Kid Kotowich plays trombone with The Happy Pals every Sunday at Grossman’s Tavern on Spadina Avenue. She is a jazz phenom and she also knows New Orleans like the back of her hand so it was to her that we turned when planning a swift descent upon the Crescent City, eager for three days of music and cocktails. This was not a gastronomical trip. My wife, son and daughter-in-law have spent too many afternoons and evenings watching me write for hours in a notebook while laborious dishes come and go. So there was no long-drawn-out dinner at Herbsaint or Cochon or August; not even a route march to John Besh’s American Sector. Instead, we just plunged into the merry party that never stops in the charming old French Quarter and had a really, really good time.
And we heard some excellent music. Some of it was indoors, some out on the street – everything from trad jazz to New Orleans jazz, from bluegrass to blues, from folk to funk – even a busking violinist channeling Brahms. Highlights: Another great female trombonist, Katja Toivola, and her trumpeter husband, Leroy Jones, and their band playing jazz standards at Palm Court on Decatur Street. Three guys in a bar on Bourbon Street digging deep into r&b with some old Derek and the Dominos and Allman Brothers (the favoured soundtrack of my teens). The legendary Alton “Big Al” Carson (“495 pounds of pure New Orleans blues”) and his band reminding a mostly grey-haired crowd at The Funky Pirate what it was like to listen to funk in the 70s and 80s. An energetic Dixieland group called The Royal Frenchmen, who claimed they really were from France, playing outside the French Market.
We had had enough gumbo and deep-fried dill pickles by our second evening so we ducked into Maximo’s Italian Grill on Decatur Street and had a perfectly decent Italian meal – the tastiest food of the trip, as it turned out – then headed on to Frenchmen Street, where Kid Kotowich assured us we would find the best music in town these days. We squeezed into the crowd at the Spotted Cat and stayed for a set from an old-school jazz ensemble called Jumbo Shrimp. We listened to a young trumpeter and his band at Maison but the youth was so pleased with his own talent, we had to leave. Then we found some free-spirited jamming on guitar, six-stringed electric bass and drums in Yuki Izakaya, a tiny outpost of retro Japanese culture with great sake, vintage Astroboy cartoons projected on the wall and framed photos of unidentifiable stuffed toy animals. Excellent.
And to drink? I made it a small personal mission to try a Sazerac in as many watering holes as possible. A surprising number turned out to be dreadful, awkwardly unbalanced, syrupy things that dishonoured NOLA’s proud cocktail culture. The two best were tasted on the same Saturday evening. One (most unexpectedly) at Brennan’s, where Sara the bartender took the time to mix me a first-class version, complex, herbal, harmonious, like a bittersweet Manhattan with a Louisiana accent. The other at a fine and well-kept oyster bar, also on Royal Street, called Royal Oyster. We also ordered two dozen of the finest local oysters on the half shell – plump, glossy beauties, impeccably shucked. They tasted of absolutely nothing at all – not even salt water. Gulf oysters, growing up so quickly in those tepid waters, have no flavour. I know this but I persist in tasting them just in the hope that they might somehow have acquired a little personality since the last disappointment. Nope… I guess that’s why they are more often smothered in garlic and butter or bacon and cheese and set under the grill or deep-fried and turned into po’boy sandwiches down here in the south where frying is the default culinary method. I loaded mine up with Crystal hot sauce, horseradish and lemon and muttered voodoo mutters. An old lesson learned yet again – but it was never going to be woeful enough to dim the lustrous dazzle of our purple, green and golden Mardi Gras beads.