Can you spot the BBQ Shrimp & Grits in this dish? Neither could I. photo by Karen Kuzsel

Can you spot the BBQ Shrimp & Grits in this dish? Neither could I. photo by Karen Kuzsel

Forgive me, Harry Connick Jr, but I was not jazzed up by my recent visit to New Orleans. Matter of fact, if I never return, it’ll be fine by me. Of course, my husband and I loved the beignets at Café du Monde, the Bloody Mary and Margarita at 801 Royal, and the two bands we enjoyed enough at 21st Amendment to return to each twice, but unsure most of the French Quarter was worth the aggravation, sour smells of rotting garbage, urine and vomit; streets clogged by construction and blaring horns; or having to tread very, very carefully with eyes looking down on broken sidewalks. Looking down isn’t advised in a city where we had multiple people intentionally bumping into us (hoping to pick our pockets?) or aggressively thrusting us toward their club, but after several stumbles, I decided looking down was the only way I could safely navigate.

Full disclosure here: I have only been to New Orleans one other time. I was honeymooning with a now-deceased husband and we got food poisoning our first day. We left the next day without really seeing much. I’ve always wondered what I missed.

This trip decades later was my husband Russ’ idea. When we travel, we focus on interesting architecture—usually historic in nature, local cuisine, and people watching. He eats very little seafood and gets sick from any shellfish. I like some Creole and Cajun cooking, but it does not rank high on my list of must-haves. I positively do not like enormous platters of heavy fried food, which seems to be most of what the restaurants offer. I rarely eat fried chicken (which I love by the way and is the reason I limit how much or how often I indulge in this caloric-heaven) though the juicy and crispy fried chicken I ate at Monmouth Historic Inn in Natchez (more on this later) was infinitely better than the batter-heavy chicken I ate in New Orleans.

We treated ourselves to dinner at Galatoire’s. Russ ate there years ago when in town for a conference. The waiter persuaded him to have the lamb chops with béarnaise. Russ can lick up béarnaise as if it is cake batter, but lamb for him is a third string player on a losing team. Nonetheless, I have heard about the magnificence of that Galatoire’s dish in all the nearly 20 years I’ve known him. Lamb chops and I have been best friends since my grandma broiled them as special treats for me as a kid. (We were very, very poor. Lamb was a special occasion all by itself.) Feasting on them at Galatoire’s was something Russ really wanted me to enjoy. They were two thick slabs of chops, cooked exactly as I ordered.  Flavor-wise, there was nothing else remarkable about them. The béarnaise, which Russ also had on his steak, was proclaimed marvelous. Service was excellent. Galatoire’s reflects its southern genteel society history. Men must wear sports coats and if you don’t have one, they will provide you with one from a rack of many sizes.

801 Royals's Bloody Mary will spice up any palate. photo by Karen Kuzsel

801 Royals’s Bloody Mary will spice up any palate. photo by Karen Kuzsel

Another day we popped into 801 Royal, a fairly new bar/restaurant, to get a quick snack and adult beverage.  I had one of the two best Bloody Mary’s I’ve ever drunk, a spicy tang that lit up my mouth. I also enjoyed their bowl of chicken and sausage gumbo enough that it stands out from other meals in New Orleans, except for our lunch at Red Fish Grill, which stands out for a very different reason.

We’d read internet rave reviews and noted that Red Fish Grill boasts they’ve won honors as one of the 10 best seafood restaurants in the country. Maybe they were having an off-day when we were there. Russ took me there because I’d read their description of shrimp & grits and my mouth was hungering for a Southern dish I try whenever I’m dining someplace that features it. This BBQ Shrimp & Grits dish, $25 on both the lunch and dinner menu, is described as including andouille sausage, sweet potato cheddar grits, and a lemon rosemary Worcestershire sauce. When I’m paying $25 for a dish whose focus is purportedly shrimp, I expect to find more than three small, tasteless shrimp hiding under a barrage of something crackly on a bed of lumpy grits. Not sure where the barbequed shrimp were because these looked boiled, sans seasoning. The grits had no discernable color or taste to indicate sweet potatoes or cheddar had ever blessed their grain, nor did I detect rosemary or lemon. I immediately told the server that three small shrimp was unacceptable and if nothing could be done, I’d like something else. She shrugged as if everyone else has been happy with three and why am I fussing, but went to talk to the chef. She returned with six overly-seasoned small shrimp. They were impregnated with salt. Russ had nearly finished his burger by then, so I didn’t want to further fuss. I ate what I could and at the end of the meal, told her I thought that of all the shrimp & grits I’ve eaten across the country, this was the worst. She said, “I could have brought you something else if you’d asked.” Russ and I just looked at each other in disbelief. Hadn’t I done just that? By the way, he didn’t think much of his burger, but I had a couple bites and actually thought it juicy and flavorful. The fries we could have gotten at any fast food place and at least had them hotter. All I can say about Red Fish Grill is their décor is colorful and fanciful and they obviously attract big crowds. I just can’t be one to recommend them.

There was much on this trip I did enjoy. Before reaching New Orleans, we were in Little Rock, AR for a family celebration and then spent the night in Natchez, MS with the idea of touring their famed antebellum homes. If you’ve ever read my blogs mentioning Little Rock, then you know I have little positive to say about restaurants in which we’ve eaten or gotten takeout. Well folks, we finally ate at one that was a treasure and to which we will return whenever in the city and it just happens to be directly across the street from the Residence Inn Little Rock where we stay (and recommend). The restaurant is called Dizzy’s Gypsy Bistro and their eclectic Bohemian décor infused me with an instant “this is going to be wonderful” confidence. It was. I devoured a half-order of Lindsay’s Saffron Twist Salad and a cup of George Slover’s Tomato Basil soup. The soup was a well-seasoned rich broth but the winner was the salad, a generous portion of fresh spinach, grilled (and well-seasoned) chicken breast slices, sun-dried tomatoes, purple onion, artichoke hearts, feta, blue cheese, parmesan, walnuts and a dash of saffron. I had a taste from the oversized bowl of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Black Bean soup and all I can say is, Wow. It was packed with grilled chicken, black beans, tomatoes, cilantro, rice, jalapeno, and then topped with sour cream, cheese and salsa.

Hallway outside our room at the Monmouth Historic Inn. photo by Karen Kuzsel

Hallway outside our room at the Monmouth Historic Inn. photo by Karen Kuzsel

Russ and I stay at historic B&Bs whenever possible so our brief overnight in Natchez was a good opportunity to check out one of the loveliest and oldest antebellum available in that city, the Monmouth Historic Inn. Built originally in 1818 by Natchez postmaster John Hankinson, it houses the popular Restaurant 1818 in its formal dining room of hushed tones and white linens, but it is closed on Mondays, so we ate in their more casual restaurant. Our bartender, Roosevelt, was as chipper and amiable a host and food server as one could find. Roosevelt made Russ his “secret recipe” Mint Julep. It was so good that at each place we visited afterwards, Russ had to drink a mint julep for comparison. None topped that standard. We returned later when the restaurant/lounge was in high gear and shared a fried chicken platter. The chicken was juicy and crispy with a modicum of batter. Aside from the food, Monmouth Historic Inn resides on acres of manicured property and preserved and repurposed structures. There are paths to walk, a beautiful dining room a short walk away for a Southern style full buffet and plated breakfasts, sculpted gardens, statues, and a romantic bridge over still waters. Many a bride has blessed her union overlooking the tranquil setting.

In New Orleans we stayed at the Courtyard by Marriott New Orleans in the French Quarter (and can highly recommend). We were within easy walking distance of the area. It seemed as much as we walked, there were sections we’d missed. One street was rampant with art galleries, another strip clubs. One would feature incredible masks, another cheap clothes you could buy anywhere. One afternoon we took the trolley on its entire run to get a broader picture of the area. We were told the trip would take about 1-1/2 hours total for the route but it ended up being more like three hours. Question: what is it about car drivers that they think it’s ok to cross in front of a moving trolley and then stop on the tracks blocking the way? We saw that occur at least five times.

At night, shrill screaming rock & roll blared from open doorway clubs, competing with the New Orleans street bands or bluesy soloists. We discovered the 21st Amendment, a couple blocks south of Bourbon. An intimate club with not much stage area but volumes of talent. The first night we grooved to the sweet and raspy sounds of Jenavieve Cook, singing and playing her sax with the Royal Street Winding Boys. They play each Wednesday. Thursday night we hung out for three sets of the Ibervillianaires, whose perky combo of classic big band and folk music were tweaked by the “New Orleans sound of jazz.” What really made this under-30s band unique, besides playing everything from bass fiddle to washboards, were the male and female lead singers, who also happen to be instructors and performers with NOLA Jitterbugs. They interspersed singing with pulsating flips, leaps and high-kicking fast-paced swing dancing in an impossibly small space and yet didn’t miss a beat. When some newly-arrived patron pulled his chair deep into the dance space, these pros were more hemmed in, but unstoppable. Personally, I wanted to yell at this guy to get a clue and move his chair back. Thank goodness, he only managed to impede one set. We were really fortunate that night because two of their friends popped in and then joined in. One was Jenavieve from the night before and another was a pianist whose rocking out melded flawlessly with their spirited sounds. Thanks to these two young bands and the 21st Amendment, we left New Orleans on a high note. www. Karen Kuzsel is a writer-editor based in the Orlando area who specializes in the hospitality, entertainment, meetings & events industries.  She is a Contributing Editor-Writer for Prevue Magazine and is an active member of ISES and MPI. She writes about food & wine, spas, destinations, venues, meetings & events. A career journalist, Karen has owned magazines, written for newspapers, trade publications, radio and TV. As her alter-ego, Natasha, The Psychic Lady, she is a featured entertainer for corporate and social events.;; @karenkuzsel; @thepsychiclady.