NEW ORLEANS — "Throw me something, mister!" It had been eight years since I last heard that mantra of Mardi Gras, the bacchanalian rite that this city celebrates every February or March, depending on when Easter falls that year.
My last Mardi Gras as a New Orleanian was in 2005. Later that year, Hurricane Katrina stormed into the city, and I scurried out, eventually taking up residence in Lexington. I've been back to New Orleans, of course — for the Tennessee Williams Festival and Jazz Fest; for Halloween and Tales of the Cocktail; for the dazzling Christmas celebration in the French Quarter; and for my friend Bonnie's annual St. Patrick Day's luncheon at Brennan's Restaurant. But until now, I had never ventured back for the biggest celebration of them all.
Truth be told, for the 25 years I lived in New Orleans, I indulged in a love/hate relationship with Mardi Gras. For the first 10 years, I went to all the parades, second-lining and snatching plastic beads over the outstretched hands of Catholic nuns and children with slow reflexes. I donned formal gowns and went to carnival balls.
For the next 10 years, I morphed into a quieter, gentler reveler, sharing my catch with the nuns and children, and opting for more intimate parties over the lavish balls. During the final five years, I cringed at the thought of Mardi Gras — all those people invading my city and all those floats blocking traffic for hours.
Still, nothing defines New Orleans' joie de vivre and love of a good party as much as Mardi Gras, so I was thrilled when an invitation arrived for me to ride in Orpheus, the glitzy parade that rolls on Lundi Gras (the Monday night before Mardi Gras). I had seen Mardi Gras from many perspectives — from the ground, from French Quarter balconies and from the shoulders of various boyfriends — but I had never seen it from the top deck of a float.
Doing it that way, my float-riding friends all assured me, was the closest we mortals would ever get to being a rock star.
Making like a visitor
I arrived in town on the Saturday before Mardi Gras and immediately set about doing those things visitors to the Big Easy do: eat, drink and make merry.
First stop was Dickie Brennan's Bourbon House in the Quarter to sample one of their King Cake cocktails. I knew it would be a matter of time before someone figured out a way to turn that doughy confection into a libation — egg-noggy in flavor, and you need not fear unexpectedly biting into a plastic baby.
Sipping my cocktail, I glanced through the tall glass windows and saw a giant pink pig walk by, arm draped across the shoulder of an equally large green dragon.
I also wanted to check out three restaurants, one an old favorite and the other two newcomers to the city's culinary scene. I've always loved the Windsor Court Hotel's Grill Room. From its days as a member of the prestigious Orient Express Hotel Group, it set a standard for excellence unmatched anywhere else in the city.
Several years ago, the Orient Express sold the hotel to a group of local investors, the most prominent being the football Mannings (Archie, Peyton and Eli). I'm happy to say the Grill Room, presided over for the first time by a female chef, has lost none of its savoir-faire.
Chef Kristin Butterworth is a Pittsburgh transplant, but she has quickly gotten a handle on a cuisine referred to as "refined Southern."
Two new French Quarter restaurants are getting national buzz. R'evolution, which opened last year in the Royal Sonesta Hotel, is the town's current "must book" dining spot. Stop first in the glamorous bar with its flickering gas lanterns and sassy drinks paying homage to the pre-Prohibition era of "gilded cocktails."
Then it's on to the restaurant, which has two star chefs, John Folse and Rich Tramonto, providing the yin and yang of Creole and Cajun cuisine. Don't miss the death by gumbo featuring a whole quail stuffed with oysters. The iPad wine list is also a cool touch.
SoBou (for South of Bourbon) in the W French Quarter Hotel is a new bistro run by the Commander's Palace branch of the Brennan family of restaurateurs. The sleek décor looks a bit more Big Apple than Big Easy, but there's no mistaking the Louisiana influence in dishes such as oyster tacos with Cajun ghost pepper caviar.
If you are looking for a quiet place for an after-dinner drink, Patrick's Bar Vin is the spot. Just steps from Bourbon Street, it is light years removed in style and ambiance from that titillating thoroughfare. Elegant and sophisticated, Bar Vin, overlooking the tropical courtyard of the Hotel Mazarin, is the perfect place to sip champagne.
Kings for a day
Lundi Gras dawned with a gray filter of mist hanging over the city and the promise of rain. If Mardi Gras is all about Rex and Zulu, Lundi Gras means Orpheus, named in honor of the music-loving son of the Greek gods Zeus and Calliope. This year, the parade was celebrating its 20th anniversary.
Founded by one of New Orleans' best-loved native sons, Harry Connick Jr., Orpheus was the first parade to allow men and women to ride together. Thanks to its combination of spectacularly designed floats and celebrity monarchs, it quickly became one of carnival's highlights.
This year's celeb king, actor Gary Sinise, joined a long line of royalty that has included actresses Sandra Bullock and Whoopi Goldberg, music giants Stevie Wonder and Quincy Jones, and author Anne Rice. Proving himself a generous host, Connick also invited musician Trombone Shorty; TV stars Mariska Hargitay and Nick Cannon; New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu; and Animal Planet's Tillman, the skateboarding bulldog, along for the ride.
All of us riders met at the Convention Center shortly after noon to receive our costumes and float assignments and get some Mardi Gras etiquette tips from Connick.
"Unless you have an arm like Drew Brees and spot a receiver in the crowd like Marques Colston, please don't throw heavy bags of beads," he implores, "because you'll end up clocking someone."
By 3 p.m., we took our assigned places on our floats. I was on the top deck with 11 other riders and surrounded by 50-pound bags of beads, souvenir doubloons, canvas spears and balls that glow in the dark — trinkets that, when thrown from a float, might as well be Tiffany diamonds.
After a final "wet our whistle" stop at Tipitina's Uptown, we resumed our places, hooked ourselves into our safety harnesses and began to roll in earnest. During the next five hours — from Uptown along St. Charles Avenue to Canal Street to Tchoupitoulas Street — before arriving back at the Convention Center, where the Orpheus Ball was in full swing, we indeed felt like rock stars.
Beads and doubloons flew from our hands into the crowds like surface-to-air missiles. I don't know about my fellow riders, but I was keeping a special lookout for Catholic nuns and children with slow reflexes.
Where to stay: Sheraton New Orleans, 500 Canal St. During Mardi Gras, this is one of the most popular and conveniently located hotels in the city from which to see the entire spectacle. Right on the Canal Street parade route, the Sheraton has outdoor viewing stands for the exclusive use of guests. The large lobby, with its floor-to-ceiling windows, provides another great viewing spot. Additionally, the lobby Pelican Bar, designed to look like a French Quarter courtyard with a tiered fountain, is open until the wee hours, making it seem as if the party has come indoors. Sheratonneworleans.com.
Where to eat and drink: Dickie Brennan's Bourbon House, 144 Bourbon St.; Bourbonhouse.com. R'evolution Restaurant, 300 Bourbon St.; Sonesta.com. SoBou, 316 Chartres; Wfrenchquarter.com. The Grill Room, 300 Gravier St.; Windsorcourthotel.com. Patrick's Bar Vin, 730 Rue Bienville; Patricksbarvin.com.
Learn more: Neworleanscvb.com