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New Orleans has a spring in its step.

I was happy to find, over Memorial Day weekend in New Orleans for a friend’s wedding, that the city appears to be doing better. Much better.

As much was conveyed to me by our taxi driver, a sweet older woman in a brightly colored muumuu who hummed to the jazz music on the radio between our exchanges. I told her I had first traveled there for business in spring, 2008 and returned later that summer. Almost three years had passed since Hurricane Katrina, but the city felt like something terrible had just happened.

No one was walking around in the Business District or Garden District, and what few drunken convention attendees and bachelor parties there were to be found in the French Quarter made the place feel all the more depressing. I stayed at a boutique hotel, a huge studio loft, and a W, all for around $100 a night, which was indicative of a weak local economy. A work contact drove me around what had once been the Ninth Ward but was then mostly cracked cement stairs leading to rotting houses or nothing at all. She showed me Habitat For Humanity’s first completed housing area, dubbed Musicians’ Village, and it was small. Philanthropic attention had long since moved elsewhere.

I started to tear up as we passed the convention center in the taxi cab, and the driver and I had a moment. But as we pulled further into the city, I noticed something was different. There were people everywhere.

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Mother’s Restaurant. You can kind of see the line formed along the left side of the building.

People were everywhere but especially at Mother’s Restaurant, our first stop after checking in to our hotel. I’d heard of it and hadn’t been, and I was more than a little annoyed with myself for taking so long. We nervously waited in line outside, wondering what we’d find inside. Once inside, we nervously waited in line in a small front dining room with a prep station and cashiers and framed clippings and photos, hoping not to accidentally fall out of single file order or block the server pathways, warranting a swift rebuke from the manager. Then we nervously ordered food and a beer and bloody and nervously found seats at a bar in a second, much larger dining room. It just felt like the kind of place where everyone knew what to do except for us.

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Homemade Creole cooking at Mother’s.

At least we were confident that we knew what to do when the food arrived. Soon, a server delivered a combination plate of rice with ladle-fulls of crawfish etouffee, gumbo, red beans, potato salad, and turnip greens, and the Famous Ferdi Special, a baked ham and roast beef po’boy. The buttery etouffee was about the greatest thing I thought I’d ever eat. (Probably good that we ate there before the Commander’s Palace.) We’d told ourselves that, since we needed to be at our friends’ welcome dinner in a few hours, we shouldn’t eat everything. But we ate everything.

The welcome dinner was great fun, with an unofficial after-party following at Dat Dog on Frenchman. All of the photos I took came out a little blurry. Pretty representative of the night.

On Saturday morning, friends from Los Angeles joined us for an early lunch at Donald Link’s Pêche, the James Beard Foundation’s newly minted Best New Restaurant. We ordered as much as we thought we could eat, then we ordered more.

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Croquettes, fish sticks, and crawfish at Peche.

As is often the case, I liked the least healthy dishes the best. One of the stand-outs was a plate of shrimp and fontina croquettes — crispy on the outside and gooey and buttery on the inside. I loved Chef Link’s adult take on fish sticks, too, with oversized beer batter over tender whitefish and a creamy, briny, garlicky dipping sauce I could eat with a spoon (but probably shouldn’t). A spicy crawfish and cappellini dish recommended by our server proved addictive, though I never shook the notion that it seemed out of place on the menu. I think it’s because I assume that there’s one starch in New Orleans, and it’s rice — but what do I know?

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The perfect key lime pie at Peche.

Finally, I gave in to an order of key lime pie, and it was toe-twitching good. Not dyed green or covered with sicky-sweet “whipped cream topping” in quote marks. Like, real key lime pie with real whipped cream. It was love. It was fireworks.

Much like the wedding. The wedding was among the most fun nuptials we’d ever been party to. There was croquet, and a bluegrass band, and a sorority singalong to Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now.” We ate oysters on the halfshell, cheddar biscuits, white truffle macaroni and cheese, cheese grits, shaved brussels sprouts, heirloom and Creole tomato salad with burrata and basil, maple fried chicken, braised pork au jus, salted butterscotch pudding, and more. And oh, did we drink. Even when the night was over with, at Erin Rose in the Quarter. All said, there was love. And fireworks.

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The wedding.

Sunday

Needless to say, on Sunday morning, we were hungover. After a hair of the dog bloody (or two) at a farewell brunch at the Royal Sonesta, we and our LA friends ambled around the French Quarter, poking our heads into whatever shops we came across — art galleries with paintings of Mardi Gras scenes, boutiques for pagan and voodoo charms, and antique stores with nineteenth century muskets and coins.

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Historic architecture in the French Quarter.

The only place we’d been sent to, by the bride, was a cookbook shop called Kitchen Witch. The enormity of the inventory was made manageable by well labeled bookcases. Donald Link fan that I am, I chose to leave with his new cookbook, “Going South,” but I wasn’t quite satisfied. As I checked out, I asked the manager if there was anything in his inventory that was really special, really unique, really personal, and he lit up. He led me to a tall bookshelf and pulled a book from the top of it — I couldn’t see the spine. It was Apicius, one of the first known cookbooks, dated to the Roman Empire AD 400, numbered 137 out of 530 first translated copies printed. He let me flip through it as long as I wanted to. It was a lot of offal and lovage, which completely thrilled me — I’d sooner eat cow tongue or sweetbreads than a ribeye, myself. I texted my family to tell them what I’d just seen and reeled over it for the rest of the day.

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New Orleans’ above-ground cemeteries.

Our group split up, and my fiance and I took a cab to the Garden District to walk around. We photographed old cemeteries with their weather-worn mausoleums, brightly colored mansions with manicured gardens, and street-lining trees so old and heavy their trunks spilled like melted ice cream onto and over the sidewalks. We stopped into a crowded pub and wished for a social life as fun and laidback as the locals’ appeared to be. Feeling rejuvenated, we decided to walk back to our hotel near Canal Street, stopping once again for a drink and a dozen cheap happy hour oysters along the way. When we got back to our hotel room, exhausted, we checked our pedometer — we’d walked 11 miles. A nap was inevitable.

When we woke up, it was time to get ready for our dinner date. We’d managed to get a last-minute late-night reservation at Commander’s Palace, and, once again, we were nervous. New Orleans’ food and dining are just steeped in so much tradition — I’d be amazed if someone didn’t feel like an outsider going inside such historied restaurants, no matter how experienced a diner they were.

Once inside the front doors, we were effusively welcomed to the restaurant but informed that our table wouldn’t be ready for some time. The hosts invited us to get a drink at the bar until our table was ready, which was disheartening, as was the long wait at the crowded bar. But once we had our cocktails and found seats outside on their beautiful wooded courtyard, completely alone, I felt enchanted.

And soon, we were at our table, nestled up next to a glassed-in tree growing through the room, in a small dining room with a glass wall looking out to the courtyard. I couldn’t think of the last time we’d gone to a restaurant that felt so romantic. In LA, for our date nights, we were mostly drawn to modernist restaurants with stark spaces, or else strip mall ethnic restaurants known more for their flavors than their decor — and in LA, for the elderly among the restaurants, as with their patrons, facelifts were de rigeur.

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Commander’s Palace.

We started with Hudson Valley foie gras with sweet accoutrements. Though the serving was small, it was expertly cooked, beautifully presented, and well balanced out by fruit. We both had the signature turtle soup finished with dry sherry, and because I ordered a soup trio, I also got to try the gumbo and a seafood bisque; I loved all three. A complimentary basket of garlic bread soon appeared, and quickly disappeared, then a second basket did the same disappearing trick.

My entree of quail stuffed with sausage, served over wilted greens that tasted of salty pork fat, was the best thing I ate all weekend. After eating only half, I was too full to continue, and I reveled in knowing that because we had a kitchenette with a refrigerator at our hotel room, I would be able to eat the leftovers in the morning. We had the Creole bread pudding soufflé for dessert, theatrically presented with a drizzle of sugary bourbon sauce. I found it to be too sweet, and rather than argue with me, my fiance happily ate it all.

The end of the evening couldn’t have been nicer. For the last half hour of our meal, at least, only one or two other couples remained in the dining room with us. Our servers chatted with us for about fifteen minutes before dropping our bill, and when we went to get a cab, a couple offered to split it with us, then picked up our fare.

Monday

On that Monday morning, I felt ill. It was like a cumulative fatigue and ache from all of the eating and drinking and walking and dancing and generally celebrating we’d done — and yet we had one more restaurant booking to make. I couldn’t contemplate cancelling it, though. We were going to Cochon.

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Lunch at Cochon.

Once inside, the air heavy with the smell of meat and fat and seafood and vinegar and smoke, we were brought back to life. We quickly ordered the fried alligator and gumbo as appetizers before digging the rest of the menu. The battered and fried alligator tail tossed in tangy, garlicky, chili mayonnaise and raw onions — the dish that made me fall in love with the place six years before — brought back memories of my first trips to New Orleans that I’d given up for lost. I was so happy, the slick coating giving way to a crispy exterior, giving way to soft breading within, giving way to tender yet chewy bites of meat. If you go, you have to get it.

I’ve always been really opinionated about what my fiance and I order when we’re sharing, but after being treated to dinner at the Commander’s Palace, and knowing that I’d been to Cochon before and he hadn’t, I pushed the menu away and asked him to pick everything. My new favorite dish at Cochon is now the rabbit and dumplings, something I never would have thought to order, fearing the rabbit would be dry and tough, which is all too often the case. But what arrived was like a pot pie except with huge, biscuit-like dumplings in place of a crust, with the most soft, tender, and moist rabbit imaginable, in a deeply rich, meaty roux. When I think about that meal, I think about that dish first and linger on it the longest.

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The rabbit and dumplings at Cochon.

We wandered around sadly after that, dreading our evening flight out. I won $40 at Harrah’s on a slot machine, a much needed recompense for the expenses of the weekend, and a $400 flight voucher at the airport, as my fiance was on a later flight and I had the time to be able to wait for the next flight out.

New Orleans was better than the way I’d first found it. And New Orleans left me off better than the way it found me.

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