Here’s more from my July visit to Nola in the Uptown/Garden District and Bywater, plus coffee and breakfast stops.
HANSEN’S SNO BLIZ - In early 2009, I wrote about my favorite Nola food book, Gumbo Tales. I was moved (to tears) by the chapter on Hansen’s, the legendary sno-ball (not snow cone!) shop on Tchoupitoulas Street, and the hardships and joys of the family behind it. Closed in my prior November visit, this July it was top priority – and absolutely crucial in the heat.
With my divergent desires for a cream syrup but also spearmint on my ice, the sweetheart of a woman behind the counter said Cream of Almond and Spearmint was actually one of her favorite combos. She was right – I could not believe the rich, brightness of flavor and fine, feathery texture of the ice they are famous for from their family-made machines.
Hansen’s sno-ball perfection was accentuated by my stop an hour later at SnoWizard, another Nola long-timer since 1937. The flavors I tried here were syrupy sweet, fake, basically the bright-colored junk food syrups you’d expect, though flavor concepts were fun (Cajun Red Hot!) And the texture of the ice wasn’t comparable.
Hansen’s is king, their staff exude heart and it did my heart good watching entire families sit on the sidewalk eating sno-balls.
LA PETITE GROCERY - Let’s just say La Petite Grocery was the best overall meal I had this visit to New Orleans. I’d put it up there in my top Nola meals alongside August, Jacques Imo’s, Dick & Jenny’s, Commander’s Palace. The space is simultaneously sophisticated chic and Southern hospitality. Beers range from Alsace to Tibet. Cocktails are solid, from an Americano Classico ($8) with Cocchi Americano, moscato dolce, muddle orange, mint and a Luxardo cherry, to a bright Bee’s Knees ($10): Hayman’s Old Tom Gin, lavender blossom clover honey, lemon.
And, oh, the food. I let out a moan of delight more than once during this meal. Certainly for Lobster Beignets ($9), warm, with lobster falling out of a fried casing. French remoulade and cabbage slaw accented this buttery delight. But how could I not equally swoon over Abita Root Beer-braised Beef Short Rib ($11)? Tender beef, potato croquettes and house pickles all won me, but it was the sweet, nuanced sauce on smoky meat that ushered the dish into another realm.
Fried Boudin ($6) was peppy with red onion marmalade, whole grain mustard and pickled jalapenos. Pan-seared Rabbit ($19) was a solid, savory dish of tender rabbit with wilted spinach and spaetzle in a lemon caper brown butter. Entrees particularly shined in these two superb dishes: Braised Pork Cheeks ($15) over Louisiana popcorn rice, grilled corn and roasted peppers, and ever-a-favorite Southern dish of mine, Shrimp & Grits ($14), swimming in jus, shiitake mushrooms, divine, smoky bacon and thyme.
DOMILISE’S - It doesn’t get much crustier: mom, grandma and son frying oysters and catfish, while loading up sandwiches, ignoring a ringing phone, and trying to avoid the incessant line of customers until they absolutely have to take their order or payment.
Only grandpa, serving me an ice cold root beer at the bar, seemed to have a little joy, and even then, reservedly so. I fell in love with Domilise’s, a Nola po boy institution for decades. The bread is far from artisan, oysters and shrimp are greasy and plump. The po boys are best loaded not only with the usual hot sauce, but with horseradish and tartar sauce. Roast Beef Po Boys are as popular as the Oyster Po Boys. Half sizes are still large and range from $9-12.50 (oysters being the most expensive at $12.50), while full-sized sandwiches run $11-16.
This is a classic I am glad to say I finally visited on a non-descript, residential block Uptown… a true peek at the unique character of old school, New Orleans cheap eats.
CURE - Cure opened since my last visit to Nola so when I was here for Tales, it was a priority to visit what is one of the few “new wave” cocktail bars in a city that more often keeps it old school. As it isn’t a common style of bar in Nola, I appreciate it, but compared to bars of this type across the country, it did not overly impress. The patio is a nice break from loud music in the echoing, chic interior. But in July, the heat is so oppressive, even late at night on the patio, a drink barely refreshed.
The drinks are solid, like Re-Bootsy Collins ($9), an El Jimador Blanco refresher with house-made rhubarb & lime cordial, topped with soda water. Celery Stalker ($10) is bright with Miller’s Westbourne Strength Gin, lime, house celery bitters, and cucumber, topped with Prosecco. There are also spirituous, bitter treats like Cease & Desist ($9) with Rittenhouse bonded Rye, Carpano Punt e Mes, Fernet Branca and orange peel.
COMMANDER’S PALACE - Commander’s Palace is the Queen of New Orleans’ jazz brunches (Arnaud’s is another quintessential Nola brunch). Commander’s main dining room, highlighted with tacky balloons, is more circa 1980’s elegance than Arnaud’s lovely, turn-of-the-century, garden-style dining room, but the legend, history and importance of Commander’s in Nola history cannot be overstated. Not to mention the food is excellent. All reasons alone you must visit at least once.
Similar to other hours-long jazz brunches around the city, you will pay $30-40 per person without drinks, and will be serenaded by roving jazz trio as you dine. Also similar to others, my beloved, only-in-Nola brunch drinks are available, some off-menu. Just ask for a Bourbon (or Brandy) Milk Punch for creamy, boozy breakfast decadence. Or a tableside coffee/brandy Cafe Brulot, flaming orange rind and all. I’m still waiting to see this presented properly in the Bay Area.
While the band wooed with my request for Lazy River, I filled up on Gumbo YaYa, Shrimp & Tasso Henican (wild Louisiana white shrimp stuffed with spicy Cajun ham, Crystal hot sauce beurre blanc, pickled okra and five pepper jelly) and Eggs Acadian: duck, andouille and sweet potato hash cakes with two poached eggs over bacon, smothered in red beans and spicy Creole mustard hollandaise. Who could miss their famed Creole Bread Pudding Souffle? Don’t, if you haven’t had it. It’s bread pudding souffle-style: light, airy, doused with whiskey cream sauce tableside.
May the decadent Nola jazz brunch tradition never die.
BACCHANAL – Nevermind that after hanging out with aperitifs and wine, then waiting in a 30 minute line for BBQ (which smelled amazing), I neared the stand only to find they’d sold out of literally everything. And this was all before 9pm. That was a brutal blow, but otherwise, Bacchanal is a special, Nola-style wine bar.
With a big backyard that feels like a friend’s summer BBQ garden party, live Dixieland jazz and blues (with gospel and lounge thrown in for good measure) set the tone for a magical evening. I like this more remote, laid-back neighborhood and find Bacchanal a summer idyll with a cheese platter and bottle of Cocchi Americano. No wonder it’s the ‘last hurrah’ hang-out for bartenders and spirits folk at the end of Tales.
Breakfast & Coffee
SURREY’s JUICE BAR, Lower Garden District – Surrey’s would be at home in Berkeley. Eclectic garage sale decor and a hippie vibe confirm Berkeley-like status with juices and wheatgrass shots. On a blazing hot, Louisiana summer day, nothing tasted better than a fresh juice of carrot, orange and celery. You can pop in for juice or stay for breakfasts of Brat N’ Eggs, Costa Rican scramble with black beans, Tofu Breakfast Platter or Bananas Foster French Toast.
LA BOULANGERIE, Uptown/Garden District – A locals favorite and one I hit during each visit to Nola, La Boulangerie is vaguely Tartine-reminiscent though far from that exuberantly amazing. Still, baguettes, breads and pastries are of high quality, baked fresh daily, and I couldn’t go wrong with a breakfast of their Peach Danish ($2.20) or Apple Cinnamon Scone ($1.90).
FUEL COFFEE HOUSE, Uptown/Garden District – I stumbled upon Fuel when riding a bike out along Magazine Street. The front garden and porch invited me in, the clientele on a weekday seemed predominantly college students from nearby Tulane or Loyola, and coffee was surprisingly strong and smooth. When I saw the sign next door (photo below, left) on the wall of neighboring (and fabulously dive-y) Le Bon Temps Roule, it put a big smile on my face: a black baby with headphones for Brown Sugar Records (which is not in the building, by the way), that reads: “Our Business is Pleasing You.”
PJ’s COFFEE – Yes, PJ’s is a chain, with 15 Nola shops alone, but the location inside the Royal Sonesta Hotel saved my life numerous days during Tales when I’d order their damn good Iced Coffee or a Cappuccino before a morning seminar down the hall after only 3 hours sleep.
I can’t help but laugh at the obvious Nola boozy factor: if you so desire, bottles of liquor hang upside down, dripping straight into your coffee. Add Grand Marnier, Kahlua, Baileys or the like, to your cup first thing in the morning.