New Orleans Second Line

Jazz grew up in a thousand places, but it was born in New Orleans. — Nick Larocca

On my recent stay at the Royal Sonesta in New Orleans, this second line passed right under my balcony on Conti Street, making its way to Bourbon.

You know, just a Tuesday in the Big Easy…

And yes, I admit it: I was less than steady with the camera work. It may or may not have something to do with a Sazerac.

Royal Sonesta New Orleans

America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland. — Tennessee Williams

I love New Orleans, and since my daughter lives in the area, I have a built in excuse to visit the city. To see her, I mean.

Of course.

Anyway, I’ve been searching for a home base: a hotel that’s in the French Quarter, feels safe, and is also a lovely place.

That search ended when I entered the Royal Sonesta hotel.

RSNO-Lobby-845x667.jpg

Nestled between Bienville and Conti streets, the hotel faces Bourbon Street, giving it one of the most sought-after addresses in the city.

The Royal Sonesta is nothing like the loud, raucous world right outside the front door, however; it’s elegant, refined, cool and quiet, with a beautiful and spacious lobby and a lush courtyard.

One of the best parts of this hotel is that many rooms open onto balconies. Looking for the all-night party vibe? Get a room overlooking Bourbon Street. Want something a bit more sedate? Try a balcony along one of the side streets or one that looks over the interior courtyard.

I chose a side-street balcony above Conti street and could not have been happier with my choice.

How’s this for classic New Orleans?

IMG_7060.JPG

First of all, despite being within eyeshot of Bourbon Street, the side street-facing room and balcony were remarkably quiet and relaxing. 

The balconies are also gorgeous, as you can see, with lots of iron filigree and a white painted roof. There’s not much furniture, just the green plastic chairs you see here, which are comfortable enough for lounging in the Louisiana heat.

IMG_7063

Now one thing about the balconies: You’re likely going to share them with your neighbors. There are some rooms with private balconies, but I believe most balconies are shared every two rooms or so. I was a bit nervous about this, but after a brief hello, I never really even saw my neighbors out there and I didn’t hear them at all.

I also felt very safe, partly because the doors have heavy locks. Still, if this makes you uneasy, you might try a non-balcony room. Which is fine, because…

This is the best hotel room I’ve ever been in. Not even kidding.

The decor, the comfy bed, the quiet…it was just all around perfect. And while I know this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, it was also dark and the air conditioning could go pretty low, which is exactly how I like it. I had the best sleep of my life in this room.

IMG_7064

They also had the nicest coco-mango scented shampoo, conditioner and bath gel. I wanted to eat it. (I didn’t.) You can also buy it on Amazon.

IMG_7089.jpg

Now, all of that said, there are a few reasons this might not end up being your ‘best hotel room’ ever, the first of which I mentioned above: It’s pretty dark.

Another reason is that these rooms are small.

See the photo above? That’s pretty much the size of the room. Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration…but not by much. Truth is, this is an older hotel (celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2019) and rooms were smaller when it was built.

Now, this was fine by me. I’m used to small hotel rooms in the classic, older San Francisco hotels, and I was alone. If you have a family or expect more space, you should plan accordingly.

However, if you choose another hotel, you won’t get to see sights like this going by right below you:

IMG_7053.JPG

A few more things to note…

While I didn’t eat there personally this time, the Royal Sonesta has a very highly-regarded restaurant: Restaurant R’evolution. They not only have classic New Orleans dishes (like their gumbo “three ways” – with roasted quail, andouille and oysters), but classy fare such as high-end steaks, fine cheeses and their “caviar staircase.” They also serve a jazz brunch on weekends.

I’m definitely planning on a reservation for my next trip: They had me at caviar staircase.

In addition to R’evolution, the hotel also boasts Desire Oyster Bar, which opens onto Bourbon. (They serve oysters. FYI.) The Jazz Playhouse is also a great place to knock a few drinks back and listen to some smooth jazz.

I highly recommend the Royal Sonesta. It’s New Orleans at its finest.

Royal Sonesta New Orleans
300 Bourbon Street | 504-586-0300

 

 

Cafe Beignet

Cafe au lait makes it possible to get out of bed. Beignets make it worthwhile — Anonymous

It’s the one thing about New Orleans that people universally agree on:

You need to try the beignets.

These puffy pillows of fried dough drenched in powdered sugar are practically synonymous with the city, as is the cafe au lait made with chicory coffee they’re usually served with.

So, most newcomers dutifully tramp over to where all the blogs and brochures point them: Cafe Du Monde.

0.jpg

There they stand, sweating, in a line that can stretch blocks (not even kidding); a line that is basically a gauntlet of panhandlers and grifters. And they stand in that line either because they’re determined to grab one of the few tiny, cramped tables, or because they don’t know that there’s actually a to go window and they don’t have to stand in the line at all.

That is, by the way, the only way I’ll go to Cafe Du Monde:

Simply bypass the line, slip under the awning and through the gift shop with its piles of golden boxes filled with pralines to the window at the very back. You can get all the cafe au lait and beignets your heart desires, right there, and then take your bounty over to Jackson Square.

0-2.jpg

But if you want beignets that are just as good without the tourist trap?

Go to Cafe Beignet.

There are three locations: one on Royal, one on Decatur and my favorite: tucked away in Musical Legends Park on Bourbon, across from the Royal Sonesta hotel.

IMG_7072.JPG

Not only is this little jazz courtyard lovely and open and usually not crowded, there are almost always live musicians playing New Orleans jazz. (See the trombonist above in the lefthand corner as evidence.)

As you can see above, the Cafe Beignet counter is straight ahead when you enter the courtyard from Bourbon. You can walk up there, order and have your beignets delivered to your table. They also usually have people stopping by the tables to take orders. There’s a full bar, too, something of which Cafe Du Monde can’t boast.

And the beignets and cafe au lait?

IMG_7076.jpg

Perfect.

In general, Cafe Beignet is a much more civilized way to get your beignet fix. So, if you want an authentic New Orleans beignet without the hassle and bustle of Jackson Square, head over to one of Cafe Beignet’s three locations in the French Quarter.

Just don’t wear all black, and then sneeze just as you bite into one.

Ask me how I know.

Cafe Beignet
311 Bourbon St. | 334 Royal St. | 600 Decatur St.

 

Arnaud’s

Work is the curse of the drinking class. –Oscar Wilde (from a napkin at Arnaud’s French 75 Bar)

I have eaten a lot of amazing meals in New Orleans. Arnaud’s beats them all.

I started off in the bar, sitting in a leopard print chair and sipping one of the place’s namesake champagne and cognac cocktails. (That sentence, by the way, is the definition of ‘winning at life’.)

0

If you, however, are nowhere near Arnaud’s French 75 Bar and its fanciful chairs, Saveur has the recipe.

I was then led to a dining room that can only be described as magnificent:

IMG_7115

0.jpg

IMG_7121.JPG

Once seated, I was presented with a paper menu much more low-key than the meal that would follow.

IMG_7118

IMG_7119.JPGI visited in the summer, so while the signature dishes won’t disappear, others will change with the seasons.

I was greeted with a hot, freshly baked baguette, and was encouraged by my waiter to just “get in there and tear it up!”…which I did. No butter necessary.

0.jpg

My salad was a special for the night: the first Creole tomatoes of the season, lightly dressed with lemon, olive oil, salt and pepper and sprinkled with chiffonade basil.

If tomatoes could be a religious experience, these were it. I’ve never had tomatoes like these in my life.

IMG_7127.JPG

My next course was the restaurant’s signature souffle potatoes served with béarnaise sauce. According to the menu…

Legend has it that Collinet, French King Louis Phillipe’s (reign 1830-1848) chef unintentionally created soufflé potatoes by plunging already fried potatoes into extremely hot oil to reheat them when the King arrived late for dinner one night. To the Chef’s surprise and the king’s delight, the potatoes puffed up like little balloons.

IMG_7131.JPG

The maître d’ rushed over when he saw me taking pictures, and urged me to not let them go cold. Not much chance of that.

One note: These are served in the bar, too, and if there’s any bar food that would go better with a French 75, I don’t know it.

For my entree, I chose the filet mignon Charlemond: grilled center-cut filet in a rich mushroom sauce, topped with béarnaise sauce. If this seems like a lot of béarnaise sauce for one meal, it was not, it was not. I could have bathed in the stuff.

IMG_7135.JPG

I stuck with the house speciality theme when choosing dessert. Strawberries Arnaud is simply fresh strawberries marinated in port wine and served with French vanilla ice cream and whipped cream, but that hardly does them justice.

And how cute is that tuile cookie spoon?? It was as delicious as it was adorable, and it was pretty adorable.

0-1.jpg

This meal was perfect from start to finish. The food was simple but perfectly prepared, and the service was that formal yet down to earth style that New Orleans does so well.

When I left, I told the manager that he had beaten out Brennan’s for my favorite restaurant in New Orleans, and he shook my hand with a triumphant look on his face.

Arnaud’s
813 Rue Bienville, New Orleans | 504-523-5433

Breakfast at Brennan’s

We have a saying in our family: ‘When you die, see you in the saloon in the sky.’ And that’s where I’ll be. — Ella Brennan

I will admit right up front that there is a reason that some of the photos in this article are a bit, shall we say…fuzzy.

I had three cocktails with breakfast.

Let me repeat that: I had three cocktails…with breakfast.

I suppose there are other restaurants in the world where you can get away with such utter indulgence at the most important meal of the day, but I doubt any regularly do it with such panache – and make you feel so good about it – as Brennan’s.

Here’s the first of my trifecta of breakfast lushness: Brennan’s milk punch. I believe I had one each of the Caribbean milk punch (with Mt. Gay Black Barrel rum and Buffalo Trace bourbon) and Brandy (with…brandy). But honestly, who knows?

0.jpg

I’m fairly certain, however, that this photo is of my second milk punch, and that I’d already sucked this one halfway down before I thought to take a picture. This is of many “artsy” shots I took on this particular morning.

Oh, and that’s freshly grated nutmeg, not black pepper.

We might as well get the third cocktail out of the way now, since I have no idea at what point in my three course breakfast (three course breakfast!) this arrived.

0-5.jpg

Truth is, I can’t remember exactly what it was, except that it was not the Irish Coffee it appears to be. Or it was, but with a Brennan’s twist. I want to say it had amaretto in it, but it doesn’t appear on the online menus. I do know that whipped cream on top was flecked with real vanilla beans.

What I do know is that the waiter talked me into it (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it) and it was delicious.

Let’s get to the actual meal, shall we?

I was seated by the window overlooking the lush courtyard, where sometime during the boozefest that followed, I took this “artsy” photo:

IMG_7171.jpg

I kicked off my breakfast with the most amazing version of ‘strawberries and cream’ you could imagine. The Louisiana strawberries were served atop vanilla yogurt, drizzled with basil oil and sprinkled with poppy seeds.

It sounds odd, but it absolutely works.

0-2-1.jpg

My main course was a house specialty, Eggs Sardou, described in the menu as: housemade English muffins, coffee cured Canadian bacon, hollandaise, and Marchand De Vin sauce.

0-3.jpg

What they are is the best version of Eggs Benedict I’ve ever put in my mouth (and I’m something of a connoisseur).

I’m also a connoisseur of grits, and the side of Georgia cheddar grits I ordered was so good I ate nearly all of them, even though I really did not have room.

0-4.jpg

Speaking of not having room, what would a leisurely breakfast be without dessert? Strawberry sorbet over fresh fruit. I ate every bite, too.

0-6.jpg

I might have needed a wheelbarrow after my three course, three cocktail breakfast, but it was very worth it.

If Ella Brennan’s ‘saloon in the sky’ is anything like this breakfast, hopefully you’ll see me there, too.

Brennan’s
417 Royal Street, New Orleans | 504-525-9711

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mr. B’s Bistro

New Orleans food is as delicious as the less criminal forms of sin. — Mark Twain

I’ve eaten some amazing food at the most amazing restaurants in New Orleans. I’ve dined in elegant, centuries-old dining rooms that made me feel like a pompous aristocrat. I’ve had service on par with the best in the world, and yet that still left me feeling comfortable and welcome.

Mr. B’s was, sadly, not one of these. I felt ignored and forgotten. When I finally left the bar to find out if I’d ever be seated, I was shoved into a tiny table right in the center of the busiest thoroughfare in the restaurant.

Which is all to sound as if I’d never come back to visit Mr. B’s Bistro, but au contraire: This is the first place to which I plan to return. Why?

Because when I close my eyes and dream of what I ate in New Orleans, I always come back here.

This was, hands down, some of the best, most memorable food I’ve had in the city.

I started off at the bar, as I mentioned, with the restaurant’s signature drink: the Orange Julius. This isn’t your local mall’s Orange Julius let me tell you.

IMG_7226-1.JPG

It was delicious but since one of the main ingredients is vanilla ice cream, I switched to a blood orange margarita next. (Also delicious.)

0.jpg

Since I was in New Orleans just as the Creole tomatoes were coming into season, many restaurants had specials featuring them, and Mr. B’s was no exception. Theirs were thick-sliced, drizzled with aged balsamic and scattered with shaved parmesan. They were mind-blowingly good.

IMG_7239.JPG

But this…this is what haunts my dreams at night:

0-1.jpg

Bacon-wrapped Shrimp and Grits

This is Mr. B’s best-known dish and for good reason. The huge Gulf shrimp are wrapped in pecanwood-smoked bacon, served over creamy yellow grits and drenched in red-eye gravy.

A closer look:

0-8.jpg

This may have been one of the best dishes I’ve ever eaten.

It would be very difficult to top the shrimp and grits with dessert. Then in steps the other Mr. B’s cult favorite: Profiteroles with chocolate sauce and vanilla ice cream.

0-9.jpg

Simple dishes like this have to be done well to be memorable, and these profiteroles were done very, very well.

In short, Mr. B’s can put me at any table they like and I will gladly hang out for hours at the bar, if it means I can make my bacon-wrapped shrimp and grits and profiterole dreams a reality.

Mr. B’s Bistro
201 Royal Street, New Orleans | 504-523-2078