Marnay and I just got back from an incredible Spring trip to New Orleans. It has been so cold here in the DC area (we had a snow day the day before we left!) so it was nice to escape to the sun and warmth. This wasn’t a relaxing by the pool vacation, though; this was a foodie exploration.
We stayed in an Airbnb in a high rise right downtown. I would call it the business and hotel district, just outside the French Quarter and the Warehouse District. That meant that it was centrally located, with easy access to public transportation and bikeshare bikes, but not as hectic as other areas. This is a good tip if you plan on using public transit on vacation: Most cities’ public transit systems are designed to start downtown and radiate through the city. (A hub and spoke system) That means that you would get the most “bang-for-your-buck” and have the easiest time getting around if you stay downtown.
We landed around 6:30 on Thursday and took a Lyft to our place. It was beautiful! We barely dropped our suitcases off before heading out on our first adventure. New Orleans public transit (buses and streetcars) have a three-day unlimited pass that you can purchase on your phone. When you wanted to board, just show the driver your phone and you are golden. It makes using public transportation in an unfamiliar city so much easier. We took the 88 bus to Bacchanal, in the Bywater neighborhood, which a few days earlier had been named a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award for Best Wine Program.
At Bacchanal, every day feels like a back-yard party. First, you enter through the wine store, a wooden shack, where you can pick out a bottle of wine. Next, grab some wine glasses and head to an outdoor table to enjoy and watch live music on the stage. When you’re hungry, head over to the kitchen window and order from their selection of small plates. Grab a number and they will bring your food to you.
Marnay and I hung out at the standing room ledges, under a gnarled old tree and just to the right of the stage, drinking our bottle of rose from the Bandol region of France. Roses from Bandol are known for being heavy duty wines, earthy and almost like a red. It was a touch chilly for a late March night, so the Bandol rose was appropriate. To eat, we enjoyed radishes with whipped butter and crusty bread, head-on Gulf shrimp and praline pecan panna cotta. Amazingly, the kitchen was able to pace out our meal even though the place was so crowded.
The atmosphere was amazing. The back yard at Bacchanal really felt like a chill outdoor party. Even though it was crowded, we never felt overwhelmed and could have hung out there for hours. Alas, it was getting late and we needed to get some sleep for our first full day in New Orleans.
Good Morning New Orleans! We slept well and woke up ready to explore. The high-rise condo building we were staying in had an excellent coffee shop named Merchant on the ground floor. I really needed a pick-me-up, so I got a double espresso; this ended up being my daily New Orleans morning tradition for the rest of the trip. We took the 48 streetcar through Mid-City and up to City Park, which I would compare to Central Park in New York or Druid Hill Park in Baltimore. We were not only checking out the park for its natural beauty – we were in search of beignets. We found them at Morning Call, a New Orleans institution. It is a casual sit-down place, but they had no problem with us ordering only beignets.
The beignets were hot and fresh and there was sugar on the table so that you could dust just the right amount on top. Of course, I got a café au lait with that famous chicory coffee. It was a lot of work to put the powdered sugar on ourselves, but it was worth it!
After eating, we slathered on sunscreen and picked up Blue Bikes (New Orleans’ bikeshare system) and biked on along Bayou St John to the beautiful Lafitte Greenway, which looked like a highway for bikes, it was so straight and flat. Our destination: Willie Mae’s, the legendary fried chicken spot. We went in knowing that the place would be jumping (there’s always a long line) so we did not mind when we had to wait outside for 40 minutes. Once we made it inside, we were starving. I will skip to the good part: the fried chicken was amazing, the best we had ever had. The secret was the spicy wet batter, which lingered under the skin. Even the white meat was tender and juicy, which I find is rare in fried chicken. Willie Mae’s was incredible!
After eating all that fried chicken, we took the streetcar home and took a nap. But when we woke up, we had plenty of time before our 8:30pm dinner reservation at Commander’s Palace. We walked over to Compere Lapin, located inside the boutique Old No. 77 Hotel in the Warehouse District. Besides being a name of the restaurant, Compere Lapin is also the name of a traditional Caribbean tale involving a mischievous rabbit. We only came for drinks, but they were two of the more visually stimulating drinks we have ever had: One is in a copper bunny and the other has a bunny stenciled on top!
We unexpectedly still had some time before dinner, so we took a Lyft to Cure, one of the best cocktail bars in the country. At Cure, we did “the Sazerac test”. Their bonded Sazerac is $20, while their regular Sazerac is $6. We ordered one of each and tried them side by side. The verdict: The $20 Sazerac is worth it! While the $6 is a steal, the bonded Sazerac had incredible depth of flavor.
Commander’s Palace is one of New Orleans’ oldest old school restaurants – it’s been open since the late 19th century. It’s also one of the few restaurants in the country that requires jackets for men. The chef continues to serve classic Creole food that pushes boundaries while celebrating the past. Our best bite was the Louisiana white shrimp and tasso ham henican with okra, pepper jelly and a Crystal hot sauce beurre blanc, one of their signature dishes. When we were finished, we used the crusty bread the scoop up the pepper jelly. Keeping with the Creole them, we also ordered the crawfish tail gnocchi, which came with a whole crawfish on top. We rounded things out with the Commander’s Bread Pudding, “The Queen of Creole Desserts.” Hoo boy, did it taste like whiskey!
Note: We divided our New Orleans Recap into two posts. Click here to read Part 2!