Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Room for Improvement

We are closing in on the end of 2010, and with that comes our yearly performance review. But this year instead of looking back on what we did wrong and what we did right, we would like you the readers to offer up some suggestions on how we can improve Blackened Out.

No, Lumbergh. We will not start writing on Saturday and Sunday.

While we love writing about food, our increasing responsibilities outside of Blackened Out have made it more and more cumbersome to provide entertaining and insightful material to you every day. We strive not to throw up just anything on the blog simply for the sake of posting. "Mailing it in" serves no real benefit for you, and it reflects poorly on us. (Though I'm not saying that we have not in the past.) Thankfully, because there are two of us, we are able to post something worthwhile almost every day. Still, often at times it is a struggle for us to be creative week in and week out.

So with that in mind, we are open to your suggestions. Many people have expressed a desire for us to venture outside of the usual spots that so many other people are writing about, and we think that the 2011 Challenge will introduce our readers to a few more places off the beaten path. Stay tuned till Monday when details of the 2011 Challenge are revealed.

In addition, here are two other questions which we would like your opinion on:
  1. Does anyone actually use the Blackened Out on the Town calendar? (For those who don't know, the calendar is located on the left hand side of our web page.) We spend quite a bit of time entering in all of the events that are happening in the city, but we have no real way to track if any of you are benefiting from our efforts. An alternative option may be a weekly post dedicated to all of the upcoming food and wine events in the city.
  2. What is your reaction when we write about our bogey or double bogey experiences? Are reports of the bad meals just as informative as the good ones? Or would you rather us just stick to places that we would recommend you try?
Thank you in advance for your feedback. The comments are open. We will see you again in 2011.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Who Dat?

Huge game tonight for the Saints. Get some rest, stay focused, and finish strong.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

A Butcher Christmas Story

A few weeks ago, on a cold and windy Monday night, I found myself alone at home with no food in the refrigerator and no motivation for a trip to the grocery store. The Folk Singer had gone to the Big D (and I do mean Dallas) for work for the entire week, so I was left alone to fend for myself. I had already knocked out the leftover Pizza Delicious from the night before, so my choices were frozen dumplings from Hong Kong Market, Jazzmen Rice, eggs, and marinated Greek olives.

Looking back, that potential spread sounds pretty darn tasty, but on that night I decided to take a walk to Cochon Butcher instead. Downtown living has its obvious advantages in terms of commute time for work, but the walkable distances to the Quarter and Warehouse District are an added lagniappe. So I strolled by Ditcharo's where the bartender sat alone on a high backed chair, feet on the bar and book in her hands. Past the waiters smoking outside the backdoor of Herbsaint, alongside Lucy's where all of the double doors were shut to keep the wind out, and in front of a half-full dining room at Emeril's.

When I arrived at Butcher, only one other table was occupied, so I had no guilt in taking up the corner table where I scrolled through my BlackBerry while waiting on dinner. It wasn't too long when the runner brought over the kitchen's last order of marinated brussels sprouts and my BBQ pork sandwich. (Both of which were excellent, by the way. I have had some ridiculously good brussels sprout dishes lately, so maybe an all brussels sprouts blog post is in order. But I digress.)

About midway through my meal, a large group sauntered in for dinner. After a few moments, I realized that the group consisted mostly of mentally challenged adults and a trio of 20 somethings acting as their chaperones. By this time all of the high tables were full save for the one next to mine, so I offered to move to the bar so that they could all sit together. No such move was necessary I was told, so I stayed at my table while the newly arrived crew surveyed their menus and ordered their food in a form of organized chaos.

I soon finished my meal, but instead of quickly getting up I decided to sit and experience the moment. This group had such a happy innocence about them as they smilingly placed their orders - cold roast beef sandwiches and potato salad, two hot dogs with "catsup" only, a cranberry juice with no ice - with a heightened level of insistence but also obvious gratitude. They asked questions of their handlers like whether their bag was packed and what they were doing tomorrow.  At one point I asked one of the chaperones if their group was local, and he responded that no they were in town visiting from New York and were leaving for home tomorrow. I asked if they had enjoyed their time in my city, and he said that they had. I didn't want to pry with too many details.

The Folk Singer will probably tell you that I am the most spoiled, selfish, and snobbish boy to ever walk the halls of Jesuit High School. She will tell you that I have never wanted for anything in my entire life and that I am inexplicably rough and tough on the ones who love me the most. Personally, I think her characterizations are rife with hyperbole, but my Mom will say that she is not too far off. So it seems that I have lost the swing vote.

But not even a stone hearted grinch such as me could take in those few moments without a serious dose of self reflection. Here is a group of people who most likely do not enjoy the daily freedoms and opportunities that I take for granted. Yet, on their week away from home, they have decided to sit down for a special meal at a restaurant which I can walk to on a Monday night for no other reasons than the fridge is empty and I am too lazy to go to the grocery.

To most of us, Christmas is synonymous with giving and receiving gifts, special gifts which theoretically represent the thoughtfulness of the gifter or the importance of the giftee. But often these end of the year gifts have the unintended effect of discounting the routine gifts exchanged between people everyday.

The same can be said when considering the grand holiday feasts in light of routine meals throughout the year. While finishing my last bites of BBQ pork, I reflected on the fact that a regular Monday night dinner for me obviously meant so much more to the group of people sitting one table over. Celebratory meals during Christmas are de rigeur, but think about all of the simple pleasures of the table that we take for granted every day. How lucky are we natives of New Orleans that every day of the year we can enjoy a po-boy, a steaming bowl of pho, or a plate of red beans and rice for a minimal price and just a short trip to our favorite restaurant? How lucky are we that the bounty of the Gulf is at our finger tips? How lucky are we to live in a town where we live to eat? How lucky are we not to live in Anywhere, USA? How lucky am I?

All of the above thoughts passed through my mind as I sat at my table soaking in the scene at Butcher. Eventually, I made my way to the register, when the Christmas spirit came upon me.

"I need to pay my tab, and I want to buy that group dessert," I said while handing over my credit card.

The man behind the counter paused and said, "Aw, that is very thoughtful of you. You're a good man."

As I signed my receipt, I thought: "I wish The Folk Singer would have been here to hear him say that."

Merry Christmas to all.

Monday, December 20, 2010


Photo courtesy of Noteworthy in NOLA.

New Orleans has many local traditions, but none are more linked with the holiday season than the Reveillon celebration. Rooted in French Catholicism, the Reveillon is traditionally a meal taken early on Christmas morning after midnight mass. Because Christmas Eve was a day of fasting, the Reveillon was an extravagant and luxurious feast.

Today, one need not keep a vigil till the wee morning hours of Christmas in order to take part in a Reveillon celebration. In conjunction with the "Christmas in New Orleans" campaign, local restaurants now serve a Reveillon menu for the entire month of December and into the first few days of the new year. A full list of participating restaurants with Reveillon menus can be found here.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Drinking Lunch

The month of December is known for celebratory meals, especially long Friday lunches. As the "unofficial" Friday before Christmas, today just so happens to be the biggest lunch day of the year. In this month's issue of OffBeat Magazine, we review the Rib Room, a restaurant that is a year round specialist in three hour boozy lunches. When taking your holiday lunch, there may be no better choice in the city.

In a recent Business Week article, Joel Stein examined the current state of the 3 Martini Lunch. We thought that this paragraph was a great opener:

"Businesspeople used to know how to waste time. Instead of updating their Facebook wall and shopping on eBay, they ordered three martinis at lunch and headed back to the office four hours later."

Even though the Mad Men days may be a thing of the past, at noon today many a man will attempt to recreate that lifestyle, if only for an afternoon. The only remaining question is: How do you take your martini? Here are our preferences:

Rene - A martini is gin served ice cold and with a healthy dose of vermouth. A 4 to 1 ratio is best. Reminds me of a story of a guy who had his martini recipe printed on the back of his business card. When he would order a martini, he would pass the bartender or waiter his business card, back side up. Some may say that is being an asshole, but I say prior preparation prevents poor performance. While I like olives, I prefer a twist of lemon and a bowl of olives to snack on. If they have Hendrick's Gin, as they should, I take it with a slice of cucumber, it is good for the eyes. A vodka martini with a "telegram from a bottle of vermouth" is just a shot of vodka. There is nothing pleasurable about that.

Peter - I have never been a vodka drinker, so I defer to gin. (Even though I usually make the official switch from gin to bourbon at the first cold snap, but then again it was 78 degrees yesterday.)  Like Rene, Hendrick's is also my #1 choice. But I prefer a little citrus in my martini, so a twist of lemon is a necessity. As for the level of vermouth, I prefer my martini as wet as a Slip 'n Slide.

What would Don Draper do?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Parking and Restaurants

Greg and Mary Sonnier ran the fabulous Gabrielle in the Bayou St. John neighborhood for years. Name an award bestowed upon restaurants and chefs, they have won it. Following the levee failures, the Sonniers purchased what they thought was a restaurant on Henry Clay in what many have called the Isle of Denial. Enter fierce neighborhood opposition, add a few years of wrangling, and the Sonniers are still waiting to open Gabrielle.

The issue is that the commercially zoned restaurant had its restaurant title stripped away. Two days ago, Gabrielle was up on the City Planning Commission docket with the hopes of reinstating the building as a restaurant. The CPC's own staff recommended that the zoning be changed back to allow Gabrielle to open as a restaurant.

Slight tangent which will make sense in a few moments. Years ago, Eddie Sapir ran for mayor. You may remember this because literally every cab in the city was festooned with Run Eddie Run orange bumper stickers. Well, rather than win mayor, Mr. Sapir has turned the full brunt of his political muscle against a husband and wife who simply want to serve great food. I don't know Mr. Sapir and don't know his side of the story. He isn't an elected official, but he is sure acting like one. And I have a problem with that.

Now, on Tuesday's docket there were a number of items. One involved the Sonniers the other was a zoning ordinance for Hopper's wine store to open across the street from Whole Foods on Magazine. Now, I fully support both business, but check this out.

Re: Hoppers, the Commissioner, Poco Sloss, requested that the Commission waive the parking requirement and grant the zoning ordinance. When Gabrielle came up for review, Mr. Sapir waxed, I am sure poetically about the pain, misery, and confusion that Gabrielle would cause on the neighborhood and in particular the parking nightmares it would cause. When it came time for the Commission to vote, they informed the Sonniers that unfortunately they couldn't overlook the lack of safe, secure parking. The Sonniers request was denied.

Something is rotten in New Orleans.

What restaurant in New Orleans has safe, secure parking? Tick thru your list of 20 restaurants you routinely go to. How many of them have a parking lot attached? For me about the only one that does is Nine Roses, and I think that is in Jefferson Parish. Galatoire's, Patois, Clancy's, Rue 127, Commander's Le Foret, August, Cochon, La Boca, etc... None of these places have parking lots (Some of those listed do have valet, though). New Orleans restaurants and parking are mutually exclusive.

Secondly, Hopper's and Gabrielle are separated by a 8 city blocks. Now, Hopper's is off site consumption, but to me if parking is a requirement than you can't waive it for one and not the other. Thirdly, and this is where Mr. Sapir's cab driving supporters may be pissed off, there is a public policy argument against parking lots as this article points out.

But even more so, the city, state, and feds are cracking down on drunk driving. If MADD really focused on what it needs to do, it would be against parking lots in any fashion. Especially parking lots attached to bars and restaurants. See, if I know a place has terrible or no parking, wouldn't the smarter thing be to just take a cab?

At the end of the day, the Sonniers' battle with the city over reopening Gabrielle is a black eye on this city. It makes me ashamed of New Orleans. There are obviously forces working behind the curtain to make sure Greg and Mary Sonnier stay in a perpetual state of sadness and uncertainty. And for what purpose? The neighborhood will say parking and noise. But currently the premises is licensed as a special event catering hall. When they host events, more cars come into the neighborhood then would if they ran a restaurant.

Finally, we all have to deal with bullshit and stuff we don't like. That is part of being an adult. The house across the street from me? It has sat in disrepair for 2 years. Around the corner there is an empty lot which harbors these field mice that send the hounds into a tizzy. To the Isle of Denial I say this: Grow up and come out from behind Mr. Sapir's apron.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

"Would Anyone Care for Dessert?"

During the holiday season, most diners throw caution to the wind when it comes to money spent, drinks imbibed, and calories consumed.  If there ever is a time to splurge and order dessert, that time is now.

Which got me to thinking: What is the best dessert in the city? Last week I made a strong case for the Peanut Butter Cup Pie at Cochon, with it's rich chocolate ganache and creamy peanut butter mousse. Turns out that dish may have been bested just a few days later, with another grown-up version of a classic kid's favorite.

As Rene put it, the Smores dessert at La Petite Grocery, "Rules my face." This dessert has a graham cracker crust, rich chocolate filling, and a layer of toasted marshmallow on top. The best part is cutting through the Smore with a spoon and then dragging it across the plate to the scoop of slowly melting chocolate ice cream on the opposite side. Absolutely delicious.

I must confess that I do not normally order dessert when I dine, not so much because I don't like dessert but rather because I figure that I should skip the extra calories. But when I do order dessert, 99 times out of 100 the concoction will predominantly feature chocolate. I am not big on fruit desserts.

So which restaurant makes your favorite dessert? Is it a special version of bread pudding, banana cream pie at Emeril's, or the dulce de leche crepes at La Boca?  Willy Wonka, our requisite Sultan of the Sweet Tooth, lays claim that the seasonal blueberry crumble at Herbsaint takes the cake.

What say you?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Drinking Wine is Good For You and For Animals

Normally, Lindsay rolls her eyes when I mention wine tastings that I would like to go. But when I told her about the Pinots on Parade at The Green Goddess tomorrow night, her eyes got really big and she asked, "Can we go, please?"

Now, it has nothing to do with the wines. Lindsay wants to go because part of the purpose of this parade of Pinots is to raise money for Animal Rescue of New Orleans. (The event also raises money for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.) As you may have picked up on, the Louapres are dog people. Hounds get most of our attention, but any dogs in need are friends of ours indeed.

So here is the skinny on the 411. Tomorrow night at The Green Goddess (307 Exchange Alley in the French Quarter) from 7-10 pm, guests will taste a large swath of what some have called the finest grape in the world. There will be snacks a plenty and an opportunity to rap with Chef Chris about any number of topics. Also, rumor is Paul Artigues, the day time chef and star on Treme, will be there. The cost is $60 a person and reservations can be had by calling 331.3347 or emailing Chef Chris chef@greengoddessnola.com. I'm looking forward to sampling the Nicholas Portel 2006 Gevrey-Chambertin and the Corton Grand Cru from Maison Champy.

While researching an article in last month's offBEAT Magazine, I learned from Drs. Bazan and Moises that the Pinot Noir grape has the most health benefits of any grape. Because of its thin skin, Pinot Noir will not just grow anywhere (like many grapes will). You see the skin of the grape is where all the "healthy" stuff is, things with scientific names like antioxidants and polyphenols. The skin of a grape protects it from rot, insects, bacteria and other such detriments. The skin of the Pinot grape is very thin. To compensate for this thin skin, the antioxidants and polyphenols in the skin are very effective at doing their job. Whereas in a thick-skinned grape, like Cabernet, the healthy compounds do not have to be as effective to protect the fruit.

What are these health benefits? Well, research by Dr. Bazan has shown that wines made from Pinot Noir can help ward off Alzheimer's, strokes, and other neurological conditions. Also, wine is good for the old tickervasuclar system. Furthermore, studies have shown that people who volunteer and give back to those in need have better health outlooks and are generally happier than those who do not. Don't believe me? Fine. Die young.

In short, if you want to be healthy, drink wine. If you want to be more healthy, drink wine made from the Pinot Noir grape. If you want to be most healthy (like me), go to Pinots on Parade.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Bar Hoppin'

The above image has undoubtedly popped up in your inbox at least once over the last few weeks. "Where to Drink in New Orleans" is the creation of Ian and Gen, and their little watering hole guide has become the fortune teller for adults looking for the perfect pint or an expertly mixed Manhattan. And not to be mired in exclusivity, the guide even gives advice for douchebags from Metairie/Kenner who don't have drugs to sell.

New Orleans is a city filled with bars - bars where everybody knows your name and bars where you go simply for the reason that nobody knows your name or wants to know your name. I'm not sure if there has ever been an accurate count of all of the bars in the greater New Orleans area, but I would guesstimate that including every one on the above graphic would be an impossible task.

Still, the first question that pops into most people's minds is: "Why didn't they include ________?" Personally, I am shocked that both the Goldmine nor F&M's were left off the map. If you were designing a guide to drinking in New Orleans, which bars would you make sure to include? If you don't want to disclose any of your off the radar spots for fear they will become overrun with outsiders, I understand your hesitation. I remember how much fun Hyde Park Corner was before they started playing "Back That Ass Up" every half hour.

Coincidentally, it has come to our attention that a revised version of the drinking guide is currently in the works and that this new version will include both updated content and a few graphic design tweaks. For more information on ordering prints of the New Orleans Drinking Guide, send an email to wheretogetdrinks at gmail dot com.

Bottoms up.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Kiddie Korner

From Mike S. "You guys make me wish I was twenty something with no kids again. Alas, I am not. Any ideas for kid friendly events and/or restaurants."


Let me speak from experience. I have two nephews who seem to enjoy spending limited amounts of time with their "Truckhead Fartface" in highly controlled settings, so I know all about dealing with kids. One time I took them to Daneel Park and then to Sucre for gelato, cakes, and other sugary things. This was at 10 in the morning. So consider that a great idea.

I don't know if your kids like Christmas, but they should. If so the Marine Forces Band of New Orleans is putting on a Christmas music concert tonight at the Alario Center. The suggested admission fee is an unopened, new Christmas gift. So you can kill a few birds here. One the men and women of America's finest fighting force can entertain them with songs about Jolly Ole St. Nick. Second you can teach them the value of giving to the less fortunate.

But thirdly, you aren't very far from Hong Kong Market. I would suggest heading there before the concert. Let them roam the aisles checking out all the cool products like that jar of something over there. They can watch fish swim in huge tanks and take a gander at crispy skinned bbqed ducks. Then on the way out swing by the pho shop and get them a bowl of soup. What kid doesn't like soup? Make sure to stop by the bubble tea store and grab them a bubble tea. Because no kid friendly night out should be devoid of something sugary, right?

Thursday, December 9, 2010


You know, as often as we reference Cochon in our blog posts or write about all of the wonderful things going on at Butcher next door, we have rarely written about the food and/or dining experience at Donald Link's Eau du Pork. I guess today is as good a time as any.

I have eaten 3 meals at Cochon over the past 6 months, all of them excellent. I think that the first sentence from my notes on my most recent meal sums up in 4 words what would otherwise probably take me 2 hours to write:

"F*cking love this place."

If I could resist the rest of the menu, I could still leave happy from a meal consisting entirely of the complimentary lard rolls and a bottle of Seghesio Zinfandel. But I can't resist, so I usually compromise by only eating 3 lard rolls and drinking a half bottle of Seghesio. It's enough just self control to keep me going.

There are not many restaurants where I look at the menu and think, "I really want to order everything," but this thought crosses my mind every time I sit down for a meal at Cochon. Boudin balls are light, crisp on the outside, and almost creamy on the inside. Deep fat fried hogshead cheese (above) has a crunchy coating protecting a warm, spicy, gelatinous interior, with a rich cooling ravigote to match. Fried alligator are batter coated nuggets tossed in a fiery chili garlic aioli; put the dish in the center and try to avoid impaling each other with your fork tynes. A summertime special of paneed pork cheeks are paired with baked peanuts to create a buttery, nutty sauce, but it's the turnip and radish salad which brings the dish together with added freshness and crunch. The braised rib is a tender, boneless job, with a nice sweetness from diced beets. The spicy grilled ribs are bone sucking good, and the diced watermelon rind pickles almost taste like candy.

Usually I get so overwhelmed with the small plates and boucherie that by the time I end up ordering my entree, the waiter gives a concerned look and says, "Well, I already have you down for 8 small plates and there only two of you, so maybe hold off on the entree?" Try to pace yourself when ordering, because you do not want to miss out on the oven-roasted Gulf fish.  Served "Fisherman's style" as a skin on filet, the fish is simply dressed with salt, pepper, lemon, a little butter or oil, and a few slivers of garlic. When it's cooked perfectly, the flesh easily pulls from the skin in moist and tender sections. This single piece is alone worth $40 billion in oil spill cleanup costs, but I think BP should subsidize the $24 cost by adding a starch or a veg to the a la carte dish.

Desserts rotate with the season, and most diners fill up their tanks long before it comes time for this final course. But the the strong who survive till the end may be handsomely rewarded with what is (in my opinion) the best dessert in the city. It's a special called the "Peanut Butter Cup Pie" - a rich crumb crust, a thin layer of chocolate ganache on the bottom, and a whipped peanut butter mousse heaped on top.

There are only a few truly "Oh my God" moments in life.  This is one of them.

In the past 5 years, no New Orleans restaurant has received more national and local praise than Cochon. Some think that the accolades are unwarranted, especially the Dean of New Orleans restaurant critics:

"Cochon, even as good as it is, is certainly the most overrated restaurant in New Orleans.... Visitors to New Orleans walk away from Cochon satisfied, as do younger New Orleans diners. Both groups may be eating these dishes for the first times in their lives. Those of us who grew up with the stuff (this requires a certain age) might be less impressed. Beans and ham hocks are good, but can only be lifted so high."

Whether or not the food lives up to the hype is a matter of personal opinion, but regardless, I don't think Father Tom grew up eating poached yard egg with roasted mushrooms over a grit cake.

Cochon - Eagle

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

New Year's Eve

Foreword - Most advice is free because no one takes it. Shoot, I rarely take my own advice. Therefore, feel free to completely ignore this post.

Do not go out to eat in a restaurant on New Year's Eve. While this may seem to be a Draconian rule, I can defend it. First off, consider the crowds, but more specifically who will be eating out in New Orleans on New Year's Eve. The Sugar Bowl teams are in town so likely there will be people with Walmart money running free and looking for "real New Orleans food." Restaurants know this. Many restaurant will play to this strength. They have been in touch with tour operators, athletic departments, and Cam Newton's dad and have reserved a party of 100 at 8:30 pm. Which just so happens to be when you and your charming date and her friend and her date want to dine as well. If you like dining in crowded restaurants (and occasionally I do as well), then pay no attention to this point.

Secondly, it is an oft-repeated phrase in the restaurant world that nights like New Year's Eve and Valentine's Day are "Amateur Nights." I think this statement has two meanings. One is that the people who choose to dine out on New Year's Eve are not regulars or even routine diners. This coupled with point one means a restaurant can be fairly certain they will not see many of these people again. I will let you draw your own conclusions as to what that means.

But perhaps most important, if you are a great waiter then chances are you do not want to work New Year's Eve. Now maybe I am wrong (it happens, often), but the prospect of serving rude drunks as they shout for more gravy would probably scare most away. So the front of the house staff on these nights is often made up of the B team. See also why you shy away from brunch. Now if you like dining in crowded restaurants surrounded by people who love the buffet at Panda King and enjoy being served by a person who is normally a bus boy, you may keep reading.

Now, we come to the food. Most likely it is going to be a set menu. The fancy term is prix fixe which is French for, "Give them choices and it seems like a good value." Soup, Salad, Appetizer, Choice of entree ("Get the Lobstuhhhh, why not, its free"), dessert and COFFEE for $49.99. What a deal, your friends will say. Let me ask you this, when have you ever gotten a 5 course meal for under $50 and found it tasty? There are places where this works and they are called cafeterias. So if you enjoy noisy restaurants filled with amateurs and eating steam table fare, please make your reservations now.

Wouldn't you rather find between four and ten friends, go to someone's house, pick up a bunch of wine, some snacks, maybe a dozen steaks, sit around a table, lounge, graze, talk, laugh, and then hold an impromptu dance party featuring the lyrical stylings of such diverse musical talents as Frank Sinatra and Trey Songz? 

As I noted above, you aren't going to take my advice. So when you are ignoring my advice, keep this in mind: if the set menu price doesn't seem at least a tad expensive, don't go there. A restaurant that does New Year's Eve well (Herbsaint comes to mind) knows they do it well. But also knows that in order to do it well, they need to price out the amateurs, make sure the A team staff has an economic incentive to work, and be able to have some fun with the menu. This means they can throw truffles or foie gras or caviar around like candy and cook festively. If you are going to go out to dinner on New Year's Eve, splurge. It is the only way to enjoy the evening.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

First Look: Rue 127

Last year the most surprising meal of the year took place on the second to last night of the year at Le Foret. This year, it took place last weekend. Rue 127 opened about 6 weeks ago with Chef Ray Gruezke at the helm. Ray is an alum of the C.I.A. and cooked at Le Foret before branching out on his own. Pastry chef Joanna Palmer came along for the ride as well.

In full disclosure, Ray and I (and Peter) all graduated from Jesuit together in 2000. In fact, we may have even shared a bottle of Boone's Farm on a Dominican Neat 'n Sweet bus at one point. Regardless, we sat at the bar out of the sight of the kitchen of the main room. Also, when I went to the bathroom I didn't see Ray in the kitchen. Finally, no one takes us seriously, right?

I had heard many good things about Rue 127, but the concept of a New American Bistro kind of threw me for a loop. For one thing, I have no idea what that means. Secondly, it seems everyone is opening an upscale casual, farm to table, twists on classics, restaurant these days. I assumed it was a shaky concept. You know what they say about assuming. 

What we witnessed was a chef and kitchen that is taking no shortcuts. A risotto started things off - pure white, creamy, al dente, and well-seasoned with tender, pungent tufts of oyster mushrooms throughout. In fact, what struck me about this dish was just how well-seasoned it was. I'll put this risotto up against any in the city, including the ever changing version at Stella!

Then came golden crusted sweet scallop coins sitting on top of a mushroom fricassee with a sunburst yellow saffron sauce. The effect of the dish was stunning with golds, yellows, greens, and browns each contributing a different flavor and texture. There was thought and execution in this dish. Too often, chefs are focusing on simplicity. They will serve just a scallop, simply seared, with just a sprig of parsley. They become Carl Andre of the Kitchen (don't worry I had to google minimalist artists to find that name), devoted to purity, clean lines, and other such concepts. That can get very boring. Here was a composed dish where nothing extraneous was on the plate, but the plate wasn't a white canvas with three dollops of nothingness.

On to the entrees. A pork chop is one of life's great pleasures. Not to use hyperbole, but the pork chop at Rue 127 is a great pork chop. Why? The double cut beast arrives juicy and rosy on the inside. The exterior is crusty such that it reminds you of a summertime backyard barbecue. Underneath the chop, was a roasted corn coush coush that was savory and rich, if perhaps a tad too salty.

As you probably know, I am a roast chicken fanatic. Plus, there was mac 'n cheese prominently involved and roasted brussel sprouts, which is a vegetable. The half chicken came with the breast perfectly moist and a crisp skin. The leg and thigh however were a little drab and flabby; a quick run under the salamander would have helped. Contributing much to the meat was an au jus packing a well needed punch of rosemary. The brussel sprouts could have used a bit more roasting to bring out the caramelized flavors. That may be a personal preference though.

Cupcakes are all the rage and frying things never goes out of style. Enter the deep fried mini cupcake. Let me clarify - a ball of moist cake batter, filled with cream cheese icing and sprinkles is rolled in a light batter, fried, and then served with three dipping sauces: vanilla bean (the best), butterscotch, and chocolate. It is fun, it is weird, but most importantly, they are delicious.

Couple of cocktails, Kermit Lynch Cote du Rhone, and a glass of Basil Hayden's later and we left quite full, very surprised, and eager to return. Watching Rue 127 evolve will be one of the great pleasures of 2011 and beyond.

Rue 127 is located at 127 N. Carrollton across from Venezias and down the street from Jesuit. 483-1571 is their phone number. You may want to make a reservation as we had no choice but to sit at the bar. We prefer that every now and then.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Drinking the Haterade... Kind of

As far as new restaurants opening in New Orleans, the biggest headline of the year has definitely been Rick Tramonto and John Folse's partnership in the Royal Sonesta Hotel.  But while that project seems to be a long time away from fruition, another huge project now appears to be full steam ahead. Walk-On's and Happy's Irish Pub, both of Baton Rouge, will open in 1009 Poydras Street, the former homes of both Smith & Wollensky and Maylie's.

For those who are not regular attendees of Fall Saturdays in Tiger Stadium, the original Walk-On's is located in prime real estate on the edge of the LSU campus. The self described "bistreaux" has likely surpassed The Chimes as the #1 pre- and post-game watering hole. "This is the Baton Rouge version of 'Cheers,' where everybody knows everybody," according to their marketing director.*

Walk-On's also serves food, but apparently the menus in Baton Rouge and New Orleans will not be the same. "'We'll have a completely different offering in Baton Rouge and New Orleans,' Hains said. 'We're developing a special product line for this location.'"

That's a good start, because the food at Walk-On's in Baton Rouge is, in a word, bad. The menu reads like a pseudo-Cajun version of Chili's or Applebee's - Cajundillas, boudin balls, boneless wings, and blackened alligator. Don't get me wrong, I love a basket of waffle fries just as much as everyone else.  All I'm saying is that I usually eat at Walk-On's out of necessity, meaning it's midnight after the 2008 LSU-Alabama game and all I want to do is drown my sorrows by inhaling mozzarella cheese sticks.

I will admit that Walk-On's in Baton Rouge has a fun, upbeat atmosphere where most people (including myself) enjoy throwing back a few beers with their friends. But the food is mostly frozen, fried, or pre-prepared. The majority of New Orleans locals demand better. I have no doubt that Walk-On's on Poydras will crush the lunch business once it opens, but I would hate for convenience and low cost to prevail at the expense of local eateries that may cost a little bit more and take longer to serve but uphold the standards of dining in New Orleans. And considering the prime location, who knows how many visitors staying at the newly renovated Hyatt will wander over to Walk-On's. What impression of New Orleans cuisine will those diners return home with?

I presume that a number of people will view my words as an act of shooting one's self in the foot. Why would someone who loves New Orleans disparage a couple of business owners who want to invest $3.5M to transform a dormant, prime piece of real estate into an employer of 175 locals?

Good question. Here's my answer:

I want New Orleans to thrive and succeed but without sacrificing it's sense of self. If the only way New Orleans can catch up to the rest of the world is by transforming itself into an adult Disneyland or a modern creolized" version of Anywhere, USA, then I wish you all good luck with that. I'm moving to Charleston.

Too often cities are defined by availability and not originality. I am often baffled when I hear people say: "I love [insert city]. You can go to Panera for breakfast, Five Guy's for lunch, and shop at Anthropology in between."

Manhattan probably boasts all of those above chains (or their equivalents), but millions of people don't fly through La Guardia everyday to patronize them. Instead, tourists flock to New York to spend their money at places like Magnolia Bakery, Casa Mono, and FAO Schwartz. I want visitors to New Orleans to remember our city for experiences such as breakfast at Surrey's, lunch at Parkway Bakery, and shopping along Royal Street.

I both live and work less than 100 feet from the new home of Walk On's and Happy's. If anyone would like to see those businesses succeed, it's me. But I hope that success can be accompanied by quality food that New Orleanians can be proud of.

* I don't think that's how the theme song goes, but I could be wrong.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Taceaux Loceaux

Welcome to what might be my favorite taco purveyor in the city.  Taceaux Loceaux is the creation of Alex and Maribeth del Castillo, the better half* of whom first crossed our radar back after tasting her incredible hand pies at the now shuttered Fuel Cafe.**  Apparently the del Castillos' culinary talents extend beyond baking, because the couple is slinging some might fine tacos from this big white truck.

These are not your ordinary tacos, whether your barometer is Taco Bell or Taco San Miguel.  For me at least, what sets these tacos apart are the loads of fresh herbs and thinly sliced radishes which adorn each tortilla.  The names are pretty clever too, such as the "Messin' with Texas" filled with shreds of brisket, cabbage, cilantro, radishes, and crema.  Or the "Carnital Knowledge" featuring pork, all of the above vegetation, and a squiggle of chipotle aioli.  The "All Hat No Cattle" may be vegetarian, but the the taste is still meaty goodness.  And lastly, underneath each order of tacos is a hidden treasure of thinly sliced, spicy pickled carrots.

Tacos are served two per order and cost at most $7.  You can usually find Taceaux Loceaux setup outside Dos Jefes on Tchoupitoulas, but other locations include 45 Tchoup and The Kingpin.  The best way to track them down is by following their twitter feed.  They even have to go boxes for those of us who may not be up for a night on the town but still want to eat as if we were.

Taceaux Loceaux - Birdie

* This is no knock on Alex, but in case you didn't know, the "better half" of a couple is always the woman. Unless there are two of them, in which case it's best to avoid using such terms for fear of having both turn on you and each other.

** Even though Maribeth left Fuel before it closed, you can still order her handpies through her personal venture called Betty's Bake Shop.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Short Order Reviews

Peter - Pho Tau BayIt had been quite a long time since I had dined at what was my first exposure to Vietnamese cuisine, but on this return visit the food did not live up to my memories. Because it was a cold and rainy Friday after Thanksgiving, I ordered a bowl of bo kho, the hearty stew of beef and carrots.  The gravy was thin and not nearly as flavorful as Tan Dinh's, and the temperature was luke warm.  On the bright side though, the beef was very tender and the carrots cooked to perfection.  Banh mi was skimpy on the chargrilled pork, but the flavor was spot on. In fact, I would say that portion sizes in general have been reduced, but at these prices it's tough to complain.  Pho Tau Bay - Par, sometimes the food is never as good as you remembered.  113 Westbank Expressway.

ReneBrooklyn Pizza. Crust was structurally perfect; thin, crispy but not waifish. However, there was too much uncooked flour on the bottom of crust, which created a choking sensation as I did the "whooo whoooo this pizza is hot, must breath in rapid gasps of air" dance. (That dance is a hallmark of any good pizza.) Next the sauce - good, zippy and played the role of a background singer. Toppings - Lindsay went with a small vegetarian thing and I chose pepperoni and olives. Both seemed bland, but the cheese had that toothy, yet stringy quality. Best part of the meal was the Italian salad with mozzarella, a nice light vinaigrette, salami and black olives. Brooklyn Pizza - Par, but want another crack at it. 4301 Veterans Blvd.

Peter - Babylon Cafe.  First, you have to give major props to Babylon for baking their own bread.  Thick with a buttery crust, it feels strange at first to be eating hummus with the house bread instead of pita, but you quickly grow accustom to it.  All of the dips - hummus, baba ganoush, and lebna - are pureed smooth, almost whipped. The $10.99 combination salad is mountanious with crisp slices of gyro meat and chicken shawarma that tends to be dry when it is cut too thin, but nice and juicy when it's thicker.  A sleeper on the menu is the shrimp sauteed in a spicy tomato-based sauce with squash, zucchini, and peppers.  Everything is cheap, cheap, cheap, even with the fancy new laminated menus. Babylon Cafe - Birdie.  7724 Maple Street.

ReneJung's Golden Dragon. Chinese food has admittedly taken a backseat to other Asian cuisines in our culinary adventures. What more is there to say about General Tso's and fried rice. You know what it tastes like. Granted, this is not "real" Chinese food, but there is also no such thing as Italian food either. Enter Jung's Golden Dragon, which recently opened on Magazine St. in the same block as La Divina and Sucre. (Insert Great Wall of China joke here.) The draw to Jung's - previously it was located in Metairie - was always the "Yellow Menu" which features more authentic Chinese dishes than you may be used to finding. We started with the waiter's recommendation of Glass Shrimp Dumplings. What came forth was a beautiful and intricate bundle of shrimp encased in a cellophane clear wrapper. A fiery chili oil and ginger flavored soy sauce were all the accompaniments these little bundles of joy needed. 

Next, came an order of pan fried pork dumplings, which are easily the best dumplings in the city. Crunchy but bursting forth with the unctuousness of pork. After I devoured three of them, Lindsay balanced one more on the end of her chopsticks before saying, "I can see you like those, you can have the rest."

That is love.

For Lindsay, eggplant Szechuan style, which came as a big pile of stir fried, crisp on the outside, molten on inside strips of eggplant. The eggplant was coated in a fiery brown sauce. Nothing gloppy or sweet here, just pure flavors and exquisite technique. I kept things in the same line of thinking but went with shredded pork in lieu of a vegetable. Both our dishes came extra spicy as required and that provided all the fortification against what was a cold day. We got take out a few days later, which was equally as good. Can you tell I really like this place? Jung's - Birdie, another few visits, could be Eagle for Chinese Restaurant in New Orleans.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Challenge Submissions and a Few Linkatudes

Only one more month is left in 2010. Which means it is time to start submitting your ideas for Peter's Food Challenge in the Year 2011. While I have had good fun providing you a weekly glimpse into the ramblings and thoughts of a crazy man, I am more that happy to relinquish the challenge year to my Peter in Crime.

No suggestions will be turned away except for: 1) Can't Eat at Same Restaurant Twice and 2) Must Bore Us Weekly with Stupid Ideas.

Now, here is our review of The Rib Room from this month's offBeat Magazine. We particularly enjoyed our lunch at The Rib Room. Should you be in the quarter and looking for a place to eat, pop in there for a cool blend of the old and the new.

Originally, I wrote a wine and medical geeky piece on two New Orleans doctors who are making their own wines. The article feature all sorts of polyphenol talk and anti-oxidant mumbo jumbo. Luckily, for you our editor Alex Rawls at offBeat had me rewrite the story into something you would want to read, hopefully. But here is the short version of my original piece: drinking a glass of wine 2-3 times a day can make you live longer and, more importantly, be healthier longer. Just one more reason you should drink the good juice.