New Orleans still casts its spell

New Orleans still casts its spell
February 5, 2012
Laura Bly
The Province

My husband and I have been in town only a few hours, but the Big Easy already is casting a spell.

Fresh from a 30-minute "relationship reading" by an ordained voodoo priestess (not cheap at $75 US, but a bargain compared with a fullblown Voodoo Love Ceremony), we wander from her potion-filled Island of Salvation Botanica in the bohemian Bywater neighbourhood to Frenchmen Street. Just across Esplanade Avenue from the French Quarter, it's a stretch of jazz clubs, bars and restaurants insiders call the Bourbon Street of 20 years ago.

For the price of a few Louisianabrewed Abita Restoration Pale Ales, we commandeer front-row seats at The Spotted Cat music club and settle in to hear local blues band Ken Swartz and The Palace of Sin belt out Drop Down Mama- raising our $4.50 bottles to crystal-ball predictions of a bright future, and to a decidedly promising present.

Though the frat-boy ambience of the French Quarter's iconic Bourbon Street may not scream romance, the City That Care Forgot offers a wealth of valentine-worthy experiences that don't involve strip joints or neon-hued daiquiris - and that won't bust a modest budget.

Our home base is a $159-a-night room at International House, a former Beaux Arts bank that marries urban chic (monochromatic interiors, black-and-white photos of local jazz greats) with such passioninspiring elements as Loa, a candlestrewn cocktail lounge named for the benevolent spirits of voodoo.

Two blocks off Canal Street in the Central Business District, the hotel is close to the action - a 10-minute walk to the heart of the Quarter - but far enough away to provide a respite from the beads-and-beer crowd that has flocked back to Bourbon Street since Hurricane Katrina quashed tourism in 2005.

After fuelling up at the French Market's Cafe Du Monde with an obligatory dose of chicory-laced café au lait and pillowy, powder-sugardoused doughnuts, or beignets, we head back to Canal Street and clamber aboard one of the city's historic streetcars. Though Tennessee Williams' eponymous Desire line was discontinued in 1948, streetcars trundle down the "neutral ground" (median strip) on three other lines for just $1.25 a ride or $3 for a day pass.

Our destination is City Park, one of the nation's largest urban parks and home to the biggest collection of mature live oaks on the planet. In the 19th century, these trees were a favoured location for duels among the Creole elite over amorous insults real and imagined.

Today, their expansive, moss-drizzled branches are a popular setting for wedding photos - and, in the free Besthoff Sculpture Garden next to the New Orleans Museum of Art, they form a backdrop for more than 50 works by such artists as Henry Moore and Fernando Botero.

January temperatures in the mid-70s notwithstanding, it's too early in the season for catching a free jazz concert or sharing an oar, Little Women-like, in a rented rowboat.

No matter: It gives us an excuse to decamp across the street to Ralph's On the Park, where scrumptious brunch specials ($28 for three courses) include turtle soup with sherry and lamb ragout with cream cheese grits, fried egg and red-eye gravy.

The people-watching is great (local movers and shakers garbed in St. John knits and navy blazers), and pianist Joe Krown is happy to share sightseeing recommendations when he's not tickling the ivories on classics like Louis Armstrong's What a Wonderful World. But what endears us most is our waiter's solicitous offer of a plastic "go cup" for my $12 order of all-youcan-drink bubbly.

Nothing says love, or at least lust, like oysters - and nearly two years after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill crippled sales in a state that harvests more than any other, the glistening bivalves have made a roaring comeback.

Served raw, fried, in shooters or charbroiled and slathered with butter, garlic and cheese, oysters are on the menu at nearly every Crescent City restaurant.

Our picks: longtime local favourites Acme Oyster House and Casamento's.

At Acme, the oldest oyster bar in the Quarter, the line snakes out the door on a Sunday night. The bar's raw mollusks, $13.50 a dozen, go down easily with a $5.49 cup of gumbo - though we can't fathom how Acme's leading "Wall of Famer," Brad Sciullo of Uniontown, Pa., managed to slurp 43 dozen in less than an hour and a half.

Across the city on the Uptown section of Magazine Street, an irresistibly eclectic mélange of shops that peddle everything from French antiques to boot repairs, the weekday mood is decidedly calmer. Behind the old-fashioned tiled bar at Casamento's, Mike Rogers is happy to custom-mix a dollop of cocktail sauce (ketchup, horseradish, olive oil and hot sauce) and share the skills that have kept him in high demand as a shucker for nearly four decades: "Presentation and speed."

And yes, Rogers says, there's plenty of truth behind that popular slogan "Eat Oysters, Love Longer."

Love starts with you "No houses could well be in better harmony with their surroundings," wrote Mark Twain of the city's antebellum Garden District- which, like the French Quarter, escaped most of Katrina's wrath.

Not willing to pop for a $225 carriage tour from the Quarter, we take the St. Charles Avenue streetcar and hoof it, meandering past imposing homes (including those owned by novelist Anne Rice and local football hero Archie Manning) to Commander's Palace.

Built in 1883, this one-time bordello is one of the most celebrated and expensive restaurants in town. But it's a terrific bargain for weekday lunches - when 25-cent martinis and bread pudding with whiskey sauce make a killer combo.

Back on the riverfront promenade called the Moon Walk, we chat with young lovers Peter Hufendiek and Bianka Martinez, who've been visiting the Big Easy for two weeks. They've taken a swamp tour and strolled Frenchmen Street; listened to trad jazz at Preservation Hall and watched buskers in Jackson Square. Asked to name the most intoxicating vantage point in one of America's most exotic locales, they simply smile.

"We've made it romantic," Martinez says. And so have we.
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