Then dessert: warm, dense bread pudding with a toffee sauce. The main ingredient must be butter and the pudding has been cooked for hours, or so it seems. Unfortunately, it doesn't last for hours.
Even farther off the beaten track for tourists is Ralph's on the Park, a handsome restaurant in a fine old structure in the Mid-City neighborhood. This is about 3 1/2 miles north of the French Quarter, easily reached by taxi, in a neighborhood that is part of the real city, not the tourist attraction.
A trombone player performs at Donna's jazz club in New Orleans.
(Chris Graythen - Getty Images For The Washington Post)
Here good food and history are combined. The first restaurant in this balconied, two-story building opened in 1860. In the early 20th century its owner, Frank LaMothe, advertised his eatery in the Blue Book, the directory of whorehouses in fabled Storyville, New Orleans' red light district on the edge of its oldest black neighborhood.
Ralph is Ralph Brennan, a member of the restaurant family whose flagship establishment is Brennan's on Royal Street in the French Quarter, which entertains diners 550 at a time. The smaller Ralph's opened at the end of 2003 and is a big favorite with locals. Nearly every seat appeared taken on the Sunday night we were there.
The chef, who has his own 40-acre farm, offers original variations on familiar New Orleans themes and relies more on the tastes of his ingredients than on the sauces and spices applied liberally elsewhere. His Oysters Ralph were a good example: simple broiled local oysters topped with a little jalapeño cream on a bed of spinach. Delicious. He breads drum, a Gulf of Mexico fish with moist flesh, in buttered crumbs and bakes it to juicy perfection. Desserts are magnificent as well, such as the fresh pineapple crisp, in a butter-crumb crust, with vanilla bean ice cream and a sweet rum sauce.
See the town, and look at it carefully. There is no richer collection of domestic architecture in the country.
If you're making a first visit, start with the most famous bit, the French Quarter, laid out by a French engineer named Adrian de Pauger in 1721, more than half a century before Pierre L'Enfant drew his plan for Washington. With a good guidebook, you can spend many happy hours here. Similarly, the Garden District west of the Quarter, out the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line, can absorb a long day of walking and gaping at Greek Revival mansions built by the newly rich of early 19th-century New Orleans.
But there is a great deal more to New Orleans than these famous areas. We rented a car for two days, which made it easy to look with some care at half a dozen neighborhoods, from Bywater in the east to Uptown and Riverbend (home of Tulane University) in the west, to City Park and Lake Pontchartrain in the north.
I particularly recommend the Tremé District, the old black neighborhood to the north of the French Quarter's eastern half, and Faubourg Marigny and Bywater to the east, along the levee that marks the bank of the Mississippi. (For much of the year, the river is above the level of the flat city; only the levees, giant humps of earth, prevent constant flooding.)
The Tremé District, sometimes called Faubourg Tremé, is the oldest black neighborhood in America. The many free blacks who lived in the city, beginning in the 18th century, migrated to this neighborhood during the 19th. Many owned property -- something permitted to New Orleans' black residents but denied to African Americans in most parts of the country, particularly the South, of course. Until the 1960s, the main thoroughfare, Claiborne Avenue, was a kind of black Broadway, according to Lolis Eric Elie, columnist for the Times-Picayune and a student of his city's past. Lined with fine old trees, busy with commerce and social life, home to restaurants and clubs, Claiborne Avenue was the happening place. Then all this was torn down to make way for an elevated interstate highway, the curse of 1960s-style "progress."
Tremé is still a black neighborhood with an interesting architectural mix. Shotgun houses predominate -- narrow one- and two-story wooden structures whose small ends face the street. The original shotguns had no hallways, just a series of rooms from front to back; the kitchen was usually the last one. Now finely restored and gentrified houses sit cheek by jowl with dilapidated ones.