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Trip Report New Orleans Trip Report -- Jazz Fest 2011 (1st Weekend)

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Just returned from my 5th consecutive New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, still glowing from a long weekend of great weather, amazing music and food, the company of good friends, and the energy of a city that feels like it’s on the rise.

For the first time since Katrina, New Orleans feels like it has turned a corner, at least from the vantage point of this regular visitor who attended college here. Our non-stop Air Tran flight from BWI was full of Fest-goers, and MSY was hopping, with the longest taxi lines I’ve seen since I visited Las Vegas. The streets – including those beyond the French Quarter, the CBD, Garden District and Uptown – were much busier with traffic, people, and re-opened businesses. Before Katrina, I always found that the already-friendly New Orleanians warmed even more when I mentioned that I was an alumna of a local school; the first few years after Katrina, it seemed that the further you came, the warmer the welcome, since the residents were so grateful for tourism. Now, once again, having some local bona fides helped open doors a little wider. As always, it’s good to be back!

(A note about Air Tran. I really like flying them, and when I’m not busy collecting miles on American to get me down island, I choose Air Tran. Last week, the merger between Southwest and Air Tran was finally approved. Let me tell you, the Air Tran staff were PSYCHED and could not stop talking about it. By the time of our return to BWI, they were sporting Southwest logo gear, and the enthusiasm was palpable. So, let’s hope their positive mood continues and that the new Air Tran is as good as the old Air Tran.)

Since Jazz Fest has become an annual event for me and a changing group of friends, we do a lot of planning in advance. We traditionally come for the first weekend (Jazz Fest falls during last Fri-Sat-Sun of April and the first Thurs-Fri-Sat-Sun of May). Though the list of performers doesn’t come out until January, the only real difference between the weekends is that the second one is longer and you are almost guaranteed to see the Neville Brothers closing out the Fest. If you plan ahead like we do and commit to a particular weekend before January, you may not know who will be on the bill, but if you like music you aren’t likely to be disappointed due to the wide variety and depth of talent attracted to the event.

About 6 months out, we book our hotel (and this year, it wasn’t soon enough to get 4 consecutive nights at my preferred hotel). Four months out, I book air. Two months out (give or take), we start plotting dinner reservations. And once the “cubes” or “grids” (showing the performance schedule) come out, we decide how many days we’ll attend the Fest and get our tickets – since as many tickets are sold as there are takers, there is no mad rush to get them. But the countdown for the next trip starts as soon as we get on the plane home.

This year, we found the music schedule so attractive that we bought tickets to all 3 days, leaving little time for enjoying the city itself during our visit. My husband and I are early risers, so we did have time to stroll the French Quarter between music and meals, and we ventured beyond the Quarter for meals, so we got to spend some time Uptown and in the Garden District.

My preferred hotel was, and continues to be, the Royal Sonesta. This year, however, we weren’t able to get a reservation there or the Ritz Carlton (second choice). So, I chose the Hotel Monteleone, another grand dame hotel located in the FQ on Royal Street. A block away from Bourbon Street makes a difference from the smelly and loud honky-tonk tawdriness of Bourbon. The hotel’s lobby is clad in marble, brass and crystal, and our room had high ceilings and a view of Royal Street. My preference for a single king bed couldn’t be accommodated, so we had a double-double, which is not optimal for restless sleepers who normally prefer to sleep in the same bed (the doubles are just too small for tall toss-and-turners). While our room could have used a little refreshing, and the quality of bedding didn’t compare to either the Royal Sonesta or the Ritz, it was reasonably comfortable and well-maintained.

As in years past, my biggest complaint about this year’s Jazz Fest – if one can justly complain about an embarrassment of riches – was that there were just too many great acts, making the decision of which stage to visit at any given time agonizing. Indeed, given that there is an implied hierarchy among the stages, the quality of performers on the “lesser” stages demonstrates the depth of the line-up. As does the caliber of the shows I skipped altogether (e.g. Robert Plant, John Mellencamp). There were times when we could have hit 3 or 4 stages at the same time; but there were other times where we didn’t have any particular plan in mind.

For the first time ever, I never even made it to the largest stage, Acura; and I spent the most time at the Fais Do Do stage, which is far enough down in the hierarchy that there isn’t even a large screen to watch the action on. Nevertheless, I got to see all of the performers I’d planned on seeing (and all gave great shows): the subdudes (my perennial favorites, whom I’ve seen at either Jazz Fest or at a local venue 6 or 7 times), Mumford & Sons, Justin Townes Earle, Jason Mraz, and the Decemberists. More interestingly, I saw a number of local performers whose work was unfamiliar to me – including Tab Benoit, the Pine Leaf Boys, Anders Osborne, the Honey Island Swamp Band -- and they were all incredibly entertaining. In particular, John Boutte – whose claim to fame is the theme song from the HBO series “Treme” – absolutely blew me away.

Although some of our friends ate their way through the Fest – and the food is a huge attraction – I paced myself a little more slowly. I was not willing to pass up the cochon de lait po-boy, however, and got to share my hubby’s fantastic crawfish po-boy. But we knew we were going to be eating out before or after the Fest, so we saved room (and calories) for other festivities.

Jazz Fest continues to be a well-run and friendly event, though the growing audiences are putting stresses on the transportation network. On Friday, it took us nearly an hour to get a shuttle bus to the Fairgrounds, and I understand the taxi lines for Jazz Fest departures were horrendous. This may have been a result of spectacular weather which attracted more attendees; Friday, especially, was mild (not hot) and not at all humid, with a clear blue sky. While it used to be necessary to bring your own tissues and hand sanitizer to cope with the nasty porta potties, this year I never found either wanting (though I’m not about to go without bringing my own!)

While my crew loves the music, we also love dining out in New Orleans, so the dining agenda gets planned well in advance. I had dinners at Lilette, Coquette and One, as well as lunch at Bayona and brunch at Brennan’s.

Lilette, which is located in the 3600 block of Magazine Street in the Garden District, was new for me and my husband and our dinner location following arrival on Thursday night. We’d heard great things about it from another couple with whom we were traveling, as they have made it their first-night tradition for years. After a delicious al fresco dinner featuring duck and beef – and service that hadn’t yet suffered from the crowds that have descended on the city – we went next door to the Bouligny Tavern where we sat outside and had cocktails with our friends. (Waking up Friday morning was a little difficult. Suffice it to say that I was not getting up for the Royal Wedding, even if I had been inclined to do so.)

Coquette is one of my favorite restaurants in New Orleans. It too is located on Magazine Street in the Garden District, in a stylish but narrow space with tin ceilings, tile floors and crystal chandeliers (very French bistro-like). After specialty cocktails, including a pair of sazeracs for some in our group, we ranged over the small but ever-changing menu. I had “Mississippi pig:” braised pork shoulder over cabbage and grits. My husband had soft-shell crab over house-made pasta, while the other pair in our foursome had seafood. But for me, the highlight of the meal is the dessert beignets. They are tiny and light and can be dipped in either salted caramel or coffee-chocolate pots de crème; since they melt on your tongue, I believe they have no calories.

It had been 11 years since my husband and I ate at Bayona in the French Quarter, and we’d been trying ever since then to obtain a dinner reservation at this well-loved, romantic mainstay restaurant. We were out of luck this year as well until I got the idea to have lunch there – do-able since we didn’t plan to go to the Fest until mid-afternoon on Saturday. On Saturdays, Chef Susan Spicer offers a $25 lunch special which allows for the choice of 3 small plates, one from each carefully curated category. I’m a huge fan of small plates, because it allows for lots of sampling without leaving me stuffed, and Bayona’s options were perfect examples. The signature cream of garlic soup was just as amazing as remembered, and the flounder and paneed veal second courses were delicious and perfectly portioned. The “desserts” were most memorable: my husband had the famous smoked duck, cashew butter and pepper jelly in puff pastry, while I had a napoleon made with chocolate phyllo, white chocolate filling, pistachios and fresh local strawberries. Accompanied by sparkling rose, it was a perfect and romantic lunch.

More Fest-ing was followed by a late dinner at ONE Restaurant and Lounge, Uptown at the Riverbend (about a half block away from Camellia Grill). And, unfortunately, by “late dinner” I mean really LATE. The tiny restaurant was slammed, and our 8:30 reservation didn’t get our party of 6 seated til much later – for which the maitre d’ comp-ed us cocktails (try the house special “One-tini” – which is citrusy and savory). While our server was solicitous and apologetic, the kitchen was nevertheless waaaaay behind, and we didn’t finish our dinners til 11:30. For the most part, the food was excellent, from tuna tartare to generous soft-shell crabs to housemade pasta, but at least one in our group was disappointed.

Our final meal was brunch at Brennan’s in the French Quarter. Our group has traditionally brunched at Commander’s Palace (owned by another branch of the Brennan family), which is an elegant affair complete with wandering jazz band (which one of our group calls “New Orleans mariachis”). The year, we opted for a change of scenery by choosing Brennan’s, but it wasn’t all that different. The French Quarter location makes Brennan’s a bit more touristy, and our attire (dresses or skirts for the ladies, dress shirts and pants – and in my husband’s case, a linen jacket) had us dressed way better than most other guests there, but would have been right in step at Commander’s. Brennan’s also lacks the jazz band, which may be a plus or minus, depending on your point of view. Otherwise, the restaurant is huge, a warren of dining rooms, and offers a sumptuous (perhaps even excessive) fixed price brunch with many of the same choices as Commander’s has. After brunch (which included poached eggs in myriad combinations, and the famous flaming Bananas Foster invented here), we didn’t need to worry about finding food for our last day of Fest-ing.

By our Monday morning flight, though we were sad to leave New Orleans, we were full of music, sunshine, and food. This year’s tagline for Jazz Fest is “Come Hungry, Leave Soulful,” and we did indeed. And now we are subsisting on salads to atone.

Just a few observations for those thinking about visiting New Orleans for Jazz Fest:

- If you want to avoid the worst crowds for transportation purposes, go a little later than the 11 a.m. start time, and leave earlier than the 7 p.m. end time. We found that departing between 6:15 and 6:30 (which meant a little musical sacrifice) got us back to our hotel by 7 or 7:15. Any later, and we’d be hard-pressed to make 8:30 dinner reservations.

- Definitely reserve EARLY if you want to dine at one of the better-known restaurants in the French Quarter, Warehouse District or Garden District. Alternatively, think about lunch (but still reserve).

- When dining out, consider the house specials. The house cocktails we drank were uniformly satisfying. And dinner/lunch specials usually focus on seasonal ingredients. In April and May, this usually includes crabs (soft-shell or otherwise), asparagus, and strawberries. They are at their best, and you won’t be disappointed.

- When going to the Fest, don’t forget the necessities: a folding camp chair (which can be purchased for $8.99 at Walgreen’s but is much more inside the Fairgrounds), sunscreen, tissues, hand-sanitizer, a beer coozie, rainwear, and the day’s program of events.

- At the Fest, you WILL get dirty. It goes without saying that if it’s raining, you’ll get muddy. But on sunny days, the dust from the track permeates the air as well. Those “tan lines” on your feet? They are dirt lines! I like to wear Keen sandals because they protect my toes and can later be tossed in the washing machine. You are also likely to sweat, so don’t plan on repeating outfits!

- Even if the Jazz Fest schedule doesn’t feature any acts that you know or feel like you must see, go anyway. If you like music, you’ll be pleased with just about anything you hear. Just a few moments at the side of the Gospel Tent will have you feeling the spirit (Amen!). I’m so glad I spent time listening to Cajun, zydeco, blues, jazz, etc. It may not be stuff I have on my iPod, but it was wonderful nevertheless.

- When taking cabs, have a clue about where you are going because not all of the drivers do. And there are so many restaurants in town, for example, that simply giving a name isn’t necessarily going to get you there. While I have the benefit of knowing my way around, I put all of the necessary addresses in my smartphone and had to direct at least one taxi driver block-by-block.

- And, if you have any doubt about visiting New Orleans, DON’T! Just go!

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