Skip the Beads, Hold the Bourbon

By Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 10, 2005

Tourism is by far New Orleans's biggest business -- 8.5 million visitors in 2003. Mammoth chain hotels dominate the lower central business district. Conventions and big meetings follow one another like cars in rush-hour traffic. Living in a tourist bubble, partying too much and inquiring too little, you could have a hell of a time in New Orleans and never really experience the actual city at all. Many do exactly this.

But there are better alternatives. This old city on the Mississippi, well established as a debauched playground for the incurably juvenile, is also the most exotic travel destination in the United States. A seriously curious traveler could spend weeks here and not see everything of interest, nor begin to exhaust the city's supply of unusual neighborhoods, good restaurants and clubs, sounds and sights.

The challenge is to visit at an off-peak moment, when the crazed and drunken crowds on Bourbon Street are small and the actual city, a splendid historic artifact, can be discovered and savored. New Orleans should be approached as a cultural oddity that sits alone at the bottom of middle America. It is not part of the stable heartland populated for many generations by the same stock, Americans of Northern European and African origin. Nor does it belong to the more cosmopolitan cities and their modern offspring, the suburban communities accessed by the interstate highway network. Like the Mexican Southwest, Louisiana and New Orleans are misfits.

Partly as a result, New Orleans can quench a traveler's appetite for a "foreign" experience without leaving the country. Here the influences are still more French and Spanish than English. Here the natives really care about good food, still go out to support jazz played in clubs, still take their Catholicism seriously, still flaunt a Creole sensibility that really sets them apart from the rest of us. Here a rich, unique history can still be seen and felt.

History is perhaps New Orleans' greatest attraction. The city is one of those special places that can transport a 21st-century visitor to earlier eras. This time travel is made easier by the history we all sort of know, from Louis Armstrong to Louis Malle, history that resonates when we walk around town. And just by walking, you can sense palpable roots -- old buildings, old families, old recipes and old traditions. Though its modern leaders often sell New Orleans' history short, there is no escaping its influence on the present, beginning with some of the most interesting domestic architecture in America.

Here are four approaches to discovering New Orleans, an arbitrary selection meant to stimulate more reading and exploring.

1. Eat

Etoufee, jumbalaya, gumbo, po'boys, muffalettas, beignets, alligator pie -- New Orleans is a food lover's paradise. I found myself wondering how the locals we saw in restaurants avoided being enormously fat. The signature dishes all reflect the history that has shaped contemporary New Orleans cuisine (as it shaped the city's architecture, sensibility and political culture). The French influence is easily tasted all over town, but so are the Italian, Spanish and German culinary approaches brought here by immigrants over three centuries. New Orleans must be the anti-fast food capital of America.

When I visited with my wife and two grown daughters and their men, our approach was to avoid the famous tourist restaurants (though a few of them are truly historic) and try to sample a range of establishments, from luxe to neighborhood scruffy. Every meal was a good one, from an elaborate dinner at the snazzy New Orleans Grill in the Windsor Court Hotel to a simple comfort-food breakfast (candied praline bacon!) at Elizabeth's in Bywater, east of the French Quarter. Elizabeth's motto could be New Orleans' in general: "Real Food Done Real Good."

One of the places we liked best was Upperline, which occupies an old house on the edge of the Garden District, easily reachable on the famous St. Charles Avenue streetcar. Upperline is a New Orleans institution, presided over by one of the most generous restaurateurs in town, JoAnn Clevenger. She gives her customers sheets of paper with suggestions for other good restaurants to try, bookstores, art galleries, antiques shops and grocery stores.

Better yet, especially for a visitor with limited time, she offers a menu of New Orleans favorites that allows for a broad sampling of the traditional cuisine at just one meal. Upperline's "Taste of New Orleans," a seven-course tasting menu for $35, provides memorable samples of Cajun and Creole cooking. It begins with samples of three delicacies: a duck etouffee, or stew, with corn cakes and pepper jelly; an oyster stew; and a gumbo prepared with house-made andouille sausage. These cousins are all examples of the local dishes that fall somewhere between stews and soups in traditional European cooking. Each has a strong personality; each is awfully good.

Next come two small portions of two other favorite shrimp-based appetizers, fried green tomatoes with a shrimp remoulade, and spicy shrimp with jalapeƱo cornbread. Again, the tastes are strong and memorable. Sixth is a slice of Upperline's justly renowned roast duck with ginger peach sauce, wonderfully cooked with a nearly crisp skin. We don't get duck like this in Washington.

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.

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