24 hours of eating and drinking in N’Awlins

A fortuitous journey is just seeing me home from 24 hours in the Big Easy (well, more like 22 hours to be exact, but who’s counting).


How do I even begin to describe New Orleans? She’s a grand old dame of a city, showy and decadent and seductive. Historic and storied. Mysterious. Dangerous. Excessive in everything from the lacy ironwork that adorns the endless balconies to the rivers of booze that flow through the French Quarter to the ungodly sticky weather. The thick, honeyed Acadian patois of the local residents is as mellifluous and musical as the jazz and blues and zydeco that waft from the street corners. There’s a stink to the streets, distinctive and not entirely unpleasant. A survivor, like the mighty river that flows along, as it always has and always will. There’s nowhere else like it.

I’d been to NoLa twice before, and had a few ideas about how best to spend this short amount of time in the city. My traveling companion had never been here, so a quick tour of the main highlights was in order. We pulled into town on the train around 3 p.m. and were out and exploring by 4.


Pat O’Brien’s hurricane – a New Orleans tradition

Our first priority was a stroll down Bourbon Street, stopping in the fern-filled courtyard at Pat O’Brien’s for a signature cocktail. That means one thing. A hurricane. This is where the near-lethal rum concoction originated (4 oz. of rum in each serving – ouch!), cleverly disguised to taste like punch. So you don’t realize exactly how quickly you’re getting drunk. A couple of these babies will take you from “Hm, this tastes good.” to “Hello. I’m wasted.” before you even get around to nibbling the maraschino cherry. I’m proud to say, my friend did an admirable job of drinking hers down without any ill effects.


my Sazerac

I ordered a Sazerac, a retro cocktail made with rye, bitters, licorice-y anise-flavored liqueur and a lemon twist. Icy cold and heavenly on a hot day.

After more wandering and explorations that included a quick pop into Marie Laveau’s Voodoo Shop and photo ops of the majestic St. Louis Cathedral, Jackson Square and the riverfront, we started searching for food. For me, New Orleans means Cajun food and seafood, often simultaneously. The sheer number of restaurants in this town makes deciding where to eat a downright dizzying task. In spite of soliciting a dozen or so suggestions before we’d arrived (which we forgot and left back in the hotel room), we ended up just picking a place in the French Quarter near the pub where our ghost tour was due to kick off shortly after. Pere Antoine’s. Not bad. Not great. I figure this is a typical example of the Cajun Creole fare most places in the city serve, some better than others.

BBQ shrimp

barbecued shrimp at Pere Antoine’s

I ordered barbecued shrimp, and if I’d known ahead of time how much work they were going to be, I’d have gotten something else. I knew I’d have to peel them myself, but naively, I figured they’d already have the heads removed. Nope. This was a whole plateful of huge full-bodied prawns atop a scoop of white rice with a couple pieces of greasy garlic bread to sop up the broth. The shrimp were overcooked and although the broth was spicy, it didn’t have the depth of flavor I’d hoped for. Sticky up to my elbows with shrimp juice running down my chin, I gave up wrestling with the whole thing halfway through and called it quits.


Pere Antoine’s jambalaya

Janet got the jambalaya, the better of our two entrees. My fork kept sneaking into her dish to snag bites of her sweet small shrimp and kicky tomato sauce.

Another round of drinks in the hotel bar after our ghost tour entailed a hurricane for me (much more fruity and sweet with pineapple juice flavor than Pat O’Brien’s version), and a strawberry margarita for Janet. It had been a long day and night, and these nightcaps ensured we’d sleep well.

Breakfast was a no-brainer. When in New Orleans, you HAVE to come to Café du Monde for coffee and beignets. If not for breakfast, then any old time; the place stays open 24-7. Beignets are insanely simple but addictively delicious squares of puffy fried dough buried under an avalanche of powdered sugar. You can get them elsewhere in town, but really, why would you?

cafe du monde

beignets and a cafe au lait

Part of New Orleans’ original French Market, Cafe du Monde has been continuously operating since the 1860s. They serve coffee (black or au lait) and beignets. That’s it. And they do an excellent job. They churn plates out like an assembly line – I actually got a peek at the deep-fry station when I went to the restroom, and they are just popping these things out of the grease non-stop so that every order is served fresh and still-warm. When you add in the historical factor, quick service and the fact that an order of three plus coffee will only set you back about $5… well, you’ve just got to come here. That’s all there is to it.


Palace Cafe staircase

We lunched today at the Palace Café, a New Orleans dining institution from what I understand. Situated in a former department store in the warehouse district and part of the Brennan’s fine-dining empire, this place cuts a dashing figure with a gorgeous staircase that winds through the main-floor dining room up to more seating on the second level. This seems to be a popular destination for business lunches and jazz brunches, and I can see why. The food was outstanding. Classic old-style New Orleans dishes like shrimp remoulade, gumbo and pan-roasted oysters made it hard to decide what to order.

oyster salad

the Werlein salad with fried oysters at Palace Cafe

Janet got the Werlein salad, a house specialty that looks and sounds for all the world like a Caesar, with big chunky croutons and fried oysters scattered around the edges. She enjoyed it, and the oyster I tasted was piping hot and delish.


Caprese salad with popcorn crawfish tails

I went with a special appetizer composed of popcorn-fried crawfish tails atop an heirloom tomato Caprese salad. Yum. The crawfish tails weren’t at all greasy or overpowered by spice and breading, just sweet little bites of meat. If you didn’t know it was crawfish, you might think it was tiny tender shrimp. The tomatoes and mozzarella underneath were fresh and flavorful. There was so much crawfish, I’m sad to say I couldn’t even finish it all.


a “side” of crab

Palace Café also lets diners order “sides of seafood.” I LOVE this idea. Let’s say you really want to order a shrimp entrée, but the jumbo lump crabmeat sounds tempting, too. The seafood sides are basically a small bonus dish of whatever seafood you want to taste without having to order another full entrée of it. Like seafood a la carte. Janet and I split a side of sautéed jumbo lump crabmeat, and it was fabulous.

And with that, my whirlwind trip to New Orleans came to an end and now I’m heading back home. I certainly won’t miss the 95-degree/75-percent-humidity weather, and I could never imagine myself living here (and wouldn’t even dream of bringing my son). But I’m sure at some point, that sweet temptress of a city will once again start singing her siren song, and I’ll find her impossible to resist. Until then, au revoir, ma chere.

The talented Mr. Tallent

Hubby and I escaped for a brief overnight visit to Bloomington this weekend in honor of my pending 40th (gulp) birthday in two days. This is not how things were supposed to play out.

The trip was originally meant to be a surprise jaunt to Montreal, courtesy of hubby’s ingenuity and massive frequent flyer miles. He selected a lovely boutique hotel and polled my friends to cover childcare for the toddler, although he did unintentionally let the location slip a few weeks ago. We had a series of babysitters all lined up, our bags were packed, and we were good to go. Or so we thought. You know what they say about the best-laid plans…

We were scheduled to leave for the airport Friday morning around 8 a.m. Unfortunately, the toddler kept us up a good part of Thursday night coughing his little head off. He wasn’t sick exactly, but he wasn’t right, either. When the alarm went off at 7 a.m. after a fitful couple hours of sleep, we debated about the best course of action. As my friend Christina so aptly summarized the Murphy’s Law of parenting: if you stay, he’ll be fine. If you leave, he’ll come down with pneumonia.

Hubby thought we should move forward with the trip as planned, but left the final decision up to me. Being the slightly neurotic, often over-reactive mom that I am and knowing I’d spent the whole weekend worrying about the little man, I finally caved and said that I didn’t think we should go. So all bets were off. Hubby got on the phone to cancel the flights and hotel reservation. We did recoup some of the expense and wrote off the rest with a hard swallow and a “c’est la vie.”

Disappointed and pissed off, we went about our usual business for the day, doing yard work and spring cleaning. Not how I’d hoped to be spending what should have been a romantic birthday weekend with my hubby. The toddler, of course, was fine. He did keep coughing, but seemed to feel just dandy. Fortunately, our friends who were lined up to babysit kept their offers open, so we dropped the little man to Laura and Colin’s house for a few hours Friday night and headed downtown to do a little beertasting at Sun King Brewery.

I just wrote a profile about Sun King for an upcoming issue of Indianapolis Dine, so I’ll make you wait for the full scale of my observations in that publication. Suffice it to say, if you live in Indianapolis and you like beer, you need to check this place out. Open since last July, the owners are a couple of characters, and they make a damn good product. They offer tastings Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings, and the place was hopping when we were there. (No pun intended.) We sampled a handful of beers, my favorite being the Wee Mac Scottish Ale, a sweetish malty brown brew with hints of toffee and caramel. Yum.

For dinner, we ended up at the Rathskeller, site of my second date with hubby nearly six years ago. The past few times I’ve eaten at the Rat, it’s been nothing special, but I’m pleased to report the food has come up in stature somewhat since my last visit. A warm soft pretzel comes standard in their breadbaskets – nice touch – along with some blow-your-head-off horseradish mustard. Hubby enjoyed a huge plate of pasta with chicken, feta, veggies and herbs, and I went the traditional route with a steamed brat and warm German potato salad with vinegary hot bacon dressing. The food was good, but servings were WAY too big. Both of us left half of our dinners behind.

The toddler continued to seem ok through Friday night, so hubby and I decided to venture an overnight trip to Bloomington. Our friends Kellie and Theresa offered to stay at our house with the kiddo, making our lives that much easier, bless them. We booked a room at the Hilton Garden Inn downtown, which turned out to be a great location just half a block off the town square. We parked the car and didn’t think of it again until this morning.

After we checked in and dumped the bags, a pre-dinner drink was in order. This being the tail end of I.U.’s spring break, everything was pleasantly deserted, no lines or traffic. Crazy Horse served as our first stop, where we enjoyed unwinding at the copper-countered bar over a cheap beer.

At the suggestion of several friends and thanks to some great word-of-mouth, I’d zeroed in on a place called Restaurant Tallent for dinner. The chef, Dave Tallent, has been getting some great buzz and is a repeat James Beard award nominee, one of the highest honors any American chef can receive.

The menu posted by the door sounded pretty ambitious, and a little out of my comfort food zone, to be honest, but we were intrigued enough to give it a try. I’m soooooo glad we did.

Now, the problem with places like Restaurant Tallent is that they come so highly recommended that you get your hopes up for a stellar dining experience before you ever set foot in the door. Expectations are terribly high, and so is the possibility that it might not turn out to be as good as you hope for, then you wind up disappointed. Just like our Valentine’s Day dinner at 14 West (see previous blog entry). Well. I’m thrilled to report that Restaurant Tallent delivered everything we were hoping for, and then some.

The place smelled amazing from the second we walked in. Décor was low-key, warm and romantic – low lighting, funky modern light fixtures and a rich, understated brown and green color palette. It seemed fairly dead for a Saturday night, but I was grateful to get seated immediately and wrote off the lack of customers to spring break. Our server, Dustin, struck just the right note of being friendly and helpful without ever seeming intrusive or pretentious. That’s something to be said with the caliber of food being served here.

As I said, the menu was a little intimidating – we don’t usually eat at restaurants that serve foie gras, caviar and tartare. The short list of starters and entrees changes according to the season and the chef’s inspiration. Ingredients are locally sourced whenever possible, and everything is as absolutely fresh as can be.

Hubby and I decided to share a starter. Although the arugula salad with goat cheese beignets was plenty tempting, we have a hard time passing up anything that includes pancetta. And so we opted for the black truffle tagliatelle pasta with pancetta, mushrooms, spinach and parmesan.

As we waited for the pasta, Dustin delivered a basket full of warm slices of the most melt-in-your-mouth tender rosemary-dusted peasant bread and a ramekin of fresh butter. We also got a freebie amuse bouche — a little ceramic Asian spoon containing a chilled quarter-sized scallop mold of butternut squash panna cotta skewered with a crunchy parmesan crisp and topped with a drizzle of sweet sauce. It was a scrumptious little mouthful, almost like pumpkin pie filling, and the parmesan crisp was just salty enough to offset the creamy sweetness. We were off to a good start.

Our starter arrived, looking and smelling unbelievably good. When we laid eyes on the small dish set in front of us, we worried it wouldn’t be big enough to satisfy both of us. We were wrong.

This pasta serving was small, but mighty. There were just a few thick noodles, really, cooked to toothsome al dente perfection. The flavors were ridiculously intense and expertly combined, the best of which was the tiny cubes of crispy-chewy pancetta. For the uninitiated, pancetta is a cured Italian meat, like bacon but with more primal pig flavor oomph. My only criticism of the dish, and I’m struggling to even mention one, was that I couldn’t distinguish the taste of the truffles amid all the other vibrant flavors. Having never had truffles before, I was looking forward to tasting one, but no matter. The dish was insanely good irregardless, and several bites were more than enough to make both of us happy.

We were still raving about the pasta (and proceeded to for the rest of the night) when our entrees showed up.

I’ve tried scallops a few times in the past, including my own so-so attempt at grilling the little suckers, but I knew that I’d never really tasted them they way they SHOULD be enjoyed. Tonight, I decided, was a good opportunity to do so. I received three beautifully browned scallops atop a mushroom risotto cake and a small mound of collard greens. A country ham consommé was the finishing touch. Gordon Ramsay would have been proud.

First of all, my plate was absolutely gorgeous. The chef and kitchen staff obviously take great pains in appearance, believers in the mantra that you eat first with your eyes. There were no fancy garnishes or unnecessary schwack on the plate, just a healthy serving size of highly flavorful, fragrant, beautiful food. The succulent scallops were sweet and tender with a lovely caramelized crust, and the mushroom risotto was delicious. Collard greens seemed an unlikely accompaniment on paper, but were just bitter enough to balance the sweetness of the scallops, and the salty ham jus pulled the whole thing together.

As good as my entrée was, I must admit, I think hubby’s might have been even better. Sliced duck breast (prepared well done at hubby’s request without a bat of the eye), mounted on spicy red rice with duck confit and steamed bok choy. Oh. My. Goodness. My mouth is watering just remembering it now. We both all but licked our plates clean.

I wanted to order dessert so badly, but knew I just didn’t have room left to enjoy it to its maximum potential, and so we refrained. We seriously thought about taking a leisurely walk and then coming back a little later to order some. In lieu of a sweet finale, hubby asked for an espresso, encouraged by the coffee machinery behind the bar. Sadly, this proved the only flaw in an otherwise perfect meal. To be fair, the vast majority of Midwesterners could order an espresso here and think it wonderful. But, being the worldly, well-traveled man that he is, hubby has shot back enough real-deal authentic espressos in Europe to know the difference. He has even invested in a machine of his own to make them just the way he likes.

Having seen hubby proudly display his own creations at home, I knew enough to cringe when I saw the espresso arrive at the table without any sort of creamy foam on top. Hubby was happy that the barista/bartender heated the cup, but pronounced the coffee itself not good. Which is so sad! At a restaurant that pays such close and careful attention to every food detail, the coffee fell short.

Even though we had politely refused dessert, Dustin delivered us a tiny plate containing two chocolate sandwich cookies glued together with raspberry cream filling “to fortify us for our walk.” We each took a tiny nibble, intending on just a taste, and proceeded to polish off every crumb. Our total bill for one starter, two entrees, and two beers for hubby (plus the bonus amuse bouche and cookies) came to just under $80. Completely good value, we felt, for the quality of food, service and atmosphere.

The espresso disappointment aside, and it wasn’t a serious transgression, our overall Restaurant Tallent dining experience was fabulous. The food itself was nothing short of incredible. The pacing of the food was perfect, slow enough to build anticipation, but quick enough to be efficient. Another interesting note, there are no condiments on the tables. Dustin came over after we’d had our first taste of each course to see if we wanted salt or pepper. The mark of a true chef is in the seasoning, and Dave Tallent passes that test with flying colors. I can’t wait to go back. I just heard someone say that Restaurant Tallent offers half-priced entrees on Monday nights… that could be very dangerous information for me to know. I would be completely willing to drive to Bloomington and back in an evening for a 50 percent-off dinner.

Hubby and I pleasantly passed the rest of the evening walking around Kirkwood and the I.U. campus, stopping into Nick’s for another beer and a pool hall where I was promptly shamed by the decline of my shooting abilities. I was AMAZED at the number of ethnic eateries presently housed along 4th Street. This stretch has come a long way since I was a student, now housing Ethiopian, Thai, Korean, Tibetan, Italian, Turkish, Moroccan and I can’t even remember what else. Very, very impressive. Every restaurant looked better than the one we’d just passed, and I found myself wishing we had about a week to get acquainted with all of them.

After a leisurely sleep-in this morning, hubby and I were ready to venture out for more food. The other restaurant I’d been wanting to try was FARMBloomington, and although a walk-by last night revealed it wasn’t as upscale and romantic as Restaurant Tallent for an honorary 40th birthday dinner, it was just the ticket for brunch.

FARMBloomington manages to be down-home yet still trendy at the same time. The décor is bright and cheery with homey, cozy details like hanging quilts and a somehow charming wall display of bedpans indicating the restrooms. Like Tallent, FARMBloomington focuses on farm-fresh, local, seasonal ingredients. The brunch menu is full of egg dishes, pancakes, biscuits and gravy, and other standard breakfast fare with modern gourmet spins.

We started by toasting the trip with mimosas. Hubby ordered a basic breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, toast and oven-roasted tomatoes sprinkled with savory herbs. It was nothing fancy; just solid, hearty, super-fresh, good food. The tomatoes made the plate, and I vowed to attempt something similar at home to serve over pasta or alongside a roast.

My breakfast was French toast, made with day-old Scholar’s Inn Bakehouse brioche soaked overnight in custard batter, then cooked and topped with a dazzling orange syrup and dollop of tangy crème fraiche. Mmmmmmm. I can’t even begin to describe how good it was. A lady at the table next to ours leaned over to ask me what it was and said she planned to order it on her next visit.

Again, the serving sizes were just right and the prices were extremely fair considering the quality of the food. We left completely sated and happy with our food decisions for the weekend.

So, although it wasn’t Montreal, hubby and I had a fantastic visit to Bloomington and vowed to come back again soon. And I got a chance to reconnect and spent a little downtime with the man I love, which is exactly what I wanted for my birthday.

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