Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Muriel's Jackson Square, New Orleans: Ghost of the past lends authentic air to French Quarter landmark

Story and Photos by Dwight Casimere

Muriel’s Jackson Square, the Contemporary Creole Dining restaurant at the epicenter of New Orleans’ historic French Quarter, not only echoes the glories of days past, it is the resident keeper of the flame for the area’s celebrated cuisine and haunted past. There’s even the resident ghost of the original owner of the property, to add to the mystique.

“This was originally the dream home of Pierre Antoine Lepardi Jourdan, who was a successful businessman and property owner,” said Muriel’s owner Rick Gratia, while standing in the upstairs Scéance Room of the ornately grand restaurant, which just drips with the atmosphere of New Orleans’ storied past. “Although Jourdan was extremely wealthy, he was a horrible gambler.

“In 1814, he wagered his home in a poker game and lost. Just before it was time for him to hand over the keys, he hung himself in this room. There are some who say his spirit still lingers here today. On occasion, he goes downstairs to throw around some glasses to express his outrage.”

Gratia recounts the legend with the unassuming ease of many here in the French Quarter who speak of ghosts as if they were real. Here in New Orleans, and especially the French Quarter, fact and legend live side by side. To many, ghost sightings are no more fantastic than the occurrence of lightning. Legend, no matter how preposterous sounding, is no less factual than carbon dating of fossil remains.

In the main dining room, a spirited Louis Armstrong tribute jazz quartet delighted brunch-time diners. Cuisine, prepared by Muriel’s celebrated Executive Chef Gus Martin, brimmed with the flavors of Cajun and Creole culture. “We are one of the few restaurants in the French Quarter that uses actual locally farmed fresh Snapper Turtle in our Turtle Soup. Lots of restaurants say they do, but what the use are either local snapper fish or grouper or a mixture of fish and snapper turtle. We use 100% of the real thing. The same goes for our alligator hash, probably one of the most popular items on our menu. We use only fresh, locally farmed alligator. We use ground alligator meat, along with our very own house made alligator sausage. Combined with local Cajun spices, it is a taste treat that you just can’t duplicate anywhere else.”

As I listened to Joe Simon’s superb Jazz Trio render a flawless recreation of Louis Armstrong’s signature tune, “I Still Get Jealous”, I enjoyed a glass of Piper Heidsieck Brut Champagne ($26.99), which was the perfect accompaniment to the Turtle Soup with its grace notes of ruby grapefruit, apple and peach and back notes of vanilla and light toast. It has a minerality that cuts through the slight brininess of the turtle soup and creates a creamy texture in the back of the mouth that, when combined with the light heat of Creole spice, is an ecstatic dining experience.

Cakebread Sauvignon Blanc 2007 ($29.95) is a spectacular vintage from one of Napa Valley’s most consistent producers. The grapes are all harvested at night on the estate under the cool temperatures and the watchful eye of a full, Harvest Moon. With a blend of grapes from the winery’s Rutherford Estate, newer vineyards from Carneros and Calistoga, as well as premium vineyards in St. Helena, this superb wine is crisp, full-bodied and complex. It defies the typical attitude toward white wine. It stands up to complex flavors, such as Chef Martin’s palette tingling BBQ wood grilled Louisiana shrimp, yet it is graceful enough to caress the slightly tart/sweet yin and yang of his signature bread pudding or bourbon-laced pecan pie.

Muriel’s Jackson Square provided a stunning conclusion to my culinary excursion of the French Quarter as well as a spine-tingling walk through the haunted corridors of its legendary past. For more on the legend of Muriel’s Jackson Square, visit www.muriels.com.

Next: Wine Lovers, The Musical!

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