Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Overdoing New Orleans

Over Labor Day weekend, I went to New Orleans with two friends. The list of cities I feel the need to visit, in the US, is dwindling. I’m down to Minneapolis, maybe Dallas/Houston, Miami, and apparently, Memphis. Then, I’m on to National Parks and other countries. I wanted to visit New Orleans for years. I didn’t want to visit alone. After a failed attempt to go to New Orleans last New Years, three busy people managed to plan a trip together. I was happy to travel with like-minded friends. We worked on a Google Doc of restaurants/bars for weeks. A few days before, we figured we should add in a few cultural events. Terms like “strategic reservations” were thrown about. An itinerary was typed up.

We found an AirBnb in the Bywater. The shotgun house was a fifteen-minute drive to downtown and walking distance to at least one bar. Upon arrival we went directly to St. Roch Market. I had been following this food hall on Instagram for months. There are about ten food vendors inside the gorgeous space. We had oysters and po’ boy sandwiches and cocktails. What is glorious about the market is that you can buy food from anywhere and sit anywhere, including the bar. Thus, you can drink a bit, go order whatever kind of food you feel like (tacos, pho, sandwiches, oysters), drink while you wait, and your food will come to you. It’s an ingenious plan I haven’t seen elsewhere. The system does seem to create more of a community feel in the space.
St. Roch Market

After checking into the AirBnb we walked over Bacchanal Wine. Again, this wine store/wine bar/cocktail bar/backyard music space was something I’ve never seen. The organization of the restaurant is so specific, yet relaxed at the same time. You buy a bottle of wine inside, take it with you, and sit wherever you like. There’s a cocktail bar upstairs. You can buy cheese and salami out of a cooler; they will plate it for you and bring it to your table. They also have a kitchen window where you can order hot food. There’s a backyard patio with various tables and live music. The whole concept seems too involved for Philadelphians. But, everything about it was easy. Nothing was stressful. Maybe it was something about the atmosphere of New Orleans. If I lived nearby, I would be a regular patron.
Catfish Po' Boy at St. Roch Market

In our planning emails, we decided upon a few reservations. One was at John Besh’s Restaurant August. Unfortunately, we were rather underwhelmed by this very fancy, white-table cloth spot. We felt like we were rushed and a bit condescended to. Yes, we look young, but we are are serious about eating. The dishes were very acceptable, but not spectuar. Most were too salty. Somewhat disappointed, we walked to Sazerac Bar for after-dinner cocktails. This was the most time we spent downtown and the latest we were out and about. This fact might suggest that our priorities ran counter to the typical New Orleans visitor.

The next morning, I made it up and out for 8:00AM yoga. After, I grabbed coffee for all of us at Mammoth Espresso in the warehouse district. The owner and I had a nice chat; I learned the New Orleans saying that “anything worth doing is worth overdoing.” I learned that no one in New Orleans is roasting coffee and that third-wave coffee is still developing in the city. [Yes, I just used the term “third-wave” to describe a coffee renaissance and not feminism.]

One of the other “strategic reservations” we made was Commander’s Palace for their Saturday jazz brunch. We were all looking for at least one traditional New Orleans experience. We were not disappointed. We ended up overly full and very impressed. The service, the food, the deep-dark French sauces, the bread, the garlic bread, the desserts, the everything. After lunch we walked around St. Lafayette cemetery across the street. Somehow, we continued on to the New Orleans Art Museum and sculpture garden. It’s a very nice, compact art museum. A life-sized, gilded log cabin proved surprising and useful (I showed my US history class photos).

Habanero Oysters - N7
We rallied for dinner at N7. This restaurant was recently named number 10 on Bon Appétit’s “America’s Best New Restaurants 2016” list. Tucked behind a wooden fence in the Bywater neighborhood, N7 seems to be more about kitsch and décor than food. My friends and I mused that Bon Appétit is interested in finding “things” that no one else is doing, as opposed to overall quality. N7 serves many items from cans on their “Can to Table” menu: habanero oysters, lobster rillettes, calamari in spicy ragout. These items are imported from abroad. This is all fine. Given the trend towards natural wines, I’m also not surprised to see this place on Bon Appétit’s list; their wine list is stellar. Dinner was totally serviceable. We were full from lunch, anyway. After dinner we went back to St. Roch Market for cocktails. I ended up buying a chicken sandwich from Good Bird that I didn’t need to eat. We grabbed cupcakes and few Radlers for dessert and turned in.

Smoked Salmon - Willa Jean
The next day, we were up for a quick breakfast before a cemetery tour. I wanted to visit Willa Jean for their pastries and cookies. I had an excellent smoked salmon sandwich on an everything croissant. Very good. My friend made the intelligent choice to order the cornbread. It was the best cornbread I’ve ever had. We also ordered pastries and chocolate chip cookies to go. After a (hot and humid) tour of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, we drove out to the abandoned Six Flags New Orleans. The park never reopened after Katrina. I had seen photos of the inside on Instagram. I wanted to venture into the park, but it seemed that the only entrance had a security patrol. Simply driving by it was eerie enough. So, went home to nap. The thought of anything else to eat, or anything at all, was too much.

Cubano - Cochon Butcher
In the afternoon we ventured out for a late lunch. Again, I had been eyeing a butcher shop on Instagram for a while: Cochon Butcher. I had the best Cuban sandwich ever and lambrusco, while friends had a muffaletta and roast beef. After sandwiches we sought out music on Frenchman Street. The “music” part of New Orleans is real. This was most memorable. To walk down the street, listen to whatever is coming out of each bar, decide if you like it, and go in for a drink, is something I haven’t experienced anywhere else. I’m guessing that’s because it doesn’t exist elsewhere. 

After music, we soldiered on for beignets. We weren’t going to miss them. I thought they were alright. I was, after all, the person who pushed for each of us to order our own bag. In ninety-degree weather, we sat on a bench by the Mississippi and ate fried doughnuts. I drank chicory coffee. We contemplated how much food we had consumed in a mere 48 hours. We contemplated never eating again. In fact, we were done for the day.

Hivolt Coffee
On Labor Day, I drove my friends to the airport for their flight. My flight was a few hours later, so I went to yoga (to feel better about my excessive eating). Then I found a coffee shop, Hivolt Coffee, in the lower garden district. I ordered something without meat: avocado toast. It was light and excellent. I read for a few hours, went to see some public art (a Noguchi sculpture and a Banksy), made a quick, final stop at Willa Jean to grab another chocolate chip cookie and a sandwich for the flight. After looking at the food options in the airport, I was very happy with my salami and cheese on baguette.

In the end, New Orleans was the unique, eerie, and delicious experience I thought it would be. New Orleans is an American city. I’m happy I went with friends. Despite that I travel alone quite a bit, I wouldn’t have felt entirely okay in New Orleans by myself. While I’m often happier to be alone, I enjoyed eating and hanging out with friends who also love food and drink as much as I do.

The Larry Bird - St. Roch Market
Cornbread - Willa Jean
Willa Jean

Salami and Cheese - Willa Jean

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Southern California Redux

Joshua Tree Retreat Center - FLLY Jr.
Right after Fourth of July I went to southern California, again. I realize that many people like to malign Los Angeles. I don’t find it terribly annoying, but I am only a visitor. I’m sure the realities of traffic and the vast distance between things would be maddening. But, as a traveler, I pick and choose my spots to avoid the insanity.

Back in February my yoga friend and I decided to go to a yoga festival in Joshua Tree, in July. The idea of doing yoga in the high desert in July didn’t phase me in February. The reality of it was much more challenging. I visited Joshua Tree a little more than a year ago; I knew there was pretty much nothing there. It seemed like a nice spot for a retreat.

Before heading to the desert, I planned one night in Los Angeles. My yoga friend fully embraced my style of travel: do/see as many things as possible in a geographically and temporally (slightly) reasonable amount of time.
Guisados - DTLA

Upon landing in the AM we stopped at the Antwon Kerner Gallery to see a Richard Prince exhibit, grabbed coffee at Go Get Em Tiger, ate tacos at Guisados, meandered through The Last Bookstore, took a short walk from the hotel to The Broad, managed a requisite time-change nap, ate a quick sushi dinner, and spent few hours at the Comedy Store. Yes, that was quite a bit. The tacos were glorious. The Broad is a very nice collection and there was/is a Cindy Sherman exhibit on. And, we saw David Spade at the Store.

In the morning we grabbed coffee at Verve, ate pies at Bronzed Aussie, hiked in Griffith Park, stopped at a Whole Foods 365, and drove out to the desert. Once in the desert, we didn’t eat a meal. Yes, five days without a real meal. We drank smoothies and ate fruit in very yoga fashion. Needless to say, we were starving by day five. One of the reasons I was excited about the retreat was the location: the Joshua Tree Retreat Center. It was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, Jr. There are many structures on the site and all of them seem reminiscent of Frank. I took two sunrise walks around the complex and took a few photos.

Once we left the retreat, our first goal was food. My yoga friend is Armenian and we learned that there is a solid Armenian community in Glendale. We found an Armenian restaurant, Carousel, not too far out of the way on our drive to Santa Barbara. Yoga buddy ordered us a bunch of vegetarian stuff. We ordered so much (and ate all of it) that we felt the need to explain to our server that we hadn’t really eaten in five days. We swore that we don’t really eat like that all the time (even though we kind of do…).

Carousel Restaurant
Our next stop was Santa Barbara. I hadn’t been there since I was nineteen, and it was only for lunch. We spent a full day enjoying Santa Barbara. I didn’t have too much in mind: we practiced yoga, drank coffee at Handle Bar, ate an awesome young coconut and some sort of raw vegan dessert ball, wandered through the Santa Barbara Court House, drove up to an organic winery (Alma Rosa Winery), ate sushi for dinner, and caught sunset on the beach. I enjoyed Santa Barbara for it’s non-L.A. qualities. It feels like the suburbs to me: more relaxed, more casual.

The next morning we were up and out to try to get to yoga at Bikram Headquarters. Traffic being what it is in L.A., we realized we weren’t going to make the class we wanted, so we went to Bikram Yoga Marina Del Ray instead. After class we walked around Venice. In true yogi-style, we were starving after class, but nothing seemed appealing. We grabbed coffee at Intelligentsia and some pastries. We were saving ourselves for something later in the day. I had never been to Venice before. I have to admit, this was the first part of L.A. that I did not like. The people were…self-absorbed and out of touch. If I moved to L.A. I could see myself living downtown (I appreciate the revitalization effort going on there) or somewhere away from the beach.
Pizzeria Mozza

After coffee we drove over to LACMA. Tuesdays are free; it was packed. Some of the exhibits were sold out. I really came for James Turrell’s Ganzfeld. It’s a magical experience. I’ll visit it every time I go to Los Angeles.

After LACMA we drove to the meal I had been thinking about for weeks: pizza at Pizzeria Mozza. I’ve said it before, on this very blog, that I am beyond particular about pizza. If I’m eating pizza, it’s going to be fantastic, or have a very good chance of being fantastic. Unapologetically, Yoga friend and I ordered an octopus salad, two pizzas, and dessert. The pizza was excellent. We each ate a whole pie (I mean, of course I’m eating the whole thing) and then left for the red-eye back to Philly.

Overall, it was a beautiful eight days in Southern California. The yoga retreat was something not to be forgotten, but that can’t be put into words. The food was exactly as I wanted. And the sights were as golden as I remembered.
Richard Prince 

The Last Bookstore
Walt Disney Concert Hall - Frank Gehry
The Broad Museum
Cindy Sherman Exhibit at The Broad
Verve Coffee, DTLA
Santa Barbara Court House

Judd at LACMA