Friday, March 18, 2011

A Tasty Road Trip – Orlando to New Orleans

At the beginning of this month I attended our firm’s Spring partnership meeting in Orlando, Florida. Nancy’s side of our family had decided to hold its annual gathering in New Orleans at the end of the following week. Rather than return from Orlando to San Francisco, only to turn around a couple of days later and fly back to NOLA, I decided to rent a car in Orlando and drive to NOLA. That would also give me the chance to stop in Auburn, Alabama, where I could visit Pat who is attending vet school at Auburn. It was my first solo road trip in many years, as well as a chance to explore part of the country where, expect for NOLA itself, I had never been before.

I report below on some of the better dishes I enjoyed during the trip which, together with the time in NOLA, covered nine days.

The first leg of the trip from Orlando to Auburn was the longest – about 8 hours – and took me through northern Florida (no need to return there), across Georgia (quite a pretty part of the country) and into central Alabama. I noted some fast food establishments that have not made their way to California, although I did not stop to try them.

There is not much more to Auburn than the university – which has a beautiful campus primarily of red brick buildings with white trim – and a modest downtown.

I did make the requisite stop at Toomer’s Drugs on the town's main intersection for a glass of their famous freshly-squeezed lemonade and a piece of apple pie, both of which were very good.

Since I had an extra day in Auburn, I decided to visit some of the places in Alabama that had played a role in the civil rights movement. I started by heading due west from Auburn, through Montgomery and on to Selma.

I walked around Selma and across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of “Bloody Sunday” almost exactly 40 years earlier. I then returned to Montgomery where I visited the capitol building, the Rosa Parks Museum and the Civil Rights Memorial Center, all very moving. I was particularly impressed by the Civil Rights Memorial monument created by Maya Lin who also created the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington out of the same black stone.

Inside the Center I found the electronic Wall of Tolerance where, upon making a pledge to take a stand against hate, injustice and intolerance, one can add ones name to the display.

While in Montgomery I also took the opportunity to visit Riverwalk Stadium, the home field of the Montgomery Biscuits, one of Tampa’s minor league teams. The field was abuzz with activity as the grounds crew worked to get the stadium in shape for the start of the Biscuits' season. I had a nice chat with one of the fellows and asked where he would recommend I go to find some good bar-b-que. He said the best place was Dreamland which was just across the street from the stadium. I followed that advice and had some excellent bar-b-que ribs and chicken, with sides of beans and cole slaw, all washed down with a glass of Sweetwater 402 ale from Atlanta. The waitress told me I shouldn’t miss their banana cream dessert and, since it was Fat Tuesday, it seemed appropriate to follow that advice. It was superb.

The next day it was on to NOLA. A real southern storm rolled in just as I was pulling out of Auburn, and I managed to stay right in the middle of it for the first few hours of my drive.

It was only after I neared Mobile that I noted a text from Pat that I should keep an eye out for tornadoes reported in the area. Happily I did not encounter any.

As I entered Mississippi and neared the Gulf I decided to leave the freeway and explore a bit. I first drove south to Biloxi on the Gulf, then turned west and drove right along a beautiful beach for about 15 miles to Gulfport. I had read online about a seafood restaurant in Gulfport named
Lil’ Rays which was supposed to have the best fried shrimp po’boy sandwiches on the Gulf coast and after a bit of searching finally found the restaurant in a small shopping center. It was well worth the detour since it was probably the best meal I had on my entire trip.

It was also my first encounter with the French bread rolls produced by the 105-year old Leidenheimar Baking Company in New Orleans.

When I commented to the folks at Lil’ Rays on how perfectly suited the po’boy roll was for the sandwich, they said that they went all the way to Leidenheimer in NOLA for their bread since Leidenheimer’s bread made such a huge different. They also told me that Leidenheimer supplies about 90% of the bread used for po’boys throughout the south.

I arrived safely in NOLA late in the afternoon and met up with Nancy who had just arrived from San Francisco. We were both tired and did not want to go too far for dinner. Luckily we found that John Besh’s restaurant,
August, was just across the street from our hotel. We managed to get in for an earlier dinner and it was great. I particularly enjoyed my main course - sugar and spice duckling with seared foie gras and stone-ground grits with Creole cream cheese.

That was the first of three elegant meals we had in New Orleans. The next day Nancy and I had lunch with Alex and Cass at their favorite NOLA restaurant, Susan Spicer’s
Bayona (where my favorite was my main course – a mixed grill of stuffed quail, marinated lamb and chaurice sausage from Poiche's), and on Saturday evening our entire clan had dinner at Dominique’s on Magazine, recently opened by Dominique Macquet (where again my fav was the main course - Morgan Ranch Wagyu beef with a Creole cream cheese stuffing).

Of course, my real interest was in some of the more traditional NOLA culinary offerings and fortunately I had enough time between our family activities to pursue that. Of course, no trip to NOLA would be complete without a visit to Café du Monde for some coffee and a beignet. I accomplished that early one morning when I walked down just as they opened, then took my treasure up to the levee to enjoy the sunrise over the Mississippi.

Oysters where in abundance and I am not sure how many dozen of the raw variety I polished off during our stay. The best were some we had at a bar named Cooter Brown’s not far from the Tulane campus – an old haunt of Alex and Cass. Huge, flavorful oysters with the simplest possible presentation – just shucked and tossed on a plastic tray.

The oysters we had at the far more upscale Bourbon House in the French Quarter were a very close second, enhanced by some wonderful company (I am a lucky person to have oyster-loving daughters-in-law!).

I also enjoyed some oysters fried in a po’boy at Mulate’s – again with a Leidenheimer roll (I did have another po’boy while we were in NOLA with a noticeably inferior roll which proved to have come from a different bakery – case closed).

The other must-have NOLA dish was red beans with rice which I also had at Mulate’s. An excellent preparation with a lot of andouille sausage.

In the course of our stay we also had a few gumbos and etouffées, but none were particularly notable. In fact the gumbo that Alex, Cass and I had made before our trip was superior. However, on my next visit I play to pay closer attention to the Southern Foodways Allliance “gumbo trail” and to try to get to some of the places they list there.

Finally, I have to note that with virtually every lunch and dinner we enjoyed Abita Amber – as far as I am concerned the only beer to drink while in NOLA.

It was a fun trip and, or course, a chance to spend time with our family (perhaps the only time this year we will all be together), especially Cece.

The Southern Foodways Alliance annual symposium is coming up in October in Oxford, Mississippi, so that may be another opportunity to explore the south. I am looking forward to the next trip.


Sandy said...

How do you not weigh 500 pounds??!!??

Lauren said...

i am drooling as i read your nola menus, esp the first one at August. btw, chick-fil-a is now here in san diego. also, five guys burgers is coming too -- yummy!

ProjectLucania said...

Thanks for your comment Mike! I'm now following you blog, follow me back if you like XOXO

Road trip sounds great :)

gastronomichael said...

Dear Sandy, Lauren and Maria: Thanks for your comments on my post. It was a fun trip with a lot of tasty things to eat that we cannot get in San Francisco. Sandy, on the weight front, I am now paying the price of several days of excess and cutting back - just a bit.

Maria, I was very happy to find your blog about la cucina Lucana, and am following you now. We are going to be studying about Basilicata over the next 10 weeks at the Museo ItaloAmericano here and your blog will come in handy!

Jessie said...

Delightful blog Uncle Mike! You are a funny, funny man! Wished I'd read it earlier as we drove past the shrimp po'boy restaurant on our way to Alabama on Tuesday...alas...