In Treme, where jazz was born, you feel the heartbeat of New Orleans

By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 20, 2010; F01

On a Friday night in May, the bar at Snug Harbor, a jazz club along New Orleans's storied Frenchmen Street, is packed, filled with the warm thrum of chatter. You sip your post-dinner coffee to summon that second wind for the night as jazz beats, firm and soulful, seep through a doorway at the far end of the room. Onstage is the Chris Thomas King Trio, whose leader was famously featured in the movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" Just beyond the door, people are crowded around little tables, shoulders swaying, feet tapping.

What's in the air is contagious. As the coffee kicks in, you hear your own feet start to tap.

"You want to see New Orleans, just come to Frenchmen Street and walk up and down, listen to the music," says Lolis Eric Elie, a former Times-Picayune columnist and a filmmaker who made the documentary "Faubourg Treme." He now writes for "Treme," the HBO series, named for the historic neighborhood where jazz was born, about the lives of musicians and music lovers in post-Katrina New Orleans. "This is where you want to be."

Visitors have always come to New Orleans for the Creole food; the festive hurricane drinks, hand-held in strolls along Bourbon Street; and, of course, the jazz. In "Treme," however, the iconic in New Orleans is seen through a much more intimate prism. Interspersed among the fictional bars and restaurants that "The Wire" creator David Simon and his team of writers have dreamed up are the real clubs and eateries that locals have sworn by for years. And threaded through the downtrodden cityscape in the series (whose season finale airs tonight at 10) is music.

"In New Orleans, culture bubbles up from the street," says Elie, quoting jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis. "And the heart of the cultural community is rooted in jazz."

We've started our evening at Snug Harbor, which pops up in Episode 6 of "Treme" (pronounced Tre-MAY), the crowded bar front and center as Marsalis's catchy "Twelve's It" skitters across the background. (Marsalis plays at the club on Friday nights.) It's not where the evening ends, however. Outside, Frenchmen Street is bursting with pedestrians. We pile into a cab and make our way to Bywater, a neighborhood on relatively higher ground by the Mississippi River, known as part of the "sliver by the river" that was less affected by the flooding of Katrina.

In the darkness, low houses flash silently by. Just before midnight, this residential neighborhood appears to have already gone to sleep. There is a flash of blue and red neon amid the blackness, however. Pink and green paper cutouts hang like flags off the beams of a squat old building with peeling white paint. A piece of paper tacked up beside the door reads, "Please ring buzzer to enter and show your face in window thanks." But the door opens easily, no buzzer required. Friday is a relatively quiet night, after all: Because of its residential location, there's live music just one night a week -- Thursday -- at Vaughan's Lounge. The featured performer is none other than Kermit Ruffins, a gifted singer and trumpet player who appears as himself in "Treme."

Even without the live jazz, it's clear from sitting at the bar that this little place with festive candy-colored lights has been the setting for some hefty musical moments. One wall is filled with framed pictures of boldface-name visitors. Mick Jagger is one. Wynton Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr. have been known to swing by to check out Ruffins in action. And in the first episode of "Treme," the bar is the backdrop for a funny scene in which Ruffins doesn't recognize a famous face in the crowd who has come to check out him and his band, the Barbecue Swingers. Ruffins is unfazed when told that Elvis Costello is in his audience.

"You going to stand there and tell me that all you want to do is get high, play some trumpet and barbecue in New Orleans your whole damn life?" Steve Zahn's frustrated character says to Ruffins in the episode, after the musician refuses to go talk to Costello. Ruffins simply smiles and says: "That'll work."

"Kermit exemplifies the spirit of New Orleans," Elie explains. "He's a great entertainer. There's something about his playing that's infectious." We immediately make a note to put Ruffins's performance at a Frenchmen Street club the next night on our to-do list.

On the taxi ride back to our hotel, another beacon gleams in the darkness: Cafe Du Monde, the popular 24-hour place famous for its cafe au lait and beignets, fried to crusty perfection and covered in mounds of powdered sugar. (Said beignets also make an appearance in Episode 6 of "Treme.") The call of fried dough as a nightcap is tempting but hard to justify, given that we'd begun that very day with Cafe Du Monde beignets. Another night, perhaps.

* * *

The next day, my husband and I wake up with fried chicken on our minds. Willie Mae's Scotch House in the actual Treme neighborhood hasn't made an appearance on the show yet but comes highly recommended by Elie, among others.

It's unclear what to expect of the restaurant when you first encounter it. It sits on a quiet corner in Treme, across from an abandoned school building with broken windows and a yard laced with weeds. On Saturday morning, the only indication of life at the small white structure is the sizable cluster of people waiting outside the door. Once you walk in, though, any doubts you might have about being there instantly disappear. The smell of fried chicken is inescapable. Not that you want to escape it, really. It's hard not to want this scent to seep into your hair and your clothing and to linger with you for days to come.

Just before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in August 2005, this little eatery, which had been operating for decades, had just started to get national recognition. It had won a James Beard Award honoring small regional restaurants earlier that year, and national media and fried chicken fans had begun to come knocking. But Katrina swept the business off its feet. Owner Willie Mae Seaton suddenly found herself homeless and broke. Then volunteers, a few nonprofit groups and noteworthy names such as New Orleans chef John Besh stepped in to raise money and help resuscitate the restaurant. Today, it's packed into a cozy pair of dining rooms with walls filled with old jazz posters; one touts a 1953 Dizzy Gillespie concert as "The greatest jazz concert ever," and others bear such homespun sayings as "In God we trust. All others pay cash."

The chicken, which many say is the best in New Orleans, has a lovely, airy batter that's crunchy yet light on the tongue, almost dissolving in your mouth as you chew. The fried pork chop is both crisp and juicy. And the sides are equally memorable: Scoops of potato salad, tight and small, come studded with bits of green bell pepper for added kick; butter beans are doused in a hearty blond gravy and perched atop a large plate of rice. The bread pudding, however, is what you might remember for months to come: sweet and custardy with a perfect crust.

Not far from Willie Mae's is another Treme gastronomic institution: Li'l Dizzy's Cafe, a small corner restaurant run by the Baquet family of restaurateurs, which has been serving staples such as gumbo and fried chicken in New Orleans for decades. At Li'l Dizzy's, the eye-popping brunch buffet is what you want. For $15.99 on a weekend day, we get an unending, delicious stream of fried pork chops, fried chicken, collard greens and ham, macaroni and cheese, bacon, sausages and gumbo. And yes, there's an omelet station, too. The bread pudding here shouldn't be missed; in fact, "Treme" tells you as much. In the series's first episode, a particularly litigious lawyer character sits down to brunch at Li'l Dizzy's with two law-enforcement types, takes a bite of the bread pudding one of them has left on the table and pronounces, "Never mind brutality -- somebody ought to get sued over this right here."

Fourteen strips of bacon and a sampling of pretty much everything in the buffet spread later, a walk seems necessary. In some spots, the Treme neighborhood can be a heartbreaking backdrop for a leisurely stroll. Broken glass litters some stretches of sidewalk; convenience stores are kitted out with grilles and bulletproof glass to protect clerks. Along Esplanade, the wide road that cuts through the neighborhood, a handful of boarded-up, tilting houses, some still bearing the massive sprayed-on X's marking buildings that were searched for dead bodies after Katrina, stand out among the stately, beautifully restored homes.

On the edge of Treme, the Ernie K-Doe Mother-in-Law Lounge, which also makes cameo appearances in the show, is hard to miss. Opened by the R&B singer best known for the 1961 hit "Mother-in-Law," the lounge is a burst of color: Murals of the late singer and backup singers painted in bright Kelly green, yellow and purple festoon the building. Purple bathtubs doubling as planters encircle the property.

It's too early for a drink, however, so we cab it over to Cafe Rose Nicaud on Frenchmen Street for an afternoon coffee. Named for a slave who bought her freedom with money she made selling coffee in New Orleans in the 1800s, the cafe is comfortable, bright and also the setting for a few scenes in "Treme." Breakfast, sandwiches, salads and, of course, caffeinated drinks are on the menu.

The highlight of the trip is still to come, however. Late on Saturday night, Kermit Ruffins takes the stage at Blue Nile, a jazz club on Frenchmen Street. He's got some competition for attention that night: Among those dancing in his audience is a large man with a neon-pink feather boa tied around his waist, moving with the enthusiasm of a mad chicken while sipping Bud Light from a 2-foot-tall bottle that he seems to have sneaked into the club. And yet, watching Ruffins is magical. Dressed entirely in white, with a long rosary dangling from his neck and a white fedora perched on his head, he's a magnetic presence onstage even before he puts his trumpet to his lips and starts to play.

He sounds like a modern-day Louis Armstrong. Even if you don't buy one of the CDs that he sells right by the stage, his sound will stay with you for days. And though in "Treme" Ruffins seems uninterested in fame, in real life, the 45-year-old musician is starting to get attention. "I came to Blue Nile because I wanted to see Kermit," confesses Michael Hawkins, who is in New Orleans from South Carolina for a guys' weekend and immediately set about trying to see Ruffins play. "I love 'Treme.' He's awesome in it."

* * *

Outside on Frenchmen Street, an impromptu party has erupted. A brass band is surrounded by a crunch of cup-wielding people who are dancing, drinking, smoking, laughing. It's tempting to join in, but one last pit stop beckons.

In a few minutes, my sister, a friend and I find ourselves sliding into chairs at the Clover Grill, a sliver of a late-night diner on Bourbon Street that's the place to get a massive burger or eggs in the wee hours. In the episode in which Steve Zahn's character emerges from a late-night shift at a hotel, having just been fired from concierge duties, he stumbles upon the group of young tourists who have gotten him canned. They ask him where they can get some breakfast. "Clover Grill," he replies at once. Then, watching them walk away, he mutters dejectedly, "Now where the [expletive] am I gonna eat breakfast?"

The place is filled with locals and tourists, and the burger is as billed: the perfect panacea for any post-clubbing hunger. The crowd is friendly. A twinkly-eyed man asks whether he can join our little group for his final cup of coffee for the night. Crawford Malone, a native New Orleans owner of a wine marketing firm who splits his time between his home town and Santa Fe, considers himself the expert on all things local. He grills us on where we've been and looks pleased as we check off the stops we have made. Bayona, the modern New Orleans restaurant whose James Beard Award-winning chef/owner, Susan Spicer, inspired one of the main characters in "Treme," is a stop that we've unfortunately not had time for. We'll just have to come back, Malone says.

It's getting late, and there are planes to be caught. Malone offers us all a ride, apologizing in advance for his "very old car." That vehicle turns out to be a white 1964 Mercedes, a shimmering, beautiful sight in the dark, silent streets of the French Quarter at 5 a.m.

We climb in, roll down the windows and watch the now somewhat sleepy neighborhood glide by as we trundle toward our hotel. It's a lovely closer -- appropriate even. Hearty soul food, unforgettable jazz, the occasional and surprising kindness of friendly strangers: It's the stuff of "Treme," yes, but also, as it turns out, not too far from the real New Orleans.

Tan is a New York-based writer whose food memoir, "A Tiger in the Kitchen," will be published by Hyperion in 2011.

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