In New Orleans, look Uptown to find unusual gifts, gourmet seafood, and laid-back holiday spirit.

By Pableaux Johnson
October 23, 2003
Ralph Anderson

Miami has its iconic swaying palms, Northern California itstowering redwoods. Look skyward during a wintertime walk in NewOrleans and you'll see this city's botanical trademark―athick canopy of live oaks.

Filtering the late-season light, the dark leaves give Uptown andthe Garden District (neighborhoods upriver from the infamous FrenchQuarter) a quiet evergreen ambience. During Louisiana's short andrelatively mild winters, the oaks impart a distinctly intimate,introspective feel that suits this coastal city's unusual approachto Christmas. As most of the country bustles during the holidays,New Orleans rests up for its spring bacchanal: the monthlongCarnival season.

More than any other street in the city, St. Charles Avenue isknown for its oaks (as well as its streetcars). After Jefferson'sshrewd Louisiana Purchase in 1803, prosperous merchants andplantation owners settled here and built elaborate homes. Many havebecome upscale guesthouses, such as The Grand Victorian Bed andBreakfast, a meticulously restored Queen Anne structure.

Like St. Charles, Magazine Street parallels the arc of theMississippi River. This workaday market alternates clusters offunky businesses (coffee shops, upscale boutiques, antiques stores,and art galleries) with relaxed residential stretches. Harking backto an era before malls dominated the suburbs, the shops of Magazineprovide walking-distance commerce for the city's denizens.

By the time cold winds arrive this far south, Magazine becomes aparadise for shoppers searching for the unique oroffbeat―reflections of the cultures that ships have alwaysbrought to mingle here. Jeweler and sculptor Thomas Mann presentshis wearable contemporary works and those of other well-knowncraftspeople in his gallery. A bit farther uptown, artisan ShaunWilkerson showcases furniture handmade from ative cypress andreclaimed wood. Area galleries run the gamut from Lionel Milton'scolorful graffiti-inspired jazz paintings to the outsider art ofNilo Lanzas.

In a city that eats with the seasons, winter is a feast for thesenses. Neighborhood restaurants provide cold-weather travelerswith both refuge and sustenance. Local chefs work with savory wildgame and the fattest, saltiest oysters of the year. Such classicoyster bars as Casamento's let shellfish fanatics slurp thedelicacies straight from the shell. And menus everywhere featuresteaming bowls of thick, rich gumbo to chase away the chill.

Uptown also contains many of the renovated "house restaurants"largely responsible for updating the city's distinctive Creolecuisine over the past 20 years. Such chefs as local native FrankBrigtsen of Brigtsen's Restaurant and Ken Smith of Upperlinereinterpret standard seafood dishes while staying true to thespirit of New Orleans dining.

There's perhaps no better way to fend off the cold than withUpperline's creamy oyster stew lightened with crunchy watercressand a hint of anise-flavored Herbsaint liqueur. Brigtsen's makesmagic with game, serving pan-roasted venison medallions over acrunchy potato pancake and topped with velvety gravy spiked withapple cider and demi-glace.

After a hearty and soul-warming meal, visitors bundle up and hitthe streets for an evening stroll, even if it's only to find a cozybarroom for an equally cozy nightcap. During winter's earlysunsets, the oaks create a scene that would make Magritteproud―dark branches lit by dim streetlights below andcolorful cloudscapes above. Always dependable, they spread theirarms, oblivious to the art of it.