Thursday, May 8, 2014

Washing Down all that New Orleans Jazz

New Orleans wears many hats for many different people. It can be a party spot, a music destination, a food mecca, a place to absorb a culture like no other in America, or a place to just leave your inhibitions at the door. My wife and I spent part of last week focusing on three of New Orleans’ hats: great music, great local food, and great local drinks. We were lucky enough to find all three of these in three different areas of the Crescent City.

Wednesday At The Square

The first stop on our New Orleans music, food, and drink adventure was Lafayette Square for Wednesday At The Square. This 12-week free evening concert series gives everyone in New Orleans a chance to enjoy outdoor live music while digging into fare from local restaurants all washed down with local craft beer.

As we walked around the square the cool sounds of the All Star Lineup of Eric McFadden, Jerry Joseph, Norwood Fisher, Eric Bolivar & Special Guests filled the air. The other thing filling the air was the rich welcoming smell of Cajun cooking. From Cajun barbecue to gumbo, this Yankee (goofy accent and zero tan) was in aroma heaven. On a recommendation I went for the BBQ pulled pork tacos from Squeal Bar-B-Q. I couldn’t have been happier with that choice. I won’t step into the role of food writer, but I will say the bbq pork, slaw, and chipotle combo was smoky and savory and the perfect match for a craft beer.

We're in New Orleans, why not have 2!
You can enjoy this whole event with a drink in hand from the Abita Brewery—one of the area's original craft breweries. Abita’s story is much like that of another brewery we toured previously, Capital Brewing. Both Abita and Capital were founded in 1986, and like Capital, Abita's emphasis is largely on lagers. Both breweries are privately owned by local shareholders. 

With pork in my belly we headed off to the Abita tent. We grabbed an Andygator (a high alcohol Helles Dopplebock with a slight sweetness to it) and a S.O.S or Save Our Shores Pilsner. Not only is this Abita brew popular, but 75 cents of every bottle of Abita S.O.S. sold goes toward the restoration of the Gulf, another great cause. After sampling these two selections I found my favorite Abita beer, the Abita Amber. Abita Amber is the original offering of the brewery, and its classic malty smoothness with a hint of caramel is, to this day, the brewery's top seller. We also tipped our hats to Abita for the sheer fact that they were a sponsor of the event. In days gone by, the High Life delivery guy or Bud Man would have been vending their swill. It was great to see a local special event like this team up with a local craft brewery.

Besides just supporting local food and beer vendors, purchases made at Wednesday At The Square also benefit the Young Leadership Council. The YLC’s primary focus is leadership development and retention through community projects in the New Orleans area. While traveling I like to find ways to somehow support or "give back" to the community I'm visiting. Being able to do that while eating and drinking from local vendors made us appreciate the experience even more.

Frenchmen Street

A few blocks outside of New Orleans' famed French Quarter is the entertaining and less crowded Frenchmen Street. For 5 blocks, the establishments on this less touristed New Orleans street serve up an eclectic mix of food, cocktails, and music. Some of New Orleans' best dining options are found on Frenchman Street, and in all of these establishments you will be inspired by the locally infused drinks and cool jazz sounds.
Our first stop was Ruthie’s Bar at the Marigny Braserrie. Ruthie’s is at the end of Frenchmen Street. Ruthie’s feels like a neighborhood joint. The bar area is laid back with seating at tables and stools. You can enjoy a few cocktails and be entertained by live music. On the night we were there , the sounds of the Washboard Chaz Trio set a great mood in the place. A highlight of Ruthie’s was the warm staff who wanted to help a few travelers pick out some great drinks. In our limited amount of time we weren’t able to taste the whole drink menu, but we were able to tuck into a strawberry mojtio and Ruthie's Signature Rum Punch. The mojitio was refreshing with generous amounts of fresh strawberries, mint, and booze. I enjoyed it as much as any mojitio I’ve had. Ruthie's Rum Punch was a nice mix of coconut rum and tropical juices with an added kick of 151 at the end to make sure that you endured a little New Orleans kick with your drink. With great drinks, live music (we don't get washboard players at home), a relaxing atmosphere, and from what we were told by another restaurant on the block, exceptional food, Ruthie’s is a must hit on Frenchmen Street.

Champagne glass happiness
After Ruthie’s we moved down Frenchmen to Three Muses for dinner, drinks, and more music. Three Muses is a popular spot, so expect a wait any night you go. As with many great local spots in New Orleans this restaurant doesn’t have an overabundance of seating, which is great because it keeps the food fresh and the menu options interesting. The small seating area allowed us to be close to the band, which happened to be the popular Luke Winslow King. Three Muses was established by 3 people (a food specialist, a drinks specialist, and a music specialist) and it shows in their unique menu. Their food is meant for sharing. It comes in small portions of interesting combinations. We indulged in the lamb sliders, falafel sliders and a local cheese plate. Our drinks were served in champagne glasses to encourage sipping and soaking up the ambience. We tried the Spaghetti Western (a combo of Bulleit Bourbon, Campari soaked orange and rosemary syrup) and a West Bank Daiquiri (NOLA rum, pineapple/lemongrass syrup, and lime juice). The drinks were as intricately crafted as the food, and by the spirit of the crowd (and the wait at the door) the rest of this well put together cocktail menu is worth sampling on a visit to Frenchmen Street.

After dinner the wild sounds of booming brass funk were calling as The Heard (a Chicago based funk band) was playing down the street at The Maison. The Maison is a 3 stage, 2 story, legendary club serving up, you guessed it, local drinks and great music (and no cover charge). We went straight for the bar at The Maison and were impressed to learn that they make their own bourbon and vodka in-house for some of their cocktails. With that bit of knowledge we chose to sample the house-made alcohol drinks. I was intrigued by the Old Fashioned. As a Wisconsinite by birth I know the Old Fashioned as a brandy drink with muddled cherries. This southern Old Fashioned was a bourbon drink (house-made) with muddled oranges. The outcome is obviously a much different drink, but very refreshing with a touch of sweet from the oranges (a drink worthy of a southern gentleman). My wife eyed up the Southern Peach (house-made peach and ginger infused vodka, peach bitters and simple syrup with soda water and Sprite) and fell in love with it. It was also refreshing and to me almost tasted like an Italian peach soda. Both drinks paired well with the unbelievable brass style of The Heard and the energetic Maison. The Maison, with its great music and solid drinks, is an establishment that must be experienced on Frenchman.

As is the case all over New Orleans walking with a drink in hand is fine on Frenchmen. And, with music emanating from every open door, you can spend all night enjoying different sounds and flavors.

Lite beer looming on the Jazz Fest horizon
New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival

We could have traveled to New Orleans any time of the year but we chose our dates because we wanted to attend Jazz Fest. Jazz Fest is a celebration of the culture of New Orleans and greater Louisiana spanning 2 weekends every spring.  It doesn’t matter what you love most about New Orleans (food, music, drink, crafts, hats) because Jazz Fest has it all covered on the infield of one of the oldest race tracks in America.

With a lineup of bands that we love and food that I couldn’t wait to stuff my face with, Jazz Fest sounded like the perfect festival for us. We were very excited during our Jazz Fest planning that the Alabama Shakes, one of our favorite bands, would headlining on the Friday we would be in New Orleans. The Alabama Shakes are lead by Brittany Howard, the one singer in the world we would want to hang out with. The power and soul she puts into her vocals are unrivaled and the short yet real fan interaction she has puts her in a class of people we want to share a drink with. 

So, how does the food and drink at Jazz Fest rate? The sheer volume of local favorites was almost overwhelming. Name any variety of Po-Boy and it is available at Jazz Fest. The soft shell crab Po-Boy stand was dubbed by past Jazz Fest attendees as the 1st stop at Jazz Fest for the best food item at the festival. There were also fried oyster, Andouille, shrimp, pork, and catfish Po-Boys to be found, and on and on it went. There were gumbo, craw fish, jambalaya, pulled pork, tacos, desserts, and snow balls stretched as far as the eye could see. I dove into gumbo (it wasn’t too hot out and I hadn’t had gumbo in New Orleans yet) and was overly satisfied. It was now time to wash down my gumbo.

Was that a tiny can of Shandy?
Unfortunately, the washing down is where I did have one small issue with the festival. I love a local craft beer, I think I’ve shown that in past scribbling. I heard there were 2 tap lines of Abita Amber somewhere, but I couldn’t snuff them out. What we saw everywhere were big Miller Lite stands serving Lite, Coors Light, Blue Moon, and Leinie’s. With a wealth of local artisans and food it was almost a shame that the beverages weren’t local as well vs. just being snobby, because I had to drink a Summer Shandy. With 10 craft breweries in the state, and for the most part we know craft brewers work together for the greater good of beer, we hope that somehow Jazz Fest and those breweries can pull together to send the big macro packing. We know Miller/Coors kicks in cash to sponsor the festival, and of course money is always a concern. But if it comes down to being able to service enough lines to serve a bunch of thirsty music fans, we hope that somehow the local craft brewers like Abita can come together and devise a plan so that all of the art of Louisiana (brewing is an art) can be showcased at the 46th annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 2015. For you slushy booze drink fans, the New Orleans punch was fantastic and available at multiple places on the grounds.

Typically, New Orleans nightlife evokes images of beads, hurricanes, and Huge Ass Beers on Bourbon Street with people from all around the world. But New Orleans also has you covered if you love music, food, and drink with locals in a more relaxed environment.