How was the first day of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival?

Delicious.

With sunny weather, strong but not overwhelming crowds and a terrific music line-up, the kick-off to the seven-day event was a perfect time to get reacquainted with Jazz Fest food favorites and sample the new items.

We’ll have more coverage and plenty of food recommendations in the coming week, but for now here’s a round-up of tasting notes (and photos) from a day of festive foraging around the Fair Grounds, and a tip on where to find cold drafts of Abita Amber out there.

New food

Local Brazilian restaurant Carmo is serving food at the Jazz Fest for the first time this year as part of the festival’s overall Brazilian culture theme, though I heard from some people who had trouble finding it. That’s because it’s not stationed with the other vendors but has its own stand by the Casa do Brasil tent (by the flagpole, that trusty old Jazz Fest landmark).

The main item here is acarajé, a pear-sized fritter made from black eyed pea flour. It’s split and stuffed with a thick sauce made from cashews that tastes creamy and mild, shrimp and a coarsely chopped salsa fresca. Skip the shrimp and it becomes vegan-friendly, add the Brazilian bird pepper hot sauce and it becomes very spicy. Note that it’s just loosely wrapped in paper, so it’s hard to tote back to your blanket. Eat it on the spot. You’ll probably need a fork.

Carmo also is serving pao de queijo, which are small cheese bread buns. Be prepared for the dense, tapioca texture of its cassava flour. Imagine a cross between grilled cheese and chewing gum. I thought they were great, though some didn’t like the mouth feel.

The other completely new Jazz Fest dish I tried was the spicy grilled tofu (Congo Square), from vendor Gambian Foods. It is indeed very spicy, and with hunks of squash and a dairy-free slaw of shredded carrot and cabbage over a bed of couscous it was very filling too. It’s a promising new option for meatless meals.

Food crush

I’ll cop to having something of a crush on the trout Baquet (Heritage Square), from longtime vendor Li’l Dizzy’s Café. It’s always part of my festival food plans. One reason I love it is for the way it shows what a big difference a little Creole culinary perspective can make for a dish. It’s simple really, a golden-edged trout with crabmeat sluiced in butter sauce. Get the combo with crawfish bisque and you have a Baquet banquet.

Fried and funky

The award for the funkiest food at the Jazz Fest may belong to the grilled chicken livers (Food Area I), served as a massive heap with just pepper jelly, sweet pepper chunks and grill char to dress the muscular mineral taste. It’s a dish for the bold. The same vendor, local Creole soul restaurant the Praline Connection, also serves the fried okra, which comes with ranch dressing and disappeared from my basket as fast as popcorn.

Best place to be?

The Lagniappe Stage can sometimes feel like its own festival. The setting, with so much shade and seating, is vastly different from the larger stages.

There’s an oyster bar, where a visitor from Massachusetts reminded me that even at $15 per dozen here “it’s like you’re giving them away” compared to the prices he was used to paying at raw bars back home.

And the Lagniappe Stage boasts cold draft beer, served up by the Fair Grounds staff. The area around its taps functions as something of a bar, with room to at least rest one elbow while you bend the other.

The Fair Grounds operates another beer vending station by the Heritage Square area. This one, found between the Blues Tent and the Jazz Tent, happens to have Abita Amber on tap. I have long heard from people who believe the local food, music and crafts on display at Jazz Fest should have some local beer to go along with it. If you’re in that camp, here’s the beer spot for you.