Days 6, 7, and 8 / The Daze Between ...
Monday-Wednesday, April 30-May 2

Our Daze Between this year was relatively low-key, consisting primarily of walking around and eating. The walking enables the eating! Laurie had to at least give the impression that she was doing some work, and I had to do some errands like restocking the kitchen in the suite and doing laundry, so the excitement factor was near zero on these three days. However, the food was another story, and that's where the emphasis will be.

Monday was sunny and very warm, 75 in the morning when I headed out to take a leisurely walk along the river, 81 in the afternoon, and 70 in the evening. The humidity continued to be low, and there was some breeze, but not enough to make a difference.

This morning's walk started with some coffee at the closer-to-Canal Street Envie Espresso Bar and Cafe. The highlight of the walk was seeing some small boats zipping around the river. In and of itself, that isn't so unusual, but these boats were outfitted with not one, but two portable toilets. I later found out that they (the boats, not the toilets) belong to OMI Environmental Solutions, a company that specializes in spill recovery and remediation operations. No idea what they were up to, but there were quite a few of them.

I returned to the Staybridge to meet Laurie, and we walked down Royal Street into the French Quarter to listen to some street music. She already had eaten some leftovers for lunch, so I grabbed a takeout sandwich from the rather compact Rouses Market at the corner of St. Peter and Royal Streets. I ate and she relaxed in Jackson Square as we soaked up the sun, the sights, and the sounds in this wonderful urban space.

After I walked Laurie back to her office away from home I went back down to the river and roamed around some more. This year, I guess because winter is late vacating the upper Midwest, the temperature at the river is much cooler than elsewhere, and when the breeze is blowing across the water it is a lot like air conditioning.

That's it for Monday in the daytime. Tonight we went to Emeril Lagasse's newest offering in town, simply called Meril. It's located on Girod Street between Tchoupitoulas and Magazine Streets in the Warehouse District, just up the street from our hangout at Lucy's, which means it isn't all that far from the Staybridge. It's Lagasse's fourth restaurant in New Orleans. 

When you enter, you are facing a huge bar with a line of eight ducks painted on the brick wall. But that's nothing; when you enter the dining room, which is dominated by Emeril's signature open kitchen, you are face-to-face with a huge blue crab painted on that room's brick wall. There's also a big fish closer to the kitchen, which is framed in a way that almost makes it look like part of the decor as well.

While Lagasse's flagship, Emeril's New Orleans, has long cultivated contemporary food in the city, Emeril's Delmonico offers a fresh take on Creole cuisine, and NOLA Restaurant presents a taste of Acadiana with a global tinge, Meril looks farther afield for inspiration. The menu, which is mostly an array of small plates, is influenced by his international culinary forays.

Named after his daughter, the restaurant showcases dishes that Lagasse himself loves to eat, everything from Vietnamese spring rolls to Spanish-style croquettes. Chef de Cuisine Will Avelar, a veteran in the Lagasse organization, brings his own unique style that complements the diverse menu. At Meril, Avelar works closely with Lagasse to deliver bold and flavorful offerings.

"This is not the typical New Orleans experience," Emeril says. "I've had customers who have been with me for nearly 30 years who see the menu and ask, 'Where's my entree?' Others ask, 'Is it a Creole place?' Meril is how I think people want to eat today." I guess I could see that, but I think people go to his places because the food and service are good.

We were seated next to the window with a view of the entire dining room, which was, well, loud. The restaurant is near the convention center and its hotels and draws from that crowd to be sure. There were a number of large groups, and the noise was probably the biggest downside to the place. But it's definitely a good place for a group, as small plates do dominate the menu. That said, we found it easy to have a more traditional meal. And as has been the case at all of the Emeril's restaurants we have been to, the service was exceptional.

We were in a beer mood tonight, and plenty of local offerings were available on tap. Laurie had Radical Rye IPA from the Gnarly Barley Brewing Company in Hammond, while I had Kingfish Ale from the Chafunkta Brewing Company in Mandeville.

To start, we had crab croquettes, served with a citrus glaze and accompanied by a seaweed salad with black and white sesame seeds. 

Laurie’s main course was the fish of the day, ginger and garlic crusted pompano with curried vegetables, charred cherry tomatoes, and pickled padrón sauce. I had a pork porterhouse with mashed plantains and green tomato chow chow.

Fortunately, smaller plates allow for two desserts! How about cinnamon French toast bread pudding with sweet cream ice cream? And also butter pecan ice cream served in a house-made waffle cone. Emeril's coffee served in a French press at the table is always excellent. Here the cream and sweeteners are provided in stylish small bottles in a wire carrier. A big deal at Meril is the birthday dessert, which is cotton candy served alongside a sparkler. Once one of them came out, every table seemed to be ordering one and it got to be a bit much. Oh well, if that's the worst thing about the place it must have been pretty good!

Tuesday's weather was much more like New Orleans. The skies were partly to mostly cloudy and it was quite humid, with a very strong breeze coming in off of the Gulf. This morning, as I set out for a walk, the temperature was already 78. In the afternoon it got up to 84. 

As I settled down at the river to enjoy the view and the breeze, I was joined by a guy who had a lot on his mind, and we talked about this and that for nearly an hour. I finally had to move on because the breeze was causing my eyes to dry out and burn. These guys that you run into here and there are always interesting, but there's always a bit of an edge to the interaction because you never know which way it's going to turn. I usually find that the person is just looking for someone to listen and treat them with some dignity, which I always try to do. 

Laurie was again back at the Staybridge doing some work. I left the river to roam around Jackson Square and the French Quarter before heading back there around lunch time. She decided to take a few hours off this afternoon, so the first order of business was some lunch. We went to the 9 Roses Café, a Vietnamese restaurant that I discovered last year. It's located on Conti Street about a block and a half up from Decatur Street at the Exchange Place Alley.

Some trivia! Exchange Place was created in 1831. It was intended to be a second, back entrance to the old Merchants' Exchange on Royal Street. Hence, its original name was Passage de la Bourse, or Exchange Passage. 

At 9 Roses this afternoon, Laurie had bánh mì (a sandwich) with lemongrass tofu and the usual cilantro, pickled carrots and daikon, cucumber, and jalapeño peppers. She got the aioli on the side. I had a deconstructed spring roll salad, basically the contents of a spring roll, only more of it: gulf shrimp and pork; julienned carrots, cucumber, and celery; Thai basil; and roasted peanuts, served with prawn crackers and fish sauce vinaigrette. Both were very good.

Escaping the inevitable Communist regime at the end of the Vietnam War, many South Vietnamese fled to the United States in the mid-1970's, and quite a large number settled in Louisiana. Recent surveys put the Vietnamese population in New Orleans at around 14,000, the largest and most vibrant Vietnamese community in the state. However, many thousands more live along the Gulf Coast.

Why New Orleans? For one, the sub-tropical climate and proximity to water appealed to many Vietnamese immigrants. Also, a large percentage of Vietnamese newcomers were Catholic, and both New Orleans and national Catholic charities were spearheading efforts to help new residents find jobs and housing in the city. Many Vietnamese settled in the newer, suburban parts of the city, particularly in New Orleans East but also in parts of Algiers, Avondale, and other places on the West Bank. As their local population grew, the Vietnamese community spread to other neighborhoods and began to revitalize those areas.

Upon arriving, the immigrants took whatever work they could find, in factories, in the service industry, or by doing odd jobs. As they became more established, many opened small businesses such as restaurants, grocery stores, beauty and nail salons, and gift shops. Others moved to places like Grand Isle and Empire in Plaquemines Parish to help grow the fishing and shrimping trades.

The cohesiveness and resilience of New Orleans’ Vietnamese was proven after the flood caused by the failure of the Federal levee system decimated much of New Orleans East after Hurricane Katrina, including the large Vietnamese neighborhood called Versailles, which became subject of a film. The Vietnamese were among the first to return to begin rebuilding their neighborhoods, giving momentum to rebuilding efforts in the East and the rest of the city. Many Vietnamese feel the experience has brought the community even closer together.

Today, the children of the first Vietnamese immigrants have grown up in New Orleans, attending local schools and universities and continuing to help the city thrive. But all generations of the Vietnamese community remain bonded by language, shared experiences, and the close family ties valued by their culture, much of which they share with the rest of the city. 

The city also celebrates Tết Festival, or Vietnamese New Year, every year to enjoy the Lunar New Year and ancient traditions of Vietnamese heritage. Vietnamese restaurants abound throughout the metro area and have a devoted following.

Here's a great story about Vietnamese cuisine in New Orleans that features the 9 Roses family and also the Duong Phong bakery, which has become the go-to source for countless purveyors of po' boy sandwiches (and banh mi sandwiches as well).  

Much more walking around and hanging around the French Quarter followed lunch and lasted well into the afternoon. One of the highlights of any afternoon in Jackson Square is this brass band, which sets up in front of the Presbytère building. 

            

This evening was a true dining experience, as we went to Nina Compton's Compère Lapin restaurant. Our reservation was rather early for us, around 6, but that's the way it goes with this restaurant, which has become incredibly popular. You get in when you can. At least we didn't have far to walk, because it is essentially right next door to the Staybridge. The restaurant is in a sideways "L" shape. You pass by a long bar with a dining area to get to a cozier dining room, in which we were seated toward the back in a very comfortable corner bench-type arrangement in front of a large collection of vintage wines. 

As the daughter of St. Lucia's three-time former Prime Minister, Sir John George Melvin Compton, Nina Compton spent her time growing up between St. Lucia and England before leaving the Caribbean to study at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.

After training in the kitchens of renowned chefs such as Daniel Boulud in New York and Norman Van Aken and Philippe Ruiz in Miami, she finally made her mark while working at Scott Conant's Scarpetta at the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach when she starred as a finalist on Bravo's "Top Chef" series.

Name recognition and shining culinary skills helped her get tapped to open Compère Lapin at a new boutique hotel, the Old No. 77 Hotel and Chandlery. It was an immediate success. Here, she combines classic Caribbean and Creole with refined French technique, evolving the culinary narrative of New Orleans. While the food loosely reflects her Caribbean heritage, it is strikingly original.

In just over three years in New Orleans, Compton has picked up an award as one of Food & Wine's Best New Chef 2017 and the 2018 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef South. She also now serves as the culinary ambassador for St. Lucia. She recently opened her second New Orleans restaurant, Bywater American Bistro

We tried some more Louisiana beers tonight, for Laurie it was Korova, a Baltic oatmeal milk porter from Gnarley Barley of Hammond. I had Holy Roller IPA from the Urban South Brewery right here in New Orleans. 

Along the way there were buttermilk biscuits with regular butter and bacon butter. Now the fun begins. The service at this restaurant was off-the-chart outstanding, by the way.

We had three appetizers (actually only two for Laurie). First to arrive was the spicy pig ears, cut into strips, fried to peppery perfection, and served with a lime wedge and a smoky aioli. The server recommended squeezing the lime into the aioli and was she ever right. Next was hamachi (Pacific yellowtail), served raw with papaya chunks, thin sliced marinated carrots, and habanero-spiced guava curry. Finally, a Caribbean seafood pepper pot: shrimp and drum and cilantro, mint, and baby sorrel arrive in a bowl, into which the server pours a soup made with pureed white asparagus, shellfish stock, ginger, lemongrass, habanero, and coconut milk.

          

   

Laurie's entree was scialatielli, thick homemade noodles, tossed with baby clams, shrimp, toasted pinenuts, and a pureed cauliflower sauce. I had goat curry. The goat is brined, braised, and shredded, served with sweet potato gnocchi, cashew pieces, cilantro, and an incredible deep brown coconut curry.

We just couldn't stop. For dessert we had roasted banana zeppole, (think dense beignets) with a drop of chocolate inside, served with caramel rum sauce and hazelnut pieces. And then there was the refreshing soursop semifreddo with coconut-infused yogurt sauce and meringue, garnished with cucumber ribbons and celery leaves.

Simply put, this was one of the best restaurant meals we've ever had. The portions were reasonable, which is why we got to try such a great variety of dishes. I dare say we will be back.

Wednesday was mostly sunny and very warm and very humid with a strong breeze. The temperature in the morning was 82, rising to a high of 86 in the afternoon with a real feel well above 90. This was much more like New Orleans than the previous days of the trip, and we found ourselves wondering if a change might be in the air.

As usual for the Daze Between, one day must be used to catch up on stuff from home, do laundry (a fact of life when living for 13 days out of a carry-on), and re-stock certain items in the suite. So today we got that done while managing a couple of walks along the river and into the French Quarter. 

Rouses 3

I walked to the Rouses Market in the Central Business District this afternoon (it was very hot). We are very happy to have discovered this store so close to the hotel. It is slightly (ha!) larger than the Rouses in the French Quarter and much better than those tourist trap convenience stores on Canal Street.

The timing of our walking in the French Quarter, this morning by myself (after having morning coffee on the patio at the PJ's in the DoubleTree hotel) and this afternoon with the both of us, coincided with the calliope concert on the paddlewheeler Natchez. I'm not sure if that was good or bad. It is certainly different, and interesting, and there is certainly no avoiding it if you are within blocks of the waterfront dock. The sound echoes throughout the Quarter.

The Natchez looks old, but was actually built in 1975 and is sometimes referred to as the Natchez IX. She is operated by the New Orleans Steamboat Company and makes at least three cruises each day from the docks at the Toulouse Street Wharf.

The Natchez IX is modeled not after the original Natchez, but rather the steamboats Hudson and Virginia. Her steam engines were built in 1925 for the steamboat Clairton, from which the steering system also came. Each engine (video here) produces 1600 horsepower and is some 30 feet in length. 

The bell on the Natchez is made of 250 melted silver dollars and has a copper apron on top. Its paddlewheel is made of white oak and steel, is 25 feet by 25 feet, and weighs more than 26 tons. The three-chime Lunkenheimer steam whistle came from a ship that sank in 1908 on the Monongahela RiverIt was then used at the South Side Mill of the Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation at Pittsburgh before making its way to New Orleans via Cincinnati.

The Natchez IX was launched in Braithwaite, Louisiana. She is 265 feet long and 46 feet wide, has a draft of six feet and weighs 1384 tons. And you might not realize it, but Natchez IX is mostly made of steel, to comply with United States Coast Guard rules.

The calliope on the Natchez can play 32 notes and, weather permitting, plays at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily. Calliopes got their start with the steam whistle. Loud and overbearing, that shrieking device was used at cotton gins and mills to signal work times and fire alarms. Riverboats then employed the whistle to signal their arrival and departure.

In 1855, Joshua C. Stoddard, an American inventor, assembled a grouping of steam whistles in a chromatic arrangement with a keyboard control mechanism. A cousin of the pipe organ, the device joined as a choir an array ranging from 25 to 67 musical whistles, each of which, by nature, was tonally imperfect. Calling upon the muse of epic poetry, Stoddard named the device "Calliope."

Quick to seize upon the new entertainment medium, steamboats along the rivers of America were outfitted with calliopes to displace the brass bands that suddenly became drowned out by the louder musical contraption. Over the next 20 years the calliope, or steam piano, became the standard musical accoutrement for passenger-carrying river craft.

It was not long before traveling circuses featured calliopes showcased in grand carriages, pulled by mule teams, and some elaborately mounted on rail cars. The use of bellows-driven air softened the tone a bit, and facilitated accompanying percussion to augment the festive music of the calliope. 

Next came carousels with integrated calliope music. It became the sound of fun and excitement.

However, they were hard to maintain and gradually were replaced by recordings in most cases. Today, fewer than 10 such calliopes are still in use on riverboats, and the number is dwindling. 

Having the tonal qualities of a gin whistle can be both good and bad. Easily heard, the calliope is capable of broadcasting its piping sounds over a wide stretch of river basin. That's the good part. The bad is that the tone is imparted by steam or air pressure, the increase of which bends sharp, and the decrease of which bends flat, the musical notes. Thus, the calliope has a tin ear. However, the slightly off-key voice is not one to be mistaken, and certainly not to be disliked.

Unique in every sound, the calliope exudes a musical lightheartedness, washing care away. It is the musical voice of joy. Here's 30 seconds of the Natchez calliope.

On my morning walk, I also spent some time watching the crew of the Picton Castle, the tall ship that has been moored on the riverfront all week, busy working in the rigging and masts, which led me to believe they will be setting sail for who knows where soon. 

Around 5 we walked a few blocks to Lafayette Square in the business district to take in their weekly "Concert in the Square," this week featuring Amanda Shaw, who has been playing the fiddle and performing Cajun music since she was 8 years old (she's 27 now). Here's a bit of this portion of this evening's concert.

Also performing was the audacious in-your-face brass of the Trumpet Mafia, with 16 of the city's finest young trumpeters. Nicholas Payton joined in the trumpet fun this evening as well. It was awesome. You can read a lot more about the Trumpet Mafia in the Day 11 report in 2016. Here's a video that I took, and here's another one, longer, that someone else took, that includes Payton.

We had dinner at our favorite retired surfer bar in New Orleans, Lucy's, where I had Abita's Boot ale and Laurie had Tin Roof's VooDoo American Pale Ale. She had blackened redfish tacos with mango cabbage slaw and avocado crema. I had my blackened redfish on a roll with avocado crema and cabbage slaw sans mango. 

          

A little later on we walked over to the Pinkberry on Canal Street for a late evening fro-yo on a lovely, warm evening. And that completes the story of our very relaxing 2018 Daze Between.

© Jeff Mangold 2012