Brake lights on Bourbon St.

New Orleans - a travelogue

Girl outside restaurant The Society for Neuroscience organizes a giant meeting (~ 25,000 people) every year. Most people from our lab, and our department go to these. This is the story of my trip to the 2000 meeting, in New Orleans.

Here is a one word summary of my trip: YUM.

The food was incredible. Awesome. Words fail to describe how I feel about the food there. I had more and better food per unit time than I have ever had in my entire life. If I ever want to eclipse the record, it will take a stellar effort. And it will probably have to be in New Orleans. The city celebrates food like no other place I've ever been to. I haven't been to France or Italy but if it is anything like this I can hardly wait. When people think of New Orleans they think of Bourbon St., Mardi Gras, jazz, and the like. I think of beignets, po'boys, muffulettas, barbeque shrimp, bread pudding, étoufée... you get the idea. But I'm getting ahead of my story.

I arrived late in the night on Saturday, November 4th, and that night we didn't do that much: just went to a bar, and after that, to a late night truck stop, where we basically had po'boys (heavy sandwiches) and bread pudding. A tame beginning to the trip.

Decatur street 1 The next day, I registered at the conference, attended a few posters and talks, and then Cliff and I moved to the hotel where we stayed for the trip: Le Richelieu, in the quiet part of the French quarter. It is named after Armand-Jean du Plessis, Duke and Cardinal de Richelieu, powerful prime minister of Louis XIII and the acknowledged architect of France's greatness in the 17th century.

We had dinner reservations for most of our nights in New Orleans, and that night I went to have dinner with Josh, the newest member of our group, and two of his friends. The place we chose was called Irene's Cuisine, a cosy Italian-Creole eatery on the corner of Chartres and St. Philip.

Josh came by at about 7pm, along with Philip and Jen. Irene's doesn't take reservations, and there was a two hour wait to get a table. Being the patient type, we put our name down, and decided to spend two hours walking the streets of the French quarter.

Ambling along, we came up on Bourbon St., the quintessential tourist destination, which was as lively as always. I'm never quite clear what all the tourists are doing there, but I don't think they are either.

Empty bar Ice cold draft Desire -- an oyster bar

We had fake hurricanes from an empty bar (like the one in the photo above). A real hurricane causes serious impairment of cognitive and motor functioning within a few gulps. The hurricanes we had were more along the lines of a Shirley Temple. But getting drunk was not high on our list, so we didn't mind.

To get into the swing of things N'awlins style, we had oysters at Desire (shown in the picture above). They were pretty good, although I would recommend Acme far more (see below).

Dinner in the french quarter By the time we got back to Irene's, it was almost 9pm, and our table was ready. The meal that followed was absolutely stunning. Irene dePietro's grandmother had a four-table restaurant in Catania, Italy, and Irene also picked up a thing or two in the French cooking schools. The sweet potato soup was spectacular, the paneed oysters were great, the soft-shell crabs were succulent. And the bread pudding was the best I had during the entire trip: with ice cream and carmelized bananas on the side. My mouth waters just thinking about it. Grandma is surely smiling from above.

The conversation was pretty interesting as well. It turns out that Philip and Jen, Josh's friends who were dining with us, had met in New Orleans at Harry's Korner, one block away from Irene's, during the Neuroscience meeting three years ago. Later on I learned that two nights after this one they went back to Harry's Korner and got engaged.

Dressed up man on Decatur St This was the cheapest dinner I had during the entire trip (about $30 per person, including wine). Irene's opens at 5:30pm and closes at about 11pm. My next trip to New Orleans will find me waiting to get in at 5:30pm on the first day. Definitely.

The next day, I had lunch at Palace Café with my friends from UGA, Mark Wilson and Raj Rao. It is owned by the famed Brennan family, which owns a host of excellent restaurants in New Orleans. Palace Café is one of the not-so-formal restaurants they own. But that's still plenty formal for us t-shirt and jeans types. We caught up on what we's been up to since our days in Athens; the food was as scintillating as the conversation. The crabmeat cheesecakes were to die for, and the turtle soup was exquisite.

In the afternoon, I took a brief walk around the French quarter and took a few pictures.

Man reading in Jackson Square Man on truck

Musicians in Jackson square Tap

In Jackson Square, I saw a some musicians performing popular tunes, taking requests (in photo above). They performed my request, "It's a wonderful world" by Louis Armstrong, with great zest, and a few people from the audience even joined in the performance (yours truly included). Life was good.

Lafittes Before dinner, Andre, Cliff and I went to a bar called Jean Lafitte's Blacksmith shop, located in a rustic 18th century cottage -- one of the few remaining original "French architecture" structures in the French quarter. The bar is named after one of its owners, Jean Lafitte, who was the co-hero of the battle of New Orleans, and whose treasure is rumored to be buried in everyone's backyard. The blacksmith shop was a legitimate front for the business he and his brother ran.

Regardless of history, the bar is on a very quiet part of Bourbon St. -- you scarcely realize that you're even on the noisiest street in New Orleans. For that reason, it is very popular with the locals and tourists alike.

That evening, my great friend Juan Carlos had invited us to a party organized by Nature to launch their new reviews journals. The party featured, among other things, palmists and tarot card readers. I was very keen to find out my fortune (I'm always curious to find out my fortune), but so were many many other people, and we got to the party kind-of late, so my turn in line never came. Ah well. Next time.

Witch dolls display Dinner that night was at Nola, celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse's techno-punk French Quarter outpost. Despite all the brouhaha in the reviews, I have to say, the food was disappointing. The turtle soup was far better at Palace Café, and the duck was nothing spectacular. Mind you, the food was OK, there was nothing actually wrong with it, but during that trip, where eating varied from the stellar to the sublime, OK food was just not acceptable. And at $75 per person, it was also the most expensive meal I'd ever had in my life. Would I go to Nola again? Probably not.

The next day was more science heavy. I attended several poster and slide shows, and a couple of the big talks. For those of you who were beginning to get convinced that I never even went to the conference at all and spent all my time in the streets taking photos, here are some photos of the convention itself. They were taken with the camera on a tripod, so the people who were moving appear blurred. I was looking for this effect, especially in the mighty mouse picture, where the mouse is the only thing clearly visible. All the many many people that walked past the mouse have simply disappeared, leaving only hazy trails behind.

SFN meeting, poster session The almighty mouse Relaxing at the SFN meeting

Lunch was at Acme Oyster bar, where the Oysters were great, the Po'boy was great, and the boiled crawfish was better than great. An all-round great (and inexpensive) place to eat.

That evening, as I was walking around, these wiener carts caught my eye, and I was instantly taken back to my reading of Ignatius Reilly's marvelous madcap adventures in The Confederacy of Dunces.

Wiener carts

As a bonafide photography nerd, I'm never found on any photographic expedition without a tripod. My friends all smile when they see me on the street, and then look away immediately, pretending not to know me. But they use the moby on-camera flash and take bad pictures, so I don't care. On this trip, I wanted to see what would happen if I took really long exposures (30 seconds, or one minute) on Bourbon St. Here is what happens: people disappear. The only thing that remains are the buildings and the lights. And the people that stood very still during the whole exposure. In the first picture, it seems as though Bourbon St., which is always teeming with the masses, was curiously empty. Towards the right, there are a few hazes where people had moved. The exposure times for the second and third pictures were not that long, so people are more visible. Also, the car whose lights are seen in the third picture is itself not seen. And this is for the panorama fans out there. APS users with those fake panorama modes, eat your heart out.

Bourbon wide 1

Bourbon wide 2

Bourbon wide 3

And here are a few digitally rendered versions of still more long exposures:

Bourbon night 1 Bourbon night 2

Brake lights on Bourbon St.

Dinner that night was at Mr. B's Bistro, another Brennan family restaurant, which was absolutely excellent. My shrimp appetizer was great, and the fish entré was delectable. The bread pudding was good, but couldn't hold a candle to the one we had at Irene's a couple of nights ago.

Jackson square 1 A couple of pictures of Jackson Square looking at St. Louis Cathedral, one taken on a day with clouds, one on a day without. Jackson square 2

On Wednesday, I had hot chocolate and beignets at Cafe Du Monde, and found out just what the fuss with these beignets is all about: trust me, it's worth it. Doughnuts were never this good. Lunch was a genuine muffuletta from Central Grocery, and once again, it was clear why people rave about it left right and center. They really are that good. I don't particularly like olives, but these were still excellent. (Reminder to self: find out if Central Grocery ships to New York.) Also, I spent some time doing what I always wanted to do: sit along the river, relaxing, and watching the barges and paddle wheelers roll along.

Cannon, looking up towards Jackson Square Motorcycle 2

On the previous day, while taking those long exposures on Bourbon Street, it occured to me that it would be nice to take really short exposures; of the normal kind, to take pictures of random people walking past. But the most important part of taking good pictures (especially by relatively novice photographers like me) is to not ever use the flash.

Flash was invented by the devil. That's all there is to it. I've seen more good photo opportunities ruined by the flash than by all other factors combined. Looking at a picture taken with a flash, you get no sense of the lighting, the ambience whatsoever. All one sees is the person being photographed, with the deer-in-headlights look.

To take pictures without a flash at night, one needs high speed film. Really high speed. So the next day, I found a camera store; the highest speed film they had was 1600 ASA; I got a couple of rolls. I also put on a fast 1.4 lens on my camera, and took a bunch of pictures (while pushing the film to 3200): some of them I've already put on this page above, the others are below. Some are better than others, but they all capture a sense of what it was like to actually be there.

Man on Bourbon St. Sho bar

Bourbon burlesque Jazz bar Walking figure

Gator shop Psychic palm reading

And here is something I'm really proud of; genuine creativity. While loading slow speed slide film into my camera, I wondered what it would be like to open the shutter and shake the camera up and down, and to the side. Only the lights would be visible, and everything else would be black for lack of exposure. Here are the results of that experiment: All of these exposures are about 3-4 seconds long.

Light pattern 2 Light pattern 1 Light pattern 3

Most of my friends who I spoke to before going said: "Man, New Orleans sucks. It is highly overrated. There is no good food. No good music. No anything. Just a load of hype." They could not be more wrong. I don't know about the other things, but it was very apparent why people get burned in the food department: it is very easy to find touristy, bad food in the French quarter if you haven't done your research about where to eat before-hand. There are no end of establishments catering to clueless people (defined as people who have to look at menus before entering a restaurant).

Looking at menu 1 Looking at menu 2

Our last dinner for the trip was at Bayona, and Susan Spicer's delectable cooking was the perfect end to the trip. As the waiter explained, Susan is a chemist, so she experiments with traditional ingredients in non-traditional ways (ergo, the smoked duck, cashew butter and pepper jelly sandwich). The food was so good it was even better than Irene's (but only just so). The grilled shrimp appetizer I had for appetizer was really the best thing I ate on the entire trip -- which is saying a lot, given all the excellent food I ate. And the rabbit was extraordinary as well. Everyone was very very satisfied.

That evening, we went to see some great brass band music right close to our hotel. When the band stopped playing at about 1:30am, we took a taxicab ride out way uptown to find a music venue which Cliff remembered from way back in his childhood. That place was closed, bolted and boarded shut. The owners had permanently relocated for the night. But the taxi driver's jokes and innuendos all through the trip and back made it worth the ride.

That is New Orleans to me. Every little thing about it is great. I can't wait to go back.