I had just cleaned my plate of remnants from a memorable dinner at Portland’s Pok Pok, nine days of eating and working and eating almost a wrap, when a client called and beckoned me to New Orleans.
By KIMBERLY WINTER STERN
PDX to NOLA?
Laissez les bons temps rouler.
There are American cities pulsing with great food that invite you to get down to it and dig right in. Like Portland’s celebrated bistros and bakeries and brewpubs that populate hipster neighborhoods and waste no time in wooing you through their doors and into a seat.
And then there are cities, like sultry New Orleans, that seduce a quivering palate long before a fork is lifted to the lips.
New Orleans’ divine temptation is part and parcel of the city’s mysterious, romantic, bohemian veneer.
You almost expect to be over-served in this fabled Mississippi River port where distinct French Creole architecture is the backdrop for the razzle-dazzle of boozy, sexy festivals marked by jazz, beads and gyrating hips and food prepared by some of the country’s most revered chefs.
Following a day of meetings in the Crescent City, I was fortunate to be invited along on a pre-dinner stroll through the streets and alleys of the French Quarter. The tour guide, a New Orleanian who resides in a lovingly restored historic shotgun home on Royal Street, knew exactly where to direct our group’s focus away from the tourist crunch.
Fodor’s, eat your heart out.
The late-afternoon, mid-week meander through a sedate French Quarter was like an inedible but totally satisfying amuse bouche.
Surveying the sights, sounds and smells of the city’s original settlement, I felt the urge to ditch protocol and revel in the sense of abandonment that hangs thick in the Quarter, like the ghostly Spanish moss dripping from huge live oaks in New Orleans City Park.
Ambling through the French Quarter proved to me that indeed, something delightfully sensory is always within striking distance in New Orleans, even if you’re not eating.
Peeking into Café Amelie’s lush courtyard on Royal, I feasted on the tropical splendor surrounding diners who were tucking into plates of shrimp and grits and jumbo lump crab cakes.
Wandering on the uneven sidewalks along the cobblestone streets, we lingered in front of bars and tiny restaurants where people relaxed while sipping cocktails and nibbling snacks and decades-old praline shops where the sweet, sticky smell of New Orleans’s signature candy teased.
A moodily-lit art gallery’s doors were flung open, revealing a tarnished silver tray arranged with sweating bottles of wine and a colorful still life of fresh fruit, awaiting serious shoppers.
Everywhere sounds of the blues and jazz wafted from rooms set with small stages where musicians casually sat, blowing on horns, playing the drums, subtly revving up the tempo for the night to come.
We passed through Jackson Square where artists, clustered in temporary stalls, hawked paintings and handmade goods and street buskers performed for iPhone-snapping tourists.
Café De Monde was quiet this time of day and by the time we walked along the riverfront, admiring its sweeping vistas of the mighty Mississippi and massive barges maneuvering its waters, I was hungry to slurp raw oysters at Drago’s Seafood Restaurant.
No, I was starving.
Servers brought platters of blackened red fish topped with crab, charbroiled oysters with lemon and French bread and crawfish ravioli. Stuffed lobster, shrimp étouffée and crab claws. Big bowls of steaming chicken and Andouille sausage gumbo and shrimp and corn bisque jockeyed for room on the crowded table.
As I demurely dabbed dribbles of drawn butter from the corners of my mouth at dinner’s conclusion, I realized: my appetite was utterly satisfied.
No need for dessert tonight.
Ambling back through the French Quarter to our gracious host’s home to fetch the car, we browsed the bustling Frenchmen Art Market on Frenchmen St. and stopped to listen to music filling the humid night air.
The mood was festive, holiday-ish, visually compelling.
Post-dinner, New Orleans seduced me with its sights, sounds and fragrant smells.
Back at the hotel, my dreams were of sugar-dusted beignets and café au lait — and the delicious morning walk in store to get to Café Du Monde.
Kimberly Winter Stern — also known as Kim Dishes — is an award-winning freelance writer and national blogger from Overland Park and co-host with Chef Jasper Mirabile on LIVE! From Jasper’s Kitchen each Saturday on KCMO 710/103.7FM. She is inspired by the passion, creativity and innovation of chefs, restaurateurs and food artisans who make Kansas City a vibrant center of locavore cuisine.