'Big Breakfast and more in the Big Easy'
‘There are no calories in New Orleans,’ smiled our waiter Michael, which was just as well. A French 75 Champagne cocktail and Bloody Mary arrived at the table followed by warm loaves straight out of the oven and a three-course meal - and it was only 9.30 in the morning.
Dating back to 1946, Brennan’s restaurant is an institution and it reopened its doors last autumn following a year-long multi-million dollar refurbishment. Renowned for breakfast, served from 7am, and the flaming rum-fuelled Bananas Foster dessert prepared with theatrical panache by the table, I felt as if I was living the day back to front as I browsed through the expansive menu.
Seated in the beautiful garden room, surrounded by many diners who had dressed for the occasion, it was a wonderfully decadent start to the day. From $39, the a la carte breakfasts feature dishes such as seafood gumbo, artichokes with spinach, bread pudding and crème brûlée, or you can order individual items including oysters, steak, the perennially popular eggs benedict and ‘eye opener’ cocktails. And whilst it might not be to British tastes, a speciality is turtle soup. The breakfast is an undeniable treat, but with amazing dishes and seamless service from the immaculate waist-coated staff it’s worth every penny.
Suitably fortified we stepped out into the sunshine of the French Quarter, where jazz musicians and street entertainers were already out in force. The hub of the main tourist area, it’s the starting point for a visit to the city dubbed the ‘Big Easy’ for its laid-back lifestyle. Here you’ll find a snapshot of everything that makes New Orleans such a fascinating and fun destination.
With one of the most colourful histories of any American state, the largest city in Louisiana was founded by French settlers in 1718, ruled by the Spanish for a few decades and has distinct Caribbean cultural influences. A decade on from the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, it’s also got its sights firmly set on the future with new attractions and boutique hotels.
The birthplace of jazz and the cocktail - credited to the whiskey-based Sazerac first mixed in 1838 - all of this and more can be found in the French Quarter. There are inexpensive fast-food outlets and fine dining restaurants selling Cajun, Creole and classic French cuisine. Southern staples such as shrimp po’boys, generously filled subs, and slow-roasted pulled pork sandwiches are excellent lunchtime fillers. Meander down Royal Street with its antique, bric-a-brac stores and art galleries, buy a second-hand book from the choice of 60,000 titles at Beckham’s Bookshop in Decatur Street or take home a voodoo doll, complete with pins and instructions, from spooky stores that are more about souvenirs than spells.
Streets lead down to the Mississippi, where paddle-wheeler boat trips provide an original way to see a stretch of Ol’ Man River. For another inimitable taste of the south stop by at Café du Monde, off riverside Jackson Square and the French Market. It’s a great place for people watching over a café au lait and beignets, fluffy French-style doughnuts that are smothered in powdered sugar. Take plenty of napkins to avoid looking like a walking snowstorm.
Afterwards we strolled along the modern waterfront where attractions include the Aquarium of the Americas, with a penguin colony and vast Gulf of Mexico exhibit with sharks, sting rays and sea turtles, and Outlet Collection shopping mall. Further along is Mardi Gras World, providing a year-round behind-the-scenes look at the dazzling February spectacle.
Bourbon Street is the nightlife hot spot, where multiple drinking spots include the revolving Carousel Bar at Hotel Monteleone and upmarket Irvin Mayfield Jazz Playhouse. For an alternative night on the town we headed to Frenchman Street, in the Faubourg Marigny district adjoining the French Quarter, which had a more eclectic and authentic vibe.
Don’t miss out on some of the other districts. There’s Treme, America’s oldest continuously inhabited African-American neighbourhood with cemeteries nicknamed cities of the dead due to their elaborate tombs, and the Garden District where grand mansions nestle amongst oak trees. A visit to the New Orleans Museum of Art, surrounded by a beautiful park and sculpture garden, can be combined with the experience of clattering along on one of the city’s historic and inexpensive streetcars, or trams. In the Arts/Warehouse district a highlight is the moving National World War II Museum spread over three buildings.
Our base was the International House Hotel, a cool boutique property occupying a striking Beaux Arts building close to the French Quarter. Decorated with art and furniture reflecting the cultural influences that have shaped the city, a standout feature is the Loa bar where ‘spirit handler’ Alan Walter mixes cocktails in mis-matched vintage glasses that are as unique as ingredients, such as cat nip and bird seed! It would have been easy to settle in for the evening, but we’d booked dinner at SoBou, an equally stylish venue within easy walking distance. Surrounded by walls decorated with glass jars, we were expertly and humorously guided through an imaginative menu and recommended to try one of the best rosé wines I’ve ever tasted. Whatever you choose, leave room for desserts such as ‘pecan pie, not pie’ served in a jar with chocolate topping and peanut butter whipped cream.
Next night it was Cochon, where signature pork dishes competed with fried alligator, catfish and other southern delights. If you’ve got the appetite for everything from new culinary experiences to cultural treasures then New Orleans really is a feast for all the senses.
Jeannine Williamson 10/9/15