Monday, October 31, 2011

Burger Bonanza: Tru Burger

Burger - Burger patties are thin (I would guess 3oz.) and cooked on a griddle to a perfectly juicy medium. The buns are a bit dense, which helps create a solid foundation for what is a fairly greasy burger. A single burger is not enough, and the double may be just a little too much. Cheese options are sliced cheddar, american or swiss.  Standard toppings include leafy romaine, thinly sliced raw onion, tomato, and pickle. Condiments are self applied at the table.

Fries/Rings/Sides - Fries are thin, hot, crispy, salty. When Tru first opened I thought they short changed you with a small amount of fries, but the mountain of fries in my basket last week proved that is no longer the case. Onion rings are absent from the menu. Chili is available as an addition to fries or in a bowl on its own.

Sauce - Tru Sauce is a thick, deep, dark sauce which tastes like A1 on steroids - salty, peppery, and redolent of Asian fish sauce and/or worcestershire. It's an umami thing that pairs very well with grilled onions. Personally though, I prefer mayo-based.

Service/Ambience - The old gelato parlor on Oak Street has the feel of the dining room in a fast food joint and the color scheme to match. Counter service is always smiling and friendly. Food comes out hot, fast, and fresh.

Lagniappe - Big bonus points for serving milkshakes, which are a bargain at $3.50 for a ginormous size. My only gripe is that they use vanilla ice cream for all flavors, but maybe others think that a chocolate shake made from chocolate ice cream would be too rich. I really, really like the Zweigle's hot dog served in the soft, toasted bun.

Price - Single is $4.50 and the Double is $6.50. Add $0.50 for cheese. Fries are $1.99 a la carte.

Overall Assessment - Burger - good. Fries - good. Shake - good. But for me personally, Tru Burger is the most utilitarian of the new burger specialists. It's a burger that I seek out more for sustenance as opposed to satisfying a craving. Where Tru shines brightest is with the specialty burgers, like the Uptowner topped with goat cheese, roasted tomato, arugula, and garlic aioli. But when it comes to your basic burger and fries, Tru and my personal preferences just don't mesh well.

Tru Burger - Par/Birdie

8115 Oak Street
Tues-Thur 11am-9pm; Fri-Sat till 10pm; Sun till 8pm. Closed Mon.
(504) 218-5416

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Lunch at MiLa

Ah, lunch. Once our favorite time of the school day, lunch now often consists of an ever-shortening window of time during which we wolf down a $5 footlong in between meetings, phone calls, and TPS reports. The need for speed is one of the many blessings of the work place, and sometimes we are lucky enough to snag a bag of peanuts from the vending machine to hold off starvation before heading home.

But there is lunch, and then there is lunch. The kind of meal where you transport yourself, if only for 60 minutes, to a place where the rest of the world takes a break from the daily hustle and bustle to allow you to enjoy real food, maybe a glass of wine, and some non-work related conversation before getting back to the grind.

At MiLa, such an experience will only run you $20.

Meals at MiLa still begin with the a basket filled with rolls and thin wedges of firm corn bread presented with miniature cast iron skillets of lima bean puree and cold salted butter. Venison pâté, rustic in appearance but elegant in flavor, is served with creole mustard, thinly sliced cornichon and buttery slices of toasted baguette. $10 well spent to supplement the prix fixe.

Soup or salad begins the prix fix. The novelty of butternut squash soup may have long since passed, but the familiarity of the dish does not detract from the worthiness of MiLa's version, which is enriched with spiced crème fraiche and served with crispy shitake chips and lumps of crabmeat bobbing up and down upon the surface. The salad is a simple composition of organic greens, salty Louisiana feta, sunflower seeds for crunch, and a bright lemon vinaigrette.

On to the main events. I ordered the phyllo crusted redfish on my first visit to MiLa, and three years later here it is still, with the thatched roof of phyllo dough providing a nice crunch to the moist fillet underneath. Israeli couscous, wilted and slightly bitter greens, and a sauce of thickened lobster stock rounds out the dish. For the carnivores, braised veal cheeks (which we have seen on a lot of menus lately) atop a puree of fingerling potatoes.

Dessert is a choice between simple pleasures. The omnipresent vanilla bean rice pudding topped with glazed seasonal berries, blue ones in this case, is a dish whose humble connotation as peasant food is wiped away with just one spoonful. It's just plain good. Or maybe a bowl of housemade ice cream - banana on the most recent visit - topped with crunchy almond streusel.

For those who enjoy a glass of wine with their lunch (only on Fridays, of course), the list at MiLa offers a number of bottles in the $30 range. Service, once the Achilles heel of the restaurant, has markedly improved in terms of both polish and speed. On this most recent visit, the lunch hour need only be extended by a few minutes in order to enjoy a 3 course meal from one of the city's most underrated and often forgotten about restaurants.

Lunch at MiLa - Eagle
$20 for 3 Courses
Mon-Fri 11:30am-2:30pm
817 Common Street at the Pere Marquette Hotel
(504) 412-2580

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Cooking With Wine

Sometimes a meal just comes together without a plan. When this happens the result is not at all unlike giving a speech. There is the meal you wanted to make, the meal you made, and the meal you should have made. What I intended to make was a pork roast that sat atop firm stewed lentils. What ended up on the plate was a stew of lentils which had thickened the braising liquid by bursting forth from their shells. What I should have done is cook the two separately.

The wine was partially to blame or credit depending on your point of view. Mad Max's offering that week was winemaker Brian Graham's 2009 Parlay "Bookmaker" blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Syrah, Syrah, and Petite Verdot, which kept changing in the glass. There was jammy red fruit, and black pepper, calling to mind that incredible Italian dessert of ripe strawberries with balsamic and black pepper. Sharp and firm tannins led to a quick, pleasing finish. This great everyday red wine retails for about $20 and you can find it at Mondo, Whole Foods, Le Foret, Ste. Marie, Cork & Bottle, and Stanley.

Roast Pork Loin with Lentil Stew

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

A two pound pork loin (not tenderloin) benefits from a brine. If pressed for time, just season with salt for an hour or so before cooking. Rinse off brine and dry thoroughly. Season with salt, pepper, and smoked paprika. Sear in olive oil in a dutch oven until brown and crusty on all sides. Remove. Into the pot, add an onion and three carrots roughly chopped. Saute on medium heat for about 10 minutes until softened.

 Add in a cup of lentils and a few cloves of garlic. I had red ones which turned a muted orange once cooked. Then 4 cups of water. Add back in the pork roast, bring to a boil and, place in oven, uncovered until pork is cooked through and the lentils have absorbed most of the liquid. Remove pork, allow it to rest for 10 minutes, slice and cube. Taste stew, adjust seasoning - a little cumin at this point is a great idea, a dash of vinegar also. Ladle lentil stew into a shallow bowl, top with diced pork, and leaves of parsley.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The 2011 Fall Dining Guide

And now, for a little Tuesday morning quarterbacking...

The biggest news in the NOLA dining scene over the weekend was the publication of this year's Fall Dining Guide by the Times Picayune. The guide always features 100 Great Places to Eat, and in a town with more than 1200 restaurants (according to Uncle Tom), there are bound to be many of our favorites who missed the cut.

But if whittling down the list to 100 seems difficult, imagine the task of choosing the Top 10. Each year the Times Pic chooses then restaurants that "uphold New Orleans’ reputation for world-class fine dining."

Here is this year's list, in alphabetical order:
  • Bayona
  • Clancy's
  • Cochon
  • Domenica
  • Emeril's
  • Gautreau's
  • Herbsaint
  • La Petite Grocery
  • Patois
  • Restaurant August
Would that be my personal Top 10? No. Can a fair argument be made for each of the restaurants on this year's list? Absolutely. Will some people think that Brett Anderson is a moron for not having included _______? Without a doubt.

The guide also includes a list of this year's Top 5 New New Orleans restaurants, as well as interviews with 4 Chefs to Watch, courtesy of Todd Price.  My personal favorite segment of this year's guide? Brett Anderson showing honesty to name Popeye's as one of five spots to find red beans and rice. I couldn't agree more. And while we are not holding back the truth, I have a confession to make. I have been known to order a family size red beans and rice for my own personal consumption, only to increase the gluttony by tearing off the skin from a 3 piece order of legs and thighs and adding the crispy fried goodness to my styrofoam container of red beans.

Blackened Out is in the midst of preparing for our own end of the year awards, and we want to know what restaurants would be in your personal Top 10. Think that Stella! was unfairly snubbed or that Boucherie has more class than other restaurants at twice the price? The comments are open for business.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Burger Bonanza: Cowbell

Burger - This is your typical backyard grill burger all grown up. The thick patty made from all natural beef is one of the most flavorful burgers in the city, and the grill knows what a proper medium-rare burger should look like. The bun is sublime - a soft, toasted potato roll with lots of give. Dressings are served on the side - roma tomatoes (others not in season), thinly sliced red onion, and leafs of iceberg. No pickle though.

Fries/Rings/Sides - Fries are thicker cut and more rustic; not exactly crunchy but crispy enough and delicious. I don't recall if onion rings are on the menu. The macaroni/cavatappi and cheese is a rich and creamy appetizer or burger supplement, though on my most recent visit the $6 portion appeared to have reduced in size by 50%.

Sauce - Agogo sauce is a house made mayo kicked up with sriracha, roasted garlic, honey, and "other stuff." The sweet, garlicky, kind of spicy sauce is unbelievably delicious. I like it slathered on the burger, as a dip for the fries, and as a moisturizer for my skin. Housemade ketchup has a prominent cinnamon flavor, which isn't really my thing.

Service/Ambience - The renovation of this former gas station at the end of Oak Street is a fun, eclecticly adorned, communal space to dine in. Since the weather has turned cool, the seating capacity doubles with tables out front in the parking lot and underneath the overhang. Inside there are a few deuces, several 6 tops which are often shared by multiple parties, and the bar (my favorite place to dine). The staff wears floral patterned aprons which appear to have been pulled straight from Grandma's linen drawer. Motown's greatest hits plays from the speakers, in what can be a very loud dining room.

Lagniappe - Cowbell is not a one hit burger wonder. Clam chowder, doctored up grilled cheese sandwiches, skirt steak, and a general latin flair covers the rest of the menu. The bar pours a short but interesting array of beers, housemade punches, and wines. Corkage is listed at $10,000,000,000 - give or take a few zeroes.

Price - A burger will run you $10.95 plus an extra $1 for cheese, but that price includes a boatload (or more accurately, a red and white checker basket) full of french fries.

Overall Assessment - Unlike most of the other burger specialists recently opened around town, Cowbell is a full service restaurant which just happens to serve one hell of a burger. At $11 for a burger and fries, the cost of food alone is equivalent to that at gourmet burger spots which offer fast-casual service. Sometimes we pay a few dollars more to be waited on, and that is a premium which I will gladly pay for at Cowbell - especially if I can manage to smuggle out a bottle of agogo sauce in The Folk Singer's purse.

Cowbell - Birdie

8801 Oak Street
Tues-Sat 11:30am-3pm; 5pm-10pm (till 11pm on Fri-Sat). Closed Sun-Mon.
(504) 298-8689

Friday, October 21, 2011

You Can't Stop NOLA Brewing, You Can Only Hope to Contain Them

Photo stolen off of Twitter @NOLABrewing

Trust us, that was the least offensive pun we came up with for a title to this post. As we are sure you know, NOLA Brewing - that rising behemoth of brew, that stalwart of suds - is set to release their New Orleans focused beers in new portable personal mini kegs. These personal mini kegs can travel almost anywhere. From the parade grounds to the parking lot of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, from the whitish sands of Pass Christian to your Aunt Beatrice's wake, there is literally nowhere you can't take these personal mini-kegs. And unlike big, bulky group kegs, these personal mini kegs are recyclable and come in convenient six and twenty-four packs.

To celebrate the release of the NOLA Blonde personal mini kegs, next Thursday they are taking over Tipitina's starting at 8 p.m. Featuring the music of Colin Lake, Flow Tribe, and Big Sam's Funky Nation, this will be in the words of soon to be married Donnie Boy Riguez, "a stone cold groove". Tickets are $15 which come not only with a personal mini keg but also a personal mini keg insulation device, which is a technological breakthrough on a global scale. These so-called "koozies" keeps a cold beverage colder longer. It does so by protecting the cold aluminum of the can from the warmth of your grubby little paw. So do the math people, $15 clams, 3 bands, 1 beer, and a lifetime of guaranteed cold beer, that is such a good deal Groupon would have passed on it.

On a personal note, the folks at NOLA Brewing have become a symbol of everything is right with New Orleans. We wish them nothing but the best. Now go drink their beer.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Thanksgiving is Coming

The first real cold snap has arrived. The sun, to borrow from Dan Borne, is finding its home in the Western sky earlier in the evening than just a few weeks ago. All of this can only mean one thing...Thanksgiving, that greatest of American holidays, the ne plus ultra of eating and drinking, the Super Bowl of Bounty, is just five weeks away.

It is time to get serious about Thanksgiving.

First, some self-scouting of last year. The mashed potatoes took a turn for the worse when we all got distracted with catching up. The turkey was done, but someone (read here: me) had forgot to start the potatoes. Cooking on an away field with a pot with more bends and warps in it than a trip with Doc Brown, the potatoes just sat in tepid water never really fully cooking. I tried to force the issue by pushing them through a ricer and then finishing the smaller granules in chicken stock and butter. I do not recommend you try this. The potateos came out gummy and tacky, a travesty of science and technology that should never happen. Lindsay still hasn't forgiven me.

This year I am simplifying things by cooking on home turf, for one. One turkey is going on the Big Green Egg while a boudin stuffed turkey breast is getting roasted in the oven. Mashed potatoes will be the only other thing I cook, besides a gravy. If I can pry the recipe for that corn dish out of the hands of the cooks at Baru, I may try that as well. Of course, I may want to bake some bread in the morning. But first and foremost is atoning for the sins of last year's Thanksgiving. Everyone else is invited, just bring booze and Better Cheddar. The rest will take care of itself. And remember, Thanksgiving is coming.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


Rene: Rich spice on the nose; get some coffee and dark berry flavors. The tannins are tight and restricted, wound up like a kid on Halloween. This wine screams out for something like rich duck with crispy skin or maybe lamb braised. Let's split the difference and go with the roast quail with steamed buns from Nine Roses. They also have it at Tan Dinh if you cross the bridge today and find Nine Roses closed.

Peter: This baby needs to open up for a bit to let the peppery flavors mellow out. Not much dryness going down the throat from the tannins. I'm thinking something gamey like venison. How about the wood fired goat at Domenica or the lamb neck from Herbsaint.

Joe the Wine Guy: The Numanthia 2007 is made from 100% Tinta de Toro and is both intense and complex with several layers of aromatics in the lively nose: red and black fruits first, then sweet spices like cinnamon and nutmeg, and then vanilla and toasted black pepper. On the palate, this wine is expresses dark fruits with concentrated and velvety tannins. This full bodied wine shows exceptional acidity revealing some chocolate, toasted, and spicy notes. The juice was aged in new French oak Bordelaise barrels for 18 months. The 2007 Numanthia retails for $59.99 and you can find it at Emeril's and Cork & Bottle.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Dueling Bloggers: Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

Last Saturday while poking around the Farmer's Market, a devoted reader who is not related to either of us, asked, "You guys should debate restaurants that never change their menus." The reader went on to note that they had gone to Lilette the night before "for about the thousandth time" and that the menu never changes. "We really like Lilette, but come on!" he implored. So without further ado, let's debate menus and restaurants.

Rene: The idea of the ever evolving menu at a restaurant is a relatively new one. Well, that is not entirely true. Places like Chez Panisse and the thousand of French restaurants it was inspired by have served different menus everyday. Certainly a restaurant with an ever changing menu has become very popular in the last ten years. This is mostly due to the proliferation and abundance of farmers markets along with a growing sense of seasonal based cooking. All of which is a long winded way of saying, while I enjoy restaurants that are always challenging themselves to work with what God gives them, I am not sold that a restaurant has to use that formula to be considered great. The idea of a restaurant constantly changing its menu is more a reaction to what the consumer wants. Through magazines, shows, etc... the way a restaurant appeals to consumers is by being "market inspired". While it is a noble and delicious goal, it tends to make many restaurants seem monotonous. I want more personality out of a restaurant.

Peter: You know what lacks personality? Tomatoes in December and oysters in July. Should a chef force himself to use scientifically altered produce and frozen seafood just because his customers want to eat the same crawfish etouffee in November that they did in May? Or does it make more sense for a chef to talk to his suppliers, figure out what the harvest brought this week, and decide what to tailor his menu toward the freshest ingredients available? Changing your menu to reflect the seasons is not monotonous; serving Oysters Rockefeller and Baked Alaska everyday for 170 years is.

Rene: Distilling it down even further, there are chefs the world over who have created dishes people travel to taste. I am thinking of bites like Robuchon's pommes puree, Thomas Keller's Oysters and Pearls, or Drago's chargrilled oysters. Dishes define restaurants. No trip to Herbsaint is complete for me without an order of spaghetti with guanciale and fried poached egg. There is no reason for a menu to change completely when there are dishes that can stand the test of time. I don't begrudge either tactic a restaurant may take, but I get cravings for specific dishes or specific approaches to food more than I get cravings for a specific restaurant. Imagine the horror if you walked into La Boca and learned they had become vegetarian?

Peter: My worst nightmare is walking into La Boca and having Jared tell me that the sweetbreads and hanger steak have been replaced by watermelon carpaccio and eggplant stuffed with bulgur wheat. That being said, I understand that sometimes I can order flash fried brussels sprouts with my skirt steak and other times I have to settle for asparagus. Just as the crops change with the seasons, so do my tastebuds, which is why I'm more likely to opt for a restaurant that serves vichychoisse in the summer instead of one that insists on serving gumbo even when its 110 degrees outside. And maybe if we as consumers are more willing to accept the fact that we can't always order what we want, then our ecosystem will become more sustainable and less reliant on foods with artificial preservatives.

Rene: Take for instance, Boucherie which is always cycling in new dishes, cuisines, and techniques into their repertoire. Go there this month and Indian may be the theme. However, one is always guaranteed to find a few select dishes - the boudin balls, the grit cake with blackened shrimp - never leave. They don't leave the menu because they are an anchor to the chef's vision. A constantly changing menu is a sign of a chef who is both continuing to learn and also unsure of his or her food personality. I don't mean to say a chef should ever stop learning and expanding, but rather I like them to know a hit when they taste it.

Peter: You have enunciated what is known as the Great Compromise, a/k/a the Three-Fifths Compromise. If a restaurant allocates 60% of its menu to the greatest hits and the other 40% to dishes comprised of seasonal ingredients or the chef's own innovations, then harmony is achieved both by giving the people what they have come to expect from the kitchen and by allowing the chef enough room both to stay creative and to take advantage of nature's cycle. Boucherie and Herbsaint are great examples, but Susan Spicer has it down to a science at Bayona. On the left side of the menu are the signature dishes - goat cheese crouton, garlic soup, sweetbreads with sherry mustard - and on the right side of the menu are the nightly specials that change with the chef's whim and whatever raw ingredients are available. A little something for everyone.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Burger Bonanaza: The Company Burger

Editor's Note: Welcome to Burger Bonanza, Blackened Out's newest series which catches fire for a few weeks before our boredom and laziness lead to unfulfilled expectations. (At least we are consistent in delivering disappointment.) The humble hamburger - that most American of all foods - has taken New Orleans by storm over the past 12 months. Burger specialists have been popping up all over town, and with many claiming that they serve the best burger in the city, figuring out which burger best fits your taste/budget might require consuming more ground beef than your cardiologist is comfortable with. Thankfully, last month we found a great deal on black market Lipitor, so we are free to survey the current burger fad and report back on our experiences.

Burger - The namesake burger is modeled off the Holeman & Finch burger, where owner Adam Biderman trained. Two thin patties (maybe 4oz. each), bread and butter pickles, lots of melted American cheese, and thinly sliced red onions. The burger patties are cooked medium and turn out flavorful and juicy. The sweetness of the bread and butter pickles is different, but it works well. Props for using freshly baked brioche buns, but as a personal preference I think that the bun is a bit too firm and that the bread to meat ratio is tilted too far in favor of the former.

Fries/Rings/Sides - Fries are thick and long, crisp but not crunchy, and pair well with the burger. The serving size though left me wanting more. Red onions are used for the rings; the crunchy batter adhered well to the thick rings, but they are a bit greasy. Tater tots, sweet potato fries, and pimento cheese round out the rest of the menu.

Sauce - The “Mayo Bar” allows you to customize with roasted garlic, bacon, chipotle versions and more. The basil mayo is great for french fry dipping.

Service/Ambience - Order at the counter and wait for your name to be called. Service at the counter is not exactly rapid fire, but the wait for your food is not long at all. Dining room features tall ceilings, lots of polished steel, and TVs for game watching. Table seating for about 40 and bar seating for 10. Adam Biderman is a very involved owner and his presence is reassuring that a firm hand is on the wheel of this ship.

Lagniappe - Menu also includes a turkey burger (excellent), pork belly corndog (as good as it sounds), and hot dog from Cochon Butcher (never had it). Drinks are taken seriously, whether your thirst is quenched with a cocktail, beer, or freshly squeezed lemonade, which is tart and sweet and refreshing.

Price - The namesake burger is $8.50, and the single runs in the $6 range. Fries are a la carte at $2.

Overall Assessment - Some people hate on using American cheese, but I actually like it. The most common complaint that I have heard/read about The Company Burger is that the prices are too high. I can't really disagree - The Folk Singer and I once spent $30 on 2 burgers, an order of rings, order of fries, coke and a lemonade. (No booze for those of you paying attention at home.) Still, this is a very good burger, in my opinion. One worth spending money on.

The Company Burger - Birdie

4600 Freret Street
Sun-Mon & Wed-Sat 11am-3pm, 5pm-10pm. Closed Tuesdays.
(504) 267-0320

Friday, October 14, 2011

Weekend Roundup

When the Tigers and Saints are away, the locals have time to play... as is the case this weekend with a number of festivals around town. We're covering the gamut from oysters and BBQ to schnitzel and gumbo, so bring an appetite.

Crescent City Blues & BBQ Festival - There will be BBQ, the blues, and plenty of cold beer being served at Lafayette Square this weekend, and the Abita Sports Bar will be setup to ensure that you don't miss any of the games on Saturday or Sunday.

Magic in the Moonlight - Justin Devillier and Aaron Burgau will be taking their chef talents on the road to the Botanical Gardens in City Park, where they be will teaming up to cook up a feast for those dining under the stars at City Park. A few tickets are still available at $75, and they can be purchased online.

Violet Oyster Festival - Starting this evening and through the weekend, Our Lady of Lourdes Church will play host to a celebration in honor of the crown jewel of our local seafood industry. Whether you like your oysters raw on the half shell, grilled, or in po-boy form, they've got you covered.

Oktoberfests - There are two going on this weekend - Heiner Brau at the Covington Trailhead and the Deutsches Haus, whose members will be doing the chicken dance in exile at River Town in Kenner. Who doesn't love a good knockwurst?

Bridge City Gumbo Festival - For the next three days, volunteers from Holy Guardian Angels Mission will be across the Huey P Long serving up over 2000 gallons of seafood and chicken/sausage gumbo. So head on over to the Westbank for a funnel cake and a fais-do-do. There will even be a beautiful child contest (I shit you not) for you parents whose rugrats failed to make the cut for the final season of Showbiz Moms & Dads.

Thursday, October 13, 2011


Photo by renee b. photography.
For our "Dining Out" column in the October issue of OffBeat Magazine, we take a closer at Ancora,  Adolfo Garcia's newest restaurant which pays homage to Neopolitan pies. The team behind Ancora includes Jeff Talbot, the overlord of the oven whom you may remember from a previous interview, and Kris Doll, the sultan of salumi who flies under the radar but deserves much praise.

It's tough to decide which we like more about Ancora - the smoky, wood-fired pies which Jeff pulls from the oven or Kris's cured meats which are rustically presented on the cutting board. The simple solution is to combine the two, which Ancora's "Pizza of the Day" often does. One unforgettable version was composed of a creamy marscarpone base, light tomato sauce, leafy arugula, and speck that would make nolawineguy abandon veganism.

But all of this artisan craftsmanship comes at a price that can creep up on those who tend to go overboard with their orders and enjoy a nice bottle of wine with their meals (which we often do), so make sure to bring either your wallet or your self control.

Ancora - Birdie
4508 Freret Street
(504) 324-1636
Mon-Sat 5:30pm - 10pm

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Cooking with Wine

Today's episode is brought to you by the Texas Board of Tourism. In case you haven't heard, Texas and its various boards, commissions, cowboys, and people who love big hair paid a whole 10 gallon hat of money to have Top Chef film in its various locales. Now, me personally, I don't see anything wrong with that. What I can't understand is why they didn't pay any money to keep Most Eligible Dallas from airing. Such a boneheaded decision really has me question their supposed supremacy in things like "living" or "modern cities" or "producing good football teams".

Chili is revered by Texans like Ted Hall who once threatened to kill me if I ever included beans in a bowl of Texas Red. Pinto beans always make me think of some stagecoach cook shutting up a guy named Slim with a scoop from a dutch oven. Couple this with bottle of zinfandel from Mad Max that had me thinking of something spicy and tomato strewn and the stage was set to make a chili that would send a Texan running to the Alamo. I used torn, dried chiles to bring not just heat, but a fragrant fruitiness to the party. Some kale chips (wash, dry, olive oil, salt 300 degree oven for 20 minutes) were the crowning jewel on a mockery fiercer than any Tony Romo joke.

All of this got along very well with the 2009 Saldo Zinfandel released by Orin-Swift wines made under the stewardship of owner/winemaker Dave Phinney. Zinfandel is a wine that wants something robust and brash, and making fun of Texas sure is. The wine retails for around $28 and you can find it at Sylvain, Whole Foods, Iris, Commander's Palace, K-Paul's, Wine Seller, and Maximos.

Messed With Texas Red

Soak 1 pound of pinto beans overnight or while at work. In a Dutch oven, saute over medium heat one whole onion diced with two or three jalapenos diced fine. While that melts, de-stem and de-seed one dried ancho chili and cut into roughly one inch squares. Add these to the pot, and cook for a minute or so. The heat will soften them. Now add in a tablespoon of chopped garlic along with a teaspoon of cumin, a hearty pinch of oregano, and a teaspoon of chili powder. Stir so the spices can absorb some of the oil.

After a minute or so, add a tablespoon of tomato paste. Stir. Let cook for about 2 minutes (doing so deepens the flavor). Deglaze with half a bottle of beer and a 1/4 cup of apple cider vinegar. Once the beer has mostly evaporated, add in a 28 ounce can of whole tomatoes and their juice. Using the back of a spoon mash the tomatoes. Drain beans from soaking water and add to the pot along with a quart of water. Bring to a boil, lower to a simmer and cook uncovered until beans are tender and the sauce is thick..

Crown with queso blanco, parsley, the kale chips, and a dig at Mack Brown's coaching prowess. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Short Order Reviews

Midway Pizza: The yin to Ancorra's yang (or vice versa, Atlanta rappers not being a strong suit of this writer). Midway is a loud, brashy spot serving out an homage to Chicago's deep dish take on pizza. Where the focus at Ancorra is less is more, at Midway more is not enough. And the philosophy at both works. We started with a House Salad, which was thankfully dressed perfectly with a barely there Champagne vinaigrette. The polenta croutons need to be reworked, ours arrived leaden and tasting of grease. A decent opening salvo, now onto the 'Za. The #18 stole the show with pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, onion and green pepper. I expected the meatballs on the King Leon to be overcooked and dry, but what came forth were juicy, plump, and delicious. The crust at Midway is a khaki colored, two inch deep crispy bowl for the toppings it delivers. This may not be pizza you are used to, but it is worth finding out for sure. A very solid beer list anchors what may be one of the city's best spots to grab a beer and some pies. Birdie.

Fat Hen Grocery: The corner of Cherokee and St. Charles has gone through roughly seventy-four ownership changes in the last few years. But there is hope that the most recent opening of the Fat Hen brand by Chef Shane Pritchett  is here to stay. First, the interior tugs on a carnivore's heartstrings with a wall portraying every cut from a chicken, pig, and beef. Plus, over the bar there rests a Warhol painted pig. Moving our eyes from the walls to the plate, we gazed upon a Seersucker platter strewn with smoked sausage, creamy pimento cheese, thick slices of raw onion, celery, carrots and pickles. Bringing all this together are gaufrettes of potato as thin as newspaper. The barbecue sauce, available for purchase this being a grocery, is spicy and sharp. The tree hugger omelet would have been improved with a crustier English muffin and larger chunks of crabmeat. The pulled pork was smoky and well-seasoned but a toss in the barbecue sauce rather than it just drizzling on bun would have put this sandwich up there with the Muffaletta and the Po Boy. Par/Birdie.

Baru: A nice fall night sitting outside with a bottle of Torrontes and 2005 Rioja set up an incredible dinner. Plus, how can you match the ambiance of sitting next to a couple who decided 8 pm on a Saturday night was a good time to take a one year old and a two year old out to dinner? But the food more than made up for that glitch. First came, those incredibly light and crisp empanadas, plumped with ground beef and graced by chimichurri. Then the savory mazorca, a corn casserole of sorts that may have just gained a spot at the Thanksgiving table. Next, the ceviche, the black drum firm and the avocado adding richness against the acidic leche de tigre. The fried oysters did not disappoint either with a crisp crust and creamy interior crowned by a tuft of caramelized onions. The arepas were a misfire with dry pork and chalky corn cakes. But the mixed grill with chorizo, shrimp, and skirt steak sitting atop a loose but vibrant chimichurri made the arepa misstep nothing but a distant memory. Baru is the best BYOB in the city, and a dinner for two at $86 with tax and tip makes it a culinary jewel.  Birdie/Eagle.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Shrimp & Grits

Shrimp & Grits at La Petite Grocery.
"What is a good place for shrimp and grits in FQ?"

Such read the text message from a friend whose wife was in town for a convention a few weeks back. I initially considered replying with: "You know that shrimp and grits is a South Carolina thing, right? How do you feel about grillades?" But the culinary geography lesson probably would have just spurned him into hounding me for an answer.

Still, I drew a blank. Where does one find shrimp and grits in the French Quarter and in New Orleans on the whole? Even though some of us may toss aside this imported dish as something far too inferior to be included in the list of iconic New Orleans breakfast dishes (if it ain't got hollandaise, why bother?), for quite a few years shrimp and grits has been an unstoppable rebel force like an LSU defense led by the Honey Badger. The popularity is unsurprising. We love our grits, and Lord knows we have fantastic local shrimp. Putting the two together seems as obvious a marriage as any.

Personally, I am not big on seafood at breakfast time, which is why I did not have much first hand experience to draw upon in answering my friend's question. According to my notes, the last time I ordered shrimp and grits was at La Petite Grocery, whose version I recall was studded with bits of porky goodness. I don't recall any pork products in the shrimp and grits that I tasted in Charleston a few years back, but has there ever been a time when the addition of bacon has not improved a dish? Still, I harken back to my first ever experience with shrimp and grits, which was the work of former Galatoire's chef Brian Landry (who spent a few years in Charleston), who cooked the "authentic" version for one Sunday breakfast at his mother's house.

My friend's wife ended up at Mr. B's as the closest option to her hotel, and she reported back that the shrimp and grits were delicious. But ever since this question came up, I have had a hankering for the dish. So where should I go?  Dante's Kitchen and EAT are often mentioned in the discussion as two of the top choices. Luke, Surrey's, and Upperline all have shrimp and grits on their menu. How about the shrimp over grit cake at Muriel's? Or will I head back to LPG? Let us know which local restaurant serves your favorite version of shrimp and grits in the comments.

Friday, October 7, 2011


As the great philosopher Katherine von Perry once said, "Tis a blacked out blur, but thou art pretty sure it ruled." Fridays are the day you long for all week. No one ever makes plans for, say Tuesday, but run into someone on the street and you are bound to ask, "What are yall doing Friday; we should get together."

Well, Friday is here. And soon five p.m. will roll around and you will get a familiar itch to grab a drink or go to dinner. You know just something quiet. Before you know it, it is 3 in the morning and you are desperately pounding on the door of the soon to be Taco Bell on Claiborne demanding a Big Beef Chimichanga and 3 Mexican Pizzas. Hey, it happens. Thank God.

If you haven't been yet, today would be a nice time to check out The Irish House by Chef Matt Murphy. Situated on St. Charles, on a nice night, they open the windows wide to bring in the sounds of the rolling streetcar and passing folk. The walls are covered in Guinness and other Irish bric-a-brac and there is a warm, welcoming vibe. A solid selection of beers, whiskeys, and other libations anchors a physical dominating bar space. There are tables and a tv or two scattered throughout, solid food as well. All of the above makes for a pleasant way to ease into a long night at the Red Eye er, an Adult evening.

But perhaps the biggest reason you should go to The Irish House is because of the wings. Allow me a story. For one glorious summer, I lived down in the British Virgin Islands, filled dive tanks, and piloted boats around the various islands of what may be the prettiest place in the Western Hemisphere. This is when I was still "Pre Law". Anyway, the island was nuts for wings. The three Pusser's on the island each had a slightly different version. The one in Sopers Hole had the best with a tamarind rich, spicy sauce.

But all wings paled in comparison to those at the Bat Cave in Road Town Harbor. From 4 to 6 wings were .25 cents a piece and buckets of Caribs $5. As soon as the day would end, we piled into a maroon F-150 and drove the fifteen minutes through snaking roads which hugged the sea and clung to the mountains to get to Road Town. Once there we flat out destroyed some wings and drank beers under the setting sun.

The wings at Irish House, while not traditional, fit very closely to those hallowed wings from the now departed Bat Cave. They come in a thicker, smokier sauce which more aligns with barbecue sauce than the sauce that put Buffalo on the map. The garlic aioli, is just a tad too garlicky, which means it is right on point. While I may not be 20 anymore, a few dozen wings and a good dose of beer after a hard day's work can take me right back.

Have a great Friday, wherever you end up.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Short Order Reviews

It's time for everyone's favorite Blackened Out segment - Short Order Reviews. Now with 50% off the length and even less depth.

That's what she said.

Palace Cafe - Group dinners are inherently tough to execute because it's nearly impossible to insure that all of the food will be served hot. Hence, it's not quite fair to judge a restaurant based on a special event meal, but that's all we do around here is judge. (Just ask Legend and The Pope.) All 120 of us started with the crabmeat cheesecake, which had a light and smooth texture, but not much crabmeat or crab flavor, sitting atop a ground pecan crust. The generous slice was topped with mushrooms sauteed in an overly salty meuniere that was the color of dark chocolate. More crabmeat, less salt, and this could be a really fine dish. Entree choices were drum and a petite filet, both of which were overcooked and served with jazzed up mashed potatoes that should have been left alone. Of course, we all finished with white chocolate bread pudding - rich, buttery, and no discernable white chocolate taste. Bogey/Par.

The Lucky Ladle - This sleepy little spot on Magazine Street specializes in breakfast, and The Folk Singer and I gave it a go for Sunday brunch. Menu is simple but to the point of being uninspired, and the prices are cheap. Breakfast panini ($6.50) had an excellent buttery crispy exterior and gooey filling of egg, bacon, and melting Kraft singles. Call me crazy but the cheese made the sandwich. Accompanying side of home fries were frozen minuscule dices of potato cooked on the griddle but soft and mushy instead of crispy. Grits were terribly bland, but nothing that can’t be fixed with a salt shaker. Bacon and brown sugar waffle was a thick, pillowy round with not much flavor from either of the namesake ingredients. Service was friendly, and the sidewalk table with blue plastic chairs are a nice place to take your morning meal if you simply don’t feel like doing the dishes. Bogey/Par.

Nonna Mia - A group of us were famished after unsuccessfully grazing at the Martini Madness event at City Park a few weeks ago, and Nonna Mia was the only restaurant which  was happy to seat a table of 16 at 10:30pm. There were no (perceptible) grumblings from the staff either, which earns extra points for service in my book. The courtyard was a nice setting on a cool September night. Peroni on tap - gotta like that. Salads and bruschetta used lettuce and tomatoes that were flavorless and poorly executed. The pizzas, on the other hand, surprised me. The crust was yeasty and pliable, the sauce and toppings of respectable quality, and the pies in toto tasted pretty good actually. Understand that Nonna Mia plays AA ball while Domenica and Ancora are in the major leagues. But I would put this pizza on par with your favorite local spot. Birdie for Ambience & Service; Par for Food.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


Rene: Crisp and mineral this wine has a faint taste of salt, the ocean. I get a little bit of citrus, like a squirt of grapefruit. It is a perhaps a little heavy for an aperitif, but it definitely needs seafood. Maybe some fried seafood, but not in a heavy batter. I'd want a batter more resembling tempura, so maybe the fried Gulf shrimp with sambal and grapefruit that is always on the menu at Coquette. Or ditch the batter and go with the marinated Spanish anchovies with stewed onions from Lilette. If you choose the latter, just make sure your date will kiss you regardless.

Peter: This is a nicely balanced wine. Kind of heavy in the mouth, a little buttery but not overly oaky or rich. This wine tastes like a pear with a little effervescence. Would go well with the Veal Alyssa from Mr. John's playing nicely with the saltiness of the capers and the tang of the lemon beurre blanc.

Joe the Wine Guy: 93% Pinot Grigio and 7% Chardonnay make up this 2009 Stellina di Notte Pinot Grigio. This is a gorgeous fresh, dry white wine with fragrant floral, fruit, and spice aromas. The silky flavors are filled with pear, kiwi, melon, honey, and spice notes that culminate in a lemony finish. This Pinot Grigio makes the perfect aperitivo and pairs well with light, fresh salads and seafoods. The wine retails for $12.99 and you can find it on the wine list at Byblos and Cafe Amelie.

Editor's Note: When we saw the price of this wine, it became clear of all the wines tasted in this series, this may be the best value we have run across. Thanksgiving is coming; stock up for Aunt Gertrude. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


The New York Times Magazine Food and Drink issue came out this past Sunday, and perhaps not unexpectedly, the pages are chock full of preachy diatribes against this mythical creature Big Food. Proper diets, foods to avoid, and making your own mayonnaise to preserve the sanctity and control over your food are just some of the topics broached. If you happen to be watching Ken Burns excellent Prohibition documentary, you could draw a parallel between the two movements. Both movements had a no nonsense women leading the charge in Carrie Nation and Alice Waters. Both pushed the morality of their position as being superior, "Do it for the children" being a common refrain. Both lobbied for legislation that sought to tell other people how to act.

There is a much dichotomy (or polychotomy) taking place in the food atmosphere. Like everything in America (and the world, save China), the camps can be divided into two major political parties. On one hand, you have the Conservative Food Camp. Their food is marked by a return to traditional cuisines, ancient produce speakign for iteslf, and resurrecting nearly lost methods of preserving. The Progressives are tinkerers, their kitchens resembling laboratories with compounds, powders, stabilizers, and liquid nitrogen lining the walls. Their food challenges, plays tricks on the mind, and involves processes more advanced than putting a man on the moon.

Open a food magazine. Read the Wall Street Journal's list of the next best restaurant. Both camps get equal praise, at times even hagiographic treatment.  Both camps have a common enemy in Big Food and most of their followers try and focus on seasonality. Their main complaint against this faceless enemy is that Big Food alters the flavor/texture/specialness of this vegetable, that meat, or those fruits. The resulting logic goes on to say, a chef wants his squash or scallop or pork belly pristine and heirloom. As if the gourd took a time machine from 1867 into modern times, forgetting that both plants themselves as well as humans evolve. Big Food on the other hand delivers to them a tasteless grape or a ribe eye marbled by grain and not clover.

Fine. But aren't chefs doing the same thing to food that Big Food is? Consider the de facto sign of a "With It, Conservative" chef: the housemade charcuterie plate. Taking excess pork, salting it, grinding it, and hanging it in a temperature controlled cave for 90 days changes the texture of that pig's noble sacrifice. Pickling a cucumber changes the flavor of a cucumber. A caponata of summer's last eggplant to guild the lily is a far cry from that pristine specimen they plucked from the Farmer's Market.

On the progressive side, they tend to change the ideas of a particular dish. So they might make a syrup out of cherries and freeze it with liquid nitrogen. They will shave that over a sous vide duck breast covered with a blowtorch crisped duck skin. They may serve this with a bowl of foie gras "consomme" where the liquid has been spherified to resemble Dippin Dots. This is a drastic change from roast duck with cherry sauce. (Although it sounds delicious, file that in the To Do list.)

For the majority of human history, cooks, butchers, camp wardens, and the women who stayed home from the hunt have sought to keep food fresh by a variety of manipulative processes. Salting, smoking, pickling, drying, and freezing food are not new concepts. Once man had excess food, he or she quickly learned to preserve it for a time when there may not be enough food. What is new from the Big Food angle, is they "preserve" food prior to it reaching maturity. A tomato is bred to ripen on the shelves and not on the vine. Bananas have toughened to withstand the long journey from interior forest to downtown Cleveland. Cattle are raised on grain and slaughtered earlier to get them to market quicker to satisfy the demand for beef. These decisions change the thing subjected to this treatment, but prior to it getting into the hands of the cook.

Look, I am not saying Big Food is a godsend or any chef trying to serve seasonal food, a demon. Rather everyone in the food chain, be it Big Food, a salami artisan in Portland, or a high wire Modernist chef in Stockholm, are all altering food in some way. The debate is just one of degree, not of substance. We ought be careful with this crusade against any food or soon gangsters will have a new vice to deal in.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Tastes of Fall

This past Saturday afternoon The Folk Singer and I were leaving a boudin experiment at Rene's house (more on that in the future) and driving home to presumably waste the rest of the afternoon on the couch - her napping and me watching football, when we decided that it was just too damn nice outside to do anything else but have a few adult beverages while enjoying the beautiful weather. We ended up sharing a few pints across the street in the courtyard at Happy's and then retreating back to the outdoor deck at our apartment building for a bottle of burgundy. Exactly where we went was not important, as long as air conditioning was not required.

It's said that two best months in New Orleans are October and March. As much as I enjoy March Madness, Hogs for the Cause, and St. Patrick's Day, if pressed I would have to choose the month of Columbus Day, LSU-Florida, and All Hallows Eve as my favorite. It's not so much about the month itself as it is the days leading up to it. There is something truly magical about that first cold snap after enduring 4-5 months of 90 degree temperatures and 100% humidity.

Besides marking the end of summer casual dress at the office, the autumnal equinox also signals a personal shift in seasonal eating and drinking.

Gin and tonics are fine in the spring and summer, but cool fall temperatures call for the warmth of bourbon, even when it's mixed with sprite in a 44oz. Tiger Stadium cup. Along those same lines, we have been slowly depleting our stock of rosé and sauvignon blanc to make room for a new crop of Spanish rioja, California cabernet, and Oregon pinot. Those fall wine club shipments come right on time.

On the table, it's out with the gazpacho and crabmeat salad and in with the pulled pork and roasted cauliflower. The mercury is low enough to actually enjoy cooking our favorite one pot dishes, and The Folk Singer obliged yesterday with a huge pot of bolognese simmering away on the stove for about 6 hours. It's also time to fire up the Big Green Egg, which Rene used this weekend to slow smoke a brisket whose juicy flesh was almost as flavorful as it's rosemary rubbed bark. Pumpkin pie, pumpkin cookies, and pumpkin bread pudding abound.

What are your favorite fall flavors?