Monday, March 1, 2010

Touring the Big Easy – a prelude to a great Rock & Roll Marathon

Rock & Roll marathon number two was another triumph for Elite Racing, another source of pride for New Orleans and a tremendous new event worth your time. This was Reesa’s first visit to New Orleans and the city didn’t disappoint. We started the weekend, as everyone should, with chickory coffee and beignets at Café du Monde in the French Quarter. We then took the day touring this classic birthplace of Jazz, strolling through the flea market, Royal and Bourbon Street and downtown. We hit the marathon expo that afternoon stopping off to say hi to the race organizers busily promoting the upcoming events in Dallas (two weeks), San Antonio, Denver and of course San Diego.

That night we stopped into Preservation Hall for some classic New Orleans Jazz from the house band featuring the fabulous jazz trumpeter LeRoy Jones. We then capped the evening with two sets of cool Jazz at Irvin Mayfields’s Jazz bistro inside the Royal Sonesta Hotel. If you are a fan of old school jazz, be sure to pop in here on a visit. No cover, rotating selections of fine musicians and cushy couches.

If one day in New Orleans must start with Café du Monde, the next should start at the best breakfast tradition in the South, Brennan’s. This is the birthplace of hollandaise sauce (or so it would seem from the abundance on the menu) and the true birthplace of Bananas Foster. We had the classic Southern three-course breakfast (which keeps you full through dinner). It started with a baked apple and fresh strawberries with a shared side of double cream. The main course was a mixture of eggs benedict variations. Reesa’s were Florentine with spinach and artichoke hearts. Mine was a mix of andouille sausage and classic Canadian bacon with a Cajun sauce and hollandaise . For those who know me, I have a pretty low tolerance for hollandaise sauce but this was Brennan’s.

The capper was dessert. Reesa had the classic which looked like bananas with chocolate ice cream; but that mound of brown wasn’t ice cream but about half a box of brown sugar. Yikes. Mine was sweet cream-filled crepes covered in marinated strawberries. Both dishes were prepared at table side by our fabulous waiter, Ron, who interestingly had lived in Redwood City, like us. The preparation of this dish is as good as the taste.

After a breakfast of carbo-loading bliss a long walk was in order; so we made it two. The first was strolling the art galleries of the French Quarter. A true highlight was walking into Jamie Hayes’ fine art gallery where we fell in love with his whimsical, yellow submarine-esque graphical creations. But our love fell upon an original of a different style, a grid of swirling paint portraying a bingo board of circles covered in hearts with a single “x” in the lower right corner. Jamie himself was at the back of the shop so we introduced ourselves and learned that the painting was actually a creation made using left over paint from his main artwork and was a play on his signature which he adorns with x’s and o’s. Like many other artists in New Orleans, Jamie lost everything in Katrina. The 55 year old artist had no insurance and basically had to start all over. His classic whimsical pieces are often on the official posters for mardi gras and take weeks to create as he had adorns them with gold leaf and over 100 separate colors.

Rather than start over in a new city, Jamie returned to New Orleans where his home was under 6 feet of water and started over. He rebuilt his home and business to now it is bigger than ever. He started a line of whimsical children’s dolls which fill his retail shop next door which was flooded with patrons every day. Someone tell Oprah about this guy, he’s a tremendous success story and symbol of a renewing New Orleans.

Walk number two started with a ride on the St. Charles Street streetcar through the garden district and past Tulane and Loyola University and into Audubon Park. This is the route of the street car named Desire of Tennessee Williams fame. While that car is now retired, the ride definitely takes you back to a simpler time. The garden district is filled with famous old classic homes made from wood, stone and brick. Many of the homes, unfortunately, haven’t been repaired since the hurricane and so the neighborhood is still in recovery mode but many of the homes have clearly been restored to their past glory.

Audubon Park is a beautiful city part with a scenic golf course and small Zoo. My favorite part of the zoo was seeing the Asian elephants being fed in a playful way. There were each given a keg filled with food and a small opening through which the food could be released. This kept them mentally engaged and active in their small pen. It was my favorite because this is the same way we feed our cairn terrier Scout – but on a smaller scale of course. We fill a tennis ball with food for him.

That night was a light Cajun dinner in the warehouse district with Johanna, Steve, Wendy, Hillary and their mom. Every restaurant here and in the French Quarter had long waits as the 15,000 marathon participants, thousands more conventioneers and hundreds of cheerleaders and their mom’s – all in town for separate events this weekend – filled the night.

Race day couldn’t have been more perfect – see the race report here.

The night after the race we celebrated at a classic French Quarter restaurant, The Gumbo Shop. This is definitely one of the best places to get Lousiana gumbo. Three styles were offered, seafood, chicken and andouille sausage and vegetarian. All included okra, of course and all could have been spicier but a small bottle of house Louisiana hot sauce did the trick. We closed the night in historic Jazz park an outdoor music courtyard on Bourbon Street listening to a Steamboat Willie and his Jazz band, an old time swing jazz band playing in a small bandshell next to a spraying fountain surrounded with bronze statues of famous jazz men.

The following morning I took a short run to beat back the soreness. I started along the Mississippi river bank, then circled the French Quarter to Louis Armstrong Park, a once fantastic city park filled with music and civic facilities that was devastated by Katrina. Encircling this park, in mid restoration was a strong reminder of just how far this city still has to go to get back to its former glory. The community center was still boarded up and many of the stone pillars supporting the wrought iron gates on the perimeter of the park were uprooted and leaning badly. The main auditorium was in mid restore but clearly has a long way to go.

The neighborhoods just outside the park were worse off. The majority of buildings were boarded up, leaning badly or plain torn down. On our way back from the marathon finish, Sunday we took the Canal Street streetcar and saw much more devastation, including Mercy hospital which fought hard to care for its patients long after losing power and the entire first floor to flooding. The hospital simply sits now as an empty shell and strong reminder of that fateful time.

I truly enjoyed my visit to New Orleans and came away with a greater appreciation of the spirit of this town and strong witness of a rebirth that will clearly be longer and slower than anyone would like. This town of 400,000 remaining citizens still thrives with a strong spirit – buoyed for sure by the Saints’ Super Bowl victory – and with any luck will continue regaining its lost glory.

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