Wednesday, April 23, 2014

New Orleans Easter Parades

Some of you readers (those older than 3 years of age) may know about Bourbon Street. The few blocks in the French Quarter part of New Orleans is home to some of the craziness that makes NOLA a hub for drunken debauchery.

Of course, I still had a few years to go before I'm legally allowed to drink, but I decided to take my parents there anyway so I can check this off my list.

However, Sunday mornings on Bourbon Street are very different from Saturday nights there. Especially Easter Sunday morning.

As we mentioned in prior posts, the big reason we came down to New Orleans this Easter weekend was to check out the parades they have. Did you know there are actually THREE different Easter parades in New Orleans?

10AM - The Historic French Quarter Easter Parade
1PM - The Chris Owens Easter Parade
4PM - The Gay Easter Parade

I wasn't sure if I were dressed appropriately for any of the parades, so I told my father I needed to go shopping. Get used to hearing that, Dad!

Since we didn't go wild the night before, we made it to the first parade just as the cars were lining up to start the procession through the French Quarter. This was clearly the older crowd's parade where grandmothers would dress up in their Sunday's best including big fancy hats. They'd ride on top of convertibles and horse drawn carriages handing out candy and small toys to the children watching from the sidewalks.

We were standing next to a middle-aged man wearing tuxedo with coat tails and a top hat. He looked like the Mad Hatter, and (if you asked me) he acted the part as well. First he would throw out beads, plastic toys and candy to the nearby children. Not totally out of place given the setting. But my father took mine away as my parents came to realize he was a bit mentally unstable.

When the parade started, he would run up to the grandmothers in the cars and try to pry the candy and toys from their hands instead of letting them toss it out to the children on the sidewalk. When the grandmothers withdrew their offering from the strange 45 year old man, he would expressively pout in frustration and disappointment. We then quickly moved to another location on Bourbon Street. But since I was an adorable 2 year old (and not a creepy older man), the grandmothers were actually quite generous with their gifts to me!

But that old person's parade soon ended and we weren't going to stand in the street for another few hours waiting for the 1PM Chris Owens parade to start. So we went off to get some lunch at Felix's Restaurant and Oyster Bar on Iberville Street (exactly where the 1PM parade was scheduled to start from).

After a tasty lunch, we walked up to Bourbon Street where we saw the festivities getting prepared. We scored some great seats just a block away from the beginning of the procession and took advantage of some great photo opportunities.


It was around 2PM when we decided to make our way back to the W New Orleans and to pack for our 5PM flight home. There was still the 4PM Gay Easter Parade later on that afternoon, but something tells me it really wouldn't be appropriate for 2 year olds like me.

Overall, this was the first Easter parade I've been to (we spent Easter 2012 in Bermuda and Easter 2013 in Argentina), so I don't have much to compare it to, but I definitely had a great time in New Orleans and even picked up a few new toys as well!

New Orleans Delicacies - Part 2

The other day, I was going through our first full day of eating in New Orleans. However, we only had a few days and a decent sized hit list of things we wanted to try before we went back home.

1. Beignet - DONE
2. BBQ'd Oysters
3. Oysters Rockefeller
4. Crawfish Po'Boy
5. Seafood Gumbo - DONE
6. Muffaletta - DONE

So on Saturday, we wanted to knock out a few more on our list, so we went to a local favorite, Acme Oyster House on 724 Iberville Street.

Acme is one of several oyster bars/restaurants even on the same city block. However, there's a clear reason why Acme has a 30-45 min line at lunchtime while the others sit empty. It's that much better. When we arrived at 1PM, we knew we'd be in for a wait. The line was decently long but it was well organized. Had I been old enough to sit at the bar, my parents and I could have gotten in earlier, but apparently toddlers needed to be seated at the tables - which had a longer wait time. But after being patient (and my mother running into Duane Reade to pick up some snacks to tide me over), we were soon inside and seated at a corner plastic tablecloth table.


By now, it was closer to 1:45PM and of course, my father was starving. Before even seeing the menu, he threw in an order - half dozen raw oysters and half dozen grilled. The raw oysters were very large and meaty, as you'd expect from gulf oysters. Fresh was an understatement. The grilled oysters, however, stole the show. Similar to the ones we had in Memphis, TN, these Acme Chargrilled Oysters were absolutely amazing. They were hot and savory, seasoned with garlic and oregano and covered with just the right amount of romano cheese. And best of all, since Louisiana was home of Tobasco, we got to sample a Smokey Chipotle Tobasco flavor that we'd never seen before. AMAZING.

Since we were already there, we ordered a few more items to knock off our list, including a Crawfish Po'Boy, but my father was underwhelmed with that one. The crawfish were just so battered and fried, you couldn't really taste anything else - similar to his experience trying Rocky Mountain Oysters in Denver. Not a great use of $11.

That evening, we decided to have some more modern cuisine based on my father's colleague's recommendation. It wasn't authentic New Orleans food, but it was excellent seafood. However, I'll save that for another post.

Continuing on our Eating Scavenger Hunt, we were still missing the famous Oysters Rockefeller. According to legend (and Wikipedia), Oysters Rockefeller was created at the New Orleans restaurant Antoine's (the country's oldest family-run restaurant). The dish was created in 1899 and named after John D. Rockefeller, the richest American at the time, for the intense richness of the sauce.

It would have been nice to actually try Oysters Rockefeller at Antoine's, but we weren't dressed appropriately in between Easter Parades. So instead we went to Felix's Restaurant and Oyster Bar (across the street from Acme). We could have gone back to Acme, but wanted to try out the #2 on the street for comparison purposes.

Since we arrived at 11:45AM, we had no line to get into Felix's. Unlike its competitor across the street, the decor was much cleaner and less like you were eating at a dive bar. It looked like a nicer diner and was a lot larger than you'd expect after you went around the corner to the second seating area.

We were greeted and given menus where my mother instantly saw "Louisiana Alligator" on the menu! Despite my father's interest in sampling some 'gator, we stuck with our original plan to have some more oysters.

We ordered the same items as we did at Acme the day before (half dozen raw, and half dozen chargrilled). But we also ordered half dozen Oysters Rockefeller. The raw ones were comparable (not sure how much you can differentiate on that dish), but the chargrilled ones were quite varied from Acme's. Our serving came out and seemed slightly less cooked than the ones we had before.

Obviously, you can eat oysters raw, so it wasn't "undercooked" per say, but just more rare than we wanted. The flavor was also more muted than at Acme. While my mother initially said she preferred Felix's, after a few more bites, she changed her mind and went back to Acme. But again, it wasn't that they were bad at all. They were delicious, but just not as amazing as the place across the street.

Then came the Oysters Rockefeller. For those of you who don't know, there's actually a secret recipe at the original Antoine's. But most places can mimic it enough to get it close using a mixture of spinach, garlic and other breadcrumbs. While they sounded like they'd be good, we didn't actually care for them all that much. Had we chosen again, we would have doubled up on the chargrilled oysters...

...and an extra serving of the delicious Bread Budding! My father has been a long time fan of bread pudding, ever since my grandparents took him to Ruth's Chris Steakhouse where they had an amazing bread pudding dessert. So when we saw it on the menu, he had to order it for me to try for my very first time. And he was right. It was DELICIOUS!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

New Orleans Delicacies - Part 1

Little known fact about me. Despite being only 2.5 years old, I'm quite a ferocious eater. That doesn't mean I like eating every weird thing my parents put on my plate, but I probably have a bit more adventurous palate than most American-Israel children, thanks to my parents.

So when we were down in New Orleans for the weekend, my mother and father definitely wanted to try out all the local cuisine they could get their grubby hands on.

Their checklist:
1. Beignet
2. BBQ'd Oysters
3. Oysters Rockefeller
4. Crawfish Po'Boy
5. Seafood Gumbo
6. Muffaletta

After having their first meal at Emeril Lagasse's NOLA on Friday, my anal Asian father plotted out our meals for the rest of the weekend to make sure his entire list was taken care of by the time we were flying back on Sunday afternoon.

Our first opportunity was Linner - a quick in between snack/meal between Lunch and Dinner. So around 4PM, we were heading back to the hotel to rest up a bit and my father's stomach started growling. He wasn't sure he'd made it to dinnertime, so we were given a recommendation by a tipsy Tourism office guide who said we should skip the touristy Cafe DuMonde and go to Cafe Beignet on Royal Street instead. Given the long lines at Cafe DuMonde, we were happy to get seated and eating right away.

If you've never heard of a beignet, it's kind of like fried dough but in a nicer shape. It's quite tasty and goes well with coffee, but given it's fried and covered with powdered sugar, it can be tough to eat more than one. My father didn't have that much trouble though.

Later on that evening, we had scheduled to go on a "Ghost Tour" with a local shop (super touristy, I know, I know!) at 7PM, so we wanted to get an actual meal around 5:30. Based on some TripAdvisor recommendations, we found Napoleon House just down the street from our 7PM meeting point. What Napoleon House lacked in polish, it made up for in authentic "charm" as my real estate agent grandmother would say. As you can see, the venue was "classic" on both the exterior and interior.

My father had a Muffaletta sandwich (an Italian sub sandwich with olive tapanade) with a small side of red beans and rice. My mother had a seafood gumbo. Both were decent, but nothing really to blog about.

The next day, we returned to the French Quarter to do more sight seeing.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Lunch at NOLA

I think my mother and I have a new favorite American city. New Orleans is just such a unique place to visit for so many reasons. The romantic architecture of the French Quarter, the ease of pedestrian tourism, the culinary delicacies of the Creole/Cajun restaurants, and (my personal favorite) the ghost stories!

We were there for Easter weekend, so our trip was to get a great seat for the Easter parades they have in the French Quarter on Sunday.

But since we had the time, we flew down early Friday morning and were able to have a late lunch at NOLA (Chef Emeril Lagasse's restaurant). While it wasn't as highly sought after as Cochon, we had a great first introduction to New Orleans cuisine.

Since we were able to check in at 11AM at the Westin on Canal Street, we enjoyed a nice 10 minute walk to NOLA located on 534 St. Louis Street. The perfectly sunny April Friday was exactly what we needed after a long cold winter up in NYC. As we walked, we'd often pass by horse drawn carriages, which I couldn't help but observe from the sidewalk. I'm aware that Manhattan has these same carriages up in Central Park, but I hate being a tourist in my own city, so we don't venture up that way too often. When we're in another city, however, we can let our tourist flag fly.

The restaurant was quite nice though not overwhelmingly so. We weren't dressed very formally, but even being a 2.5 year old, I didn't feel out of place at all. The wait staff was quite accommodating to me, even giving me a cup with a straw for my beverage of choice - ice water. My father, of course, had a Sazerac (the official cocktail of New Orleans made with an Herbsaint-lined glass, some Peychaud’s Bitters and Sazerac Rye Whiskey, then finished with simple syrup and a lemon twist). To me, it just looked like an iced tea, but whatever floats his boat.


Our meals came out and they were delicious. My parents split an appetizer of Gulf Shrimp Remoulade. My mother ordered a Duck Confit pizza and my father had a Garlic Crusted Drum (fish).


The service was super friendly and on par with some of the nicer restaurants we've enjoyed all around the world. The staff is well trained, though you could see their hometown urban roots coming through as well. The server we had made some great recommendations which I always appreciate more than the "Do you like chicken? Then you should order the chicken" type of suggestions that befall many inexperienced waiters.

While we had a great (albeit pricey) lunch at NOLA, I wouldn't call it a MUST TRY place in New Orleans the way I would about other restaurants I've heard about. But if you do happen to be around the area and wanted to stop in, you'd be making a wise choice!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

W New Orleans (now Le Meridien New Orleans)

Hotel Stay Details
Hotel: W New Orleans (now Le Meridien)
Dates: April 19-20, 2014
Rate Paid: $175/night (including taxes) 
Suite Upgrade: Used 1 Suite Night Award
Suite Rate: $430/night
Benefit: $255

After having spent most of 2014 in Westin Hotels, we returned to the stylish W Hotel for our second and final night in New Orleans.

NOLA actually has two different W hotels. One being located in the French Quarter and the other a few blocks west on Poydras Street. We were staying at the latter, which I understand is going to be rebranded into a Le Meridien property under the Starwood later this year.

In his research, my father had heard that this W was in some pretty dire need of renovation after all the heavy wear and tear from its guests. Lots of the photos from Tripadvisor were complaints of rusty bathroom faucets, dirty carpets, worn furniture. That's why my father used up one of his Suite Night Awards to request a confirmation into a suite up to 5 days before check in. At least if the rooms were in bad shape, we'd get some extra space to stretch out.

This upgrade instrument takes out any Front Desk risk from the upgrade equation, because Starwood Corporate automatically scans suite inventory and processes the room upgrade independently of the front desk staff. We had used this Suite Night Award before at the Westin Memphis Beale Street and the W Vieques in Puerto Rico.

Fortunately, a few days before our scheduled arrival, my father was notified by email that our Suite Night Award was accepted and that we'd be enjoying our Marvelous Suite for our 1 night stay. Pretty exciting!

So after checking out of the Westin at 4PM (Platinum members get late checkout) we walked our suitcases over to the W on Poydras. Aside from crossing the busy street of Canal, it was a very easy 5 minute walk, even for a 2.5 year old.

Check in was easy and our room was ready for us. My father asked about the Platinum breakfast option and the front desk woman said it was "just for the continental offering" which was the pastries on the menu. She did say, however, that (a) we could take it in room service and (b) we could upgrade to anything we wanted on the menu and just pay the difference. My father's eyes lit up and we were off to our room to check out the room service menu!

The suite (Room 1722) was a corner room on the floor. From the fire exit floor map, we could see that there were 4 of these suites on each floor of the tower. As you can see, the suite was oddly arranged with the front door leading you into an angled hallway where you could take a right to the bedroom or a left to the living room.

First, the bedroom because I love to jump on freshly made beds. Now there was nothing remarkable about this room. It had the standard artwork above the bed, the strong contrasting paint on the wall and the desk with the flat screen television. They did, however, have a nice chaise lounge which my mother fell in love with.

Second, we checked out the livingroom area down the other hallway. There we found a striking velvet couch facing a small mounted flat screen and a Bose stereo. I thought they could have tried a bit harder to furnish the room above what a 25 year old investment banker would do, but I'm not complaining.

The key feature of the living room was the wet bar area with a small mini-fridge and a microwave. Now, I'm not an expert in the target demographic for W hotels, but people using microwaves probably didn't come up high on that list, but I digress.

We had 1.5 bathrooms, one for my father to "read" in and the other for my bathtub swimming pool. Upon close inspection, you could see that the bathroom fixtures (faucets and handles) were definitely showing some wear and tear. Some were just loose while others had hints of rust surviving after housekeeping's daily sweep through. Nothing to complain about, but definitely something that should be fixed.

Note: The concierge on staff was exceptionally helpful. When we went downstairs for dinner, we told him we were going to Pesce (a new fish restaurant in the NOLA Warehouse district - the opposite way from the French Quarter) and he said we must absolutely try the shrimp toasts and the shrimp roll. Both were spot on!

Later that evening, we tried to go swimming in the pool since it had been a while since I had the chance, but when we got outside, we realized a few things. First, the pool was unheated and it was too chilly at 8PM in April to swim. Second the pool there was definitely more of a social fountain to congregate around and drink, rather than an actual pool for people to swim in. My father and I came running out in our swim trunks to find a lot of "cool 20-30 somethings" socializing, drinking cocktails and lounging in the reclining chairs. Clearly, we were under-dressed. So we just went back to the room and hung out in our massive suite.

The next morning, we opted to order room service for breakfast. Despite the high in room service charge, we assumed that it would be taken off the bill at check out. So we ordered a pastry basket ($9) plus a Southern style crab eggs benedict ($19). I asked my father to order a glass of orange juice for me. The way the Front Desk explained the SPG Platinum breakfast benefit, we just assumed we'd be paying the $10 upcharge + tip for the breakfast.

When the server came and presented the bill to my father, his eyes bugged out a bit. With all the fees and taxes, it came out to $47. Then my father threw an additional delivery tip on top assuming it would be reduced at check out.

But of course, at check out later that morning, the full amount was on the bill. He explained to the Front Desk (a different staff member) that he was told the Platinum benefit meant the breakfast charge would be removed, so she accommodated him immediately. She actually took off the entire charge even though my father thought it was supposed to just be $18 off (the cost of two pastry baskets). I suppose they just wanted to have happy returning customers.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Westin New Orleans

Hotel Stay Details
Hotel: Westin New Orleans Canal Place 
Dates: April 18-19, 2014
Rate Paid: $170/night (including taxes) 
Points Earned: 977 SPG

I've been looking forward to this trip for quite a while. First, it came right after my father returned from his 12 night work trip away from us, so we'd get to spend a lot of time with him. Second, we were heading to New Orleans, one of the true unique cities in America.

We were staying in New Orleans, LA (NOLA) for just Friday and Saturday nights, but we wanted to try a few different hotels so my father split up the weekend between the Westin and the W New Orleans (on Poydras). There were some other Starwood hotels actually in the French Quarter (Four Points and W French Quarter), but we actually preferred staying a bit off the touristy areas. I mean, you wouldn't want to stay in Times Square if you were visiting Manhattan, right?

When you enter the hotel from the street, you walk to the elevators and go up to the massive lobby in the 11th floor.

The best part of the Westin lobby was the huge floor to ceiling windows overlooking the French Quarter and the Mississippi River.

Since it was New Orleans over a holiday weekend, we didn't expect to get upgraded to a suite (and we didn't). However, our flight arrived at MSY Airport at 9AM, so we were anxious to get into a room even though the normal check in time was 4PM. Fortunately, they could accommodate us and get us checked in right away. Jackpot!

We got into our 25th floor room with the same Mississippi River view as the lobby, but higher up. The room itself was pretty massive and could have used a couch at the car end to take up more of the space. But the desk was well appointed with plenty of electrical outlets for my father to plug in all his electronics.

And the bathroom was perfectly clean and well lit, which made my mother super happy.

Unfortunately, when it was around 11AM while we were getting ready for lunch in the French Quarter, we heard a lot of loud guys in the connecting room next door. Of course, it was locked, but there was NO sound proofing between our rooms, so their loud bachelor party cheers and screams were way too loud for my 2 year old's taste. So I did what I do best. I started screaming and yelling. They of course hear me and tried opening the door.

My father said he'd go down to the Front Desk and switch to another room. Fortunately, the Front Desk staff was more than happy to accommodate us. I'm sure they don't love the "bachelor party" groups of guys all wearing the same stripped button down shirts and dark jeans anymore than families with young kids do. So we packed up our things and got new keys to a room on the 24th floor.

The room was exactly the same but flipped around and had no connecting room next door. PERFECT! We just threw our things into the room and went out to enjoy the excellent New Orleans food waiting for us out there!

Speaking of food, the next morning, we decided to save some money and have a free breakfast in the hotel. Being a SPG Platinum, we were also entitled to complimentary breakfast. While Starwood only guarantees you to a "continental breakfast," at this Westin New Orleans, they give you a voucher which gives you their extensive hot breakfast buffet, complete with eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes, french toast, fresh fruits, yogurt parfaits as well as some southern style grits.

When we got the breakfast bill, it had the full price for 2 buffets but were told not to worry because we had a Platinum voucher. When the bill showed up on our invoice at check out, only the tip was there. Service at its finest! Now, we're supposed to pick either (a) free breakfast or (b) the welcome 500 SPG points, but when my father checked his Starwood account a few days later, the bonus points showed up as well. Bonus.

The best part of the hotel was that it was in easy walking distance to the French Quarter, right on Canal Street. That was huge because it meant we didn't need a rental car the entire weekend. That saved us some cash since we didn't have to pay the outrageous prices for parking.