Big fun in the Big Easy

12:00 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 23, 2017 Travel
Fried rice balls and cranberries were a satisfying dessert at Meril, the latest Emeril Lagasse restaurant in downtown New Orleans. Contributed by Helen Anders

The good times have been rolling here for 300 years, and the 2018 Tricentennial presents a perfectly good excuse for a visit to the Crescent City. As if you needed one, or as if New Orleans needed another reason for a party.

But inasmuch as we’re all in a festive mood again, why not celebrate the mushrooming downtown New Orleans core by basing your stay there this time? Downtown west of Poydras Street has been coming along for years, with top restaurants such as Herbsaint and Cochon plopping down amid the district’s galleries and museums. Now, the area’s booming with even more places to stay, eat and drink.

Don’t worry about missing out on your French Quarter favorites (beignets at Café Du Monde, oysters at Acme and Felix’s; trout amandine at Galatoire’s). The Quarter is an easy half-mile walk from the Ace Hotel, the highly hip, dimly lit spot where my husband and I embedded during our most recent visit, and it’s easy to grab the St. Charles Streetcar if you want to head out to the Garden District for some barbecued shrimp at Pascal’s Manale.

To the south, it’s just a third of a mile’s walk to the museum district. The big dog, of course, is the ever-enlarging National WWII Museum, whose exhaustive displays detail every phase of the war with photos, oral histories, planes, boats and more. Don’t miss the Tom Hanks-narrated film. The campus is huge, so allow the better part of a day. The museum’s restaurant, Stage Door Canteen, provides a really tasty lunch break or, at the end of the day, happy hour.

Two blocks away, I truly love the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, because it introduces me to artists I don’t know, and it has a fun Thursday night event where you can eat gumbo, sip wine and see art. This trip, we enjoyed a special exhibit (through Jan. 21) of African-American abstract art from the ’40s to the present. The Ogden’s rooftop has a few sculptures and a great view of the 60-foot concrete pedestal where the statue of Robert E. Lee used to be. The statue was removed last May, but people still visit the nub.

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We walked back up Julia Street and poked our heads in the galleries on our way back to the Ace, which opened in 2016 and struts that eternally hip Ace Hotel vibe, with dimly lighted rooms featuring cork floors, hand-painted wardrobes, hoodie robes, black bathrooms and red pipes running across the open ceilings. Our Smeg fridge had room for stuff we brought in as well as a huge assortment of liquors, waters and other beverages, and the minibar held plenty of munchies, though we didn’t indulge.

There was an electric water-heating kettle, but no tea or coffee pods. Of course, downstairs we found the Stumptown coffee shop. Its coffee is excellent, but long lines form when it opens at 7. I long for a peaceful first cup in the room. On checkout morning, I did discover free coffee at the front desk.

The hotel has an armload of bars. There’s a big one in the lobby, a graceful one fronting its major restaurant, Josephine Estelle (more on that later), one with an oyster bar at the end of its block called Seaworthy, a music lounge called 3 Keys that offers live music five nights a week, and, finally, a rooftop bar called Alto with a pool.

The building also includes browse-worthy retail, including DNO (Defend New Orleans, an offshoot of the Magazine Street store selling New Orleans-themed gifts), Friend menswear and an outpost of Marfa’s Freda, selling clothing, jewelry, candles and such.

I loved the new downtown food so much that I’ll definitely find my way back to it.

Inside the Ace, Josephine Estelle, which calls its cuisine southern-inspired Italian, is one of the best restaurants I’ve visited in recent years. Chefs Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman hail from Memphis but have spent much time in Italy. Their pastas are nothing short of divine. I love pumpkin ravioli with burned butter and sage and have enjoyed many iterations, but Josephine Estelle’s was a feather-light agnolotti with not just sage and butter but also date, mustard seed and the crowning touch, mascarpone instead of the usual Parmesan. I can’t wait to go back and eat more.

There’s another Josephine Estelle dish I’d march right back for: hamachi crudo with brown butter, Meyer lemon, crisp celery leaf and little hazelnuts — nothing to overpower the delicate yellowtail, but just enough for a flavor contrast and satisfying crunch.

Within a few blocks of the Ace, we found a couple of other restaurants that had arrived within the past year and are now making our favorites list.

Meril, the latest from Emeril Lagasse, sits on a Girod Street block that was a huge construction site when we visited, and the mess was definitely keeping foot traffic down. But when the work’s done, many will find their way to this airy, lovely space with a crab mural on the wall for cuisine that’s a departure from Cajun frying (not that there’s anything wrong with that, but this isn’t that).

The small plates starred, especially something listed on the menu as “fish dip.” Turned out to be a lovely, lightly mayonnaised mash of smoked trout and drum. Delightful. We also loved deviled eggs dressed up with caviar, avocado and Gulf shrimp and served with remoulade, as well as a panko-fried eggplant in a crawfish cream sauce. The wood-oven-roasted dishes we tried, a shrimp in coconut milk, lime and cilantro and breadcrumb-topped grilled oysters with a mild green olive oil-based sauce, were a bit bland.

Within blocks of the Ace, we found Maypop, which imbues Louisiana food with Asian touches.

I loved my appetizer of crunchy oysters in a soy mash black aioli, followed by a pan-roasted snapper, its skin perfectly crisped, sitting atop a flavorful pork sticky rice, crowned with cucumber, watermelon and peanuts and awash in a lovely green foam that included coconut milk, chive, lime leaf and lime zest. No, my palate’s not refined enough for me to know all those foam ingredients. I had to ask chef Michael Gulotta.

There’s a ton going on with that snapper dish, but I loved it and ate it all. I may pop.

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