Posted by: ingaaksamit | March 7, 2010

New Orleans is back

French Quarter

I stepped out of the Intercontinental Hotel near the French Quarter in New Orleans on a warm, sunny mid-winter afternoon wondering what I would find post-Katrina. It had been five years since the hurricane devastated one of my favorite cities and while I knew that the city had been open for business for a long time, I was also aware that many were still affected by the devastation.

French Quarter

Musicians on Bourbon St.

I was pleasantly surprised to find thick crowds clogging the streets of the French Quarter, listening to street musicians, enjoying the trickster magicians, alcoholic libations in hand. Jazz musicians, barbershop quartets, zydeco and hill billy groups filled the festive air with good cheer. I passed Pat O’Briens and found a line out the door mid-afternoon, waiting for the famous (or in many cases, infamous) Hurricane drinks made with vodka, grenadine syrup, gin, light rum, Bacardi® 151 rum, amaretto almond liqueur, triple sec, grapefruit juice and pineapple juice, one being enough to put you down for the night. I reluctantly skipped that line in favor for another, making my way to the Central Grocery in search of the bright flavors of a muffuletta sandwich. The Sicilian sandwich, made with salami, ham and provolone cheese, topped with a generous layer of olive mix, comprised of chopped carrots, cauliflower, celery, peppers, and capers represents one of many foods I associate with New Orleans. Others include binets, crawfish, po’ boy sandwiches and red beans and rice. I had to prioritize since I was only free for one day, so I started with the muffuletta.

Muffuletta sandwich

Alas, the line was at least an hour long and acute hunger pains drove me a couple of doors down to Franks, where I ordered a muffuletta to go, and a large jar of olive mix to bring home. After shelling out $28 I was handed two large weighty bags. Upon opening the oil stained brown wrapper I was confronted by an enormous round French bun filled with the required ingredients, large enough to feed at least four people. I dove in, savoring the crisp crunch of the carrots, the tang of the marinade, the texture and spice of the cured meats tempered by the creaminess of the cheese. After satisfying my taste buds I carefully re-wrapped the substantial remains carefully for the flight home to San Francisco the following day, to be enjoyed by an appreciative husband.

Atchafalaya

Inga & Cynthia, at her place on St. Charles

That evening my good friend, Cynthia, and her husband, Bob, picked me and drove me to their condo on St. Charles, one of the main thoroughfares in the Garden District, wending though narrow streets filled with beautiful Greek Revival, Italianate and Queen Anne Victorian homes lucky enough to be located in an area unaffected by Katrina. After sipping wine and sharing stories through the afternoon we went to a nearby neighborhood restaurant. Atchafalaya (an American Indian word meaning “long river”), a family-owned restaurant since the 1920’s, is tucked away in the Lower Garden District. Upon arrival we were greeted by the hyperkinetic and personable owner, Tony Tocco, bouncing from his computer by the bar to the greeting station, showing us to our table while chattering away, grabbing menus along the way. After being seated, he hovered over our table, assembling the accoutrements of a flourishing wine-opening ceremony. We nibbled freshly baked, warm, flaky jalapeno corn bread, the flaky dough melting in our mouths, followed by a gentle kick from the jalapenos.

Owner Tony Tocco

The contemporary creole menu featured some of the best that New Orleans has to offer, and I tried to include as many favorites as I could reasonably accommodate in one meal, already having made the decision to abandon any negative thoughts about saturated fats, cholesterol or rich, buttery sauces during my short stay in the Crescent City. Hearing of my difficulty choosing between crawfish or shrimp and grits, Tony helpfully suggested substituting a crawfish remoulade instead of the crab remoulade that usually crowns the fried green tomatoes, an inspired choice. The firm flesh of the briny crawdad blended with the crispness of the ethereally light battered tomato; the whole concoction tied together by the tangy, slightly spicy sauce. I savored every bite.

Fried green tomatoes topped with crawfish remoulade

I never would have thought of pairing shrimp with grits, though it’s a local favorite. The shrimp, with heads a tails attached, just as nature intended, was perfectly grilled, nestled into soft pillows of creamy, finely grained grits unlike the anemic grits I’ve been served at breakfast diners. Chunks of Andouille sausage lent spicy notes to the smoked tomato in the sauce liberally applied to the shrimp and grits. I’m sure the butter content was shocking, but I didn’t care, forking mouthfuls of delicious, contrasting flavors into my mouth, slowly caressing each bite. I was impressed by the presentation of a simply grilled fillet of fish, accompanied by artfully displayed asparagus and spinach for Bob, who desired a lighter meal. Equally impressive was Lynn Strong, our capable waitress, who remembered exactly how Bob liked this dish prepared from a previous visit. Bob couldn’t resist sampling a shrimp or two, and Lynn materialized at his side, gently reminding Bob that the sauce contained butter, which he had firmly stated he was staying away from. He assured her he was throwing caution asunder for just a bite or two, drawing a chuckle and knowing look from Lynn.

Shrimp and grits

Service was a particular standout at Atchafalaya, with several people stopping by the table to chat and serve, pour wine and inquire as to our needs. Every table around us received equally attentive service delivered by the team in a seamless manner, demonstrating a sophistication you might not expect at a neighborhood bistro. Sean Bush struck up a conversation about hockey, a passion instilled by his father who played professional hockey, and we relived key moments from the recent heart stopping US-Canada Olympic match, resulting in a gold medal for Canada, silver for the US. He confided that he lost his house in the Katrina maelstrom, but was dedicated to New Orleans, and his status as a local was unmistakably sealed.

Grilled fish

Lynn, our waitress, moved from Florida ten months ago, after Katrina, part of an influx of new-comers who are helping to rebuild the city. Armed with a teaching credential she was surprised to find that it took some time to land a teaching position, explaining her presence at Atchafalaya on a Saturday evening. Having secured a teaching job, she continues to supplement her income at Atchafalaya. From these few conversations it is apparent that residents’ histories are marked indelibly by a pre-Katrina and post-Katrina timeline.

Reminiscent of Upperline and Clancy’s, Atchafalaya is a delightful neighborhood eatery, historic, romantic, hip and vibrant, all at the same time. Serving traditional Louisiana fare with its own flair, it’s a satisfying and stimulating place to visit. Prices ran from $7-12 for appetizers, and $18-36 for entrees. The fried green tomatoes were $12 (enough for two, if you want room for your entrée), while the shrimp and grits were $23.

New Orleans is still a shadow of its former self, missing about 2/3 of its former residents, and permanent changes have been wrought. However, my brief visit demonstrated that the city has reclaimed its essential charm and verve, remaining a unique and desirable place associated with unparalleled gastronomic delights.

INFORMATION:

Atchafalaya
901 Louisiana Ave.
New Orleans, LA
504-891-9626
www.cafeatchafalaya.com

Pat O’Brien’s
718 St. Peter Street (bar)
624 Bourbon Street (restaurant)
504-525-4823
www.patobriens.com/patobriens/

Central Grocery
923 Decatur St
New Orleans, LA
504-523-1620

Frank’s Restaurant
933 Decatur St
New Orleans, LA
504-525-1602
www.franksrestaurantneworleans.com/

Inga & Cynthia at Atchafalaya

Advertisements

Responses

  1. What a great story, simple and informative.
    Thanks, Inga. Gotta get to New Orleans soon!

    Emma


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

%d bloggers like this: