Imagine New Orleans in July. You can almost feel the sweat forming on your brow and your shirt clinging to your back. Not a very appealing thought, is it? Now add in icy, refreshing cocktails served in elegant air-conditioned hotels in the French Quarter, peopled with smiling, interesting folks from far and wide.
Throw in some remarkable meals, a little sightseeing, and suddenly New Orleans in the summer isn’t such a bad idea after all. Welcome to Tales of the Cocktail, New Orleans’ annual summer festival devoted to spirits.
Now in its eight year, Tales of the Cocktail has grown into a preeminent gathering of beverage industry representatives, celebrity bartenders and chefs, food and beverage managers, and ordinary people who enjoy learning about and savoring the exotic flavors of mixed drinks. And how fitting to hold such an event in New Orleans, whose cocktail culture dates back a century or more and includes such signature libations as the Hurricane, Sazerac, Pimm’s Cup, Brandy Milk Punch, Ramos Gin Fizz, and Café Brulot.
Designed as an educational event (“We’re not drinking; we’re learning” is the festival mantra), Tales of the Cocktail, held at the historic Hotel Monteleone and the elegant Royal Sonesta, provides sponsors the opportunity to educate attendees about their spirits—and I’m talking every kind of liquor and liqueur you can imagine. Seminars, spirited luncheons and dinners, tasting rooms, and complementary events fill the schedule, making it impossible to take advantage of everything there is to offer—even if you start your day with an eye-opener at the complimentary Kahlua Coffee Bar or the Absolut Bloody Mary Bar.
WILDFLOWER HONEY & FIGS
I decided to attend the festival at the last minute, arriving on Friday, day three of the five-day event—probably a good thing since five days of cocktails might have done me in. After dropping off my bags at my accommodations, the Soniat House (more on that later), I dashed to my first event, the Spirit of Texas Luncheon held at Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse (www.dickiebrennanssteakhouse.com). Beginning with (what else?) a cocktail reception, attendees tasted drinks made from Tito’s handmade vodka and Corazon tequila, among others. My favorite was Rumble, a spirit crafted by Balcones Distillery whose ingredients include wildflower honey, mission figs, and turbinado sugar, a soothing combination with a kick!
When it came time to find a seat, I looked for a convivial group and ended up joining photographer, Damian Heva and his wife, Becky, and two retired schoolteachers. Damian, it turned out, is an expert on absinthe and has an exhibition of absinthe-related photos at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, which I planned to visit Monday. All around us tables were filled with jovial, interesting folks. Amazing how a couple of pre-lunch cocktails can turn everyone into fast friends. When Chef Alfred announced the menu, the crowd clapped with joy. I knew we were in for a treat!
A creamy cole slaw with bacon and blue cheese led the way, followed by succulent shrimp bathed in remoulade sauce. The main course, a juicy rib-eye steak with mashed potatoes and onion rings on the side, arrived next. Periodically waiters circulated throughout the dining room, bearing trays of colorful drinks, and cocktail purveyors dropped by to tell us more about their spirits and share samples, such as Tito’s tasty lemon jalapeno-infused vodka. Pecan pie a la mode capped off the meal along with a cup of chicory-flavored coffee. After saying goodbye to my new friends and splashing cold water on my face, I raced to my first seminar, Hollywood Cocktails, where I learned about New Orleans’ storied film history and—surprise—tasted a few more cocktails.
Whew! And this was only the beginning. But don’t worry. I wasn’t in la-la land the whole weekend. It takes a lot of skill to enjoy tasting adult beverages without drinking too much. One of my remedies was to go for long walks in the sauna-like heat, sweating the toxins out of my body. Good thing I liked walking because the Soniat House, where I stayed, was about twelve blocks from Hotel Monteleone. Of course, I could have taken a cab, but the walk always did me good, and I love people watching in the French Quarter, no matter what season it is.
Considered one of the country’s most beautiful boutique hotels, the Soniat House (www.soniathouse.com) is a unique property with a charming New Orleans vibe. The hotel is comprised of three townhouses built in the early 1900s, which have been transformed into 30 rooms, surrounding two cool, leafy courtyards, a fountain playfully splashing in the center of each. The rooms are all uniquely decorated and feature hardwood floors, gorgeous antiques, and an authentic Old-World atmosphere. Celebrities are said to patronize the Soniat House when in town, including Hugh Laurie, who preferred the more intimate surroundings of this lovely property over the prestigious hotel that had been booked for him. My room on the second floor had a comfortable sitting area and featured its own private terrace surrounded by palm fronds.
While breakfast isn’t included, you should experience it while you’re there. Simply order it the night before, and the next morning in the courtyard or on your terrace you’ll find a linen-draped table spread with a simple, but delectable breakfast of fresh-squeezed orange juice, coffee or tea, and just-baked, still-warm buttermilk biscuits with homemade strawberry preserves. As I sat munching on my breakfast one morning, the breeze softly rustled the palm trees around me, and I felt like I was in another place, another time.
TASTES LIKE SPRING
Friday evening I joined a group of travel writers for dinner at Arnaud’s, a New Orleans institution on Bienville Street (www.arnauds.com). A few years ago Archie (Jr.) and Katy Casbarian, a brother-sister team, took the reins from their father, whose capable hands garnered awards and a loyal patronage for Arnaud’s. Archie and Katy joined us for dinner and, judging from the feast we shared, appear equally capable of carrying on the restaurant’s superb reputation.
Our starters included simple homemade chips that were crispy, salty, vinegary, and (surprise!) tasted like potatoes. Another signature appetizer is the soufflée potatoes, puffy pillows served with a delicate béarnaise sauce. The turtle soup featured a thick, rich roux, nice meaty bits, and a dash of sherry. Trays of oysters offered a tantalizing array of preparations including Oysters Suzette with bacon and green onion and Oysters Bienville with shrimp and mushrooms in a white wine sauce. For my main course, I had a trio of entrees: a veal medallion accompanied by a tasty mushroom risotto; Arnaud’s crabcake, delicate yet flavorful; and Crayfish O’Connor with brandy-infused Creole tomato sauce.
The evening ended with a sampling of Arnaud’s desserts: crème brulee, chocolate cake, and a lovely presentation of Café Brulot, “otherwise known as night-night,” Katy said with a smile. A potent concoction of brandy, coffee, cinnamon, clove, lemon, and orange, Arnaud’s Café Brulot, featuring a flaming grapefruit peel, is a treat to watch being prepared and decadent to drink. Did I mention that I gained a couple of pounds during this visit to New Orleans? And this was only the first day.
Saturday morning I decided to pop into the media breakfast room for coffee. To my utter amazement, waiters offered cocktails as I walked in. Van Gogh vodka sponsored the breakfast (yes, there was also food and coffee) to introduce a few favorite cocktails. OK (twist my arm), I’ll try one, I told the waiter, then promptly fell in love with my new favorite cocktail: St-Germain, a liqueur from France made of elderflowers picked in the Alps; Van Gogh vodka; and a rosemary sprig. Tasted like spring!
After this pleasant start to my day, I hurried off to a seminar: The Brandies of Jerez. I’ve always been ambivalent about brandy. My husband, Peter, enjoys an occasional Rémy Martin, but its fiery taste has never been my favorite. Now here I was in a room with a trio of Spaniards wooing me with their Spanish brandies. After one taste, I was smitten. Made from sherry wine, these brandies offered layers of flavors I’d never detected in French cognacs: caramel, walnut, honey, date, orange peel, figs, plus a hint of sweetness. We tasted about ten different brandies including Gran Duque d’Alba, a bestseller, and Non Plus Ultra, which Rafael Rodriguez, sales manager for Bodegas Williams & Humbert, called a “soother of bad relationships.” Non Plus Ultra comes in a hand-blown crystal bottle and costs $1000—clearly, not something I can afford, but I loved having a $5 sip!
My second spirited luncheon, Eco-Celebrations, held at the elegant Le Meritage restaurant on Toulouse St. centered around an eco-friendly theme (www.lemeritagerestaurant.com). Speakers talked about how to plan “green” events while attendees enjoyed three cocktails (!) and a lunch to swoon over. A Ginger Jade Gimlet with 360 organic vodka became my new favorite cocktail. Chef Michael Farrell delighted diners with his well-composed meal, starting with a caprése salad with heirloom tomatoes topped with pesto (“for that extra pop,” Chef Michael said), luscious shrimp and grits, and a flourless chocolate torte for dessert. Oh my. The spirited luncheons represent a good bargain at $45 all-inclusive and also provide an opportunity to meet other cocktail aficionados, always an interesting bunch.
Next on my agenda was a seminar called Art of the Aperitif. Designed to spark the appetite, these wines, spirits, and cocktails “set the stage for the meal,” explained Paul Clarke, a writer who specializes in libations. Often aperitifs contain a bitter component, he continued, which stimulates your taste buds. We sampled absinthe, a few vermouths, and a tasty Italian aperitif called Aperol, which I definitely plan to revisit.
This seminar was a perfect segue to dinner. Joined by friends—new and old—we journeyed across Lake Pontchatrain to Chef John Besh’s acclaimed new brasserie, La Provence in Lacombe (www.laprovence.com). Nestled among live oaks beside a quiet country lane, La Provence is definitely out of the way, but worth discovering. From the moment you drive up you will be transported to the French countryside. Indeed behind the restaurant you’ll find lush gardens growing much of the restaurant’s vegetables and herbs along with farm animals who might be related to your dinner. Talk about local food! In fact, that’s Chef Besh’s goal: to provide “thoughtful, meaningful, flavorful delights.”
And he delivered. Appetizers included amazing quail gumbo—a unique presentation of quail in a flavorful brothy gumbo, lightly fried squash flowers stuffed with goat cheese, and charbroiled oysters in Parisian butter. After all those appetizers, much of my entrée—a smoky, flavorful lamb tower—ended up in a doggy bag. These gourmet meals were beginning to catch up with me!
Yet somehow the next morning I found myself sipping a brandy milk punch in another New Orleans institution, Brennan’s, for what else: Breakfast at Brennan’s (www.brennansneworleans.com). This royal dining experience should be on everyone’s bucket list. Sitting at a corner table overlooking the courtyard, our group wined and dined for nearly three hours as smiling waiters in bow ties satisfied our every whim. After tastes of Brennan’s wonderful gumbo and turtle soup, I ordered Trout Nancy for my main course, a perfectly cooked trout fillet topped with copious amounts of lump crabmeat sprinkled with capers and a lemon-butter sauce. It was divine, one of the best entrées I’ve ever had.
Of course, you can’t go to Brennan’s with out experiencing Bananas Foster, a dessert invented in this venerable institution involving a flamboyant tableside presentation of sizzling hot flames and rum poured over sugared bananas. Served with vanilla ice cream, it’s an excellent way to start the day. Before leaving, be sure and explore the upstairs rooms of Brennan’s, which offer a peek into the restaurant’s storied past. Like Arnaud’s, Brennan’s ownership has transferred to the next generation. Alana Brennan, poised and attractive, oversees the day-to-day affairs of Brennan’s, wearing a variety of hats including helping set up more tables on the busy Sunday morning I visited. “This business keeps me busy,” she said, “but I love it.”
Another day of Tales of the Cocktail stretched before me. I attended a seminar called Keeping Ahead in an Online World about blogging and social media and then escaped that afternoon to the New Orleans Museum of Art, where everything from ancient Asian and African sculptures to contemporary Louisiana folk art and whirligigs awaits your discerning eye (www.noma.org). The garden outside promises a whimsical walk among live oaks where modern sculptures dot the landscape, but be forewarned: the garden closes about an hour before the museum. I only got a brief peek, which was disappointing since I enjoyed the garden so much during a previous visit.
Monday was a day to wander through New Orleans, taking my time people-watching and enjoying the French Quarter ambiance. I ended up at Riverwalk, a shopping mecca (souvenirs, anyone?), which is also home of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum (www.southernfood.org). Exhibits on such local staples as sugar, coffee, chicory, shrimp, crabs, and crawfish proved interesting as did the Museum of the American Cocktail, tucked into a corner of the facility, where I learned the derivation of the word cocktail. Originally cocktails were created to drink in the morning to take the edge off the previous night’s debauchery and refer to the cock’s tail, which heralds the arrival of a new day. I also viewed Damian’s dramatic photo exhibit featuring black-and-white photos of absinthe glasses, spoons, and wafting cigar smoke.
That evening I met Rogerio, a journalist from Brazil, for my final New Orleans meal at Muriel’s on Jackson Square, an historic home originally built in the 1700s that now houses a fine restaurant (www.muriels.com). I’m not sure how this gem escaped my notice on previous visits, but it’s destined to become a favorite. Before dining, Rogerio and I sat on the upstairs balcony overlooking Jackson Square, discussing the ups and downs of travel writing. On the way downstairs, we stopped in the plush Séance Lounge, decorated in red velvet, and listened to a spooky ghost story about a former owner of the original home, Mr. Pierre Jourdan, who hung himself after gambling away his fortunes.
Seated in the charming dining room, Rogerio and I proceeded to enjoy a superb dinner, beginning with a rich shrimp-and-goat-cheese crepe for me and shrimp remoulade for Rogerio. My entrée was pecan-encrusted puppy drum served with a crabmeat relish, an excellent fish dish, and for dessert, I had crème brulee. My three-course meal, at the affordable price of $29.95, was one of a number of options available from Muriel’s Coolinary Menu. Rogerio tried wood-grilled BBQ shrimp, which he let me taste—deliciously spicy.
After dinner, I took Rogerio, who was visiting New Orleans for the first time, to Frenchmen Street, where music from the best jazz clubs spilled into the streets. At The Spotted Cat, we caught The Jazz Vipers, who were swinging; in Snug Harbor Charmaine Neville jazzed it up. Finally at d.b.a. we watched an entertaining jazz-funk band whose horn section blew us away. Afterwards Rogerio walked me back to the Soniat House, where I fell into my comfortable, elegant bed, exhausted, but saddened by the knowledge that tomorrow I would head for home.
My final advice? Don’t let a little sweat stop you from visiting New Orleans in the heat of the summer, especially during the epic Tales of the Cocktail festival. This sizzling city has an unparalleled charm, regardless of the season, and continues to seep into my soul every time I visit.
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