Michelle Levine’s “Pillars”

Known globally from famous photographs taken in her own flamboyantly vivid Mardi Gras costumes, Michelle Levine is more than just one of New Orleans’ most recognized characters.  She’s an incredible artist who is not only enthusiastic about her work, she is excited about anyone who is excited about art. Michelle’s devotion and energy to organizing a venue to help promote other local artists is evident in her recent advancement to head of the Arts Market of New Orleans held in Palmer Park the last Saturday of every month.

It goes without saying that the costumes Michelle has designed for the Mondo Kayo accurately embraces the frolicking image of the Carnivalesque parade that rolls at the crack of dawn every Mardi Gras Day, but did you know how incredibly cool Michelle Levine is?  I do!

Earlier this evening, Michelle hosted an opening exhibit of her latest collection at Cafe Degas, a cozy French restaurant tucked into a screen of foliage on Esplanade Avenue.  I was finally able to meet this polite yet vivacious artist and talk a little about her latest series.  Entitled “Pillars,” each of Levine’s pieces featured a tall salt cellar with bright, colorful backgrounds and highly reflective tops.  It was precisely those reflections that drew me to this collection.

Apparently, I am not alone.  Michelle admitted her fascination with the shapes and colors created inside the reflection and confessed a growing obsession for this unique subject.  “I keep walking by this pot in my kitchen, analyzing the angle of the reflection,” she said, offering her selfless smile.  In her search for other mirror-like objects, she told me of a garbage can that she can take anywhere and capture its reflection on canvas.  I can’t wait to see how her ideas flesh out…

Although I desperately wished I could have stayed for dinner (moulesfrites!), it wasn’t my cheat night and I had lots left to do when I got home.  Currently, Michelle also has another exhibition on display featuring depictions of different McDonald’s Restaurant signs ravaged by Hurricane Katrina now showing at the Convergence Center on Canal.

I look forward to seeing more work by Michelle in the future and perhaps, in 2011, I will finally be able to see her costumes firsthand when at last I can wake up early enough on Mardi Gras Day to witness Mondo Kayo and Zulu for the very first time.

It’s harder than you think!

Pure Yogurt Culture opens at long last

While I was looking the other way, the moment I had been so desperately awaiting finally arrived.  Right under my nose, Pure Yogurt Culture (8108 Hampson Street) opened at last!  The paper covering the windows came down and the newest dessert shop in my ‘hood already had some steady clientele. When I walked into the clean, well-designed establishment, which featured a white bubble, drop-ceiling and textured walls, I almost felt like I was inside a vat of frozen yogurt and I didn’t mind one bit.

Inset into the far wall were dispensers marked with flavors like Pure Tart (the simplest and most delicious in my opinion), Chocolate, Mango and Who Dat…a mystery mix of flavors that was a noticeable hit for incoming patrons. A group of young men from the nearby college couldn’t get enough of it and recommended it highly to anyone who would listen.  I guessed the flavor to be coconut, but the vivacious owner, Herbert Leyton, told me to guess again.

A longtime resident of New Orleans, Leyton explained how he and his wife are a bit fanatical and have made it a point to taste frozen yogurt from shops all over the world like New York, Singapore, Jakarta, Germany and Hong Kong.  After getting laid off from a major oil company a year ago, Leyton decided to live the dream and finally open a shop of his own.  With a focus on fresh ingredients from local farmers and a passion for high quality, non-fat yogurt, his dream has finally become a reality and the proof is in the pudding…or in this case, the yogurt.

Although the concept seemed to elude one (extremely rude) customer while I was there, Pure Yogurt Culture is a self-serve frozen yogurt shop that I found both novel and convenient.  Grab a cup from the stand, fill it with yogurt, as much or as little as you like (feel free to mix it up), select your toppings and weigh your final creation.  Each personalized yogurt only costs a mere 45 cents per ounce.

Speaking of toppings, Leyton offered a variety of choices from fresh fruits like bananas, strawberries and pineapple to crunchier options including granola, Capt N Crunch and Fruity Pebbles.  He also provides condiments that lean towards the sweet tooth; M&M’s, chocolate chips, Gummy Bears and Ghirardelli Syrups like chocolate, white chocolate and caramel.

With a sigh of relief and a huge smile, I devoured some delicious, Pure Tart frozen yogurt laden with fresh strawberries and watched the curious dessert-lovers file into the shop.  In the short time I was there, Pure Yogurt Culture enjoyed a steady stream of clients who seemed just as excited as I was to see this place open at last. I hope that my fears will be unfounded and Herbert Leyton will be a huge success despite the stiff competition from Cold Stone and Baskin Robbins that lie only steps away.  After all of his hard work, enduring passion and perseverance, he deserves to see his dreams made a reality. 

“Happy are those who dream dreams and are willing to pay the price to make them come true.”

You can judge a book by its cover: The Famous Gumbo Pot

Sticky from the humidity, tired and hungry, John and I wandered into a restaurant we chose purely because of its proximity to the car.  It had been a crazy day what with John being called into work unexpectedly and, after running some errands, I searched for an hour to find a parking place in the Quarter…even the lots were full!  I knew there would be a lot of tourist traffic, but it was 2 pm!  Shouldn’t all these people be at Jazz Fest eating Crawfish Monica and listening to Kermit Ruffins or the subdudes?  Needless to say we were both feeling a bit ornery too, so we chose to eat conveniently as opposed to wisely.

On Friday afternoon, John and I ate at The Famous Gumbo Pot. This is my 34th cheat and I am down 59 pounds.

First off, I really have to address the word “famous”.  Even though I was exhausted and hungry, that word itched at me, I mean, I had never heard of the Gumbo Pot before…have you?  A Google hunt revealed a Craigslist job posting and reference to a New Orleans-style restaurant in Los Angeles.  How could you be famous if no one knows who you are?

Anyhow, we both realized we were subjecting our wallets and stomachs to the whims of a restaurant positioned (and named) to ensnare the unwary tourist, but we were too tired to argue and decided to risk it.  We were seated at a patio table and quickly served a couple of beers while looking over the menu.  The prices were ridiculous, although fairly common among French Quarter eateries and we decided to go with what would be the most affordable…a couple of po-boys.  We also got one side of fries (the $14 po-boys did NOT include them) and I thought, since they were named The Gumbo Pot, I should taste a cup of their “famous” stew.

The po-boys came out first, John got a roast beef and I chose shrimp.  They both were very large and pretty tasty, even though the bread was not what we are used to.  John’s po-boy could have used some more roast beef, it was a comparatively skimpy portion, but the sandwiches were easily the highlight of our meal.  When John tasted their duck and andouille gumbo, he laughed and said “Where’s the roux?”  I tasted a spoonful and realized he was right!  It tasted like all of the rich flavor that comes from a good roux had been substituted by some kind of boil seasoning…perhaps Zatarain’s? I am not positive what it was exactly, but I do know that if you are going to tout the name The Famous Gumbo Pot, you better have some really good gumbo.

I should have known that ordering dessert would only further my disappointment, but it was like seeing a car wreck happen right in front of you…you just can’t look away.  Maybe I was a glutton for punishment or maybe I was hoping they would pull it together for dessert, but I ordered a slice of their pecan pie and crossed my fingers.  Pecan pie is fairly simple to make, they couldn’t possibly screw it up too bad, right?

As it turns out, if you are seeking a way to completely rip off your patrons, you can very easily screw up the simple recipe for a pecan pie…just leave out the pecans!  I mean, I was shocked!  In this rather large slice of pecan pie there were only three or four pecans. Really?  For a $6 piece of pie I only get four pecans?

Well, I suppose that’s what I get for being grumpy and impatient.  At the very least, anyone who reads this will be wiser for the ware.  If you want some pretty good gumbo, tasty po-boys and really respectable prices while you are in the French Quarter, go to the real original…go to the Gumbo Shop.

“Girl time” at the Delachaise

It seems inevitable for girlfriends go through periods of distance, not because of any flaw in the friendship, but because we become busy with our own lives and romantic involvements. But, one thing is for sure, you’ll always know who your true friends are because true girlfriends always check back from time to time as a reminder that nothing between them has changed, to let the other know that this friendship is still important, still valued.  So you’ll understand, why after a year of sparse contact, I needed to spend some serious “girl time” on Wednesday afternoon with my close friend Dani at the Delachaise.

The Delachaise Restaurant rests on one of the shortest blocks Uptown, a strange stretch of property that juts out towards St. Charles Avenue in the familiar guise of a streetcar…a streetcar with an awning and a patio fashioned from police barricades out front.  As odd as that sounds, the interior of the Delachaise is much more sophisticated with a long, elegant bar and comfortably cushioned booths at both the front and rear of the “car”.

Dani and I wandered in and sat down at the bar.  I looked up at the chalkboard drink menus and saw that the Delachaise offered not only an amazing variety of wines, they also carried some interesting labels for beer, as well as hard liquor.  Handwritten lists for a variety of vodkas, gins, scotches, tequilas and more stood above his head, but when I asked the bartender for his “signature” cocktail, he told me “this is a wine bar, ” and handed us menus.

When he walked away, Dani and I gave each other a knowing look, eyebrows raised, but I figured if the man only wants to pour wine, so be it. We decided to try a glass of ’06 Alonso Vidella Malbec from Argentina.

Although the man that made a name for the Delachaise as a fine eatery in New Orleans no longer graced it’s kitchens, I still couldn’t help being curious about the food options.  Dani and I both wanted the Pomme Frites fried in goose fat and served with a malt vinegar aioli and spicy, peanut satay.  Now I realize, this is not a cheat night, but how often does quality girl time come along?  It was time to indulge a little. The wine was really wonderful, heavy and rich with the odor of blueberries and violets.  We warmed to the spirit quickly and conversations old and new transpired until we were awed by the aroma of our appetizer.

Brushing aside the slightly sloppy service, we found some fries drowning in the aioli sauce dish, the food was pretty tasty and we made quick work of it.  Still a bit hungry, we decided to order another wine, a glass of Grenache, a 2004 Domaine Cuvee de Beaume and their Grilled Eggplant “Cannolis” with Chevre and ricotta piped into the rolls of eggplant served with a “Muhammara” sauce.  Although Muhammara is supposed to be a spicy pepper dip, the sauce tasted suspiciously similar to the satay we ate earlier with the fries.  I have to admit the “cannolis” were tasty though, and we had no difficulty polishing them off.

The second wine (which we chose at random, I might add) featured a lighter, fruitier flavor with a higher alcohol content and I actually enjoyed it more than the Malbec as it reminded me more of the season, more appropriate for the warmer weather.

The warmth of our conversation mixed with good wine and tasty bites made for a lovely afternoon that I won’t soon forget. The atmosphere of the Delachaise made a perfect location for us to re-ignite our friendship and give us both a chance to step away from our responsibilities for a short while and be carefree, giddy girls again.  I only wish it could happen more often…

Babylon: Exalting in clean clothes and delicious cuisine

Laundry day can be a long period of dull-as-dishwater drudgery for someone without a washer and dryer in their home…someone exactly like me.  Sure, you could catch up on some light reading or master the latest NYT crossword puzzle (I never could get past Wednesday), but most of the time you sit twiddling your thumbs while you watch the clothes go round and round in the dryers for what seems like an eternity.  I have this theory that time actually DOES move more slowly when forced to watch the timers tick down on the machines and that, only when you walk away or become busy with another errand, will the timers return to normal and even pass more quickly. But what does one do?

I believe I have found a solution.

On Maple Street, there is an interesting old building that houses a laundromat and a restaurant both with the mystical, magical name of Babylon.  I discovered that if I can get my seven loads started and swishing, I can go next door, enjoy a delicious lunch and be back in time for the drying cycle with a smile on my face and full tummy.

Although it doesn’t look fancy (how fancy could a place be while attached to a laundromat?), the food at Babylon Cafe (7724 Maple Street) is simply wonderful and the price is perfect for those dining on a budget.  The last time I was there, I enjoyed their combination appetizer plate that featured stuffed grape leaves, Tabuleh (similar to a Greek salad), falafel. Baba Ghanoush (eggplant dip), hummus, yogurt and cucumber dip and a large basket of bread.  You server will ask whether you desire pita bread or their own fresh, homemade bread…I highly recommend you select the latter.

The stuffed grape leaves are cooked perfectly with leaves mildly tart and tender enough to cut with a fork.  I also really enjoy their hummus, the garlic-flavored chick peas mesh so nicely with the fresh warm bread…it is truly difficult to not eat the entire basket.

I always enjoy quick, friendly service during the lunch hour and before I know it, I am back on the other side shoving my clothes into the dryers and left with only 25 minutes to while away.  After dining next door, it is nice to relax and zone out on the other patrons furiously folding their laundry while my fantastic lunch digests.  Next thing I know, I am folding my dry clothes and packing them away for my return trip home.

Until next laundry day…

A wealth of creativity at the Arts Market of New Orleans

On the last Saturday of every month, the Arts Council of New Orleans organizes an Arts Market in Palmer Park located on the corner of Carrollton Avenue and Claiborne.  Palmer Park is very close to my apartment and I can’t tell you how many times I have driven past the bustling, open-air market, wondering why I haven’t taken the opportunity to visit yet.  Well, this weekend, I decided to finally go and I am so glad I did.

John and I managed to get out of the house and to the park by 10:30 a.m. this morning. The sun was shining brightly and the market wasn’t very busy yet so we were able to stroll past each booth and take our time. We admired colorful jewelry created by Richard Milazzo of Mod Wood Studio, hand-painted silk clothing and purses by Traci Batchelor, Alphabet photography by Amy Marquis, and “pulp” paintings by Ellen McCord.

I couldn’t help but stop to admire the large metallic bugs created by Andrew Bascle from Jefferson.  He explained to me how each piece was assembled with very little glue.  Creatures resembling mosquitoes, frogs, dragonflies and beetles were miraculously created using simple household objects like tea infusers, hair clips and bobby pins!

Another cool booth featured Barbara Roberds’ “Screen Door Art.”  She incorporates her photography of iconic New Orleans images with salvaged architectural wood, creating pieces that would appeal to both tourist and local alike. One particular piece caught my eye, a triptych of shotgun houses set in an aged window pane…gorgeous!

When I turned around, I spotted glass pieces by DebiDeaux Designs…she offered an array of handmade glass beads, sculpture and jewelry.  Being a huge fan of glass jewelry, I scooped up her card and discovered she was very local, living just across the river in Algiers Point.  All of her pieces were super fun and colorful, but I especially liked the glass pendants symbolizing the Goddess…they were truly stunning.

Suddenly we found ourselves in the center of Palmer Park where four walkways merged into a circle.  One corner featured the New Orleans Public Library “booth” where tables of books were set up for sale and behind it was the children’s stage, setting up for singing, storytelling and crafts.  Opposite the library booth stood a table featuring literature from the Louisiana Humane Society.  They were asking for donations that entered you in a drawing for a basket full of dog treats!  I spotted many pet owners signing up to help with their four-legged friends in tow.

Delicious food aromas wafted towards us as we headed towards the “food court” area of the market featuring Crawfish Beignets from Geaux Daddy Catering and Woody’s Fish Tacos.  The Girl Scouts were there taunting patrons with their addictive cookies and Crepes a la Cart was offering freshly stuffed crepes just in case you skipped breakfast.

We narrowly avoided being drawn in by the food (it wasn’t our cheat day after all) and dove back into the art vendors lined along a path we had not yet trodden.  Right away, I was pleased to see the aluminum hangers and skateboard decks created by Jeffrey St. Romain.  I love his drawings and the hangers were fun, creative and totally affordable.  You can find his work online at StructureStudios.org…not to mention the next Arts Market at the end of May!

There were tons of other vendors offering clothing, hand-made purses, jewelry, wood craft, metal-works and more.  It is truly dizzying to realize how talented our local artists are and because of the Arts Council, there is one place you can find them on the last Saturday of every month. Although I was unable to purchase anything this month, I will be saving my dollars for the next market on May 29th at Palmer Park!