The Magic of New OrleansMarch 17, 2014
Gavin McOwan, The Guardian, March 17, 2014
It's unusually cold and wet on my first evening in New Orleans. In the gathering dark I'm lost and just a little scared as I cycle around the empty streets of the rundown Tremé district, looking for the Candlelight Lounge. Finally I see a man carrying a bass drum into a small building and realise I've found the legendary music club. I follow him in and within two minutes my fears are blown away by The Abney Effect, a funky jazz band led by trumpeter Mario Abney, who are – if you'll excuse the jazz speak – ripping the joint up.
I'm here to meet Bob ("I'll be the guy in the white hat"), leader of the It's All About The Music bike ride, a Facebook group that meets on Tuesday nights to tours gigs all over the city. Bob, who moonlights as DJ Old Man River on New Orleans' WWOZ radio station, tells me to grab a bowl of crab gumbo, laid on free to all tonight's customers.
I've barely had a spoonful of the spicy Cajun soup before the smiling waitress pulls me to my feet. "Gotta come dance, baby! I got your partner right here," she says, leading me towards an unsuspecting woman. Like most Englishmen, I need a healthy intake of alcohol before joining in with such merriment (it's not even 6pm) but the band is so damn funky my feet start dancing all by themselves.
I'm keen to stay for the second set but Bob says it's time to meet the rest of the group of cyclists in Congo Square (the birthplace of jazz) in Louis Armstrong Park. Tonight's gathering is smaller than usual because of the rain, but thanks to the sound system strapped to Bob's bike and the case of beer on the back of someone else's, we've got a little party on wheels going on. And everyone is so friendly I already feel like one of the gang. (Anyone with a bicycle is welcome to ride with the group, and there's no charge.)
Our next stop is an acoustic set by indie-folk band Hurray for the Riff Raff at Euclid Records, a shop next to the levee on the corner of Desire Street – immortalised by Tennessee Williams' Streetcar – in the Bywater neighbourhood.
The store is packed with rare and affordable vinyl, and young hipsters who have come to hear one of the city's most talked-about new bands. It's so full I can't even see them, but within minutes the soulful bewitching voice of singer- songwriter Alynda Lee Segarra has me close to tears. (And by the end of the week, after I've begged for a ticket to her sold-out show, bought the new CD and the concert poster, I realise I'm smitten.)
As we head to our last gig of the night on Frenchmen Street, the rain is so heavy it feels like we're cycling through a Louisiana swamp – and I'm loving it. We pay the $5 charge (the first of the evening) and pile into the DBA club to catch the legendary Tremé Brass Band bang out jazz standards. The set is not as fresh as the first two acts we've seen but – like everyone else in this town it seems – man, can they play. By the end of the night I'm drunk, soaked to the skin and already head over heels for New Orleans.
In one night I've seen a large swath of this compact, bikeable city, visiting three neighbourhoods that represent its past, present and future. Tremé was not only the birthplace of jazz but is the oldest African-American neighbourhood in the U.S., where free people of colour worked and owned property decades before the end of slavery. Sadly the Candlelight Lounge is the last remaining club in a once-thriving musical neighbourhood. The Frenchmen Street area east of here (not to be confused with the touristy French Quarter) is the jumping musical heart of the city right now. On any night of the week you'll find world-class jazz, blues and funk for $10 or less at clubs such as Snug Harbor, the Spotted Cat and the Blue Nile – some of the best musicians have weekly residencies. Further east again, the Bywater is the neighbourhood most synonymous with post-Katrina gentrification.
Of course, there's nothing new about falling in love with New Orleans. Its easy charm and magical mix of cultures have been beguiling visitors almost since the day the French founded it in 1718. But post-Katrina (a phrase that is now part of the lexicon), a new wave of outsiders have been seduced by the city, while New Orleanians, many of whom were forced to live in exile for months or even years, have come to love and appreciate it more than ever – like getting a second chance with a beautiful lover you've taken for granted all those years.
This city has always been a magnet for artists, musicians and writers, but its pull now seems stronger than ever. Among the many who have recently brought properties in the Bywater, a virtual no-go area pre-Katrina, are model and pop star Solange Knowles (Beyoncé's little sister). Thanks to tax breaks the state of Louisiana is now an attractive alternative to Hollywood and some film-makers, including Court 13, the collective that made Beasts of the Southern Wild, about a Mississippi delta community cut off by a levee, relocated here permanently. Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt (a genuine local hero after pumping millions of dollars of his own money into a rebuilding programme) have a house in the French Quarter.
According to some locals, including Bob, who has lived in Louisiana nearly all his life, there is a flipside to this: "I had to leave the Bywater because so many hipsters are too cool to say good morning – and that ain't the New Orleans way [expletives deleted, most of them prefixing the word hipster]."
There's a much-quoted story about a New Yorker suing a New Orleans restaurant because his gumbo was too spicy. This was actually an internet hoax, but to me places like the Satsuma Cafe, Bywater's hipster hub, serving kale juice and organic soups, do feel more like Brooklyn or Shoreditch than New Orleans.
But there is no denying that the city has been re-energised and cleaned up. The week I'm there, Ray Nagin, the mayor during Katrina, is found guilty on 20 counts of bribery and corruption. As Bob puts it: "While this city was on its knees after the hurricane, that [multiple expletive] was sitting on his ass in the Caribbean on a holiday paid for by kickbacks." Nagin was the first New Orleans mayor to stand trial for public corruption, so the decision was a real landmark.
One sector benefiting from the revival is the restaurant trade. This corner of Louisiana is home to the only cuisine truly born in the U.S. – a rich mix of rustic Cajun, sophisticated Creole (itself a blend of French, Spanish, German and Italian), Caribbean and African influences. Mark Twain said: "New Orleans food is as delicious as the less criminal forms of sin", and the city has always been proud of its culinary history. There are now more restaurants than ever, even though the population of the city is still not back to pre-Katrina levels. Donald Link, one of the city's leading chefs, tells me: "They have fantastic restaurants in New York, Chicago and San Francisco, but if you closed your eyes you might not know which of those cities you were eating in."
You could never say that about New Orleanian cuisine, which is clearly one Link thinks is worth fighting for. When Katrina struck he was in the process of setting up two new restaurants, and friends advised him to take the insurance money and run. He did the opposite, forging a security pass so he could return to the city only a week after the hurricane, when the place was still deserted, and start rebuilding.
Since then he hasn't looked back, now owning five restaurants, including Cochon in the Warehouse District, which serves sophisticated versions of the southern-Cajun dishes he grew up with. Cochon (which in Louisiana means roast pork: they serve it with cabbage and plenty of crackling) specialises in nose-to-tail pig dishes, including Link's signature spicy sausages. For one of the best restaurants in town it is pleasingly down to earth – the music loud, prices fairly reasonable. If you can't get a table, the annex, Cochon Butcher, is a "swine bar and deli", offering sandwiches of pork belly, oyster and bacon or the fantastic muffuletta. The latter is a sarnie invented by Italian immigrants to New Orleans: layered with mortadella, salami, mozzarella, ham and provolone, it will do you in for the day. Yes, it's all about the hog here, but the cooking is so good they even make Brussels sprouts taste sexy – flash-fried and dressed with olive oil and red chilli.
Like many people I speak to, Link is adamant that the city is in much better shape than before Katrina. "You've heard of the Big Easy?" he says. "Well a lot of that is just bullshit that stood for corruption and laziness. That's changing now, partly because people are bringing a new energy with them."
One New Orleans native who did just that is Neal Bodenheimer. While many people were forced to leave the city to rebuild their lives after Katrina, Bodenheimer, a mixologist who had been working at high-end bars in New York, felt a call to return and do his bit for his devastated hometown.
With two associates, he opened the Cure cocktail bar on Freret Street in Uptown, in 2009. Every bar in New Orleans does cocktails – there's even an annual cocktail festival attended by bartenders from around the world – but until Cure there was nowhere that applied such microscopic attention to detail (one of the barmen even has a cocktail manifesto). The Ramos gin fizz I tried was like boozy lime soufflé, so delicious I scraped the glass clean with my finger to finish off the creamy whipped egg white.
Cure is housed in a beautiful former fire station with exposed brick walls and an entire back wall lined with hundreds of bottles of all shapes and colours, backlit and rising towards the high ceiling like an altar to drinking. When the bar opened, the surrounding area had almost been abandoned.
"People said we were a little crazy to open here but it was the only place we could afford," says Bodenheimer. The leap of faith has proved successful and Freret Street is today buzzing with restaurants and businesses, thanks largely to Cure's pioneering success.
The owners have just opened a restaurant, Cane and Table, in a dilapidated, atmospheric building in the French Quarter, which specialises in rum (obviously there are cocktails) and Caribbean-inspired sharing plates. It's sophisticated drinking food really, and as I'm several cocktails in to the evening when I arrive, dishes like the yummy crispy rum ribs, coated in rice flour and fried, really hit the spot.
Some of the best food I eat is at Sylvain, in an 18th-century carriage house and former brothel in the French Quarter. The owner pays homage to the old, mystical New Orleans: each night the bartender leaves out a glass of sazerac, the city's signature cocktail, and lights a candle for Aunt Rose Arnold, the former madame who is said to haunt the building.
And while the food is rooted in the Cajun and Creole tradition, it comes with a modern twist. Veal sweetbreads melt in the mouth like warm butter, beef cheeks are just as tender, and the Gulf of Mexico prawns are as juicy as fresh fruit. And like everything I eat here, it is deliciously rich, and the there's no holding back on spices and seasoning – or the volume level.
They don't do background music in New Orleans; they do foreground music. Even in my classy, old-school hotel, the Bourbon Orleans, the music playing over breakfast (fried oysters or steak and eggs with shrimp sauce) is a notch or two louder than you'd expect, and it's proper pumping bebop rather than elevator jazz. And even in such grand surroundings there's a wonderful informality. As the hotel has no garage, I'm worried about where I can leave my bike at night, but the staff tell me to wheel it through the white marble lobby, with its sparkling chandeliers, to my room – as if it's the most natural thing in the world. I could't see that happening in London or New York.
Hiring a bike for the week was a great decision. The city is flat and small enough to cycle across in a day. I got mine, a single-speed, funky black cruiser with chunky whitewall tyres and chrome and red trim, from the American Bicycle Rental Company (+1 504 324 8257, bikerentalneworleans.com, $36 a day or $165 a week). The company also runs guided historical bike tours , which are a great way to learn about the city as you can see so much on a gentle three-hour ride.
My man Bob also leads cycle tours of the city (bigeasybiketours.com), and though I didn't get the chance to take one, on my last day in town he takes me on a ride down to the Lower Ninth Ward. This is the poor neighbourhood that was devastated by Katrina, where the harrowing images beamed around the world of people stranded for days on their roofs were taken, and where many properties still lie abandoned.
Most people told me to stay clear of the area but on this Sunday morning it's a carnival, with half the neighbourhood out on the street to see the CTC Steppers Parade and their marching band warming up for Mardi Gras. We park our bikes and join the crowd almost running alongside them (the band really does quick march) down the main drag lined with barbecue trucks and beer sellers. With everyone dancing and having such a good time it's impossible to imagine the horrors seen here less than a decade ago. Today, like every day I've spent in this magical city, it feels like the air is filled with joy.
• The trip was provided by America As You Like (020-8742 8299, americaasyoulikeit.com), which offers seven nights in New Orleans from £1,195pp or four nights from £930, including accommodation and flights with United Airlines. Doubles at the Hotel Bourbon Orleans (+1 504 523 2222, bourbonorleans.com) from $179 room-only, and at the Hotel Le Marais (+1 504 525 2300, hotellemarais.com) from $179 B&B. For visitor information see neworleanscvb.com and DiscoverAmerica.com. For New Orleans music listings, and to tune in to the city, check out the WWOZ radio station
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk