Pigeons take to tables for beignet crumbs and powdered sugar residue
at Cafe Du Monde in the French Quarter.
The West Bank on the far side of the Mississippi River from downtown New Orleans looks haunted at night. The aerial view from the Huey P. Long bridge is reminiscent of the photos of Gregory Crewdson--luminescent flashes of a world that can never entirely go to sleep. It looks industrial, commercial and in the insolence of daylight it must certainly be a plain sight--if it exists at all.
In our feverish discussions of how and where to cram in a modest eight meals a day on my first visit Brooke insisted that the Vietnamese community in the West Bank made food as essential to the New Orleans experience as a po' boy at Domilise's.
On the second night of my stay we crossed the bridge and descended into that dreamland, to Nine Roses, a roomy Vietnamese place with a stiff facade and copious parking lot suggestive of an unclaimed mattress emporium. When making those preliminary assessments of non-western eateries thinking gets counter-intuitive. Does it look like the kind of place you could buy a coffee table? That's a good thing. Drops ceilings, filmy laminated menus? An abandoned tricycle in the corner by an open coloring book? Yes? You're in the right spot.
The first sight you catch upon entering Nine Roses is a stately aquarium whose blue lamp seems to be responsible for lighting the entire dining room, and whose sole inhabitant, a blood-colored tropical fish glides through his home space in a sleepy almost emblematic motion. So much of what Nine Roses does is familiar fare. We ate spring rolls, pho and a plate of chili-singed calamari with brown rice. There is an inspirational kind of achievement in places like Nine Roses--the modesty with which balance of flavor, coordination of spices and striking sensory impact work. We ate and talked about our families and the places we'd been over the years, taking in each plate with subconscious warmth. Some food draws attention to its own magnificence, it thinks it's art. It's cook thinks he's an artist. Great food however is subliminal. And its magnificence leaves the poetic mark in afterthought. Nine Roses makes food in the mold of the latter.
Across the Huey P. Long in Uptown again we spent a bit of time ostensibly walking off the Vietnamese feast we'd just eaten. Magazine Street is home to a good number of inviting windows and open doors--bars, bistros, pizzerias, ice cream parlors. The night air is pink and violet with their lights. One such place, Coquette, is the home of a plate Brooke claims as the definitive sweet in New Orleans. Over a cocktail at the bar we discovered that their lauded chocolate pot de creme and beignets was no longer a selection on the standard menu and could only be had as part of a six course prix fixe menu. A sympathetic bartender disappeared into the kitchen and in short order returned to inform us that an exception was being made. With some drink chatter and a comforting lag since our last gorge it was there. A demure pile of pastry pillows dusted with sugar and a demitasse of custard.
What can anyone know or say definitively about a place as vast and inscrutable as New Orleans let alone after a mere three days of poking around? Probably not much, relatively speaking. The beignets and pot de creme at Coquette may or may not be the great confection of New Orleans, but it lives all the same as the great confection in my substantial memory. The custard was ghostly bodied, reminding me of the whimsical aphorisms that play out in the paintings of Rene Magritte, a cloud of curvaceous chocolate floating in mid-air. Something to laugh at as much as luxuriate over. The beignets, in contrast to the powdered sugar interred fritters at the famous Cafe du Monde, were as mystical as the custard--the crisp exterior protecting a humid, creamy interior that seems to finish baking only the moment it reached the tongue. For a city whose indelibly inchoate sensibility plays out inch upon delirious inch in architecture, sound, color, personalities and attitudes this plate of puffed dough and pudding got it about as succinctly right as I can imagine: An impossible little world disappearing as it achieves its fraught perfection.
Sharing some fresh air and a second round of dessert at Sucre on Magazine Street
A few doorsteps away on Magazine we managed to meet with the temptation of macarons and gelato at Sucre, beloved of Oprah and Paula. Already drunk and pooped on countless plates of amazing grub, did the only dignified thing we could, we gave in.