Wednesday, February 29, 2012

French 75 Bar: Is It Worth It?

The biggest lie told by New Orleanians goes like this. "The French Quarter? I/we never go down there. That is for tourists." Look, I've said. You have too. But ask yourself this question, when was the last time you went to the Quarter and didn't run into another local you know? I'd venture to say that the period from mid-November through Mardi Gras sees more locals in the Quarter than any other time. Someone get Rigamer on line one to run a study.

The Quarter is full of gems. Hide outs from the t-shirt shops and Big Ass Hangovers. One of my favorite hangouts, located a mere thirty steps from Bourbon Street, is the French 75 Bar at Arnaud's. An elegant haunt with green and white tiles on the floor and accents of monkeys throughout, the French 75 Bar is one of the city's best cocktail dens.

Chris Hannah is the lead barmen there, a chap on who much has been written. He has a well-trained staff outfitted in white jackets and a polished demeanor. As an example of that well-rounded professionalism of the staff, on a recent cold Saturday afternoon visit, I ordered a Tom and Jerry from a kid who looked barely old enough to drive. Without missing a beat, he responded with, "Certainly. But it will just take a few moments for us to heat up the water."

When I was his age, I would have thought Tom and Jerry was a cartoonish shot. In reality, a Tom and Jerry may be the single best warm cocktail. It is a dichotomy in the glass. The top layer is a cool, creamy nutmeg spiced float of calm. You may think it is cream, but it is actually a "batter" not dissimilar from eggnog. Underneath the cold float is a rolling thunder of rum and bourbon heated with warm water. This is a delicious, addictive drink. Be glad there are only four days a year when the weather calls for drinking it (recipe below).

Of course, there is the drink named for French artillery of World War I. Gin (occasionally Cognac), champagne, lemon, and sugar is a powerful combination. And while I like all of those things, individually, this drink just doesn't do it for me. But don't let that deter you from continuing to lie about never going to the Quarter.

Tom and Jerry
recipe courtesy of Chris Hannah, French 75 Bar

1/4 oz of Myers Dark Rum
1 oz Wild Turkey
4 oz Hot Water
3 tbsp of Tom and Jerry Batter*

Combine the rum, bourbon, and hot water in a coffee mug. Spoon the batter over the drink, and grate fresh nutmeg over the top.

French 75 Bar, worth it? Hell Yes.
813 Rue Bienville

*While Arnaud's was more than willing to share their recipe for the Tom and Jerry cocktail, they would not reveal their recipe for the batter. You can find a recipe here, it should be fairly similar. Or you could  bribe someone in the know. Your call.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

New York City: The Heavyweights

Over Mardi Gras weekend, Lindsay and I boarded a jet plane to New York City to spend four days eating, drinking, and eating and drinking. We hit up 15 establishments in an 86 hour marathon, all of which were examined with a pigeon's eye. Over the next few weeks, the restaurant and bar visits will be reviewed in the following boxing related groupings: Heavyweights, Welterweights, and Lightweights. We start this series with the Heavyweights and a look at two of the big boys of the New York dining scene, Marea and Daniel. 



Marea is Michael White's Italian answer to Eric Ripert and Maguy Le Coze's Le Bernardin. Marea focuses on the seafood culinary traditions of the Italian peninsula. The restaurant's walls are wrapped in woods and the thin veneer of yellowed shell covered stone giving off the ambiance of dining in a sunken chest. A quick wait in the bar produced a classic martini, which was delivered to our waiting table.

An amuse of cured sea trout with fried trout skin and caviar was only marred by the streak of reduced beet juice streaked across the plate which resembled the bloodied skid marks of a fish dragged across the white deck of a fishing skiff. But it jumped in the mouth with the clean taste of the cold ocean and the pop of salty caviar. Exquisitely rustic bread followed, along with a spicy olive oil.

Next up, a delicious blend of marine and land in the pig trotters with sardines. The two elements united by a bright and fresh salsa verde, proving yet again the pig is a uniter, not a divider. Then a rambling, but delicious plate of calamari, sea beans, white beans and fatty pancetta. The wine, a citrusy mineral driven Sicilian white began to open up and complement food and conversation.

Now onto the pasta courses, where this meal begins to hit some rough seas. The fusili with octopus and bone marrow was drowned in a wine heavy tomato sauce obscuring both the octopus and the bone marrow. In fact, I could find scant evidence of the latter, and no evidence of the former in the dish. Corkscrew pasta and red sauce is great, but it wasn't a Tuesday night home cooked meal. The gnochetti however was simply outstanding. The shellfish stock fortified sauce draped over the pasta like a bespoke suit with the chilis and rock shrimp serving as well-chosen accessories.

Inconsistencies showed up again in the main courses. Red snapper with brussel sprouts, hazelnuts, pomegranate and sunchokes would have been great had the fish not been horribly overcooked. Overcooked fish is one thing, this fish was dryer than Britain's attempt at humor. However, cuttlefish with capers, tomatoes, escarole, and olives all enveloped in a livornese sauce was delicious and hearty enough to make me want to order a lusty Italian red. Unfortunately, the waiters, captain, and sommelier were nowhere to be found.

Desserts were a shipwreck. The bombolini, little puffy doughnuts, were poorly executed, their interiors dry and tough. The sauces which accompanied them were too sweet by half. Rounding out this failure was a coffee crumble that seemingly was on the plate solely to show off the pastry chef's technique. I get what they were trying to do, coffee and doughnuts re-imagined, but it missed by a nautical mile. At least that dessert had some flavor, the other one on the table, a hazelnut praline with ice cream managed to be a dessert which inspired a round of twenty questions. Is that chocolate? Maybe the hazelnut is over there, nope. What is that lemon? Maybe? Could it be mint? Do I taste freezer burn? Subtlety is one thing, mystery another. Both are a woefully inadequate way to end a meal.

But really the most shocking thing about Marea was the state of the restroom. The bathroom at Marea would have been a sign of a great party in college. Paper towels tumbled out of the trash bin and the floor was dotted with other trash. Maybe it was an off night, but for the hottest new high end restaurant in New York, more than a little was left desired.

"I remember as a kid watching the fireworks on Fourth of July. There was always one firework that made a loud noise as it took off, traveled high, and then failed to explode," Lindsay said as we left. There was no need to finish the second part of her statement.


There is a theory of celebrity that you should never meet celebrities in real life. In real life, celebrities stop being celebrities and nearly always let you down. They are shorter, less interesting, and more human - the faults hidden by their celebrity in full display. Case in point: our meal at Daniel. By all accounts Daniel Boulud is a chef's chef. Although he has multiple restaurants, he spends a good amount of this time at his flagship Daniel, which has three Michelin stars and four from the New York Times. As a mentor, he has helped hundreds of chefs reach their potential. He is an effusive and hospitable French chef who has made food better in America. I have wanted to eat at Daniel for years, and we finally got our shot with a 9:15 pm reservation.

Sure enough, Boulud was in the restaurant on the evening we dined, shuttling between the kitchen and the dining room. We could monitor his movements mainly because we were seated in probably the worst table in the restaurant. Next to the kitchen doors and isolated from the activity of the room by acoustic paneling on three sides, we could have been in a dining room in Hoboken. My view of the dining room was blocked by a column. (This would come into play in a bit.) Now, listen every restaurant has a worst table, but it just sucks when you draw the short straw.

Canapes were a bit boring with two featuring salsify. Once in a remoulade and as a puree. Next to them was a smoked salmon with a pickled jalapeno. A nice round of cocktails and then the real eating began. A brilliantly smooth and rich terrine of foie gras crusted in marcona almonds with glazed dates and apples came with buttery, crisp triangles of toasted brioche was the highlight of the first course. It has been said, that Boulud's greatest strength is as a master of the charcuterie arts. While I doubt Boulud made this specific terrine, his garde manger has been well-trained. This terrine was beyond delicious. By now a bottle of champagne had arrived. The Indian spiced lobster tail with yogurt was under seasoned and the crispy wonton which accompanied it soggy.

A suckling pig dish featuring the belly, a tender chop, and crispy, airy cracklings was tied together with purple potatoes and pork jus. The saddle of rabbit with rabbit sausage was forgettable. The desserts became the highlight, especially a grapefruit one that highlighted acidity rather than sweetness. Touched off with a scoop of mascarpone ice cream and an almond biscuit, it had us fighting over the last bite.

At the midway point in the meal, Lindsay turns to me and says, "Is that Thomas Keller sitting over there? It looks like him and he is wearing that scarf thing he always has on."

I tried peering around the column to no avail. But sure enough a later trip to the men's room revealed, that yes Thomas Keller was in attendance. Being in the same room as two of the nation's greatest chefs should have been enough to make this one of the most memorable meals of our lives. And maybe it could have been but while the food was all good to excellent, service was atrocious.

When you dine with the big boys, the starred spots with reservation wait lists and secret numbers, you are paying for service, setting, and ambiance as much as food. We have already been placed in the worst seat in the house with a wonderful view of a column, so two of the four criteria are already negative. Service commensurate with the pricing could have evened things out. Or even service commensurate with a dinner half this price. As it was the service we experienced at Daniel had more in common with the dismissive, aloof service style of a simple French bistro (where it is appropriate) than a focused high end restaurant. The errors, while minor in comparison to life's major problems, were glaring.

After our appetizers were finished the plates sat empty on our tables for what seemed like hours. When it happened again after the entrees, I looked at my watch. Thirteen minutes later our empty entree plates were cleared. While we waited for a dessert menu, paint dried. The captain checked in once, but before I had a chance to respond to his query he had moved on to another table. Water and wine glasses sat empty, tempting me to get up and walk across the room to grab the Champagne. I regret not doing so. One would imagine that being so close to the flight path of every front of the house employee would insure efficient service, but you would be wrong. At best the service was off, at worst it was purposefully disdainful and insulting.

Here is the thing, Daniel is not a restaurant which has to care about my experience. They are the Liuzza's for Upper East Side regulars. Men and women with bank accounts larger than their apartments dine here nightly for no other reason then they don't feel like cooking. The prime reservation times are reserved for them, the best tables and waiters as well. There are restaurants like that in every city of note, including New Orleans. I don't fault them for being what they are. And perhaps they are too insulated, too surrounded by immense wealth to realize that not everyone who drops $200 a head on a meal is a hedge fund manager or an heiress to a timber fortune.

But Daniel is also a destination restaurant, owing to the celebrity of its chef. One that should be cognizant that people may travel to Daniel to eat from far away. Daniel should set a shining example of just how enjoyable a night of eating should be. You should leave Daniel wishing to go again the next night. You should wake up the next morning and pillow talk with your spouse about the meal, the dishes that you will remember for a lifetime. Forget the sting of the check, the whole experience from service to food to setting was totally worth it.

The number one sign of a great meal at any price is how long you talk about the meal after it has ended. It has been a week and we have almost forgotten all about it. The check, however, still stings with the force of a thousand bees.

Daniel, I wish we had never met.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Burger Bonanza: Phil's Grill

Now that football is over and Mardi Gras has past, the weekends have pretty much opened up for us to accomplish all of those fun things that we have been putting off for the last few months. Clean the gutters, trim the hedges, organize your wine collection, make a couple of trips to Home Depot or maybe even Bed, Bath, & Beyond if you have enough time.

Unfortunately, during this time of year you are also likely to find yourself near the intersection of Causeway and Veterans Blvd., otherwise known as the Metry Bermuda Triangle, where both time and cash have been known to disappear without a trace. Didn't think that it was possible to spend 2 hours waiting in the lobby at Earthsavers or outside the dressing room at Jean Therapy? Perplexed at why a woman would "need" 5 pairs of shoes from Nine West and 6 dresses from Ann Taylor for the 3 spring weddings on her upcoming calendar?

Don't ask questions. Just surrender your credit card, and go forth in search of lunch.

And why not reward your sufferance with one of life's simple pleasures? Phil's Grill was at the forefront of the local burger movement and succeeds in delivering not only a strong to quite strong burger but also a classic burger experience. It's a place where kids can entertain themselves at the table with coloring pages, but mom and dad don't have to settle for the standards of Ronald McDonald. And while you won't find many customers wearing fedoras or menu manifestos on the heritage of the cattle, you will be dining on a burger worthy of hipster approval. Just don't expect to find an easily available parking space - this is Metry and Lakeside, after all.

Phil's menu allows you to customize your burger in an infinite number of combinations or choose from a list of signature burgers which have pre-determined toppings for those who get overwhelmed with too many choices. On my most recent visit, I constructed my burger in the classic style, with a standard black angus patty topped with shredded cheddar, garlic aioli, shredded lettuce (although I could have chose whole leaf romaine), and pickles built upon a soft white bun which is similar to a bakery style deli roll but more resilient than a styrofoam sesame seed bun. The beef is coarsely ground and has a good fat to lean ratio; making for a juicy and flavorful 7(ish)oz. patty. I order my burgers medium rare and TFS takes hers medium, and at Phil's there was a distinct difference between both color and moisture between the two, which shows an attention to detail to temperature preference.

The price of the build-your-own burger also includes your choice of side. French fries are a squared off steak fry which are soft and greasy, which I kind of like in a it's-not-vogue kind of way. The onion rings are even better, with a crunch batter surrounding thin strings of red onion. $10 per person before tip ain’t a bad deal, or for $6 more you can indulge in one of the handmade shakes.

We took our meal at the bar on a recent Saturday, and Phil himself was tending bar, taking phone orders, and chatting up the customers. He asked a couple seated next to us, "So, where is the best burger in Gulfport?" After the couple responded by listing a number of "dive bars" located on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Phil offered a tidbit of information which I think speak volumes of the mantra behind his restaurant:

"Yeah, in New Orleans, the burgers have always been served in bars. But, you know, you can't bring kids into a bar, so that's partly why I opened this place."

A kid-friendly establishment which serves a burger worthy of a bar. Phil could not have said it better himself.

Phil's Grill - Birdie
3020 Severn Ave.
(504) 324-9080
Open Daily at 11am. Sun-Thur till 9pm; Fri-Sat till 10pm.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Ojen Frappe: Is It Worth It?

Blackened Out recently celebrated its 4th birthday. To celebrate, Peter and I threw it a superhero themed party complete with a Spider Man cake. You may not know that this here spot on the www got its start because of Ojen Frappes. I would back link to the article, but like hearing your own voice on an answering machine, it is painful to read.

Ojen was once made by a small family distillery in Spain. It is an anise flavored, sweet liquor, that over time became the official drink of Rex. The Ojen Frappe is nothing more than Ojen, a few dashes of Peychaud's bitters, and crushed ice. It is a delicious, refreshing drink. The legend goes, a member of Rex was entitled to one, and only one, Ojen Frappe before his ride to ensure a good ride.

Unfortunately, the family in Spain who distilled the potion, decided to get out of the liquor business as sales of Ojen had stalled to all but one market. As an aside, had the fmaily held on for the resulting cocktail and spirits boom, Ojen would likely be on the menu of every cocktail club from Brooklyn to Portland. Here is where the story gets interesting. Either Cedric Martin or Bill Goldring (have heard it attributed to both), flew over to Spain and asked the family to push out one more run of bottles. Cases of the stuff arrived and was squired away at the den of Rex, select restaurants, and Martin's wine cellar.

I bought a bottle in 2008 which lasted until the early part of Summer 2010. But now it seems, the city's supply of Ojen has run dry. Correspondence with Neal Bodenheimer of Cure revealed that yes, they had a bottle but it was in their Reserve case and would never be open. But he added that they were working with a historic spirits re-creator to begin producing Ojen once again. There was no Ojen at Luke, where Legend's first run-in with Ojen occurred. So I went to the last place I had Ojen (Christmas 2010), the Hermes Bar at Antoines.

"Nope, all out. Out. But I have a clone, that is pretty close," the waiter said, "called Anis del Mono."

The Ojen Frappe arrived with finely, chipped ice and the correct color. The candied fennel aroma jumped out of the glass. A sip. Texturally, perhaps a bit thinner than Ojen, which always had a high viscosity. I love the way an Ojen Frappe reminds me of the last quarter of a snowball. The way the ice and liquid turn into a seductive adult slush. The cold tempers the heat of the alcohol and the bitters cut the sweetness of the elixir. This had all of that.

Until and if Ojen returns, an Anis de Mono Frappe will do for my Mardi Gras drink of choice. But just one, of course.

"Ojen Frappe" at Hermes Bar - Yep.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

For Lunch Today

For Lunch Today was one of the most popular series on Blackened Out way back in the day when we only had 4 readers instead of our current 5. (Thanks, mom.) And then one day, like so many critically acclaimed series which came before it - Bromance, The Playboy Club, and Man Up, to name a few - For Lunch Today just up and disappeared. never to be heard of again...

Until now... at least for today... maybe this just one time... we'll see how it goes.

In the days before the Saints playoff game against the Lions and the BCS Championship game (I apologize for opening old wounds), the newest addition to John Besh's empire quietly opened in the bottom of the Hyatt Hotel. Now the secret is out, as evidenced by my attempt to secure reservations this past Saturday night, when the only tables available were at 5:30 or 10:00. Despite my recent rejection, I have been able to snag a table at Borgne on 4 previous occasions, and I will write more about those in a longer review sometime in the next few weeks. But today's post is about lunch, and all that you need is two words: rabbit ragout.

Borgne offers a $10 daily lunch special on every day of the week. I have tasted a few and have been mostly pleased. But the hands down, best daily special available - perhaps the best dish on the entire menu - is the Wednesday special of rabbit ragout. Either I or someone at my table has ordered it on multiple opportunities, and each time the dish had me lapping up the bowl. Kind of awkward when it was not my bowl to begin with, but hey it happens.

The foundation of the dish is a reduced stock (a combination of pork/shrimp or chicken/shrimp, I can't remember) which provides immense flavor. So often I find myself fishing out the substance of a dish like this and leaving behind a sad and empty pool of tepid broth. Nothing could be further from the truth in this case. The main components are chunks of ground rabbit sausage and tender orecchiette pasta. The composed dish has sort of an Italian/Cajun thing going with the anise from the ground rabbit sausage, the sweetness from cherry tomatoes, and bitterness from strands of broccoli rabe. The plate is finished with a few sprigs of fresh herbs and slivers of parm which bring a nice nutty component. This dish has the whole package.

Do yourself a favor. Resolve to starve yourself tomorrow by skipping lunch and saving the $5 that would have gone toward your footlong lunch. Take that $5 and the other $5 which is earmarked for lunch today, go to Borgne, and order the rabbit ragout. You can post your thank you's in the comments this afternoon.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Dueling Bloggers: How Much Is it Worth It To You? (Part II)

You are a very effective counselor, counselor. Your arguments are persuasive and succinct, your logic airtight. The problem is your argument fails to pass the common sense approach favored by the esteemed jurists of this internet site. If you had one night in San Sebastian, your argument would be good enough for summary judgment. (Sorry folks, trying to justify going to law school.)

But you do not have just one night. Assuming you will catch a morning train to San Sebastian and spend two nights there, that gives you conservatively eight separate feedings (figuring lunch, tapas, late night dinner, breakfast, lunch, tapas, dinner, breakfast next morning). Ok, take breakfast out of the equation, that is a sucker's meal. So six meals in one of the world's greatest food cities, and you are going to spend all of them eating sardines on toast?

I'll counter your argument with a rhetorical question. If someone came to New Orleans for six meals would you tell them to eat only po boys? A two day gumbo only odyssey? Two days of just Mandina's,  Liuzzas's and Frankie and Johnny's?

Look, I know it seems that while Lindsay and I were in Spain we Michelined our way around Catalonia barely stopping for anything not served on bone china. In fact, there were numerous meals in small tapas spots that we enjoyed thoroughly. One of our favorite spots, Mosquito (above), which we went to two or three times, was a beer bar the size of your office with an extensive menu of Chinese snack food. Plump dumplings, tender noodles, and spicy shredded beef anchored a menu built for drinking beer. There was nothing fancy about it. Just honest cooking and community, two hallmarks of any great meal. Plus there were peeps wearing skinny jeans - you and The Pope would have fit right in. We loved the flavors and vibe at Origens and the energy of the meals in the snack bars of the Boqueria. There is so much good food out there at every price point.

All that said, the two meals we remember the most were lunch at Sant Pau and dinner at Commerc 24. There was just something equal parts excitement, execution, and pampering about both. Now, people will say, "You are just paying for the art on the walls, the expensive china, the 20,000 bottle wine list." Yes, that is true. My counter to that is at more casual spots, you are not paying for highly tuned service, impeccably sourced ingredients, or a 1 : 1 staff to guest ratio. It is a trade off on both accounts.

Plus, there is an even better reason to set aside one meal and do it big. You are a busy man, the Folk Singer is probably busier. You aren't getting any younger or less busy, unless you win the Powerball. It will do your body good to set aside two to three hours and be pampered at the table. Consider it a couple's massage without the tantric spa music and a stranger's hands all over you. Traveling is all about experiencing different and new things to learn what you like sort of like college. How will you know if you prefer traditional tapas to upscale modernist cuisine if you don't try both?

I recommend you go to Arzak or wherever you choose for lunch. Most Big Boys in the dining world are open for lunch and dinner in order to make their numbers work. Lunch is usually less expensive, but no less good, and you get the benefit of being blissful in the afternoon. Take a long, luxurious lunch at one of the world's best restaurants. Drink plenty of wine. Be spoiled by a staff whose only concern is your happiness. Go home and nap. When you wake up, the tapas spots will be waiting for you.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Dueling Bloggers: How Much Is It Worth To You? (Part I)

Rene: Got your reservation at Arzak yet?
Peter: Yeah, but probably going to cancel.
Rene: Don't. You will regret it.

I have never been one to wince at spending a few dollars on a fine meal. During law school summer school in Lyon, I made it to 4 out of the 6 restaurants run by Paul Bocuse, including his flagship in Collonges. I celebrated my second to last semester in law school by dining at The French Laundry during the week before finals. (Wow, those pictures are awful.) And when I tally up my expenses every year for my tax return, The Folk Singer usually has a few comments about how many starving children in Africa that we could feed with the amount of money that I spent on food in the previous calendar year.

In anticipation of our upcoming trip to Madrid and Basque country, months ago I began the ritual of research and debate as to where we would be dining during our week long journey. My first stop is always whichever episode of No Reservations features Bourdain's visit to our area of travel, and any certified fan boy of Tony immediately knows that his not-so-secret dream is to be adopted into the family of Juan Mari Arzak. So while we would have counted ourselves lucky to eat at Mugaritz or Akellare, we have decided on Arzak for our blowout meal of the trip.

Or did we? Once we settled on where the main event would be held, I began scouting potential locations for the undercard rounds. You know, the other 12 meals that we will presumably eat in Spain. And a funny thing happened during my research: I became more excited about the hundreds of tapas and pintxos bars that I read about than I did anticipating what could be the meal of a lifetime at Arzak. And I started to wonder: With only 2 days in San Sebastian on the agenda, was I willing to sacrifice precious tapas crawl and general exploration time to spend a significant amount of time and money on one meal?

The answer to that question is still to be determined. The Folk Singer has vowed to go with the flow, though she is perfectly happy with drinking cava and eating jamón ibérico de bellota and patatas bravas for 6 days. Rene's opinion is encapsulated in the opening paragraph - a once in a lifetime meal is just that, so embrace the moment while you can. (He will offer his thoughts tomorrow in Part II.) And as I said before, I am still undecided.

But in the process of weighing my decision, I have come to a few conclusions on how to measure the "value" or "worth" of a meal, based on my past experiences.

First, unlike women's shoes and handbags, price is not the determinative factor. I have paid $10 for meals that were better values than spending $150 on foie gras and roasted venison, and that's not because the more expensive food sucked. Certain eating experiences just fit when it comes to the mood of the parties, the reason for celebrating, the expectations, and numerous other factors. A dozen raw oysters and a cold bar can be the most fulfilling dining experience man can ever want, if a dozen raw oysters and a cold bar is what man so desires. On the flip side, a high price tag brings high expectations, and one cannot help but determine value in terms of dollars spent. Will a meal at Arzak be 8 times more fulfilling than an evening of munching on croquetas and pulpo al ajillo and drinking bottles of txakoli?

Second, "once in a lifetime" applies to meals at every price point. The chances of me having another opportunity to eat at Arzak are the same as me having another opportunity to eat tapas at La Cuchara de San Telmo a few blocks away. The unknown factor is the same for both - my only knowledge of either comes from accounts produced by other people. So who is to say that I would not receive more joy from one than the other? The potential level of regret, however, would be much higher for a restaurant like Arzak, which has been lauded and anointed by the wise souls at Michelin. After reading a number of the "I Ate At El Bulli Pieces", I got the sense of what "once in a lifetime" really meant, at least to the authors.

It's a tough decision, and one that will likely not be made until a few days before we make the drive from Madrid to San Sebastian. So I ask: WWBORD? How much is it worth to you?

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Short Order Reviews

In today's edition of Short Order Reviews, we take a look at a Creole-Italian classic, one of the Marigny's most popular restaurants, and the creator of the New Orleans style steak served sizzling in butter.

Tommy's - Tommy's has always offered impeccable service, and this night was no different. But even though this was a group dinner for about 40 people, I was quite disappointed with the food. Everyone began with a trio of baked oysters, all of which were overcooked (although that is not surprising during simultaneous service for such a large group). The Oysters Tommy was the best by far – baked with romano cheese, roasted red pepper, and pancetta. The Bienvilles and Rockefellers were poor, withered examples of what a baked oyster should be. The salad course was forgettable. For entrees, we had two choices: an overcooked filet or Veal Sorrentina which just looked sad on the plate with its taut blanket of mozzarella protecting a rubbery piece of veal layered with prosciutto and eggplant all sitting in a pool of tepid mushroom marsala. Meanwhile, I filled up on an entire loaf of the complimentary braided sesame loaf on the table. Not a good sign. Bogey.

Sukho Thai - The Marigny location was slammed on a recent Saturday night, and although our appetizers came out quickly, the kitchen was running slow when it came to expediting the entrees, as was the front of the house with regard to getting the check to the table. We decided to break away from our usual orders and try a few new dishes. We started with the "special" dumplings, whose filling tasted identical to that in a classic pot sticker, but the presentation was open faced and upright. Nothing extraordinary about those. The Drunken Noodles were less than impressive, with a cloyingly sweet sauce and a ddisproportionate chicken/noodle to vegetable ratio. The Folk Singer was equally disappointed with her Bathing Rama, which included overcooked beef and a mild, bland peanut sauce. Next time we will stick to Dirty Noodles and Panang Duck Curry. Bogey.

Crescent City Steakhouse - A men's dinner was called to order recently, and what better place to hold court than the steakhouse who invented the signature New Orleans style steak served sizzling in butter. The charm of Crescent City Steakhouse is in its longevity and timelessness. This place has character. From the waitresses who can be heard singing along to the tunes playing from the classic jukebox to Quint Davis waltzing in like he owns the place and then disappearing into one of the curtained booths. Start with the garlic bread and fantastic onion rings, but skip the Crescent City Martini, which leans a little too far on the sweet side. Our table shared a a mammoth porterhouse for 3 which is carved up by the kitchen and left attached to the bone. It's neither the most tender nor the most flavorful cut of beef, but it's good eating. The sides were another story. Spinach au gratin tasted like uncooked flour and the mushrooms were sadly underseasoned. We finished with a Z pie for dessert, of course, a homely combination of vanilla ice cream and whipped cream in a chocolate cookie crust. For those of you who like to say farewell to Mardi Gras with a juicy steak, remember that Crescent City opens at 10:00am on Fat Tuesday. Food: Par. Ambience: Birdie.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Listen Up, Fool

Your kitchen equipment sucks. Ok, ten percent of you do not need to read this post. Your kitchen equipment is passable. You have sharp knives, large cutting boards, and sturdy pots. Come back to Blackened Out tomorrow. But for the rest of you, or those who aren't sure if you are in the 10%, listen up, fool.

I have been in your kitchens and they make me wonder why you even spent money remodeling the space. No wonder you don't think you can cook. You can't cook because you do not have the right tools. Let me ask you this, if you hired a plumber and he came to your house with plastic wrenches and a matchbook, would you expect him to unclog your drain? If a doctor showed up at your surgery with a Swiss army knife and a bottle of ether, would you expect your appendectomy to go well? The answer is no. And the substandard tools you have in your kitchen make you look like a rube.

Take a look at your cutting board. Is it small, plastic, and scratched up? Throw it out. It is absolutely useless and harboring bacteria. I went in a kitchen recently with one cutting board in the whole kitchen that was no bigger than an outline of Rhode Island in a map of the world. Seriously, what the hell are your cabbage smelling hands going to cut on there? Liliputian leeks? Tiny tomatroes? Miniature mushrooms? Small satsumas? Find something wooden, heavy, and large, and lasting. You do realize that plastic's only usefulness in the kitchen is just for fake boobs, right?

Now onto your knives. They couldn't make the cut on well-groomed ski slope. Let me guess, you registered for a set on some wedding website. "Look honey, it has a butcher's knife, a serrated chef's knife, 14 steak knives, and three boning knives, all for $35.99. What a deal for Uncle Ernie." That is your first mistake, entrusting your crazy uncle with making sure you keep all of your fingers.

I wish I could tell you where you got your shoes at, because you are a sucker. If a knife, or better yet a knife set, costs less than filling up your gas tank, those knives couldn't cut the tension in a divorce proceeding. Go get yourself two knives - an 8 inch chef's knife and a pairing knife. They should NOT have a serrated edge, they should be sharp to the touch, and do not put them in the dishwasher. Does the knife feel balanced in your hand, without feeling light? Good. Together do the two knives costs less than $100 bucks? Find another knife. Wanna get crazy? Get a serrated bread knife and a boning knife, but that is just an extravagance.

Hey, you own a food processor? That is cool. They work for all sorts of things. They are good for making dough, crushing large amounts prep work, and making mayonnaise. Again, your food processor is probably a small one cup model. Maybe you bought it because it was "cute" or "practical". You would be wrong on both accounts. If your food processor can't fit at least eight cups of anything, you got hosed. Get rid of it.

Stop embarrassing yourself. You spent thousands of dollars on a kitchen so you could entertain and throw big dinner parties. You spend $200 on shoes or surround sound stereo systems. And you are going to skimp on the things that actually help you cook? How does that make any sense. Sack up, bite the bullet, and buy some good gear.

Now that you have a large, wooden cutting board and a good knife, it is time to learn knife skills. With enough practice you should be able to dice an onion in less time than it takes to plug in a food processor. I'll be back with more reasons your kitchen equipment sucks, but for now just get a bigger wooden cutting board, a sharper knife, and a larger food processor.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Pascal's Manale: Is It Worth It?

 An artful shot of the exterior of Pascal's Manale inspired by Edward Hopper

Pascal's Manale occupies a very precarious spot on the New Orleans cuisine map. On one hand, it is a neighborhood Creole-Italian spot. On the other hand, it developed or at least rocketed to fame, barbeque (their spelling) shrimp, an iconic New Orleans dish. The story goes, a customer came in and told the proprietor about a dish he had in Chicago. The customer requested a version of the dish based on his recollection. Yada, yada, yada, barbeque shrimp became a dish on menus around the globe.

The raucous oyster bar-cum-bar is a great place to start a meal. The walls are lined, per tradition and local business codes, with old bric-a-brac, yellowing newspaper clippings, and photos of mostly long since has beens autographed by the youthful, athletic faces filling the frames. Best do yourself a favor, sidle up the oyster bar, and enjoy a half-dozen or six, your call. A cold beer is your best bet, steer away from the Sazerac which on a recent visit was too sweet by half.

There are two main dining rooms in Manale's, both of them similar in scope and design, with soft colored walls and framed posters of Louisiana culture and sports. Both rooms have large windows which due to the height of the building, tends to seclude the diners from the look-ins of passerbys. Let's get to the food.

Oysters Bienville (above) may be the best dish in the joint. A warm concoction which unites the starchy, earthiness of potato (yet no potato) and the smokiness of bacon with the briney,deliciousness of plump oysters and shrimp. Good lord, Manale's version of this dish is one for the ages and white Burgundy. The wine list could use some help, in that regard. Too many subpar choices and distributor dreck for food this unique. The Oysters Rockefeller goes the other direction harmonizing herbal notes with the flowers of the tide. But pressed to choose one, I would come back again and again for those Bienvilles. A solid gumbo was better than a turtle soup which was khaki in color, thin on flavor, and thicker than mud.

Now, onto the barbeque shrimp. This is why Manale's is an oft used name on the internet, but in truth, their version disappoints. The shrimp are overcooked and tough to peel, the sauce more oily than buttery, and the only discernible flavor is one of harshly ground black pepper.  Sure you can dip miles of French bread into the buttery sauce, but bread and butter is hardly a reason to go out of your way.

Better was a return to Creole-Italian by way of Veal Parmigiana. A thin, crispy plank of veal arrives soaked in red gravy and topped with browned, bubbly cheese. The veal was tougher than normal, but the crust and toppings more than made up for that deficiency. The side of pasta crowned with more of the sauce disappeared almost as quickly. 

For barbeque shrimp, I would direct you elsewhere, but for a classic Creole-Italian feast, you could do a lot worse than Manale's.

Pascal's Manale - Skip the famous dish, but enjoy the rest. 
1838 Napoleon Avenue
(504) 895-4877

Monday, February 6, 2012

Back to the Butcher

Prime rib sandwich special at Cochon Butcher.
There are times when it seems that I eat at the same places over and over again, but then I look up and a year has passed by without visiting what used to be one of my regular favorites. When I first started working downtown almost 4 years ago, lunch at Cochon Butcher was a weekly event for my co-workers and me. And then once I became a resident of the CBD, it quickly became a go to option for dinner as well. But over the past year Butcher inexplicably fell out of my rotation, only to reemerge in recent weeks as a dining option which should always be at the top of the list.

All of our favorite sandwiches are still there and remain steadfast in their deliciousness. The cold roast beef spiked with horseradish, Carolina style pulled pork which I just love to slather with the namesake hot sauce, and the Cubano smuggling roasted poblanos in between layers of roast pork and ham. But the specials have been bringing the heat as of late. A recent recurring special has been an old school meatball hero covered in so much marinara and melted provolone that this sandwich alone may thwart Subway's FebruANY campaign. Another winner featured prime rib shaved so thin and with a texture so tender that you wonder if this cow came from Kobe, and it's generously piled upon buttery crisp marble rye and matched with melted gruyere and celery root remoulade.

In addition to the sandwiches, the rotating selection of side dishes will help ease the pain of your New Year's resolution to give up french fries. Cucumbers and chili in a light vinaigrette, grilled sweet potatoes and onions, and roasted brussels sprouts are always solid choices. My new favorite though is an Italian chopped of mini pasta shells, diced salami, herbs and greens - sort of like eating a muffuletta with a fork.

So don't let one of the favorites slip the cracks. At Cochon Butcher, what was good then, is even better now. And don't forget to grab a mini king cake for dessert.

Cochon Butcher
930 Tchoupitoulas Street
(504) 588-7675
Open Daily at 10am; Mon-Thur till 10pm; Fri-Sat till 11pm; Sun till 4pm

Friday, February 3, 2012

Guest Bloggle

At the Blackened Out Hedge Fund Annual Planning meeting, a decision was made to use today to write a menu for the Saints second Super Bowl. Instead of that joyous post, here is a guest blog from Bloggle. 

The amuse bouche from Meson 923, which opened in 2010 as a highly ambitious restaurant.
I've eaten in plenty of restaurants. To bastardize an already cheesy phrase from Jon Bon Jovi (or is it Plato) "I've seen a million (restaurants), and I've rocked them all."  I've seen the highest of highs and the lowest of lows and every time I leave a restaurant I feel that I've learned something new as a diner, a new experience to file in the catalog of a gustatory hobby.  However, this past Saturday night all of that came to a screeching halt when I had the most confusing and bewildering restaurant experience of my life.  I didn't know whether to laugh or cry, whether to run screaming or look for the hidden cameras.  Indeed it was an experience that made me question what makes a restaurant and why we in the hell we even dine out.

Meson 923 began a few years back as one of the most exciting new haute cuisine restaurants in the city, with a sleek modern look and a menu to match.  I dined there maybe a half-dozen over their existence and was duly impressed by the effort of the chef each time.  Sadly, though, those days are gone, those chefs have moved on and the issues behind the scenes over there are now well documented.  Meson 923 had its run, but now it's over.

Or so we thought.  It appears as though the building's owner has decided to take the reins and run the restaurant on his own.  I've seen that movie before and it never has a happy ending My wife and I went on the suggestion and invitation of some friends, with a warning of what we might be facing.  Experienced diners all, we said "What the hell, what's the worst that can happen?"

We walked into the still tony dining room, still with its sparse minimalist tables, sharply designed chairs, and noticeable lack of wall coverings (we did not, however, fail to notice the addition of a brilliantly lit pair of neon signs in the window, one reading "Open" the other, "Steaks").

It still looked like Meson 923, until we realized there was no one to greet us, other than a pair of people at the bar who looked more like they had gotten lost on their way to the Corporation Bar on the opposite corner than they looked like they worked in this (or any) restaurant.   Confusion on this staff's part ensued when one of them tried to sit us in the dining room,  the other insisted instead on separate tables in the bar area. The brief tete-a-tete thankfully had swift and happy ending when we were finally sat all together at the same table.  Unfortunately, it was the last moral victory of the night.

Some places have servers with bling, others have service with a smile.  Understandably, not every restaurant has the happiest of servers, some places even pride themselves on the rudeness of their staff.  This place however, eerily had none of the above.  A third staff member emerged after we were sat and approached our table.  When we asked if he was our waiter he said in his best Steven Wright deadpan "I can be."

Immediately came the question "What kind of dressing would you like on your salads?"  We  asked about things like, say, menus and a drink list, he brushed that off by saying they don't have a menu and the chef is going to cook whatever he wants to anyway.  He then followed up his question again a little more brusquely "What KIND of DRESSING would you like on your salads?!"

That night, Thousand Island, Blue Cheese, Ranch and Oil/Vinegar (at right) were the institutionalized choices you got on a bowl of very roughly cut, sub-par Romaine lettuce that looked like it was purchased from the ill-fated Suda Salvage Discount Grocery Store and chopped with a pocket knife by Cub Scout Troop 1923.  I nibbled on a sad, flavorless tomato and wept inwardly thinking about the succulent Barrileux Farms creoles I had picked up that morning at the farmer's market.  It may have crossed my mind to ask if the restaurant had a corkage policy for tomatoes.

The salads are not your only pre-entrée choices.  Immediately upon us sitting down we were bombarded with a plate of thickly buttered and grilled hamburger bun bottoms that looked like they were buttered by Paula Deen having a biggest dick contest with the American Heart Association. (above)  It was explained to us that this amuse-bouche was on the house.

Thankfully we were well stocked with wine in tow, and as luck would have it someone suggested we bring our own glasses, since the place didn't seem to have any of those either.

Now it was time to order.  The roadie crew from the Molly Hatchet '83 World Tour that sat us was gone, as was our original server.  A fourth staff member emerged to inform us the menu choices were three cuts of steak and two types of fish.  The steaks were to be grilled with salt and pepper, the fish only with lemon and salt.  No sauce, no alternative preparations.  Nothing.  When asked if my redfish would be grilled the answer was "I'll tell the chef, but he's going to cook it however he wants to cook it."  She repeated that same answer when one of our party ordered their Rib-Eye cooked medium.

We asked about sides and the answer was "we'll send out what we have", which turned out to be black-eyed peas (undoubtedly stirred with a salt-lick), plain baked potatoes, and a bowl of spinach and mushrooms.  If the array of sides weren't all canned then whoever thought to present these items as fresh needs to be beaten with a rolled up copy of Gourmet magazine and have his nose shoved in that insipid bowl of salty mush parading as black-eyed peas.

Entrées arrive and unfortunately my fish was poached, but then again, fortunately it wasn't redfish.  I thought about inquiring further about what happened to the redfish but backed down when I saw the chef appear to be yelling at someone in the kitchen.  To the kitchen's credit the fish was fresh, and a dining companion said the NY Strip was well cooked, but so what?  I can grill a steak and boil a piece of fish with lemon and salt at home.

As we trudged on, we began to discuss the thorough lack of anything that resembled a structured staff combined with such a rudimentary menu.  We pondered that maybe the "secret" menu was an attempt to duplicate a Charlie's Steak House.  This was when I when I started questioning what makes a restaurant.

By this point we were all deep in the glass and the effort to suppress our giggle reflex became increasingly moot.  The suggestion by the server that they were washing some more silverware so we could eat drew snickers, the serving of side dishes on tea plates drew slight chuckles, after asking for a napkin and seeing the arrival of a roll of paper towels a full guffaw ensued.

Thinking we were on the finish line of paying and getting out of there alive three very large pieces of pie showed up.  Apple, something else, I'm not certain.  To be frank, I did not eat the pie.   It could have been the best pie ever made by the hand of man, but I sure as hell wasn't touching it.  The claim was the pie was made in house.  Actually that's unfair, it could have been made by mom, if mom works at Sysco.

By this point I was so bewildered and so beside myself that I was going to have to pay money for this train wreck of a meal, to pay for such an unmitigated disjointed experience that was so disproportionate in its ineptitude to the beauty of the room in which it happened, to pay money to someone that so obviously could not care less about the experience he provided that I began to question I put forth earlier.

The experience of art is unique and singular.  Maybe the experience I had last Saturday night at the former Meson 923 is a grand joke, an artistic statement against the mores of fine dining, a voice behind the curtain telling us that we're full of shit by taking restaurants too seriously.  If that were the case it would be the finest example of performance art I've ever seen.  Unfortunately there was obviously no intent for it to be.  Whether this new owner is trying to create the next Crescent City Steakhouse or just trying to keep the doors open until he can offload the place to the next wide-eyed entrepreneur remains to be seen.  Either way it was a miserable failure, intended or not.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

A Carnivore's Super Bowl Party

Despite a premature end to the Saints season, the Super Bowl is still being played on Sunday against our protesting. Not only does the day feature a contest between the two best teams in the NFL, armchair quarterbacks all over the country will be competing among themselves as to whom gain the most weight during the game. The annual clash on the gridiron demands that you consume copious amounts of processed cheese food, an entire bag of Fritos Scoops, a 12 pack of beer, and half of a king cake, all while patiently waiting to see if any of this year's advertisements will eclipse the genius of the E*Trade monkey commercial or if Madonna's top will fall off during the halftime show.
Photo by renee b. photography.
Or, instead of eating your weight in French Onion dip, you can live large by grilling up a selection of the finest meats from Rare Cuts. Hell, open up a nice bottle of wine and make a wager on the coin toss while you're at it. The end of carnival is just around the corner, and as we discuss in this month's Dining Out column in OffBeat Magazine, there is no better time to indulge in a premium cut of meat, and no better place than Rare Cuts to find that perfect piece of beef... or lamb... or pork... or veal... or chicken... or duck... or quail... or lobe of foie gras. They even have 100% all beef hot dogs for the kiddies.

Photo by renee b. photography.
We promise that Owner Henry Albert is much less menacing than he looks in this picture. Just don't touch his meat clever. (No, that is not a euphemism.)

Rare Cuts
801 Nashville Ave.
(504) 267-4687
Mon-Sat: 10am-7pm; Sun: 10am-5pm

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

NOLA Brewing Co. Flambeau Red Ale Release Party

NOLA Brewing will unveil its 2012 edition of its spring fling seasonal beer, Flambeau Red Ale this Saturday. To do so, NOLA has organized a bar crawl through the French Quarter. And hey, if you are going to pick a weekend during Carnival to go into the French Quarter and drink, this is it. The festivities kick off at 1 p.m. at the R Bar. Then at 2:30 the Krewe du Brew heads over to Balcony Music Club; at 3:45 they head next to Turtle Bay before finishing up at Molly's at the Market.

Of course, that should leave you good and lit up for the Krewe du Vieux parade, which rolls through the Quarter Saturday night. This being New Orleans and Carnival, this is a costume party. The theme is Mardi Gras on Fire. To help you with your costume selection, here are some fiery suggestions:

  • Fire on the Mountain
  • Fire on the Bayou
  • Its Like Sex on Fire
  • Fire and Rain
  • Set Fire to the Rain
  • Slutty Nurse on Fire
  • Naughty Santa on Fire
  • Slutty Catwoman on Fire
  • Slutty Devil on Fire
  • Fire Ant
  • He's on Fire, for you NBA Jam fans
  • Presidential Candidate on Fire, for you political junkies
  • Future Plastic Surgeon on Fire, for the Pre-Med in your group (Tip: have a sign offering free breast exams)
  • Robert Peyton on Fire, for the Pre-Law or Pre-Blog in your group
  • Fire Fighter, for the MMA fan
  • You're Fire'd , for the annoying guy who thinks he does a great Trump imitation

Feel free to leave your favorite fire related costume in the comments.