Renaissance City

Marla Norman, Publisher

"This city...feeds the dreams, stories, music, and food. Really great food."
— Andrei Codrescu

Jackson Square, built to commemorate the victorious Battle of New Orleans and a reminder of the city's indomitable spirit.

Visitors flock to Pat O'Brien's to sample hurricanes and other temptations.

It's nothing short of miraculous. Except that there have been no miracles. New Orleans is back -- not yet up to full speed perhaps, but running, working, cooking, and making music. Mostly because the people who live there and passionately love the place were determined not to be washed away. Their gritty resilience and tenacity in the face of overwhelming odds is bit by bit restoring this historical city. Their willingness to keep dreaming finally trumped the nightmare.

Crowds of tourists have returned. Saints and angels are marching in.

Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop, the oldest bar in the French Quarter.

These days, Jackson Square is again filled filled with tourists, musicians, locals walking their dogs, mimes, and psychics. We wander down Pirate's Alley. Crossing onto Royal, we see that this street is also bustling. Even the famously haunted house of Madame LaLaurie looks lived in now.

We spot Lafitte's Blacksmith shop as we head down Bourbon. The tottery old building has withstood centuries of wars, storms, and literally uncountable nights of revelry. It's oddly comforting to see the oldest bar in the Quarter gearing up for yet another evening of partying. We find a spot at the venerable bar and make a toast to this indomitable city. Long may she reign.

Restaurant August

The main dining room at August, with rich wood paneling and many shelves of well-chosen wine.

The New Orleans comeback story would have been much different without John Besh. For a city that loves and is loved for its food, he is a formidable presence on the culinary scene. Besh currently owns eight restaurants in the city. All are top quality and hugely popular. He's kept New Orleans in the gourmet spotlight as well. August, his flagship restaurant receives regular media acclaim, most recently with features in Gourmet Magazine's "Guide to America's Best Restaurants" and "America's Top 50 Restaurants."

Visually, August is impressive. The place has an old world, Belle Epoque feel. With it's heavy polished wood, chandeliers, and brocade, it's difficult to imagine that the place was once a cigar factory. We're greeted by Emery Whalen, the chef's Director of Communication, who looks as if she's a double for Audrey Hepburn. Emery gives us a tour of the large, three-story building. Gorgeous glassed-in wine shelves line the upper walls of the main dining area. There are a number of alcoves, and nooks for semiprivate tables. The large kitchen exudes knee-weakening whiffs of truffle oil. Upstairs are banquet and conference areas and a pastry kitchen.

Back at our table, we begin the evening degustation with an amuse bouche: bullfin caviar lightly garnished with truffle infused foam. A Spanish cava adds nice acidity and celebratory fizz. Next up, a yellowtail tail crudo with blood orange and white asparagus. The fish is clean and sweet, a flawless bite.

Gumbo Z'herb - Smoked turkey neck consummé with a poached egg and greens is served. So much savory goodness and a perfect example of Besh's ability to reinvent traditional Creole dishes. A Pinot Noir from Russian River Valley is light and spicy.

We're wondering how anything could possibly top the gumbo, when a Mangalitsa pork belly with Atchafalaya crawfish tails arrives. Heaven on a plate. We're somewhat suspicious of the wine pairing, however, a Chateau Miraval Cinsault and Grenache called "Pink Floyd Rose." We sip slowly but quickly realize that sommelier Erin White is a genius.

Emery stops by to see how we're doing. We ask about the Mangalitsa pigs. She explains that they're originally from Hungary, very wooly and tend to be fatter than the average pig -- better bacon in other words. Musician Dave Matthews introduced Besh to the chubby pigs, and he now raises them on his farm in Lacombe. We're wondering if we could meet the pigs in person. Emery promises to arrange a visit to the farm.

A chance to see the place that inspires many of the dishes for August seems better than dessert, but of course we don't pass up the créme au chocolat.

Voodoo Museum

John Martin, museum curator, and Alex Freytag, holding John's pet python Sam, beneath a portrait of Marie Laveau.

Step by step instructions for making voodoo dolls.

The fascinating characters who have inhabited New Orleans is easily one of the city's more endearing traits. Marie Laveau, for good or ill, is high on the list of iconic figures. Just the fact that, according to many reputable tourist sites, her tomb draws more visitors than Elvis Presley's grave site, makes her significant.

A large portrait of Marie Laveau hangs in the entryway. Also on hand is curator John Martin with his pet Sam, who happens to be a python -- a small guy, but a python nonetheless. Two young Japanese women take turns holding the snake. I'm not so interested.

The interior of the museum has several altars and displays of gris gris bags. The bundles contain herbs, roots, and secret ingredients for curing all sorts of ailments. Several signs note that the museum will create "custom gris gris bags." Prices are negotiable. Also on display are very specific instructions for making voodoo dolls. We discover, happily, that the dolls are primarily intended to heal, not to cause a sudden or fatal illness.

Naturally, much of the museum is devoted to the life of Marie Laveau, an entrepreneurial hair dresser, who began conducting exorcisms and rituals behind her house. According to local legend, Leveau also used a python named Zombi in many of her ceremonies. A painting in the museum show a priestess, possibly Leveau, dancing with an enormous snake. Marie Leveau's tomb is located in St. Louis Cemetery #1. Candles, poundcake, and flowers are always piled at the base of the tomb. Leveau's many devotees mark triple X's on the walls of the tomb as a means of requesting favors from her spirit.

After touring the museum, we decide we'll take our chances and skip both the gris gris and voodoo dolls. Alex, however, can't resist holding Sam. I get a nice, touristy shot of him and we make a quick exit.

Arnaud's Restaurant

The grande dame of the French Quarter, Arnaud's Restaurant.

Arnaud Cazenave striking a pose for the cover of Life magazine.

Like many of the patriarchs in the Quarter, Arnaud's has a colorful, rich history. Arnaud Cazenave, a French wine salesman, opened his doors in 1918. Unfortunately, Prohibition laws dried up the country one year later. Not to be deterred, Cazenave was especially creative in circumventing the alcohol-free regulations. He had hidden rooms, secret delieveries, and "special coffee." Eventually, however, the Feds caught up with him, and he was jailed for a time.

After the Roaring Twenties, Arnaud's enjoyed great success. Cazenave, who had now become local royalty and was known as Count Arnaud, channeled much of his fortune into expansion. He bought up some 13 buildings around his original property until he owned most of the block. As he converted the old buildings into additional dining rooms, visitors found the network of passageways handy for secret rendezvous and quick get aways. Rumor has it that the old Count used the secret hideaways as much or more than his customers.

The Gumbo Trio entertaining diners at Arnaud's s Jazz Bistro.

Cazenave died a month shy of his seventy-second birthday in 1948. A portrait of him still hangs in the main dining room. Waiters swear that on especially busy nights, an elderly gentlemen in formal attire always turns up. He stands by the beveled glass windows and observes the diners, smiling contentedly. Could it be Count Arnaud, still watching over his beloved restaurant?

We check out the main dining room on our way to the bistro. No one fitting the Count's description is in sight. We do find a trio of very lively musicians.This evening, the Gumbo Trio is keeping the place hopping with Dixieland standards.

In between the toe tapping, we order oysters: Bienville and Rockefeller. Bienville oysters are an original Arnaud's dish, named after the restaurant's location on Bienville St. Oysters Rockefeller were, of course, created by rival restaurant Antoine's, another leviathan in the Quarter. Additionally, we order trout meunière and red snapper. Both arrive sizzling hot and flaky. For desert we have another New Orleans invention: Bananas Foster. Our waiter expertly sautes the bananas in butter and rum with the requisite fireworks, which are impressive! We're pleased with the show and the sweet finale.

Listen to music samples from the Gumbo Trio at this address:

Arnaud's Mardi Gras Museum

A Mardi Gras gown and tiarra worn by Germaine Cazenave Wells.

One of the many lavish costumes, this one with an ermine train, from past Mardi Gras celebrations.

The Mardi Gras museum is also housed at the restaurant. A winding corridor and creaky stairs lead to the displays. The rooms are deserted as we walk in and eerily quiet. We're wondering if we might finally see the ghost of the old Count himself. Then, suddenly he appears! Or, at least four of the costumes he wore as king during Mardi Gras. There are also 13 bejeweled gowns worn by Count Arnaud's daughter, Germaine Cazenave Wells. Germaine was a woman of appetite: for clothing, jewels and - most especially, men. She also evidently loved being queen of Mardi Gras, since she reigned over 22 balls from 1937 to 1968, more than any other women in the history of Carnival.

The museum is a treasure trove, with more than two dozen lavish costumes in all. The collection houses 70 vintage photos, masks, krewe invitations, and party favors. We spend some time ogling the unbelievably ornate costumes, tiaras, and ermine robes. We try to imagine the celebrations with the dancing and libations of those bygone days. Finally we bid "adieu" to the spirits of Arnaud's.

La Provence Restaurant and Besh Farm

John Besh's farm at Lacombe.

Executive Chef Erick Loos, of La Provence, shows off luscious herb gardens and orchards.

We've said our good-byes to New Orleans and are somewhere in the middle of Lake Pontchartrain. The 630 square miles of salt water are flat clam today. The 26 mile causeway that spans this gigantic body of water seems like a tiny gray ribbon floating on nothing but blue -- blue water, blue sky. It's impossible to cross this enormous lake without recalling the broken levees during Katrina and the massive flooding it unleashed.

The countryside on the way to John Besh's farm in Lacombe is picturesque and wooded. La Provence is nestled under tall shade trees, a pretty terrace extends off one side. Executive Chef Erick Loos joins us to show off the luscious herb and vegetable gardens. There's also a small orchard with pomegranate, figs, and pears. Loos is very much involved in the garden upkeep and spends many of his off hours planting and weeding.

Our next stop is the pig pens, where a group of young Mangalitsas are chasing each other around the yard. They are adorable. Their wooly fur is thick and fuzzy. They look like something from a children's nursery rhyme. When offered food scraps, the piglets run like puppies to be first in line.

Face to face with the famous wooly Mangalitsa pigs.

Dining room at La Provence restaurant, which serves traditional French food, with a few culinary twists and pig tales.

Chef Loos explains that the scraps are from the six restaurants. Sustainable food production is a fundamental principal in the management of all the Besh properties. Leftover food is used either to make compost or to feed the pigs. Oyster shells are given to the chickens.

We watch the pigs frolic a bit longer. I'm imagining their ultimate fate. "Do you get attached to the pigs?" I ask.

Loos grins. "Not really. They're not nearly this cute when they hit 300 pounds. They have a wonderful life here. Plus we're very conscientious about using every bit of them -- from the ears, to the nose, to the trotters. To waste anything would be wrong."

To prove his point, Chef Loos takes us to the large smokehouse. "We produced 400 pounds of bacon here in the past few months," he says. "Enough for August and La Provence." I recall the rich little bacon garni on many of our platings at August. No doubt. The Mangalitsas are yummy!

We follow Loos into the restaurant itself. La Provence, as the name suggests, instantly transports diners to southern France. A large fireplace separates the two dining rooms. Provincial landscape paintings decorate the walls. This property holds a special place in the Besh family of restaurants, since its original owner was Besh's own mentor, Chef Chris Keragiorgiou. The menu is traditional French food with some signature culinary styling from Loos and Besh -- and the Mangalitsas, of course.

Still curious about Chef John Besh? Click here to read his comments about his new cookbook, love for New Orleans, and upcoming trips.

New Orleans




Gumbo Z'herb


Chateau Miraval Cinsault



Marie Laveau

Gris Gris

Arnaud Cazenave

La Provence