Anyone who knows me knows that I am a huge fan of the Beatles. Anyone who knows Beatles history knows that on July 28, 1968, the Fab Four took a break from recording “The White Album” and spent the entire day with two photographers traveling all over London on what is now referred to as the “Mad Day Out.”
My wife and I – along with our daughter and several of our friends – have just completed our own version of a mad day out. However, instead of spending the day with photographers in London, we loaded up in a 15-passenger van and drove all over New Orleans in search of houses and yards that have been decorated for Mardi Gras.
Mardi Gras in New Orleans, the Gulf Coast, Mobile and my hometown was canceled this year. New Orleanians, being the fun-loving, creative people they are, decided to make their own carnival fun by decorating their homes and lawns in all manner of Mardi Gras frivolity.
It was my wife’s idea to have our friends drive down and load everyone up in a van and do a tour of the homes. She handled the Mardi Gras end of things (namely Googling where the houses were located and mixing up cocktails by the batch – a task that, according to her friends, she’s very good at). I drove the van and handled all of the dining details (things I am good at). Our mad day out turned into a fun day filled with family, friends, food, fun and – for all but two of us – a lot of adult beverages.
My day started with my usual, every morning trip to La Boulangerie bakery. The pastries there are as good as any I have eaten in France. As a testament to the quality of that particular bakery, I get up every morning when we are in New Orleans and drive 20 minutes from our apartment in the Marigny to that awesome French blue building on Magazine Street in uptown, just off of Napoleon, for croissants, orange juice and iced tea (it’s all about priorities, people).
By the time I got back to the apartment, the party had already begun. Our Mardi Gras decorations didn’t go to waste this year as my wife had decorated the apartment in advance of the occasion. The mood was upbeat and festive.
I made brunch reservations at Justin Devillier’s Justine in the French Quarter. It was an exceptional meal with excellent service, but the standout was – by far – the French onion soup. I texted Devillier halfway through the meal and told him that it was the best example of that particular soup that I have ever eaten since I ate Paul Bocuse’s version in Lyon in 2011. Despite the pandemic and all of the COVID-19 regulations, the place was busy, and the energy level was spot on. Whoever makes the playlist in Justine has been reading my mail.
We took a break immediately after brunch and went back to the apartment. Under normal circumstances, at that particular point, I would have taken a nap or at least dozed off half a dozen times while sitting in my chair.
But the conversation and the revelry were in full bloom, so I worked with my friend Steve to plot the route we would take winding through New Orleans in search of house floats.
Mid-afternoon, we loaded up in the van and went in search of Mardi Gras 2021. I love the fact that New Orleanians have gone to great lengths – and great expense – to keep the Mardi Gras tradition alive during the pandemic. Houses all over town are decorated to differing degrees and with different themes. For 300 years that city has endured more challenges than most, and this virus was not going to stop a centuries-old tradition of celebration before Lent.
St. Charles Avenue was bumper to bumper most of the afternoon, but there were houses in neighborhoods all over the city. The van was rocking; there were colored lights blinking, music blaring and adult beverages flowing freely. The mood was raucous. After driving around for a few hours, we took a much-needed break at the longtime River Bend watering hole, Cooter Brown’s, where I ate the best raw oysters I have ever eaten in a dive bar (maybe ever). They were large, salty and ice cold.
For dinner, we drove back into the French Quarter for an excellent small plates meal at Cane and Table. There is a rib offering on the menu that reminds me of an olive-oil braised version at my favorite tapas bar in Barcelona: Tapeo.
The day’s food was excellent: croissants, onion soup, oysters, and ribs. Not all was prototypical New Orleans fare, but in the fine tradition of that city, it was all first rate.
The house tour was fun, but most of all, the day was about sharing time with family and friends.
If there is a silver lining in all of this pandemic mess we’ve been dealing with for almost a year, it’s that we have been forced to get creative in how we interact with one another.
In the case of our mad day out in New Orleans, I couldn’t imagine a better time with a finer group of people.
Hattiesburg native Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author.
KING CAKE BREAD PUDDING
• 2 cups milk.
• 2 cups heavy whipping cream.
• 3/4 cup sugar, divided.
• 4 egg yolks.
• 8 eggs.
• 2 teaspoons vanilla.
• 1/8 teaspoon salt.
• 1 teaspoon cinnamon.
• 1 8-10” round cream cheese-filled King Cake.
• Place the milk, cream and half of the sugar in a small sauce pot and place over medium heat.
• Bring this mixture to a simmer, stirring occasionally to prevent the sugar from burning. While the milk mixture is heating, place the remaining sugar, egg yolks, whole eggs, vanilla and salt into a stainless steel mixing bowl.
• Using a wire whisk, beat the egg mixture until it becomes light yellow in color. Slowly begin adding the hot milk to the beaten eggs, whisking constantly to prevent the eggs from cooking.
• Cut the King Cake into 2-inch thick slices. Pour half of the custard into a 2-quart round Pyrex baking dish (9-inch diameter).
• Submerge the King Cake slices into the custard. Pour the remaining custard over the top and cover the baking dish. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
• Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
• Remove the covering from the refrigerated bread pudding; gently press down the King Cake so that the custard completely covers the surface. Cover the bread pudding with a piece of parchment paper, and then cover the paper with a piece of aluminum foil.
• In a roasting pan large enough to hold the Pyrex dish, place 2 inches of hot water. Place the Pyrex dish in the water; bake for 40 minutes. Remove the foil and parchment paper; bake for 10 additional minutes.
• Remove from the oven and allow the pudding to rest for one hour before serving. Serve with Brandy Crème Anglaise. Yield is eight to 10 servings.
BRANDY CRÈME ANGLAISE
• 1 cup cream.
• 1/2 cup half and half.
• 1/4 cup brandy.
• 3/4 cup sugar, divided.
• 4 egg yolks.
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract.
• In a stainless-steel pot, bring the cream, half and half, brandy, half of the sugar and the vanilla to a simmer. While it is heating, combine the yolks and remaining sugar in a mixing bowl; whip until pale yellow in color.
• Slowly begin adding the cream mixture to yolks, stirring constantly until all of the cream mixture has been added. Pour the mixture back into the sauce pot; cook over a low to medium flame, stirring constantly. Cook until the mixture becomes thick enough to coat a spoon or spatula.
• Remove from the heat; cool down in an ice bath. Note: This sauce may be made two or three days in advance. Yield is eight to 10 servings.