RT6: Jackson to Tupelo & More Elvis

We get up early to get a start on Tupelo. We have just one night here and want to have a little time to explore before setting off to Nashville. It is a cool 84 degrees at 9:30. By the time our day ends at 5:00 it will be 106 degrees. I cannot imagine being forced to toil in a field picking cotton in this heat. Brutal! Time to gas up and put some drinks on ice and hit the Trace for the second day. We have planned a few stops today on the Trace: The Reservoir Overlook, Cypress Swamp and the Bynum Mounds.

We encounter the overlook almost immediately and enjoy the pretty view. The reservoir is a sparkling body of water that borders the Trace for a time and breaks up the greenery nicely. There is more traffic on the Trace today and more maintenance workers. We also encounter more animals…deer, horses, herons and wild turkeys.

Our next stop is the Cypress Swamp. The swamp has a trail around it that takes 15 minutes to walk. A couple from Minnesota is just leaving and then we are alone with only trilling insects, birds and gators that are hiding from the heat. The bald cypress and tupelo trees are magnificent, tall and majestic. The swamp water is covered with a plant material, the colour of pale jade that literally illuminates the area. It is quite beautiful.

We continue on our journey, passing well maintained fields, forest and hay bales. The Park Service allows the fields to be cut for hay. Soon we are looking to have lunch as we skipped breakfast to get on the road. Stella 3000 is being a jerk today, trying to get us to turn into a ditch. Every once and awhile she tries to see if we are paying attention. She eventually gets us into Kosciusko, a cute little Mississippi town that barely registers a blip on the map, where we are going to get lunch at Rib Alley Restaurant.

Rib Alley is hosting a Rotary Club meeting in the front so we are directed to the back section near the kitchen. The restaurant is decorated in “early re-purposed rec room bric-a-brac” with crucifixes and mardi gras beads thrown in for good measure. We are offered menus or the buffet, which is comprised of chicken spaghetti, green beans, butter beans, corn, baked ham and vanilla cake. We opt for the menus. We both order from the “Customer Sandwich” list which is favorite sandwiches from certain customers. I can’t resist ordering the Smitty’s Canadian Melo, because it doesn’t sound very Canadian, some half-sweet iced tea, and Rob orders Jay’s Slide.

Lunch takes a moderate amount of time to hit the table as it is being prepared fresh. Both sandwiches arrive with hot, crisp, well made krinkle cut fries. My melo is a fried fillet of chicken with tomato, iceberg lettuce, American cheese, bacon (not Canadian back bacon) and ranch dressing on white bread that is cooked on a flat top in butter. It is grilled dark with a carbon-butter crust that is lightly crispy and buttery but not greasy. It is a great sandwich. Almost like a club/grilled cheese. Rob’s slider, compared  to a patty melt by our server, comes on Texas toast instead of rye, cheese whiz instead of Swiss, onion and a flavourful homemade beef patty. Not really a patty melt but still a really good sandwich. Good, honest, home cooking like your mom would make.

Rib Alley on UrbanspoonBack on the road again we stop at the Bynum Mounds at mile marker 232. These Indian mounds were built during the Woodland Period between BCE 100 and CE 100. Two mounds have been restored. Mound A contained the remains of a woman and the cremated remains of two adults and a child. Mound B housed a log-lined crematorium and the cremated remains and unburned remains of several individuals, along with copper spools and projectile points made with non-native materials, indicating a culture that included long distance travel.

We leave the Trace at mile marker 260 and enter Tupelo, back into fast food strip land. We check in to our home for the evening and head out to explore a little Tupelo. First stop: Elvis Presley’s birthplace, coincidentally located on Elvis Presley Drive. The tiny, two-room, shotgun house built by Vernon Presley is preserved and open to the public for a fee. Elvis was born in the house on January 8th, 1935. The museum on the property has free admission.

…in all its glory. Can’t you just feel the “King of Rock and Roll” vibe emanating from it? Me neither.

Next stop on our mini Elvis tour is Tupelo Hardware Store, “coincidentally” located a few doors from a guitar shop Rob wants to check out. Tupelo Hardware is where Elvis ‘s mother bought his first guitar for his 11th birthday in 1946.

Dinner tonight is also on the Elvis tour. Elvis spent a lot of time in Johnnie’s Drive-In growing up and as a young teen. The drive-in looks pretty much as it must have back in the day. We chose the Elvis Booth as it was unoccupied. This is where he is said to have spent his time. The eatery, decorated in early- and mid-Elvis is small, boasting just ten tables, two counter stools, two tables on the patio and carhop service.

The menu is presented above the kitchen on magnet boards. I spy a pimento cheese on the board. I really want a cheese burger but I am intrigued by this southern specialty. We decide to order one to try and share. I get my cheeseburger and onion rings and Rob orders a BBQ sandwich and rings. The pimento cheese is a satisfying grilled sandwich containing of all things, cheddar cheese with pimento, shredded iceberg lettuce, tomato and mayo.

My cheeseburger is a basic, classic simple homemade beef patty on a soft white bun, with processed cheese, lettuce, onion, and pickles. $1.29. Rob’s BBQ sandwich comes on the same white bun and is filled with house-smoked, coarse-chopped pork shoulder, a small dab of BBQ sauce, mustard, tomato and onions. It’s good pulled pork – a flavourful, substantial, easy-eating sandwich. The rings were decent and the service was awesome and super Southern friendly.

BBQ sandwich from Johnnie’s.
Cheeseburgers for $1.29. Really.

 

Sitting in Elvis’ favourite booth!

Johnnie's Drive In on Urbanspoon

RT5: Natchez & The Trace

Pecan pie for breakfast! We are in the deep South and that is what they do, right? Our hostess at The Pig Out Inn sent us on our way last night with two of their homemade mini pecan numbers. As we opened them this morning the wrapping released the sweet BBQ smoke adhering to it. Deep breath… aaahh! The pie is sweet and nutty and the perfect breakfast size.

As we walk to the river to embark on a horse drawn carriage ride through this genteel town, we sniff their wood smoke on the light breeze once again. Could get used to that. We are heading to Jackson, MS later today but first we want to see a little more of Natchez and we think a 45 minute tour by horse and carriage with a guide will be the best way to accomplish this.

Mike introduces himself as our driver and nods to his horse Mac. He tells us that if this is confusing we can have Jack and Jake instead. We are his only customers on this fine but very hot morning. As we head out at a very slow clop, Mike tells us to hold on because Mac has ” the pedal to the metal.” As we tour through this pretty southern town which has an incredible sense of civic pride, we are introduced to the homes of cotton barons, which are the founders of this town, Natchez, the oldest city on the Great River.

We meet William Johnston, a slave freed at the age of 11, who goes on to become a plantation owner… and owner of 23 slaves. We pass by enormous live oak trees and quaint home after quaint home. When we clop by the City Hall we ask Mike for Tripod’s story. We saw his headstone on the front lawn last evening. Tripod the cat had three legs and the run of City Hall. He attended council meetings and was featured on the TV show, “PM Magazine” at which point, he became a celebrity. People sent him money and food. Tripod died with $42 in the bank which was donated to the Humane Society.

We continue along the tour route and past Hotel Eola where we spent the night. Mike tells us this is where Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift stayed in 1953 while filming in town. Further along we see the grand house actor George Hamilton once owned and Magnolia House, the finest example of the Greek Revival style in town. After a delightful tour, Mike and Mac lead us back down to the river way station where Mac is very happy to join Jake and have a long drink in the shade.

Time to hit the road for Jackson. We have decided to stop by Fat Mama’s for tamales first. Yes, tamales. In Mississippi. These are rooted in the influx of Mexican migrant workers coming to work the cotton fields after the freeing of the slaves. Today, however, African Americans are the keepers of the tamale flame in Mississippi.

Fat Mamas is a pretty little spot with a beautiful outdoor patio, artfully planted up with Agave and an ornamental pear tree. Lights are strung and there is a glass bottle tree in the courtyard. Inside Mama’s is clean, colourful, and…empty, although we are through the door the minute they open. We order up a half dozen tamales and a gringo pie to share. Tamales are corn husks stuffed with a masa mixture and ground meat and spices, then steamed to cook the masa. These tamales are simple, flavourful, and of medium heat. They are unadorned with sour cream or guacamole. Hot sauce is not necessary. They are plenty spicy.

The Gringo Pie is basically three tamales unwrapped and smothered in beef chili, cheddar, onions and jalapenos. The chili is a nice saucy accompaniment to the tamales. Here is where we run into some technical difficulties. Rob took most of the photos at this stop and they disappeared somewhere, somehow between a fancy camera and powerful software and an operator who is neither fancy nor powerful.

Fat Mama's Tamales on Urbanspoon

We get back in the car and allow Stella 3000 to take us to the Natchez Trace, a 444-mile road that will take us to Jackson, then on to Tupelo and then into Nashville, Tennessee, where it terminates by the Loveless Cafe. The Trace is an ancient trail over 1,000 years old and rife with history. It was walked by Indians, trod by horses, followed by armies, and terrorized by bandits. In modern times, it has become a lovely way to get from here to there. The National Parks Service maintains it. Never have we seen such a pristine roadway. In the 100 miles we covered today, we saw not one piece of trash. The restrooms are near spotless.

The Trace is a two lane road, paved in the reddish-peach asphalt you see through out the state. Well maintained grass butts up to the road. Pines and other forest greenery travel along side. Each mile is marked and when sites of historical importance or natural beauty are approaching, you are warned by a sign a half-mile in advance. We have a detailed book about the road and decided to stop at two places of interest, the Springfield Plantation and the Windsor Ruins.

We chose the Springfield Plantation because we had not yet visited and toured a real Southern Plantation home. Springfield boasts original interiors. After a false start due to poor signage and directions in our guide book, we find the Plantation. The gates are closed. The sign tells us the plantation is open Mondays and Wednesdays on the first Sunday of any  month with a J in it and the moon is in its crescent phase, or some such nonsense. Oh well, back on the road.

Our next stop will be the Windsor Ruins. We leave the Trace at the appointed mile marker and travel through 11 miles of Mississippi back roads, just long enough to start to get creeped out. We almost stumble upon it. Windsor Ruins are basically what’s left of a gigantic antebellum mansion destroyed by a devastating fire in 1890 – 23 columns and a balustrade remain. A house guest accidentally burned the place to the ground. A Union army soldier sketched the place at one time and it is the only visual record of this grand home. The columns, nestled among stately trees are truly magnificent and the setting eerily quiet but for the occasional bird call. Worth visiting.

The Trace is hardly traveled this day. We see seven fellow travelers, two ladies on horseback picking muscadines, three maintenance workers, one cyclist, perhaps thirty cars passing in the other direction and possibly one Sasquatch. Rob thinks it was a deer… a verrrry big deer. There are no cars in our field of view, front or rear, for the majority of our trip. At last we have to pop onto US 80 for 20 minutes to take us into Jackson. Back into big box territory. Very jarring after the peaceful solitude of the Natchez Trace.

We roll into Jackson, the capital city of Mississippi around 3 pm. We settle into our hotel and are happy to be greeted once again by Antonio, our bellman from our last trip to Jackson, and BBQ connoisseur who put us on to E & L BBQ, still our favorite reason to be in Jackson. We have planned this ahead of time. We wish to be in Jackson early in daylight so we can grab dinner at E & L which resides in a rough section of town and bring it back to the hotel. We order the exact same things as last time: Rib tips with sauce on the fries, wings, dipped, and links. Everything comes with fries so we end up with three orders of fries.

For more detail on E&L, refer to our Happy Mouth Classic review here.

We rush back to our hotel room, with our precious cargo in the back seat. We scurry up to our room and lay out the spread. Wow. I’m almost scared to dig in – sometimes the memory is better. Nope…exactly as I remember. Fabulous. The link is coarse-ground and spicy. Chunks of pepper are visible. We roll it in the soft, squishy, utilitarian white bread and chow down. The beefeater cut fries are smothered in sweet bbq sauce that has little or no smoke. The rib tips are meaty, sweet, melt-in-your-mouth succulent. The chicken wings? I do not know where they get wings this size. They are deep fried and then dipped in bbq sauce which just soaks in. Luscious. AND there are leftovers in the hotel fridge ;). Well played.

Amazing links – coarse and spicy.
These wings are huge…

 

As shown against a piece of bread for scale. These are BIG wings.

E & L Barbeque on Urbanspoon

RT4: NOLA to Natchez, MS.

It’s Monday and our Road trip hits the highway today. We check out of the Monteleone at 11-ish and spend some time getting the car wired….GPS (here on in referred to as Stella 3000 as it’s a significant upgrade from GPS models used on previous trips) and iPod. Warren Zevon comes on and we are off. We hope to be in Baton Rouge for lunch and in Natchez before dinner. It is already 93 degrees.

Rob made some executive decisions last evening while programing Stella 3000 for today’s trip. He opted to not take the Great River Road because it is massively circuitous and would add half again as much time to the trip. Other roadies recommended Highway 61. Stella is optimized for scenic routes and she does take us briefly off 61 to the River Road.

The first part of 61 or Airport Rd is a dusty, haze covered, divided highway, lined with billboards for hurricane shutters, seafood and po’boy vendors, gas stations, food marts, storage units, motels and fast food. After leaving the city the road runs alongside algae coated swamps filled with elegant ibis.

Stella 3000 takes us on a scenic detour at this point, past neat little homes and more seafood and BBQ shacks. We avoid another stretch of strip malls. We are on the River Road now but the river is hidden by huge levees. The detour is only a few miles long and she returns us to 61. We stop at a Roadrunner for drinks, ice and a cooler. A sign in the window advertizes “Hot Boudin,”  a cajun sausage specialty. Boudin is a white sausage made with pork and rice. We order one to go to share. It is hot, medium spicy, course ground in texture, and loosely packed. Very tasty and holds us over until lunch. We wonder at the advisability of buying a home-made hot meat product at a gas station, but it is true road food. We’ll let you know in about 12 hours if it was a huge lapse of judgement.

Back on 61 we pass oil refineries dotting the shores of the Mississippi and field after field of sugar cane, much like the corn fields back home at this time of year. Entering Baton Rouge we come into a sea of box stores, fast food outlets, auto malls and drive-thru daiquiri joints. Only in the South: Drive-thru liquor and road pops on ice.

As essential here as Kraft Dinner!

We don’t enter Baton Rouge downtown but remain on the outskirts where we have chosen Chimes East for lunch. Foodie buzz from a variety of sources rates it one of the top three lunch spots in the city.

Chimes is large and typical of a chain resto in decor. There are a couple locations in Baton Rouge but no where else apparently. The beer menu is extensive and we order small Blue Moons. They are refreshing in the now 100 degree heat of the day. We order up crawfish mac and cheese to share and a po’boy each. Rob gets shrimp and I choose catfish. The mac arrives nicely blistered and bubbling. The loose sauce is garlicky, cheesy and has a medium spice heat that is soaked up by large shell pasta. AND there is lots of crawfish.

Our  dressed po’boys arrive with good fries. Rob’s shrimp has a very light crisp batter which allows the delicate taste of the gulf shrimp to shine through. A previous complaint with other po’boys containing fried shrimp was the heavy handed batter treatment. Rob douses his liberally with Tabasco sauce, which results basically in Tabasco-infused mayo. My catfish po’boy contains a nice sized fillet and is also lightly battered. The bun is good, slightly crispy and chewy. The ridged pickles really make this sandwich. The only downside to Chimes is the water they serve. It tastes and smells chemically. Buy a drink (we’re sure that was the plan all along).

The Chimes East on Urbanspoon

Back on the road which is now being called Scenic Highway 61. This is pretty much a joke until about 25 miles from the Mississippi border, when the highway becomes peach coloured, the landscape turns to gently rolling grassy hills lined with soft pines and deciduous trees, and we start passing the entries to Antebellum homes. Last time we drove from New Orleans straight north to Jackson on a dull interstate which revealed none of Mississippi’s character or charm.

This is a restaurant in Natchez called, um, “Mammy’s Cupboard”. While the figure in whose hoopskirt visitors are supposed to dine, is more recently racially ambiguous, we can’t help but raise an eyebrow. It is known, however, to have very good reviews.

Highway 61 lead us directly into Natchez, one of the most adorable towns in the United States. We will explore it a little more this evening and tomorrow before heading up the Natchez Trace to Jackson.

We walk to dinner at “Pig Out Inn“, a BBQ joint on Canal Street, a stones throw from the Mississippi, and not far from the Eola Hotel where we are staying overnight. The streets of Natchez are deserted of both cars and pedestrians due to the stifling heat. We can walk in the middle of the downtown streets. It is almost eerie. The walk gives us a chance to see a little of this pretty Southern town, which imparts the slight scent of mildew on the still hot evening air. I would imagine that this place never quite dries and that is carried in the breeze. No matter, as we approach our destination the scent turns intoxicating: woodsmoke from a BBQ pit…aaahhhh.

The Pig Out Inn which advertises itself as “Swine Dining at it’s Finest” is all but empty as is the whole town it seems. The decor is an eclectic mix of old doors serving as table tops, junkyard finds, coke paraphernalia, a tag cloud on one wall about “Why I Love The South” and Elvis presiding over the whole place from a corner. While we’re there, a trickle of take-out and dine-in customers flow through the place.

It says: “What I Love About the South”.

We chat with one of the folks behind the counter about the town and what to see. She explains that it is a very slow time of the year due to the heat. As we are ordering at the counter, she tells us that everything is made in house. We both ordered a two meat combo so we could share a bit of everything. The dinners also included two sides. We shared a large orders of ribs, smoked chicken, beef brisket, hot sausage, beans, potato salad, coleslaw and of course soft, squishy white bread.

The Pig offers some of the best BBQ we have had in the South. We both agreed that the sausage and beans were right up there with Austin’s Green Mesquite (sausage) and Famous Dave’s (beans). The sausage was firm and juicy and hotly spiced. You could see the chunks of red pepper. Excellent. The beans are of the sweet variety which are my personal preference, but at the Pig they smoke them along with the meat. These beans would be overly sweet if not for the smoke. The smoke cuts the sugar and creates a perfect balance in flavour. The potato salad was creamy with large chunks of potato and green onion. It was nicely dressed and not too vinegary. The coleslaw was perfectly serviceable and not overdressed. It was quite fine coleslaw by any standard but it was just outclassed by the quality of everything else on the plate.

The brisket was succulent and tender with a dark black bark and a rosy smoke ring that exceeded a 1/4 inch. The house BBQ sauce comes warm and is smoky sweet with a spicy finish which complimented the strong flavours of the brisket. The ribs were also excellent, meaty, juicy and with a nice amount of smoke. The smoked chicken was flavourful but slightly on the dry side. The BBQ sauce corrected that. After an extremely satisfying meal that found us picking at leftovers on our plates, our server brought us over a cob of corn to try. It is also cooked in the smoker along with the meat. I don’t order corn in a BBQ joint and if it comes with the meal I generally discard it after a bite. It’s the one thing BBQ places cannot cook. It sits in a pot all day, and is overcooked, mushy and waterlogged. Not so at the Pig. The corn is actually a treat here. It is toothsome, bursting with flavour and a delicate smokiness. Well done!

As we finished up dinner she also presented us with two of their homemade mini pecan pies which I cannot wait to try but am too full of excellent BBQ to contemplate right now.

Pig Out Inn Barbeque on Urbanspoon

Here’s a sampling of reasons why we like the genteel charm of Natchez.

 

RT3: NOLA – Muffaletta & Rib Room

Today, Sunday is our last full day in the Big Easy. We are determined to try a N’awlins classic, the muffaletta sandwich. Research tells us that Central Grocery is the originator of this sandwich. This is highly disputed by Frank’s, an Italian eatery a couple doors down. Since Central Grocery does not feel it is necessary to open on a Sunday, we choose Franks. Who has the best Muff? This is as highly contested an issue as who has the best po’boy, but alas we have time to try just one.

Frank’s has just opened when we arrive. We are eating in and everyone else appears to be taking out. So… we are seated alone upstairs and bathed in sunlight from the 12 foot windows over looking the French Market. The walls are painted with Italianate columns and Venice canal scenes, the ceiling is a peeling, watermarked faux sky. A seventies soundtrack emanates from speakers, the clash of cutlery tinkles from the wait station where a server prepares for the day. The ambiance: think 1960’s hotel ballroom. Our sever is loud and friendly. We ask a few questions about serving sizes. We have been burned before. Southern portions tend toward the large size. In the end we decide to split a half muff…a quarter each and Rob ordered a cup of seafood gumbo and I chose a cup of crab and corn bisque.

Our cups of soup come on little plates  papered with old fashioned lace doilies. Rob’s seafood gumbo was rich in flavour and spice, but was overly salty. My crab bisque on the other hand was fabulous, packed with crab, creamy to the perfect consistency, with a nice intense corn flavour. My only issue is semantic. This heavy, thick soup is a chowder, not a bisque. Seafood bisque is a flavourful broth concocted from roasting or boiling shells and harvesting the essence held within, but results in a much thinner preparation, in my experience.

Our sandwiches arrive unadorned on plates. Muffaletta is prepared on a large round sesame bun created just for this reason. The sandwich consists of thin layers of deli salami, capicolla ham and emmenthal cheese and is then finished with an olive salad. You need to be an olive lover to enjoy a muffaletta. The flavour is intense green olive. Carrots, pimentos, garlic, olive oil and wine vinegar round out the relish. This muffaletta is a wonderful savoury combination, marred only slightly by the slightly dry bun that was at least a day old — perhaps the reason why Central Grocery is not open on Sundays? I will definitely recreate this classic at home. I adore olives.

Frank’s bustling takeout business.
Olive Salad for DYI Muffs.

Frank's Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Full and satisfied, we spend an hour perusing the French Market aka Touriste Trappe Dat. If you need voodoo dolls, mardi gras beads and masks, cheap purses adorned with fleur de lis, or hot sauce, come on down. We were looking for and found Zatarains Crab boil. We intend to recreate a few memories for friends when we get home.

We decide to hop across the street to Margaritaville (warning chain restaurant alert!) for a marg before heading back to the Monteleone’s rooftop pool and bar. We seat ourselves at the bar and order margaritas. “House?” the barkeep asks and, yes, we agree. One sip and I know I have made a grievous error. I already knew by the colour that it was a sody pop marg. I pushed it aside and asked him for a Landshark. “Don’t like the marg?” he asked. “Too Sweet?” He knew. He tells me I want a Perfect Margarita – it’s not on the menu and it’s strong. I watched as he mixed tequila, fresh lime, triple sec and lime cordial, shook it and poured it over ice in a glass with a salted rim. The Perfect Margarita. It was…especially in a bar where a transplant and a true southerner were willing to talk about the only two subjects that matter: the weather…and hockey.

Met this guy walking back to the car. We hope he’s in retirement from his career as “dog put through the wringer”.  He seemed content to hang outside a bar and enjoy the breeze.

Dinner tonight is at the upscale The Rib Room at the Omni Hotel. I don heels at risk of life and limb. If you have ever visited New Orleans you will understand this risk. Foot cramps in hockey skates are the very least of my concerns at this point. Not breaking an ankle on a sidewalk in New Orleans will be an accomplishment.

The Rib Room is a block and a half  from our hotel. We have 7 pm reservations, but on a Sunday the city is emptying out and reservations don’t seem necessary. The restaurant is old school, upscale, white linens and silver. We ask for a window seat and are seated side by side at an oversized widow over looking Royal Street in the French Quarter. Our server is awesome. A New Orleans native familiar with the food and tradition that is N’awlins. He popped in and out of our evening in colourful fashion.

This traveling minstrel show set up across Royal St. from our window view at dinner. Rob would have put money in the hat to PLAY the guitar, not listen to him play.

I am determined to have a sazerac on this the last evening I am to spend in the city.  I have no idea whether or not I will like it. Our server warns us that it’s strong, beware. Forewarned we sip on. Sazerac is a a slightly sweet summer sipping whiskey drink. On this our first encounter, I can understand the allure. It is powerful, but the edge is taken off and you are lulled nicely.

For an app I order crab cakes. Our server announces that they are 95% crab. Rob orders the turtle soup. The crab cakes are among the best I’ve ever had. They are mostly crab held together by possibly a little egg and a bit of parsley, lightly fried and served on a bed of pickled onion, pepper, and fennel salad…sublime. Crab needs to be the unadorned star of a dish. Crab cannot be just a flavouring or it is lost. The turtle soup, a first for Rob, was tomato-based and meaty, enriched by a table-side glug of sherry.

My entree comes with a salad. The salad is a classic iceberg salad dressed with a mild, creamy blue cheese dressing, with lightly toasted croutons. Rob’s shrimp and tasso ham salad is very good. The gulf shrimp are flavourful and the tasso is succulent and perfectly salty. They are paired with young spinach, pickled onions, creole mustard and a light vinaigrette.

 

Our mains arrive, nicely paced. My shrimp and scallop risotto is well executed. The gulf shrimp are plump and tasty, the scallops are lightly sauteed and perfect. The toothsome risotto is the perfect lightly spiced starchy base for the delicate seafood. Rob ordered braised rabbit, prepared with a light cream, thyme and brandy sauce, paired with perfectly prepared southern grits which complemented the meaty, rich sauce.

We choose to share a Bananas Foster Cream Pie for dessert. The flaky crust and rum soaked bananas bedded on a light cream base is a fine finish to the evening. I ask for cappuccino but the machine is not working. I opt for just regular coffee. Our server conspiratorially nods to his favorite coffee: a blend of coffee, Frangelico, Baileys and B and B. The B and B is just for the hell of it he tells me. How can you turn that down?

Rib Room on Urbanspoon

Now I have to get home on heels on the brutal sidewalks of New Orleans with the pleasant burn of Rib Room off-menu coffee making me a little tipsy. Our sweet server refused to charge us for the coffee (which came in a carafe that contained three cups at least) and told us to enjoy his city. Gotta love the south.

A first: a picture that proves we were there. Just don’t get used to it.

RT2: NOLA – Local flavours

It’s over ninety degrees today in New Orleans. That’s about 40 in Canadian. It’s 3:30 in the afternoon and I am sitting rooftop and poolside at the Monteleone. Bliss. Perfect end to a perfect day that found us breakfasting and strolling in the French Quarter and and exploring the Treme district with a lunch stop at Willie Mae’s Scotch House.

Breakfast was at Cafe Beignet, a few blocks down Royal Street from our hotel. The Cafe is a quaint little place that is so very French Quarter, from the iron scroll tables and chairs, to the stripped awning, to the gold lettering on the door.

Cafe Beignet on UrbanspoonInside there is a virtual trompe l’oeil garden painted on the plaster walls and curved ceiling. The floor is large shards of marble and cement cobbled together like a flagstone patio. The tables inside are awkward tiny affairs with a railing around the edges making it difficult to find space for everything. We opt to eat on the patio where the tables are larger and shaded by palms. Rob lines up and orders for me as well. He knows I want some famous New Orleans coffee and chicory. He brings me back grits and a crawfish omelette, creole hash browns and eggs for himself. We get an order of beignets to finish.

Breakfast was somewhat disappointing. The coffee is served in paper cups not ceramic and I definitely think this diminishes the experience of coffee. It is not how I remember coffee here. It is not Cafe Du Monde‘s coffee. The omelette was the star of this breakfast. It was perfectly cooked and the crawfish were delicate and nicely spiced. There could have been more though. The chunks of fresh green pepper and tomato were also satisfying. Swiss cheese added another layer of flavour. The accompanying white corn grits were bland and unseasoned. I didn’t eat them and if it was my first experience with this culinary delicacy, I would never eat them again. These grits are the reason northerners don’t eat grits. Rob’s Cajun hash browns and andouille sausage was good overall, with the sausage providing the abundance of flavour. The potatoes were run-of-the-mill cubed potatoes but were elevated by the peppers, onions and sausage.

Crawfish omelette.
Creole hash browns with andouille sausage.

The beignets were good but dense and did not possess the delicate airyness of the beignets at Cafe Du Monde. They also do not have a half pound of icing sugar dumped on them and this is quite fine with us.

The cafe boasts a number of friendly sparrows hoping to share your doughnut, but watch out overhead. We both got crapped on. We were also surprised by a visit from a sweet little tabby cat and judging by the size of the bowl of kibble nearby, she is not alone in frequenting the cafe.

After breakfast, we went hat shopping and explored the Treme district (which should be well-known to watchers of HBO’s excellent series of the same name) and the 9th ward. There was still a lot of flood damage and places in terrible shape, although I am sure we didn’t see the worst of it. There was also a large number of new housing areas under development, although we’re sure that they are not affordable to those who had lost their homes to Katrina’s destruction. Five years on, this seems to be more of a man-made humanitarian disaster than anything caused by Katrina’s wake.

One of the good-news stories of the region was about Willie Mae’s Scotch House, named after Willie Mae, a 90-plus year old woman whose restaurant was destroyed by Katrina and with her daughter’s and the community’s help re-opened her doors 4 years later. It is seen as one of the emblematic symbols of hope for many in the neighbourhood and has since been awarded a James Beard Award for southern cuisine and has been featured on Food Network’s Feasting on Asphalt.

Willie Mae's Scotch House on Urbanspoon

Willie Mae’s is on an upswing and very busy this fine Saturday. It’s a sticky kind of joint. Tables are a little tacky to the touch and the floor, well… Anyways, we are here to eat some soul food and floors are not my concern for another two weeks. The staff is friendly and the crowd is mixed but mostly black. Posters adorn the walls featuring black cultural icons like Miles Davis appearing at the Apollo and Charlie Parker performing at Massey Hall, as well as movie posters advertising Spike Lee’s documentaries about post-Katrina life in this district.

Willie Mae’s is noted for its fried chicken and touted as the best in America by the Food Network. A blessing or a curse? The chicken comes in three pieces, a large breast, wing and leg. It is hot and moist, with a lightly crispy, delicate crust, well seasoned and with a mild bit of heat. It is truly excellent fried chicken. The best in America? Even with my limited experience in several Southern states I could not make this pronouncement. I’ve had some damn fine fried chicken in Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Memphis. I expect to have more on this trip as well.

Rob ordered potato salad on the side and I ordered the butter beans. We both ordered a cornbread muffin. Potato salad was yellow and creamy with a slight kick of heat. The butter beans and rice were mildly smokey and excellent. I would go back for those alone. We ended up splitting one muffin. They were sweet and moist but not exceptional.

We opted to skip dessert and head over to Hansen’s Sno-bliz. We discovered Hansen’s on our last trip to the city. Hansen’s is a barely nailed together affair on Tchoupatoulis Street. The flimsy screen door is propped open by a brick and the interior is not air conditioned. It is a family affair and always has been. You choose whatever combination of flavours, made in house, that your little heart desires and they grind the ice and flavour them in front of you as you wait.

Rob ordered a peach cream and blueberry and I opted for a more exotic orange, anise and condensed milk concoction. I won. I was going for creamsicle and tiger tail and I got it. Rob’s was just cold and sweet. This trip unfortunately was not as memorable as the last. Sometimes you should just live with the memory.

Home made syrups!

Hansen's Sno-Bliz Shop on UrbanspoonToday, we think the guy shaving the ice was pushing it through too fast because the line was long. This produced a less than feathery soft result with little chunks of ice in the mix. Not bad by any means but not the velvety smooth, melt-on-your-tongue goodness we have experienced here before. I’d still go back for a lime coconut ginger though.

Dinner tonight is a casual affair. We feel like some seafood so we head to a local favorite, Deanie’s Seafood.

We are seated after a short wait. As we are leaving we hear the wait is an hour and twenty minutes. After being seated, our waitress plunks the oddest “freebie” ever down in front of us. Boiled red skinned potatoes. Hmm. We cut one open each revealing perfectly cooked taters with really creamy, soft interiors. But still they are just boiled potatoes. After taking a bite we realize that they have been boiled in a seafood spice blend. Our waitress tells us they use Zatarain’s Crab Boil. It is different from the peppery east coast seafood boil blends and has a red spicy heat element. At any rate they are completely addictive.

We order beers and choose from the menu. Fried crawfish tails for starters and bbq shrimp pasta for Rob,  flounder stuffed with crab dressing for me. My entree comes with a baked potato which I decline due to the fact that I have just eaten two and a half potatoes! It also comes with a salad. This is the anti-gourmet salad, simple, refreshing, crunchy and nicely dressed. It consists of the much maligned iceberg lettuce, grape tomatoes, cucumber rounds, some shredded cheddar and a really nice, sweet fig and balsamic dressing. The crawfish tails are perfectly fried in a corn batter with no greasy residue. They come with a classic horseradish ketchup based dipping sauce. Crawfish are crunchy with a snappier texture than shrimp but really are unidentifiable flavour-wise from deep fried shrimp.

Service is a tad slow for my liking but our server is pleasant and helpful. Our mains arrive and are placed steaming in front of us. Rob’s pasta was penne switched out for fettuccine, which was a nice choice for this dish. The star of the dish was the sauce. Deanie’s called it BBQ sauce, which it most certainly wasn’t == at least not any variety  we were familiar with. It was a buttery, spicy sauce with a hint of tomato and would have gone well with any fish or seafood, It was not too thick, but coated the pasta and shrimp well. My dish consisted of two nicely broiled flounder fillets stuffed with a well seasoned crab dressing that had a hint of heat. A generous squeeze of fresh lemon brightens the flavours in this dish. All in all, Deanie’s has a medium sized menu of simple but well prepared dishes.

Crab-stuffed flounder at Deanie’s
BBQ srimp penne at Deanie’s.

Deanie's Seafood on Urbanspoon

Tomorrow evening I will put on some heels and risk life and limb, ankles certainly, on the “sidewalks” of New Orleans and we will head to The Rib Room for a more upscale evening.

Bourbon Street – about to let loose!