Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The Scene in New Orleans - by Tamar Alexia Fleishman

Recently on CNN, I heard somebody say that the most patriotic thing you could do this year is to visit New Orleans -- and I wholeheartedly agree. Long before Hurricane Katrina, I had decided that my husband and I would spend our first New Year's in New Orleans. After the hurricane, I watched the news reports of recovery and intrepidly made reservations at the beginning of November. On my last visit to New Orleans, we were outside the Quarter, but I wasn't going to take any chances with taxis or public transportation to and from. Both are up and running now, but not consistently.

This time around, we stayed at the Bourbon Orleans right in the French Quarter. You can't beat it for location, steps away from all the action, but on the edge of the Quarter, for peace and quiet. It's owned by the Wyndham. Most hotels that are open have once or twice a week maid service and no room service, so be prepared. That didn't bother me, but I was highly irritated at the $1 a minute, $11 minimum fee for use of the business center and $9.95 a day use for Wi-Fi. If $29/night local motels can do free Internet, why not a topnotch hotel? Plus, the $9.95 daily fee was for a calendar day, not for 24 hours' use, which I belatedly discovered when I turned on the computer at 10 p.m.

My first stop was at Marie Laveau's House of Voodoo. Marie Laveau was a famous Voodoo priestess who lived about a hundred years ago. At her namesake shop, you can get readings, powders, oils, chicken feet and all kinds of other stuff that you never know you needed.

The atmosphere on my first night there was very different from my previous visit. The streets were eerily quiet; nobody was on balconies strewing beads. People aren't flashing, "Girls Gone Wild" -style, either. The randy folks has been replaced by dozens and dozens of police of every kind: N.O.P.D., Louisiana State Police, military MP's, private security, detectives, undercover cops and probably others. They are ready to nip any potential problems in the bud. But, they tend to congregate on Bourbon Street and maybe on Royal. I really think that some of the huge groups of police are needed to patrol Canal Street, which gets a little sketchy after sundown.

Robbie and I took a little sunset stroll down to the Riverwalk, which used to have a whole mall of shops. The sidewalks of New Orleans have really taken a beating, so think nonskid, not spindly, shoes. The high-rise hotels, such as the W and Loews are in operation, but you start to see real damage walking along the Mississippi River. We heard some music on the Riverwalk, so we went over to see what was going on. I'm so glad we did! The Chabad Lubbuvich Jewish organization was hosting their 17th annual Hanukkah party for the public, giving out free latkes with salsa (Southern style!), gifts and lighting a giant menorah.

At this point, many of the most upscale restaurants in the French Quarter are not yet open: Galatoire's, Brennan's, Mr. B's Bistro (which I missed last time, so I was especially disappointed!). With so much of the current patrons being government employees, there probably aren't enough people willing to drop $100 or more per person for dinner for them to reopen. The Court of Two Sisters has reopened and we did go there on New Year's Eve, but they are really feeling the pinch of not having enough staff. All of the cafes and the casual oyster bars, like Desire Oyster Bar, are open for business.

One business that also has kept pace are the "Gentlemen's' Clubs". Last time we were in New Orleans, we went to one that bragged about its "moderate prices". All I can say is, you get what you pay for. This time, we went to Rick's Cabaret, which has a $10 cover charge. Rick's Cabaret is very elegant, not sleazy, and I saw plenty of couples and professional types. Our server talked to us about local politics, of all things! She was very sweet and beat it back to New Orleans after being evacuated to Austin, which she claimed is "just not the South."

We started every morning with cafe' au lait and beignets at Cafe' du Monde. After another of their cafe' au laits, which is made with a very strong coffee-chicory combination, I looked at some more shops. If you are a woman who is fed up with crappy service when buying clothing, I implore you to visit Pamela Ackerman at Wise Buys. She has been in the business for almost 20 years, knows your size by merely glancing at you, and can pick out things that are, well, perfect.

Then, I basically went into a trance at Fleur de Paris. Fleur de Paris is one of the last custom milliners and I was on a hat buying mission for something to wear to the Kentucky Derby. Churchill Downs' museum houses eight hats from Fleur de Paris! Since I mostly get hats at vintage stores, I was taken aback at the prices -- we're talking $500 plus-plus-plus. The store is gorgeous, though, and their head milliner, Nicole, has drawers and drawers of vintage silk flowers, laces and ribbons in every hue to create your hat confection.

For centuries, New Orleans has been a place to get all kinds of exotic perfumes. With its Creole and multinational heritage, along with access to a myriad of unusual spices and fruits, it's really no wonder. I stopped by Bourbon French Perfumes (which just moved two doors down) and Hove' perfumes. Both have very unusual and delicious scents, but Hove' carries more sedate fragrances, with some men's fragrances, too.

We found some great regional books at a couple of the used bookstores in the Quarter. Then, we tried to get tickets to see Dr. John at the House of Blues, but the concert was sold out. The other bulwarks of New Orleans music are up and running, such as Maison Bourbon, Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop and the Old Opera House.

At the Loews hotel, we were able to rent a car to go see Mississippi. As soon as you leave downtown, that's when you see miles and miles and miles of utter destruction. The homes along I-10 and U.S. 59 either have blue tarps on the roofs or are leveled. The windows are all blown out, there's still no electricity and there are X's spray painted on the sides, with numbers indicating bodies searched for and bodies recovered. We made sure to get back to New Orleans before nightfall and it was a good thing, too; the whole area is lacking in open gas stations and working traffic lights.

For dinner, we went to a new restaurant on Jackson Square, Muriel's. The place has a gorgeous "shabby-chic" decor -- I wish I could rent it as an apartment! The food was gourmet Creole-Continental and the service was excellent. On a tip from the visitors' center, we asked to see the private rooms upstairs. Unbelievable! Apparently photographed by Esquire, Playboy and Victoria's Secret, the passion-red rooms are decorated in a combination of harem's den, Storyville boudoir and ancient Roman decadence. The rooms are available for rental and are understandably popular for bachelorette parties.

In these times of uncertainty, who couldn't use a little extra "mojo" on their side? That's where our visit to Erzulie's Voodoo Shop came into play. This is an upscale voodoo/occult shop that's well lit and lacking in the ubiquitous patchouli/dust atmosphere. On weekends, the proprietess sets out tasty hors d'oervres and wines. You can buy all kinds of oils and natural goat's milk soaps there. Check out