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[Originally published on Click2Houston.com by Nakia L. Cooper]

So who goes to New Orleans to sleep?  I did.  And trust me, it was easier than you can imagine.  They don’t call it “The Big Easy” for nothing.

In a city filled with bright lights, excitedly yappy tourists, locals singing “Laissez les bon temps roulez” and bells and whistles abound from casinos, street cars and jazz musicians livening up busy corners, I slumbered like a grizzly bear tucked away in a cave – and only came out mostly for chow time.  It’s what you do when you find peace, and the peace that has blanketed the city of New Orleans 10 years past a devastation many would like to forget, is the peace that comes when good folks already full of so much love turn that love into sheer desire.  Desire to live, desire to give, desire to share and desire to rebuild.  And that is what has happened.

he city has bounced back in a major way, and the “new” New Orleans has added a little extra flavor to the gumbo.

I had three days and three nights to get away from it all, and was determined to paint the town red while rocking bright red lips and stilettos. I was certain I’d be leaving with bags under my eyes from the excessive “let my hair down partying” I had planned on doing, but it is funny how things change when you surrender to purpose.  I guess my purpose was education, exploration and lots of fine dining while listening to jazz, and I was just fine with that.

I didn’t need to hop a plane for this trip, I took the five-hour scenic route up I-10 from Houston to New Orleans.  My final destination:  The Intercontinental Hotel at 444 St. Charles Street.  This luxury hotel gave me first class service from the moment I arrived up to the time I, sadly, had to say my farewells.  Situated just two blocks from the historic French Quarter, six blocks from the river and front row for Mardi Gras, the Intercontinental is coveted for its location and Four-Diamond status. In the heart of the business district, the hotel is convenient for executives and leisure breaks. Trust me, you can “let the good times roll” all by yourself rolling around in the soft bedding the rooms have to offer.  I stretched out, relaxed and let out the bear-size yawn I had been needing to release.

When I escaped my cave, where did I go?  EVERYWHERE.  So let me tell you where you can go, aside from Bourbon Street, to get your “Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler” on!

DINING:

Cooking with Chef Frank Brigtsen:

Every town needs a historian, someone who can tell you how it is, how it was and what we can expect in the future, and a historian who can COOK is the best kind.  That’s why anytime I visit NOLA, I make a pit stop to see Chef Frank Brigtsen, who by the way, is a James Beard Award winner and damn good guy!  Brigsten, or “Chef Frank,” was a longtime friend and mentee of the late, great Chef Paul Prudhomme and is a staple in the community.  His heart and soul is in New Orleans and he pours all of it into his “food is love” cooking.  You can either visit Chef Frank at his authentic Cajun and Creole restaurant, Brigtsen’s, at 723 Dante St. or you can really get up close and personal with him at his cooking class at the New Orleans Cooking Experience.

After Chef Frank teaches you how to cook a few of his signature dishes, he joins you at the table while you enjoy your 4- or 5-course meal and talks whole-heartedly about his true love – New Orleans.

Brigtsen educated us on the Cajun and Creole cuisine of the city, where to find the down-home soul cooking, and shared how he began his career.  But then he turned a little somber and got a little misty-eyed when he had to answer the “inevitable” question all tourists want to know:  How has life been “After Katrina?”

He took us down memory lane and, pausing at times to collect himself, told us what it was like to leave, then come back and rebuild. He summed it up best sharing a revelation he had after witnessing the strength of Leah Chase, owner of the world famous Dooky Chase Restaurant. Chef Frank says while he was feeling down about his personal loss, Chase was more upset about the loss of others, feeling that she didn’t do enough to help the people in the neighborhood. She expressed her regret while they were visiting her storm-damaged restaurant.

“And of course there is Ms. Leah Chase, who at her restaurant is still in the kitchen and is 96 years old.  She is one of the most inspiring people that I’ve ever met in my life and anyone who has ever met her will say the same thing,” he said.  “I was feeling depressed and I walked outside and it was eerily quiet. Through all that she’s been through, which was a lot worse than I what went through, she put it on her shoulders that she could have done more. I felt like an ant. Those are the kinds of people that built this city. She’s the embodiment of Creole New Orleans; and she’s a hoot, too.”

I’m sure we all left Chef Frank with our souls filled as much as our bellies, and trust me, you will too. By the way, that day we learned how to cook Oysters Rockefeller, Broiled Fish with Crab Crust and Lemon Crab Sauce, and Strawberry Short Cake.

After an evening of Chef Frank’s food and a great night’s sleep at the Intercontinental, I had no reason to leave my room.  Right?  Wrong! But it was the easiest slip away ever as I strolled directly across the street to have a hearty breakfast the next morning at Chef John Besh’s world renowned restaurant, Lüke.
Lüke

Lüke is an homage to the grand old Franco-German brasseries that once reigned in New Orleans. Since opening in 2007, it has been hailed by Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, and The Times-Picayune, and now, lil’ ole me, for its delicious and eclectic spread.

So what did I eat at Lüke? Everything, literally. My breakfast companion and I opted to have the chef send out his favorites, and we left our palates in his trusted hands. Steve Beasley, the manager, and our server, Matt Jackson, helped fill our table with the good stuff. They are now considered “Foodie Gods” that we now bow to.
For starters, we were treated to the Pain Perdu, which is a “French Toast” unlike anything you’ve ever seen.  It is made with challah, mascarpone and Allan Benton’s bacon.  You cut into it and delights ooze from the center, awaiting your devour.  Another dish that was almost “too pretty” to cut into, but once you do – “oh my” – is the Croque-Monsieur (Croque-Madame) which is a grilled Chisesi ham and Emmenthaler cheese sandwich.  We also had the Biscuit Sandwich made with fried chicken and tabasco honey, a Brussel sprout skillet dish, breakfast potatoes topped with cheese and thick bacon, and McEwen Grits, as only Luke can make. Scrumptious! Of course, what self-respecting Southerner can enjoy a breakfast like that without a few cocktails, which is customary in the city. We had our samples of Sazerac and French 75.  If you’re ever in New Orleans and you DON’T go to Luke, then turn around immediately and do yourself a favor.  Some chefs are the talk of the town because they’ve earned it.  John Besh, the owner, has a well-deserved spot at the top.

Now, allow me to group all of my fine Creole and Cajun dining experiences together so that you can get over your jealousy quickly.  Just kidding, but these are some of my other “must have” dining experiences.

Galatoire’s Restaurant
Galatoire’s has been on my bucket list for a little over a year, after I didn’t make it in the first time I made my touristy trek to New Orleans. That time I did, however, visit the more laid back Galatoire 33 Bar & Steak which is next door, but I secretly wanted to crash the diners in the world-famous restaurant.
This year, I had my reservations, my “fancy” attire and what’s even more exciting, they allowed me to sit at the “special table” that writers like myself covet: the table that legendary “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” playwright Tennessee Williams had reserved for him anytime he was in town.

For more than a century, anxious diners have lined up outside Galatoire’s awaiting reservations to dine among the “in-crowd.” I sat in my corner table and imagined I was dinging with the upper echelon in the early-1900s, with a slim cigarette perched betwixt my gloved fingers.  (No, I do not smoke, but go along with me here…channeling Tennessee Williams.) Did it work? Ok, well I will move on, but my exquisite meal was not a part of my imagination, it was real and everything a traveler could dream of.  The food transcends time and tradition, and is well worth the wait. Our meal consisted of shrimp remoulade, filet mignon and bacon-topped grilled pork chops, followed by indulgently rich desserts.  A sip, a taste, a chow and a toast to the good life, because my dear Galatoire’s, I’ll be back.
Dickie Brennan’s

The last time I visited NOLA, I fell in love with the Crabmeat Cheesecake and Andouille Crusted Fish at The Palace Café. I tell you, I nearly panicked after learning that the restaurant would be under renovation during my return trip, but not to worry, I found out that I could still get my favorites at Dickie Brennan’s in the French Quarter, because both restaurants are part of the Brennan family.

I did the “bossy lady” thing during our lunch visit and ordered for my table because I secretly (well, not-so-secretly) wanted to sample everything. We still ordered my favorites while adding perfectly-prepared steak and a MASSIVE gourmet cheeseburger. I make it my priority to order at least one cheeseburger in every city I visit because I am truly on a mission to find the best one in America.  Guess what, the cheeseburger at Dickie Brennan’s is definitely in the running! And great news, the Palace Café is back open for business so you can visit it or one of the other family restaurants.

Brennan’s

We enjoyed more opulence for another evening of dinner at the original Brennan’s, which opened in 1946. We sat in one of the eight glamorous dining rooms, each steeped in New Orleans architecture and ambiance, and enjoyed the traditional bananas foster, dripping with brown sugar, cinnamon and rum, after polishing off Brennan’s signature Creole steaks.
Mother’s Restaurant

I always look for a downhome home Southern country breakfast wherever I go, and Mother’s had me covered. It has a mix of classic New Orleans cooking, REASONABLY PRICED, with great gumbo, po-boys, debris, fried seafood, jambalaya, crawfish etouffee, fried chicken, red beans and rice, and breakfast served all day.
Have your hunger pains subsided yet?  I can tell you how to walk it all off by visiting some attractions around town.

TOURIST ATTRACTIONS:

Louisiana Swamps & Bayous tour

Then this happened.  I witnessed a man hand-feeding wild alligators in the swamp weiners and marshmallows, and I held a baby alligator!

After a short motor coach ride across the Mississippi River, I took a fascinating boat trip into the Louisiana Swamps & Bayous. It was a pleasantly warm day as we toured South Louisiana in a custom built swamp boat while discovering the mysteries of the swamps and bayous and the Cajun “joie de vivre.” In addition to seeing the nesting grounds of egrets, raccoons, nutria and snakes, I got the chance to hold and feed a baby alligator and watched my tour guide wrestle big gators right out of the swamp.  Did you know that alligators like marshmallows? You are darn right they do.

My tour guide, Louis Hatty III did his gator call while luring the gators out of the water with marshmallows, which he says is one of their favorite treats, then hopped off the boat (while some of us said “No Way!”) and did a little light slap-boxing with two alligators.  Don’t worry, no humans or gators were harmed in the demonstration, but don’t even think I will try that at home, or any other place for that matter. You can set up a swamp tour with Gray Line tours.
Here’s some other things to do in town:

  • Visit the National World War II Museum
  • Visit the Presbytere, home to two permanent exhibits: The Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond exhibit tells of rescue, rebuilding and renewal
  • Stroll through Jackson Square to see the iconic Andrew Jackson statue and the St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest cathedral still in use in North America.
  • Visit the historic French Market and stop by From Café du Monde
  • Shopping on Royal Street for a mix of classy antique shops and boutiques, fine jewelry stores, colorful art galleries and world-class hotels and restaurants.
  • Visit Mardi Gras World to see the largest float designing and building facility in the world where more than 80 percent of the floats that journey down New Orleans’ streets during the Carnival season are designed and built.
  • Visit the Old U.S. Mint, 400 Esplanade Ave., part of the Louisiana State Museum’s Music Collection, internationally known Jazz Collection, the largest and most comprehensive of its kind in the world.
  • New Orleans’ Preservation Hall was established in 1961 to honor one of America’s truest art forms. Operating as a music venue, a touring band, and a non-profit organization, it continues its mission today as a cornerstone of New Orleans music and culture.
  • Live music on Frenchmen Street. The most popular section of Frenchmen Street is a short strip in the Faubourg Marigny, just down river from the French Quarter. This area was once the plantation of a wealthy Creole born man who influenced the city of New Orleans with his joie de vivre–or a keen enjoyment of living. It has developed into the “it” block.

So now do you see how easy it was for me to sleep?  So much to do, so much to learn and so much to eat before I made it back to my room each day. Makes more sense, right? Just pack up and go, then surrender to the food, surrender to the atmosphere, surrender to the swamps, surrender to the history and surrender to all the love New Orleans has to offer.

Need I say more?