Acme Oyster House, Antoine’s, Brennan’s, Cafe du Monde, Commander’s Palace, Green Grasshopper, Magazine Street, Marlon Brando, New Orleans, Sazerac, Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams, Travel, Tujague’s
“America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.” Tennessee Williams
I have old school restaurants in my DNA. My family had deep roots in the Golden Era eateries of Hollywood, from the Hollywood legend that was Chasen’s at Beverly and Doheny to Armstrong Schroeder on Santa Monica Boulevard. You can add the House of Murphy on San Vicente to the endless lunches my mom and my two aunts served at the 20th Century Fox commissary. Mom’s best friend was busy in Culver City at MGM. And all of this poured into our family restaurant at 2601 W. Sixth St. in Los Angeles.
I’m no stranger to the type of place where jacket and tie are mandatory.
When Jan and I received a family wedding invitation to come to New Orleans in October, I knew the moment had come for me to finally meet the Crescent City for the first time.
It was love at first sight – or was that sip? I was thrilled to finally visit the home of Sazeracs and Green Grasshoppers, gumbos, muffaletas, jambalayas and Bananas Foster.
“Well, they told me to take a streetcar named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries, and ride six blocks to the Elysian Fields.”
New Orleans casts a spell. In my experience there is no other place like it. Cocktails were invented here. Jazz originates in the Crescent City. The oldest restaurant in the United States, Antoine’s since 1840, is still here. The airport is named for Louis Armstrong, an honor of great American musical pride. A Streetcar Named Desire was written in the French Quarter.
New Orleans is a One of a One. UNESCO World Heritage Status, anyone?
I have to confess to a lot of personal New Orleans magic preceding my first visit, and this theme will have a few variations in this post. Like any icon, the reputation of New Orleans proceeded its reality and had a presence in my life for a long time. Here’s an example of that New Orleans magic. After all, spells and voodoo can be found all over the city.
When I met my wife Jan in 1979 at Tanglewood, a scion of New Orleans and its music, Wynton Marsalis and I met each other on a rickety plane from La Guardia Airport to the Berkshires. Gunther Schuller, who launched a Scott Joplin revival with Tremonisha and the New England Ragtime Ensemble, would in many ways guide my summer at the Berkshire Music Center.
And there was The Moment where I knew I wouldn’t let Jan go, and it was also another premonition of New Orleans. I was playing Mozart on a chamber music concert on a Sunday morning at 11 AM. After the performance, I went out to the audience to find my summer girl friend. She was completely over the moon and star struck.
“My God, I can’t believe it but Tennessee Williams is at our concert!” she exclaimed. She took it for granted that Leonard Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa were in the third row, which certainly had caught my eye from the stage. I agreed that it was a great to be in the presence of a living icon. His plays changed our culture, all over the world, with his ability to bring characters to the brink of experience while pulling us along for the ride.
Jan wasn’t hearing any of it from me. Her excitement was palpable.
”No, you don’t understand. He’s in character. He’s smiling and wearing his hat!.”
Thirty nine years later it’s a shared moment we still remember fondly. Together we finally made our pilgrimage this October to say thank you to our treasured American Master at his New Orleans home in the French Quarter. And to sweeten this personal gumbo, my mom served both everyday lunches at 20th Century Fox and fancy dinners at Chasen’s to an actor she described as a quiet man from Nebraska, Marlon Brando. Because with one word Stanley Kowalski would change everything forever.
Bien sûr, laissez les bons temps rouler! But where to begin? My first virgin taste in the Crescent City was not of food, far be it from me to ignore local traditions. We arrived in time for lunch and it’s 5 o’clock somewhere, isn’t it? New Orleans inspires a great deal of respect and a good drink is always a good idea.
So let me start in New Orleans where I think you should start, with a cocktail. The cocktail, as in the first on Planet Earth. The Sazerac. I would audition three in New Orleans, at the Acme Oyster House, Commander’s Palace and Antoine’s. All three were different. All three were wonderful. To paraphrase Tennessee Williams, criticism is a drug and don’t imbibe.
The Sazerac starts with a generous absinthe rinse of the glass, then add cognac (or rye whiskey or brandy), a sugar cube and two dashes of Peychaud Bitters, created by Antoine Amédié Peychaud in New Orleans in 1830. A few liquid drops of this gentian and anise bitters is beyond essential. Peychaud Bitters makes the Sazerac a Sazerac. Garnish with a lemon twist. Repeat if necessary and please don’t bruise your liquor with an eternal mixological shaking of the ice shaker, like a juggler flexing circus muscles for all to cheer.
Cognac, rye whiskey or brandy?
Ah, the debates of historical societies will rage forever. Commander’s Palace in the Garden District maintains that the original Sazerac is with cognac and not brandy. They contend that rye whiskey (or brandy) was substituted when a phylloxera epidemic devastated 19th century French vineyards. Their original cognac Sazerac is elegant beyond reproach. Others insist brandy is the authentic version. The legendary 1840 restaurant Antoine’s swears by brandy. Acme Oyster House at 724 Iberville Street in the French Quarter uses rye whiskey, is a very good pour and where I started after arriving from the airport. Try them all for yourself!
”Please, please, please, Vic, make me a Green Grasshopper!”
I can still hear my mom asking my uncle to make her favorite cocktail, the Green Grasshopper, on quite a few Saturday afternoons before dinner. Equal parts crème de Menthe, crème de cacao blanc and heavy cream, I make a few each year to think of my mom, on her birthday or wedding anniversary or any special holiday when I’ve got some cream left over from another dish.
Nothing is random. As we were strolling around the French Quarter between Café du Monde and Central Grocery, I happened to notice a plaque on the wall of an old establishment, Tujague’s. It’s never come up on travel tips or print articles or travel shows about New Orleans so I didn’t know what a big surprise was in store.
Guillaume and Marie Abadie Tujague emigrated to New Orleans, Louisiana from Bordeaux, France in 1852. After beginning a new life as a butcher in the French Market, the couple opened their restaurant in 1856, and never closed during the entire Civil War. Sometime in 1912 Guillaume sold the restaurant to Phlibert Guichet, who would create my mom’s favorite cocktail in 1918. So both my mom and the Green Grasshopper are celebrating their centennials in 2018!
I also experienced a true sense of déjà vue visiting New Orleans. As most of my blog readers know, my wife and I have an ongoing relationship to the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble in Việt Nam. Our apartment when we are in Hà Nội is in its French Quarter. Visiting a different French Quarter in New Orleans made comparisons unavoidable. And though the French Quarter of New Orleans is in reality a Spanish city (I was reminded more of Cartagena in Colombia than anything in France, Việt Nam, Laos and Cambodia), New Orleans was busted when I had a traditional early morning coffee and beignets at the twenty four non-stop palace of chicory coffee, the Café du Monde.
The entire wait staff is Việt Kiều!
Indeed there is no surprise at the huge presence of Việt Kiều in Louisiana. The climate is similar, tropical and humid, with a damp season truly much colder than Sài Gòn. The cuisine has a French background, which is also familiar to any Việt Kiều, and because of the tropical climate the food supply is quite similar. Dragonfruit is easy to find. Shrimp fisherman are now mostly Vietnamese in the Gulf of México. And on the other side of the world, when visiting Sài Gòn today it’s easy to see Cajun restaurants in the South Vietnamese metropolis, as many Việt Kiều entrepreneurs are relocating to their country of origin or family.
Icons become icons for good reason.
The Eiffel Tower. The Statue of Liberty. Beethoven’s Fifth and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. “Stellllaaaaaa!” “Bond, James Bond.” Japanese cherry blossoms. Chinese tea and Hong Kong harbor. Molly’s Soliloquy from Ulysses. French cheese and Oaxacan mole and Vietnamese silk. Michelangelo and Botticelli. Casablanca. Beethoven in Vienna. Coffee in Colombia. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The Golden Gate Bridge. And food in New Orleans.
Academia can often be seduced into the sensationalism of icon giant killing. I know of a critic who thinks Lawrence of Arabia is not a very good film and another who contends Brando wasn’t a truly great actor. Time does change collective opinion with new perspectives on accepted facts (transatlantic slavery was not benign but evil). New rivals always are lurking about. But, like the characters of William Faulkner, icons endure, and usually for a trusted reason.
Here’s an example of what I mean for you.
”What I remember about Otto Klemperer?” said my late friend Oliver Knussen one afternoon at Tanglewood. “Authority. He made the Beethoven 5th absolutely earthshaking. Unforgettable, like all the legendary stuff about the piece finally comes across in a real performance and all argument ceased. What other conductor did that?”
When approaching the iconic restaurants of New Orleans, I had neutral expectations. Like our Beethovenian musical icon of dot-dot-dot-dash, the code for D-Day and victory, most performances don’t do the music justice. With famous restaurants there is always the risk that the reputation outshines the reality. But for a first trip to New Orleans had could I not go to the iconic places?
I am happy to tell you every iconic restaurant we visited delivered way beyond its reputation. Commander’s Palace was wiped out by Hurricane Katrina and it’s resurrection story is passionate. Defeat for this legend in the Garden District was certainly an option, but not in New Orleans with a culinary tradition to uphold. Commander’s Palace is an American inspiration and worth smashing your piggy bank to find some extra money if needed. Dinner at Antoine’s has been famous for decades, and luckily no one was murdered the night when we were there. Jan and I enjoyed serving #4,081,972 of Oysters à la Rockefeller. That speaks for itself. And a true Old School dessert icon, Baked Alaska, is still on the menu. A French Quarter breakfast at Brennan’s, found easily near Antoine’s, redefines getting up in the morning. Finally morning cocktails make sense again, a wonderful homeopathic remedy to cure a late night hangover with a milder early morning hangover. Thank you New Orleans!
And my hat is off to all the servers in New Orleans. My mom is glowing from heaven at all the attention and fussing and kindness Jan and I received at every restaurant we visited. Mom gave me all the Old World restaurant and table setting charm she knew, and I found that world easily in New Orleans, at every establishment, these might be the nicest people in America. Somehow, in a world that does indeed need to change, a sense of elegance stills exists in the Crescent City.
Mom knew culinary French and could tableside everything, from boning a fish for Alfred Hitchcock, serving prime rib to an overbearing Orson Welles, understanding Marlon Brando mumbling his lunch order (which mom thought was just his shyness), cutting the wedding cake for Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, or talking about the menu with Dalton Trumbo, Nunnally Johnson or Joseph Mankiewicz, which these screen writers expected to do while ordering. At Antoine’s I easily remembered her biggest embarrassment because an ice cream plus an oven browning danger zone of a dish was on the menu. She survived a Baked Alaska sliding off its platter right into the lap of a true gentleman, James Stewart, who immediately forgave her and made sure Maude Chasen would not fire my mom for an accident with a major star.
The menu from Antoine’s made me reach for my crying towel.
I’ve reflected on my mom’s intuition a lot recently. New Orleans did indeed cast a spell on me. The French Louisiana DNA everywhere had a lot to do with my thoughts. Mom encouraged me to study French in high school, and now, from understanding cuisine to my work in Việt Nam, I use French more and more and not less and less each year. Like being in my kitchen, when I write and speak and yes still study French, mom is right there with me.
Isn’t all of New Orleans a Café du Monde?
My maternal grandfather died shoveling snow in Minnesota on Thanksgiving a few years before I was born in Los Angeles. Remembering my mom and her sisters making the stuffing, roasting a turkey, baking pumpkin pies and, yes, mixing a few Green Grasshoppers, is a life memory I treasure. At sixty-three, I now know that those Thanksgivings together taught me how important food is to keep memory alive.
And the treasure vault of America’s food memory is in New Orleans. Find a piggy bank, put your spare change in it for a year, and then bust that ceramic swine bank open to enjoy yourself in the Big Easy!
Bien sûr, laissez les bons temps rouler!
Best, best, best,