Friday, June 08, 2012

The Big Easy, part II

On Sunday morning, we awoke and headed out in search of beignets. Clay had never had a beignet before, so we knew we had to go to Cafe du Monde. We got there early enough that there wasn't much of a line, so we were seated and munching on our beignets in no time.

After a sugar-packed breakfast, it was off to the Aquarium of the Americas for us. Again, we got there right at opening time. And again, as everyone headed to the left for the coral reef exhibit, we veered right. We had the whole jellyfish exhibit entirely to ourselves, a big plus because little man is fascinated by them. We took the steps up to the Louisiana exhibit, which was deserted except for us. The albino alligator hopped down off his fake pier and swam right up to the glass for a heart-to-heart with Clay. Magical. After that, we had a complete monopoly on the stingray touch pool, where Clay touched two stingrays. (They are so soft and velvety!) It wasn't until this part of the aquarium that we started seeing other people.


We went through some more tanks (eels, frogs, and more!) before ending up at Parakeet Point, where we bought feed sticks. The birds perched on nearby branches (and on our hands) while we fed them. They weren't as aggressive as the birds at Gatorland (plus, little man was a little bit older), so Clay was completely cool with it. This ended up being one of his favorite parts of the aquarium visit.

After feeding the birds, we stopped in the upstairs cafe for a nice cold drink before heading back downstairs to explore the coral reef exhibit. Beautiful!

When we finished up at the aquarium, we weren't hungry enough for lunch yet. Since we'd bought the Audubon Experience tickets (admission to the zoo, the aquarium, the insectarium, and an IMAX show), we figured we'd catch a quick IMAX movie and then hunt up some grub.

By unbelievable luck, we were able to see the 3D version of The Last Reef, an amazing 40-minute film about coral reefs, their importance to the ocean's ecosystem, and their fight for survival. I have NEVER seen a 3D movie where the effects were so startling. Nearly everyone in the theater was holding their hands out, trying to touch schools of fish, delicately floating jellyfish and swaying sea plants. This was money and time well spent.

By this time, we were getting hungry. A few blocks down Canal Street from the aquarium is one of my favorite places to eat in New Orleans. And neither Clay nor Brian had ever been there. That's how we ended up at a prime table at The Palace Cafe. Yum! I got a mimosa and the oyster pan roast (my fave), hubs had the redfish, and Clay had perhaps his fanciest plate of chicken nuggets and homemade potato chips ever. (His ketchup came in a silver gravy boat. I'm telling you, he felt like a king!) As always, the food was DELICIOUS! And I always love the three piece band. Towards the end of our meal, they came down and played requests tableside. For us, they played "Audubon Zoo!" It was a moment that I will remember for a long time. Very special.

Fortified, we headed to our last attraction before the trip home - the Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium. Unlike all of the other places I'd taken Clay, I'd never been to the Insectarium before. It is a blast! We saw all types of bugs, spiders, and crickets. There's a whole exhibit on termites! They have bug-themed video games you can play, and a gorgeous butterfly garden where the beautiful creatures fly all around you. In the back, there's a cafe where you can try tasty treats made with bugs. I had mealworm salsa and a chocolate chip cookie made with crickets. The verdict? Not bad, but man, you REALLY wanted to floss later . . .

After that, we were tuckered out! We trundled back to the car for a blessedly uneventful trip home.

We had a complete blast! We're already planning our next trip! I'm thinking swamp tour . . . :)

The Big Easy

Soooo, the kitchen was a mess. Looking at it all was beginning to give me hives. Then, I got a TravelZoo email with a great deal on a small hotel in New Orleans. The Maison St. Charles, right on the streetcar line between the Quarter and the Lower Garden District. A room, breakfast, and parking for $60.

I'd been wanting to take little man on his first trip to The Big Easy. It seemed as though the universe was speaking to me. One phone call later, we were booked for Friday and Saturday night.

We packed a bag, loaded up on some car snacks, and hit the road. Then, the road hit us. In Amite, La., we got a flat tire. Cut to two hours of "browsing" at the Amite Wal-Mart while they replaced the tire. (Yuck. I hate going to Wal-Mart, even at home. Even on a good day. Not how I envisioned starting our trip, but I suppose it could have been worse. We could have gotten a flat tire 20 miles onto the bridge.)

So that was the downside. The upside? It put us in Manchac right at suppertime. You know what that means - fried thin catfish at Middendorf's! I never even KNEW they had a back deck on the water, but as soon as I saw it, I knew that's where we'd eat.

Covered, out over the water, replete with ceiling fans and misters. They even had live music and a sand area (with a water fountain and sand toys) where the kids could play. The sun was setting, the music was good, and it was heavenly out there. I ordered two mojitos for us, and you could smell the mint on the wind as they made them at the bar. We had oysters, catfish, fries, and hushpuppies as we watched boaters gliding up to the dock, tying up, and hopping off for some serious dinner. It sure felt like a vacation.

After that, it was a quick hop to our hotel, which we found without much trouble, even in the dark. (God bless smartphones and their mapping functions!) We bedded down for the night in anticipation of a busy Saturday.

We decided to eat breakfast close to home the next morning. Finding the continental breakfast rather uninspiring at the hotel, we turned to Urbanspoon for some ideas. A few screens later, we'd settled on The Blue Plate Cafe, which was easily walkable from our location. What a great find! Prices are a little on the spendy side for breakfast, but portions are HUGE, and the food is amazing. I had a big cup of hot coffee and Sue's Special, a split biscuit topped with ham, creamed spinach, and poached egg, served with a side of browns. Hubs had a giant breakfast burrito, and little man contented himself with pancakes, bacon, and pineapple juice.

The whimsical decor and great service (and I mean great - fast, friendly, lots of personality) made it all the better. And they serve lunch and dinner, too! A nice new spot to add to our New Orleans rotation.

After breakfast, we got into the car and headed for Audubon Park. We were still a bit early for the zoo (Why on EARTH they wait until 10 a.m. to open, in the HEAT of SUMMER, is completely beyond me. They should open at 8 a.m. and save patrons from the heat of the day. I'll bet the animals are a lot more active then, too, before the heat has sucked the life out of them.), so we explored the park a bit. At the stroke of 10 a.m., we were in front of the gates of the Audubon Zoo. After renting a stroller and grabbing a glass of lemonade, we were off!

Since most of the crowd appeared to be heading straight or to the right, we headed left. Good call. We explored the Komodo Dragons, the reptile house, and the sea lions in relative peace. We did a little tree climbing, got a great view of the rhinos, and peeked at the gazelles. Clay LOVED the play area around the bronze lion statues - climbing, wading, secret trails, a giant web, and a shady tree house.

We chatted with the giraffes, got a fabulous view of the leopards, and had a little bit of lunch at the Zoofari Cafe on site. A few rides on the carousel, and we were pooped! We headed back to the hotel for a bit of a rest before meeting up with one of my college buddies and his sweet family for dinner.

Dinner was at Reginelli's, where I had a delicious Shrimp Forrest - tortellini with shrimp, pancetta, and cheese in a red pepper cream sauce. Hubs had an excellent pizza, and Clay got the Tortellini Pomodoro. It was so great to catch up with an old friend and meet his sweet family. He has four gorgeous girls. After dinner, we went back to their house for a bit, where the girls showered me with pretend food from their kitchen, strung Mardi Gras beads around my neck, and let me try on all of their sparky butterfly rings. I was in HEAVEN!

More to come . . .

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Water for Elephants

I FINALLY got around to watching the movie adaptation of Water for Elephants, starring Robert Pattinson (Jacob) and Reese Witherspoon (Marlena). I'd absolutely loved the book when I read it, and I was excited to see the production values and the performances in the film.

I was not disappointed. First, the costumes! As Marlena, the star of the circus, Witherspoon's costumes were amazing. They had a vintage look, almost as if her character had made them/adapted them from evening dresses of the period. And all of the trappings of the circus itself maintained that wonderful period feel. I loved watching the big tent go up, seeing how the circus turned itself into a mobile city, marveling along with the characters at the different acts in the traveling show. Overall, I thought production values were very high here, with great attention to detail on what must have been a very challenging shoot. (Especially considering all the animals they captured on film.)

Performances were solid, with Pattinson and Witherspoon serving as the glue that held the film together. Cristoph Waltz gave a convincing turn as Witherspoon's dark husband, August, and Hal Holbrook was an absolute delight as an older Jacob.

If you haven't gotten around to seeing this movie, and especially if you loved the book, make some time. The movie is a sensory delight, and a very enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours.

Bon appetit!

A couple of weeks ago, I went out with a group of my girl friends to try a new restaurant in Ridgeland - Anjou. An upscale French spot, the restaurant is located off Highland Colony Parkway. The cozy interior makes group dining a pleasure, and I could also see how this place would make a nice special occasion spot.

We started with wine. (I can highly recommend Laboure-Roi Les Sangliers Pinot Noir. Yum!) Then, since so many in the party were watching their waistlines, we ordered a mix of salad Nicoise, the salmon with ratatouille entree (DELICIOUS!), and the seafood crepes. The bread and butter were appropriately chewy/creamy (respectively), and our server was precious. (Service was a bit slow, but they'd only been open for about a month at that point. I feel certain they will work any service snags out post-haste.)

Prices are upper- to mid-range, but I felt Anjou offered good value for the price paid. You can check out their website at http://www.anjourestaurant.net/. Happy eating!

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Rocky Springs!

For about a year now, I've wanted to take little man down to Rocky Springs. I have many fond childhood memories of the place. We'd either go camping there with Girl Scouts, or mom would just load us and some of our friends into the car to make the short trip. We would tour the site of the old town, listen to the echo of our voices in the little church, and make rubbings of some of the beautiful old headstones in the cemetery.

Then, we'd go exploring in the water. Mom was always telling us not to get completely wet. We were supposed to JUST WADE. But, inevitably, we'd "slip" and fall in! I remember golden days of laughter and picnics out there, and I couldn't wait to show Clay!

A couple of weekends ago, hubs and I packed a cooler, extra clothing, towels, and little man into the car. We found it pretty easily. The little church is still there, though they no longer hold regular services. Clay peeked inside the town's old rusty safe and examined all the tree roots that have been exposed due to erosion.

Before too long, we were in the water. A pair of Crocs protected little man's feet, leaving him free to search for neat-looking rocks, keep and eye out for minnows, and pretend that he was Lewis and/or Clark. He was all smiles as we poked along the creek. We stopped at lunchtime for PB&J sandwiches, oniony chicken salad with pita chips, fresh summer peaches, and squares of dark chocolate.

We also swung by Owen's Falls before leaving the area. I hadn't been there in years, and it's still as magical as ever. We walked along some of the trails there before packing up and heading home. Little man fell asleep in the car, and when he woke up, he asked me when we'd be going back.

Life is some kinda good.

Too many cooks in the kitchen

A while back, we began thinking about having our kitchen remodeled. The cabinet doors and drawers were old and battered (and one hanging cabinet had even started to separate a bit from the wall), the lighting was atrocious, and we had glued a few pieces of the laminate countertop that had chipped after years of use back into place.

And though a younger version of me would have delighted in such a project - choosing finishes, obssessing over hardware, giving serious thought to paint color - the older version of me mainly dreaded it. Dreaded the expense, the mess, the hassle.

BUT here we are. Something had to be done about the space, so we began talking with a contractor a couple of months ago. We decided on a transitional kitchen with a nod to the American farmhouse style. I found a good deal on a gorgeous apron-front sink, scoured the Internet for a brushed nickle bridge faucet, and chose a nice dark granite for the countertops. We decided on a plain white subway tile for the backsplash. The plan is to keep the cabinet houses, but re-face with new doors. We're also converting some of the cabinets on the bottom to handy pull-out drawers so that we can acess the contents more easily.

Over Memorial Day weekend, hubs and I cleaned everything out of the kitchen. Let me repeat that, so you understand the full magnitude of what I am telling you. Every. Single. Thing. It now sits unceremoniously in a bunch of cardboard boxes in the den. (We purged a bit, too, dropping a few boxes of items off at the Salvation Army.) So far, the sink has been dry fit, most of the new lighting has been installed, and they've measured for the new countertops. They also removed all the cabinet doors and filled/sanded the hinge holes to prep the cabinets for painting.

It's been about a week, and though clear progress has been made, it will like be another three weeks until I am back in my kitchen. We set up a makeshift food prep area in the den, and we are using ALOT of paper plates!

They say kitchen remodels are the hardest to endure, and I believe them. Wish me luck . . .

Feet of Fury

While I was ferrying my groceries to my car in the Kroger parking lot a few weeks ago, I was approached by a young woman recruiting for summer session at her martial arts studio. I signed little man right up. It was a happy coincidence, as I decided a while ago that karate or tae kwon do would be the perfect extracurricular activity for him.

Why? A few reasons:
1.) It's INSIDE. When I was dating hubs in high school, his brother played soccer. The whole clan routinely attended game after game in the stifling heat. Um, no.
2.) The schedule is sane. Right now, he's going to class twice a week, and we can pick from a variety of sessions that fit our family schedule. I love the flexibility of it.
3.) It's solitary. Though the class is a group affair, one participates in tournaments only if one wants to, competing as an individual. So you're not letting the whole team down if a big tournament happens to be scheduled right during your very expensive trip to DisneyWorld.
4.) Clay thinks he is a complete super hero. The punching and kicking play into his fantasy world, in which he defends America (and me) against bad guys.

At first, hubs asked me (incredulously), "So you're teaching him how to hit us?!" But even he has to admit that little man loves it. He's been to four classes so far, and the kid's in heaven.

Just call him Bruce!

For SHAME!

Shame on me. It seems harder and harder in the past several months to get on over here and do something as simple as record my thoughts. Picking up the thread . . .

In and out of airports and planes on my way to and fro Rome, I read all three books in The Hunger Games trilogy. I thought all of them were very good, with strong characters and a richly-imagined world, and I highly recommend them. (It was actually very interesting to read them with Rome as a backdrop. After all, what are the Hunger Games but the Colosseum, set in the future and filled with youth? And Roman games were created with much the same purpose as the Hunger Games in the books - those killed at the Colosseum often came from conquered peoples, and their deaths served as entertainment for bloodthirsty Romans.) Returning stateside, I also teamed up with a friend to go see the movie adaptation of the first book. It was a good film and quite faithful to the text.

I'm also reading a daily devotional book right now called Blessed Abundance, which I quite like. Each day's meditation is on the spirituality and sacredness found in everyday life, in home keeping, in all of our mundane activities. Each daily entry is no more than two pages, and the author weaves in all sorts of interesting quotes and passages from writers and philosophers throughout history.