?
2018 marks the 35th anniversary of the festival, and the 300th anniversary of the city. To celebrate, there were nearly two dozen stages rocking the French Quarter and surrounding areas throughout the four-day weekend, starting early in the day and going on through the night. Unfortunately, the festival was rained out on Saturday as we were awakened to tornado warnings followed by torrential downpours resulting in flash flooding. New Orleans is shaped like a bowl and since it’s below sea level, when the rains come, the bowl fills up with water.
The 2018 French Quarter Festival featured stages on nearly every corner highlighting 300 Louisiana acts throughout the weekend. The festival is the largest showcase of Louisiana music in the world and boasts samplings of some of the world’s finest and most unique culinary creations.
Speaking of food, our time in the Crescent City was limited and our restaurant goals ambitious. We managed to visit some of the very best offerings in this culinary Mecca: Café Amelie, Irene’s, Antoine’s, Broussard’s, Palace Café, Galatoire’s and the crown jewel, Commander’s Palace.
We arrived on Friday the 13th, which my late friend Mary Lou always considered lucky. “LuLu,” as she was affectionately known, loved to spend time playing the Blazing 7’s slot machines at Harrah’s New Orleans so we tried our luck on the supposedly lucky day in her honor but the house prevailed. It costs a lot of money to build casinos.
Friday the 13th may not have proven lucky for gambling, but we were blessed with a glorious 80-degree breezy day full of sunshine. We strolled from the JW Marriott, our home away from home, to Café Amelie, all the while taking in the glorious art galleries and antique shops along Rue Royal, my favorite street in the French Quarter, as street musicians offered a vibrant soundtrack.
Founded in 2005, Café Amelie was named for Amelie Miltonberger, the mother of Princess Alice, the first American Princess of Monaco, who lived in an accompanying townhouse in the mid-1800s. Nestled in the historic 150-year-old Princess of Monaco Courtyard and Carriage House on Royal Street in the French Quarter, Café Amelie is a rare combination of superb Louisiana fare served in a lush, enchanting New Orleans courtyard setting.
Café Amelie quickly became a favorite of New Orleans locals and tourists alike, who faithfully flock to the café for its delicious food and refreshing cocktails. Café Amelie is known for having one of the most beautiful and romantic courtyards in the Quarter, where patrons can dine al fresco or inside the lovely air-conditioned dining rooms within the historic Carriage House. We enjoyed cochon de lait and ahi tuna in the fresh air on this magnificently cheerful day and overheard the sounds of live musicians from the street outside the entrance floating through the air like the rays of sunshine filtering through the porous clouds.
We took a respite from our stroll through the Quarter at the Orleans Grapevine, which is managed by the lovely Carrie Ann—a Toledo transplant and long-time friend. Carrie visited with us for about an hour as we quenched our thirst with San Pellegrino and people watched from the sidewalk tables.
Another long-time favorite of locals and tourists alike is Irene’s. I’ve being going to Irene’s for over 20 years. In fact, it was at Irene’s that I dined the night Princess Diana died. Our waiter was from Wales and announced to our table in a fine British accent, “The Princess is dead.” We stopped eating and ordered a bottle of champagne to toast her legacy.
Once the French Quarter’s underground secret, Irene’s Cuisine has emerged over the years as one of the area’s most desired and endearing dining spots. At first, people spoke of it in whispers, as though it was just “our little secret” but then passers-by couldn’t miss the crowds waiting out in the street for tables, and certainly not the garlic and rosemary aromas wafting out into the street from the kitchen’s fans.
Since its opening in 1993, Irene’s has remained one of the hottest tickets in town. How owner Irene DiPietro, a baby boomer from a little town in southern Sicily, came to dazzle the palates of the French Quarter’s jaded souls and create an enticing, enchanting setting that is both intimate and homey, is certainly fodder for dining out fanatics.
Irene’s recently relocated from its long-time home at the corner of St. Philip and Chartres to a new location at 529 Bienville. The move was prompted when the Louisiana State Museum, which owns the building rented by Irene’s, decided not to renew the lease claiming the rent was below market rate and the museum couldn’t risk its precious archives stored above the open flames of a restaurant kitchen.
I was pleasantly receptive to the new location of Irene’s. Sometimes in life, something good comes apart in order for something even better to emerge. The food was just as superb as it has always been and the intimacy of the front dining room at the original location has been replicated in a series of three small dining rooms at the new location. Our dining room featured red walls with mirrors and a fireplace with an antique marble clock on the mantle. In the back is a large lounge area with the original piano. The owner’s son and executive chef hand carved the massive wooden bar which is a masterpiece of craftsmanship.
Our waitress, Denise, was both charming and entertaining. After dinner, she took us on a grand tour of the new and improved Irene’s, which featured an altar to St. Joseph in a private back room that was recently blessed by local clergy who dined al fresco in full regalia with pomp and circumstance in the courtyard that isn’t yet open to the public.
We began with the house tomato garlic bread. Sena ordered escargots and I enjoyed the paneed oysters with grilled shrimp, and we shared a melt-in-your-mouth Bibb lettuce salad accented with a walnut-vinaigrette. Sena broke her meat-free diet to savor the lamb chops.
When Denise described the grouper special that was pan seared, topped with jumbo lump crab, hollandaise sauce and asparagus, I commented, “That sounds scrumptious.” She quipped, “Just like you.” It’s this kind of harmless flirtation that makes New Orleans so charming and enchanting. You can’t help but fall in love.
Thankfully we walked over 11 miles just in the first couple of days, which helped offset the caloric intake. The lack of guilt led us to Antoine’s for lunch. They are known for their three-course lunch offered for the same price as the year—$20.18. Some patrons also enjoy the 25-cent cocktail of the day (there’s a limit of three per person).
Antoine’s Restaurant has a 176 year-old legacy as the longest-running family owned restaurant in America. The restaurant is still owned and operated by fifth generation relatives of the original founder, Antoine Alciatore.
The world-renowned French-Creole cuisine, impeccable service and unique atmosphere have combined to create an unmatched dining experience in New Orleans since 1840. Antoine’s 14 dining rooms each have a unique history and charm, and historical photos featuring the balls of past Mardi Gras Krewes offer a glimpse into the rich history of this magnificent city beneath the sea.
Veteran, seasoned and professional waiter Chuck made recommendations and served us a delightful lunch. My shrimp and crawfish over grits was mouthwatering, and Sena raved about her vegetarian special consisting of a variety of vegetables in a creole tomato sauce served with rice. I cheated on my carb-free diet as we split an order of Pommes de Terre Soufflées, the classic Antoine’s fried puffed potatoes served with a side of sauce Bernaise for dipping. “Y’all can use your fingers for the potatoes,” Chuck reassured us.
In between sessions for the International Fundraising Conference that Sena and I were attending at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center—a monstrous concrete complex along the Mississippi—we managed to squeeze in Sunday Jazz Brunch at the Palace Café, part of the Brennan family of restaurants. This classic New Orleans restaurant, located at the foot of the French Quarter, serves contemporary Creole food in an upbeat and lively grand café. As bearers of the torch keeping Creole cuisine alive and vital, Dickie Brennan and Palace Café’s culinary team are constantly evolving traditional Creole dishes and creating a few new favorites.
The restaurant, housed in the historic Werlein’s music building, has won a number of local and national awards since it opened in 1991 including Best New Restaurant from Esquire Magazine and USA Today, the prestigious Ivy Award from Restaurants and Institutions Magazine, and Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence.
Featuring live music, the Sunday Jazz Brunch offers an intriguing and appealing bounty of a la carte choices, like the Café Eggs Benedict— composed of pork debris, poached eggs, cheddar biscuits, tasso, and hollandaise. Sena had hers with shrimp. We enjoyed the strolling musicians who added to the ambience of the bustling brunch crowd.
We were the guests of long-time friends and Toledo transplants Ron and Laura Blackburn at Broussard’s for a meaningful Sunday dinner comprised of laughing, reminiscing and catching up. You can tell we’re all grown up for in the old days it would have been smoking, drinking and carrying on. I’ve known Ron and Laura for over 20 years and have spent holidays with their families. It’s like the song, “You Can’t Make Old Friends.”
Broussard’s first opened its doors in 1920, after an eminent local chef named Joseph Broussard married Rosalie, of the prominent Borrello bloodline. The couple moved into the early 19th century Borrello Mansion on Conti Street, where the restaurant now stands. At his restaurant, Joseph Broussard combined the excitement of local Creole cuisine with classic culinary dishes inspired by his formal Parisian culinary training. The result was a dynamic menu set to the highest of standards.
Because of the restaurant’s unique imperial décor, fantastic food and incomparable ambiance, Broussard’s has served as a vibrant cultural assembly place, where many famous guests have gathered and an array of exciting events have taken place. Hollywood celebrities, politicians, dignitaries, Mardi Gras Royalty and literary figures such as Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner have all played a role in the history of Broussard’s. They have an exquisite courtyard that was reserved for a private party the night of our visit.
We all enjoyed the Rockefeller Salad, composed of crispy oysters, baby spinach, herbsaint dressing, chopped egg, and shaved red onion. Sena and I both had Pompano, one almandine style and one Pontchartrain style with a Creole tomato glaze and grilled shrimp. The shrimp in New Orleans have such a unique flavor due to the mix of fresh water from the Mississippi River and Lake Ponchartrain with the saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico. Ron enjoyed the drum fish Bonaparte style with shrimp and crawfish dressing. Laura savored the filet. Everything was scrumptious. Ron and I indulged in Banana’s Foster, flambeed table-side.
The crown jewel of New Orleans’ restaurant legacy is arguably the world-renowned Commander’s Palace. Commander’s Palace, nestled in the middle of the tree-lined Garden District, has been a New Orleans landmark since 1893.
Known for the award-winning quality of its food and its convivial atmosphere, the history of this famous restaurant offers a glimpse into New Orleans’ storied past and has been the go-to destination for Haute Creole cuisine and whimsical Louisiana charm. The winner of six James Beard Foundation Awards, Commander’s Palace has evolved into a culinary legend.
When Ella, Dottie, Dick and John Brennan took over personal supervision of the restaurant in 1974, they began to give the splendid old landmark a new look both inside and out including painting the outside the iconic “Commander’s Blue.” Now under the watchful eye of co-proprietors Ti Adelaide Martin and Lally Brennan, the Brennan family’s dedication to perfection has never wavered.
A steady parade of renowned chefs like Emeril Lagasse, Paul Prudhomme, Jamie Shannon, and now Tory McPhail have made Commander’s Palace the world-class restaurant that it is today and its leading-edge Haute Creole cuisine reflects the best of the city.
Sena, Laura and I were joined by Jim and Barbara Poure, who divide their time between Toledo and Naples, for a scrumptious dinner at Commander’s. Barbara was also in town for the International Fundraising Conference, and she is one of only 111 Advanced Certified Fund Raising Executives in the world. As a matter of fact, Toledo has more ACFRE’s than any other city in the world—five.
We had various appetizers, including an heirloom tomato salad, soup du jour, Caesar salad, and my favorite—buttermilk gnocchi topped with crawfish and peas swimming in a cream sauce. The cream sauce carried over to the cream corn that decorated the plate under the sheepshead fish that was topped with crab and savory pecans, which I devoured. Laura enjoyed the filet, while Sena had a special vegetarian offering that featured eggplant. Barbara and Jim had the sea bass topped with crawfish and accompanied by haricot verts. A fruit plate, berries with fresh whipped cream and pecan pie rounded out the lovely evening filled with laughter. Laura drove Sena and I back to the hotel and left Barbara and Jim off to disappear into the night at the Maison Bourbon on Bourbon Street—one of the few remaining establishments to offer nightly traditional New Orleans jazz musicians—master craftsmen—performing live.
Our last supper was actually a lunch, which we enjoyed immensely with another Toledo transplant, Lisa Lynn at Galatoire’s—a legend that is a long-remaining staple of the NOLA social and political scene. Lisa Lynn first moved to New Orleans in 1995 to pursue a Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of New Orleans. That year, for Thanksgiving, a few of us made a road trip from Toledo to New Orleans to visit Lisa Lynn. That was my first ever journey to The Big Easy, and I’ve been returning regularly ever since.
Lisa Lynn is now something of a French Quarter legend, serving as bar matron at Harry’s Corner and performing the occasional singing gig in the Quarter. A talented songstress, she has recorded several CD’s and can be found on iTunes. She is a past performer at the French Quarter Fest.
Founded in 1905 by Jean Galatoire, this infamous address distinguished itself on Bourbon St. from its humble beginning. From the small village of Pardies, France, Jean Galatoire brought recipes and traditions inspired by the familial dining style of his homeland to create the menu and ambiance of the internationally-renowned restaurant.
In its fifth generation, it is the Galatoire family and descendants who have carried the tradition of New Orleans’ fine dining restaurants and influenced its evolution. The restaurant’s culinary customs and reservation statutes have been preserved with little change throughout the decades. Consistency has been the greatest asset that Galatoire’s has displayed for more than a century.
Laura and I once took my tiny teacup Yorkie LuLu to lunch at Galatoire’s on a Friday, which is the most popular day for locals to lunch. As LuLu sat propped on a pillow at the table, eating salad, fellow patrons sang Happy Birthday to a 90 year old at a nearby table while everyone else around the place was carrying on as if each table was a microcosm. Combined, the noise can be a bit overwhelming but the energy is both eclectic and electric. Think pearls, hats and seersucker. A boozy mix of eccentricities.
On this particular lunch visit, a waiter brought the loud dining room to a hush when he clinked a spoon against a water glass and proceeded to request everyone to sing “Happy Birthday” to a patron named Daniel. We all obliged and paused from lunch to join in the festive chorus. Sena remarked, “I want to come back here to celebrate my birthday!” This is true N’awlins culture, which is big on celebration. I am convinced they have a parade every time someone sneezes.
After an appetizer platter composed of Oysters en Brouchette, crabmeat maison, shrimp Remoulade, and crawfish maison, we anxiously awaited the arrival of our entrees as we savored the last crumbs of French baguette. Because New Orleans is below sea level, certain adjustments need to be made to the bread recipes, and the result is some of the most magnificent bread in the world both in texture and taste. Lisa Lynn enjoyed the crabmeat Yvonne while I relished the shrimp Clemenceau with garlic, mushrooms, peas and cubed potatoes. Sena savored a Creole vegetarian dish featuring zucchini and green beans over rice.
Thankfully I walked over 30 miles during the time I was in NOLA, which helped to burn off all the calories. It’s nearly impossible not to indulge in all of the great restaurants as well as the more simple pleasures like po-boys, Zapp’s potato chips, muffuletta sandwiches from Central Grocery, Jackson Square chocolates and pralines from Southern Candymakers and New Orleans Ice Cream Company ice cream—bananas foster is my favorite flavor, with Creole cream cheese coming in a close second.
The best memories in life are centered around travel and food combined with the people and places we love. New Orleans celebrates the joys of life—food, fun, and laughter. It’s a timeless international destination—truly a world class city—rich in both culture and cultural diversity like no other. New Orleans is second only to Philadelphia in terms of American cities with the most French influence—in the food, architecture, and culture. If Europe isn’t in your budget, consider a trip to New Orleans. It’s the closest thing America has to Europe. It’s also the perfect setting to enjoy with old friends and to make new acquaintances. Laissez les bons temps rouler!