I spent the better part of last week in New Orleans for the sixth annual Tales of the Cocktail. I was a newbie to Tales and to NOLA and I left both the city and the event feeling like I never wanted it to end. It was an episode in my career when I honestly felt like my job rocks. To discover a new city that has so much to offer and to be at an event that’s both a blast and educational to boot is the perfect trip for me.
Mixologists and bartenders have always revealed themselves to be a sturdy and rowdy lot with a wicked sense of humor. So can you imagine getting a couple thousand of the best bartenders from New York, San Francisco, Boston, London, Sydney and more into one hotel? It was a riot. Rumor was flying by Day Two about the two bartenders that got arrested the previous night and I think most averaged 6am bedtimes. I played the old lady and got myself off to sleep at a reasonable 1 to 2 am every night, while the following morning I’d attend morning seminars that were scanty and the afternoon seminars would be heaving with a hungover crowd catching a hair of the dog and sharing in spirits geek culture.
Seminars were taking place all day, everyday and many of them clashed. I had to pick and choose according to what I could possibly write about so I missed some fabulous seminars but my favorites among the ones I did make it to were: To Have and Have Not (Hemmingway and cocktails), Juniperlooza (a gin seminar run my Ryan Magarian, Simon Ford, Desmond Payne), Three Amigos (even though they did run out of cocktails and I felt stiffed) and finally the very brilliant punch seminar called The Flowing Bowl (presented by Allen Katz, Phil Ward of Death & Co. and my favorite spirits writer, David Wonderich). Punch is a great tradition and there are some truly delicious but potent classic recipes out there. For the purposes of Tales David chose an old recipe called the Bombay Government Punch – a heady mix of arrack, cognac, lime juice, simple syrup and black tea.
As for NOLA: I fell in love. Ok, I spent almost all my time in the French Quarter and saw very little of the city but what I did encounter made an impression. When you steer clear of Bourbon Street, the French Quarter has a lot of historical charm. I think it’s beautiful that they’ve managed to keep tradition intact. I did venture uptown to Magazine Street to check out the cool shops and boutiques and to have a very mediocre dessert at the overrated Sucre.
The food in NOLA is O.T.T. (over the top). It takes the most decadent rich French and Spanish roots cuisine and then multiplies the size and ingredients by ten. Case in point would be the dinner I had at the fabulous Arnaud’s, a classic New Orleans institution, where I had two whole quails stuffed with foie gras and wrapped in bacon. I dined with a fun LA-based writer who hit her wall halfway through the meal. I think I hit mine after the Bananas Foster – a sick dessert that can only send you over the edge. Having said all that I appreciate the NOLA mix of Cajun and Creole food. And the cocktails in the city can be great, as my French 75 (made with cognac) at Arnaud’s proved.
The very best meal had to be at Couchon where it was all about the pig. I shared bourdin noir, deep fried pig’s ears and whole roasted pig with a great group of writers and the editor of Cheers magazine. It was the first night and I thought, “goddamn I’m going to be all broken out and have an arse like the back of a bus by the time I leave.” Somehow that didn’t happen, I think the Louisiana heat does wonders. You somehow sweat all the bad stuff out and I came back to NYC looking better than I have in years. No wonder I want to go back to the Big Easy!
I actually have a travel assignment on New Orleans so I’m heading back to the city to explore more. This time I’m dragging JR with me. So he can eat all the beignets while I stare in remorse. We are also going to get a dose of reality by looking into the state of things in areas of New Orleans that remain devastated after Katrina. It’ll be a hard one to do but a necessity.