Mardis Gras recap: Parades soar, Brigsten's falls
Walking is again required after a doughy, sugary, caffeine-laced fuel-up. As we walked around the city, we noticed -- in addition to more "Bless You Boys" signs and "We Dat" placards, placed prominently in windows and storefronts -- that this football-crazy town was also completely immersed in some kind of crazy parade marathon. As a hick from Minnesota, I always thought that Mardi Gras meant a parade or two, followed by a big party on Fat Tuesday. What I didn't realize was that the parades had started in early January, and this weekend was the culmination, which meant two or three major parades each day. The parades are led and organized by Krewes, or clubs, with names like Endymion and Bacchus, and they wind their way through downtown, Mid-City, Uptown and the Garden District -- preventing easy taxi access and seriously interrupting the streetcar service.
These aren't your run-of-the-mill Chicago floats with some bunting and a sign and a few people waving from plastic chairs, but rather, elaborate feats of construction with plaster and wood and paint; to get a spot on a Krewe's float is like scoring center ice tickets to a Blackhawks game. Not only do they stake out positions on these floats, but they are all decked out in full costume, usually wearing masks. The horseback riders accompanying the floats are also decked out, wearing masks and elaborate headgear, looking like guards in a Cirque du Soleil show heading to a private party being filmed by Stanley Kubrick. The attendants on the floats are charged with tossing hundreds (if not thousands) of multi-colored beads into the thronging masses that line the parade routes. People bring ladders, outfitted with what looks like makeshift chairs or enlarged toolboxes at the top, to allow for either sitting children or storing their bead stash. This height advantage also helps with actually grabbing the beads in mid-air. At one parade we caught coming down Canal Street, the float riders actually tossed out plastic spears, at least three-feet long; thankfully, Phil prevented me from being impaled like a satay skewer and nabbed the spear headed straight toward my head. Now I know why everyone in New Orleans is wearing dozens of beads around their necks: you can't walk more than a block or two during this weekend and not be hit over the head with someone tossing them out of a moving vehicle.
While the guys were fighting over their beads and blocking-out their position on the sidewalk, I was busy trying to call Domilise's, to make sure they were open. I had read and heard about this po-boy shack from a number of local experts. I knew that they had so much turnover that they had to have two deliveries every day from the famous Leidenheimer Bread company. But alas, no answer meant I didn't to risk driving out there for nothing, so I called an audible, and went with Plan B: The Parkway Tavern.
shrimp po-boy, fries, banana puddin' and gumbo from The Parkway Tavern
I had eaten at the Parkway about a year ago, during the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) conference. I'll never forget seeing octogenarian Chuck Williams (of Williams-Sonoma) walk outside and get into his long, black limo after trying their po-boys. I knew the boys would like it. What I didn't realize, however, was that there would be a ridiculous line. We had plenty of time to make decisions: Andy would have catfish, Barry went with fried oysters. Phil and Jon wanted shrimp and Mike wanted the "surf and turf" of shrimp with roast beef. I leaned toward the daily special of shrimp remoulade. All orders came "dressed," that is, topped with shredded lettuce, sliced tomato, some pickles and mayo, and like all of the po-boys at Parkway, arrive on the one-of-a-kind Leidenheimer French bread: crisp exterior, with an easy, soft chew and a slightly dense interior that soaks up anything you put into it. The fried shrimp are plump, meaty and coated in a seasoned barrier that is as addictive as Phil's beignet moment. But the roast beef is a stunner: soft pieces, broken up into bite-sized bits, braised and roasted to the ultimate tenderness. We chow on cheddar fries and sweet potato fries -- both very good, then sample a banana pudding, rife with wafers, as well as a block of bread pudding the size of The Rock's fist. It's still steaming and warm, drenched in créme anglaise, and it is summarily devoured by the six of us. It's 4:30 p.m., and dinner is in less than four hours. A nap is in order.
We're going to Brigsten's, in Uptown, but we can't take the streetcar, because, of course, there's another parade that's about to start. We cab it to the Columns Hotel on picturesque St. Charles Ave. where we have a drink and take in the historic building -- site of Brooke Shields' first film, "Pretty Baby." If it were warmer, we'd sit on the porch, but we opt to hang out in the shabby but well-worn bar.
We walk a few blocks to Napoleon Street, where the St. Charles streetcar is still operating. We'll ride it further West -- past Loyola and Tulane -- all the way to Carrollton Street, where we disembark and walk two blocks to the restaurant. At this point, we're still pretty full, but the menu looks promising. I've been to Brigsten's a few times, and while I love the charming, old-world feel of the place -- it's housed in a home that clearly was lived-in at one point -- we're sitting next to the fireplace mantle at a table that's really designed for four, not six. Did the hostess not notice that two of our group is well over 6 ft. tall? Pork tenderloin with sweet potato dirty rice and pork debris sounds amazing (it is) and the shrimp remoulade with deviled eggs as well as the barbequed shrimp are both solid. But the service is haphazard -- our waitress totally forgot to put in our first-course orders (we waited an hour for our first bites) and when they noticed we were drinking water instead of ordering a second round of cocktails, they just left us with a water pitcher. Classy. I remember having a similar experience here a year ago. The servers keep asking if everything is delicious, and in their folksy way, you can almost forgive some shortcomings. But the plating is sloppy and the overall experience left us wanting. Sunday morning is another day.