Cocktails, Cuisine and the Quarter
March, 2, 2018 by Crystal
St. Louis Cathedral
PHOTO: ASHLEE ROBERTS
New Orleans is, without a doubt, one of our favorite cities in America. To many, New Orleans is synonymous with Bourbon Street shenanigans. And while there is plenty of risqué revelry to be found, there is so much more to the Crescent City. With its rich cultural history, old world atmosphere, and brass bands marching through the streets party vibe, it’s the ultimate destination to eat, drink, and be merry. Whatever your pleasure, New Orleans is sure to strike your fancy.
With only three full days, and no shortage of things to eat, see, and do, we had to make some tough decisions. We decided that the theme for this trip would be cocktails, cuisine, and the French Quarter. To get into the spirit (pun intended), we did some research and created a scavenger hunt list of foods, restaurants, desserts, and cocktails that we wanted to try during our stay. We only had two rules: (1) where libations were concerned, we would stick to cocktails and (2) if we came across a confection that was lit on fire tableside, we had to try it!
There was a convention taking place in the city during our stay, so finding a reasonably priced hotel room in the French Quarter was a challenge, but we got lucky with Lamothe House. Located on Esplanade, a lovely, quiet street on the outer edge of the French Quarter, it was a bit further out than we initially wanted to stay. The location worked to our benefit because we walked the entire length of Royal, Chartres and Decatur streets. Had we stayed in the center of the Quarter, it is highly unlikely that we would have ventured that far on foot. Lamothe House was charming, quiet, reasonably priced, well-appointed, and convenient to everything, the perfect home base for our French Quarter weekend.
Tip: The registration desk is located on a second floor that is only accessible by two sets of leaning, and very narrow, winding stairs. The staff members are friendly and willing to help with luggage, but if this could be an issue for you, we highly recommend asking for assistance storing and/or transferring your luggage to your room.
Day 1: Exploring the Quarter on Foot
We took an early flight with the intention of spending our first day leisurely exploring the French Quarter on foot. By 10:00 a.m. we were eagerly waiting in line to begin our scavenger hunt at Café du Monde. The 24-hour establishment seemed to have a daunting line every time we passed by during daylight hours. Brave the line! It moves quickly, and the sights and sounds of Jackson Square are a pleasant distraction. In what seemed like no time, we had piping hot beignets covered in a heap of powdered sugar and chicory-laced café au lait.
We had heard so much talk about Café du Monde that we were expecting to be underwhelmed. We weren’t. Like few things do, Café du Monde absolutely lives up to the hype. There simply is no substitute for the experience. Read our full review here.
Tip : Café du Monde is cash only so be sure to have cash on hand and prepare to be covered with powdered sugar.
Blissfully full of sugar and caffeine, we set out to explore Jackson Square and tour the St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest continually active Catholic cathedral in America. You can take a self-guided tour when the Cathedral is open, from 8:30 am until 4:00 pm daily. For $1.00 donation, we picked up an informational brochure near the entrance. After touring the cathedral, we walked to Royal and Chartres streets for the ultimate antiquing experience. This isn’t like shopping your average estate sale. We’re talking about 18th and 19th century treasures. One particularly stunning clock was listed at the bargain price of $175,000. We felt a little out of place at first. Even though it was probably obvious that we weren’t serious buyers, the staff in every store we walked through were welcoming and willing to share tidbits of information about the pieces we found most striking.
After a few hours of window shopping, we were ready to check another must off the list: oysters on the half shell. Acme Oyster House hit the spot for a late lunch. Acme doesn’t take reservations, so the line was long here, too. Once again, worth the wait! If you’re only here for oysters and a beverage, we suggest sitting at the oyster bar. Service was friendly and snappy. If you can snag a spot near the shuckers, all the better. We split a half dozen chargrilled oysters and a half dozen raw oysters. The raw oysters were refreshing and the chargrilled oysters were out of this world but extra garlicky. You’ll definitely want a breath mint after. If you’ve never tried oysters and you’re squeamish about the idea of a raw oyster, chargrilled is a good place to start. (Orleans Oysters: A Beginner’s Guide) Wash them down with an ice-cold beer.
After a much-needed siesta, we were ready for our first quintessential creole fine dining experience: Arnaud’s. We arrived early for pre-dinner cocktails at Arnaud’s French 75 Bar, the perfect place to try a French 75. Dinner was nothing short of perfection. The dining experience at Arnaud’s set the bar extremely high for the other fine dining establishments on our itinerary and it would not be topped. For starters, we split an order of Shrimp Arnaud followed by Oysters Bienville, Suzette, and Rockefeller. Antoine’s may have the franchise on Oysters Rockefeller, but Arnaud’s Oysters Bienville were the best baked oysters we sampled in New Orleans. For dinner, we split an order of Crabmeat Karen and Soufflé Potatoes, both delicious. For dessert, a Chocolate Toffee Bombe followed by Café Brulot, expertly prepared in show stopping fashion by the Maître D’. If you like orange liquor, the first sips of Café Brulot are heavenly. To read our full review, click here.
We ended a lovely first day with nightcaps and live jazz at the Carousel Bar and Lounge inside the Hotel Monteleone. We were lucky enough to almost instantly score seats at the 25-seat revolving merry-go-round bar where we each ordered expertly crafted Vieux Carré cocktails. Invented in the 1930s by the head bartender at the Hotel Monteleone, the name itself means the old square. The Carousel Bar was the perfect ending to a perfect day.
Day 2: Old River Road and Manchac Swamp
We got an early start for a day long combo plantation/swamp tour booked through Old River Road Plantation Adventure. An early morning walk for a cup of coffee revealed deserted streets, aside from a few locals. If you’re willing to wake up early, it’s a great time to explore the French Quarter on foot and take photos unobstructed by pedestrian and motor traffic. En route to Vacherie, our driver gave an entertaining and informative lecture about the history of New Orleans and the surrounding plantation country, pointing out a few iconic structures along the way. We were the first tour group to arrive at Oak Alley, which meant more than a half hour to explore the grounds sans crowds and ample opportunity to snap photos of the stunning quarter-mile long oak-lined path leading up to the Antebellum period Greek Revival home. After Oak Alley, we visited Laura, an authentic Creole home. The tour of the home is given within the context of stories about the people who lived and worked on the plantation, both free and enslaved. After the plantation tours, it was time to break for a late lunch before heading to the Manchac Swamp.
PHOTOS: ASHLEE ROBERTS
Cajun Pride Swamp Tours provided our tour of the Manchac Swamp. According to the website, Cajun Pride operates in a privately-owned swamp area free from hunters and other boaters that might disturb the wildlife and tours. We didn’t run into any other boaters during our tour and, although it was a bit late in the year for feeding, we did see a few good-sized gators. Our boat Captain was knowledgeable, funny, and kept us entertained with a bevy of exotic critters that he passed around the boat for first-hand encounters. We enjoyed the swamp tour more for the entertainment than for the atmosphere. We laughed until we cried– literally! This is a great option if it’s your first swamp tour or you’re traveling with children. We saw plenty of wildlife and the boats are large enough that you never really feel unnerved. Next time, we would like to visit the Honey Island Swamp on an airboat in hopes of better views of the bald cypress and Spanish moss that Louisiana is known for. The combo tour is a good deal and a time saver, but if we could do it again, we would save the swamp tour for another trip. Besides the fact that lunch was less than stellar, the day was simply too long. We didn’t make it back to our hotel until around 5:00 p.m and it really zapped our energy.
After a nap and a shower we headed to a late dinner at Mr. B’s Bistro. As luck would have it, there was a snafu with our table reservation resulting in a 90 minute wait. We took advantage of the delay and walked to Napoleon House for a Pimm’s Cup. Dinner at Mr. B’s was good but not great. You can read our full review here.
Day 3: The Garden District & Commander’s Palace
On the agenda was a walking tour of the Garden District and Lafayette Cemetery #1 followed by Jazz Brunch at Antoine’s. First stop was Café Beignet for the breakfast of champions: café au lait and pralines. In a rush to catch the St. Charles Streetcar on Canal Street, we took our breakfast to go. In hindsight, we should have taken a cab or an Uber. The streetcars are a great way to leisurely see the city when you don’t have to be anywhere at a certain time. But on this particularly beautiful Sunday, the streetcars were at capacity and running behind. Two Chicks Walking Tours helped us in a pinch and added us to an identical tour that departed a half hour later. We met up with our tour guide in front of District Donuts at Magazine and Jackson. We didn’t have time to eat there, but the food looked and smelled amazing. Definitely a must for our next trip. The tour was interesting, leisurely paced and enjoyable; we highly recommend it. Now that we’re familiar with the lay of the land, we might just do a little extra research, pack a map, and do a self-guided tour through the neighborhood. We’ll also make time for a little grazing and shopping on Magazine Street.
After the tour, we hightailed it to Antoine’s for Jazz Brunch. The Oysters Rockefeller were the bright spot in an otherwise mediocre dining experience. The service was good and the food was adequate, but the atmosphere was lacking. It just didn’t compare to the high standard that had been set by Arnaud’s. You can find our full review here.
After Antoine’s, we walked down to the Riverfront, did a little shopping in the French Market, then stopped in at Toujague’s for a Sazerac. Served ice cold and neat, so the flavor never waters down, it’s the perfect cocktail to sip slowly and savor over a good conversation. After a Sazerac, we were both feeling relaxed and ready for a nap. Luckily, we had a few hours to kill before our dinner reservation at Commander’s Palace, Southern Living Magazine’s pick for the South’s Best Restaurant 2017.
To say we were excited about Commander’s Palace is an understatement. We tried without success several weeks in advance to get a coveted Sunday brunch reservation, but were happy to settle on a late dinner instead. We walked through several dining areas before arriving at our table. We’re happy to report there’s not a bad seat in the house. Every room in the restaurant is beautiful in its own right. Since this was our last night in The Big Easy, we were in no hurry and dinner was a 3-hour affair. We started with two cocktails: a gin-based spin on the French 75 and a cocktail called The Last Word. Neither of us were feeling adventurous enough to try a bowl of their famous Turtle Soup after having been up close and personal with one on the swamp tour the day before, so for appetizers, we split the Smoked Redfish Croquettes and a bowl of the Seafood Gumbo served with crusty garlic bread. Both were delicious. For dinner, we tried the Chargrilled Louisiana Wagyu Beef topped with crabmeat and Pecan Crusted Gulf Fish. We know our steak in Texas, so we were a little hesitant to order it in NOLA. The quality rivaled anything we’ve had in Texas, and the prosecco poached crabmeat topping was a decadent touch. For dessert, Bananas Foster Flambé served up with a side of laughter. The bananas foster was delicious, of course, but the highlight was the side show. When our server lit the flame, a neighboring diner nearly jumped out of his skin. He was a good sport to let us have a belly laugh at his expense. Overall, our meal and the accompanying cocktails and ambiance were excellent. Our server, however, seemed a little inexperienced, so Arnaud’s gets the edge. Next time around we’ll be sure to call as soon as our plans are made to book our Sunday Brunch reservation. Read the full review here.
After a wonderful dinner, we returned for an encore at Carousel Bar. No live jazz this time around, but the bar was no less lively and the Vieux Carré, now our favorite NOLA cocktail, no less intoxicating.
Day 4: Shopping
Chalk it up to the fact that New Orleans is a whirlwind kind of city, but we were exhausted by Monday morning. We rolled out of bed just in time to pack and make our 11:00 A.M. checkout before heading over to Café du Monde for a much-needed caffeine boost. Both still on the lookout for a one-of-a-kind souvenir, we walked along Royal, our favorite street, to take it all in one last time and do some last-minute shopping. We happened upon a store called The Giving Tree Gallery and fell in love with these one of a kind oyster dishes. Even though we were both bordering on food comas, we thought it would be a disgrace to leave NOLA without trying a muffaletta. We stopped into Central Grocery, and split half a muffaletta, which was more than enough for two. With that, we called it a trip.