From Destinations, Dining, Sight-Seeing, South, Special Occasions, Trips

Visiting New Orleans — Take a Gamble On Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras revelers will soon be jamming Royal Street in New Orlean's famed French Quarter.

Beginning this weekend, thousands of revelers will descend upon New Orleans to take in all that the City has to offer for its famous (some would say infamous!) Mardi Gras celebration.  For those of us who enjoy casino gaming, Harrah’s in New Orleans will be high on the list of places to both see and spend some time at during Carnival Week.  If you haven’t made your reservations, there are still lots of hotel rooms available and lots of fun to look forward to in “The Big Easy.”  Book now & save up to 50% on Hotels in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. Book by 2/23 for travel from 2/13 to 2/28/09.

If you are planning a trip to New Orleans either for the big party or any time at all, here’s a terrific piece on the current state of the town — plus tips on what to do and where to eat — written by one of our most experienced food and travel contributors. (Look for Part II tomorrow!)

It would be difficult to describe to someone who’d never been there, just what New Orleans was like before Hurricane Katrina.  Historically, culturally, geographically, socio-economically, the city was unlike any other in the United States.

Indolently rooted in the past, but always enthusiastically reveling in the pleasures of the present, New Orleans richly deserves its nickname “The Big Easy”. Hear the words Bourbon Street or French Quarter and the mind conjures up jazz, cocktails, great food and good times. (Although the ostensibly well-named Bourbon Street is an homage to the French ruling dynasty not the American liquor.)

It’s the home of Mardi Gras, the greatest party ever thrown (despite the fact the public cannot gain entrance to the balls and soirees given by the insular carnival Krewes).

But who needs private parties when the streets teem with non-stop action; conventioneers, college kids, tourists and every imaginable kind of pleasure-seeker elbowing convivially through the old quarter.  From Preservation Hall to Pat O’Brien’s, happily clutching to-go cups, they looked for and found excitement, adventure and blinding hangovers.  Retail bustled, casinos were packed, and restaurants like K-Paul’s and Emeril’s only took reservations months in advance.

But Katrina and what happened in the aftermath, or more to the point didn’t happen, changed everything.

First there was news of the devastation, then the lack of help putting things back in working order. Little by little reports were made that the city was getting it together — this despite the fact the population was almost halved by the diaspora caused by the destruction. And the people of New Orleans were the city: the heart, soul, brains and brawn that defined it.

Since my first trip there in the mid-sixties, I’ve felt an inexplicable bond with New Orleans that has only strengthened after dozens of visits. I couldn’t bear not to go one more time.

Given the choice between Mardi Gras madness, when tens of thousands of visitors clog the city, or the relatively intimate, locally-driven celebration that is Halloween, I made my reservations for the end of October hence this “trip report” from that time period.

Let’s start with the restaurants.  For the most part, food and dining — always an integral part of the culture — has roared back with old favorites such as Galatoire’s, Antoine’s and Brennan’s in business but minus the long lines of waiting patrons. Some worthy new places have opened, too.

Among the not-to-miss standards are the palatial robin’s egg blue Commander’s Palace in the Garden District across Canal from the Quarter. (City transportation is good. There are abundant taxis; streetcars run along the river bank to downtown and Harrah’s casino; another line runs directly through the Garden District.) Along with Galatoire’s, Commander’s is a bastion of haute Creole food featuring local game and seafood.

Antoine’s is fun from a historic aspect but the food has always been, to put it in gaming terms, a crapshoot. Brennan’s long, boozy brunches courtesy of old-fashioned, formally clad male service are elegantly hokey.

Interesting newcomers include a contemporary Cajun spot called Cochon on Tchoupitoulas Street that’s done up in a trendy rustic-style with exposed brick and pale wood. As the name suggests, pork rules along with imaginative reworkings of local standards. In the re-gentrifying area of Bywater, Elizabeth’s is an always-crowded, oil-tablecloth joint with big flavored food like chicken livers with pepper jelly and spicy duck hash.

Take a miss on the much-hyped Uptown eatery Jacques-Imo’s; it’s crowded, ugly, chaotic and neither the service or food were particularly noteworthy. Fortunately, it’s an anomaly in a town obsessed with its culinary heritage and the pleasures of the table.

Of course, New Orleans is also the birthplace of the cocktail and local bartenders pride themselves on preparing time-honored quaffs like the sazerac, Ramos’ gin fizz and that brunch staple, bourbon milk punch. The Quarter is full of great bars, from the ultra-posh to the endearingly crummy Jean Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop that looks every minute of its 237 years in existence. (Don’t miss the relatively new Museum of the Cocktail.)

The beginnings of jazz can be traced directly to New Orleans at the end of the 19th century. The genre continues to flourish locally along with toe tapping zydeco and Cajun-style music. Along with traditional venues such as Preservation Hall and Tipitina’s, I found the free weekly tabloid a helpful guide to who is playing where.

Harrah’s Casino, the largest in the South, differs little in operations from other Harrah’s round the country. But the huge, circular building has plenty of its own charms including 2000 slots and over 100 table games. These days there’s no waiting for a chance to play. There is also live entertainment and an excellent steakhouse helmed by popular local chef John Besh.

Apart from dining, drinking, gaming and shopping there is a wealth of things to do and see in the area.

Read more in tomorrow’s blog post.

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