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.
Inside 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.
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 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.
Today, 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.
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.