I confess: my mental image of New Orleans had a lot to do with numerous visits to Disneyland’s
New Orleans Square. The closest I’d ever been to a swamp or bayou was at the start of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. With 125 miles to go before NOLA, I found myself driving on the Atchafalaya Swamp Freeway, 20-feet above the soggy habitat of alligators, turtles, snakes, birds, and deer.
The 800,000 acres of Atchafalaya Basin were once the hideout for Jean Laffite’s treasures. Today, the Basin is the source of millions of pounds of crawfish, harvested by Cajun fishermen and exported around the world. The reality of this part of my journey trumped the yo-ho-ho feeling of the Disneyland ride. Crawfish Etouffeé, here I come!
Given the choice, a hotel sporting a ghost always gets my business. The Bienville House Hotel fit the bill, and I was soon checked into Room 356, reportedly the “most active” of several of the 83 rooms. Justin, a concierge, and Cynthia at the Front Desk, shared several of the ghost encounters described by guests. Alas, during my visit I did not see the lobby chandelier move up and down, nor did I see human-size clouds of black or white mist gliding around the public areas or in my room.
Bienville House is a luxury boutique hotel, exquisitely situated in the French Quarter. Walking a few short blocks in any direction ends with river boats on the Mississippi, beignets and chicory coffee at Café du Monde, antique stores, jazz clubs, iconic cocktails, and food, glorious food!
The hotel’s extensive list of great amenities, a wrought iron balcony overlooking the grotto-like garden area, and a salt water pool had to wait. I relished my first pedestrian tour of The Quarter.
Experiencing bananas foster at Brennan’s was enthralling. Lloyd, our server, was a table-side virtuoso, as he made one of the restaurant’s signature menu items. While slicing, mixing and flambéing, he gave a fascinating commentary on how the dessert came to be (the story is about what to do with a whole lot of browning bananas soon to be thrown away).
Serendipity happened on St. Louis Street, as I stumbled upon the New Orleans School of Cooking & Louisiana General Store. Occupying space in a renovated molasses warehouse, the school teaches Creole/Cajun cooking, offers demonstration lunches for the public (students get to eat), and operates a retail store. Books, condiments, utensils, sauces and gift baskets abound. In the ten minutes I was chatting with Djuana Gordon, one of the managers, two customers asked about “file”, as in file folder. Djuana said this was one of the most asked questions in the store and patiently explained. This file, pronounced “fee – lay”, as in “fee-lay gumbo”, is a powder made from dried sassafras leaves, used as a thickening agent, or roux, in making gumbos. Two sales in ten minutes!
The Bienville’s in-hotel restaurant is Iris, created by Chef Ian Schnoebelen, named as one of 2007’s Ten Best New Chefs in America. The elegant dining room, in comforting shades of green and gray, is a perfect respite from the robust activity a few blocks away on Bourbon Street.
Mixologist Alan Walter has created an intriguing array of cocktails. The Cold Snap-a fusion of brandy, green mangoes in white balsamic vinegar, spiced rum, lemon and prosecco was a refreshing accompaniment to the tomato emulsion-drizzled Jumbo Lump Crabcake starter. Under Chef Schnoebelen’s direction, Iris has become known for its superb organic, sustainably grown meats and poultry from farms like Painted Hills and Niman Ranch. My lamb loin, raised by Niman, was served with goat cheese ravioli, roasted farmers' market vegetables, and shimeji mushrooms. A small Coconut Crème Brulee, with rum and a tropical fruit salsa ended the sublime Iris experience.
With Hank Williams’ Jambalaya playing in my mind, I continued on my journey and thought back to my original concept of the city. I’ll never see Disneyland’s New Orleans Square in the same way again.
Bienville House Hotel
320 Decatur Street New Orleans, Louisiana 70130