|Roy and Bill, (Roy is on the right), set up for a photo shoot promoting their regular Saturday and Sunday morning performances at tout de suite, a coffee house and cafe in Old Algiers Point across the Mississippi River from New Orleans, LA.|
I am again comfortably numb. Paralyzed by relaxation. This happens every time I bicycle the few miles from the go-go 24/7 party city of New Orleans to the laid back neighborhood of Algiers Point. Taking the passenger ferry across a churning brown Mississippi River, and plunking myself down at a two-top covered with a red and white checked tablecloth outside tout de suite, a coffee house and cafe at the quiet corner of Alix and Verret in the historic district just does this to me. Eighty-six reality, at least for a little while, while I drift in a caffeinated haze.
A bright sun rising in a cloudless pale blue sky warms my bones while I enjoy my mid week, mid-morning reverie. Every fifteen minutes I hear from across the street, a loudspeaker hung on the outside of the the massive Tudor-Gothic brick bell tower of Holy Name of Mary Catholic church broadcasting a reasonable rendition of London's Big Ben chiming. Locals say it has been decades since actual bells in the belfry of the church, built in the 1920's, pealed the time.
Few other distracting noises intrude. This is not a busy corner, where Verret and Alix streets cross. There is no need for a traffic light, just a stop sign.
My wandering gaze lights on matching brown bicycles with fenders, fat tires and baskets locked to a bike rack shaped like a Celtic Cross a few feet away. Cute. I peer through the large place glass window into the cafe half-full with customers. Wood all around, dark and exposed. Kind of funky, really, but most of the art by local artists that had hung on these dark walls is gone. A recently opened community art gallery nearby displays those pictures now.
I write a blog about the outdoors. Sitting here, having coffee at a table in front of a coffee house and cafe, in the sun, I am outdoors. I am at work.
I break my vacant, 2,000 yard stare to begin a conversation with a cheery middle aged woman wearing an apron busily loading stuff from the cafe into a station wagon at the curb. She is Jill Marshall, owner of the tout de suite, a business she started ten years ago. As soon as she accepts my invitation to chat, she sits down and begins to tell me about changes in her cafe's menu offerings to better reflect the cultural influences that have swirled through the cooking of Old Algiers for centuries. Her face lights up as she highlights the changes.
"Huevos rancheros, the best in the city, reflect the Spanish influence of the 18th century," she said. Old favorites rooted in country French cooking that are popular have been retained. The Atchafalaya, eggs topped with crawfish etouffee, and the definitely French pain perdu, an almond crusted brioche with seasonal fruits and berries, continue to satisfy. The menu is diverse. Soups, sandwiches, entree salads, desserts. You want to come to tout de suite hungry. Basic breakfast noshes are available and their coffee is certainly good but the reputation of tout de suite is built on their skilled and inventive kitchen.
The thing about this place is that people go there to eat. They order at the counter, sit down and are served and they stay to eat their food. Not so much do people rush in to grab a cup of coffee and walk out the door sipping it as they talk on their iPhones on their way to somewhere else. This IS the destination.
Local products such as Steens cane syrup are featured. Pies and cookies are house made and there is an organic cereal offering on the kid's menu. Non-carnivores will find plenty on the menu to suit them from wild mushroom macaroni with four cheeses to quinoa patties. (The complete menu is at www.toutdesuite.com.)
Moving away from food I quizzed her about how the reduction in ferry hours has affected her business. The ferry had always appealed to Algiers Point visitors, offering a quick and convenient connection with the French Quarter without having to drive over the Mississippi River bridge.
But that was when the ferry ran from early in the morning to nearly midnight. Now the schedule is a fraction of that. During the week service ends about the time people get off from work and is of little use for anyone with an early morning schedule. The weekend schedule has been similarly gutted.
She said while there may be fewer tourists having breakfast in her place (Sunday, the first ferry does not leave the Canal Street ferry dock until 11 am), she now serves more locals on weekends who would have otherwise crossed the river to breakfast in the French Quarter.
"It has been kind of a wash," she said.
Live jazz music packs the place Saturday and Sunday mornings beginning at 9 am so I asked her if those staying in New Orleans miss out on the live music at tout de suite because of the late morning ferry schedule.
"Oh no. They play until noon," she said. As if on cue, the duo of Roy and Bill, who play at those jazz sessions, began to set up a photo shoot behind us at the curb on the corner.
All too soon my coffee cup is empty so it's time to leave. I thanked Jill for the conversation and started to ride my bicycle back to the ferry, a grueling six tenths of a mile.
|Pelican Gulf gas station c. 1929. Closed in 1990|
and reopened as Gulf Pizza. (504) 373-5379.
While Algiers Point was settled within months of when New Orleans was founded in 1718, the historic district of Algiers Point looks like a village from the late 19th century. This is because most of the homes were built about that time after a disastrous fire destroyed most of the existing housing stock.
The historic area is small, bounded by the curve in the river and Atlantic and Newton streets. However most of the good stuff is clustered within a six or seven block radius of the ferry landing. Just let yourself wander around and soak up the vibe.
The first weekend in October, Gretna is home to one of the largest music festivals in the area, Gretna Fest.
Heading east (downriver) from the ferry landing, the path runs for another mile and a half before it deadends at Merrill St. Other than views of river traffic and industrialized St. Bernard Parish on the far bank there is not much to see. But the path does pass in front of the Old Point Bar which offers an extensive music schedule packed with local bands. (Riders can come off the levee and ride Patterson Road to the Chalmette Ferry and cross over to St. Bernard Parish. But riders exit the ferry onto a narrow two-lane with heavy traffic surrounded by large chemical plants and shipping interests. Not a recommended ride.)
Both paths have historical plaques installed at ground level. You may have to look for them but it is worth the effort as they give an idea of what was here before. Across the street from the ferry landing is The Dry Dock Cafe, www.thedrydockcafe.com. The cafe/bar, popular with locals and tourists alike, offers lunch and dinner seven days a week. Around the corner on Pelican St., a weekly quiz night at The Crown and Anchor, www.crownandanchorpub.com, keeps patrons entertained.
If walking or riding at night at Algiers Point, use common sense to keep safe, especially after dark. Don't venture far from from the ferry landing and stick to areas that are well lighted. Always be aware of your surroundings and maybe wait until you are back on the ferry before blocking your hearing with headphones.
Boarding the ferry, I met the riders of the matching brown bikes with baskets I saw at the cafe. A young couple visiting from Seattle, they said they rented the bikes and that they loved the food at the cafe. The fare for the ferry trip, $2 each way was a bargain for them as they pay more than that for bus fare they said.
As I walked my bike up the ramp at Canal Street I glanced down river to see workers setting up for French Quarter Fest. With opening day tomorrow, workers were busy pitching the food tents and building the stages. Only Mardi Gras attracts more visitors to New Orleans than French Quarter Fest, a music festival featuring only local performers. The "free" festival (this year attendees will be searched at check points around the festival perimeter to make sure they do not smuggle in food or drink) now draws more people than Jazz Fest.
I can only imagine what the crowds will be like when Dr. John takes the stage Friday night. Probably a lot like Mardi Gras, only warmer.
For more information visit www.algierspoint.org.