New Orleans, The Soul of the South

Devastated by Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans is celebrating its rise from the ruins with an endearing spirit, rich culture and all that jazz.

Images of destruction and horror beamed across the world — they called New Orleans the city America, and the world, forgot. Some said it should never be rebuilt; others packed up and left. Many predicted it was the end.

Fast forward seven years and New Orleans is undergoing a revival. Visitor numbers are up, rising 7.7 per cent in the first half of 2011. Airlines are adding flights to cope with passenger demand. New hotels, restaurants and businesses are opening, and even the city’s football team took home the Super Bowl XLIV in 2010. They might call it ‘The Big Easy’, but you can’t deny New Orleans has found a new momentum, lining itself up as one of 2012’s most sizzling destinations.

When the Night has Come

Part of New Orleans’s resilience is that the city always has something to look forward to. If you miss Mardi Gras, there’s Halloween, a literary festival, or a jazz performance. Music lovers don’t have far to go to get into the scene. On every block you’ll find an acapella singing group or a solo saxophonist, guys with guitars or children tap dancing for a dollar. “Listen real close,” one cab driver told me, “you never know if the guy playing on the corner is someone just trying to make a buck, or a big name who loves to play on the street.”

My first gig is at the iconic Preservation Hall jazz club in the French Quarter. Every night the tiny crumbling hall is packed with people sitting on musty floor cushions and wooden benches, while others dance at the back. There’s no bar and all drinks are BYO, making the diminutive performance space all about the music.

Tonight, Tommy Sancton’s New Orleans Legacy Band is headlining. House rules are announced at the beginning of the show — no audio or video recordings, no smoking, no flash photography. “But the flash rule is mainly for the old guys,” the trombone player laughs.

“So we can pap you?” asks a rowdy girl in the audience.

“Absolutely,” he quips back. “This is my good side.”

For a slice of New Orleans night-life, most tourists head to Bourbon Street, while locals congregate on Frenchmen Street in the Faubourg Marigny district, which is lined with quality jazz venues including Snug Harbor, The Spotted Cat Music Club, and Blue Nile. If it’s a Saturday night, chances are the party will already be on the street, with impromptu music, dancing and, of course, drinking.

New Orleans is one of the world’s few places where drinking on the streets is encouraged. Walk into any bar and you could be thinking you’re at McDonald’s, as the bartender asks if your drink order is “here, or to go?” It’s a curious adjustment but the so-called ‘go-cups’ are common in even the most upmarket establishments.

A City Reborn

A local icon, film star and destination in its own right, the high-end Carousel Bar in Hotel Monteleone consists of a French-style carousel with seats that slowly rotate around the bar. Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner were all patrons of the hotel (and often, in Hemingway’s case, of the bar), and the hotel was named a Literary Landmark by the American Library Association in 1999.

Across town, the city’s hotel history has turned a page with last year’s reopening of the Hyatt Regency New Orleans, after a six-year, $275 million ($276.8 million) post-Hurricane Katrina redevelopment, offering an astounding 1193 guestrooms and 18,581 square metres of convention and meeting space. From my room on the 28th floor, I look down at the Superdome. Following a $336 million ($338 million) renovation, it sparkles gold in the morning light, appearing as if it was never damaged. I had expected the level of devastation the city suffered to make Katrina a taboo subject, but people seem to own the experience and talk freely about it.

One place that didn’t go under when the levee broke was Magazine Street, a 9.7-kilometre-long shopping boulevard. I chat to Laura Hourguettes, who owns second-hand fashion boutique Lili Vintage, about the aftermath as she wraps some of my purchases. Her shop was looted, but she was one of the first to reopen after returning to New Orleans with her family.

“I wasn’t going to open and a girlfriend said, ‘Just do it — throw a party.’ So I did, and she brought champagne, and we had National Guard trucks going by and people came in and said ‘Forget all this, I want to buy a cocktail dress’.”

Since Hurricane Katrina, Magazine Street has undergone what Hourguettes describes as a renaissance. Lined with locally owned, one-of-a-kind shops and character-filled cafes, it is becoming increasingly popular to visitors, who combine the chance to shop with visiting the nearby Garden District. Lined with oak trees, the Garden District is filled with stunning 19th-century mansions built in traditional southern style with grandiose columns and meticulously landscaped gardens, bordered with New Orleans’s signature gas-lit lamps.

A Hunger for Life

Of course, 9.7 kilometres of shopping brings on quite an appetite, and I quickly discover New Orleans is the kind of place you need to bring an appetite to.

From beignets (deep-fried doughnuts) to jambalaya (a kind of paella), New Orleans food is driven by local ingredients such as pecans, sweet potato and seafood, and shaped by the cosmopolitan traditions of the city’s European roots. It’s a unique style of cuisine that saw the city ranked by TripAdvisor as America’s number one food and wine destination in 2011.

Tradition plays a big role in the food experience in New Orleans, whether you’re sipping a brandy milk punch at brunch; having your po-boy sandwich ‘dressed’ with tomatoes, lettuce, mayo and pickles; eating the original Oysters Rockefeller at Antoine’s Restaurant; or taking a seat in one of Arnaud’s 17 dining rooms. One restaurant offering a contemporary twist in a gorgeous old-world setting is the Palace Café. I order the locally caught fish coated in thick crust of ground andouille sausage and pan-roasted until it’s crispy, but the menu is filled with delights such as fried oyster loaf, which is fried oysters served on grilled ciabatta bread with melted Saint-André cheese and sherry-tasso cream sauce. Slipping back in for a slice of the cafe’s unmissable pecan pie on a different night, I take a seat at the back of the restaurant, where a glass wall into the kitchen allows you to watch the expert preparation of the contemporary Creole cuisine.

The real gourmet show, however, is at Brennan’s, home of the Bananas Foster. Made from bananas, vanilla ice-cream and buttery sauce, the dessert is flambéed by the restaurant’s white-linen tables in spectacular style.

Sunday brunch at Brennan’s is a New Orleans institution and embodies a sense of occasion lost to most modern dining establishments. Part of that is easily attributed to the exceptional staff — Brennan’s executive chef Lazone Randolph has manned the restaurant since 1965, and many of the waitstaff have also worked at the restaurant for decades, displaying genuine pride in their work. And that seems to be the key difference to the hospitality I’ve experienced elsewhere in the world — in New Orleans people take great pride in welcoming an outsider and making them feel like they belong.

It’s a sentiment shared by JoAnn Clevenger of Upperline Restaurant. Upperline is located uptown and is home to one of the most important collections of regional art displayed on its dining room walls and shelves. Every conceivable surface in each of Clevenger’s three dining rooms is covered in artwork, including the canvases stacked four-deep along the walls.

“Restaurants should restore people, not just your physical needs but your spirit,” Clevenger says, as she places fried green tomatoes with shrimp remoulade in front of me. But it’s the Louisiana blue crab gnocchi with asparagus, preserved lemon and tarragon for which I fall.

Clevenger sits with me as we try to put our fingers on what makes New Orleans special. “The food and art and music and architecture attract the most interesting characters, and that’s the key to it all. There’s an interaction with others — we stimulate each other. There are few places in the world like that.”

And that’s the one thing about New Orleans that perhaps can’t be debated: its people, and their resilience and incredible lust for life — despite their hard knocks, poverty and even hard partying reputation. It just goes to show, you can’t beat down the spirit of this city.

Festival Fever

Expect lots of glitz, little sleep and the time of your life at the Mardi Gras carnival.

There’s no other party in the world like Mardi Gras in New Orleans. For the three weeks before Lent, Mardi Gras ‘Krewes’ (carnival organisers) stage daily parades with elaborate floats. Revellers are masked, cinnamon-flavoured celebratory king cake is shared among friends, and masquerade balls are held throughout the city in a tradition that dates back to the 1700s. If your visit to The Big Easy falls outside of carnival time, there are still ways to get a taste of the city’s biggest event. Arnaud’s Restaurant has a Mardi Gras museum with a fantastic collection of dresses and regalia, while Antoine’s has memorabilia displayed in glass cases. Not to be missed is Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World, where most of the festival’s spectacular floats are handcrafted and stored.

Words by Shaney Hudson - Published in Voyeur February 2012
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