Sybaritic New Orleans: Three Days of Bananas Foster, Ritual Massages and, Yes, Old School Jazz
International House Hotel
New Orleans emanates the sort of magic, myth and mystery that lures you to explore it with indelible gusto. And while we have covered its inspirational side and its spookier side, our most recent visit saw us indulging in something a bit more sybaritic.
The city has been celebrating its 300th birthday, with parties and events galore; and with dapper party hats donned, we immersed ourselves in not just its culture and history, but also its ability to seduce at every turn. We delightfully sauntered, meandered, drank, dined and indulged – especially at its ghoulishly delightful Voodoo Music + Arts Experience. Though things took a turn towards the more heady as we took in the dazzling 16th and 17th Century works of the The Orléans Collection at NOMA.
Here’s what we did.
A Stylish Stay
International House Hotel (IHH) was the very first boutique property in NOLA, fitted into a historic, landmark building dating to 1906 (its previous life was as the world’s first international trade center). Preserving its Beaux-Arts style, the hotel greets you with its soaring ceilings and ornate pilasters; owner Sean Cummings and interior designer LM Pagano collaborated to further imbue the space with such elegant flourishes as pressed tin ceilings, opulent chandeliers, wrought iron tables, and antique velvet furnishings – all of which evoke elemental New Orleans. Each of the 117 rooms, suites and penthouses deftly juxtapose sexy sophistication and soothing serenity. And its situated on the cusp of the French Quarter.
Maestro of Mixology
The International House’s Loa Bar (the name refers to deities or holy spirits) is a sanctuary of showstopping sips, with lasciviously rouge-y digs that are complete with sensual mood lighting. Alan Walter, the Creative Director and Mixologist – they call him “Spirit Handler” – endeavors to respect, educate and honor divine spirits through his apothecary inspired cocktail program. For special events (such as Fet Gede, aka All Souls Day, or the biggie, St. John’s Eve), he’ll get the blessings, consultation and guidance from local Vodou High Priestess Sallie Ann Glassman to craft special drinks that are tied to the celebratory ceremonies. But the Loa menu is inventive and imaginative all year round. High praise for our favorites: Cicada (Vodka, crème de cacao, crème de menthe, cucumber) and the Arabesque (reposado tequila, plantain, fino sherry, thyme).
The Voodoo Ritual massage at the Ritz Carlton New Orleans weaves the history and culture of voodoo into its treatments. For this unique therapeutic service, staff used locally made herbal poultices that were rhythmically and methodically kneaded over our entire bodies. It was coupled with a surround sound blend of voodoo chants and beats, as we became one with ourselves and the elements, while inhaling aromas of absinthe, vetiver, cypress and moss. We happily submitted mind, body and soul for this truly profound and culturally immersive treatment.
Tableside Martini Service
Dickie Brennan’s, one of New Orleans’ revered culinary institutions, left us in a hazy gastronomic stupor. Their steakhouse fare is given a Creole and/or Cajun twist, with feature favorites including BBQ shrimp, bone marrow pie, and prime cowboy ribeye. But even better? Glorious, bygone-era showmanship via their Tableside Martini Service. Our poison of choice? The ultra-luxe Black & Gold Martini, with Hendrick’s Gin, Cajun Caviar stuffed olives and edible 24K gold-leaf. Swank.
Not to play favorites, but Restaurant R’evolution is NOLA gourmand grandeur at its absolute finest. In the heart of the French Quarter, the interior pays style homage to the classic dining rooms of the St. Charles Avenue mansions of the 1800s, from the inviting ambiance of the Market Room, to the bar themed like a French Quarter carriageway, illuminated by gas lanterns. The food is a “modern interpretation of Creole and Cajun classics,” under the direction of James Beard Award winning Chefs John Folse and Rick Tramonto. Gracious, thoughtful service accompanied imaginative dishes like crab stuffed frogs legs, boudin stuffed quail enveloped in a heady gumbo, seared sea scallops with foie gras, and wonderfully light sheep ricotta gnocchi with lobster. Dessert was also a decadent treat, especially the Creole Cream Cheese Bread Pudding Crème Brûlée. (N.B. their Coravin system allows one to sample rare vintages by the glass).
Legs and Eggs
At SoBou, brunch is kicked up about a thousand notches. We loved their soulful renditions of street food classics: cracklings, pork belly baos, shrimp po’boys, and crab beignets; but we also took in their famous Burlesque Brunch show. In an homage to the popular clubs of the 1940s, sultry Bella Blue revived the beloved art form, set to live music. Meanwhile, Chef Juan Carlos Gonzalez seduced us with a three course menu, complete with Brunch Hooch Punch. Our faves included the cochon de lait deviled eggs and blackened geaux fish with asparagus & corn risotto & confit garlic whipped cream. And it went without saying that we would order the cherries jubilee & white chocolate bread pudding for dessert. It’s cooked to order, and while we were patiently waiting through its 25-minute preparation, we took time to fully appreciate the ambiance – echoing its former life as a heritage pharmacy, with old bottles decoratively lining the walls.
Foster the Banana People
Brunch at Brennan’s is an institution, with pillowy, fluffy biscuits, spiced turtle soup, and lip-smacking fried chicken with cornbread waffles. But it was the tableside bananas foster that we were most dazzled by. Flambéed right before our eyes was a gooey, boozed-up brown sugar + butter mix that’s carefully draped with vanilla bean ice cream and warmed banana slices. Better still, this star staple is getting a makeover – as Brennan’s is in the process of producing its own banana liqueur and rum. Not a fan of bananas? We also tried their fanciful rendition of black forest cake – a plump, chocolate shaped cherry stuffed with delicate mousse and placed on chocolate “soil.” It was a cherry-bomb of textures and tastes.
Brunching + Biking
Over at the new hotel The Eliza Jane, on-site restaurant Couvant‘s brasserie-styled space offers sophisticated yet approachable regional French cuisine – with a seasonal, locally sourced menu conceived by Chef Brad McDonald. Here, we happily tucked into buxom brioche slathered with homemade ricotta & jam, hearty granola (oats, pecans, roasted peaches), soft & sexy omelettes stuffed with chevril, chives and tarragon, and gloriously golden-brown pain perdu farci, stuffed with bird’s custard. We “rode” it off with one of the city’s Free Wheelin’ Bike Tours, which offers guided cycling through beloved NOLA neighborhoods. We highly recommend the three-hour Garden District Tour (with gregarious guide Teddy), where we got to eye a few celebrity homes (Peyton Manning, Sandra Bullock), 19th century Antebellum mansions, Lafayette Square, and Coliseum Square Park… to name a few highlights.
French Quarter Photography Fix
Since 1973, A Gallery for Fine Photography has been a landmark fixture in the French Quarter. Independently owned and operated by photographer Joshua Mann Pailet, it features two floors of visionary, meticulously curated collections, with a rotating gallery of featured photographers. The more than 3500 photos include works by legends like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Ansel Adams. The perfect antidote to the “fast photos” of social media, we felt as if we were immersing ourselves in the whole history of photography – and left with a profound new appreciation for the art form.
Authentic NOLA Souvenirs
The city is certainly not lacking for talented artisans/craftspeople. And we visited Hazelnut for New Orleans Toile fabrics and other authentic home goods; Krewe, where NOLA native Stirling Barrett crafts killer shades and colorful handmade eyewear; and Mignon Faget, hand-crafted jewelry whose family roots stretch back to the 18th century.
Spearheaded by the aforementioned High Priestess Sallie Ann Glassman, the New Orleans Healing Center is a holistic, safe, sustainable space that aims to “educate, heal, fulfill and empower the individual and the community.” Eager to understand more about the Vodou religion, we learned that it relates to “promoting physical, nutritional, emotional, intellectual, environmental and spiritual well-being.” Her Fet Gede Celebration is a procession centered upon feeding and honoring the dead, or as she explained it, “By honoring the deceased, we embrace the meaning of our own lives and open space for generations yet to come.”
All That New Orleans Jazz
We made a point to soak up the live sounds at the historic Preservation Hall, where, since 1961, they’ve endeavored to “protect, preserve and perpetuate traditional New Orleans Jazz.” Every night, NOLA’s finest channel the city’s musical legacy, stretching all the way back to the genesis of jazz itself. Best of all, no phones are allowed; it’s one of the rare instances where the musicians implore you to be present in the moment and just enjoy their vibrant living history. From Dixieland to swing tributes, the spirit of Louis Armstrong lives on gloriously in this place.