Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Eating and Drinking in New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS -- One of the reasons my wife and I came to New Orleans was to experience its unique and famous cuisine! We have, in fact, had a number of decent meals here along with a few exceptional ones, and I will provide an overview of them here. And over the course of a week we have actually only had one bad experience that bears mentioning, our wretched breakfast at Montrel's Bistro, bad enough that it warrants its own article and which will hopefully save a few unsuspecting souls from its indolent clutches. We also visited world-famous Café du Monde, an establishment that deserves its own entry for entirely positive reasons.

Pat O'Brien's (718 St. Peter Street)
This local watering hole is known for its mixed drinks, and we repaired to this establishment to sample some of them and sooth our jangled nerves after our irritating experience at Montrel's Bistro. Diane had the specialty of the house, its aptly-named Hurricanes, and I opted for my first-ever Mint Julep; there are, after all, so few things one can do for the first time at the age of 45 that they should not pass up the opportunities to do so. (Shown above is Pat O'Obrien's mascot by its Bourbon Street entrance; I am actually working on a coffee table book depicting nothing but my wife posing with creepy streetside mascots, a project in which she is almost inexplicably uninterested.). We sat in the establishment's pleasant courtyard and, while we were not up for eating anything during that visit, thought the food looked good enough that we came back to try it the next day.
On our second visit we sat in a semi-open dining area and I ordered a glass of red wine and the Shrimp and Grits (shown at left), something I had never tried before but wanted to, and Diane ordered the Cancun Shrimp starter and an Abita strawberry ale. The food was all good --high point for me being the fried cakes of cheesy grits, crispy on the outside and soft on the inside -- and Diane especially enjoyed her beer, vowing to pick up a case of locally-brewed Abita on the way out of town.

* Wine tends to be less of a good deal than beer in many New Orleans establishments! We were generally seeing prices, for example, of around $4.50 for a local Abita beer in many places, as compared to $7.50 for a small glass of unexceptional house jug wine. The fact that I just prefer wine to beer with many sorts of food was my downfall here ...

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Café du Monde

NEW ORLEANS -- One of the world-famous institutions visitors to the city should be sure to partake of is Café du Monde, a coffee shop established a full 150 years ago during the U.S. Civil War (as per the sign my wife Diane is peering at toward the bottom of this page). It is located on Decatur street, just a block from the banks of the Mississippi River and at the west end of the French Market, Café du Monde was established in 1862.

Café du Monde is patronized by tourists and locals alike, who come to enjoy its French-style beignets and New Orleans-style café au lait blended with chicory. A beignet, by the way, is a pillow of fried choux dough, crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, covered with powdered sugar, and served fresh to order at the café (they are kind of like a classy version of the fried dough that can be purchased at state and county fairs nationwide). Other than a few other sorts of beverages there is nothing else on the menu, a reminder that some of the best pleasures are also the simplest ones. Interestingly, its beignets have been certified kosher since 2008! That probably makes them halal, too. So, beignets can be enjoyed by everyone.

During our online research ahead of visting Café du Monde we noted that a number of people had complained bitterly about having to wait as much as two hours to obtain a table and their beignets, but a little legwork revealed just how inane this was. Yes, when we walked past the cafe on Saturday afternoon there were what looked like two-hour lines in front of it. But when we went there around midday on Tuesday we sat right down and had our treats and drinks in front of us within minutes.
Café du Monde is, in fact, open 24 hours a day and seven days a week, except for Christmas Day and when the city is getting slammed with hurricanes. So, if you waiting two hours to get your cafe au lait and beignets then you either want to suffer or are too clueless to how to keep from doing so.

Enjoy! I would not have wanted to miss my first beignet during my first trip to New Orleans and recommend that visitors to the city also have their first at the place most famous for them.

Nom, nom, nom! This family sitting near us especially relished their big plates of beignets. But how can you not like something that is deep fried and then buried under a mound of powdered sugar?

St. Louis Cemetery No. 1

NEW ORLEANS -- One of the must-visit places in this city for ghosthunters or anyone interested in architecture in general or burial grounds in particular is certainly St. Louis Cemetery #1. This crumbling, above-ground graveyard has been in continuous use since the 18th century. It bears mentioning that the cemetery is only open until 3 p.m. on most days, and just noon on Sundays and holidays, so plan accordingly!

This is the main entrance to the cemetery. There are a number of other gates but this is the only one that appears to be open to the public.

"When New Orleans was founded in 1718 burials were made on the river bank. The first cemetery, in 1721, was on St. Peter Street. Burials were also made in the church. The first cemetery was demolished when this cemetery, St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, was established by Spanish royal decree of August 14, 1789. As the city grew St. Louis No. 2 was established on Claiborne Avenue in 1823 and St. Louis No. 3 on Esplanade Avenue in 1854. New Orleans Archdiocesan Cemeteries 1983

Wow, check out that orb! Hah, I wish. This is what happens when you have sunshowers during an investigation ...

Fans of horror author H.P. Lovecraft will likely know exactly what I mean when I say this picture makes me think of the short story "Pickman's Model" ...

Wandering around in the maze of tombs that is St. Louis #1 can give the visitor an otherwordly feeling, and it is very easy to forget that the whole place is just the size of one city block.

This ornate group tomb holds the remains of members of an artillery company, which would likely have more-or-less served as a club for affluent gentleman (i.e., those able to afford cannons). The finials on the posts surrounding the tomb depict flaming bombs.

The tomb of "Voodoo Queen" Marie Laveau, to this day an object of veneration that is surrounded with votive offerings of all sorts. While we were there I say some visitors examining these but would not presume to do so myself ...

Monday, July 23, 2012

Haunted History Tours' Ghost Tour

NEW ORLEANS -- As a paranormal investigator, one of the first things I like to do when checking out the supernatural activity in any particular city is take the local ghost tour. Some are good, some are bad -- and some are the real deal. And that is most assuredly the case with Haunted History Tours, a company that takes its participants to real sites throughout New Orleans associated not just with ghosts, but also voodoo and even vampirism (no, the Big Easy's role as a reputed haunt for bloodsuckers did not start with Anne Rice).

On the day we took our ghost tour of the French Quarter, my wife Diane and I met with Haunted History Tours founder Sidney Smith outside of Rev. Zombie's Voodoo Shop (shown at left, during a daytime lull in the action), just a few blocks from the chaos of Bourbon Street. It would literally be fair to say that he helped "write the book" on paranormal activity in New Orleans, as he collaborated on author Kalila Smith's New Orleans Ghosts, Voodoo, and Vampires, a must-read primer for anyone interested in any of the title subjects. Using everything from crime reports, to historic records, to first-hand accounts, he and his staff have meticulously researched the haunted histories of the sites to which they take tour-goers.

All of Haunted History Tours' guides look pretty good but I would still say that we were lucky to get Jesse St. Croix, a native of witch-haunted Salem, Mass., who visited New Orleans in 1975 and decided he never wanted to leave. He brings a winning combination of knowledge, passion, and showmanship to the tours he leads, making them as informative as they are enjoyable. Over a two-hour period, St. Croix led us through the humid, darkened streets of the French Quarter to a number of the most significant haunted places located there.

Foremost among the places we visited was certainly the LaLaurie Mansion, a hulking edifice whose whose socialite lady had tortured to death dozens, perhaps even hundreds of slaves in the mid-19th century. It has been considered to be haunted from the day the crimes committed in it were discovered and has had such a disturbing effect on people since then that most recent owners -- including actor Nicholas Cage -- refuse to spend the night in it. (For those interested in ostensible paranormal phenomena, note the two small orbs in the right half of the picture, both of which appear to have faces on them.)

Other haunted locales we visited on the tour included Muriel's, a haunted restaurant; the home of Civil War General P.G.T. Beauregard; the Andrew Jackson Hotel (shown here); a haunted bar; and the home where a mulatto mistress froze to death on the roof while trying to entice her master to marry her. The evils of slavery, intemperance, and greed have imposed their legacy not just upon the visible history of New Orleans, but upon its haunted one as well, and the time we spent with St. Croix gave us some fascinating and disturbing insights into that.

There is more to come! Keep your eye on this space for more details about the places we visited on the French Quarter ghost tour -- and for an account of Haunted History Tours' Vampire Tour!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Montrel's Bistro (AVOID!)

NEW ORLEANS -- Save yourself some time, money, and aggravation and skip Montrel's Bistro, a promising looking but ultimately disappointing eatery in the market district of the French Quarter (1000 N Peters St, 70116-3317).

"This is some prime real estate wasted," my wife Diane observed. "They are obviously geared toward tourists, 'cause they can't be getting any repeat business."

We had entered the French Quarter via its southeastern corner and passed by all sorts of wonderful looking food stands in the open-air market, where I should have given into the temptation to grab something. We wanted our first meal in New Orleans to be something a little bit special, however, and so held out for a sit-down place.

We were, in fact, seated immediately at Montrel's, and even noticed how many more greeters were lurking about than were servers. After that, it took at least 20 minutes to even put in a drink order, and probably about that long again before we could order our food. We both asked for the breakfast special, the simplest thing on the menu and an item recommended on the board in front of the establishment.

I am sure there are those would defend the way Montrel's is run on the basis of the laid-back New Orleans attitude, that visitors just need to relax, etc., and that is fine as far as it goes. Where it breaks down, however, is when the quality of the food starts to suffer as a result. My grits and eggs were warm but not hot -- and the latter had a chunk of shell in them -- and the sausage was almost cold, which means my breakfast sat for awhile before anyone bothered to bring it out.

Ironically, I would not have cared about how slow the service was if I had been able to make good use of my time by getting online and checking my email, and there were signs nearby indicating we were in a wi-fi hotspot. None of the waitstaff, however, knew the name of the local network or the security key to access it, so this supposed benefit was of no use to us at all (and contributed to the aggravation of our visit).

Pros were that the Bloody Mary's were good -- although we had to struggle to get them -- and that the wait staff was friendly. Our waiter even promised to find out how people could access the Internet so that he would be able to help the next customer that needed this information. As touching as this was, I also suspect that it was not true -- and is certainly not enough to offset a disappointing culinary first experience in New Orleans.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Prague and the Czech Republic

PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC -- Am currently on the ground here with my associate Josh Mayo as part of a short-notice trip for TechForce Protective Services to assess how we can help with development of the REGI Base wounded warrior project and avail ourselves of some import/export opportunities!

This is the broad Moldau River, which flows through Prague and thenceforth into Germany.

Am at the tail end of day five of our mission and have pretty much been moving, eating, drinking, or sleeping the entire time and it literally feels as if we have already been here at least twice as long. So far, however, this has been an incredible trip in a fascinating place and I will endeavor to convey some of that here. So, keep an eye on this space for more to come!

This is my first time in the Czech Republic and I am trying to get a handle on what the place is like; is very reminiscent of Germany in many ways, but somehow not quite the same, with perhaps every fifth detail changed somehow. It is a pleasure, in any event, to be in a country inhabited by people to whom I am ethnically related and who recognize my name as an indigenous one. Above left: This is the clock tower in the Old Town square. Thanks to tour guide Misha Švarcová for helping us to pick out all sorts of details on this and other things that we might have otherwise missed!

Prague is notable for its architecture and has a disproportionate number of beautiful, historically significant, and UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Even the buildings in Paris never seemed to me to be embellished with as many statues, flourishes, and other features! Above right:This seemingly disused building across from the prime ministers's office displays many of the features that make Prague architecture appealing.

Josh and have been staying pretty busy here but have had a few hours during a couple of days to get out and explore the city on foot, have dinner on the town, and enjoy a few drinks -- to include the famous local Pilsner beer. We have managed to visit the castle overlooking the town that is used as the president's palace, explore the Old Town and its great square, spend some time in the ancient Jewish Quarter, and cross the famous Charles Bridge any number of times. Above left: This is Konopiště, built at the end of 13th century as a medieval castle in French Gothic style and later rebuilt into a Baroque chateau. Thanks to REGI Base for the opportunity to get some aerial shots of its and other features of note around Prague!

Shown here is the view from just in front of the place we are staying, Trinidad Hotel Prague Castle, in the heart of the Old Town. That is, in fact, the title castle -- and note the vineyards to the right of it! Prague is a very green city and little details like this are abundant.

Overall, this is a beautiful, exciting, historic city that is part of a terrific country. We came over to conduct business and have got an added incentive to continue doing so in order to allow us to keep coming back!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Eating and Drinking in Prague

One of the most elegant meals we had in Prague was at Toninni, the Italian restaurant located beneath the hotel where we are staying. Josh and I eat breakfast there every day and, despite our busy schedule, really wanted to try dinner there as well, and were glad when we finally had an opportunity to. Proprietress Veronika Enstrom regularly travels to Italy, especially the Apulia region, to select the wines, cheeses, and pastas that she serves in the restaurant. She also personally obtains many of the fresh ingredients that are used in the restaurant, and when we told her that we wanted to try her linguine cozze she made an effort to seek out mussels that she would be ideal.