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New Orleans Explored: Discovering All That Jazz

Where to Eat: Three Hot Spots

To say that the Red Room (2040 St. Charles Ave.; 504/528-9759; dinner for two $120) is the spot of the moment is to understate the case. At a recent television executives' convention, celebrities and media types flooded the place, displacing miffed locals. Part 1940's supper club, part bordello, the Red Room distinguishes itself with dishes such as the lobster and rack of wild boar and an interior that is almost all crimson.

Dominique Macquet has been cooking noteworthy food since his days at the Bistro at the Maison de Ville. Now in his own restaurant at the Maison Dupuy Hotel, Dominique's (1001 Rue Toulouse; 504/522-8800; dinner for two $110), he is letting his improbable background shine. Originally from Mauritius, Macquet mixes Indian, African, Chinese, and French ingredients to produce what he calls "island cuisine." Standouts include such dishes as sugarcane sweetbreads on truffle mashed potato with jus of wild mushroom.

It's odd that a restaurant called Sapphire (228 Camp St.; 504/524-0081; dinner for two $100) should be painted saffron yellow. But chef Kevin Graham's cooking distracts you from the paradox. Start with the prosciutto, portobello, and potato fricassee; then try to decide between the striped bass with shrimp-and-crawfish mousse or the roasted duck lacquered with coffee-and-orange sauce.

Roadhouse Grub

At 5 p.m. Ponchatoula shuts down. Where's everyone going?Middendorf's Seafood (Interstate 55, exit 15, at Manchac; 504/386-6666; dinner for two $20), for fried catfish sliced as thin as a whisper and scallion-laced hush puppies. The restaurant, housed in two modest shacks on the shores of Lake Maurepas, doesn't look like much. Faux-wood Formica tables, big-haired waitresses, and plaid-clad guests complete the scene. But the throngs lined up outside must know something.

Get Out of Town

Just outside the city lie plantations, swamps, and alluring small towns. Be sure to take at least one weekend day trip from New Orleans.

You won't find any mint julep stands or guides dressed as Southern belles at Laura Plantation (2247 Hwy. 18; 504/265-7690; tours $7) in Vacherie, about an hour's drive west of New Orleans.

Unlike at its grand, white-columned counterparts, Laura's people (black slaves and white owners) spoke French and lived in brightly colored West Indies-style houses. Since 193-year-old Laura is one of the few Creole plantations left in the country, touring its grounds offers a totally different experience than the one you'd get at a classic antebellum mansion.

For one thing, Laura was run by four generations of women who handled everything—from the children to the slaves to the money. For another, the topic of slavery is not avoided here but retold in rich, tragic detail. In fact, Laura's biggest claim to fame was made possible by its slaves, whose tales of west African folk hero Compère Lapin were popularized as the Brer Rabbit stories.

The tour at Laura is deeply personal. Guides name names, describe personalities, and relate stories that make the people and events in its history seem real—not like some feckless characters in a Margaret Mitchell novel.

You tend not to expect an abundance of good taste from a town that keeps a live 15-foot alligator named Hard Hide locked in a tank in the main square. And Ponchatoula, a 45-minute drive north of New Orleans, is all the more surprising when you discover its very refined secret: more than 30 shops brimming with antiques priced so low, you think someone must be playing a joke.

The biggest deal in town is the Ponchatoula Auction (140 N. Baronne St.; 504/386-4970), which is held most Saturdays at 6 p.m., with a preview beginning at 3. Tables, chairs, beds, and armoires are stacked higher than your head in a 14,000-square-foot converted barn.

Men with huge muscles carry each piece to the front, hoisting it in the air so the crowd can goggle. The auctioneer lets rip with a cursory description—"oak armoire"—and the bidding starts. Hands fly up in blurs. Auctioneer Richard Lima acknowledges the bids with a bellowed "Yahh!" One sharp woman walks away with an American Empire mahogany side table ($75), a mid-19th-century Italian recamier ($250), and a five-piece American Empire parlor set ($500) in less than 30 minutes. In this world, even twentysomethings straight out of college can own great furniture.

But the auction isn't the only place to score. Shops line Ponchatoula's five-block-long main drag. Housed in a former bank with its own steel vault, Layrisson-Walker Antiques (123 E. Pine St.; 504/386-8759) stocks a wealth of vintage linens and lace, including hard-to-find queen-size linen sheets, antique buttons, and 1940's luggage. Hunt down a Mercury dime to drop in the 1932 jukebox filled with single-sided records at Elizabeth Rose Antiques (101 W. Pine St.; 504/386-5242). If you missed Mardi Gras, head to C.J.'s Antiques & Collectibles (160 S.E. Railroad Ave.; 504/386-0026) for oodles of glass beads from parades of the past.

Taking a boat trip with Captain Dave Turgeon of Turgeon Tours (800/737-9267 or 504/689-2911; $35-$60) is like going out with your eccentric uncle. There's no predicting what will happen, but you know it'll be fun.

"I'll just tell you straight out that we're not like the other bayou tours," Dave said as I stepped on board. "We don't throw rubber snakes at you, we don't feed marshmallows to the gators, and I won't be pulling up my pant leg to show you the scar from when I got bit." Before I could express my relief, he gunned the accelerator of his 23-foot Bayliner and hollered: "Wee-hoo and away we go!"

During his four-hour tour, Captain Dave promises wildlife, and he delivers in abundance. As I loafed in the sun, the wind whipping across the boat's bow, Dave pointed out great blue herons rising from treetops, purple martins diving and feinting, gangly brown pelicans perched on pilings. Black storm clouds brewed in the distance over the thin green line of the horizon. A turkey vulture soared overhead, and Dave tossed out bits of swamp lore like, "Did you know the frigate bird is nicknamed the Jimmy Durante bird?"

As we rounded a bend next to the stone ruins of Fort Livingston, we came to what seemed a magical anomaly. There, just outside the bayou, the waters were filled with dolphins. They surfed the wake of our boat, banged our hull with their noses, and shot out of the water in perfect arcs.

Dave shut off the engine and we drifted, watching the dolphins frolic. As a baby dolphin leapt from the water, wiggled its fin, and plopped back in, Dave proclaimed, with the fervor of a Baptist preacher: "I love my job!"

Sea World has nothing on this.


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