Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Ending The Year For a Great Cause

After almost an entire year of failing to live up to your expectations, we are taking a breather this week to relax, recharge, and rush to meet our billable hour requirements. But before we bid farewell to 2011, we want to spread the word about a special event on Friday.

Those of us who are fans of the lunch time tapas menu at Rio Mar probably know Lorie Gandy by face but not by name. Since 2004 Lorie has been the one woman orchestra during every lunch shift at Rio Mar, cranking out plates of blistering morcilla, crispy patatas bravas, and crusty pressed sandwiches filled with jamon and manchego. More recently, Lorie could be found at local markets dishing out cochon de lait po-boys and other fare at a booth sponsored by her Bon Vivant Catering venture.

Last week during lunch at Rio Mar I was surprised to see Nic Bazan, co-owner of Rio Mar and a man of many talents, dressed in his chef whites and working the line. After our table finished a delicious meal (which was punctuated by the absolute best tasting flan that has ever touched my lips), I asked Nic why he was wearing a different hat on this particular day.

It was then that I learned that Lorie was in Houston after an overnight trip was extended indefinitely when she unexpectedly delivered twin boys, Knox and Gabriel, 3 months before her due date. Lorie and her husband Will have been in Houston since then, caring for their boys who are under 24 hour watch at Women's Hospital of Texas and will likely stay there until mid March at the earliest. Once Knox and Gabe are healthy enough for travel, the family plan on making the drive back home to New Orleans.

During lunch on Friday December 30th, the Rio Mar family is throwing a tapas fundraiser to support and assist the Gandy family. Joining the cause will be Slade Rushing and Allison Vines-Rushing from MiLa. The cost is $40 per person (which covers tapas and tax), and although there is no specific menu, you can be sure that these chefs will be feeding you well and that no one will leave hungry. Alcohol will be sold separately, and only cash and checks will be accepted.

Most of us were fortunate enough to spend this holiday season at home surrounded by our family and friends. Let's all do as much as we can to ensure that next year the Gandy family will get to do the same.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Happy Holidays from The Pelican Club

Another holiday season, another trip to The Pelican Club. Like the swallows to Capistrano, as soon as the calendar turns to December I always plan my reservation at one of the most underutilized restaurants in the city.

I will be the first to admit that the food at The Pelican Club has never struck me as either flawless executed or avant garde in terms of creativity. But the service has never been short of excellent in all of my visits, and with a dining room which may be my favorite setting in the French Quarter, a meal at The Pelican Club is always a pleasurable dining experience.

The Pelican Club is one of those French Quarter favorites which only serve lunch on Fridays in December, and I imagine that the special nature of this mid-day meal service was reason for the restaurant's emptiness last week. (Note: If you are planning on lunching tomorrow or next Friday and do not yet have a reservation, I would try here.) During the day time, the succession of dining rooms brightens as you move away from the center of Exchange Alley and closer to Bienville Street. Upon seating, a waiter will happily take your order for the bar's generously sized cocktails and present a basket of the house baked foccacia for you to subsist on while perusing the menu.

Escargots in Casserole
We started with baked oysters on the half shell, which experienced major shrinkage underneath a sprinkling of bacon and parmesan with garlic herb butter yet still remained tender. Escargots are capped off with puff pastry protecting bubbling pockets of mushroom duxelle and garlic butter, the leftovers of which make for an incredible spread on the remaining focaccia. I rarely rave about a salad, but I look forward to the goat cheese salad every year. The simple combination of peppery arugula and baby greens balances the crunch of walnuts and the rich, creaminess of goat cheese with tart sections of grapefruit.

Entrees are straight forward, maybe too much so. Truffle mashed potatoes and asparagus are fine and dandy, but their recurring appearances with other dishes show that the kitchen just does not pay much attention to side dishes. An 8 bone rack of lamb is coated with Dijon mustard, rosemary pesto, and bread crumbs to create a crust that protects a rosy red center, each slice of which is dragged through a demi-glace infused with port and mint. I sampled the butter poached lobster across the table, and I thought the crustacean was cooked perfectly. On my past visits I have had excellent luck with both the whole crispy flounder and paneed fish with creole meuniere and jalapeno hollandaise, but those will have to wait till next year.

All was washed down with several gin and tonics, 2 bottles of a smoky Aglianico, and plenty of laughter. As fine a Christmas luncheon as any.

Christmas at The Pelican Club - Birdie
312 Exchange Place
(504) 523-1504
Lunch: Friday 12/23 and 12/30; Dinner Nightly

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Homage to Catalonia

After hustling from Camp Nou, grabbing a quick shower, and walking the seven blocks from the apartment to Comerc 24, we were to put it mildly, parched and hungry. Out quickly came a selection of breads, olive oils, and sparkling water. We took in those few minutes of gathering sustenance quietly, glancing around the room or at the menu. Next, a tray of gins and a bottle of Fever Tree tonic, it may have been the greatest G&T of my life.

Carles Abellan, chef/owner of Comerc 24 and other restaurants, spent years in Ferran Adria's brigade before opening his own spot in Barcelona's Born neighborhood. His cooking applies the techniques learned and discovered at el Bulli to traditional Catalan cuisine and Asian cuisines. The room is modern with an open kitchen which moves with seemingly effortless energy. Each cook working in harmony with his surroundings and other cooks. It makes for must see reality.

First came some snacks, all based on the color white. A cold cauliflower soup with smoked tea and nori that was fragrant exploration of an often pungent vegetable. Then pieces of popcorn cauliflower with ginger and rice vinegar which arrived stacked on a rock as if they were tufts of snow on a mountain top. Then cold slabs of monkfish, the white flesh standing out starkly against the black sesame and black garlic swiped on the plate.

My favorite savory bite came next. Filo rolled cigars filled with parmesan cream, lemon and basil. Just an exciting blend of crunchy, tart, sweet, creamy, and herbal.

Also served with the parma cigars was a pizza topped with figs, arugula, mozzarella, and sardines. This was a mess of flavors which did not quite gel together for me. But it was very fun to snack on.

The next dish was the only bummer of the night, a cold oyster topped with a beet foam. The disparate elements of the briny oysters and earthy foam lacked a unifying flavor. Instead of coming together in a marriage of mar y montana, the two ingredients awkwardly tried to get along. Things started going rapidly up from there. First, a beach shrimp ceviche with wine and peach that was a study in textures and acidity. Then a dish of cockles, floating in a dashi broth and spiked with thin slices of jalapenos.

Then came marinated sardines spiked with orange and wasabi. Surrounding the plate were these little puffs of crispy sweetened grains. We called them Grape-Nuts. A splendid dish, as the sardines were firm and well-dressed with acidity and spice.

Now, this was cool. Carbonara is the height of pasta in my opinion. The blend of pork, egg, cheese, and pepper can showcase the skill of a cook and the brilliance of simplicity. This dish channeled those flavors, but in lieu of spaghetti, the flavors were bound up in spheres. And they subbed black truffle for pepper, which is ok in my book. So, you have egg yolk, parmesan, and black truffle swimming in a porky consomme.

Out came razor clams, cut into thin strips and served as noodles in a yakisoba dish which is a neat parlor trick to use for your next parlor party. Then tuna tartar which I can take or leave, followed by thin slices of sashimi. Next came a dish straight out of the Catalan rule book: codfish with romesco sauce and ground almonds.

Next came field rabbit served with crispy rice which was just a wonderfully hearty and elegant dish. Cultures which value rice may be the most advanced civilizations. Certainly Spain knows the value of rice. Then a plate of whiting topped with a vinaigrette loaded with herbs and lemon juice. Our final savory course united all of Abellan's passions: Catalonia, Asia, and cooking. A square brick of suckling pig done in the style of Hanoi was delicious, pungent, and best of all a study in the glories of the pig.

Cheese was a jar of mel i mato - honey and creamy cheese. Then, what became our favorite dessert, which we encountered time and time again, bread, olive oil, chocolate and coarse salt. Just look at that beautiful orb of dense, dark chocolate. Gander at those chunks of salt, their salinity amplifying the sweetness of the chocolate and vis versa. Gaze at that pool of peppery olive oil and the crisp of bread. This is the best dessert in the world.

 There were other desserts. One channeled Arnold Palmer with its combination of ice tea and lemon. Another layered apple and saffron, while a third stacked creamy, sweetened cheese and strawberries. Then came a moon rock crowned with futuristic mini spaceships. We were instructed to eat those last. Biting into them set off a rush as the dusted chocolate orbs were ice cold while the bottom layer was crunchy. The taste was not dissimilar to what would happen if Butterfinger and Heath Bar had a love child.

All of this was accompanied by a light bodied 2006 Roda I Rioja and excellent service. We sat at the table for hours but it all seemed to pass in a matter of moments. As we were leaving, I noticed the receipt read only 00:30 a.m. How could that be I wondered. I'd find out the next day as we learned that in the middle of our meal, Spain ended daylight savings time.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Feliz Navidad from Ideal Market

Yesterday, I decided that my gameday menu would consist of barbacoa and freshly pressed tortillas. So just before kickoff I headed over to Ideal Market on Broad Street to pickup supplies, and (as has been the custom on my trips to this Latin grocery) I walked away with more than I expected.

First, the calamitous road construction along Palmyra Street has finally ended, and a new and expansive parking lot is available for customers. Second, the grocery has more than doubled in size after a recent renovation, with an expanded produce section and more baked goods on display.

Most importantly (at least to me) the kitchen now has an extended service line, which means a larger array of Latin delicacies is available, and therefore there are more opportunities for me to make an ass out of myself by listening to the people in front me place their orders and then attempting to repeat their exact words in my sorry excuse for Spanglish. Yesterday I requested "pequeño barbacoa y seis tortillas", which successfully sent me away with a small container of braised beef and a half dozen freshly griddled tortillas. I completed the package with dollops of the spicy guacamole, which I finally found after 2 loops around the grocery.

One new offering that I had not yet seen before was tacos al pastor. Sampling the upright rotisserie of pork - complete with a fresh hunk of pineapple slowly spinning on top - may not have been on my original agenda when I walked in, but that did not prevent me from walking out with an order of 3 oversized tacos dressed simply with cilantro and onions and served with a fiery red pepper salsa.

I caught one final surprise on my way out the door, when I spied a pamphlet touting a special holiday menu. Apparently Ideal Market can fulfill all of your holiday catering needs, offering 40-60lbs whole roasted pigs and a tres leches cake large enough to feed an army. I'm currently waiting for my family to confirm that roasted beef head is an acceptable contribution to Christmas dinner.

Ideal Market - Birdie
250 South Broad Street
Open 7 Days - Morning till Night

Thursday, December 15, 2011

a Mano

Trio of Bruschetta
Ancora and High Hat may have been the most talked about restaurants in Adolfo Garcia's empire this year, but I have to say that my favorite meal of the year in the Adolfo empire came from a Mano. That's quite the sleeper pick coming from a guy who has been known to eat at La Boca twice in one week. Even more surprising (to me at least) is that I have never written extensively about a Mano, despite the fact that I have eaten there 6 times since the restaurant opened in October 2009. Better late than never.

A meal at a Mano might cause even the most staunch advocate of "New Orleans Italian" cuisine to swear off red gravy forever. I am being hyperbolic, of course, but like the Brothers Grimm, such an illustrative tale is indicative of how the kitchen at a Mano serves as a tour guide through regional Italian cuisine. Those fans of Domenica have been on this journey before, and both restaurants deserve credit for broadening our horizons beyond veal marsala, fettucini alfredo, and spaghetti marinara. (All dishes which have their place in our local dining scene.) Even though my personal travel experience in Italy is limited to the Cinque Terre, after every meal at a Mano I feel as though I have already tasted my through Emilia-Romagna, Umbira, and Puglia - places which I have only heard about through reruns of Molto Mario.

Meals begin with a complimentary basket of focaccia sprinkled with coarse sea salt and accompanied by olive oil poured into a small dish anchored by a few olives, herbs, and a clove of garlic. Olive fanatics can get an enormous jar of salty orbs too large for one person to eat by himself (no matter how hard I tried). A bottle of wine from the all Italian list, which has great depth and value with plenty of bottles in the $30-$50 range, and I could be content with ending the meal at that point.

But then I would be missing out on the trio of bruschetta, whose selections rotate with the seasons. The above pictured trio featured (from foreground to background): ciccioli (or scraps of leftover pig fat) accented with the sweetness of cherries, whipped lardo which was the equivalent of pork butter, and spicy ‘nduja with red pepper whose heat was not in the forefront but instead lingered on the tongue. Lovers of the art of cured meats can sample Kris Doll's prosciutto tasting ($18) or carpaccio ($60, a half dozen wide, thin slices of Wagyu beef dressed with a spicy giardiniera of sliced carrots and long string beans.

Pasta courses are small but priced accordingly. Gnudi are rich ricotta dumplings dressed simply with sage and brown butter. Spaghetti carbonara is smoky with chunks of pancetta. Hollow buccatini Amatriciana are tossed in a spicy tomato sauce loaded with guanciale. All of the pastas, save the gnudi, are firm and the sauces restrained to achieve balance; the sauce is as equally as important as the noodle, and vice versa.

Gnocchi with Oxtail Ragu.
A table of four would be advised to share courses throughout the meal, so as to cover as much territory on the menu as possible. Which is how a daily special of braised veal cheeks arrived at my table one night, the long, slow cooking process resulting in a dish that was lip-smackingly tender without crossing the line into mush. Oxtail ragu with an incredible depth of flavor is paired with gnocchi of lineage I had never seen before, the three large triangular pillows were crisped in a pan, almost like polenta cakes but made with potato dough.

The menu is in constant flux such that the exact same dish might not reappear on your next visit (for example, the aforementioned ragu might be made with goat and the gnudi swapped for orecchiette). Thankfully, the caponata is always available in some form or fashion, because it's presence on my table has become required ever since I became hooked on the sweet/tart/crunchy combination of eggplant, tomatoes, raisins, and pine nuts. Just another delicious stop along my travels through Italy via the Warehouse District.

a Mano - Birdie
870 Tchoupitoulas Street
(504) 908-9280
Mon-Sat 6:00-10:00pm; Fri11:30am-2:00pm

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Goal of a Restaurant

Dinners at Brigtsen's have often been compared to dining at grandmother's house, for a number of reasons. First, the building that houses Brigtsen's was likely at one point someone's grandmother's house.  Secondly, the service staff is auntly and kind, a far cry and improvement over the recent trend in service. As you may have noticed, some servers are now cooler than you. You, the guest, with your non-gelled hair and lack of visible tattoos celebrating the turnip are simply another square. A square who would never understand the chef's vision of combining Nietzsche's teachings with his take on a Caesar salad.

Not so at Brigtsen's. Where you are first taken under the wing of Frank's wife, Marna, who will guide you to your table and take a drink order. She is happy to see you and you her. From here until you leave you are under the watchful and caring eye of people who are understand the concept of service and hospitality. It is a welcome and restorative feeling, be it at grandmother's or Brigtsen's.

Sazerac in hand, next comes hot loaves of French bread and cold, spreadable butter. A menu that hasn't changed much in years showcases the bounty of the biology of this fair region. There is duck, oysters, shrimp, crab, fish, and pork in various incarnations. It is best to start with thick slabs of duck and pistachio pate sliced and stacked in between crisp rounds of crouton. Alongside are the traditional accouterments, but do not miss the red onion marmalade. A bottle of J Rose, does admirably in a pinch, here and with the next course.

A muddy brown bowl of rabbit and andouille and gumbo arrives, the roux piercing through the stock with it's just on the uncooked side of burned sharpness. The gumbo is chock full of tender rabbit and fiery andouille and crowned by a tangle of white rice. The gumbo showcases the braun and masculinity of the cooking at Brigtsen's; food made to pair with duck camps and Bourbon fueled storytelling. The butternut and shrimp bisque is the opposite end of that spectrum. A sublime, feminine soup, equally as delicious, built for midday refuels in between shopping stops.

It would do you good to switch to a wine with some grit and heft. The E. Guigal Gigondas is a perfect wine for the entrees to come. For me, that happened to be a thick pork chop served with not only with whipped sweet potatoes, but dirty rice, greens, and pork debris jus. The plating will remind you of Thanksgiving and piling as many things onto your plate as possible. It is a beautiful and all too seldom way of eating. One qualm though, that pork debris sauce needs half the salt and twice the pork debris.

Lindsay's entree was equally festive. Brigtsen's famed Shell Beach Diet culls six different seafoods - scallops, oysters, drum, shrimp - with different sauces and preparations. The result is a happy mess of six courses on a plate. A great choice for the dining companion who can never make up their mind as to what to order. "I should have held back on appetizers, and just ordered this for my whole meal. I would have had the scallop first, then the shrimp corn bread, or maybe the oyster Bienville first. I don't know I can't decide," Lindsay said.

Attention would be restaurant owners. Before you open your mold breaking, never been seen before restaurant, take a trip to Brigtsen's. Notice that feeling of relaxation and contentment at the end of the meal. That is the ultimate goal of a restaurant. And one that Brigtsen's performs better than anyone else in the city.

Brigtsen's -Eagle.
Dinner Tuesday-Saturday
723 Dante Street

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The South's Olive

They grow in sandy soil. While they can be eaten raw, more often than not, they are processed prior to ingestion. They can be turned into paste and smeared on bread. They can be pressed to get an oil suitable for nearly any cooking or beauty purpose. They can relax in a salty brine producing an excellent snack. I am speaking of course of the humble giant that is the peanut.

I love peanuts, always have, always will. I still eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, unironically. I carry a year's supply of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups on any boat trip I take, just in case. I enjoy snacking on crunchy, salty peanuts while sipping a cold beer or rum drink. Yet, all of those forms take a back seat to boiled peanuts.

I first encountered boiled peanuts in college when classmates from South Carolina would truck up tubs filled with the brown pods following breaks in classes. Eating a boiled peanut is not at all dissimilar to eating crawfish. First, you place the pod in between your teeth and press gently. If you do it correctly, a tiny slit will rupture, with a gentle inhale your mouth will flood with saltwater. Then pull the peanut from your mouth, peel off the shell and eat the one, two, or three peanuts inside. Lather, rinse, and repeat. You can do this for hours on end, making it a great source of exercise.

The best boiled peanuts come from "green" peanuts which means they were grown using solar energy and transported via a Toyota Prius. They are hard to find down here, so I tend to use raw peanuts when making boiled peanuts. All raw means is the peanuts have been dried. I've tried various techniques of boiling peanuts- overnight soaking, boiling rapidly in heavily salted water, salting after boiling, steeping, and on and on - with differing levels of success. But one day a few weeks ago, the crock pot once again proved its utility. 

Fill a crock pot with peanuts about three-fourths of the way up. Then pour in some cold water. Some peanuts will float on top, don't worry as they will sink eventually. Then dump in a 1/4 cup of salt - you can reseason later anyway. Turn the crock pot on low and go to work. When you come home, stir the pot, and raise heat to high. After another 30 minutes, all of the peanuts should have sunk to the bottom. Turn off heat and let peanuts steep for an hour. Taste. They should be salty enough, but if not, add more salt. They should be soft, but not mushy. You can eat them warm, but for some perverse reason, I prefer cold boiled peanuts. They are even better with the following martini.

A Southern Dirty Martini

A salted olive and a boiled peanut have much in common both in flavor and texture. It is highly probable that the entire idea of adding olives to a martini came about when some inebriated businessmen decided to add the olives which were served as snacks with his martini to his martini. Last year, Jake pointed out his favorite way of drinking martinis is with chilled boiled peanuts. So why use olives from Greece or Spain to season your martini, when a peanut will do? Ice in a glass, add four parts gin and one and a half parts of vermouth. Grab two cold boiled peanuts and squeeze the juice into the glass. Stir with a long handled spoon and then strain into a chilled glass or serve on the rocks. Add three or four shelled boiled peanuts.

What results is a typical martini with a salty, slightly nutty edge - imagine your crazy Uncle Leo distilled into a cocktail. Plus, and trust me on this, a gin soaked boiled peanut is the best way to enjoy the South's olive. 

Monday, December 12, 2011

Reveillon & the Rib Room

With the weather change last week, it's beginning to actually feel a lot like Christmas, and just in time for the start of the reveillon menu season. According to history the reveillon meal is taken on early Christmas morning after midnight mass, but our local restaurants have extended the tradition to encompass basically the entire month of December. Leave it to our fair city to take the most extravagant meal of the year and duplicate it over and over again for 30 days.

This year, 42 restaurants are serving reveillon menus in conjunction with the Christmas New Orleans Style campaign. Prices range from $38 for the classic 4 course dinner at Tujague's to a decadent 5 course repast at Restaurant August featuring foie gras and burgundy truffles.

Last week The Pope, The Folk Singer, and I found ourselves in the Quarter with no agenda for dinner, and so we decided to duck into the Rib Room to see what Chef Rene Bajeux was cooking up on his reveillon menu. Overall the reveillon menu is a great value at $45 for 4 courses, with winners and losers in each course. TFS started with a delicious savory pumpkin soup, which avoided the pitfall of tasting like a dessert. For me, an offbeat combination of shrimp remoulade and ahi tuna carpaccio - the former a fair rendition of the classic; the latter was actually seared and lacked the intrinsic vibrancy without which raw tuna just tastes flat. There is no choice in the second course: the classic Rib Room chopped salad with blue cheese, which is delicious in simplicity. In the entree section, the sauteed drum was one of the best pieces of fish that I have eaten all year. The filet was moist with a khaki exterior and a wonderful perfume of garlic; the hash of diced sweet potato and thin coins of andouille underneath paired marvelously well; and the lemon caper vinaigrette tied it all together. TFS had buttery BBQ shrimp over grits; not exciting but nonetheless good. The Pope tried to order the sirloin, but the kitchen was sold out. (Personally, I thought they should have swapped out a different cut.) Instead, he opted for the roasted duck, which I sampled and found to be quite tough. Desserts were unnecessary, especially the stale profiteroles, but a thin slice of the classic yule log was a nice touch for the season.

The high back chairs, dark woods, and vaulted ceiling at the Rib Room create a grandiose atmosphere, all the more appropriate during the holiday season. I am so fond of the ambience that I can't say that I have ever had a bad meal there, regardless of the quality of the food. This night was no exception.

Reveillon at the Rib Room - Par/Birdie
621 St. Louis Street
Lunch & Dinner Daily
(504) 529-7046

Thursday, December 8, 2011

GW Fins

A question that comes my way quite often is: "Where in the Quarter can we find really good seafood?" More often than not, the inquisitor is in search of platters of fried or boiled shrimp and crawfish and piles of fried catfish and oysters. I always have trouble recommending such a restaurant in the Vieux Carre, usually pointing them to Deanie's after drawing a blank on anywhere else. But lately my standard response has been, "If you don't taking a step in price, you should try GW Fins."

Blue Crab Pot Stickers
"Seafood at its Seasonal Peak" is the mantra at Fins, and from a quick glance at the menu diners learn that the preparations of this bounty are as likely to have roots in the Gulf Coast as they are in the Far East. Appetizers of seafood gumbo and shrimp remoulade are likely to share table space with a cylinder of yellow fin tuna tartare wrapped with thinly sliced cucumber and topped with mango, the plate sauced with squiggles of spicy wasabi and a hint of sweetness from what tasted like cane syrup. Softly decadent lobster ravioli may be the calling card of Fins' preludes, but the blue crab pot stickers deserve equal praise, with the crisped edges of the dumpling giving way to the soft filling for a nicely contrasting texture. Both are bathed a in a rich butter sauce, a recurring theme throughout the entire menu.

Parmesan Crusted Flounder
In my experience, entrees have been underwhelming when compared to the appetizers, though that judgment is not unique to Fins and may be a matter of personal preference. Parmesan crusted flounder was dry underneath its nutty and buttery crust, but the fried capers added a welcome salty crunch. Same for the sheepshead, the larget filet of which was hiding a dome of mac and cheese underneath - rich, creamy, and delicious as long as you are a fan of truffle oil. On the other hand, a cobia (lemonfish) special was perfectly cooked and served atop cubes of watermelon and mango. Wood grilled scallops were meaty and tender and placed atop a creamy mushroom risotto.

Wood Grilled Scallops
The circular dining room feels dated with its concentric semi-circles of leather banquettes, but the arrangement of most seats focuses the view toward the large windows opening onto Bienville Street. Service is respectable, with a cordial staff always available to refill your wine glass and replenish your bread plate with freshly baked drop biscuits which have become a trademark of service. Prices can run high when ordering multiple courses, but the $35 three course Fins Feast is a steal of deal.

GW Fins - Par/Birdie
808 Bienville Street
(504) 565-5459
Dinner Nightly

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Homage to Catalonia

Saturday morning at around 10 am we began the trek towards Camp Nou, the home of FC Barcelona. The greatest club soccer team of all time had a nighttime game against a team from Mallorca and our goal was tickets. Camp Nou is on the outer fringe of Barcelona's city center a thirty minute metro ride. Camp Nou towers over the surrounding apartment buildings and office complexes. The stoic, grey building is ringed with flags and fences appearing more as a fortress than a stadium.

Lines stretch out from two of the windows and through the snaking lines slither ticket scalpers. They peer through the smoke of their cigarettes using it as a magnifying glasses to size you up before making their pitch. "American? 2 tickets, no? Together? See? Nice seats. Best available. For you, cuarenta y cinca."

This haggling and investigation continues until you step up to the ticket window. Seats are available in the upper decks, standing room only the ticket agent says. Then after a pause of an eternity, "There are also seats throughout the stadium," he finishes. You are here once. Unlike an NFL or NBA game, at a soccer match, the action is only on the field. There are very few video screens. No cheerleaders shooting free pizza coupons out of air cannons. No point in playing this one safe. You are pot committed at this point so you take two seats in the lower second level along the sideline. For 90 Euro a piece, less than probably half the cost of a like seat in the Superdome, this is the view you get. 

Barca, as the fans shout throughout the game, is the best team mainly because they have the best player, Lionel Messi. Trying to explain how good of a player Messi is to Lindsay was proving difficult. "How can anyone be that good at soccer? No one ever scores. Is this going to be boring?" Lindsay said.

Messi's play explains his greatness more than words could ever hope. Within thirty minutes of kickoff, Messi had scored three goals and almost two more. Before halftime, he would assist on fourth. The second half saw him continue to command the attention of the 90,000 or so fans in the stadium. Watching Messi play soccer is the same as listening to Ella Fitzgerald sing. There is no effort in either of their talents. No reaching, no hustle, no need to practice long hours, and nothing attempted - only things done. 

Watching Messi on television does not explain how good he is. It fails to capture his aloofness off the ball. He stands or roams wherever he wants. He looks around like a child on the playground may follow a butterfly. He seems far away from the action, almost disengaged. He is short, squat, and boyish; out of place on a field surrounded by nimble men.

But suddenly the ball is on his foot and in an instant things are happening. Where a moment before a defender or two blanketed him with coverage, he has left them behind. He glides through defenses as if they were French soldiers. Messi rifles a shot on frame before the crowd has a chance to start their "Messsssssssiiii....Messssssssssssiiii" chant. When a ball slips past the keeper, the crown erupts in a startled howl. They turn to each other, palms upturned, as if to say, "What else do you expect from Messi?" It was simply the greatest display of athleticism I have ever witnessed. 

In New Orleans Drew Brees is a great football player. Brees is also great person, by all accounts. This city has adopted him as one of our own. But in Barcelona, it goes much further than that. Barca's fans collectively gave birth to Messi. They claim him as their flesh, their blood, their savior. Messi is the great deliverer, their warrior to combat the evil lords of Real Madrid. Messi came to Barcelona by divine intervention. How else does it happen? This boy they plucked from Argentina attracted to FC Barcelona by the promise of treatment for a growth deficiency. That boy develops into the greatest football player of all time. A miracle, no doubt. Of this they are all certain. And he is theirs. All theirs. And like any parent, whatever this child does fills their hearts with immense pride. 

The game would end in a four nil win for Barca. The crowd, intoxicated by the drug that is Messi, cheering throughout and engaged always. Their eyes never leave the field. There are no bathroom breaks, no commercials for car parts or grocery stores, and no video speedboat races. Just football and Messi. The two separated because the latter plays a game much different from the former. They spill out of the stadium hugging, laughing, and recounting the game. They are heading home, to a girlfriend's house, or to a bar. It is 10:30 at night, we are going to dinner. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Notorious B.T.G.

Culinary innovation is nothing new in New Orleans. Places like Antoine's and Galatoire's are credited with inventing Oysters Rockefeller and the six hour lunch that turns into dinner, respectively. Later, Paul Prudhomme's blackening technique would cause more than one legislative body to pass a law or two limiting fish counts. And now New Orleans, while not the first to embrace the fervor of the trend, has run towards the temporary eatery in a permanent space.

Until now the pop-up restaurant's gracing New Orleans's streets have focused on specific foods. There is the original and still the best, Pizza Delicious. There have been noodle joints, barbecue bivouacs, pie purveyors, Asian vegan ventures, and even one inside of F&M's- a spot more known for coeds dancing on pool tables than fine food. Now in a reversal, a restaurant will turn into a bar. 

Tonight at Company Burger, Joe Briand turns Company Burger into his Platonic wine bar. There will be food as well from the capable, studied hands of Adam Biderman; but make no mistake the focus is on wine. "Doing it for fun really. Adam is excited to cook something other than burgers and I just want to showcase some wines by the glass that aren't on lists at the wine bars in New Orleans," Briand said by email. 

The explosion of Freret Street has been well-documented and a great boon to the city. B.T.G. hopes to capitalize on what has become a consumer magnet. A magnet that attracts a specific diner, "Look at what's going on on Freret Street.  You've got Cure doing amazing cocktails, Ancora with an wine list that's all from Campania, just people doing new things.  Our ideal customer wants to drink something new and different." says Briand. 

The wine menu - and it is only wine - is a romp through the offbeat wines of the Old World. Things begin with a Manzanilla Sherry and a Patrick Piuze Chablis, that speaking from experience is an incredibly focused white wine, with lemon and stone flavors (see With Oysters below). There is an Italian white and Gewurztraminer from Abe Schoener, who is such an eccentric wine maker he might as well be European. The darker side features a Tami Frappato, a Nuits St. George from Domaine Faurey and an '89 Cornas from Robert Michel. At $10 a glass, that last red adjusted for inflation is basically free. 

Also, featured will be a selection entitled "The Best $5 Glass in Town" highlighting a Gruner Veltliner from Stadt Krems and a Cab/Syrah blend from Provence. If you are a fan of wine bars that actually charge a fair price for an interesting glass of wine, this is going to be your ChristmasKwanzaKuh. With wines by the glass (get it now?) ranging from $5 to $16 (a Cramant sparkler), you don't have to break the bank to sip a glass of wine. Which is the way it should be. 

As for the food, raw Blue Point Oysters ($1 a piece), deviled eggs, chicken liver terrine, sweetbreads, and seared scallops should provide all the ballast to what is sure to be a night of indulgence. About that, but Joe I thought you left the restaurant biz to get away from the insanity of that lifestyle? "My wife calls it restaurant A.D.D.  There is an immediate gratification in the restaurant biz that is kind of addictive.  We will see how this goes. Again really doing it for the fun of it," Briand explains.

Well, this should be fun. B.T.G. is cash only and starts pouring at 7 p.m. See you there. Need more info? Hit Joe up on Twitter @cartedesvins.

Monday, December 5, 2011

A Guide to Group Dining

There is a reason why many New Orleans restaurants open for lunch only on the final four Fridays of the year. The holidays are when most groups decide to get together to celebrate, and peering through the dining rooms of the French Quarter on a Friday in December, you are likely to see co-workers toasting to another year on the books, old friends reuniting at annual holiday gatherings, and smug-faced regulars wondering why these amateurs have decided to disrupt their weekly three martini lunch.

Dining with a large group can be both joyous and perilous at times. It's hard to please everyone, and even after you make it past the initial hurdle of choosing a restaurant which is acceptable to all, there are many choices left to be made. Below are 5 tips to assist those organizers of large holiday gatherings with the goal of a merry time for all. Obviously, the smaller your group, the less tenuous your situation and more freedom you have in creating a lunch or dinner specifically tailored to your crowd.

Don't Skimp on the Wine - Serving cheap wine will either (a) force your co-workers to drink faster in order to easily hide the taste, or (b) cause some to open their own tab at the bar to order liquor. Both of those possible outcomes could result in a big payday for your insurer's labor and employment defense team. Might I suggest that you instead try to spend a little bit more on the wine selection. Doing so will gain respect at the office and may even slow down consumption if everyone at the table is savoring every last drop. If dining with friends, go big or go home.

Less is More - Sure, it would be nice if everyone could order whatever they want off the menu. I know that Sally only eats boneless, skinless chicken breasts and Lloyd is allergic to all vegetables unless they are cooked in bacon fat. But things just get too complicated for the kitchen when the table of 18 orders 4 medium filets, 3 medium rare filets, 3 trout, 3 pork, 2 shrimp, 2 mussels, and 1 vegetarian dinner that the chef has to create on the fly because he has not seen one on a duplicate since 1984. When that happens, everyone's food suffers. Stick with 2 or 3 options at most for each course.

Choices not Combinations - Surf and turf is one of those ideas which sounds great in the abstract but usually falls short in reality. Sure, most people will get excited when their plate arrives with both a crab cake AND a petit filet, but their expectations are soon dashed when they realize that the filet is as tough as shoe leather and the crab cake cool in the center. Instead, make them choose one or the other. Sharing plates with their neighbor can be a team building exercise.

Require Variety - I'm sure Restaurant XYZ's whipped potatoes are fabulous, but serving them with both the steak and the fish is just plain lazy. Avoid repeating components of different dishes. At the same time, substitutions can create havoc, so Ken from the sales department will have to decide which he wants more: the gnocchi served with the veal chop or the gratin dauphinoise which accompanies the drum.

Separate Checks is Not an Option - Judy from accounting only ordered a salad, and she doesn't want to bear the financial burden of the 6 scotches ordered by Phil from human resources? Too bad. On the busiest lunch shift of the year, the last thing that a waiter wants to do is figure out exactly who ordered what. The second to last thing that he wants to do is run 15 different credit cards for your table. There are 3 acceptable methods for paying the bill at a group dinner:
  1. Everyone brings cash,
  2. The organizer pays with his/her credit card and then everyone else mails him/her check, or
  3. Credit card roulette.
Any other tips that I have forgotten?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Martin Wine Cellar

Ah, the holidays.  Tis the season for giving, which requires endless shopping excursions to find the perfect gifts for those special people in our lives.  Nothing warms the heart to the Christmas season more than a leisurely stroll through Lakeside Mall, combing through rack after rack of argyle sweaters, watching customers fight to get to the front of the line at Jean Therapy, or sitting through an hour long fitting at Ann Taylor to find that perfect little back dress.  If there is a hell on earth, well... look no further.

Fortunately for 65 years, Martin Wine Cellar has offered the downtrodden male the most enjoyable shopping experience of the Christmas season. Despite the pride that Aunt Fanny takes in her shrimp mold, we all know that the most integral part of the holiday menu are the bottles lined up along the bar. And no store offers a wider selection of wine and liquor to help lubricate your holiday celebrations.

Photo by renee b. photography.
In this month's issue of OffBeat Magazine, we review the deli side of Martin's, which has always been as big of a draw for patrons as the number of single batch bourbons and white burdgundies that line the shelves of the store.

Martin's deli has come a long way since the days where options were limited to either an Executive Club or the Baronne Beast (which are still crowd favorites and rightfully so).  The menu has expanded to the "bistro" category, with a daily specials menu that ranges from wild mushroom pizza to braised rabbit.  But for those just looking for a pile of corned beef or pastrami between two slices of bread, look no further than the Deli Deluxe (pictured) which includes both.

So while making your shopping rounds this weekend, keep an mind that there is at least one stop along the way where you can stock up on the essentials, all while enjoying a nice lunch and a glass of wine.  You will need fuel to help carry those bags of gifts all day.