New Orleans at John Mackey's Blog

March 9, 2012

New Orleans

I haven’t posted a blog entry in over two months. What have I been doing? I…

* Finished a new, slow, “grade 3″ lyrical piece, “Sheltering Sky.” It premieres in April, and I’ll write more about the piece when it’s available.  Are you excited? You should totally be excited.  It’s a slow piece – and it’s EASY!  If you know how to play a Cb. (Hint: just play a regular C, only play it super flat.)

* Finished a short, fast, lots-of-notes, “grade 5″ piece, “High Wire.” It premieres in May, and I’ll write more about this piece after I’ve heard it for the first time. In the meantime, you can check out the demo recording and see the score right here. It was fun to write a new no-holds-barred piece after a grade 3, I’ll tell you that.

* Visited New Orleans for the first time! Let’s focus on that.

I was brought in by Charles Taylor, the Director of Bands at the University of New Orleans. The plan was to work with the wind ensemble at his school, and also to work with an area honor band that UNO was hosting. The wind ensemble would perform “Strange Humors” and “Kingfishers Catch Fire,” and the honor band would perform “Undertow” and “Foundry.” Great! I’m in. Let’s do it.

A few days before the trip, I took the crazy step of reading my contract and realized that I was responsible for covering the expense of my hotel (but not responsible for making the arrangements themselves), but I had no idea where I was staying. When I pay for a hotel out-of-pocket, I put myself somewhere completely un-fancy. I emailed Chuck to ask where he’d reserved a room. Weeks before, he’d told me he’d booked a room in the French Quarter of New Orleans, and that sounded fantastic — until I realized it was on my dime. How much was the room going to be, I asked? Without answering, Chuck panicked and changed my room reservation, thinking the original room was going to be too expensive. I appreciated that he’d found me a cheaper room… until I reached the hotel. This was the view from the front door.

Very handy, if you plan on doing freeway work during your down time.  Have you seen my hands?  They are soft, lotioned, non-callused hands.  I’m too weak and wussy for freeway work.

It’s not like there wasn’t stuff around the hotel. I could have checked out the mattress sale across the street.

I mean, it was clean. And surprisingly quiet, considering it overlooked the freeway construction. But before I’d even checked-in, I begged Chuck to put me back where he’d originally planned. This hotel wasn’t even in New Orleans (it was 15 minutes away, by car), so my grande (yes, with an “e”) plans of walking around the French Quarter were going to be a non-starter. I was happy to pay an extra $50 a night to be in the French Quarter. I didn’t care if it was nice — the location was what mattered. If you go to a cool, unique city like New Orleans, you want to stay in the heart of the action, right? Chuck made some calls, and the next morning, I changed hotels.

Holy crap, this place, built in 1855, was incredible. The “Claiborne” of Claiborne mansion was the ancestor of fashion designer Liz Claiborne.

When the owner realized that I was paying for this out of pocket, and that I was a composer (“you must be so very poor, and I’ve never heard of you because you’re not yet dead” – I’m paraphrasing), she charged me less than I was paying at the first hotel. She had single rooms and suites, but she only had a suite available for the nights I was there, so she gave me the suite at the single room rate. This was my sitting room! I HAD A SITTING ROOM! If I may quote Fonzie from Happy Days, “SIT ON THIS, BITCHES!”  And that’s not some camera trick distorting the ceiling height. Those are 14-foot ceilings.

Just a reminder. This was the hallway in my first hotel.

And this was the hallway at my new hotel.

The place was right on Washington Square. Here’s a picture of the hotel itself — it’s the yellow house — as seen from the park across the street. My room was on the second floor, facing the park.

In case you can’t tell, I loved the hotel. And I already loved New Orleans, and I’d been in New Orleans-proper for all of 20 minutes. So let’s go for a walk!

First, I stopped by this huge flea market.

I considered getting one of these to wear during clinics. It could totally be my “thing.”

There’s some awesome food in this city (we’ll get to that in a moment), but if you don’t like seafood, it gets a little trickier.

More of the open-air market.  Shouldn’t these children be in school on a Friday afternoon?

The night before, we’d had a quick bite on the way to rehearsal. Being that I was in New Orleans, it seemed I should have fish — and more importantly, hush puppies. I f-ing love hush puppies, but I think I’d only had them at Long John Silvers. These were better.

But what about lunch the next day? My first real meal in New Orleans? I realized I was close to NOLA, one of Emeril Lagasse’s restaurants. That seemed like a good choice. It was.

I sat at the bar because I hate to eat alone in a restaurant, but it doesn’t feel weird if you’re at the bar alone. Although now that I think about it, drinking alone at the bar in the middle of the day may not be wise, nor is it socially acceptable. Ah, but I was in New Orleans, a city with no open container laws, so I’d already seen people walking down the sidewalk with cups of beer at 11:30am. I didn’t have anything official until 8pm that night, so… Screw it. I bet they make a mean bloody mary.

Yes. Yes, they do. The vodka is infused with spicy peppers, and it’s incredible. Maybe I should live in New Orleans part of the year…

Since it’s a regional dish — and when you travel, you should always eat the specialty cuisine of that region (don’t go to Ohio for Mexican food, or Boston for barbecue) — I had shrimp and grits for lunch. Sauteed gulf shrimp, grilled green onions, smoked cheddar grits, apple smoked bacon, crimini mushrooms, and a red chili-abita butter sauce. In. Sane.

I chatted a bit with the bartender, who was very cool, and he kept topping off my bloody mary. By the time I was leaving, I’d had three. I love you, man. I love you.

So I walked/stumbled towards the Mississippi River, and thought I’d hang out there and watch some boats go by. It was a beautiful day with some crazy clouds.

On the way back to my hotel, I checked out some antique shops. There’s probably a joke about this.  I don’t know what the joke is.

I almost bought these for me and AEJ to wear around the house. (I don’t know if you’ve seen her, but she’d be the one in the taller suit.)

MPG don’t matter when you’re pimpin.

After a shower (by this time, it was in the low 80s outside, very muggy, and I was carrying a heavy camera, so I’d gotten a bit stinky), it was time to head to dinner. I picked, based on recommendations, and based on liking him on Top Chef Masters, one of John Besh’s restaurants: August.  But you can figure that out from the next picture.

Again, I sat at the bar. I don’t remember what this cocktail was called, but it may as well have been called “super girly pink thing that tastes like pears.” It had Grey Goose Pear vodka, and I thought this might be the one time that pear vodka could work in a cocktail. I was wrong.

Everything else about this meal was incredible – even the warm bread. (I say that like “warm bread” usually sucks.)

The amuse bouche was this delicious truffle custard with caviar. (Was that a parmesan crouton? I forget.)

I ordered the vegetarian tasting menu. I love a place that offers such a thing, and I love it even more when it’s less expensive than the standard tasting menu. (As you can see from most posts here, I’m quite the bargain hunter.) The first course was this salad of Covey Rise Farm’s heirloom beets and Ponchatoula strawberries, St. Martinville goat cheese, and tangelo.

I love beets. Love ‘em. I’d never had them with strawberry before. And this goat cheese was so soft and creamy, it was almost like whipped cream — the fancy kind of whipped cream, not the equally delicious kind from a spray can.

Next up: cast iron roast broccolini with local pecans, candied fennel, and aleppo pepper. This was pretty spectacular, especially when you re-read what it was. It’s broccolini – and it was delicious.

Next: acorn squash risotto with brussel sprouts in brown butter (nom!) and mushroom parmesan crisps. Yeah. Mushroom parmesan crisps. Have you ever heard of such a thing? Hot damn, those were great. The whole dish was a stunner.

Dessert! Ponchatoula strawberries (same as the beet salad above) with sablé Breton, pistachio, and creole cream cheese. Lordy. Just… lordy.

You know a restaurant is fancy-pants when they bring you Bonus Food, like the amuse bouche above, and this extra dessert offering.

August was the best dinner I’ve had in a long time.

The next morning, I decided I’d have the famous beignets from Cafe Du Monde. Nobody warned me that I wouldn’t be the only person with this idea. The line, which you don’t see pictured (although you can see a small part of it in the back) stretched for probably 75 yards.

There was powdered sugar everywhere.

Like, everywhere. For a second, I was like, “is that powdered sugar, or cocaine?” but then I remembered that I was in New Orleans, not Miami in 1985.

I couldn’t deal with the wait for a table, so I waited in line for the to-go coffee and beignets. That line still took about 20 minutes, but I eventually had this.

Inside the bag: this.

Honestly, it wasn’t so special. It was weirdly chewy. I had a feeling it might have been better on a weekday morning when they weren’t mobbed. This seemed like it had been fried along with 4999 other beignets, maybe 90 minutes earlier. Eh, it was fine. Not worth all the hubbub, though.

For dinner that night, Chuck picked the restaurant. I’d requested a John Besh restaurant earlier in the week — before I decided I’d go to August — and Chuck made a reservation for another Besh place, Lüke. I was fine with two Besh meals in two days. This is what is called a “first world problem.”

These are not actual size. The real jars were even smaller. Very cute, but it reminded me a little of that story from The Onion, “‘How Bad For The Environment Can Throwing Away One Plastic Bottle Be?’ 30 Million People Wonder.”

Lüke (can we just call it “Luke?” That’s how everybody pronounces it. Er, pronoünces it.) is a more casual place than August, serving a hybrid French+German bistro menu. You can’t be in a place like that and not have the French/Freedom Fries. Fantastic.

Chuck and I both had the pasta special — house-made pasta with lobster, shrimp, and jalapeno. Just spicy enough to have a little kick. A great dish.

Chuck’s dessert was this berry tart.

I had the warm bread pudding with pecan caramel sauce. Lordy Lauridsen, it was delicious.

I wish I’d had enough time to really check out the music scene in New Orleans. I had some great meals, but I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of what that city has to offer. I guess I’ll need to go back.

Oh, and the honor band kids were awesome. I heard the best high school oboist I think I’ve ever heard. And thanks for introducing me to the band Dream Theater, honor band kid!

6 Comments

6 Comments to “New Orleans”  

    1
  1. At 4:55 am on March 9, 2012
    Will Riddell Says:

    The beignets are awesome if you get a table and have them brought to you. I’ve only ever been there in the afternoon and late at night after drinks in the quarter, so I manage to always avoid the insane morning lines. I’m sure they lose some of their appeal in the bagging process. Next time, sir…

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  3. At 4:15 pm on March 9, 2012
    Logan Says:

    Yeah, Dream Theater is awesome.

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  5. At 4:31 pm on March 9, 2012
    Frank Ticheli Says:

    John,

    You’re so funny! The two hallways, and that sad little beignet, my oh my. Next time, wait in the long line and sit at the table to get a real beignet (although is it really worth an hour of your life to get fresh white-flour dough and sugar?) Also, next time, do lunch at Commanders Palace. That’s the best in New Orleans. Laissez les bons temps rouler!

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  7. At 4:56 pm on March 9, 2012
    Ashley Hirt Says:

    Mmm…NOLA. I’m trying to win some grant money to live there and work on some of my research. I might get fat in the process. Oh man…

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  9. At 7:33 pm on March 9, 2012
    Scott Pender Says:

    Looks like you had a good eatin’ trip! I never really loved the beignets that much either (powdered sugar all over my shirt), but I have to agree with Frank Ticheli on Commanders Palace. It’s still going strong, lunch or dinner. And their Bananas Foster: there’s just something special about having food set on fire at your table…

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  11. At 6:11 pm on March 31, 2012
    Cornelius Young Says:

    John,

    It sounded like you had a great stay in New Orleans. There’s a restaurant on the edge of Jackson Square called Cafe Pontabla. It has some great Red Beans and Rice as well as fish there. Also be sure to go during Mardi Gras. You’ll love it. (Might love it so much that you’ll write a piece about it.)

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