NOLA 2012: Stormy Wednesday

One exhausted drowned rat
On Wednesday, the most popular "program" on at the B&B was the weather radar on the computer in the kitchen. John, our host, had it on most of the time so we could track the huge band of thundershowers that was slowly making its way from Texas into our area. Even worse than the lack of speed was the fact that the cold front was tracking not straight west to east but sliding in a northeasterly direction. That meant that the thundershowers would not only crawl past, but that there would likely be more of them.

Nonetheless, we headed out in the morning, armed only with our umbrellas. Well, Sweetie was actually a bit smarter than me, and she had a raincoat and a pair of what were basically aqua-socks, the kind you wear to do aqua-aerobics.

We got a late start, and we had a lunch reservation at the renowned Commander's Palace at noon. Still, we thought we could squeeze in a visit to the Presbytère, which is one of four Louisiana state museums in New Orleans. The Presbytère, named that because it was supposed to be the residence for the priests of St. Louis Cathedral (and apparently never used for that purpose), was showing an exhibit on what happened to the city of New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit, when the levees were breached, and when Hurricane Rita followed up. The exhibit was simple but very, very moving. It's impossible for us who have never lived through such a series of events really to conceive of what it was like for the residents of southern Louisiana, but the exhibit did a great job of helping us to understand.

We should have spent more time, especially since there was a Mardi Gras exhibit on the second floor, but we thought we had figured out how long it would take us to walk to the streetcar stop and then how long it would take to get to Commander's Palace. We actually timed the walk pretty well, but after that everything broke. The car was very late, which is apparently not unusual. I called the restaurant to postpone our reservation. By the time the streetcar arrived at noon, there was a huge crowd waiting to get on, so boarding took even longer than it would have. Then the car lurched down the tracks toward the Garden District. I had forgotten just how slow that thing is! It's a pleasant ride on a hot day with the windows open when you don't have to be anywhere at a particular time, but not so much when you're running late for a lunch reservation.

And then, while we were on the packed car, the heavens opened. I mean, really. Lots of lightning and thunder and pouring rain. The streets flooded immediately. We got off at Washington Avenue, doing our best not to get completely soaked. We walked a block and a half in the wrong direction (my fault), then walked back in the right direction. By the time we arrived at Commander's Palace, a restaurant that still has a dress code, we looked like the proverbial drowned rats—well dressed rats, but still drowned.

The staff of Commander's are nothing if not gracious, however. They escorted us to our table, where we proceeded to try to dry out and warm up (not easy with Southern air conditioning). We were very well taken care of. The room downstairs is elegant, and pretty good for people watching. We relaxed and settled in to enjoy lunch.

Sweetie chose an appetizer, a gumbo, and a salad to make up her meal, while I went for the three-course lunch. It all started well. Her shrimp dish and gumbo were excellent, as was my turtle soup, a classic Commander's Palace dish and one that I had never experienced before. It felt a bit odd, since I love turtles. I tried not to think about the Green Sea Turtles that I have swum with in Hawaii. My main dish was a grilled pork tenderloin. It took longer to arrive than it should have, and when it did, it was dry. The accompaniment was excellent, but the pork just wasn't what it ought to have been. I had to tell them. They offered to bring me something else, but the dish wasn't terrible, just not right, and I didn't want to wait longer. We finished with another Commander's Palace classic, bread pudding souffle. Tasty, but we both prefer actual bread pudding. They comped me the soup and dessert, basically charging only the à la carte price for the pork, and that was decent of them. Still, the meal overall was not quite the experience we had expected from one of the top restaurants not just in New Orleans but in the country.

The storm had passed by the time we left the restaurant, so we caught the streetcar back to the Quarter. We crossed Canal Street, and I spotted a Chinese foot massage place. I figured, what the heck, we needed a little pampering, so we went for it. These massage places are major tourist traps, but I managed to convey to them that we wanted only a half hour on the feet with no extras. They actually did a lovely job on our poor tourist pods.

Somewhat refreshed, we made our way back across the soggy Vieux Carré to our B&B. We got changed and finally truly dry, and waited long enough to be somewhat hungry for dinner. As our host said, you don't have to be hungry to eat, but we would rather be. We took a cab to a restaurant called the Green Goddess that had been recommended to us by two friends.

And now the mystery becomes less mysterious, with permission from the person involved. The person we met so serendipitously on Monday, to whom we had been asked to convey greetings, who gave us such an amazing day, is Chris DeBarr, the chef/owner of Green Goddess. As I wrote, we had intended to go to the Green Goddess anyway, but now that we knew Chris, we had that much more reason to go.

In good weather, the restaurant has outdoor seating in Exchange Alley, but it was too wet for that. Fortunately, it was after 8, and before long Chris had us comfortably ensconced in his small back dining room. The dishes are mostly what we would call small plates, which was ideal, because then we could try a few different things. We decided to share the "Cornucopia on the Bayou" tasting menu, plus a lamb baklava, accompanied by a bottle of delicious Pinot Gris from Oregon that was suggested by our excellent server, Sarah.

Oysters Delacroix were a beautiful start. Next came Shrimp "Wearing a Grass Skirt," the "grass skirt" being shredded phyllo. The spice level was just right. After that, we had "Freaky" Tabouli with Smoked Wheat—called "Freaky" because the particular kind of wheat is called freekeh. I am not sure how to describe this variant of tabouli. All I can say is that it brought tears of pleasure to my eyes—something about the combination of flavour and texture. The savoury lamb baklava that we had at the same time had a similar effect. And then the Andouille-Crusted Gulf Fish arrived, with potato gratin and rapini greens. Oh baby! That was more a large plate, but it didn't last very long. We finished with Armagnac-soaked Mission Figs stuffed with blue cheese, wrapped in Serrano Ham, roasted, and finished with aged balsamic vinegar. Finger food extraordinaire!

Sweetie and I have had some pretty memorable food over the years, and a lot more that was less memorable or even forgettable. This was some of the most memorable food either of us have ever eaten. It completely blew away lunch at Commander's Palace. I say this not because Chef Chris is our friend. He simply makes amazing food. All I can say is try it for yourself if you get the opportunity. And as haute cuisine goes, it won't even set you back very much!

Chef and Sarah and the staff sent us home very happy and resolved to visit Green Goddess once more before we left New Orleans.

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