Tops of the Town

Reader and editor choices of the best around New Orleans

Cheryl Gerber and Jeffery Johnston

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Though it was a statewide election year, 2011 wasn’t very exciting; there were too many one-sided contests. Fortunately, to provide some suspense, there was our annual Tops of the Town voting in which our readers could make their picks in a multitude of categories, some tightly contested.

Instead of having to trek to old-fashioned voting precincts, our readers had the luxury of voting on a postage-paid ballot that was included in our October issue and on our website. Here are the results.

Note to the federal government: If you want us to handle the voting for the presidential election, we’re willing to talk.



New Orleanian of the Year:
Mayor Mitch Landrieu

Finding the full spotlight was difficult at first. On the day in February 2010 when Mitch Landrieu was elected mayor of New Orleans, most of his constituents had their minds on the Super Bowl the next day. Three days later the mayor-elect rode in a victory parade, but the real cheering was for the Lombardi Trophy.

Then there was the day in May when Landrieu was inaugurated. Ordinarily that’s a big news story, but not when the world’s attention was on a shut-off valve being installed with hopes of stopping an oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico.

There have been enough days since then for Landrieu to get his own attention, and our readers seem to like what they’re seeing.

A cynic might say that predecessor Ray Nagin was an easy act to follow, but cynics, being what they are, don’t know that being a mayor of a big city, especially one undergoing recovery, is a tough job no matter who was there before.

Landrieu’s very election was a tonic for the city in that he received overwhelming support from both black and white voters. By winning he helped relieve some of the polarization that others in political life had stoked.

Having a father who was a successful former two-term mayor as well as a Secretary of Housing and Urban Development isn’t a bad background, but beyond his pedigree Landrieu brought a world of governmental experience to the office, having served both as a legislator and as lieutenant governor.

To date, Landrieu has made good on his promise to rebuild the city’s recreation department. His administration has thus far been scandal-free. (A couple of early appointees, about whom it was discovered that they carried questionable baggage, were quickly discharged.)

Crime, particularly black-on-black, drug-related homicides among young males, continues to be the one unsolvable crisis. Landrieu’s choice for police chief, Ronal Serpas, has an extensive background in police management both locally and elsewhere. There have been some groups in the community who, for their own agendas, seem out to get Serpas, but Landrieu has been steadfast in standing by his man, a sentiment that registers with the public that wants less police politics and more police action.

Beyond it all, Landrieu has cut a good figure. He is young, articulate and knows how to play the crowd. He also knows how to play tennis. On the day last March when the new City Park tennis faculty opened, Landrieu made it official by swatting balls with one of the tennis pros. He showed good form that’s indicative of his term so far: It’s his serve and he has love.



Favorite Antique Store:
M.S. Rau Antiques

Enter the doors of M.S. Rau and you’re immediately transported to a place filled with treasures from around the world. Turn the corner and you’ll find one of the world’s first cash registers. Walk a little farther and you’ll spot a 12-and-a-half-foot-long billiard table that once resided in Buckingham Palace.

“One thing you can count on when you visit our website or our gallery is that you will always see something you never thought would be available for sale,” says Bill Rau, third-generation owner.

Founded in 1912 on Royal Street, M.S. Rau has since expanded into the largest antique and fine art gallery in North America, earning the trust of discerning antiques collectors worldwide. This year the store is  celebrating its 100th anniversary, with the main activities in March and a bevy of events throughout the year.

(Activities include the book launch of Rau’s From Barbizon to Belle Époque on 19th-century art scheduled for this summer and a fine art exhibition at its gallery scheduled for this winter entitled “Plein Air.”) The exhibit will showcase museum-quality original paintings by the 19th century Plein Air masters including Monet, Renoir, Pissarro and van Gogh.

As part of its 100th anniversary, the company has created the Rau for Art Foundation, a nonprofit that supports arts appreciation and education in the schools of Greater New Orleans. RFA will host an art contest where the winners and their schools will receive up to $17,000 in scholarship and prizes.

 For more information visit RauForArt.com.

“Our goal is to continue to seek the finest treasures available on the market today by offering our clients the finest 18th and 19th century antiques, fine art and jewelry.” Rau says. “And for the next 100 years, we will continue to find the rarest and best.”



Favorite Museum:
New Orleans Museum of Art

The Isaac Delgado Museum of Art opened its doors on Dec. 16, 1911, owning just nine works of art. Today it’s known as the New Orleans Museum of Art, and has over 35,000 art objects in its permanent collection. The permanent collection and the five-acre Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden are some of the museum’s greatest assets. NOMA celebrated the museum’s 100th anniversary in 2011 with the addition of more than 650 new memberships.

“Introducing new technology, partnering with peer institutions to bring the very best work to NOMA, and creating an inviting, accessible museum experience are among my top priorities for the coming year,” Susan Taylor, Director of the NOMA says.

NOMA is the city’s oldest fine arts institution, and it’s quickly becoming a citywide gathering spot for the arts. Their partnerships with New Orleans’ Film Society, The NOLA Project, YA/YA, Young Audiences and Kid SmART have brought new programming and new audiences to the museum. Their full calendar of programming, the popular Friday night Where Y’Art?! programs and Café NOMA by Ralph Brennan help make NOMA the “Favorite Museum” in New Orleans.

NOMA continues to exhibit, interpret and preserve works of art from ancient to modern times. As it has for a century, the museum continues to be a gathering place for all those seeking to share the beauty of their extraordinary collection or world art and learn from it. NOMA engages, educates and enriches the diverse populations within, and drawn to, the New Orleans area.

“In the future, look for more exhibitions and “spotlights” to give even frequent visitors the opportunity to appreciate our holdings anew,” Taylor says. “As we continue to work to engage our audiences, we remain grateful for their enthusiasm and overwhelming support.”



Favorite Sushi:
Sake Cafe

It wasn’t that long ago that eating sushi was considered an exotic delicacy. Now ordering sushi is practically as common as ordering a hamburger, but there are only a certain few who know how to do it right.

Since the late 1990s, Sake Café has been sweeping the New Orleans sushi scene like a tsunami. Its menu incorporates traditional Japanese cuisine with New Orleans flavors that can be seen in its Jazz Roll, Uptown Roll and New Orleans Roll. Although many come to gorge themselves on the long list of sushi and rolls, the cooked dishes aren’t to be forgotten, such as the Teriyaki and Nabeyaki Udon. Joey Ledet, general manager of Sake Café Uptown, says that the “high quality food, service and drink specials,” are key to making the Japanese restaurant chain a local favorite.

The sushi chefs create unique fusion dishes, which are as beautiful as they are delicious. Some of their signature dishes include the Sushi Bar Sampler, Jalapeño Salsa and Tuna Cake and Yellowtail.

There are seven locations in the New Orleans metro area, Baton Rouge and Covington. The Uptown location is available for private events, and the upstairs portion of the restaurant can seat up to 40. Ledet says that customers keep coming back because of the “consistent food quality and fun atmosphere.”



Favorite Place for Breakfast or Lunch:
The Ruby Slipper

If you find yourself waiting for a table at The Ruby Slipper, order their housemade Bloody Mary or mimosa or both! New Orleanians have voted it “Favorite Place for Breakfast or Brunch,” deeming the food well worth the wait.

After Hurricane Katrina, owners Erich and Jennifer Weishaupt renovated an eyesore former neighborhood grocery in the Mid-City neighborhood, and they quickly turned it into a go-to spot. Erich says The Ruby Slipper is a local favorite because of the “combination of our casual neighborhood atmosphere and our consistent quality food items.”

The kitchen serves dishes including basic breakfast items and weekend brunch specials using locally made products and locally based purveyors. Some of the signature dishes include Ruby’s Crabcake (made only when fresh, local crabmeat is available), BBQ Shrimp & Grits (featured in Williams-Sonoma’s Breakfast Comforts cookbook) and Bananas Foster Pain Perdu.

The Ruby Slipper not only dishes out some of the best breakfast foods in town but it is also dedicated to preserving the environment. The Mid-City location participates in two composting programs: Little Sparrow Farms uses discarded coffee grounds to grow vegetables, herbs and flowers; the NOLA Green Roots program, a Mid-City based nonprofit, helps restaurants compost appropriate food wastes and distribute them to community backyard gardens. The Mid-City location also participates in a recycling program.

Although their Mid-City location is closed on Mondays, the business district location is opened for business everyday of the week and available for private events after 3 p.m. Erich Weishaupt says people keep coming back rain or shine because of “the friendly warm atmosphere.”



Best Place to Stir it up for over a Century:
Cafe Du Monde celebrates 150 years - and globalism

Remember as a kid when you had a face full of white powder (which in those days had only one meaning: you had powdered sugar on your beignet) and you felt particularly naughty when your mom let you sip her café au lait?

Here is a uniquely New Orleans quiz to go along with those memories:

Q. What country has the most Café Du Monde coffee houses serving up that classic café-au-lait-and-beignets combo?

A. “Easy,” you say, “New Orleans. And last time I checked that was still in America!”

Zonnnnnnnk!

The correct answer is “Japan.”

As New Orleans’ favorite coffee-drinking place celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2012, dust that powdered sugar off your chin and stand corrected.

Almost heresy, but it’s a fact, New Orleans’ oldest coffee-drinking place – which boasts nine coffee and beignet stands and two merchandise stores spread over the north and south shores of Lake Pontchartain – has 30 stands in the Land of the Rising Sun.

“Make no mistake about it,” says Jay Roman IV, vice president of H.N. Fernandez, Inc, which owns Café Du Monde. “We’re rooted in New Orleans. We’re as conservative as they come. So when we introduce a new product, like our iced café au lait as we did in the early 1990s, it takes a lot of thought. We don’t just jump into it.”

Roman is a member of the third of four generations of the Fernandez family that bought Café Du Monde from its former-owners in 1942. At the time, the iconic coffee shop had one location at St. Ann and Decatur streets across from Jackson Square and St. Louis Cathedral, the shop that’s still the cornerstone of the coffee-and-beignet empire.

That mega-jump across the Pacific to Japan began after the 1984 New Orleans World’s Fair. With international trade representatives and business folk in town, it was only natural that some group from a foreign land would gambol over to the Café Du Monde on Decatur Street after a night out in the French Quarter, get a taste of the quintessential New Orleans pastry and start thinking, “Hmmmmm, you know …”

In 1990, Japan hosted the World’s Fair in Osaka. After six years, the New Orleans memory of “a cawfee and an’ awdah!” was still ringing in the ears of members of a Japanese business consortium. Within a short time after the Japanese Expo closed, Café Du Monde had come to Japan.

While the New Orleans-based corporation that owns Café Du Monde doesn’t franchise out their business, they do have an agreement with the Japanese consortium that licenses the right to the Café Du Monde name in Japan and keeps an uncompromising eye on recipe and quality.

“They’re different in that they’ve expanded into sandwiches and a few other items we don’t have,” Roman says. “Of course we’ve long had our coffee and chicory and French roast in a can and beignet mix that you can purchase at supermarkets. Those products account for about 35 percent of our overall sales. We have various gift baskets that we ship all over the world. We have great souvenir mugs and travel mugs, koozies, T-shirts, kitchen towels, pot holders, travel bags, stuffed animals, posters, neckties. We even have Café Du Monde monogrammed golf balls. Can you believe it?”

In addition, Café Du Monde stores also sell products of other companies such as Aunt Sally’s Pralines, Pat O’Brien’s Hurricane Mix and books about New Orleans for adults and kids.

“But it’s all uniquely New Orleans,” Roman says. “And that says it all! People love this city. It’s a passionate thing. They want to take some of it home. Even if they’re not here they want it. They want that little piece of New Orleans. And they can order it.”

When asked about all the competition from espresso joints and the frappe latte mocha mist outlets like Starbucks that seem to be popping up everywhere, Roman looks around at a packed-with-customers Café Du Monde on Veterans Boulevard.

“This isn’t Seattle,” he says. “This is New Orleans. Our customers know what New Orleans is all about and what it isn’t. We make sure they get it. You know Starbucks opened a store on Williams Boulevard. It closed down. Know what stands on that very spot where that Starbucks was? A Café Du Monde. That was especially gratifying.”

A guy dressed in a faded “Who Dat” T-shirt stands at the counter, holds up two fingers and barks out, “Two cawfees, two awdahs!”

“See what I mean?” Roman asks, as a broad smile crosses his face. “Nowhere else!”

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