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Columns > John Zinkand - Improvise

Published: 2010/05/19
by John Zinkand

Jazz Fest: The Setting, The Food, The Music

The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is simply one of the best damn music festivals in the world. If not the best. I was lucky enough to attend the second weekend this year from Wednesday, April 28th through Monday, May 3rd. The last time attending was back in 2002, so I was extremely happy to be back. The Jazzfest with its backdrop city of New Orleans has all the right elements that add up to greatness. History is palpable here as you walk past the unique architecture with Spanish style wrought iron balconies. Music oozes out onto the streets, reminding you this is the city that gave birth to jazz. There’s music in the streets in the form of brass bands and parades, all the clubs and bars are filled with bands playing music all night long, and of course the festival itself holds almost too much music for a mere mortal to comprehend; eleven stages of music beginning around 11:00am and playing until 7:00pm each day of the event. And of course a main attraction to this wonderful place is the incredibly delicious regional cuisine. New Orleans is home to world-renown chefs and gourmet restaurants as well as down home Cajun cooking and barbecue. One of the best parts of the festival itself is the food available. With over 60 booths run by local restaurants offering up servings of their signature dishes, the sheer variety is almost overwhelming. When you combine the wonderful setting, the delicious food, and the incredible music available in New Orleans during the Jazz and Heritage Festival, you get one seriously kick ass experience.

The Setting

Jazzfest feels like the music fan Mecca. You feel it as soon as you are on the plane and find out you are sitting next to other serious music fans that are just as pumped as you to be heading to the festival. This year I wound up sitting next to a musician and music fan from San Francisco on the plane and we even found we had some mutual acquaintances. The guy in the seat in front of us started talking, too, and we shared a cab from the airport to save a few bucks and chatted about music and New Orleans the entire ride. Most people attending have been here before or at least have a deep understanding and respect for the city and the event. If there is a “major league” of music fans concentrated anywhere, this is it.

New Orleans is the perfect place to hold this event. The city drips with history and is the birthplace of jazz. But blues, folk, and gospel all are significant in the history of the south and of New Orleans. The Mississippi River looms large and important both as the town’s lifeblood and potential cause of danger. It’s easy to imagine the massive river teeming with steamboats like not so many years ago. The party never stops in the famous French Quarter and on infamous Bourbon St. Plenty of culture in the form of museums and historical landmarks for the historically curious traveler are available here, as well. Shockwaves from the terrible tragedy of Katrina can still be seen and felt, but the wounded city is hopeful, beautiful, and healing.

The scene over at the fairgrounds of the Jazz and Heritage Festival is an incredible atmosphere in and of itself. During events like the Jazzfest, cab rides to and from cost only a very affordable five dollars per person, so it is usually the transportation mode of choice. Once dropped off within a few blocks of an entrance, get your ticket scanned and walk through the gate into an immense festival wonderland filled with music, food, sights, and sounds. The stages, music tents, food booths, craft booths, and sea of people almost completely fill the huge race track that is the festival grounds. With the two main stages at opposite ends and the other stages sprinkled around and the music tents off to one side, it’s set up about as perfectly as possible. Mix in the two main food areas and other booths for crafts, sundries, first aid, etc and it’s obvious this festival is well-established and runs like a well-oiled machine. And talk about packed! We thought it was crowded on Thursday and Friday, but on Saturday and Sunday the place was completely insane. During Pearl Jam the main stage area was a chaotic swirling sea of densely packed humanity. But everyone is so festive and in such a good mood, it doesn’t even really matter. Some people come in early and save space with their blankets or chairs. There are festive flags and banners on long poles flapping in the breeze here and there throughout the crowd. Parades drift by randomly. People are laughing and dancing. All types of people from all different backgrounds are here. There’s wonderful art. There’s relief from the heat in the form of misters and misting tents. This is one heck of a great music festival setting!

And to top it all off, this year I stayed in an apartment we rented in the Warehouse district with a bunch of old friends from high school who I’ve kept in touch with over the years. We try to get together at least once a year and have some fun, and Jazzfest made that an easy mission to accomplish this time around. We found an apartment within walking distance of the French Quarter, The Riverfront, many great restaurants, and the Howlin’ Wolf…to name a few. The apartment was beautiful, too! There was a little courtyard with a table, umbrella, seating and even a gas grill. Two floors contained multiple bedrooms, 2 full bathrooms (one newly remodeled with beautiful tile and glass), a full kitchen, flat screen TVs in multiple rooms, washer and dryer, and a dishwasher. Loaded. It was a really nice place and total score. The benefits like privacy, a relatively quiet neighborhood, a place to cook your own meals when needed (and hence, saving a little cash), access to laundry, and an outdoor area, made it far superior to my hotel experience in 2002.

We almost died in a cab where the driver was obviously having a no good, very bad day. Another cab driver belittled us for asking us to take us to the corner of Camp and Julia Streets saying those two streets did not intersect, yet they most certainly do intersect. A man tried to get us to come into his bar on Bourbon Street by loudly exclaiming that his drinks were the strongest around and that they served an Everclear slushy that would knock you on your ass. We stumbled upon a Big Gay Dance Circle on Bourbon Street, too, where a few guys were doing a dance showdown in the circle. While they were spirited in their attempts, their actual dancing skills left much to be desired. Then there was the random couple from New Jersey we met at a bar that looked like a carousel and actually slowly turned around in a circle. A woman at a restaurant let us know how funny she though it was that President Obama had come down to view the oil slick the previous day, but because it was storming so hard, he probably didn’t see a thing. Everywhere you turn in this amazing city it seems you are meeting a new, interesting, memorable, or savory character.

The Food

New Orleans is world famous for its amazing food. I succeeded in my plan to take full advantage of the tasty treats this town and festival had to offer. Although we did not make it to the better known places like Café Du Monde or Mother’s this time around, the food we sampled was incredibly delicious. Each day at the festival, we set aside a solid chunk of time to stroll by all the food booths, check out what people were eating, take in all the delicious smells, and sample a hearty share of what was available. With this much incredible regional cuisine available within such close vicinity of one another, it feels like you’re a kid in the candy store. The only thing holding me back was how much food my belly could hold (and how much extremely rich and fried food I wanted to risk eating in one day).

Each day we stalked the booths and there were no repeats. On Thursday I sampled such delicacies as a softshell crab po-boy, collared greens, and crawfish and crab stuffed mushrooms. The tender softshell crab was fried to a golden brown perfection, the greens were well-seasoned and flavorful, and the stuffed mushrooms were spicy little fried balls of seafood goodness. Friday brought another round of tasting which included items like crawfish pie, crawfish monica, creole stuffed bread, corn on the cob, fried green tomatoes, and alligator sauce piquante. The pie was a sort of mini calzone filled with crawfish tails and rich seasonings, the crawfish monica was a spicy spiral mac and cheese with crawfish tails mixed in, and the stuffed bread was fried, piping hot, and filled with hearty meat and sausage. I was able to snag a few bites of my girlfriend’s fried green tomatoes which were crisp and delicious, as well as the very unique and surprisingly delicious alligator sauce piquante, which was a tomato-based stew similar to chili, but with no beans, slightly different seasoning, and stewed alligator meat instead of beef.

Satuday’s sampling included a cochon de lait po-boy, fried eggplant with crawfish sauce, a crawfish sack, an oyster patty, crawfish beignets, and chocolate covered strawberries. Cochon de lait’s literal translation is “pig in milk” and this po-boy was the cream of the crop. A layer of delicious cole slaw is ladled into the bun before a generous helping of tender pulled pork is layered on top of it. With a packet or two of hot sauce squeezed on top, this sandwich was over the top tastiness. The fried eggplant with delicious crawfish sauce was a great compliment to the po-boy, but we went in for even more that day and sampled a trio platter that included the crawfish sack, oyster patty, and crawfish beignets. The little fried batter sack filled with rich spices, cheese and crawfish tails was my favorite of the three, but the tender oyster inside the puff pastry and fried donut-like puffs filled with crawfish were none too shabby, either. A sweet and refreshing dessert of chocolate covered strawberries was the perfect ending to a satisfyingly bloated day. When I awoke on Sunday I claimed I would seek out a salad roll at the Vietnamese stand because I just couldn’t eat any more rich and spicy food at the booths again that day. How quickly things change. While we didn’t eat nearly the volume of the last day as the previous days, we still went with some tasty Cajun fare, this time in the form of crawfish bread and banana bread pudding. The crawfish bread was also incredible. Somewhat like a calzone, two large hunks of bread are heated up with a mixture of cheese, spicy sauce, and crawfish tails sandwiched between them. It was a warm, cheesy pocket of delectable goodness. The banana bread pudding to end the festival’s food offerings was wonderful…sweet, chewy, rich, and delicious!

There are plenty of ways to stay hydrated, as well. Buying a bottle of water from folks selling them from their coolers in the street is cheap and convenient. Factory-sealed water bottles are ok to bring into the festival, so we bought a bottle each day and then filled it up at the water fountain the rest of the day for basic hydration needs. However, there are also a number of other beverage options available inside. On tap they offered Miller Lite and Pilsner Urquell. They had Foster’s in cans, but it ran out by the last day. Thursday was the hottest day, and it was nice to pick up a frozen margarita that had a surprising amount of kick to it. And of course, there are some really good non-alcoholic options like herbal iced-teas and delicious strawberry lemonade.

And that’s only the food from the actual festival! The town itself is teeming with delicious options and tastes for every palate. While we did most of our eating at the festival itself, there were a few notable exceptions to that rule. On the last night, we walked to the Ugly Dog Saloon and Barbecue and ordered up some pulled pork and barbecued beef sandwiches. They were ready in minutes and while basic sandwiches, they were delicious and accompanied by unlimited amounts of a sweet and tasty barbecue sauce that you squeezed on at your table. Of course, having the full kitchen and grill at the apartment made making food ourselves a quick and easy convenience. My one buddy drove in from Houston, so he brought stuff to make breakfast every day and even dinner one night. We had bacon, eggs, chorizo, and English muffins each morning for breakfast in different variations, my favorite being the Cajun Chorizo and Bacon Benedict. One night we grilled up some choice steaks and shrimp on the grill and ate al fresco in the courtyard.

The crown jewel of all the food ingested, however, was at Restaurant August (www.restaurantaugust.com). John Besh is a well-know chef who has trained both in Louisiana and Europe, and who is rooted in the south. Dining at Restaurant August was an experience unlike any other I’ve had. To say it was fancy or fine dining is an understatement. When we arrived, we found that our friend’s business associate had already bought us two bottles of Oregon Pinot Noir to enjoy with our meal…how lovely! The restaurant itself was in an old and fairly unassuming building, but the inside was sleek and nice. Not overboard, but what one might expect in a nice restaurant…wood floors, white tablecloths, and fresh flowers. The menu looked pretty phenomenal with items such as foie gras, a beet salad with crab meat and cherry wood bacon, house-made gnocchi with truffle and blue crab, veal, beef, poultry, game, etc…but everything listed had unique combinations and seasonings that sounded delicious. There was also a five course tasting menu that looked incredible as well as the “degustation.”

We were informed that this last option, the degustation, is more like a three to four hour long fine dining event complete with seven courses coupled with wines. Due to its length and detail, everyone at the table is required to order the degustation, so that’s what we did. It was amazing. Words cannot describe the savory, melt in your mouth deliciousness that we experienced for close to four straight hours. Crawfish tails, butter, artichoke hearts, morels, veal, quail, bacon, greens, and sauces…all prepared on small dishes in tasting size portions, one after the other…and the wine kept coming, too. Our group of six was probably the most boisterous in the restaurant by the end of the meal, but we didn’t care. This was a very special treat and we would be enjoying it on our terms. And although we might have raised our volume level a bit, we were still treated cordially. The water glasses were refilled immediately and if you walked down the hall toward the bathroom, waiters and bus boys stopped in their tracks with backs against the wall, smiled, and let you pass before going on their way. Amazing service and amazing cuisine!

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