Don’t take this as sacrilege, but Tales of the Cocktail® isn’t just about the seminars, classes, libations and parties. It’s also about enjoying traditional New Orleans food and locales while you are in town. After all, you can’t do much on an empty stomach. So, when I was at Tales this past July, I made sure to visit several local dining establishments during the week. Here are a few of my thoughts and recommendations on each.
THU Lunch at Felix’s Restaurant and Oyster House: Most tourist’s flock to the Acme Oyster House (right across the street) and miss another classic oyster lover’s haven. Sure, Felix’s doesn’t have the atmosphere or decor that Acme does, but you don’t have to wait in line to get a seat for 30-45 minutes either. I walked right in to Felix’s during lunch and found a seat at the bar, where I could keep an eye on both the oyster shucker and the bartending. I opted for the classic Bayou Platter Sampler, a trio of red beans & rice, jambalaya and étouffée, along with a Abita Andygator draft. It was plenty filling, and I was definitely entertained by the dynamics of the kitchen staff, wait staff and oyster station maestro. The bartender was one of the hardest working I have ever seen, overseeing the counter, doing back bar, and chatting with the customers making sure they were happy. She got a 25% tip from me for her efforts. Overall, a definite stop for anyone looking for good local food without the frills at lunchtime.
FRI Lunch at Remoulade: I was looking for some grilled oysters and decided to stop at this less upscale sibling to Arnaud’s. The place was quiet, but the host greeted me with a huge smile and asked where I was from. When I mentioned Syracuse, he lit up and said that he knew several people from there. As I usually do when visiting a new restaurant, I asked him what he felt were the best dishes on the menu. Surprisingly, he said that I should skip the oysters until later in the year as they didn’t have nearly as much flavor during the summer months. Instead, he recommended the Shrimp Arnaud which indeed was killer. A simple dish of three jumbo shrimp in a remoulade sauce, I could have eaten at least four servings. I finished with a bowl of the Filé Gumbo and an Abita Amber. Sated, I thanked the host and went on my way, wishing I had tried the oysters as well. I guess I’ll have to visit again this Autumn.
SAT Dinner at Killer Po’ Boys: I met up with some friends for dinner and we all decided to check out this tiny po’ boy restaurant located deep within one of NOLA’s bartenders’ favorite after hours hangout, Erin Rose. Between the four of us who ordered from the kitchen, we each got to share pretty much every sandwich on the menu. Be warned that there are only a handful of tables if you plan on dining in. Our party took up half of the room. The bar serves the restaurant as well, and I ordered a Guinness on draft to accent my meal. Be sure to check out the Jameson Grilled Cheese Po’ Boy. Absolutely luscious.
Drinks at Tiki Tolteca: After our dinner, we all decided to check out a new Tiki bar in the French Quarter. At first I was a bit leery of the idea of New Orleans tiki, but I was pleasantly surprised. The bar is located on the second floor of a Mexican taqueria, so make sure you don’t have too many drinks before you leave. because those stairs are a doozy. The decor was delightfully tacky with a definite mid-century exotica feel. Perhaps the best aspect of the bar is the laid back seating arrangement, which consists of a couch, love seats, and various chairs. Our party was joined by another group we met earlier in the day, and all of us sat around a low rectangular table while we discussed the various merits of tiki. Our group shared an Escorpian Punch Bowl which was more than enough to get us through the evening, while the other group had a variety of tropical cocktails along with an order of Tiki Gummies (Zombies, Mai Tais, and Hurricanes). I finished with a Frozen Hemingway Daiquiri until we all decided we needed to get some shut-eye at 1:00am.
SUN Lunch at Criollo: I was really looking forward to sampling the cuisine and cocktails at the new restaurant built within the Hotel Monteleone. This year, several restaurants teamed up with Tales of the Cocktail to host a number of paired cocktail lunches and dinners. Chef de Cuisine Joe Maynard met with me while I was there to talk about his inspirations behind the three course meal and working with the Carousel Bar’s head bartender Marvin Allen in designing pisco cocktails. Not only was the lunch delicious, but it was a bargain at only $30 for three full-size drinks, an appetizer, a main course and a dessert. Chef Maynard told me the whole concept of the restaurant was to make it as transparent to the customer as possible, so that the guests can see what is happening in the kitchen. Another important aspect is that they source as much of the food from local farms and fisheries as possible. When pairing with pisco, this was somewhat of a challenge, but Chef Maynard told me that he worked with several of his wait staff who came from Latin America and helped him craft the menu choices. The meal included Squid Ceviche, Pompano (a locally available ocean fish) and Pork Belly, and Passion Fruit Creme Brule. Each dish was a treat and the main course was one of the most inspired I have ever had the pleasure of savoring. If you are ever in New Orleans, put Criollo on your short list of “must experience” restaurants. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Dinner at Desire Bistro and Oyster Bar: Many of the seminars during Tales of the Cocktail took place at the Royal Sonesta Hotel, so it was only natural that I check out the hotel’s restaurant. It was a fairly quiet night, but I was far from the only person there for a meal. I was given a seat in the middle of the restaurant where I could keep an eye on everything. I took my time and enjoyed an Abita Jockamo IPA while watching the dynamics of the staff and guests. I eventually ordered the Smothered Catfish Lafitte (creole rice, crawfish and bacon cream, southern greens, fried corn bread) and was greeted with an overflowing platter of food that I could barely finish. The food was quite good, but never quite lived up to the experience I had earlier at Criollo. Still, I was stuffed and ready for an evening in the Quarter.
Cocktails at May Bailey’s Place: My last stop of the evening was at my hotel‘s bar. When I checked in a week earlier, I was given a free drink coupon and decided I might as well use it before I went home. I walked down around 9:00pm and the place was empty except for the bartender and a middle-aged couple at the far end of the bar who were just about to leave. After all, this was Sunday night. But, I looked over the available spirits and asked the bartender for a Sazerac made with Wild Turkey. We ended up talking for over an hour about the bar scene in New Orleans, Tales, and what it was like to work in a hotel bar. I have to say, that she was one of the most interesting people I met on this trip. I came away with a genuine impression that she loved what she did, that it was not just a job to her, and that she had a real heart for the customer. Not only did she have a knowledge and appreciation for the craft of drink making, but she was a true people person. This little out-of-the-way hotel bar, had a genuine world class bartender working behind the stick. After my Sazerac was gone, I had just decided to order a Negroni, when a couple from Australia came in. The three of us ended up talking until 1:00am about everything from hang gliding to modern warfare until I finally remembered that I had to catch a flight back home in a few hours. Well…
MON Dinner at The Landing @ Crowne Plaza Hotel in Kenner I got to the airport on time, but due to the crazy weather we’d been having all summer, my flight kept getting delayed, until finally they cancelled it altogether late in the afternoon. Supremely frustrated, I immediately booked a hotel near the airport and a flight for Tuesday morning at o’dark thirty. The hotel was only a few minutes away by shuttle, and they had a bar and a restaurant. So, life wasn’t all bad. After checking in, I went down to the restaurant and asked for a cocktail menu. Oh. My. God. I was unprepared for the absolutely amazing menu that surpassed 80% of the cocktail menus I have seen in my life time. For those of you who are familiar with The Dead Rabbit’s menu, this was a lite version, but no less impressive. The history of cocktails, sections on each spirit, and a handful of cocktails for each with everything from Jerry Thomas era drinks to new creations inside of a leather bound hard cover 20 page volume. I could have had several cocktails and been happy, but opted for just a few along with the New Orleans Seafood Pasta. It turns out it was an excellent choice. Normally I eschew Italian pasta dishes, but this one was amazing featuring sautéed crawfish, crab claws, oysters I finally had them!) & shrimp over linguini in a herb & garlic white wine sauce. Between the cocktails and the entrée, it was a meal to die for. And who would have suspected this at an airport hotel? All in all, a great way to end my trip to NOLA and a reason to go back again as soon as possible!
Laissez les bons temps rouler!