High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Friday, October 20, 2006

Panted: The Big Easy, Day 1

We are proud to bring you another installment of Telecommuniculturey on Location, this time in New Orleans.

I had two big concerns about this year's trek to "The Hag": (1)That I would have a poster full of intronic sound and fury, signifying nothing; (2) that I would have no pants. To be sure, if one is going to be pantsless, New Orleans is about the best place in the US to do it, but the prospect of being nude and surrounded by an army of geneticists is not a happy one. I don't need any input on the polygenic, partially heritable nature of my massive thighs, for example.

I declared my poster "done enough" at about 5:45 AM on Sunday morning and sent it off to the 24-hour Kinko's for printing. I then collapsed into bed for about 3 hours of quality sleep, woke up, and began doing circuits of the house like a particularly stupid sheep in need of a sheltie. These included stops at the computer in the fevered hopes of getting JUST ONE MORE THING done in between wandering upstairs and down as I threw utterly random articles (which, mercifully, included a few pairs of consignment pants that more or less fit) into a suitcase.

My flight left shortly after 4 PM, and I needed every second of the time leading up to it for pointless fretting, psychotic dreams of making up "a few" new slides that could be printed in NO and inserted into the poster, and packing. At some point, the M asked if maybe I should eat something. I think I looked at him rather desperately and said, "No?" I had, for the previous 10 days or so, been subsisting on fast food salads. My ever-impeccable timing meant maximum potential exposure to E. coli. Coincidentally, I'm sure, much of the work for the poster was done from my bathroom where I was joined by all 100-lbs of nonhuman animal flesh in the household. This may be more than anyone needed to know.

Midway was a freaking madhouse for some unearthly reason, and the usually very efficient Southwest people had some evil harpy at the entrance to the line mucking up the works. In theory, she was making sure that we were appropriately sorting ourselves into lines of those with boarding passes and and those needing to deal with tickets, boarding passes, etc. In practice, she stopped every single person and scrutinized obvious boarding passes for no obvious reason other than a need to exert power over the masses and slow us all down.

The flight was entirely full and the person occupying the middle seat in my row had no sense of fucking personal boundaries. He sat slouched with splayed knees and elbows firmly planted on either armrest, jutting well into my space and the space of the person in the window seat. The joke was, eventually, on him, though, for lo! I am a continental knitter, and even with my short needles, asshole's going to get poked.

The original plan had been for me to head to the hotel, divest myself of all worldly goods (which, again, I remind you, triumphantly did include pants), and join J and AKS at Arnaud's for dinner. However, as I learned upon calling the Professor from the pachinko cab (every time we went over a bump, the dome light came on and there was a jangling noise. I suspect because my door did not actually, in the most literal sense, close), he'd pushed the reservation and we'd all be able to head over together.

Because Team Turtleneck is a model of efficiency, within 45 minutes of touchdown, we were sitting in the beautiful (and mercifully more casual) jazz dining room at Arnaud's, looking out on Bourbon street, listening to the world's most perfect jazz trio, and had sazeracs in hand (well, J and I had them, AKS had a Manhattan). The tone of bourgeois cruelty for the week was set at Arnaud's. You see, their Table d'Hote menu seems like it would transport you to a very happy place indeed before depositing you in hell by way of payment. But that feeling only lasts until you see the a la carte menu, at which point you realize that you are already in hell because you can. not. choose.

We ultimately put on our brave faces and realized that it was simply not practical to order three of everything. We settled for an appetizer each, oysters for the table (after reflecting that it was a rare occasion, because no one present was going to be grossed out by them), and entrees, of course. Taking maximum advantage of the "no M to gross out" factor, I ordered the Escargot en Jaunty Chapeaux; J went for the alligator sausage; and AKS, I believe, went for the gumbo? I know it was between that and the shrimp bisque, but NO leaves one pleasantly awash in delicious soups and stews, so it's hard to remember.

For the oysters, we went for some on the half shell (ZOMG, unbelievably fresh, delicious, and totally without need for condiment of any kind) and the Oysters Arnaud, a sampler including one each of all their baked options. The latter were good across the board and some were transcendent (yes, dear, groin-grabbingly transcendent). If they were less memorable than the raw, it's likely because we let them sit a bit too long and possibly because (as I would learn later in the week at our return to the New Orleans Cooking Experience) the oysters this year are unusually tiny thanks to various aspects of Katrina fallout.

I was so excited about the pastry caps on my escargot that I tried to eat the first one too quickly and got more tongue sizzle with my deliciousness than I had bargained for. As vehicles for butter, garlic, and herbs, they did their duty well, and the pastry caps were an awesome addition to that (plus, the wee individual cups? Such an adorable delivery system for slimy deliciousness!). I admit to coveting J's sausage. Um . . . I mean that in the literal sense, of course. That was some tasty gator with tastier Creole mustard. My brain continues to blank out on AKS's soup/gumbo, but it was delicious, that much I know. Oh! Wait! It was the gumbo, because there was something on top that needed to be sucked out. How I forgot that, I will never know. I'm tentatively blaming the Tiger by the Tail.

For entrees, I went pompano en croute; J went Crawfish O'Connor (which, sadly, was not en fuego tableside as we'd hoped); and AKS went with what we came to call "Hell Quail." Because, seriously, if you know that every possible food bribe under the sun is in your dish and you order it anyway, you also know you're on the express train to hell the minute you finish.

Each entree was beautiful in its own way. The crawfish was actually more of a comfort food dish than the menu's description seemed to imply, but it had a deep, rich flavor with very pleasant heat at the back. My pompano? Well, what can I say? It was a fish topped with scallop mousse inside a gorgeous pastry fish. Amazing presentation and the lightest, most deceptive (Me? Harden your arteries? Stop your heart cold at the dinner table? Would I do that?) cream sauce EVAR. And Hell Quail? Let's just say that Hell Quail made me forget my "No Organ Meats" rule and LIKE IT.

For dessert, there was excellent coffee, Strawberries Arnaud for moi, Ice cream/sorbet for AKS, and I'm blanking on what J had. I think it was a special, because neither the chocolate devastation nor the caramel flan look familiar.

As much as I enjoy the Food!Pr0n, any tale of this dinner is incomplete without mention of the awesome jazz trio. The jazz dining room is, seriously, one of the most pleasant spaces known to me. It's comfortable, visually pleasing, and they clearly made a compact with the devil to achieve acoustics capable of supporting a 3-piece strolling band that still allows diners to have a conversation. From subsequent peeks into the dining room as we strolled Bourbon later in the week, I gather that different musicians rotate through, with the upright-bass player possibly being the stable element. We had upright bass, awesome banjo (the drum was transparent and inside was a kind of diorama of dixieland jazz), and, I think, a curved soprano sax played by mini-Joss Whedon.

They started their set playing in the corner and eventually made their way around to teach table, playing a song or two for each. We got an awesome tango-infused version of St. Louis Blues medley-ified with Shake, Rattle, and Roll, which they got us to sing. They did many of the expected standards ("St. James Infirmary," "Jelly Roll," etc.) with the added bonus of "House of the Rising Sun." Both the bass player and mini-Joss were kick-ass singers, and I was tickled to be able to watch some cool slap bass up close, especially after not being able to see much of the blurry-handed prowess of Jimmy Sutton on Friday. Seriously, these guys were so good I took to pressing my face to the window and mewling pathetically in the hopes of hearing a bit more of them later in the week.

After dinner, we decided that a bit of a stroll to work off some of the meal was in order. We headed down Bourbon Street toward Esplanade and wound up at the Maison Bourbon, partly because we were lured in by the hot, hot trumpet of Jamil Shrif and partly by the promise of a drink called "Tiger by the Tail." AKS and I were definitely intrigued and did not regret opting to receive its newsletter. Well, I personally would later regret subscribing to its second issue hot on the heels of its first, but you can't blame the Tiger, man.

The weirdest note of the evening was that at 11:59 PM, the Maison was hopping, the set was coming to a smokin' finish, and the bartender was knocking out drinks with alacrity. On the stroke of midnight, the place turned into a pumpkin (celebrating with relief the end of Our Lord's day, I'm sure). We got the "You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here speech from the Pod People who had replaced those who were joking and laughing with us a literal moment before.

Confused but still soaring on great food and music, we pointed Team Turtleneck back toward Canal. J abandoned us momentarily to secure black Mardi Gras beads for us. The minute he detached, before AKS and I could really get into our discussion of boas, three cute little Celtic men appeared from the Pocket Dimension and joined in, informing us that we both simply NEEDED those boas. Happy and oblivious, I was inclined to agree, but the Pocket Celts seemed disappointed and melted away when our male escort reappeared.

Upon return to our palatial suite, we somehow managed to stay up until 5 AM talking about the relative merits of Lt. Col. Man!Ho and MacGyver. I think I broke something in AKS pretty permanently when I gave my summary statement: "Look, I'm just saying that when the Zombie Apocalypse comes, I'd be presenting to MacGyver and bearing his children, because he's the one who's going to get you through."

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