Vaughan’s is an out-of-the-way neighborhood bar in the Bywater neighborhood just across the Industrial Canal from the Lower 9th Ward, and the last time I was there, the great Kermit Ruffins himself was playing on a Thursday night to a standing room only crowd. Ruffins gave up that gig not long after, and Vaughan’s has tried a succession of different bands and groups since then on Thursdays, which is the only night that the bar features live music, but Ruffins’ shoes are hard to fill. However, Travis “Trumpet Black” Hill, though hardly as well-known as Ruffins, is a brilliantly-gifted trumpet player with the mastery of his instrument and the self-assuredness to attempt to fill the slot, and does a good job at it, ably backed by his band, known as the Heart Attack. Hill’s repertoire is younger and less traditional than Kermit’s, but in some ways, that’s a good thing. After my arrival, his first set included a funked-out version of the brass band standard “Always There”, and a far more traditional reading of the classic “Backatown Blues”. Such versatility should stand Hill in good stead, and I suspect we’ll be hearing far more from him going forward. As for Vaughan’s, unsuspecting tourists should not be fooled by the signs out front. The bar does not offer po-boys, although they do have red beans and rice on Thursdays.
After the late afternoon listening session at Cutting Edge NOLA, I was in the mood for a burger, and after looking at all the various burger options, I decided to try Charcoal’s Gourmet Burger Bar uptown on Magazine Street. Charcoal’s is a large two-story restaurant on Magazine at Jackson, with a downstairs that seems to be a to-go location, and an upstairs bar for the dine-in customers. The upstairs bar also has balconies on its Magazine and Jackson Street sides, but the late afternoon had seen a line of thunderstorms, so everything was wet outside. The menu at Charcoal’s is interesting, and offers a choice between a number of predesigned specialty burgers, or the option to build your own . Meat choices include elk, antelope, turkey, bison, akaushi, shrimp, and even a vegetable burger for those who don’t want meat. There are also choices of cheeses, other toppings, Benton’s bacon, and freshly cut french fries. Prices are not cheap, but the charming space, attentive service and unparalleled burger options make Charcoal’s worth the price.
Charcoal’s Gourmet Burger Bar
2200 Magazine St
New Orleans, LA 70103
Tupelo, Mississippi has always had a big-city ambiance that belies its relatively small size. It has a large regional mall, its own TV station, a zoo, a large convention center and arena and a fairly big downtown, complete with tall buildings. Now, Tupelo also has a big-city steakhouse called Kermit’s Outlaw Kitchen on Main Street downtown, opened by the same people who run the Neon Pig in North Tupelo. KOK is not just a great steakhouse with great food and an attractive ambiance, but it is also a burgeoning part of the locavore movement, a trend toward restaurants locally sourcing almost everything. A wood-burning pit downstairs fills the restaurant with an inviting aroma, and this is where steaks are grilled and shucks of corn are roasted. My expertly-cooked filet mignon was accompanied by fingerling potatoes, which were delicious, and I had substituted a husk of roasted corn (also amazing) for the vegetables. The large upstairs dining room is bright and cheerful, with local art works on the walls and plenty of windows, but there is also seating around a downstairs bar near the pit. Although I’m not a beer drinker, there is a decent selection of craft beers, many of them regional, for those who like that sort of thing. Altogether, I had a great meal and good fun at Kermit’s Outlaw Kitchen, and will certainly be back.
Kermit’s Outlaw Kitchen
124 W Main
Tupelo, MS 38804
I had been invited by my friend Darren Towns, the bass drummer for TBC Brass Band, to go around with the band to their gigs on the Saturday of Satchmo Fest, and for the better part of the afternoon I had. But when I found out that there was an hour and a half interregnum between gigs, I decided to head out to Lake Pontchartrain and try a restaurant that I had been seeing for about a year but had never tried called The Blue Crab.
Elsewhere in this blog, I have discussed the odd fact that the seafood cuisine of New Orleans and of the Mississippi Gulf Coast are rather different, despite close proximity, and that while it has been fairly easy to find fried seafood in New Orleans, it has not been nearly as easy to find the kind of gourmet seafood that is fairly common in Biloxi, Gulfport or Bay St. Louis. That now seems to be changing, and while Hurricane Katrina decimated the old seafood restaurants on the West End, a couple of new restaurants have appeared along what New Orleanians call the Lakefront, and the Blue Crab is one of them.
All of the new restaurants along Lakeshore Drive have certain things in common, chief of which is beautiful views of the lake, the marina and the yacht club, and the Blue Crab is no exception. The view from its outdoor dining deck is truly amazing, and the resort ambiance is far more akin to something from Florida than something from Louisiana. As for the menu, there is little unusual for a New Orleans seafood place, and the prices are fairly reasonable. I opted for the fish of the day, which was pompano, and had it prepared in an almondine style, where the fish was breaded and fried, then topped with a butter-based almond sauce. As one might imagine, it was amazingly good, and accompanied by french fries that were golden brown and delicious. I chose to end my meal with a slice of key lime pie, which I enjoyed while watching the sun go down in the west over the marina. All in all, I was pleased with the Blue Crab, and will likely return.
THE BLUE CRAB RESTAURANT & OYSTER BAR
7900 Lakeshore Drive
New Orleans, La 70124
Back in February, a new restaurant called Prive’ opened in the former Cooker/Smokey Bones building at Winchester and Riverdale in Hickory Hill, owned by a group of people that was said to include Memphis rap star Yo Gotti, On Tuesday, July 1, I finally had an opportunity to visit the new restaurant, as I went out to check out the superb 4 Soul Band, one of Memphis’ premiere neo-soul, smooth jazz and funk bands, as they kicked off a Neo-Soul Tuesdays event that is scheduled to continue each Tuesday for the foreseeable future. As for Prive’, it is a lavish and upscale atmosphere for “grown folks”, with a dress code that forbids athletic gear and tennis shoes. The menu is limited, but the food is decent, if a little expensive, and steaks seem to be the specialty of the house. Neo-Soul Tuesdays feature the 4 Soul Band with their vocalist Shenea from 7-9 PM, and Prive’ also features live music on certain other nights as well. It’s definitely worth a visit.
6890 Winchester Rd
Memphis, TN 38115
On the way from my hotel to downtown Columbia, South Carolina, I had noticed an intriguing burger bar called Burger Tavern 77, and after the final session of the Vocalis Music Industry Conference on Saturday June 28, I decided to try it. As the name suggests, Burger Tavern 77 has the atmosphere of a bar, but seems to welcome guests of all ages, and the centerpiece of the menu is burgers, particularly the ones you design yourself with all the various choices of meats, cheeses, toppings and sauces. The menu points out that all sandwiches are made with fresh ingredients and cooked to order. I chose my all-time favorite burger, one with bacon and cheese added, and I was pleased with the result. The fries, which were crispy and golden brown, came in a metal cup, which is becoming more common these days at gourmet burger places. If a burger is not your thing, Burger Tavern 77 also has salads and chicken, and the prices for everything are fairly reasonable. There is also an extensive amount of outdoor seating, but on the evening I was there, it was just too hot to enjoy it.
Burger Tavern 77
2631 Devine Street
Columbia SC 29205
When I left out of Pearlz Oyster Bar, I was thinking of how nice it would be if Columbia had a dessert cafe that was open late at night. Looking across Gervais Street, I saw a small cafe with an outdoor sign that was flashing pictures of different kinds of desserts. It proved to be a place called Nonnah’s, which is actually a full-service restaurant in its own right, but the desserts are made in-house and truly amazing. Although they had coffee, with it being so hot, I chose a cold drink instead, and tried the Key Lime Pie, which was very unusual, but very good. Rather than the yellow-green custard type of pie that one usually sees with key Lime, this one was a light, airy whipped pie made from cool whip, sweetened condensed milk and lime juice in a homemade graham cracker crust. A number of other tempting desserts were visible in the glass case. Nonnah’s is open until 11 PM on weeknights, and until 12:30 AM on weekends.
923 Gervais Street
Columbia, SC 29201
Ironically, when I made it back to the Vista district in Columbia, I found the live jazz I had been looking for in the upstairs of Pearlz Oyster Bar at a place called Pearlz Upstairs Lounge, where the Robert Gardiner Quartet was playing mainstream jazz standards. Although the extremely young crowd didn’t seem to be paying a whole lot of attention to the music, the place was still packed with people, and the music was great.
After dinner, I wanted to enjoy some live music, and set off in search of jazz. On my phone, I had seen a place called Le Cafe Jazz, and it didn’t seem to be too far away, so I decided to walk to it, which proved to be a mistake. For one thing, the neighborhood it was in is called Assembly Hill, and I soon learned that it really is a hill. The entire walk from Gervais Street was uphill all the way, and by the time I finally arrived at the cafe, which was in a city park called Finley Park, I was thoroughly hot and sweaty. And although the cafe appeared to be open, I was told at the door that it was closed for a private event, and that I wasn’t dressed appropriately in any case. I was quite disappointed, since there was a piano inside, and the place looked interesting and attractive. Still, I didn’t see any musicians there, and I probably didn’t miss much. At least the walk back to the Vista area was all downhill.
On Friday June 27, I flew into Columbia, South Carolina to be a panelist at the Vocalis Music Industry Conference which was being held over the weekend. With no conference activities scheduled for the the Friday night, I headed downtown to the city’s entertainment district called the Vista. Unlike Memphis’ Beale Street, the Vista District is a large neighborhood, about three blocks wide and perhaps six blocks long along the Broad River, and differs from other entertainment districts in that it has an equal number of restaurants, shops, bars and clubs. While there are certainly plenty of live music venues, and liquor is available, there are also plenty of ordinary, family-friendly restaurants, frozen yogurt and dessert shops and boutiques. The place is also extremely attractive, and has little of the rowdy, drunken behavior that other cities often have in their entertainment districts. I decided to eat dinner at the Liberty Tap House, as I remember enjoying it in Myrtle Beach some years ago, and I have to say that I was quite pleased.