Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Road to Caviar

The Vettes’ music isn’t traditional New Orleans music. “Our music is ’80s/new-wave, mixed with indie. It has a modern twist to it,” says Rachel Vette, laughing. “I don’t know if that’s a generic thing to say.” Vette is the lead singer and rhythm guitarist for the Vettes, and its single, “Give ’em What They Want,” is in steady rotation at New Orleans’ all-hits radio station, B97. The band is also booked to play the Voodoo Music Experience in October.

“They asked us to do the main stage, which is exciting for us,” she says. To top off the recent recognition, the new CD, T.V. E.P. will be available at Best Buy's regionally in September—at which point the band will embark on a fall tour, making a stop in New York City for the College Music Journal’s (CMJ) music festival.

While many musicians from New Orleans embrace their city’s fried food culture, the late night greasy eats and the plethora of cheap eats sprawling past city limits, Vette makes it clear that her band is not like a lot of others. “I’m into healthy foods,” she says. “I go to a place called Vitality Juice, Java and Smoothie Bar. I get smoothies every single day.” Her favorite is the Radical Defense—a mix of acai berries, kefir, antioxidants and probiotics. “The boys are into Japanese and Thai food. The Sake Sushi Hibachi House has really good lunch specials everyday,” Vette says, admitting, “We’re not very New Orleans.” Not falling into any fixed New Orleans patterns has worked well for the Vettes, but embracing New Orleans’ culinary culture—even on a young band’s budget—has a serious upside, too, and many bands dive headfirst into it.

The Vettes may not play the New Orleans jam/jazz/funk/rock that is a staple in the city’s clubs, but the band shares hours with everybody that does. While day workers are sound asleep, musicians are at the heart of their workday. Inevitably, this poses the question of where to get good, late night food. In many cities, that means fast food, but in New Orleans, there are a lot of possibilities—so many that where they play determines where they’ll eat.

This past June, the funk-infused progressive rockers Gravy released their first CD, Said & Done, to a packed house at the Maple Leaf Bar. After the show, guitarist/singer Stephen Kelly ate right on the sidewalk because good food comes out of vans as well as restaurants. “Biddles with the Vittles sets up a grill outside the Leaf. It’s really hard to beat,” says Kelly. “Le Bon Temps Roule is actually really decent for 3 a.m., too.”

Lumar LeBlanc, snare drummer for the Soul Rebels Brass Band, agrees. The band plays the Bon Temps every Thursday night, often until the sun comes up, so it’s no surprise they eat there, too. “Le Bon Temps is known for their burgers, and they’ve been serving pizza as of late.”

While guitarist Billy Iuso goes home to eat after a gig, Marc Paradis of Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes favors the perennial late night standby, La Peniche. “They serve cocktails, and you can’t beat that,” he says. “And they’ve got good food as well.” Michael Lentz, guitarist of experimental rock band I, Octopus, has a couple of possible stops on his way home, including 13 if the gig was on Frenchmen Street, and Gene’s Po-Boys at Elysian Fields and St. Claude if he played the Hi Ho or some place in the Bywater.

For many musicians and clubgoers alike, late night gigs lead to late night drinking, and that leads to rocky mornings after. The next day remedies vary. Michael Lentz of I, Octopus is a believer in Surrey’s Café and Juice Bar, specifically the migas—a breakfast dish of scrambled eggs with red onions, bell peppers and tomatoes folded into grated cheese and corn tortilla chips. “That place is awesome,” says Lentz, whose band just released a split CD with Metronome the City. Gravy’s Stephen Kelly is also a Surrey’s fan. “They’ve got delicious breakfast and freshly squeezed, organic juices.” Among the juices are apple, orange, grapefruit, carrot, celery, and beet as well as lemonade, limeade and wheatgrass.

Iuso, leader of the funky rock group Billy Iuso and the Restless Natives, enjoys improvisation onstage, noting, “Everything is done differently every night.” However, when it comes to the next day, Iuso likes consistency. “I got hooked on Slim Goodies on Magazine Street as a hangover cure because I’d wake up for breakfast and it was lunchtime. I’d go there for a hamburger, which would do me just fine.” Paradis finds comfort at Schiro’s in the Marginy. “It’s pretty much a fail safe cure for me,” he says. “Great sandwiches, and they’ve got a little grocery store there so you can get aspirin.” The Vettes, however, have no particular hangover hangouts. “We’re pretty normal,” Rachel Vette says. “Well, I guess maybe not normal. We don’t get out of control.”

Embracing New Orleans culture includes knowing the real New Orleans food. West Bank rapper Rami Sharkey—a.k.a. Ballzack—made a name for himself with hysterical lyrics, onstage antics and a strong command of the triggerman beat, and he knows his New Orleans food. “At Domilise’s, I’ll get a shrimp po-boy, dressed, with Swiss cheese and hot roast beef gravy,” he says. Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes, a band comprised of Loyola graduates, often ate at Adams Street Grocery—a place that is still frequented by Loyola and Tulane students on a tight budget. “For a long time, I was eating there four times a week,” says Paradis. “If you have four bucks to spend, you can definitely get a huge sandwich with that. I almost always got the smoked turkey with Swiss, dressed.” Just as the eclectic rock outfit’s following has reached beyond its Uptown roots, so too have the members’ dining ventures. “Crabby Jack’s is exceptional—pretty much everything they serve is a good experience.” Lentz agrees. “I think the best po-boy is the roasted duck at Crabby Jack’s. In city limits, the fried pork chop po-boy at Guy’s is best.”

“I’m allergic to seafood, which is sort of a curse in New Orleans,” says Iuso. “So it’d have to be Guy’s turkey, roast beef, or maybe their steak sandwich. It’s killer. Limited dressing—mayonnaise, no lettuce, and anything with heat. Hot sauce is always good.” Paradis also pointed out Liuzza’s by the Track. “I had a fondness for the barbecued shrimp po-boy. That’s pretty amazing. It’s not really a po-boy, but that’s what they call it.”

Po-boys may have their own shops, but the combination of something filling—even French fries—slapped between two slices of bread—is the definition of down home cooking, something New Orleans specializes in that often flies under radar. Mrs. Hyster’s Barbecue on Claiborne Avenue is a perfect example. “I think a lot of people know it,” says Ballzack, “but more need to be made aware.” “It’s awesome barbecue—super cheap,” says Lentz. “They’ve got a sampler plate that’s dirt cheap and it’s a ton of food.”

“I like Ignatius, too” says Ballzack, referring to the Uptown restaurant at the corner of Magazine and Milan. “As far as New Orleans food, they do a really good job over there.” Kelly concurs, noting, “The food is legit and not too expensive. Their crawfish etouffee is just all-time!” LeBlanc is a big advocate for the Two Sisters Kitchen, which has long had its own cult following. “I don’t think it gets the well-known ratings like the big, famous local restaurants, but it deserves it. You can get authentic food that’s not that expensive. I usually get the baked chicken with either white beans or red beans, and some bread, with sweet potatoes or candied yams. It’s real cozy over there and it’s got that New Orleans feel to it.”

The fact is, New Orleans and the surrounding suburbs are chock full of well known and unassuming restaurants alike. Making a definitive guide for good eats in New Orleans is similar to writing the dictionary from scratch. None of the bands mentioned such favorites as Joey K’s, Mona’s Café, Zara’s Supermarket and the Camellia Grill, and realistically, asking 40 more musicians would produce 40 more answers, but someone’s favorite would still be left out. What about Bruno’s Tavern? What about the Bluebird?

We’re blessed with an abundance of culinary riches at both the five-star and five-dollar levels. The possibilities are so great that we can’t seem to remember it all. Rachel Vette, whose choices are limited by her health consciousness, is still overwhelmed by the possibilities. “There’s another restaurant, it’s called…,” she starts, then goes through her mental rolodex. “…oh, it’s called Equator,” she says brightly, “in Metairie.”

Johnny Sketch’s Marc Paradis, on the other hand, accepts and lives with his confusion. “I used to go to, umm, what is it? Ahh, skip it.”

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