Tales of the Cocktail Recap Part 1
Tales of the Cocktail Recap Part 2
Tales of the Cocktail Recap Part 3
I had never been to New Orleans prior to going down for this year's Tales of the Cocktail, so when it came to deciding where to eat and drink (which are always my top priorities when traveling), I knew I'd have many choices, and that I had to play my hand carefully. So long before it was even time to pack my bags, I began compiling a list of places that were said to be the best of the best, culled from a combination of trusted food and drink sites (such as this one) as well as personal recommendations from epicureans whose tastes I've come to respect. Plus I'm fairly savvy at separating the tourist traps from the locals' favorites (Emeril's name was nowhere to be found), so I felt pretty good about the list I compiled, which was a rather long one.
Of all the places in which I ate and drank, there were a few select standouts, both good and bad. Here's a roundup of those places that were good, bad, and just plain meh, purposely excluding anything consumed at various Tales seminars and events because I wanted to focus squarely on the food and drink of institutions within New Orleans.
We stayed at the Windsor Court Hotel, and situated conveniently across the street from us was Mother's Restaurant, which I'd heard nothing but good things about, especially regarding their not-to-be-missed breakfast. Above is a plate of their special baked ham, potato salad, greens, and beans and rice with gravy and meat.
I guess it was time for Sadie Hawkins or something, as both my brother (left) and brother-in-law (right) wore the same shirt to breakfast, apparently unplanned. What a cute couple.
Verdict: Mother's was great, and will be visited again next time I'm in NOLA. The crawfish etoufee is a must have, be it in traditional (above) or omelette form (below).
Fellow booze blogger Fredo Ceraso of Loungerati joined us as we set off to dine at what was perhaps everyone's most anticipated meal, dinner at Cochon. Here, Chef Donald Link works wonders in this shrine to all things pork. But pork's not the only highlight on his menu, as dishes like wood-fired oyster roast and fried alligator with chili-garlic aioli threatened to unseat the namesake dishes. For entrees, both Fredo and my brother ordered the Louisiana cochon with turnips, cabbage & cracklins; my brother-in-law got the rabbit & dumplings; Vanessa ordered the smoked beef brisket with horseradish potato salad; and yours truly nearly got a boner when I saw the ham hock with sweet potatoes, pickled greens & black eyed pea ham broth on the menu, so that's what I ordered. The ham hocks were actually fried and served osso bucco style.
All the dishes tasted great, but I have to admit that the fried alligator and wood-fired oyster appetizers--especially the wood-fired oyster appetizer--were tops on my list. The oysters, lightly charred on top and served with a spicy, tangy, garlicky sauce were so good I ordered another round. They were so good that I didn't give a shit whether they came from an oil dump or not.
Verdict: There's a reason you don't see any photos here, because we were too busy getting our grub on.
PORT OF CALL
Some have proclaimed Port of Call as having the best burger ever. I say they've been gone from New York for too long. For the uninitiated, Port of Call basically has two items on the menu: burgers and steaks, each of which comes with a huge baked potato, loaded with whatever you want. They also had a pretty interesting looking menu of Hurricane style drinks which we abstained from because there was already way too much liquor in our systems.
When we went there, we all got the burger because, well, we were told it's the best ever. The reality of it is that it simply wasn't the best burger ever. It wasn't bad. It just wasn't the best.
It's not that they skimped on the meat or the toppings, and the patty was pretty juicy, of seemingly good quality, and cooked exactly as I ordered it, but my main beef (no pun intended)--which would've possibly taken the burger to the next eschelon--was that it was simply un(or under)seasoned. Now I'm not the type of guy who needs smoked paprika and curry salt in his burger either, but just a touch of salt (and perhaps pepper but it's not a dealbreaker) wouldn't have hurt.
The unfortunate part is I really liked everything else about the place. The vibe was cool and relaxed and our server was cool. What was especially cool was seeing the local police officer sitting at the bar with a beer one moment, then delivering some plates from the kitchen to our table the next.
Verdict: I won't necessarily make it a destination next time I'm in NOLA, but if I'm ever in the vicinity and hungry, I'll know where to stop. And I'll know what to order: the steak.
PARKWAY BAKERY & TAVERN
Here comes the really bad news. I simply couldn't believe how disappointed I was in eating here. I had heard from several sources that this would be po' boy paradise, and the menu makes you think nothing less. I ordered a roast beef po' boy (which was what was recommended to me) and the others ordered shrimp and crawfish po' boys, and we all shared a side of alligator gumbo.
When my po' boy arrived it was drizzled with a gravy that made the sandwich look so inviting that I wanted to jump into it headfirst. But after the first bite, then the second, then the third after dropping some hot sauce on it, then the fourth after dashing some salt on top, then the fifth after adding more hot sauce, then the sixth after adding a touch more salt, I realized this was a po' boy for all the wrong reasons: it suffered from a poverty of flavor.
Just pure blandness that inexplicably none of the multiple hot sauce and salt treatments seemed to be able to augment. The opinion seemed to be shared around the table. The alligator gumbo, while nothing to write home about (all the more ironic that I'm writing about it now), was decent, and probably the highlight of the meal, though also underseasoned.
This was a place that certainly looked the part but in the end was just a lookalike. And the strange thing was that it was packed with locals. It reminds me of something a friend of mine who travels very frequently said to me: that living in New York has completely fucked up my palate; that when traveling to other cities and eating at places that many consider well above average, I'll often consider them mediocre because of the level of quality I've become accustomed to.
We did however take great enjoyment at random stuff nailed on their wall, like the picture below.
Verdict: Doubtful I'll ever return, unless it's for Angelo's 10th annual 49th birthday party.
THE SAZERAC BAR
Quite often if a city is known for a particular type of dish or drink, chances are that city is filled with places slinging below average versions of said dish or drink. Case in point: New York and the pizza. Although New York is famous for its style of pizza, 90% of the pizza joints in this city make a pizza that's inferior to what you can make at home. Yet these places survive, largely due to tourists who don't know any better and New Yorkers who couldn't give a shit. The best explanation I can think of is that the majority of the mediocre places ride on the good reputation created by the few places who turn out an outstanding product.
New Orleans, of course, is famous for a number of culinary creations, from sausage-filled gumbos to shrimp po' boys. But New Orleans also has a rich cocktail history, and no other cocktail represents that history than the Sazerac. The Sazerac is so NOLA that it's been deemed the city's official cocktail. So coming to New Orleans with the above axiom in mind, I was prepared to have some pretty mediocre--if not full-on terrible and overly sweetened--Sazeracs. Having heard sad stories from others about some of the really bad Sazeracs they had in NOLA didn't ease my trepidation either.
So for the most part I stayed away from ordering a Sazerac at just any old place. But when I got to the Sazerac Bar at the Roosevelt Hotel, I figured I'd finally give it a shot. Besides, I wasn't going to be like someone we know on this blog who visited the Sazerac Bar and didn't order the namesake cocktail.
To my surprise, the Sazerac I had there was a good one, and it wasn't overly sweet like I had feared. Despite the relatively young age of the bartender (looked like he was barely of legal drinking age), I had a good feeling about it, seeing as he really took his time in the preparation of the drink, properly chilling one cup, mixing the drink, then straining into the chilled glass, and so on. If I had to say something critical about it I'd say that it could do with a bit less Peychaud's bitters, which is why the drink above has such a deep red hue.
Verdict: I'd easily order another Sazerac next time I'm there.
THE CAROUSEL BAR
The Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone (host hotel of Tales) was another bar that I had heard many good things about. And being the bar of the hotel where Tales of the Cocktail takes place, I figured their cocktail game had to be on point. The bar's name comes from the fact that it looks and spins like a carousel. Yes, it spins--albeit very slowly--while you're seated at the bar, which can be either very cool or very disorienting depending on your state of inebriation.
So on a morning in between seminars I stopped by the Carousel Bar and ordered up another classic New Orleans cocktail, a quaff that's traditionally enjoyed in the morning known as the Ramos Gin Fizz. Alas, disappointment had arrived. Perhaps it was because the barman on duty was not supposed to be on duty, and being distraught and slightly irate that he was called in because of a colleague's no-show may have distracted his focus. Whatever the reason, the drink was so bland as to be unoffensive--not enough liquor, not enough sugar, just kinda whatever.
Verdict: Will give it another shot, but next time I'm ordering a Vieux Carre, a New Orleans classic created here.
JEAN LAFITTE'S OLD ABSINTHE HOUSE
It wasn't any one particular food or drink item that drew myself and many others from the Tales contingency here, although the name might indicate otherwise. At the Old Absinthe House all I ever ordered were Abitas, which were great in and of themselves, but what made the times so special here was that this was the main unofficial after hours hangout of all the bartenders and folks from Tales.
The crowd spilled into the streets, and the night spilled into the early hours of the next day, as folks reconvened here from wherever their daily plans took them for a few last calls and some drunken shit shooting. Truth be told, this was where the best networking took place. Not in or after seminars. Not at various parties and such. Here. And it was after meeting folks here the night before that made bumping into one another during the day seem like you were running into an old friend.
Verdict: This place is old as dirt and still rocks.
CAFE DU MONDE
A veritable New Orleans landmark, Cafe Du Monde is one of the few places where both tourists and locals converge in mutual agreement: the chicory-spiked cafe au laits and beignets, pretty much the only two things on the menu, are worth enduring long waits in the line or for a table.
After several nights of heavy drinking, some joe from Cafe Du Monde was a welcome libation. And as you can see, the beignets are nothing to f*ck with either.
Verdict: It was so hot that I ordered an iced coffee, which wasn't their specialty, and thought it was just okay. I did bring back a can of their coffee to try at home, so I might adjust my opinion. The beignets, on the other hand, received no complaints.
Finally, I'll leave you with some parting shots of the streets of the Big Easy. By the way, the gentleman below was not in motion when we took the photo. He had been in that pose for a very, very, very long time.
Look out for Part 5 tomorrow, featuring an awesome seminar on molecular gastronomy and mixology from the dudes behind The Tippling Club.
*Got a cocktail question? Hit me on twitter @paystyle, email me at payman(at)lifesacocktail(dot)com, or simply drop me a comment below.