Daily Archives: February 11, 2016

New Orleans – the older city

DSCF1680New Orleans is one the mythic cities of America – like New York, or San Francisco, or Chicago.  It occupies more psychic space than is justified by its size, or its current role in the national culture.  It was one of the few great American cities that I had never visited, and I approached it with a mixture of excitement and uneasiness.

Most American cities fit a pattern – JB Jackson wrote “The Stranger’s Path” decades ago, which laid out the typical components and their sequence in a mid-sized American city.  During this year on the road, when we’ve visited about 175 different cities and towns so far, certain obvious patterns have emerged – I think I could easily update the Stranger’s Path for the 21st century.  But from what little I knew about New Orleans, it seemed clear that this would be a place which wouldn’t fit those patterns.  Even looking at maps didn’t help – I couldn’t organize the information in a way that made sense to me.  So we headed in with not much more going for us than knowing the route to my friend Glen’s place.  After skimming across seven miles of open water on the I-10 causeway, Google Maps said we should drive down Elysian Fields.  Definitely mythic.
DSCF2005The first two days in New Orleans did nothing to dispel this combination of wonder and confusion. The neighborhoods, the streetscapes, the houses, the colors  – they were unlike anything I had ever seen, confirming what I had been told – that New Orleans is really a different country. The experience of walking through the city was new and magical, at the same time that the underlying order of the city was completely confusing.  I couldn’t make sense of the whole – the twisting geography, the invisible topography, the relationships of neighborhoods and populations, the river, directions, street patterns. On Glen’s advice I picked up a book by Richard Campanella, a geographer at Tulane, and it confirmed my impression – New Orleans and southern Louisiana are not like any other place in the country – culturally, spatially or geographically.

DSCF2030The highest land is along the river. The ridges (those areas actually above sea level, along Esplanade and from Metairie to Gentilly) were settled first,DSCF2204 with low-lying swamps drained and developed later (sometimes in what is now the middle of town).  Settled by the French, taken over by the Spanish, ceded back to the French and then sold to the Americans, it shows the same variation in sovereignty that we’ve seen all along the Gulf, but in New Orleans there is much more visible evidence of this history.  The Spanish and French built the Vieux Carre (a term which I never heard anyone use, with French Quarter having taken over).  DSCF1567The Americans settled later in Uptown, across Canal St. (which never had a canal). DSCF1642There are natives with what seem to be real New York accents (I met some of them.)  The city didn’t flood from the riverside, but from the lakeside (where the land is lower behind the levee) DSCF3566and the breaks in the levees on the canals (such as here in the Lower Ninth Ward).  DSCF3678The list is endless – New Orleans is an assemblage of conditions and situations, and after a lot of reading and a few weeks in residence, it started to make some sense.  I won’t pretend to comprehend it – nor attempt to explain it – in the way that a simpler place such as Fernandina can be grasped.   But I did develop enough of a conceptual framework to at least organize the series of impressions garnered from walking around endlessly.  For a relatively small city (current population under 400,000), it is the most complex place we’ve been.

DSCF3512We stayed with Glen and Michelle in the Marigny, one of the first faubourgs, developed from a former plantation next to the Vieux Carre at the beginning of the 19th century.  It is mainly residential, with a wide range of New Orleans house types – double shotguns, Creole cottages, etc.  (There will probably be a post just about New Orleans housing).

The Mississippi River defines one edge of the neighborhood, which you only notice when a ship passes by the end of the street.  P1070251

After a while I realized you can never see the horizon in New Orleans.  It’s completely flat, so you’re never high enough to see over things, plus the height of the buildings around you and the levees along the waterways means you’re essentially in a shallow bowl.  The only way to get a sense of the larger landscape is to climb atop the levees along the river or Lake Ponchartrain.  The recently completed Crescent Park, which runs along the river from the Marigny through Bywater, is a New Orleans version of the High Line or Riverside South.  Designed by a team including EDR, David Adjaye and Hargreaves Associates, it has kept the remains of the industrial waterfront.  DSCF2014  DSCF1560 DSCF1706

Access is limited by the railroad which runs along the river, but a few bridges connect across.  The park feels very cut off from the city – hopefully more access points can be added.  DSCF2013

Bywater borders Marigny downriver, a former working class neighborhood filling up with hipsters with man buns.  Brooklyn South.  DSCF1802  DSCF1808  DSCF3697    DSCF1805DSCF1837

The French Quarter is just upriver from the Marigny, and we spent a lot of time walking its streets.  Eventually the pattern of use became clear:  tourists on Decatur and by Jackson Square, DSCF3458 drunk tourists on Bourbon, DSCF1994rich tourists on Royal,DSCF2663

and the rest of it felt like it was for the residents.  It is the part of New Orleans which is most foreign, with the older architecture from the Spanish era (the earlier French architecture was wiped out in a fire in the late 18th century), and the part most of us think of when we form an image of New Orleans.  DSCF1572     DSCF1670DSCF2983    DSCF1677We found it endlessly fascinating.  The scale, the textures and colors, the details, the quirky businesses and residents – there is a richness of experience which is rare in this country.

The central business district – with its convention center, hotels, and casino – adjoins the French Quarter on the upriver side.  Once you cross Canal Street the city changes – the architecture is mainly 20th century, as the 19th century buildings have been replaced.

Bao and Noodle

I am a pessimist in all areas except for food. The human ability to make things taste good never ceases to amaze me, and never have I been more astonished than by Bao and Noodle.
P1070253We started off with an order of bao, dumplings, and scallion pancakes, and were immediately blown away. My only previous experience of bao was hearing it mentioned in a Firefly episode, and so, was very impressed. The only problem was that having my first experience be so good, is now I’m always going to be disappointed by other restaurants. The pork and cabbage dumplings were the night’s specialty, and they certainly were special. The best thing about them was the broth they came in, soft as milk, but rich with the flavor of country ham, and greens as delicate as rice paper floating like tea leaves on its surface. The scallion pancakes were cooked slightly unevenly, one edge darker than the other, and I think this was on purpose. It offered you a choice between crunchy or more chewy.P1070254

If the appetizers blew us away, the main course kicked the wind up to hurricane status. Starting on the left, we have Dan Dan noodles. Unlike many restaurants, they leave the dish without a lot of heat and provide you with a jar of Sichuan pepper hot sauce. Simply the smell wafting out of that jar was spectacular, but enough to make your nostrils burn. Being someone who can’t take a lot of heat, I appreciated the consideration. The chili sesame paste, which was actually more sauce-like in consistency, already slathered on the noodles was fantastic, nearly as good as the noodles themselves.

The noodles were one of the most impressive things at the appropriately named Bao & Noodle. Each of the four dishes we ordered had a different type of noodle, perfectly suited to the meat. The Cumin braised lamb was so tender that it literally fell apart in your mouth, so the more chewy Biang Biang noodles were the obvious match. Instead of being cut, the noodles were hand-ripped, which definitely showed in the texture around the edges.

Egg noodle with XO sauce, on the right, was distinctly shrimpy, and by that I mean it tasted like seafood. The flavor had penetrated the noodles, which were long and thin, so that I could taste the quality without even eating the crustaceans.

But the beef soup was the best. I promise you that I’m not biased because it’s the dish I ordered. It took the best qualities from everything else. Its rice noodles were similar to the bao shell, with the insides being soft at first bite when they were dry, but becoming chewier in your mouth. Like the lamb, the beef came apart with each bite, and used tougher noodles to compensate. It shared the soft greens with the dumplings, as well as the rich broth. This broth though was several levels of magnitude greater. If the soup had just been broth I would have been happy. I couldn’t help from finishing it, even though I knew that would leave less room for dessert.

Normally, ordering dessert at a Chinese restaurant is a bad idea. It’s always just cakes made out of bean paste or something equally awful. But here they had blueberry milk bread toast, mango pudding, and snowskin mooncake.

The toast had been fried, with the milk caramelizing on the sides so there was a nice sweet crispness to it. The warm blueberry sauce on top was divine.P1070259

Fruit puddings are nearly always too sweet. This broke that stereotype wide open. It simply tasted like mango, but better. It reminded me of the picture in the Southern Food and Drink Museum (coming soon to a blog near you) of centrifuged peas. After running the vegetable through a blender, they put it in a culinary centrifuge and spun it for hours until they were left with an intense pea paste. This was like how I guess that would taste; intense as hell.P1070260

And for the grand finale, snowskin mooncake. I’ve described other foods as divine already, this was like eating Heaven. The rice wrapper was rather mochi like, but even softer, like a cloud. The vanilla coconut custard filling was rather chunkier than custard usually is, but tasted of all things good in this world and the next.P1070258

Bao and Noodle was unpretentious, and unlike many Asian restaurants, focussed on being good rather than being creative. If you are in New Orleans, come here. Come here first thing, so you can taste for yourself how good it is. After that, I promise you won’t be able, or want, to stay away.