My shirt is slightly askew. My stomach is just beginning to protrude beyond my upper belt buckle, and my brain is practically screaming at me -- pleading, really -- to stop eating. I knew what I was getting into though. You don't plan a 48-hour eating itinerary for five college friends in New Orleans, and not think that you're going to have moments like this. We always plan our annual trip together during the weekend of the N.B.A All-Star game, since one of our friends covers the Lakers for the L.A. Times, and another works for the New Jersey Nets -- it's the only weekend they can legitimately take off. So after last year's trip to Los Angeles, we decided on New Orleans, since two of the guys in our group had never been there before.
We realized about two months ago that the All-Star Weekend takes place at exactly the same time as the Mardi Gras celebrations and parades kick into high gear.
The thought of a city basking in the glow of a Super Bowl victory after a painful 43-year wait hadn't even crossed our minds. While Fat Tuesday loomed a few days off in the distance, it was the weekend prior that would certainly be a challenge for us -- both with respect to hotels and restaurants. Since I've been to New Orleans a few times, I volunteered to set-up the eating and drinking itinerary.
After we landed and checked-in to our hotel in the Warehouse District, we jumped in a cab to head straight for Willie Mae's Scotch House. Opened in 1957, this shotgun shack of a restaurant was destroyed after Katrina, and then re-built with the help of John T. Edge's Southern Foodways Alliance. The SFA considers Willie Mae's a Southern landmark, and by the taste of their fried chicken, corn muffins and red beans and rice, I can see why there was a ridiculously long line of people waiting to get in on our way out.
Bourbon Street revelers
We walked around the French Quarter a bit that afternoon, but it was unseasonably cold on Friday -- around 35 degrees -- and the day was just miserable. Bourbon Street had the usual motley crew of barely-legal drinkers, bead-throwers and buskers, and in all honesty, if I never walk down Bourbon again, it will be too soon. You think Rush & Division is overrated? Do you typically flee Grant Park during Taste of Chicago?Well Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras joins the pantheon of some of America's all-time overrated cultural signposts: San Antonio's Riverwalk, the Pat's/Geno's Cheesesteak corner in Philly and San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf come to mind. What were we thinking?
Before dinner, we walked over to Galatoire's. I wanted to show my friends this 105 year-old restaurant, but apparently, on the Friday before Fat Tuesday, it's a "locals only" day in the dining room. They auction tables off far in advance and then they close on Saturday, and don't re-open until Ash Wednesday. We went upstairs to the bar though (after donning a few jackets from their rack; it's a jacket-required place) and I ordered a few sazeracs and a brandy milk punch. We then walked over to the Loews Hotel, where the Swizzle Stick Bar has quickly become one of the must-visit stops for cocktail enthusiasts. Lu Brow is the mixologist/bar chef, and she's a local with a great sense of predicting what people might like to drink. When I said "rum," she hurried back behind the bar, and returned a few minutes later with a newfangled fog cutter, replete with crushed ice and fresh juice. If you're at all into cocktails, you have to make the Swizzle Stick a stop on the itinerary.
Dinner proved to be a home run. Donald Link has made Cochon an instant classic, for his interpretations of the Southern food and ingredients he grew up with. Butchering whole animals comes as naturally as a pre-dinner sazerac. "It's the only restaurant I don't own that I have on speed dial," Ti Martin, the co-owner of Commander's Palace and Café Adelaide told me. We begin with cocktails. I know the Hurricane is much maligned (especially at tourist traps like Pat O'Brien's in the Quarter, where we slurped a syrupy-sweet version the next afternoon). But Link uses only freshly-squeezed citrus and Gosling's rum to make the drink more than palatable. "Why don't they just decide to own that drink's name?" my friend Andrew inquired. "I mean, call it the Katrina or the Cyclone. But Hurricane? Isn't that a little weak?"
At Cochon, we all had one of those "Earl" moments. You know, the guy in the movie "Diner" who orders everything on the left side of the menu? We perused the "small plates" section of the menu, and asked our über-cool server if she could just bring us one of everything: tiny alligator bites, briefly fried and set into a puddle of pepper jelly joined the ranks of some of the best small plates I've ever had: fried oysters, shrimp & eggplant dressing, crawfish pie and some smokey, sweet and spicy pork ribs scattered with a small shower of pickled watermelon rind made me wish I had grown up with these kinds of food memories.