Eating the Easy 

Gorgeous gorging in New Orleans

Gorgeous gorging in New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS—At 2:30 in the morning, we were well into our first game on the third lane at Mid City Lanes. Over in one corner of the large, low-ceilinged space, on a postage-stamp-size stage just outside the ladies room, the blues/R&B/zydeco/whatever band Sunpie Barnes was into an extended jam of “Brick House.” The dance floor was packed with a racially mixed crowd that ranged in age from 20 to 60-something. The bar was doing a brisk business, and the kitchen was still turning out gumbo, po’ boys, and Cajun fries. Just another Saturday night at the Rock ’N Bowl, one of the countless opportunities New Orleans provides for you to do things you’d never do at home, even if they were available to you. Rock ’N Bowl, at 4133 Carrollton Ave. (504-482-3133), is a combination music club and bowling alley, an entertainment option that is surely unique to this city that never sleeps.

Prominently posted at several locations on Bourbon Street, that famed stretch where anything and everything goes—and which my brother has dubbed “The Tijuana of America”—is a list of Mardi Gras Guidelines, provided by the Bourbon Street Merchants Association:

“Illegal Activities:

1. Urinating in public

2. Nudity below the waist

3. Lewd or obscene behavior

4. Grabbing or groping another person

5. Open metal or glass containers on the street”

You may have no intention of committing any of those specific violations, but, sooner or later in Sin City, you will break—or at least bend—a few of your own Rules of Personal Behavior. New Orleans operates under a famously relaxed moral code, and I have to believe that impunity is granted for at least the time spent within its city limits.

Thanks to our good friends at Southwest Airlines, travel between New Orleans and Nashville is cheap and easy. Fares can be as low as $33 each way, and there are five flights daily. Two are nonstop. Many Nashvillians are hopping on board for a quickie getaway weekend. In the space of less than two days, I encountered no fewer than a dozen Nashvillians. (This is not the place for an illicit rendezvous.)

There are numerous hotels to choose from, but you’ll want to book reservations. New Orleans is a major convention destination; on the weekend I was there, 38,000 Realtors were in town, occupying many of the available hotel rooms. To make the most of your limited sleep time, I’d suggest some place off Bourbon, perhaps on the more sedate Chartres.

Before embarking on your trip, you’ll also want to determine your hours of operation. If you are interested in the guidebook New Orleans—the one of museums, art galleries, walking tours, antique shops, and centuries-old cemetaries—you’ll be doing the New Orleans day trip. If you want to explore the underbelly of New Orleans—and go bowling at 2:30 in the morning—you may never see Napoleon’s death mask at the Louisiana State Museum. C’est la vie.

You can get plenty of dining advice before you leave Nashville. The best advice I got was to try Uglesich’s, a family-run cafe on the slightly seedy outskirts of the Quarter (1238 Baronne St.). Although it draws plenty of informed tourists, it remains a genuine New Orleans treasure. Normally, Uglesich’s is open Monday through Friday, but about once a month it’s open on Saturday too. The schedule is arbitrary, so call ahead (504-523-8571; 525-4925).

Uglesich’s is a small space, with tables crowded close together inside and out. Almost everything is fried. Be aware that when a dish is advertised as “grilled,” it has probably been cooked on a griddle in a pool of fat. Don’t miss the fried green tomatoes, topped with boiled shrimp and served on a bed of chopped lettuce with a spicy remoulade. The barbecue oysters are plump and juicy and so greasy you can hardly keep them in your mouth long enough to appreciate the flavor before they slip right down your throat. There are eight or nine trout specialities. Anthony Uglesich suggests either Paul’s Fantasy or trout simply grilled with olive oil, garlic, and lemon. Our tab for three, with six beers, was $64.04. Take a cab to get there from the Quarter (two out of three bartenders recommend United Cabs); walk two blocks over to St. Charles and take a streetcar back.

Many Nashvillians are particularly fond of Bayona, that elegant little cottage on Dauphine Street, where chef Susan Spicer, her signature bandanna tied round her head, prepares what she calls “New World cuisine.” Among the dishes that have won her such acclaim, and such a devoted following, are cream of garlic soup; grilled hoisin tuna with sesame guacamole; fried oyster salad with celery root, blackeyed peas, and jalapeño-garlic dressing; grilled duck breast with pepper jelly glaze; and pecan-crusted boneless rabbit with tasso sauce and stoneground grits.

We sampled the unbelievably rich rabbit confit crêpe with leeks and mushrooms in a Dijon cream sauce and the signature Bayona bouillabaisse with mussels, shrimp, and fish in a saffron-tomato broth and peppery rouille. Reservations are a must (504-525-4455). Even with two weeks’ notice and heavy name-dropping, the earliest spot we could get on a Saturday night was 10 p.m.

Spicer, by the way, is a familiar face in Nashville, having taught classes at the Corner Market. She is also a mentor of Sunset Grill’s Jeff Lunsford. Along with former Corner Market manager Ken Jackson, she is now preparing to own Spice Inc., a specialty food market/deli take-out restaurant/cooking school in New Orleans’ central business district.

Sunday brunch is a must in New Orleans, and there’s no better place for it than the much-honored Commander’s Palace, which serves as a good excuse to visit the Garden District. Make reservations, and remember that men are required to wear jackets. While you’re waiting for your table (and you will wait), have a drink in the cool kitchen bar, where you can observe the hustle and bustle of the historic restaurant’s nerve center.

Blessedly, there is no brunch buffet feeding trough at Commander’s. You’ll select from among dishes like oven-roasted Gulf oysters, truffle and wild mushroom light stew, roasted Mississippi quail boned and filled with Creole crawfish stuffing, Gulf fish pecan, eggs Sardou, or house-smoked salmon gravlax on buttery homemade brioche. Since the three-course brunch includes appetizer, entrée, and dessert, you might as well indulge in Commander’s dessert offerings, which are spectacular, particularly the bread pudding soufflé, lemon flan, and praline parfait.

Equally hospitable to tourists and locals, the service at Commander’s is exceptional, with a staff of servers who have immense pride in their profession (504-899-8221).

Because our leisurely brunch stretched until almost 4:30 p.m. and left us with an appetite for nothing more than a nap, we regretted having to pass up the chance for a Sunday-night dinner—although we did find ourselves seeking out an oyster po’ boy on Bourbon Street at midnight. The following morning, we got pastries and chicory coffee from La Madeleine. (With three locations around town, there’s always a La Madeleine handy for a caffeine and sugar pick-me-up.)

Tennessee’s own Rachel Jackson once wrote of New Orleans, “Oh, the wickedness, the idolatry of this place! Unspeakable, the riches and splendor!” While Rachel may not have intended to be paying a compliment, I can think of no better endorsement than that.

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