NEW ORLEANS part 2: A Taste of NOLA

The first thing I did after landing in New Orleans was to dump my bag in the room and head out onto the streets. On the basis I travel at least a couple of times a month this was actually rather unusual. Most of the time I’m feeling tired, a little post-airport-security-sensitive and I’d normally spend some time unpacking, adjusting and trying to fathom out how to switch on the TV without accessing the 90s porn. Not so in NOLA. The streets emit a constant energy that induces a state of FOMO (fear of missing out). In fact, I’d only been here five minutes when I stumbled upon a mini Mardi Gras that had broken out in celebration of…well, no-one seemed quite sure. Any excuse to party must be the city’s motto.

The humidity here puts you immediately into a drinking state of mind, so you actually have a practical task as you explore the cobblestone streets of the famous French Quarter: that is, find a suitable spot for a drink, a snack and maybe a lowdown on places not to be missed. We quickly made ourselves at home at the oyster bar in Royal House. Lauren, the gap-toothed shucker was exactly who you want on your first night. A bit of a local character that could shuck ’em as he shared a few stories and chatted you through the must-haves. This is the place I watched the waitress knock back a dozen chargrilled (topped with melted parmesan butter) as she gossipped on the phone during her break. The shrimp ‘n grits is excellent too but our favourite was the blackened shrimp jambalaya. There is nothing fancy about the place or the food here. It’s just classic, good value creole cooking and I actually preferred it to the guide book’s sweetheart, the Acme Oyster House, probably because the latter is so goddamn crowded.

Avoiding bawdy Bourbon Street becomes an art here, at least if you’re over 25 it does, so next stop we settled for a gentler, cleaner, trendier looking bar called Kingfish (named after the controversial ex Governor who was assassinated in 1935) just around the corner on Chartres Street. Don’t let its somewhat swish interior put you off, the cocktails and food here are both elegant and well considered. And Justin, the mixologist (showing off below) was charming: humble, quietly hilarious but very serious about his liquor. Under ‘libations’ on the cocktail menu you must try the French Pearl, a delicious mix of gin, lemon, mint and, of course the local favourite, herbsaint served in a cute little antique glass.The ‘Lil’ Eats’ menu is particularly creative: crab claw lollipops with a smoked remoulade, Louisiana sportsman’s gumbo with crowley popcorn rice or the BBQ shrimp and waffles served with Hopitoulas cream made with locally brewed IPA. Oh yes, we tried it all.

French Pearl cocktail at Kingfish, New Orleans

One of the coolest new places to eat in N’awlins right now has to be Cochon. Not the posh Cochon but the hipster-friendly Butcher nextdoor. If you or your partner has a beard then this is the place for you. If you both have beards then it’s definitely the place for you. As the name makes pretty clear, Butcher is all about the meat. This is post-apocalypse man’s mecca with a primeval passion for dead pig served in a no-nonsense environment. Everything is made in-house: the pickles are pickled here, the smoked meats smoked, the cured meats cured and the sausages sausaged. We barely spoke as we bore down on the delicious hot Boudin, the charcuterie plate with spicy fennel pastrami and country terrine, the extraordinary Muffaletta and the clever (and very tidy) Le Pig Mac. This was all washed down with a gorgeous local IPA by the name of Lil’ Smack. (Thankfully, when ordering a couple more I was spared the eye-roll)

Cochon and Butcher are part of the Donald Link empire that includes the famous Peche seafood restaurant. He’s won endless awards and if you can only try one thing from one of his posher establishments go to Herbsaint for the Banana Brown Bread Butter Tart with Fleur de Sel Caramel. It’s wonderful.

Next morning was all about finding THE coffee. The two places we picked out were Spitfire and Arrow Cafe. Both were friendly in that laid back hipster kinda way. Arrow gets extra points by being part bike shop. Cool coffee shops are like a litmus test of a city and tell you whether or not there’s a new food culture emerging. No question about that here. We followed coffee with an eggy breakfast at Envie on Decatur Street which felt like a proper locals hang out.

The perfect NOLA hidden gem has to be Killer Poboys. Set right at the the back of a dark and dingy Irish pub, KPB is a tiny hole-in-the-wall standing-room-only space serving gourmet creole sandwiches. Do not miss the seared Gulf Shrimp with an Asian twist, or the Glazed Pork Belly Poboy with a rum and ginger syrup. The Grass-fed Beef Meatloaf is exactly what this place is all about: high quality meat served the way you least expect it. Brilliant stuff.

By contrast, that evening we had a gentle meal at Coquette on Magazine Street. It opened just after the crash in 2008 but still has the feeling of settling in. The big dining rooms are stripped back elegant, successfully finding that delicate balance between posh and trendy. Firstly, the bread here was unforgettable. Important thing, bread, just like coffee. It sets your expectations and we weren’t disappointed. The vibe was a tad stifled but the roast chicken in the silky vadouvan French gravy was sublime, as was the smoked catfish.

The best night we had, for an all-round atmosphere and food combo, was at Paladar 511. Just opened in a cavernous warehouse on the edge of Marigny this place is set for great things. We sat at the bar overlooking the kitchen and were instantly at the centre of all the action. Head Chef and owner Jack Murphy was everything you want from a hip young chef: super busy but able to laugh with his team and wear his hat back to front at the same time. He selected a fab bottle of Grenache for us to go with the fried arancini and lamb sausage, followed by blueberry pie and honey lavender ice cream. A very decent night.

Time was limited but we fitted what certainly felt like an awful lot of food and drink into our four day stay. If you want classic, Creole cooking at a place that feels like it’s been there for a thousand years, served on a crisp linen tablecloth, head for the Commander’s Palace, August, Antoine’s, Galatoire’s, Mr B’s Bistro, The Court of Two Sisters, Mother’s or K Pauls. For something a little edgier, the list is long and getting longer every day: Toups Meatery, Brown Butter, Ursa Major, Balise, Cellar Door, Boucherie. I couldn’t try them all but I know a man who has.

Finally, and only because I can’t not mention it, pick up a pound of Mississippi Mud from Laura’s Candies. ‘She’s’ been making it on the premises since 1913 so not only is it a local icon, it’s ridiculously wonderful.

Every good city has a thousand restaurants. What makes New Orleans feel special is the mood that lubricates it. I learned that the hip young chefs relish having the established places just up the street and will recommend that you try them. They talk enthusiastically about new competitors opening too, like they feel they’re part of a new momentum. I guess it’s a kind of harmony that can only be achieved in a place that’s more of a non-stop party than a serious city.

  Howard Saunders   Jun 18, 2015   Blog, city, Food, image, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

NEW ORLEANS part 1: The film set

So it’s around 9pm and I’m sitting at a bar chatting to the friendly mixologist when a crashing clap of thunder interrupts us. As we turn to watch the downpour we just about make out the thump, thump, thump of a jazz band approaching. ‘Oh, it’s a wedding party’ explains the barman in a relaxed tone. Sure enough, a parade of two hundred or more drunken revellers dance past us, led by a well-drenched bride (pun intended) enthusiastically conducting the band with her sodden lace umbrella. This was my welcome to New Orleans.

I’m here because New York’s food fanatics can’t shut up about the place. New Orleans regularly comes top of the ‘best cities for food’ lists and its influence is impossible to avoid. There’s a new wave of Creole cooking emerging, apparently, and I don’t want to miss out.

It doesn’t take long to get a grasp on NOLA’s place in the US. It may be one of it’s oldest cities but it has never really belonged here. Locals like to say that the ‘deep south’ is well north of Louisiana and it’s easy to see why they’re described as the northern-most point of the Caribbean. They don’t even speak with that slow southern drawl we all like to imitate, probably because the place such a cauldron of cultures, having ping-ponged between the French, English and Spanish for about two hundred years.

N’awlins is in many ways an island, an enclave that has barricaded itself from the rest of the US. This is one place that can never be called a clone city. Sure, Starbuck’s, H&M and the rest of them are here, but very much in the background. At the epicentre, in the famous French Quarter, people are permanently primed for celebration. As if at any moment a street party will burst into life, tuba players and marching bands appearing from nowhere. And they do.

With buskers, beggars and banjo-ers at all hours of the day and night the streets are alive with music. But the sound that so evocatively reminds you of exactly where you are, is the slow, haunting whistle of the mile long freight train as it makes its way alongside the Mississippi. This city really is a living film set.

Too many cities pay homage to their history and heritage. Not so here; they live it. The gas lamps that light the streets are the real thing and you can visit the workshop where they’re still made. The local char-broiled oysters (grilled with cheese) are not some tourist bait, it’s what they eat, everyday. I watched as a young waitress knocked back a dozen on her break, standing at the counter whilst chatting on her cell phone. The masks and hats you see are (mostly) made locally and on a Sunday, Royal Street looks a little like Ladies Day at Ascot. Everyone smokes handmade cigars here, even the babies, and you can watch them being made, and smoked, at the Cigar Factory on Decatur Street. Even the touristy Voodoo stores are a clever distraction from the real Voodoo stuff that goes on underground. But that’s way too dark for this blog.

I’m not sure that the architecture in say, Hamburg, Rome or Madrid tells us much about the local cuisine. Maybe I’ve just not noticed, but here it’s blindingly obvious. The ‘shotgun’ symmetry of the French and Spanish style cottages all dressed up for the parade in their fancy finials and crocheted cast iron, the wooden shutters lacquered in clashing Caribbean colours. This, just like the food, is pure Creole.

In the same way, the history of the food is a crazy French, Spanish and Caribbean tale written by those that had to make very little go a very long way. Seafood is the focus but poor man’s seafood, crawfish not lobster, mixed in a giant pot with sausage and chicken. It’s fried oyster po’boys with pickles and rich French style gravy. And there’s a natural rhythm to it with dirty rice, (rice mixed with chicken liver, beans and lots of pepper) always on Monday’s menu. Everything, of course, is served with a respectful splash of hot sauce: there’s an obsession for it. Stop by The Pepper Palace to witness the thousands of tongue-numbing flavours, if you don’t believe me.

But away from the touristy areas, bright young restaurants, bars and coffee shops are popping up to make sure the city doesn’t lose its cool. This is where hip, reverse-cap wearing young chefs strip Creole food back to its roots in their stripped back warehouses and brick barns. There is no food-truck culture here to speak of, simply because the rents in the suburbs are still affordable enough for start-ups. Just. That nemesis of cool, gentrification, has spread ever faster in the aftermath of Katrina. Probably because all those Hollywood volunteers told their friends what they were missing.

It’s much clearer now why New Orleans has become the foodie’s latest crush. It not just vibrant, it’s authentic. There is nothing wannabe about New Orleans and it’s happy with its peculiar place on the planet. And that’s the urban obsession at the moment: authenticity. As the fast food chains and big brands struggle to reinvent themselves and convince us of their authenticity, here is a city steeped in food culture that never once thought about it.

Coming soon, Part 2: The Food

  Howard Saunders   Jun 01, 2015   Blog, Food, Gallery, Retail   0 Comment   Read More


1. Get a Brand

Pick a punchy name that sounds like it’s set for success. Something easy and familiar that rolls off the tongue works best. Choose a name that you can imagine being franchised from Totnes to Timbuktu. Hey, Timbuktu, there’s a name! (That one’s for free)

2. Get noticed

Make sure your sign is visible, and by visible I mean big. As big as the local authorities will allow. Bigger if you can get away with it. You need to stand out from the crowd and a fascia-filling, mother of a neon sign gets you on the radar. If they won’t allow that, go for back illuminated plastic. Getting noticed is half the battle.

3. Tell us what you do

Don’t be shy, explain yourself, get a strap-line, think positive. ‘The best & baddest burger in town’ or ‘Pizza-licious!’ Be proud of who you are and what you do…and then shout about it!

4. Design

Designing a restaurant isn’t easy, so make sure you get plenty of input. Start by asking the chef how much space he needs, then halve it. Everyone knows somebody who’s good at design. For instance, my niece is pretty artistic and can draw virtually any Disney character you care to throw at her. Ask someone like that to come up with a few ideas on decor before you get quotes, but keep it colourful. Remember, this isn’t your front room: we’re looking for the wow factor here. Sometimes a theme helps and it doesn’t matter what it is. For example, a ‘jungle’ theme opens up all sorts of exciting design opportunities. Compare that to, say, a ‘moon-landing’ theme. The rule is to let your imagination run riot. And on the subject of shit restaurants, there’s a ‘toilet’ themed restaurant in LA called the Magic Restroom. Apparently the food is very good.

5. Big Menu

Make sure you cover all angles. What if a young couple comes in and he wants a burger whilst she prefers pizza? Is one of them going to have to go next door? No. Have a full range of options to keep everybody happy from OAPs down to the kiddies. (Actually the pizza and burger combo pretty much covers that) And you’ll be amazed at the number of meal permutations you can create with just a few sauces and couple of side dishes.

6. Big Menu

It always looks impressive to have a big menu, in size I mean. We’re talking broadsheet (bed-sheet if possible) so that they’re anti-nickable, and laminated so you can wipe off all the grease. Make sure it looks bright and jolly with plenty of cheeky comments wherever possible. People love puns on food, like ‘Don’t go bacon my heart’ or ‘Penne for your thoughts’ etc. (You can use those)

7. Staff

Staff are critical to your success. After all, who else is going to bring the food to the table? If you have lots of keen, young family members that will work for a free meal then you’re off to a great start. Remember that every dollar you pay your staff, is a dollar straight off the bottom line, so keep it tight. Immigrants are excellent candidates. They’ll work for next to nothing and because they can’t speak the language they won’t argue with the customers. It’s a win, win!

  Howard Saunders   May 15, 2015   Blog, Brand, image, Retail   2 Comments   Read More


Here’s the thing: Manhattan men don’t like cars. I know because they say so loudly in bars accompanied by an effete salute. ‘I know NOTHING about cars’ they chime, as if just breaking sexual stereotypes instantly elevates you above your peers. Women here say the same about cooking. ‘I wouldn’t know HOW to turn it on!’ they proudly chortle in a display of inverted arrogance. So, to hold an international motor show in a city that largely despises the car may seem somewhat odd until you get a grip on its significance. The New York Auto Show is not just a petrol-head convention for out-of-towners, it is the annual visit when America comes to Manhattan.

This show has become a kind of annual barometer that measures how America feels about itself. Obviously, it was never a market for selling practical modes of transportation. The Auto Show is a brazen display of fuel-injected testosterone: who this year has the fastest, biggest, most daring etc. The romantic view of the driver as adventurer on the open road has never really waned in the US, partly because the country still has an awful lot of open road. In Europe our cars have huddled down and ‘hybridded’ up in an admirable attempt look discreet, unassuming and eminently sensible. Not here. The rocket-ship aesthetics of the 60s and 70s may have been tamed over time but the stars of the show in New York still have plenty of mirrored chrome, provocative bulges and yards of leather piping.

The American Automobile carries a weight and significance in its homeland unlike anywhere else and it has retained an openly glorified status that has yet to be quashed by those that know better. The retro-roadsters are not, as in Europe, a tongue-in-cheek design quirk, rich in urban irony. Here they are steeped in meaning. Just uttering the names Corvette, Mustang, Shelby, Buick, Dodge, Cadillac, Lincoln and Chevrolet has a tangible, reverberating resonance that rumbles the gut of America like a Chrysler 8 litre V10 with 640hp at the back wheel.

And just as hem lines rise when the economy perks up, so the dropheads step into the limelight like forgotten Hollywood starlets, and there are plenty to choose from in 2015 with the Ford GT 50th Anniversary edition (yes, 50!) as Queen Bee.

But I like to watch the crowds, the families failing to control their hyper-active children and the old men reminiscing loudly over distant four-wheeled love affairs. For this show gives us a glimpse into the soul of America where, despite a myriad of failings and broken dreams, there still purrs an engine of optimism, primed and ready to hit the open road.

  Howard Saunders   Apr 09, 2015   Blog, Brand, Gallery, image, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More


I write this from the very epicentre of excess, in a city that is a strange love-child borne of both Mormons and Mafia, built in the middle of the desert as a celebration of indulgence. A city that is a fusion of the sublime and the ridiculous, an adult playground for the silly rich and the permanently poor, bound together by a common love of consumption that is not just conspicuous, but utterly theatrical. It can only be Las Vegas.

Here at the Encore, one of the newest and most luxurious of the casino hotels, the columns bulge in Disneyesque proportions on marble floors inlaid with grotesque butterfly motifs the size of pterodactyls. The soft furnishings in giant stripes and spots adorn every available surface like an Alice in Wonderland nightmare. Every wall is clad with a montage of quilted fabric and bevel edged mirrors in gilt frames. Cool this is not.

But if you can relax your middle class, reasonably well-educated, tightly-knotted stomach for a moment you can actually just enjoy it for what it is: a fifteen year old’s vision of opulence.

The fifteen year old in question was Steve Wynn himself who actually said “Vegas is sort of like how God would do it if he had money”

For many of us, Vegas represents all that is wrong with consumerism. The endless avenues of Pradas, Guccis and Louis Vuittons are a twenty four hour grinning reminder that this is what we want, what we must have if we are to be considered wealthy or successful. It is greed unleashed. Surely the most brand hungry young things must become a little jaded after a few days here. The sparkling Rolex or Gucci handbag that looked so desirable when you first arrived very quickly irritates with its desperate attempt to allure, just like the sycophantic greetings you’re forced to acknowledge when you enter every store. ‘Hi there! How are you today?’ Tell them you have terminal cancer and this is your farewell holiday and they’ll just grin and say ‘Wow, that’s cool!’

But in spite of its shamelessness Las Vegas actually has an innocence about it. It did not cause the crash, that’s for sure, but its sub-prime bruises are plain to see if you wander from the strip. The city is still littered with stalled developments where dormant cranes loom overhead, poised with characteristic Vegas optimism, to swing into action at a moment’s notice.

Where new investment has arrived several blocks of ‘luxury apartments’ have already been converted into budget hotels, awaiting their first guests. Many of the older resorts, The Flamingo, Harrah’s, Tropicana, Paris and more, are clearly struggling to stay afloat with rooms going for as little as $30 a night, or as my taxi driver succinctly put it, ‘less than the price of a pizza’.

The iconic Sahara, that back in the day regularly played host to Frank Sinatra, clearly followed in his famous footsteps over the years with numerous facelifts and the inevitable demise.

It reopened in 2014 as SLS Las Vegas after a $400 million refurb but has had major issues since then including the abrupt closing of its restaurant, several tranches of staff cut backs and the CEO walking out.

But this is only part of the picture. The Wynn resort, which includes the Encore, is clearly thriving. Dozens of gardeners, tend to the topiary that lines the entire perimeter, like busy little honey bees that never sleep. Doormen, security staff and bellboys are on hand at every few paces, waitresses are persistently attentive, cleaners endlessly polishing glass tables and sweeping the mighty marble floors twenty four hours a day. This resort looks like a bustling city centre because that’s what it is. And it’s the busy-ness that keeps it feeling alive and thriving, a place we want to be. We are innately attracted to busy-ness: we seek out restaurants, bars and cafes that are full of life and ringing with the clatter of cutlery. We may talk about our hatred of crowds and our dream of a remote retreat but we are lying to ourselves. Fly a thousand feet above any town or city and you can clearly see that we are all huddled together, trying to get into busy restaurants, shops, theatres and museums and complaining about how busy they are.

Success breeds success of course, but so too does failure breed failure. It cannot be easy to run a mini-city, but it’s clear that cutting back on staff bleeds a place of its busy-ness and makes it feel as if it’s dying, probably because it is.

Las Vegas then, is a caricature. The over-branded augmented beauties, the status cravers desperately seeking shiny reassurance, are us, amplified into a form that we can sneer at. This city crystallizes things so that we can read them more clearly, that’s all. So don’t despise Las Vegas, learn to love what it tells us about ourselves.

I recommend a trip here not to indulge in the all the excess, but to reboot our minds into a better balance. Spend a fortnight at a rural retreat and you’ll be desperate to get back to the high street to see what’s new. Spend it here and you go home with a wonderfully refreshed perspective on what you really want from retail.

  Howard Saunders   Mar 20, 2015   Brand, Retail, shopping   0 Comment   Read More