Cafe du monde, central market, Compère Lapin, Frenchmen Street – NOLA

I finally got my bearings after finding my way out of this massive hotel and into the French Quarter. It was harder than you’d think but only the first few minutes because of the strange way the hotel entrance is situated plus construction everywhere. I ended up at first behind the hotel on the Mississippi riverfront, where an old fashioned cruise boat was parked.

Once I emerged from the walkway, I found Canal Street and walked away from the river north a few blocks and hung a right on Decatur Street. In a few minutes I was in The French Quarter, in Jackson Square, in St. Louis Cathedral, all of which were particularly clogged with tourists, many wearing Saints gear because there is a big football game here today, at another massive structure near our hotel, the Superdome.

I stood in a fast moving line outside Cafe Du Monde and sat happily in the small original space at a little table, sipping delicious cafe au lait and eating warm beignets drenched with fluffy white confectioners sugar. The place was packed and I was impressed with how quickly the servers in their paper caps got us all fed swiftly. I was glad I had a little cash since the place is cash only.

As I left the cafe, a brass band was playing “Oh when the saints” while bystanders in Saints shirts boogied and cheered. I do love the spirit of this city. I wandered further east, crossing Esplanade Avenue and glancing not too fondly at The Frenchmen Hotel, where we stayed 7 years ago. Not the best experience. Walking up Frenchmen Street to dip briefly into the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood, I looked at the lineups listed at the music clubs, seeing famous names like Neville and Marsallas. Charmaine Neville is still singing at Snug Harbor, where we saw her in the late 1980s.

I tried to avoid Bourbon Street but had to cross it a few times to get to other streets like Royal, Chartres and Dauphine. As always, the architecture in the French quarter and Faubourg Marigny neighborhood is a charming eyeful. Brick mansions with elegant wrought iron balconies, small whimsically painted wood cottages, Creole plantation houses but I didn’t find the shops or galleries particularly interesting. What I liked best were the quiet residential streets, where the loveliness of the architecture and landscaping is not marred by tacky shops and loud bars.

Lunch was a “half” muffuletta at the wonderful old Italian grocery store where the sandwich was invented – Central Grocery. I didn’t realize before this visit that there is a counter at the back where you can sit and eat. I happily sat elbow to elbow with strangers, watching a football game on a TV (not the Saints) and eating one half of my half sandwich, which was enormous.

Dinner, by design, at Compere Lapin, was very different from last night’s. Warehouse district (a six minute walk from our hotel) rather than Uptown/Carrollton; large and lively exposed brick space, attached to a hipster hotel vs. small and intimate in an old house on a quiet street. And the food was sort of bizarre, but it generally worked. The chef is from St.Lucia so there is Caribbean influence (coconut milk, bananas) but mixed with New Orleans, French and Italian notes. The waitress talked us into getting a goat curry with Thai flavors, cashews and gnocchi made with sweet potatoes (but fortunately not sweet tasting ) that was superb and completely original. The black eyed peas were also unusually prepared, with bacon and crispy fried Onions.

The desert was really odd. A soursop (a tropical fruit) semi Freddo (sort of a small log of iced creamy stuff) with coconut and yogurt topped with crumbled white meringue and a peel of cucumber. It was light and refreshing and sort of sweet. We were less impressed with the tuna tartare, which I usually love. It was too slimy (prepared with a spicy chili oil, I think) and the much lauded conch croquettes were ok. We sat next to several parties of happy New Orleans Saints fans whose team had just won a big playoff game at the Superdome a stone’s throw away. We watched part of the game in the hotel bar which was fun but a friend reported that the scene was really crazy at another local bar and we saw plenty of drunk folks when we walked back to the hotel after dinner. Fun day, fun city.

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