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

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Thursday, October 26, 2006

Bunnies! Bunnies! It Must Be Bunnies!: The Big Easy, Days 3.2 & 4.1

So I was a giant tease and left all y'all on the very threshold of Brigtsen's. I'm going to be even more cruel and back up to the threshold of the Marriott Residence Inn.

AMB and KJ had joined us at what would soon cease to be our suite (their ultimate solution to our intarweb problems was to have us move to a different room). We called for a cab and piled in, preparing to let the wackiness wash over us.

I knew immediately that the driver was taking a different route to Riverbend than M and I had taken. Although there was no reason to necessarily worry immediately (after all, we were leaving from the Warehouse District, not the Quarter), I had a Bad Feeling. It seemed to take longer than I remembered, too, which moved us from Bad to Worse Feeling territory. When the driver began asking M (who, of course, was having trouble hearing and understanding the driver, as is his way with everyone up to and including me), I thought we were officially fucked. However, all the worry was for naught (unless it was a pleasing offering to the malevolent gods, which is quite possible): We arrived right on time.

We noticed that Dante's Kitchen, where M and I had enjoyed a pre-Brigtsen's drink (we were afraid we'd get lost and left lots and lots of time before the reservation), was not open. Subsequent information indicates that this is a case of the reduced hours to which so many are finding themselves subject because of the staffing shortages. That's a bummer, but I'm glad it isn't a case of them not having reopened at all.

Brigtsen's describes its location as a "Victorian cottage." We climbed the stairs of the porch (and stepped over the cat sleeping on the mat, who looked at us surlily, as if to say "I am SLEEPING and trying to think of nothing but MURDER here" ), fairly salivating by this point. Inside, the space is long and relatively narrow. A hallway runs the length of the left-hand side of the building. The host stand is at the front, just inside the entrance, and the bathroom is at the rear. On your way to the latter, you can see the bar and a bit of the kitchen.

When we were there on our honeymoon, the hallway was packed with walk-ins and those who'd arrived early for reservations. This time, the dining rooms hadn't yet filled up by the time of our 7:30 reservation. We were at a six-top in one of the front dining rooms. I think there are 3.1 dining rooms total (the room in which we were seated has a kind of annex with just a few tables that is at the very front of the house). The rooms aren't large. In ours, the six-top dominated, and there were probably 3 tables for two and possibly one or two set for four? (Please bear in mind that this was almost three weeks and a lot of alcohol ago.) My memory is that the center dining room is a bit larger, probably housing 10 tables, and another smaller room at the back.

The rooms are comfortable and homey, rather than sleek. The wallpaper has a dense, but not overbearing, pattern; there are china knicknacks on the walls and on the mantles of the fireplaces. The tables are close together, but there's not any feeling of crowding or loss of privacy, just enough closeness that diners could share conversation if they were so inclined.

I made a tactical error in being the first to order my drink. I went with the sazerac, thinking it would be useful as a point of comparison with Arnaud's. But that was before I knew that they had The Ultimate Sidecar as their drink special for the evening. AMB was the proud winner of that award, but was kind enough to share. Seriously that sidecar was DOPE.

Because we're morons, we forgot to take a copy of the menu (which changes daily) with us. I'll try to recreate all meals from memory. The gumbo of the day was alligator/duck. The meat and flavor were exquisite. It was a bit on the thin side for a Frank gumbo (he uses filé powder AND a dark roux), but still delicious. At least some of our party had the butternut shrimp bisque, which was quite to die for, as well. I don't know what the secret is of making something so creamy completely delicious but not at all heavy. Whatever secret it is, it's a dangerous one, and I salute it.

For my appetizer, I had delicious, delicious pan-fried rabbit with a creole mustard. It's not on the sample menu and when I search for more adjectives to describe, I keep coming up drool. It was so good, I didn't even miss the frog legs (much), and I'd held off on those at Arnaud's hoping that I'd get to have Frank's again. M, I believe, had the catfish, which is on the sample menu, and was also phenomenal (no doubt attributable to the fact that farm-raised catfish are DEAD to Frank, and not in an "in the pan" way). I'm going to go out on a limb and say that either AKS or J had the pate, but I did not sample it. I am tragically blanking on the appetizers of others, but there was a decidedly promiscuous approach to them at the table, so I'm thinking it's safe to say that they were all awesome.

For entrees, we had some doubling up. KJ and I were unable to resist the siren song of the tuna listed on the sample menu: a huge piece of incredibly fresh tuna done to a turn, with a smokey, creamy, tart sauce that matched it beautifully. I was very sad to see the last chunk of it go, but I knew I had to save room for dessert.

M and J decided to ride to hell by way of heaven on half a duck. Now, they were warned that they would, indeed, be receiving half a duck each. This did not stop the exclamations of "Crivens! That's HALF A DUCK" from being sent up from our table. If it were not terribly gauche, I might have asked for a meal consisting entirely of the delicious crispy duck skin. Bonus points for the cracklicious cornbread dressing, too.

AMB went for the seafood platter on my orders (I had that when last we were there, and I haven't stopped thinking about it since. All the seafood I've eaten that wasn't that seafood platter meant nothing to me. I was thinking of it the whole time.) The funny thing is the staff is under orders to reassure you that the platter is actually comparable, in terms of sheer volume of food, to the rest of the entrees, even though it looks like you're eating your way to Atlantis. Of course, you're still eating your way to Atlantis, despite the tasting portions on the plate. The cornbread-y thingy on this platter was a particular stand out.

And AKS had the paneed rabbit for her entree. It's basically breaded lightly and flash pan-fried, which gives it a very light, but nicely crisp texture. And with rabbit, that's also a recipe for juicy, succulent perfection. I think she had spinach or other greens in a dill mustard to finish it, but I'm not positive. However, it was delicious enough to defeat most of her guilt over eating bunny, I believe.

Desserts are also somewhat hazy, but I'm not going to blame the alcohol this time. I'm going to blame the cake. The delicious, light, deceptively not filling, moist perfection of double-chocolate cakeness. The one down side to it is it made me feel like I was cheating on Susan Goss's Devil's Food Cake. I'm sorry. I love you both equally. We're just going to have to move to Utah.

M's fidelity was also called into question on the tres leches front. You see, Tecalitlan has the best comfort tres leches in the world, and Salpicón has the best upscale tres leches cake in the world. How, then, could Frank's tres leches place without turning us into dirty tres leches polygamists? By being entirely different, and still delicious. I love it when a plan comes together.

I believe that KJ had the pecan pie with caramel sauce. That, of course, has become "our" pecan pie, but apparently we now need to shake someone down for the caramel sauce recipe. The adorable, darling AKS got the sorbets, I think, and I seem to recall one particularly awesome one, but I'm damned if I recall the flavor. And I think we skipped the creme brulee altogether (although it's possible that J had it, and I was just too busy singing "Oh, sweet mystery of life, at last I've found you!" to my cake), because we're rebels.

If into every dinner a little rain must fall, our rain was the banana bread pudding, ordered by AMB. Now, of course, banana bread pudding sounds to me like a dual mistake right on the face of it. But were I going to try it anywhere, it would be at Brigtsen's. Unfortunately, it looked as if we weren't going to get to try it at all when it didn't arrive with the rest of our desserts or even shortly thereafter. When we gently reminded our server, she was extremely apologetic and comped the dessert. And after all the sturm and drang, it was pronounced good, but not great by those not repulsed by banana-flavored things.

After dessert and excellent coffee, we rolled back to our hotels along a route much more familiar to M and me. Although my dearest wish was to then sink into a bed and hibernate until my meal was used up entirely, we had to move our things to the third floor and to what turned out to be a much more sensibly arranged suite for four people.

On the morn, I'd fully intended to get up for a paper at around 9:30ish, but my body stubbornly refused such a proposition. By the time I rolled out of bed a little after 10 and got dressed, J had long since departed for the sessions. I decided that I'd get some grading done and, miraculously, did. (And yet, I'm still playing catch up on that front.) In the early afternoon, we put in a call to AMB and KJ and arranged to meet up with them at Jackson Square for lunch, where I had an awesome jambalaya omelette at the River's Edge Cafe.

I will expound more on the rest of Day 4 later, but now I must adjourn to attend M's graduation at Old Town.

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Monday, October 23, 2006

Depths, Breadths, and Heights: The Big Easy, Day 2 and 3.1

I would be lying if I said I was not experiencing some Tiger-by-the-Tail-induced personal nadir on Day 2 of the New Orleans trip. However, without attempting to rationalize the ill-advised feline sequel on the evening before, I think my hangover was at least half bioinformatic, given that I hadn't gotten more than 3 hours of sleep in the 10 days before I left. Whatever the source, I was experiencing deep hurting on Monday morning, which was bad news for the part of my life that remained back at the ranch.

While NCBI was trying to kill me overtly, it also had more subtle machinations going on in the form of leaving me no time for the rest of my life. Thus, I did not get my midterms written before I left. I wrote about 10 points' worth of the first on the plane before passing out for about 20 minutes. I made a futile attempt to add to that post-dinner, but I was basically hosed.

When I'd adjourned to my room, the alarm clock was helpfully not plugged in, and I couldn't find an accessible outlet near the bed. I plugged it into the nearest wall outlet, set the alarm for 8:30, and conked out for a while. I woke up before the alarm and wrote questions, somehow managing not to intersperse "please kill me" into the text. Og made a public appearance around 10 AM as sie obtained shiny, cold Diet Coke from the fridge and grunted in J's general direction. Then it was back into bed to continue writing. The battery on the laptop attempted to die at some point, requiring that Og pull the bed away from the wall if sie wanted to work in bed. Sie wanted, very badly, to continue working in bed. (I admit that between this and the alarm clock on the floor, things were slightly askew, but I still think that M's somewhat nervous query about a localized hurricane hitting our room was somewhat overblown.) I finished the first around 11 or so, then went back to sleep for about an hour and a half.

Out and about again around 12:30, I set to writing the second exam in the living room as J caught me up on the news and watched Skeleton Key, which is a regrettably mediocre movie. Og reemerged during an attempt to make coffee, but J successfully intervened and casualties were avoided. The second final took an age to write, partly because it was scheduled a week earlier than usual on account of the ASHG timing. Consequently, I'd gotten through very little in the way of genetics and was stuck asking scintillating questions like "What kind of plants did Mendel work with?" and "how many fingers did Robert Chambers have?"

By the time I finished it around 4 PM, I was completely ravenous and aware of the fact that I really, REALLY needed a shower. The professor kindly took my laptop into an area with public WiFi (the net access in our first room was fucked) and sent off the exams for printing while I addressed the latter issue so that we, as a group, could address the former.

An aside that only worked out to be funny because of the timing of me finding out: They kept promising that the net problem would be solved shortly; ultimately we had to move to a new suite. When I checked my e-mail there on Wednesday, I got a "could not deliver for four hours" message from the mail with the exams. By then, though, I figured that someone would have called me on Tuesday if things had gone completely tits up.

Anyhooo, just as I finished the exam, M arrived, and shortly thereafter AMB and KJ made their presence known. We obtained AKS and headed for the convention center to obtain our nerd guides, etc. Nerd badges had previously been delivered to our homes. These have convenient bar codes on them, so you might think that they could do something like, oh, I don't know, scan them to determine whether one had picked up one's program guide and Official Bag of the Hag. Nah, not the Hag. At the Hag, one was supposed to realize that there was one square on the sheet of labels that acted as one's ticket for such things. Of course, all the other squares said VOID . . . In any case, none of the three of us had the magical combination of items to obtain a full complement of schwag. Me, I got asked if I really needed the program guide by the uberhelpful drone.

We had already serendipitously run into the vacationers in our party outside the convention center, and we turned our attention to food. Although our original destination had been the Crescent City Brewhouse, we first came across Gordon Biersch. We were so starved and AKS feet were in such a bad way that we descended upon the place, cawing. The garlic fries were good, as was the dip. There was wailing and gnashing of teeth when the special sausage platter was unavailable. The beer was . . . weird. The dark beer tasted watery. Even the Märzen wasn't up to its usual standards, although my pivo was good. Ultimately, though, it was just a Gordon Biersch, and we were in New Orleans.

After refueling we made our way to Canal and decided to ease into the French Quarter by hanging at the Pelican Bar at the Sheraton where we held court the night before our wedding. J and AKS . Service at the bar was our first real look at the weirdness that is the service industry in New Orleans at the moment.

Every single business in the Quarter has "Help Wanted" signs up. The demographics of wait staff, clerks, etc., have shifted noticeably, and often it's clear that there's high turnover and a certain tentative, transient feeling about employment. (That shouldn't be construed as a slam on those in the service industry at all. We never had bad service. We often had . . . weird . . . service.) In any case, our party was incomplete when we sat down, as J and AKS had returned to change the latter's shoes (um, you understand she needed company, not help). The four of us got our first round successfully, in spite of some confusion regarding the vodka-y or gin-y nature of Tom Collins (further data collected on this issue seems to support string theory at least with regard to cocktails, their contents, and their glassware).

When were 6, we could not attract the attention of a server for love nor money. When we did, he seemed to be some kind of . . . understudy . . . or something. We assured our waitress (who'd been slammed with a few large parties of folks attending an Avaya conference) that someone had already taken our order. About 10 minutes later, the understudy returned and asked for additional information in strangely hushed tones. The main server arrived and seemed irritated by this. Another 15 minutes passed and J did some recon. The bar was another source of trouble, but again our waitress seemed to be advocating for our lubrication. Still, it was another 10 minutes before they began to arrive, piecemeal. Subsequent rounds were fine, though it turned out that at least 2 of us were unaware that our tasty champagne/pomegranate liqueur drinks were $15/piece. The bar bill was bracing, to say the least.

After a stop for Blistex at the Everything Shoppe at the End of the Universe, we continued on down Bourbon street, obtaining the mandatory frozen slurpee drinks (and apparently mandatory free shots to go with them) as we went along. We walked along past Maison Bourbon finishing our drinks, then made our way back to monopolize their nonsmoking section and hear the set. AKS and I split a Tiger by the Tail (which made our server cranky with us; fair enough, I was being obtuse and should've ordered a diet coke for us to share as well to save her any hassle with The Man as the cover was folded into drink prices), having learned our lessons the night before.

Jamil Shrif was on trumpet, once again, but he was missing his Jazz-Man-to-White translator on clarinet. He'd been replaced by a guy on both sax and clarinet, plus an awesome stride piano player. My grandfather was also no longer on drums and had been replaced by a young hipster who—and I am not making this up—seemed occasionally to be napping on a snare during the set. The bass player seems to have made it through the night, but one does wonder if Shrif is living on the tonalli of his fellow jazz men.

After the set, we were all winding down, so we made our way back to the warehouse district and our respective hotels. I, for one, slept like the dead.

I hadn't set an alarm on the grounds that J was likely to be up and about for the early sessions. I would have sworn that I heard just that around 7 AM. Og sprang from bed and into the shower. Shortly before 8, sie was clothed respectably enough to present a poster and ready to go. When sie opened the door, however, sie realized that the Professor was, in fact, still abed (leading hir to wonder fleetingly who had been in the shower). That was soon remedied, and we two hit the breakfast buffet, which was filling enough, but not terribly exciting. Worse still, the freaking coffee urns were empty, which makes Og smash. J herded hir out to the terrace, though and later did obtain the banishing juice.

We headed down to the convention center for several highly disappointing talks. (There's nothing like hauling your ass out of bed for an evidence-based medicine session only to have each of the speakers begin by saying "I don't really know much about evidence-based medicine . . ." Yes, I can see why our session wasn't chosen.) After concluding that things were unlikely to get any better, we headed for the Starbucks for something approximating real coffee and to check e-mail.

After these sessions, we were free until the poster sessions at 4:30 PM. We headed back to the room to check on the status of AKS. Unfortunately, she was still asleep, and M had just finished lunch and needed to return to the public wifi areas to work. KJ and AMB were up for food, though. We joined them at their hotel and meandered Quarterward in search of lunch.

As we were passing a place called "Cafe Orleans," Leon Redbone urged us to give it a try. (Seriously, white fedora, sunglasses, gnatty hair and facial hair. Smoking in the doorway of the open-air dining room, which proudly advertised its nonsmoking status.) I was starving but kept trying to recall that we were Brigtsen's bound that night. So despite the fact that I was yearning for the taste of New Orleans, I limited myself to the red beans and rice. Others sampled the Po Boy offerings, a shrimp basket, and the fish special.

The weirdness that began at the door continued inside. The waiter/owner/manager person was oddly lackadaisical about taking our order and seemed to take umbrage when we asked about the price of the fish special, telling us that we needed to remember that we were in New Orleans it might cost a bit more, but the seafood was going to be outstanding. We're totally on board, dude. It was just a question.

There was also some oddness about the drinks. First, my diet and J's regular Coke (Pepsi, as it sadly turned out) got switched. Later, the drinks waiter (a young, silent Black guy) was trying to be helpful by refilling KJ's iced tea and even more helpful by refilling J's, which was, of course, Pepsi. When the W/O/M person returned, he asked where the Pepsi had gone. We explained and said that a replacement was on the way. Absolutely stonefaced, the W/O/M said, "You're kidding me" in a tone that suggested our drinks dude was not long for this world. We all tried to assure him that it was no big deal, but he stalked off, leaving us to worry for the drink guy's life.

About a second and a half after they delivered the boys' desserts, 80s music started blaring from the other half of the dining room. I mean BLARING. And the the W/O/M person was there, completely bustin' a move. Have I mentioned that I had only a diet coke and coffee? And that everyone else saw this, too? I guess it was their way of politely informing us that they were closing in between lunch and dinner. And yet, when we walked by even later in the day later in the week, other patrons were lingering over their coffee. Maybe they didn't like my David Byrne Big Suit jacket and they agreed with me on the Pants Remorse front.

During lunch AKS had called, so J picked up a giant coffee for her and cabbed back to our hotel. The rest of us headed for the 9 West outlet on canal, I for potential boots, AMB for a potential purse, KJ for moral support. I was unsuccessful, but my compatriots hit pursedirt (um . . . that sounds wrong).

The time for posterage was growing nigh, so I walked back to the hotel in the hopes of meeting up with the other members of Team Turtleneck. They were enjoying a drink at the Renaissance Bar, so I headed to schwag town on my own, finally obtained by program book, and scored the last conference bag known to nerd. I then took up my station by my poster and tried hard not to seek out the myriad of errors that I felt sure were in the poster courtesy of my sleep-deprived brain.

Soon I was not fixating on my own shortcomings, but trying not to cackle over the irony that I was between two NCBI posters. The Not-Cackling Agenda became even more challenging when the vast majority of the people who stopped by (and I'm glad to say I had a lot) to chat about the research were, themselves, NIH researchers who had a gratifying appreciation for the research approach, the sheer amount of work it took to do it, and the fact that the NCBI site seems specifically designed to keep people from getting at the data. Among the stoppers by was J, Jr., who is J's former student; he was with us in LA. I had spied him from a distance, but because he is the direct-from-factory minion (at least appearance-wise), I was not sure. However, 'twas him, and it was nice to catch up with him.

The two hours of the session went pretty quickly, despite the fact that my feet were complaining pretty loudly about standing on the concrete for so long, (I know why the carpet runners end just outside where the presenters will be standing, but my feet don't get it.) Back at the hotel, it was time for a quick change into girly clothes appropriate to Brigtsen's. But that's a story that deserves to be above the fold, so I'll pick up with it in my next.

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