Monday, May 31, 2010

Luling Mansion: The three-sided Italianate

Last week, I drove too far past Cafe Degas on Esplanade and had to find a place to turn around. Things can get kind of hinky street-wise around the bayou (translation: I get lost), so I hurriedly took a  right on Verna Street, made the block and came back around on Leda.  I suddenly slowed my car to a crawl. Rising up on the left-hand side of the street was the most peculiar mansion, one whose architecture stood out drastically from the shotguns and craftsman-style homes that had obviously been built up around it.

Pulling over, I grabbed my camera and got out of the car. As I neared the large, wrought-iron fence surrounding the house, I spotted an ornate iron sign naming the structure as the Luling Mansion.

There was one particular feature of the house that had me had a back. It's this grand mansion with balconies, balustrades and tall arched windows but only on three sides!  Was the rear of the mansion facing some kind of wall?  A line of trees perhaps?  It just looks so bizarre because when you approach the building by car, the first part you see of it is the back, this large flat, stone wall with a small wrought iron balcony on the second floor with stairs leading to the ground.  Perhaps I'm showing my ignorance (it certainly wouldn't be the first time), but is this a common feature of Italianate architecture?

Regardless of this oddity, I still think the mansion is stunning and perhaps just a wee bit creepy, which totally works for me.  After all, Florence Luling spent a small fortune in 1865 (approximately $25,000) hiring the top architectural firm Gallier & Esterbrook to design and build his family home only to lose his two sons shortly after the house was finished.  His boys drowned in the nearby Bayou St. John.

Luling later sold the mansion in 1871 to the Louisiana Jockey Club for $60,000.

One historian waxed romantic, calling the mansion "one of the most beautiful places in the country."  He praised the grounds, vistas and landscape...not to mention the lavish parties held by the Louisiana Jockey Club featuring hundreds of Chinese lanterns.  I could imagine how grand this house was in its heyday with grounds fronting Esplanade Avenue and two smaller buildings adjacent to the main house. 

In the Bay Area there is a house called The Carolands that reminds me of the Luling Mansion, creepy history and all.  Only to get to it, you have to navigate narrow winding roads through the hills.  I can't tell you how many times I got lost just trying to find it.

Maybe here in New Orleans, getting lost is the key.

Friday, May 28, 2010

S is for Stanley, that's good enough for me

Could you imagine knowing the luxury of dining in a restaurant where you are served seven courses of culinary art, each dish an original masterpiece? Have you ever dared to dream of epicurean nirvana, where a chef's heavenly creations enable sensory bliss? Do you have the financial wherewithal to make this dream a reality by visiting Chef Scott Boswell's famous Stella! Restaurant?

I don't. But I can afford to visit Boswell's Stanley Restaurant in Jackson Square.

My weight was going down pretty steadily for a while, but this last week I have had more difficulty sticking to the "plan." Surprisingly, my willpower has held out in regards to quitting smoking (going on 4 1/2 months now!), but I'm one of those people who eat when they get anxious or depressed and it seems like life has really been sticking it to me lately. I realize this isn't a good excuse for a lapse, it's just an explanation. At any rate, I gained four pounds this week and probably don't deserve to cheat at all...but I did anyway.

John had to go into to work on Thursday, so we decided to drive downtown a few hours beforehand and enjoy lunch in the French Quarter. It was a hot, sunny day and a simple stroll from the car through Jackson Square became a sweaty affair. I couldn't help heaving a sigh of relief when we finally stepped inside the cool restaurant. The fans were spinning lazily and blessed air conditioning slapped us full in the face as we selected a table near the window looking out towards the square.

After trying to decide between breakfast and lunch (Eggs Benedict Po-Boy anyone?), we placed our order and watched the people-parade from the window. Our server brought out our drinks and my senses slowly returned as I sipped on the deliciously cool beverage. We couldn't help but select a couple of Italian Sodas and John chose blood-orange while I opted for watermelon. Both were perfect, not too sweet and ice cold.

Although it was hot outside, I had to order a small bowl of gumbo and I am so glad I did. Flavored with a dark roux, Stanley's gumbo included P&J oysters, chicken, Gulf shrimp and andouille sausage. Now, I don't usually like seafood in gumbo, it has a tendency to be overcooked and chewy. This time I was not disappointed. The shrimp was the perfect texture and yet they still managed to soak up the rich, nutty flavor of the roux. John and I made quick work of the gumbo, soaking up the last drops with fresh sliced French bread.

Soon after we finished, our entrees arrived and it was difficult to restrain ourselves as we snapped photos for this blog. We both had opted for lunch items; John chose the Big Stanley Burger, I ordered New Orleans' Best Reuben and we also got a side of onion rings to share.

As it turns out, New Orleans' Best Reuben could very easily live up to its name. I used to make Reubens frequently in my own home, but they never tasted quite like this. Corned beef and pastrami draped with both Provolone and Swiss cheeses, grilled sauerkraut and Russian dressing on toasted rye bread. The Reuben at Stein's Deli is the only version to come close to what I devoured at Stanley. I would have to compare them side-by-side to select a winner...what a lunch that would be!

John's burger was also very tasty, although I though it odd that the server didn't ask how he wanted it cooked. 10 ounces of Angus beef topped with two slices of American cheese, three strips of bacon and Stanley's "Special Sauce" made for a quite memorable and juicy burger. Both of our sandwiches were so large, we were only able to finish half, but the fresh, crispy onion rings were unable to escape our ardor.

We saved half of our sandwiches for later on purpose. You see, although Stanley serves some pretty excellent meals, in essence the restaurant styles itself as an old fashioned malt shop.  So you can understand why we desperately wanted to save some room for dessert...especially the house made ice cream.

We agreed on the Stanley Split, which is basically a banana split featuring fresh berries (strawberries and blueberries), chocolate sauce and three scoops of Stanley's own Chunky Chartres ice cream.  The house made scoops were full of chocolate chips and walnuts making a spoonful of ice cream feel like so much more than a mouthful, but we still finished the dessert with ease.

Even though I am financially unable to enjoy dining at a stellar restaurant like Stella!, I am glad that I possess enough cash to sample Boswell's cuisine at Stanley and that's good enough for me.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

A haven for dogs and their people: The Bridge Lounge

Despite the obvious fact that there are dog lovers all over the city of New Orleans (and the world for that matter), there are depressingly few places we can take them.  Sure, we can take them to the park or to the levee, but how many establishments out there are legitimate fans of man's best friend?

There is one bar I know of that actually encourages patrons to bring along their four-legged pals...the Bridge Lounge.

Located on the corner of Erato and Magazine Streets, the Bridge Lounge is unassuming and casual with sparse decor and low lights. A long, granite bar stretches along the right wall while black tables and chairs are scattered throughout the remaining space.  Also, perhaps to display the bar owner's passion for pooches, framed black & white photographs of dogs adorn the walls wherever there's available space. 

For those dog owners concerned about accidents, the bar floor is painted concrete, so you'll have no worries and easy cleanup of any possible mishaps.  Additionally, with the usual sweltering summers we experience, the stone floor and bar only make for cooler temperatures, a definite plus for any overheated customer.

I had already heard rumors of the delicious mojitos featured at the Bridge Lounge, but I was in the mood for something a little different.  From several large chalkboard menus I selected one of their signature drinks, the Porch Swing, doesn't that sound refreshing on a hot summer day?

Well, it certainly was!  Described as a "homemade lemonade and ginger ale mix," the Porch Swing offered a crisp and cooling experience with muddled cucumber, Pims, lemonade, Hendrix Gin and ginger ale.  After finishing this tall refreshment, I could see myself sitting on a porch swing watching the world go by...which could either mean I'm insane or simply feeling the effects of my sublime bartender's heavy handed pour.

When I drained the last delicious drops from my icy glass, the bartender (and soon to be owner) Max Chesney, graciously suggested I try another special cocktail from the chalkboard called St. Germain's Infirmary.  Although this might sound dangerous considering my earlier hallucinations, I decided to take the risk.  At any rate, I knew a concoction prepared with St.Germain's Elderflower Liquor could only be another fantastic drinking experience.

Made with peach bitters, house made sour mix, St. Germain Elderflower Liquor, a splash of orange juice and some New Amsterdam Gin, the St. Germaine's Infirmary packed an herbal infused punch along with the sweet taste of summer fruit. While sipping, I turned around on my bar stool and watched as a sudden, summertime downpour drove more customers inside.  Someone once told me it was good luck to see rain and sunshine at the same time and I couldn't help but feel fortuitous while relaxing at the Bridge Lounge.

The rain stopped almost as suddenly as it started and I was forced to take my leave.  Unfortunately, I had to leave my dog Pippin at home and he desperately needed to go for a walk since I'd been gone most of the day.  Next time, I'll just bring my sweet shih-tzu with me and we can both take our ease together.  Maybe Max will even hang Pippin's photograph on the doggie wall of fame?  I will have to go back for a few more drinks and find out...

Michelle Levine's "Pillars"

Known globally from famous photographs taken in her own flamboyantly vivid Mardi Gras costumes, Michelle Levine is more than just one of New Orleans' most recognized characters.  She's an incredible artist who is not only enthusiastic about her work, she is excited about anyone who is excited about art. Michelle's devotion and energy to organizing a venue to help promote other local artists is evident in her recent advancement to head of the Arts Market of New Orleans held in Palmer Park the last Saturday of every month.

It goes without saying that the costumes Michelle has designed for the Mondo Kayo accurately embraces the frolicking image of the Carnivalesque parade that rolls at the crack of dawn every Mardi Gras Day, but did you know how incredibly cool Michelle Levine is?  I do!

Earlier this evening, Michelle hosted an opening exhibit of her latest collection at Cafe Degas, a cozy French restaurant tucked into a screen of foliage on Esplanade Avenue.  I was finally able to meet this polite yet vivacious artist and talk a little about her latest series.  Entitled "Pillars," each of Levine's pieces featured a tall salt cellar with bright, colorful backgrounds and highly reflective tops.  It was precisely those reflections that drew me to this collection.

Apparently, I am not alone.  Michelle admitted her fascination with the shapes and colors created inside the reflection and confessed a growing obsession for this unique subject.  "I keep walking by this pot in my kitchen, analyzing the angle of the reflection," she said, offering her selfless smile.  In her search for other mirror-like objects, she told me of a garbage can that she can take anywhere and capture its reflection on canvas.  I can't wait to see how her ideas flesh out...

Although I desperately wished I could have stayed for dinner (moules-frites!), it wasn't my cheat night and I had lots left to do when I got home.  Currently, Michelle also has another exhibition on display featuring depictions of different McDonald's Restaurant signs ravaged by Hurricane Katrina now showing at the Convergence Center on Canal.

I look forward to seeing more work by Michelle in the future and perhaps, in 2011, I will finally be able to see her costumes firsthand when at last I can wake up early enough on Mardi Gras Day to witness Mondo Kayo and Zulu for the very first time.

It's harder than you think!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Do you see a giraffe?

Whether it be due to divergent cultural influences, the sticky swamp air or too much cayenne pepper, you can expect the unexpected when you live in New Orleans.  I've had some of the most intense, most vividly colorful experiences of my entire life in this city, from getting hit on by a transvestite in fishnets and a bustier to being stuck at a traffic light for over an hour while an unscheduled (or at least unexpected) Mardi Gras Indian parade rolled by.  Once, I followed a black and yellow butterfly as big as my face on a walk through the Garden District only to see it alight on a bright, tropical flower nearly three times its size.  I've been caught in random rain storms that soak to the skin in seconds, tongue-kissed by an over-enthusiastic girlfriend during Krewe du Vieux and I've even been arrested for disturbing the peace during Lundi Gras

At last, I finally realized that the surreal and unusual are exactly what to expect when living in New Orleans, a city where the extraordinary becomes commonplace and, strangely enough, quite normal.

For example, almost every day after dropping my boyfriend off at work, I drive back Uptown on Tchoupitoulas Street and I follow it all the way until it bottoms out at Audubon Zoo.  Almost every time I take this route, I inevitably spot a giraffe hanging out really close to the fence.  Naturally, the first time I remember to bring my camera along, the giraffe isn't there.

Anyhow, that's a picture of where he (or she) usually shows up.  Maybe next time...

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Eating for the ice cream impaired...

I've been getting outside more often than ever, walking my dog, running errands and exploring my neighborhood and as much as I am enjoying all this time's friggin' hot out there!  Last week, I went to the Crescent City Farmers Market with my friend Dani and we shopped (I got sunflowers!), taking a total of perhaps thirty minutes.  When I got home I developed a headache, felt pretty woozy and nauseous and then wanted to pass out.  In other words, I got heat stroke!  From a half of an hour in the sun?  Really?

Anyhow, with the sudden onslaught of heat we've been feeling the last few days, it seems I can think of little else but ice cream.  I get an image in my head of strolling languidly through my neighborhood, licking on a large scoop balanced atop a sugar cone, so absorbed in its creamy coolness that I'm not really paying attention to where I am going or how long it's going to take to get there. This wonderful daydream slowly melts away when I remind myself that I can't have any!  Well, at least not 'till Thursday...

So what else can I do but write about it?

I have a proposal.  How about if I recommend the first few ice cream* sources in New Orleans that pop into my head and y'all can go get some and tell me about it?  That way, I can enjoy the delicious ice cream experience vicariously through you. It'll be like volunteering to read for the visually impaired! You don't even have to take my recommendations, just tell me about an incredible ice cream experience.  Deal?

My first stop would have to be Creole Creamery on Prytania.  When I think ice cream, that is usually the first place to pop into my head.  What truly makes it a winner is the creativity of Chef Bryan Gilmore.  I never knew ice cream could come in flavors like Cucumber-Dill, Pistachio Curry or Strawberry Jalapeno Cheesecake and taste fantastic!  They offer simpler flavors too (which are equally delicious), but it's better to come here and test your limits.  I could go for a scoop of Salted Caramel right now...

Believe it or not, I have to say I get a massive hankering for Peanut Butter and Chocolate ice cream from Baskin Robbins.  I can't help it!  I know it's a chain but that particular flavor haunts me!  Something about the thick ribbons of peanut butter probably, digging through the rich chocolate to discover those veins of peanut paradise is one of my favorite pastimes.  I know, I need help.

The final option would be to walk into Rouses and grab a couple of pints from New Orleans Ice Cream Co.  My favorite flavors so far are Creole Cream Cheese, Coffee & Chicory and Cajun Rum Raisin, but all of them are delicious and readily available.  I can even get a pint from the 24-hour Walgreens when I get that ice cream ache late at night.

So get out there all of you who are ice cream enabled!  Eat some delicious, creamy ice cream and come tell me about it.  Spare no detail, I want to know what you smelled, tasted and felt.  I want to know if you laughed or cried, exalted in the ecstasy that is ice cream or even rushed headlong into the adventure and ended up with a bad case of brain freeze!  Enjoy your ice cream episode and share it with me, pretty please?

*I specifically left gelato out of this blog on purpose.  That's another story!

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The abandoned house on Magazine Street

I've always been fascinated by the supernatural.  Ghosts, spirits, and poltergeists became a small obsession of mine, especially when I was younger.  Books relating "true" ghost stories and haunted houses littered my shelves and captured my imagination.  Quite often, these stories would take place in a small rural neighborhood, completely unlike my own but quaint and romantic, where everyone knew everyone else.  There would always be one house or building in the neighborhood that was abandoned and neglected, a target for vandalism and a source for urban legend...not to mention ghosts.

When I would put down the books and explore my own hometown, I would frequently be disappointed.  There really are no abandoned properties in the Bay Area.  Every bit of space that can be used is used.  No property ever stands empty for long, especially houses.

In New Orleans this is simply not true.  There are abandoned properties just about everywhere you look like old warehouses, abandoned homes, half demolished buildings and weed-infested lots. This is not a recent phenomenon either, these abandoned properties were around well before the flooding in 2005 and still exist today.

There is one home in particular that I can't stop thinking about.  Right on the corner of Magazine Street and Audubon, there is a double shotgun that is so overgrown with ivy and brambles that I point it out every time my boyfriend and I drive by.  Nearly every single time we pass it, hundreds of questions roll through my brain and fantasies arise about the owners...or lack thereof.

Where are the owners?  Are they still inside the house?  Do they still haunt the empty rooms?  What do the neighbors say about this property?  What are the rumors? Did a murder take place behind the ivy draped walls? More than one?

There is a nice bike with a basket leaning upright on the front porch that has ivy growing through it, but is bereft of a chain or lock.  I know this is a terrible question, but why hasn't it been stolen?  Are thieves even afraid to approach this house?  Perhaps the hip-high brambles are enough of a deterrent...or perhaps something else entirely frightens them away.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Another famous Ziggy at Maple Street Patisserie

When you think of the name "Ziggy", a slew of famous characters come to mind; Ziggy Marley, Ziggy Stardust, Evander "Ziggy" Hood and even Ziggy, the well-known cartoon strip.  Thursday afternoon I was forced to add another personality to the "Ziggy" hall of fame, Ziggy Cichowski...Master Pastry Chef at Maple Street Patisserie (7638 Maple Street, (504) 247-7912).  This was my 37th cheat and I have lost  a total of 62 pounds. 

Ever since Lorin Gaudin mentioned the new patisserie on Maple Street a couple weeks ago, I have been searching for a way to try it out.  I mean, all of my cheats usually consist of an entire meal that includes an appetizer, entree and dessert.  Was I sure I wanted to sacrifice an entire precious cheat meal for a literal binge session that would only feature large quantities of pastry?  You can bet my ass I would!

Like indulgent children in a candy shop with too much pocket money, John and I visited Maple Street Patisserie with one thing on our minds, enjoying as much pastry as humanly possible before we made ourselves sick.  The enthusiastic gentleman behind the counter was ready and willing to help, suggesting we try one of everything (it was so difficult to choose!) and we almost did.

John just started pointing to delicacies in the case, picking out a raspberry bear claw, an apple danish and a chocolate cupcake.  Showing uncharacteristic restraint I selected only two items, a strawberry turnover and a banana cream tart.  The coffee we ordered came from a "serve-yourself" stand of Luzianne dispensers in the corner of the bakery.  Noticing our excited response to the treats before us, Chef Ziggy came out and offered yet another delight that was his grandmother's recipe, a apple pastry shaped like a tart, but with a dense sweet crust that reminded me almost of a cookie.

Although we shared our sweet feast, John and I were still unable to completely finish all six pastries.  It was no surprise that the bear claw disappeared quickly, unlike most I've tried it was crunchy, flaky and light with large granules of sugar adorning the crust and a thin, tart layer of raspberry inside.  The other items, although fantastic, were simply too much richness to handle.  We were able to demolish most of the strawberry turnover, the filling surprised me mostly with the distinct flavor of fresh berries that weren't overwhelmed by too much sugar.

We dipped into the decadent banana cream tart featuring thick slices of real banana, creamy custard and whipped cream resting in a chocolate cookie-like shell but were unable to finish it.  We also tried, in vain, to eat all of the apple danish and Chef Ziggy's most generous gift but we simply couldn't go on.  The chocolate cupcake wasn't even touched, although you can be sure we gobbled the moist, heavenly cake later that day.

While catching our breath, Ziggy chatted with us, relating his baking schedules, the popularity of his creations and his upcoming catering gigs.  Animated by obvious enthusiasm and devotion to his craft, he joked with us good-naturedly and encouraged us to request anything we wished from his bakery, confident in his talent and skill.  He offered us a sample of some whole grain bread that was fresh from the oven, relishing our reactions and basking in our praises.  John mentioned my unnatural obsession with bread (it is easily my biggest dietary vice) and Ziggy encouraged it, recommending I visit the bakery in the morning when the smell of freshly baked bread permeates the shop...I wouldn't be surprised if I could smell it several blocks away.

With a large box full of leftovers, John and I finally left the patisserie.  We were utterly full, sated by the sinfully delicious desserts we just ate and high from an inordinate amount of sugar.  Ziggy's magical pastries had elevated our senses and further exaggerated why I must stick to my dietary regime.  It will be incredibly difficult to avoid the Maple Street Patisserie in the future.  Don't be surprised if you see me lurking around the building, sniffing indiscreetly every time the doors open, stealing jealous glimpses of string-tied boxes filled with goodies unimaginable carried by patrons unaware of my stalking.

Only please if you see me, don't offer me a bite!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

My horoscope says I'll win the lottery...

 Although I know it's "stuff and nonsense" quoth my mom, reading astrology forecasts can often be a self-indulgent, egocentric form of entertainment that can lift your spirits, make you laugh and generally make you feel better about yourself.  Sometimes, I get the urge to see how many horoscopes I can find online whose predictions are similar enough to make me believe (or hope) that things might just be going my way.

Well, yesterday I did such a search and came up with some very compelling forecasts that concern my financial future.  Apparently in the entire month of May and the beginning of June, Mars will be moving in it's most strongest orbit (what?) in Leo (that's me) which means money matters will show a marked improvement.

I was recently laid off and have since run into some difficulties surrounding my application for unemployment.  I thought to myself, "This must mean that I will finally start receiving my unemployment checks!"

But how very un-glamorous is that? 

Then it hit me...maybe I am going to inherit a large amount of cash or perhaps I will win the lottery!  Dreams of my status as a millionaire formed quickly due to my over-active imagination and I was stunned into silence while my thoughts perused the endless possibilities available to those who are filthy rich.  But suddenly, my reverie popped like sticky, chewing gum bubble in my face.  How can I win the lottery if I don't play?

Actually, I've never played the lottery (gasp). I know, I could someone have NEVER bought a lottery ticket? It's simple really, the crazy odds just never appealed to me and I hate gambling.  So, since the stars above (and the planets) have come together to grant me this financial boon, I felt it was like cheating fate if I didn't go out and buy a ticket right away.

Believe it or not, I called my friend to ask her how to go about purchasing a lottery ticket so I wouldn't feel like a moron walking into the gas station.  After she recovered from her shock, she told me I could either choose the numbers or do a quick pick where the machine chooses for you.  Then she proceeded to list all the different lotteries I could play...I felt overwhelmed!

Luckily, when I got inside the gas station, there were only two choices; Louisiana State Lottery and the Powerball.  I asked for a quick pick for both lotteries (better safe than sorry?) and, if I do say so myself, acted pretty professional about it.  The cashier never would have guessed I was a lotto newbie...that is, unless, the light of excitement in my eyes gave it away.

So now I have two tickets for the drawings this Wednesday.  The Powerball is at $145 million and the Lotto is at $950,000.  Wish me luck?'s written in the stars!

Monday, May 17, 2010

No cheating at Pho Tau Bay

Cross my heart and hope to die, I swear I didn't cheat on my diet today.  I dined at Pho Tau Bay.

John and I met some friends for lunch on the Westbank and we all agreed to meet for pho at our favorite restaurant.  It was my old co-worker, Leigh who got me addicted to pho back when we used to work in Harahan.  There is this little eatery in a strip mall along Jefferson Highway called Kim Anh's, only a few blocks away from where our office was.  Leigh often tried to convince me to eat there almost every day.  I thought pho would start to leak from my ears after a while, but it was just a matter of time before I was hooked too.

When the office moved into the CBD, we tried out Pho Tau Bay (113 Westbank Expressway) and have been loyal fans ever since.  Not only does Pho Tau Bay have excellent pho, they have a huge menu to please any palate and offer some of the finest Vietnamese cuisine I have ever enjoyed.

There is one dish in particular that I simply can't resist, the Pho Tau Bay Won Ton Soup, one of the chef's specialties and at only $6.95, a great deal for lunch.  The soup is replete with a rich broth, thin slices of pork, lots of vegetables and delicate won tons stuffed with shrimp and pork.  For an additional $1.50, I like to add some rice noodles to the soup and that is all she wrote.  After a bowl of this incredible soup, and possibly an egg roll (cha gio) if I'm feeling naughty, I'm completely full and more than satisfied.

The best part is that with all of the vegetables and lean meat, I'm not breaking the rules of my diet even though it feels like I am!  Pho anyone?

Arcadian Books & Prints: A dream come true

Ever since I was a young girl falling in love with the written word for the first time, I formulated this image in my head of the perfect bookstore.  This fantasy locale would have a large bell over the door that jangled noisily when anyone ventured inside and the overwhelming scent of musty books would hit you square in the face as you entered and cling to you long after you left.

To make your way through the small store would require careful navigation around towering stacks of books and tall cases packed as closely as possible with every inch of space filled, dusty gems filed away for sale two or sometimes three rows deep.  The owner would have half frame spectacles worn on a silver chain around his neck and would only put them on when reading or calculating purchases on notepaper by hand because his ancient register was busted.  He would know every single title he had in his store and, regardless of how disorganized it might seem, he would know exactly where it was located in the jumble.

Ever since I imagined this perfect bookstore, this treasure trove of everything I hold sacred, I'd not discovered one single place that even came close.  It wasn't until I met a fellow book lover here in New Orleans (my best friend Dani) who brought me to Arcadian Books & Prints.

If you've never been, you can find this gem tucked away at 714 Orleans Avenue behind the St. Louis Cathedral in the French Quarter.  It's a tiny shop that lies just around the corner from the fabulous art and antique shops on Royal Street and just steps away from the crowds on Bourbon...and if you aren't looking for it, you could easily walk right by.  It is all I have ever dreamed of in a bookstore.

Not only does Arcadian possess almost everything I described above, but it also offers used books and  specializes in books on Louisiana history.  Sometimes on the steps in front of the tall, French doors to the shop, you will find a cardboard box marked "free" filled with books for anyone who might happen by.  I can't help but be in love with this place.  If I lived nearby, I would stop by to search for literary gold on a regular basis.

You know what else?  I am not surprised that it took moving to New Orleans before I found the bookstore from my imagination.  Discoveries like these, ones so close to my desires and personal aspirations, only strengthen my belief that I belong here.  It seems to me that when your dreams at long last become reality, you know you've finally made it home.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Finding food on Facebook: Fat Hen Grill

Before I began using them, social networking sites and services like Facebook and Twitter used to make me cringe.  I kept thinking, "Does anyone really care if 'Bohemian Rhapsody' is playing over and over in my head or why I prefer mayo to Miracle Whip?"  As it turns out...they do.

But what's truly amazing about social networking, aside from communing with family and friends across vast distances, is being able to tout yourself and your work.  You can share your efforts with everyone you know in a matter of keystrokes and draw people together who appreciate the same things you do in a matter of moments.  For example, over the past week while I was considering a few different places for my cheat meal, I kept getting menu announcements from Fat Hen Grill on Facebook.  After seeing posts discussing the "synergy of a burger", Crabmeat Mango Salsa or a Soft-shell Crab BLT, Fat Hen Grill snuck into my list of places to go and I decided to try it out.

This is my 36th cheat and I am down 61 pounds.

Fat Hen Grill is a fairly new establishment that recently moved from their former location on Citrus to the old Pellittieri's building on Hickory Avenue in Harahan. I think I preferred the old locale only because it looked more like a diner whereas the new building still has the feel of an Italian restaurant with dark green faux-finish on the walls and lots of four-top tables instead of squishy, yet comfy booths.  I let my criticisms fall by the wayside though because the move was very recent and it appeared they were still trying to pull things together.

Fortunately, my friend (and local Food Goddess) Lorin Gaudin and her husband Andre decided to have lunch with John and I for this particular cheat and we ended up languishing over lunch for some time.  It did take us a little while to order, but only because there was so much to choose from! After the three menus circled the table (breakfast, lunch and specials), we finally made our decisions.

We started with the Crawfish Biscuit, a homemade biscuit served with a crawfish cream sauce drizzled on top.  I thought the biscuit was light and fluffy, really quite tasty, but the sauce was just a bit too tart...perhaps a little too much lemon?  Andre had also ordered some Onion Rings that came out as an appetizer which I totally enjoyed.  They were nice and crispy and were also, most obviously homemade.

Before too long, our entrees arrived.  John got a Barnyard Burger featuring American cheese, grilled onions and Fat Hen's special sauce served with French fries.  Although it tasted nice, I thought it was odd that the patty was all broken apart inside the bun, which made for difficult handling.

I had ordered the Crispy Fried Soft-shell Crab BLT dressed with avocado mayonnaise and a side of macaroni and cheese.  The mac and cheese was tasty with large penne noodles that held a thick, gooey cheese sauce, but my sandwich was somewhat of a struggle.  Even though I enjoyed the flavor, trying to contain a fried soft-shell crab plus several strips of Applewood smoked bacon and fresh lettuce and tomato on small slices of toasted wheat bread made no sense to me at all.  I think using a sturdier bread like sourdough or even French might have saved the day.

Andre chose Chicken Fried Steak served with seasonal vegetables, mashed potatoes and Black Pepper Country Gravy while Lorin opted for the Harahan Patty Melt served on sourdough with American Cheese.  Out of all four entrees, I liked Lorin's the best, but in general I found all of the food to be a little too heavy for me.  Am I really starting to dislike your typical "greasy spoon" type of cuisine?  Has my diet begun to steer me away from the things I love most?  Regardless, I was really full after only a few bites.  Maybe my stomach just won't let me eat like I did in college anymore...

Considering I want to lose weight, this isn't such a bad thing.

Well, even if most of my lunch ended up in a to-go box, I still couldn't walk away from this cheat without dessert.  There were several options like Banana Cream Pie and a Chocolate "Glob", but for some reason (okay, it's my obsession with Queen), I couldn't help wanting to try the Fat Bottomed Chocolate Cake. The waitress assured us that the cake was house made and quickly saw to our order.  She split the normally humongous slice into two pieces so we could share the dessert in couples.  Even though I enjoyed the rich, chocolate flavor of the cake, it was quite dry and sadly disappointing. 

Although the cheat wasn't quite what I was hoping for, I still had a fantastic time dining with Lorin, Andre and John and thought that Fat Hen Grill had a lot of potential. It's obvious they use fresh ingredients and that they care a lot about prompt service and a clean environment.  I will have to come back again and try the infamous "Womlette" (an omelet served atop a Belgian Waffle) or perhaps their Eggs Benedict some time in the future.

Until then, I feel the urge to share "Another One Bites the Dust" while debating the flavor value of non-fat mayonnaise (if indeed there is any) on Facebook. Wanna be my friend?

Friday, May 14, 2010

Thursday, May 13, 2010

"Toasting with Margarita" at Le Booze

When I first heard about "Toasting with Margarita" at Le Booze in the Royal Sonesta Hotel, I knew I just had to attend at least once. Since Margarita Bergen recently received her bartender's license, I was under the impression that the social diva herself would be behind the bar for the happy hour serving drinks with a local celebrity guest. Although I sadly misinterpreted the event, I still had a fantastic time hanging out with Margarita and her incredibly diverse group of friends and admirers while we sipped cocktails priced at only $7 for this very special happy hour.

Le Booze is a long, copper-topped bar with French doors that open up right onto Bourbon Street. Lucky enough to quickly find parking on Dauphine, I had arrived a little bit early and ordered one of the "suggested" cocktails, a Blackberry Margarita. Being a purist when it comes to margaritas, the sweetness of the drink didn't really appeal to me, but I love blackberries and considered it well worth the risk.

Shortly after taking my first sip, in walks Margarita cradling her sweet puppy dog Chiquita and bursting with smiles. You just can't help being friends with someone who has a knack for making you feel like the most important person in the world. Although she seemed a bit nervous concerning the turnout for the event, she really had nothing to worry about.

Before I finished my drink, people began filing into the small space, finding stools around the bar and ordering the particular beverages that were Margarita "tested & approved." I decided to try the mojito next that had a champagne topper as opposed to club soda. I liked this cocktail much more than the last, not only because it was a freshly-muddled mojito (as it should be), but the champagne added a distinct crispness to the summertime drink that I really enjoyed.

Whenever you hang out at a Margarita-hosted event, you can be sure to meet some incredibly colorful and interesting people. At this particular mini-soiree, I was honored to meet the one and only, Uncle Lionel. Lionel Batiste is a famous jazz and blues musician who has been performing in New Orleans since the early 40's when he was only 11 years old! He is such a sweet gentleman who graciously allowed me to photograph him and I do hope I get the opportunity to meet him again one day soon.

In case you were wondering, Margarita hosts her "Toasting" event every other Tuesday at Le Booze so the next happy hour should be held on May 25th. As we all know, every hour spent with the social diva of New Orleans is a happy hour so be sure not to miss it!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Books: Historic Photos of Louisiana

This weekend on Saturday, May 15th, Dean Shapiro will be signing  his latest book, Historic Photos of Louisiana, at Blue Cypress Books on Oak Street.  For this particular edition, Shapiro put his vast historical knowledge and research capabilities to the test in order to properly caption each and every image in this amazing collection.

For someone like me who has been fascinated by this city for most of my life, but didn't grow up here, this book is a valuable record of  historical events and locations that makes not only New Orleans, but the entire state of Louisiana what it is today.

In the preface, Shapiro explains how culturally divergent Louisiana is from the rest of the United States.  How varied influences and relative isolation enabled much of the state to retain its cultural distinctiveness, that "personality" is what draws visitors from all over the world to visit.

The photos in this particular tome range from Reconstruction in 1865 all the way to images of local livelihood in 1969.  For example, a photo from 1865 shows a statue of Henry Clay in the middle of Canal Street, the same statue that now sits in Lafayette Square.  Another depicts the flooded streets of Alsatia in East Carroll Parish in 1912, a record of how residents in rural areas struggled with flooding along the Mississippi River before levees were built.  Yet another from the 1969 Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival captures gamblers huddled around a table, betting on which crawfish will win the race.

Most of the photographs are astoundingly clear considering their age, allowing you to almost step inside and take a look around. Only slight touch ups were made to the photographs where imperfections developed over the passage of time and all of the images for the tome were supplied by government institutions like the State Library of Louisiana and the Library of Congress.

Turning the pages becomes akin to strolling through time, watching the cities and parishes of Louisiana develop as well as witnessing some as they disappear.  Historic Photos of Louisiana is an excellent, well made photographic journey through history that serves as an incredible volume that anyone who is enthralled with all things local would have to have as part of their collection.

Perhaps if you are able to stop by Blue Cypress Books this Saturday, you can pick up a copy of Historic Photos of Louisiana and get it signed by the author himself, I know I will!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

It's just got to be Wright! The Unity Temple on St. Charles Avenue

My best friend Chris bribed me with a double espresso from my favorite coffee shop on 2nd Avenue (in-house roasting!) and before I knew it, we were zooming north on Highway 280 and I was trapped.  It wasn't until almost 30 minutes later when we were crossing the Golden Gate Bridge did I begin wondering what I got myself into. Unveiling his mysterious destination at last, Chris informed me of his impending art project involving interior architecture.  His assignment -- visit the Marin County Civic Center in San Rafael.

This building was the last commissioned by Frank Lloyd Wright and unfortunately, he didn't live to see it completed in 1962.  It's an amazing structure, but overwhelming the awe felt by the endless curves and arches, the building reminded me of what you might see in a 60's television production of Bradbury's Martian Chronicles.  It's a crazy sensation!  I felt like I was wandering around the set of an old science fiction movie and with good reason, portions of the science fiction films THX 1138 (1969) and Gattaca (1997) were shot on location in the Marin Center.

You are probably wondering why I am rambling on about architecture in California for a New Orleans-centric blog, right? Well, the reason is because I get that same "sci-fi" feeling when standing before the Unity Temple on St. Charles Avenue.  Now, no one can deny that New Orleans possess its own unique architectural styles, but among the shotguns, Creole cottages and double gallery structures, the spaceship-like appearance of the Unity Temple stands out like a sore thumb. The extreme "saucer" shape of the main building, the brassy color of the roof, the circular patterns in the garden and the strange architectural "decorations" added to the outside of the building all remind me of the center in San Rafael.

It's similarities to the Marin County Civic Center aren't the only reasons I think the Unity Temple might be a Wright creation (or created by an architect copying his peculiar style). My most convincing evidence is the simple fact that Frank Lloyd Wright designed other Unitarian temples like the Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois or the Unitarian Meeting House in Madison Wisconsin.

Perhaps I am grasping at straws but from the light research I have already done, no one else seems to know.  I even contacted the temple itself and have not yet received a response. I'm not sure the church is even still active.  I am going to have to do a bit more digging, perhaps even show up to the temple during the scheduled services listed on the neglected announcement board outside.  Perhaps I could even get to tour the temple and get a good glimpse (or perhaps even pictures) of the interior! Maybe there is someone out there reading this that knows the answers and will be kind enough to share their knowledge with me.

Regardless, I will eventually find out the truth, even though I will probably never shake the feeling that it's just got to be Wright.

*Author's note -- Shortly after posting the blog above, I discovered this obscure website that verified my hunch!  Apparently, the Unity Temple was designed by Leonard Spangenberg, Jr., a student of Frank Lloyd Wright!  Gosh...I just love it when I'm right.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Toasted Almond Cool Brew Coffee - No need for intervention, just give me my fix!

I have this crazy obsession, this overwhelming compunction and it's starting to worry me.  All of my friends know about it, they've heard me mention it hundreds of times and I've even blabbered about it to my family back in California.

When the levees failed, I searched everywhere for it and was in a constant state of panic and disarray until I found it again. I'm pretty sure my boyfriend has become inflicted with the same undeniable urge too and there is nothing I can do about it.  When I have it, he has to have it.

My name is Kim and I am a Toasted Almond Cool Brew junkie.

You think I'm joking?  If I see people at the checkout counter buying Cool Brew, I am compelled to initiate a conversation because there is a kinship between us users, us consumers. I feel compelled to extol its virtues to anyone who will listen.  If I could afford it, I would buy out the stock every time I see it in the store.

The other day, I harassed a poor young man stocking the milk section at Rouses...

Toasted Almond Cool Brew was the ONLY reason I had stopped at Rouses.  When I had reached the milk section, I was dismayed to discover that Decaf Cool Brew was all that was left and the bottles had been pushed aside and knocked over. Obviously, some anxious caffeine junkie that had arrived before me was searching for more.

I almost walked out of the store in a seething fit of rage, when I noticed an employee behind me with a large cart full of boxes stacked six or seven high.  The flavor I wanted was the very last box he checked at the very bottom of his cart.  We found Mocha,Vanilla and Hazelnut, but I made him keep looking till he finally found it, the Holy Grail of concentrated coffee flavors, Toasted Almond Cool Brew.

In case I haven't already mentioned it (and I wouldn't be surprised if I have) I will share with you my recipe for the ultimate caffeinated beverage perfect for a steamy New Orleans morning:

Squeeze an ounce of Toasted Almond Cool Brew coffee over several cubes of ice in a tall glass and add just enough water to fill the glass halfway. Then fill the rest of the glass with the thickest chocolate milk you can find.  Brown's chocolate milk is perfect for this concoction, but I have also found alternatives like soy that are lower in fat (I am on a diet!), but still possess that thick, creamy consistency I require.  Stir in one packet of Equal and voila!

If I am feeling naughty, I squirt a dollop of whipped cream on top..

I know this must all sound crazy but I'm sure I'm not alone.  There are others out there with my addiction, others who buy out the stock before I can manage to purchase two small bottles each week.  Those others also try to hide Toasted Almond behind the other flavors, but I am on to all their tricks and I can still manage to acquire just enough to get us through.

Now if I could only figure out who's eating all the Pepperidge Farm's Brussels cookies...

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Blue Plate Cafe: An incredible meal, I guarantee!

After last week's utter disappointment, I wanted to be absolutely sure I would enjoy a delicious cheat.  One particular restaurant had continually popped up in our discussions, though often passed over in favor of something new.  This time we gave in to our better judgement and decided to dine at the Blue Plate Cafe.  This is my 35th cheat and I am down 60 pounds.

John and I have visited the Blue Plate Cafe (1330 Prytania Street) on many occasions.  In fact, it had become one of our favorite lunch spots when we used to work downtown thanks to a brave recommendation by my friend, Meghan Jones. Knowing her passion for good food is just as strong as my own, it was easy to trust her choice when it came to trying out a new eatery.

We stepped into the quaint cafe late in the lunchtime rush, but the brightly decorated restaurant was still quite full.  We sat ourselves at one of the empty tables and watched other plates being brought out from the kitchen, our stomachs rumbling.  A server quickly arrived to offer us menus and take our drink orders.

We both were undecided, trying to select between the items on the menu and a few specials on the chalkboard.  One of the reasons the Blue Plate appeals to me, other than the awesome food and totally reasonable prices, are the amusing names given for their unique dishes.  I was extremely tempted to order their Mac & Cheese with Crawfish special, but I simply couldn't resist my old standby, "The Beast."  John was in the mood for their "Ignatius" and we both decided to add on an appetizer called a "Bayoudilla." Both sandwiches were grouped into a section of the menu called, most appropriately, "Two Fisters."

The appetizer we selected came out first and we couldn't wait to dig in.  The "Bayoudilla" is a Cajun version of a quesadilla, but stuffed with shrimp, smoked sausage, green onion and cheddar.  Served alongside is a healthy helping of sour cream, some slices of pickled jalapeno pepper and a sweet, roasted red pepper sauce.  The "Bayoudilla" was delicious and we might have scarfed down the entire order if our sandwiches hadn't arrived just in time.

If you are a fan of Dr. Seuss like me, you'll know why the name "The Beast" tickles my funny bone, nonetheless it's still one hell of a sandwich.  Thinly sliced, rare roast beef (or beast if you're in Whoville) is piled high on an onion roll, topped with thick slabs of brie and slathered with a fantastic horseradish sauce.  It is, in my humble opinion, one of the best roast beef sandwiches I have ever eaten.

Toole's character would adore John's sandwich, the "Ignatius", which the cafe touts as "10 inches of paradise" and I have to agree.  Several split links of smoked andouille sausage are bedded on a soft French roll and dressed with chili, cheese and onions...a mouthwatering Cajun version of a Lucky Dog.  It just doesn't get any better than that.

Although we were really stuffed, I absolutely had to try a dessert at the Blue Plate Cafe.  I hadn't seen any dessert items on the menu or the specials chalkboard, but I was positive they would have some tasty item we could enjoy to round out our terrific cheat.  Our server smiled knowingly and offered two options, a homemade brownie with vanilla ice cream and chocolate syrup and what they called a blueberry "biscuit" with vanilla ice cream and blueberry sauce.

To my complete surprise, John announced he wanted his own dessert this time and opted for the brownie and I selected the blueberry biscuit.  Both deserts were brought out by the chef of the Blue Plate, Holly Gilberto, with a twirl and a smile.  We thanked her profusely for an incredible meal while we proceeded to inhale our simple, but tasty desserts.  The brownie was awesome with that perfect balance of chewiness and gooeyness that all brownies simply must possess.

My "biscuit" was warm, not too sweet and carefully walked the line between being a scone and a muffin.  The crust of the blueberry "biscuit" was sweet with a crunchy, sugar glaze but the inside was almost like cornbread with large, juicy blueberries scattered throughout.  I devoured it easily and pushed myself away from the table with a sigh.

We strolled back to the car, sated and completely happy with our choice for lunch at a joint that  is not only fun, but serves consistently delicious food that never fails to please or satisfy.  Even though I had made a promise to myself to try new places, sometimes I just can't help desiring familiar surroundings, friendly faces and a sure-fire guarantee for incredible food and I know I'll never go wrong at the Blue Plate Cafe.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

An "Old Fashioned" experience at the Victorian Lounge in the Columns Hotel

When I first considered writing a cocktail blog, it seemed a fairly simple task.  I mean, how difficult is it to lounge around a different bar each week for a few hours, taking pictures and enjoying a couple of exquisitely made cocktails?  Describing the flavors and ingredients of a cocktail should be infinitely simpler than say book or dining reviews, shouldn't it?  Well?  Shouldn't it?

I never thought going out for a couple of drinks on a Wednesday afternoon could amount to a grand lesson in New Orleans history, but I suppose I should have known better, especially when my random-meter* selected the Victorian Lounge at the Columns Hotel.

Overlooking St. Charles Avenue, the Columns Hotel is a majestic structure the captures that Southern essence with its grand porch and large columns bringing to mind something out of Gone with the Wind. But it hasn't always looked that way, a hurricane in 1915 necessitated major reconstruction that drastically altered the front of the house which used to feature a tower and arcades.  In 1883, a famed local architect by the name of Thomas Sully (his father was the famous painter) designed the house as an Italianette chateau commissioned by cigar tycoon, Simon Hernsheim.

When I had the opportunity to do a little research on the property, I happened upon a wealth of historic information posted by what I thought to be an odd source, the New Orleans Bar Association. Ned Hemard wrote (or still writes?) a weekly column called "New Orleans Nostalgia: Remembering New Orleans History Culture & Traditions."  Hemard's piece on the Hernsheim House proved highly educational, especially for someone like me who is a new student of New Orleans history.

For example, did you know that New Orleans was the nation's cigar capital from the 1880s to the 1930s? Did you also know that three of S. Hernsheim Brothers & Co.'s  most popular cigar brands “La Belle Creole”, “Jackson Square” and “El Belmont” gained international renown for their quality? Or that Simon Hernsheim and his brothers erected the immense five-story La Belle Creole Cigar & Tobacco Factory on the corner of Magazine and Julia Streets which has been renovated and is now occupied by the firm of Deutsch, Kerrigan & Stiles? I found all of this endlessly intriguing...even the more morbid, yet scandalous account of Hernsheim's suicide by cyanide.

But none of this history will help me write this cocktail blog...will it?  I mean, when mounting the grand staircase to the massive porch, I certainly felt the grandeur, but had no idea of the scope.  We couldn't help but be awed by the elaborate wood moldings on the walls and ceiling of the bar, but it was rather warm outside and we were focused on consuming cool refreshments while our beautiful surroundings seeped into our bones.  The romantic atmosphere worked quickly upon my senses and before I knew it, we were ordering the classics.  When in Rome...right?

I ordered an Old Fashioned and John opted for a Mojito. Due to the blessedly heavy-handed pour of our bartender, we also decided to try a small appetizer from the hotel's restaurant.  The nibbler served two purposes; enabling us to sample from the hotel's bistro and, more importantly, so we could order another drink.  Although small, the BBQ Shrimp and Grits were delicious and John and I almost licked the plate before the bartender took it away.

We quickly recouped from our loss and ordered another round.  This time, I decided to try the Mint Julep and John chose the ever-classic Sazerac.  All of the cocktails were simply outstanding.  Although our bartender was young, he had no difficulty whipping out the fresh mint and mixing quality liquors into a perfect cocktail.  He confided that his skill came from thousands of tourists requesting those specific cocktails seeking to more fully experience the "flavor of the romantic South" already aroused by the hotel's general atmosphere.

Apparently, writing a weekly cocktail piece requires far more depth than I expected, resulting in a rather long (and not at all succinct) blog.  Can you blame me?

*My bar and restaurant selections are decided by my "random-meter" which is based on the weather, cravings, suggestions from friends, the phases of the moon and my general mood that can change from day to day, hour to hour and even minute to minute.