Sightseeing Between Courses

Our guest post comes from Howard Hian who was recently awarded a Gold Medal/First Place Award from the North American Travel Journalists Association’s annual international writing contest.  His prize winning story, Houseboating with My Pirate Pals, was in the Intergenerational Travel category.  In 2010 he also received a second place award in the Cancun International writers competition for his feature, Quintessential Quintana Roo.

photos courtesy of Howard Hian

My love affair with New Orleans began when I was a student at Tulane University. Peel and eat shrimp, oysters on the half-shell, gumbo, beignets and muffaletta became standard fare. Al Hirt, Pete Fountain, Louis Prima and Fats Domino appeared nightly in French Quarter clubs. Food and music are the foundation of the Big Easy. It was heady stuff for an 18 year-old college freshman. In my opinion, there is no city in the world of its size that has better food or music. On this return trip (one of many), my goal was to intertwine dining experiences with sightseeing over a three day period.

After my wife and I arrived, we made a pilgrimage. “Breakfast at Brennan’s” features an ala carte or a three-course prix-fixe menu. The latter is my recommendation. We started with two of their specialty drinks, a Creole Bloody Mary and a New Orleans Gin Fizz. Baked apple with double cream was followed by hot French bread and their signature dish, Eggs Hussarde (poached eggs atop Holland rusks, Canadian bacon, topped with Hollandaise sauce). Save room! Banana’s Foster, a Brennan’s creation, is served for dessert. Once you’ve eaten here you understand why the place has been a favorite since 1946.

A French Quarter self-guided walking tour, using a brochure provided free by the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, was our next agenda item. Wandering the French Quarter reminds you of the history of this special city; homes and commercial buildings from the 1800’s, the St. Louis Cathedral and, of course, Jackson Square.

Night brought us to Jon Besh’s Domenica Restaurant in the iconic Roosevelt Hotel. We started with torta fritta (fried pizza dough), followed by the chef’s selection of house-cured salami, imported cheeses, marinated olives and roasted vegetables. We shared a brick-oven baked pizza and lasagna Bolognese. Dessert was gelato topped with a shot of espresso. The relaxed atmosphere plus great food is a winning combination. Note: In January 2010, New Orleans CityBusiness magazine honored Chef Alon Shaya and Domenica as Culinary Connoisseurs’ Best Executive Chef and Best Casual Upscale Establishment of the Year.

photo courtesy of Howard Hian

Since the goal was sightseeing between courses, we headed to Preservation Hall after dinner. This is home to the New Orleans Jazz Band, where the city’s top musicians jam seven nights a week. There are a few rows of benches and some pillows by the stage but, otherwise, it is standing room only in a funky, no-frills building originally built in 1817. It’s traditional jazz at its best.

The following day, we went to the National World War II Museum. It features 3,500 oral and video histories from veterans and Home Front workers. Additionally, more than 100,000 artifacts are on display. The Solomon Victory Theater’s Beyond All Boundaries is shown on a 120-foot wide “immersive screen.” It’s a dramatic, high tech experience and a moving tribute to the bravery of the “Greatest Generation” who fought to secure freedom for America and the world. Note: Military in uniform and veterans get in free.

Within the museum is another John Besh restaurant, The American Sector. It features an eclectic menu. From their “Snacks” column, we chose fried chicken gizzards (fabulous!), rabbit pate, shrimp cup with aoli sauce and smokey lamb ribs. This was followed by meatloaf, fried soft-shelled crabs served over cheesy jalapeno grits, and crab and sausage stew. Dessert drew us to the homemade Twinkies and warm apple turnovers with ice cream. It’s fun and kid-friendly; a perfect pairing with the museum.

A shopping break took us to Riverwalk Marketplace. The mall features a half mile of local and national shops, dozens of restaurants and regularly scheduled special events.

Evening brought us to Besh Steakhouse in Harrah’s. Our starters included BBQ shrimp and sweet corn and crab bisque followed by locally grown heirloom tomato salad with onion vinaigrette. Then steaks – a roast ribeye with peppercorn sauce and filet of beef tenderloin. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, dessert was served including bread pudding with Irish whiskey ice cream and toffee sauce, plus a molten dark chocolate cake with brandied cherries and vanilla ice cream. Memorable feasting at a Besh restaurant is the default.

photo courtesy of Howard Hian

The following morning, found us at the daily jazz brunch at the Court of Two Sisters, another New Orleans institution. Although it has the French Quarter’s largest outdoor courtyard, it retains a charming, romantic ambience. A trio played Dixieland jazz while we loaded and reloaded our plates from their buffet, featuring an array of soups, salads, eggs dishes, a carving station and local favorites (shrimp, crawfish and ribs). Their in-house baker turns out wonderful mini bagels, French bread, buttermilk biscuits and cornbread. The dessert table was laden with a variety of fresh fruit, cakes, pies, bread pudding and home-churned ice cream with praline or chocolate sauce. The experience can be described in one word: delightful.

We strolled to the French Market. It includes historical monuments, public art, shops, performance venues, restaurants, cafes, flea and farmers markets and great shopping. Don’t miss Aunt Sally’s Praline Shop and be sure to sample freshly made Creole pralines.

Later, we walked to the Entergy IMAX® Theatre, part of the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas. We watched the dramatic movie Hurricane on the Bayou which shows the impact of Hurricane Katrina on Louisiana’s vanishing wetlands, the survival of the region and the ongoing post-Katrina drama.

photo courtesy of Howard Hian

We dined at 923 Meson. It is a small, elegant but casual bistro located in a beautifully restored building. It features a diverse menu, excellent wine list, a half dozen specialty drinks and expert and attentive service. Combining Spanish, French and New Orleans influences it delivers an outstanding product. We split oysters on the half shell, seasonal greens, duck with papperadelle pasta and filet of beef. Don’t miss the owner’s mom’s coconut flan or the frozen chocolate mousse for dessert; both sublime. Just go!

It was time to return to our hotel, the newly renovated Omni Royal Crescent Hotel, in the central business district just two blocks from the French Quarter, to pack up and head home. Here’s a travel tip: sign up for Omni’s Select Guest program and immediately receive benefits including wi-fi, airline miles, bottled water, express check-in and check-out, newspaper, and turndown service to name a few.

Safe travels, enjoy the journey and “Laissez les bons temps rouler (let the good times roll)!