new orleans, post-mardi gras

tomorrow, 2/16/2010, is mardi gras and new orleans will be besieged by its annual drunkfest and revelrous interlopers unlikely to skim the city’s surface–much like austin next month for sxsw–but if you do yourself a favor and wait for all those yahoos to clear out and the trash to be picked up, these are a few of the places and reasons that make la belle dame one of my favorite places to visit.  now, admittedly, i was introduced by an insider and he obligingly took me to pat o’s and franky & johnny’s and some of the other consecrated spots and/or tourist traps that people will tell you are musts, but that was my first visit after which the wheels came off and i really started to get a feel for the city from the inside out, while i retraced steps with him to check out old haunts and favorites he thought i’d enjoy (one of the best ways to travel if you’re with someone who knows you well) .  new orleans is a city best explored on foot, with friends and/or lovers, and with enough time and energy that people start to open up to you because just like any other city with a great underbelly, locals are reluctant to divulge too much at the outset.   you have to court a bit to get your hands on the goods (though none of these places here listed are secrets, either).

i think one of the best things about the city is that ineffable quality difficult to communicate to the uninitiated:  languorous, gentile, sultry, crusty, nostalgic, proud, indulgent, atmospheric, secretive, full of locals likely to catch you off-guard with their knack for dry wit.  i think each trip i made their with my ex consisted of being steadily drunk to varying degrees; i don’t think i ever fully sobered up one day spent there.  so, once you’re done stumbling through the quarter, spread out.  go to the audubon zoo, see a show at tipitina’s, make reservations late enough to accommodate old fashioneds first, if at all.  listen to people’s stories, ride around on a streetcar, stroll around the garden district, and give yourself over to the warm ease that seems to create much of the city’s ambience–and carry an umbrella, because you never know when the skies will open up on you without warning, raising the humidity even more.  do like the locals:  dress up for meals, be polite to strangers, enjoy the open container law, & hit the local watering holes and restaurants because they’re as much the heart and soul of the city as the jazz, cuisine, architecture and vernacular.

1)  the columns hotel’s bar–one of my favorite places to hang out for hours and drink, in the world.  beautiful old hotel, great to stay in, but also a wonderful place to enjoy some cocktails, either out on the front terrace at night or in one of the interior, sunken nooks that seem designed to encourage a little debauchery.  i have spent countless hours here, joyfully lost time.

2)  jazz brunch at the court of two sisters–best meal of the weekend, right, and people will tell you it’s overpriced and not worth the wait but they’re wrong.  i can’t vouch for their turtle soup, but the etouffee or shrimp or crawfish creole omelet are both mighty fine, and their carriageway bar is pretty cool, too, if you don’t find places that gentile too precious.  depends on my mood. (p.s. alternatively, eggs sardou at brennan’s.  top notch breakfast option.)

3) po’boy stop–domilise’s.  arguing about where to get the best one is somewhat of a sport, but this place definitely ranks right up there.  a local institution, not much on showmanship apart for the food on the plate, quite possibly the most unhealthy but enjoyable sandwich you’re going to have.  well, either this or one of central grocery’s muffuletta which i personally like more, but everyone will tell you it’s criminal not to try a po’boy.

4) the napolean house.  one of my other favorite places to wile away the hours.  a 200 yr old landmark that originally housed one of the city’s mayors who offered napolean exile there, refused, but the name stuck and over time it became a haunt for artists and writers.  you can rent a room, too, if need be.  hang out inside and soak up the decor and locals or outside in the garden area if it’s cool enough.  perfect.

5) palace cafe (pic below)–one of the brennan family’s more egalitarian offerings and a solid choice for a great meal.  upscale, but won’t break the bank, refined but not stuffy, both traditional and contemporary.  whatever else you do here, you have to try the white chocolate bread pudding, neither of which i was a fan of particularly before having it here & recipe below.  needless to say, new orleans will send you home fat and happy.  it’s one of the few places i gain weight on vacation, proudly.

White Chocolate Bread Pudding

Serves 12

White Chocolate Bread Pudding
6 C – Heavy whipping cream
2 C – Vitamin D milk
1 C – Sugar
20 oz – White chocolate, chips or small pieces
4 ea – Eggs
15 ea – Egg yolks
24″ loaf of stale French bread (or Fresh French bread, sliced and dried in a 275° oven)

White Chocolate Ganache
½ C – Heavy whipping cream
8 oz – White chocolate chips or small pieces
1 oz – Dark chocolate, grated for garnish

Stir together whipping cream, milk and sugar in a large heavy saucepot. Bring mixture to a boil, then remove from heat and carefully add white chocolate pieces. Allow chocolate to melt for several minutes, then stir until smooth. Whisk together whole eggs and egg yolks in a large mixing bowl. Slowly pour hot cream and chocolate mixture into the eggs in a steady stream, whisking constantly as you pour. Use a rubber spatula to scrape all contents from the warm pot. Set pudding aside.

Preheat oven to 350°. Thinly slice stale French bread and place in a 9″ x 12″ metal baking pan. Pour half of the pudding over the bread and allow to cool for about 5 minutes. Use your fingers or a rubber spatula to press the bread into the pudding so that the liquid is absorbed and the bread becomes very soggy. Pour the remaining pudding over the bread and stir. Cover pan with aluminum foil and bake for 1 hour. Remove foil and bake uncovered for an additional 30 minutes, or until bread pudding is golden brown.

While bread pudding is baking, make white chocolate ganache by bringing cream to a boil in a small saucepan. Remove from heat and carefully add white chocolate. Allow chocolate to melt for several minutes, then stir until smooth.

Warm white chocolate bread pudding can be spooned directly out of the pan, or cut into slices. If serving in slices, chill bread pudding for 6-8 hours to allow to fully set. Loosen the sides from the pan with a knife and invert onto a cutting surface. Cut into squares, then halve squares to make triangular slices. Place bread pudding slices on a cookie sheet and heat in a 275° oven for 15 minutes, or until warm. Serve topped with warm white chocolate ganache and garnished with dark chocolate shavings.

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