My heart sank as I stepped onto the scale. After nearly a month of trying to lose weight for my week-long trip to the Gulf Coast, I was up another three pounds. My clothes were snug and getting snugger. If I ate everything I wanted on my vacation, I’d be flying home naked, and I wasn’t about to let the TSA think they’d broken me. I’d have to low-carb my way from New Orleans to Gulf Shores and back.
After an early flight, my travel companion and I walked to Deanie’s Seafood in the French Quarter. Sitting on wooden chairs at a large table near the center of the crowded casual restaurant, we split a dozen char-grilled oysters, topped with Parmesan and sizzling in a jacuzzi of bubbling butter, which my friend sopped up with bread. I love shrimp and ordered the barbecue, of Man v. Food fame, for my main course. They came swimming in red-tinged oil, along with a gigantic baguette, a stockpile of napkins, and a plastic bib. I put on the bib, put aside the bread, and one by one decapitated and savored the garlic-y shrimp. They were filling, and I barely missed the bread. The napkins I needed.
After lunch we lounged in our hotel room. The InterContinental is one of my go-tos in New Orleans, mostly because of the chain’s Ambassador benefits. Last time we stayed there, our welcome fruit plate was delivered with a bottle of wine, which we enjoyed on the balcony of our upgraded room. Unfortunately, on this weekend, New Orleans was gripped in such a damp cold that (unusually for me) I felt it all the way through to my bones, and we never did enjoy our large balcony for more than a few moments, so we were inside the room when the fruit was delivered.
And maybe the balcony didn’t matter so much anyway.
In the evening, we walked a short way to Desi Vega’s, a steakhouse in the central business district’s charming Hotel Lafayette, where I once enjoyed a few fabulous nights in a spacious suite complete with sitting room, balcony, and wet bar. The restaurant has changed since then, and added a long bar, where we sat on cushy stools facing the row of gleaming bottles on mirror-backed shelves. After starting with the darkly rich turtle soup, I ordered the oyster and eggplant Napoleon, which would prove to be one of the best dinners I had the whole trip. Unfortunately, the six plump oysters came battered and fried, so I gave three to my companion and indulged in the rest, slightly salty, a little crispy on the outside, warm and soft and almost meltingly homey on the inside. The layers of eggplant, one of my favorite veggies, were also a treat, slightly oily, al dente at the edges, falling-apart tender at the center.
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In the morning, we searched online for a new brunch place to walk to, and I settled on Bar Frances for its steak-and-eggs. Over the last few years, walking has become a determining factor in my travels; most days start with walking several miles and then continue with walking to lunch and dinner and everywhere in between or even nowhere in particular. So I donned dark Calvins and slip-on sneakers, polished up with coordinating bag and belt, a silk scarf, and classic jewelry to keep me from looking like I just came from a Donald Trump rally, and we set out toward the Freret neighborhood. Apparently, in the time it took us to walk the three miles, the restaurant had changed its menu, and so I contemplated Plan B as we sat together on the banquette side of a half-booth across the bright and open room from its white marble wine bar. The vegetable in the vegetable-and-gruyere omelet was mushrooms, which I hate, so I ordered the omelet with just the cheese. It was delicious, light and fluffy, without a hint of the burnt tang that mars the omelets of lesser cooks. I didn’t touch the accompanying toast. My companion equally enjoyed the fried chicken sandwich, en brioche, with hollandaise and an over-easy egg, as well as a side order of fries, which looked enough to feed the Saints.
When you’re a foodie limiting your food in a great food city, what do you do but go to a food museum? So after brunch we walked to the Southern Museum of Food and Beverage, which fills 16,000 square feet in the Dryden Street Market building in the Central City neighborhood. The heart of the warehouse-y museum is the Gallery of the South, a collection of small stations set up on the polished concrete floor and using everything from menus to processing equipment in an homage to the food and its ingredients, recipes, and personalities of each Southern state and the District of Columbia, whose contribution features menus from White House dinners throughout recent history. We also enjoyed the walk-in replica of Mississippi’s The Shed, where we’d lunched on our last Gulf trip. And the Katrina Deli, with offerrings like Heckuva Job Brownies, honors not so much Southern food as the cultural knack for finding pleasure no matter what.
For dinner we walked back to the French Quarter. The French 75 bar at Arnaud’s was hopping, but we managed to score two stools on the short side near the door, between a large lamp and a pile of cookbooks, and the several bartenders were pleasant and attentive. We started off with escargots en casserole, which were sultrily delicious, with a whisper of licorice from the Pernod, though I divested them of their little puff-pastry toques, not really even a sacrifice, as I was already noticing by this time that my tummy felt fuller and looked flatter. Next my crab-loving companion opted for the crabmeat Prentiss, in a generous creamy cheese sauce. I asked a bartender about the alligator sausage, which she said was mixed with pork to moisten it. That was all I needed to hear, and I thoroughly enjoyed the familiar taste of the blend, along with its tender smoked onions, sweet apple relish, and tangy Creole mustard.
On Monday morning, we walked to the French Market, which was first established in 1791. We entered through the farmers’ market; there was the fresh produce that is a staple of every farmers’ market the world over, and there were the specially New Orleans stalls, offering delights from crepes to pralines. To walk through such a market is to walk through social and economic history, global and local. Drawn by the daily necessity of fresh food, this is where people of all races and ranks, backgrounds and beliefs, flocked and found as well the less tangible things that truly sustain life, where they caught up socially with friends, discussed current civic matters, while engaging in the buying and selling that creates jobs and economic growth, and even practicing a small-scale equality in a very stratified culture.
If the farmers’ market reflects some of the city’s historic character, the flea market is its modern caricature. Here vendors behind tightly packed tables hawk touristy kitsch from tee-shirts to gator heads, all a nod to the importance of tourism to New Orleans’ economy today. Though modern technology and custom has changed the position of city markets in daily life, their survival and evolution points to the unchanging necessity of fresh food, commerce, and social and civic interaction. To feel the vibe of a city, stroll its market.
My companion loves buffets, and especially casino buffets, and especially the Buffet at Harrah’s, and so that’s where we walked from the Market. Typically, I tuck in to a few platefuls of the peel-and-eat shrimp before indulging in the warm and moist bread pudding. Unfortunately, they weren’t serving the shrimp, so I filled up on two plates of salad, followed by–no, not bread pudding, but rather–squash medley, as we sat in our full booth along the edge of the buffet room, steps away from the busy casino floor.
As much as my friend loves the Harrah’s Buffet, I love the Hermes Bar, and so we headed to Antoine’s for dinner. I first sat on a backed wooden stool at the end of its long wooden bar, my black-sandalled feet and red cocktail-dress hem dangling above its brass rail and checkerboard floor, five months after my mother died, when I was learning to live again. I always have the same thing I had that first time, Antoine’s off-the-menu 2-2-2 oyster trio, two Thermidor, two Bienville, and of course two Rockefeller, whose recipe was created in the restaurant’s kitchen in 1899. My favorite changes every trip; this time it was the bacon-y and tomato-y Thermidor.
On Tuesday morning, we took advantage of our complimentary coupons for the hotel’s breakfast buffet. I opted for a satisfying cooked-to-order omelet with bacon, onions, and lots of cheese, followed by a bowl of burstingly fresh berries topped with a dot of crème fraiche. We actually didn’t go for a walk because we were driving a few hours East to stay with friends at a fabulous rental condo in Gulf Shores, Alabama. We skipped lunch, figuring we’d soon munch on the large balcony facing the water.
At around 8:00, I put together a snack board in the roomy kitchen. Along with several cheeses, there was a fish dip and crackers and package of three types of salami. I skipped the crackers and wrapped pieces of cheese in the meat slices as the four of us sat on the balcony and savored the sounds of the lapping waves below.
The morning of course started with a long walk, but I’m more comfortable looking like I belong at the beach when I’m actually at the beach. About a year ago, I hit upon the tactic of a survival bag, stocked with as much as I can fit to blunt the hazards of Sisyphean walking, from pain–killers to compression socks. So I suited up in its old shorts-and-tank set, cushioned cross-trainers, and coordinating cross-body. My days of packing light are suspended indefinitely.
Lunch was a feast at a long picnic table on the back porch of the remote and rustic Tin Top restaurant in Bon Secour. My travel companion and I started off splitting a dozen Parmesan-topped oysters, six of the Dirty (well, half-)Dozen, served in delicious tasso ham cream sauce, and six of the house Tin Tops, swimming in a rich and spicy crawfish sauce. Then we each tucked in to a tender 10-ounce rib-eye steak. Most of the choices for the two sides were typical Southern indulgence like fried okra, so I opted for two small salads, a wedge and a Caesar. I couldn’t finish anyway.
The sunset glowed from behind the cloudy sky as we dined again on meat and cheese on the condo balcony. Since we’d polished off most of the salami the night before, I served myself a generous portion of the baked boudin, despite the rice. Unfortunately, I also consumed an entire bottle of Cupcake Prosecco, but someone else kept pouring for me, so I told myself it didn’t count.
My cross-trainers didn’t stay on long as we went for a lovely morning walk in the sand. Gulf Shores beach is truly spectacular, with clear blue water and constantly breaking waves.
For lunch, my friend and I sat on vinyl-cushioned chairs at a plastic table inside King Neptune’s, a seafood shack in Gulf Shores, on our way back West to Biloxi, Mississippi. This was one meal where low-carb won out. While my companion’s fried cornmeal fish was small and mostly breading, I ate my full of slightly spicy all-you-can-eat peel-and-eat shrimp. And I wasn’t even tempted by the frozen fries.
After checking in to our spare but spacious room at Beau Rivage, we headed down to the pool bar, where I indulged in a fruity frozen cocktail called a Mango Tango.
Then we walked across the pool deck to watch a glorious sunset almost as brightly orange as my drink.
After walking around Biloxi looking for a place to dine, we settled onto stools at the darkly lit bar at Ruth’s Chris at the Hard Rock. We split the seared ahi tuna, tender and moist and just a little bit crisp on the top with its blackening seasoning, fabulous when gingerly dipped in the mustard sauce with its strong notes of soy and beer. Then we checked out the hotel’s display of music memorabilia, including Elvis Presley’s army uniform and Johnny Cash’s guitar, before walking back to Beau Rivage.
The second-most obnoxious thing about casino hotels, after the resort fees, is their refusal to supply the guest rooms with coffee makers. So in the morning we stopped at the lobby café, the Roasted Bean, where we were quickly in and out, thanks to a dedicated line for those purchasing only coffee. Then we set out on a miles-long walk beside Biloxi Beach.
For lunch, I feasted on a garden salad topped with such a generous portion of seared tuna that I couldn’t finish, as we sat upstairs on the back porch overlooking a marina at the Harbor House Steamer in Diamondhead, our last stop before our last night in New Orleans.
I had thought New Orleans would be a sad city in which to diet. But as I reflected in our cozy room at the Omni Royal Crescent, it’s really a fab city to diet, because there’s so much good food to choose from.
It became a kind of game, and an opportunity to try things I otherwise wouldn’t. And I was hardly on a total deprivation diet. The question I had to learn to ask myself wasn’t, “Am I absolutely forbidden to eat this?” but rather, “Is it worth it? Is it worth gaining weight, or at least delaying losing weight? It is worth the bloat? Is it worth the appetite spike? Is it worth feeling fat?” Most things aren’t. A piece of bread with every meal isn’t worth it, even to sop up chargrilled-oyster butter. Flour-based fried coating isn’t worth it. Crackers aren’t worth it. Buffet bread pudding isn’t worth it. On the other hand, there’s a place for incentive. Part of the deal I made with myself was that, if I were reasonably good all week, I could have the one carb-fest I wanted most: Bananas Foster, from the kitchen where it was invented.
The courtyard at Brennan’s was comfortably cool a little before 5:00 on Friday afternoon. We settled onto wrought-iron chairs at one of several large mosaic tables surrounded by lush greenery and old brick. It was still daylight, and so the small lantern on our table hadn’t been lit yet, but the towel-draped champagne bucket looked inviting as we began the last supper of our trip. We chose a bottle of the Henriot Souverain Brut, weighty and crisp with hints of Fall fruits. We were there to witness the Courtyard’s weekly champagne sabering, accomplished swiftly and deftly by a sommelier. But the show I wanted to see was Bananas Foster being prepared for me.
Like all life’s great sensual pleasures, Bananas Foster begins with anticipation. As the waiter blends the butter, sugar, rum, liqueur, and bananas over the gas flame at his portable station, their melded aroma wafts across the table. When he tilts the pan and touches off the flame, a two-foot flambé signals the wait is almost over. Then he places the ice cream in bowls and spoons out the sweet melted magnificence. I swirled a small piece of banana around the thin vanilla river slowly melting into the gulf of sweet rummy sauce. It was worth every bite of bread and breading and bread pudding I’d passed up all week.
And so was stepping on the scale when we came home, three pounds lighter.