Getting Back to the Gulf:
What is a foodie trip without paying respect to one of America’s oldest and most awarded food cities? Deep inside the timeless labyrinth of alleyways and old oak trees, rests eateries, bars, streetcars, and a culture uniquely its own. New Orleans is a city of mystery, no matter how many times I return to it. As I stepped off the train and embraced the humid night air, I was excited to see what this round in the Big Easy had to offer as the dawn arose.
First up was Brennan’s for brunch. Opened in 1946 and operated by the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group, it is a testament to tradition. I was welcomed by both Marketing Director, Christina Persand and General Manager, Christian Pendleton. As we toured the private rooms, dining halls, and bar I could feel my stomach begging for a taste. Chef Kris was at the helm as soon as I entered the kitchen. True to brigade fashion, she was watching expo as the team worked in unison. Servers and bussers passing each other through the service doors as so many had before in the seven decade run of this historic restaurant.
Once it was time to tuck in, I was gifted a house-made Bloody Mary and Boudin Ball. Offered to regulars and VIPs as a token of affection, this was the Amuse-bouche to tip off a meal of decadence. The second course was of course, seafood file gumbo. Gulf shrimp, oysters, and Poché’s Andouille Sausage filled the classic dish alongside okra and basmati rice. As someone with a sweet spot for southern food, this was the best possible thing to put in my rail weary body. Piping hot and traditionally prepared, this dish harkened back to fond memories of visiting the city with my Mama and Nana as a child. Followed by Red Fish ala Mueniere and Crispy Shrimp Crepes Rebuchon, Chef Kris nearly put me in a coma. The escabeche and cilantro oil brightened up the Red Fish in a way I will not forget. The Crepes Rebuchon were something completely new to me – lightly wrapped, crisp, and playful.
After a long walk and a streetcar ride, it was time to meet up with my dearest friend Hannah Claire Still and her colleague Jim Clement. We had collaborated to throw an event celebrating their newest achievement, the soon to be opened Jimbeaux’s. A restaurant named in honor of Jim and Jim Senior, the team is reinventing classic flavors with support from Chef Tommy Stephens and Bar Manager Garland Hoover.
As Hannah and I took to the high tops for a planning session, Jim watched tentatively as the last of the maintenance team, beverage providers, and trainees lapped the bar finishing work needed to be ready to open. There’s a special nervous excitement in opening a new restaurant and my companions were embracing that feeling with a surprising amount of grace for a managerial team so young.
We finished menu planning and were ready for a little downtime at the Catahoula Hotel. Though the team there had been ravaged by Tales of the Cocktail and its seemingly infinite guest list the weekend before, they offered us what humble amenities they had in stock on a Monday after a NOLA throwdown. I was assured the following night they would be back on their A game and indeed they were.
My second day in the bayou offered me an opportunity to take a little time to go see my Nana and Pappy. Though I had to take a Greyhound Bus at dawn to get to Biloxi, Mississippi my grandmother was at the newly remodeled transit center with open arms and an enormous smile. We had a game plan and knew we were gonna pull off one of our classic morning feats. Breakfast and Second Breakfast.
First up was Le Bakery, a Vietnamese meets French bakery run by a local family it’s almost pains me to write about this and blow the secret. Affordable pastries ranging from savory breakfast bao to apricot jam stuffed croissants and everything in between were served by the matriarch of this fine establishment. As we climbed into the van and tried our best to not spill sugar crystals and laminated pastry flake Nana and I discussed the Gulf Coast Rail on our way to her home in Ocean Springs.
She is an active member of the Friendship Club and often plans day trips for their members as well as organize their fundraisers and charity drives. One of the things she wanted me to convey in this blog is how difficult it can be to plan the logistics of renting a charter bus for a group that large and how reinstatement of passenger rail through the gulf would drastically improve their ability to travel. Not everyone can climb the steps to get into a bus and there are few charter busses that offer a lift or ramp with their rentals. Considering the amount spent on a private bus for even a single day, that’s unacceptable.
She regaled me with tales of the rail back in the day and how it used to be possible to go from city bus to rail to streetcar with ease. It was possible to walk to the town center, and get to New Orleans without ever relying on a car. Why are we now denying accessibility to the gulf? Why is it that once again a southern town is left begging for services they so desperately need and once had?
As we crossed the new bridge into Ocean Springs, I reflected back to how during Hurricane Katrina, the old bridge had folded like a row of dominos, how the trees were stripped away and boats thrown chaotically into the harbor by one of the largest storms of my lifetime. I remember my extended family springing into action to help my grandparents salvage and rebuild before many elected officials had released a statement or offered a plan. My mother and a number of other medical professionals rushed into the flood zone to offer any support they could. Locals still lament the federal response to the natural disaster and the latency in receiving aid. Though there were trains that shuttled people out during the evacuation, most of the gulf is left without that safety net now as hurricanes and tropical storms are becoming more frequent.
Per the Southern Rail Commision, The Passenger Rail Reform and Investment Act of 2015 (HR 749), which was unanimously approved by the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee includes a provision (Section 306) to establish a FRA Gulf Coast Rail Service Working Group that will evaluate the restoration of intercity passenger rail service in the Gulf Coast region between New Orleans and Orlando. When I dug deeper into this proposed restoration and the Amtrak Report of Potential Gulf Coast Service Restoration Options, I found there is a massive potential ridership not being serviced. The projected figures, seem conservative in contrast to how ridership between New Orleans and Orlando could be marketed and incentivized. There are a multitude of local groups exclaiming how desperately they need the connectivity even minimal restoration would provide.
After reflecting on this historic storm I was thankful to be back in Ocean Springs. I was thankful there was an Ocean Springs to come back to. I’ve moved more than most people my age and this home has been a safe haven of consistency in my life. As Nana whipped the van into the gravel lot next to The Greenhouse on Porter, I was ready for comfort food. Nothing says comfort quite like a stuffed biscuit paired with quality coffee.
This is a place I can not recommend enough. If you visit Ocean Springs, you owe it to yourself to get a biscuit. With both a savory and sweet special everyday, this charming quirky shop is reminiscent of the old spirit of the artist’s colony that inspired what OS is today. Pennant banners listing the daily coffees, artwork, flyers and a friendly old cat welcomed us back into the converted greenhouse space once again. With the weather being balmy we decided to sit outside at the old retro patio tables scattered through the abundant lawn.
After a few day beers with my Pappy we took a trip over to Brady’s in Pascagoula, for late lunch. Brady’s a staple for the town and I was glad to see the doors still open and the fish specials in abundance. As we got the bill, Nana informed me that I would not be taking the bus back to New Orleans, she would take the van and stay the night with me at the Catahoula. Pappy was left at home to watch the dogs which he was more than content with as he’s not much of a city slicker.
As we trekked the interstate route seared into my memory from childhood, she agreed with me that it would have been a lot nicer to have gone by train and hoped that was something we could do in her lifetime. After a rooftop glass of Chardonnay, some late night chili noodles, and a bananas foster bao bun, we video chatted with my Mama and called it a night. She had to head back early and I had an event planned at Jimbeaux’s.
I rendezvoused with Hannah and Jim for breakfast at toast. We caffeinated, strategized and went into action. Hosting a number of writers, bloggers, and influencers we had our work cut out for us. As the night began, so did the rain. Jim and Chef Tommy brought us round after round of delicious snacks including red bean hummus, oysters flambeaux, debris tacos, and their signature steak. Garland matched them with drinks ranging from suspended caviar drop ins to CBD infused mocktails to toasted marshmallow whiskey debauchery. I will be so excited to return now that Jimbeaux’s is gearing up for a full menu and regular hours. The whole team has poured their heart into the beautifully remodeled space and it will be absolutely rewarding once NOLA learns to love this new gem.
My last day in town I got the opportunity to visit the groundbreaking Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine. An extension of the Tulane University School of Medicine, the programs are lead by Kerri Dotson Director of Operations/ Executive Chef. The operation is tucked in the same building as an affordable structured Whole Foods, Sprout NOLA, and Liberty’s Kitchen. This is a block strategically working towards community enrichment and combating food deserts. The team at Goldring offers education for chefs, medical professionals, community cooking classes, and continued education. They are actively working to restore health to the city and community at large through continued education. Kerri is a hopeful, forward thinking chef and healthcare professional whose drive unparalleled. The work this team does will change so much for the community they have invested in and I implore any foodie traveller to make a point to check out the space and the team.
As I bid adieu to the city, I felt this was a strong note to leave on. While many outsiders are quick to dismiss the gulf, there are so many local folks working diligently to disrupt the stereotypes cast upon the region. With a mix of tradition, debauchery, and joie de vivre this continues to be one of the most magical components of the great big gumbo pot that is the United States.