Thursday, March 29, 2012


Crabmeat and lemongrass bisque.
If a chef applies his craft with much success but no diners are in his restaurant eating, does the food still taste good?

Each time that I dine at Sara's in the Riverbend, I pose the same question to myself. Granted, I have been on only 4 occasions over the past 3 years, but every time no more than 2 other tables have been occupied in the restaurant. Which is a shame because I have enjoyed almost every dish which has graced my table.

"Asian flavors, creole technique" is the tag line for Sara's kitchen. The result could be easily defined as "fusion cuisine", which is often the red headed step child of the food nerd world. I concern myself less with labels and more on taste.

The single best dish on the menu is the crabmeat and lemongrass bisque ($8). With a base of softened celery, coconut milk, and a load of sweet crabmeat, this potage packs an addictive lemongrass essence with backdoor spice. Honestly, this may be my favorite soup in the city. An appetizer to share would be eggplant sauteed in a sauce of tomato and whole cloves of garlic which produces a slow, lingering spice and highlights the earthiness of the aubergines. The dish would be better if the skins were removed, and the accompanying "naan" is actually pita bread. The Folk Singer always orders the salad of breaded and pan seared goat cheese matched with a mixed greens and tossed in a sundried cheery vinaigrette.

Lamb Oxford.
I am sucker for slow cooked, one pot dishes, and the season for those is rapidly passing us by (if it has not already). The Lamb Oxford ($22) is a leg of lamb braised in tomato sauce until the shreds of meat and sauce become one. It has depth, it has flavor, and it is delicious. The menu touts the sauce as a “korma,” which in my mind connotes an addition of heavy cream or coconut milk, both of which were absent from the finished product. Basmati rice and lentils, which were sadly served cold, round out the dish.

Red curry chicken.
More typical Indian fare is available, probably because that's what most first time diners are looking for. The saag paneer uses leafy spinach cut into long strips and cooked down with tomato and onion. Standard but flavorful, and at $16 the portion size was spot on. Red curry chicken is presented elegantly, but I have had better versions for cheaper prices elsewhere, and the cold black bean and corn salad seemed out of place.

The ambience is completely comfortable if you don’t mind dining in a nearly empty room with a mixture of new age rock and sitar tunes. Chairs in the front dining room strangely resemble those found in a gentleman’s club (so I have been told), and the rear dining room is so quiet that you feel mandated to whisper even if your table is the only one occupied. The restaurant is nowhere near a scene in the fedora-wearing and Kate Upton look-a-like sense of the word.

But the food is good. Expensive, but good. Soup, salad, 2 entrees, 2 Kingfish beers, and 2 glasses of sauvignon blanc ran the total bill to a shade over $100 including tax and tip. Sara's will not be winning any awards in the value category, but that lemongrass bisque alone is worth going for.

Sara's Restaurant - Par/Birdie
724 Dublin Street
(504) 861-0565

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

New York City: The Welterweights

A lifetime could be spent exploring the holes in the wall of New York. Whether it is a bakery, beer garden, or a modern Italian-American barroom, the city reveals more hidden gems than the safe at DeBeers. Granted, most of these places have basement prep kitchens, but still the quality of food coming out of these tiny spots is impressive.

A Sunday morning jaunt to the Natural History Museum turned up to of the best snacks we had on our trip. Levain Bakery has been heralded from sea to shining sea, and for good reason. This closet sized basement bakery doles out chunky, gooey cookies in a variety of flavors. The chocolate chocolate chip had the heft of good book but once the crusty exterior of the cookie was breached it transformed into a soft explosion of chocolate finesse. And finally, here is a chocolate peanut butter sweet that actually beats into submission the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup in its proportion of the two main ingredients.

The Natural History museum was filled with screaming children and stairs. Both of which eventually wore on our patience, so we hailed a cab and headed to Earl's Beer and Cheese. This locker room of lagers and ales has but a few beers, a few snacks, and a wall decorated in a faux forest scene. It felt like college again, homely, warm, and welcoming.

The menu sticks to food you want to eat while drinking a beer. But each item has a certain twist to it, to make it stand out. For instance, the taco comes not on a tortilla but on a scallion pancake. The result is a crispy wrapped, meat filled odyssey. Topped with radishes and a squirt of lemon, this is fusion done right. Or the tomato soup, which comes spiked with just enough ginger and spice to make you crave Indian food.

We also made time one day to stop in at Parm. Parm is the second offering from a group that has reinvented Italian-American food at the next door, Torrisi Italian Specialties. It was in between lunch and dinner service when we went to Parm and only the bar was open. The staff seemed out of sorts, but that is what happens when a restaurant is open when a shift change is underfoot. Service woes notwithstanding, the plate of pickled vegetables, jalapeno poppers, and a beet infused Negroni more than helped ease us into the evening.

Finally, what trip to New York City would be complete without grabbing one of its most iconic foods: the bagel. For that, we headed to Ess-a-Bagel. Inside the brick building, a counterman yells out, "No toasting." Then slides gobs of cream cheese on a sliced round of bagel, crusty on the outside, chewy on the inside. If this isn't bagel perfection, what is?

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Date Night: Lee Circle Edition

Please welcome the newest series on Blackened Out: Date Night. Should be pretty self-explanatory.  We all get stuck in ruts and end up going to the same three places, but every now and then it is time to do something different. Hence the need for another soon to be abandoned series. 

A hotel has anchored the French Quarter segment of Lee Circle for years. Recently, the space was re-anointed as the Hotel Modern. But this time the ownership group had the good sense to bring in some bait for locals and tourists alike. That bait takes the form of Bellocq and Tamarind from Neal Bodenheimer & Co. and Dominique Macquet, respectively.

A good date night usually starts with drinks at the bar. Bellocq's sumptuous lounge has a timeless quality with thick fabrics, rich colors, and subdued music. The drink of choice here is the cobbler, an old standby from the days when Lee was on horseback. The concept of a cobbler is simple: crushed ice, fruit, booze, and a touch of sugar. The result is a refreshing and near perfect drink for food. The two cobblers we sampled were both made with fortified wine, but the standout was a sip of spring with Lillet, strawberries, lemon juice, and sugar. These drinks could become habit forming.

After a few cobblers and conversation, head over to Tamarind. The room is divided into an upper and lower section. The lower section is where the action is at with large windows that look out onto likely the only traffic circle with stop lights. Avoid the upper unit (where we were seated) as the traffic from the kitchen and hotel becomes distracting.

Kimberly Patton-Bragg has resurfaced at Tamarind and she is mixing her unique cocktails into the fabric of French-Vietnamese cooking emerging from the kitchen. Witness her take on the Vietnamese staple soda chanh. Bragg tones down acidity by using preserved lemon, highlights the sweetness with a shot of lavender simple syrup, and ramps up the kick with Plymouth gin. Come summer, this drink should be in your steady rotation.

The vittles at Tamarind will be familiar in scope to anyone who has delved past pho at Vietnamese restaurants. Take for instance, their version of banh xeo. At Tamarind, tucked into the thin, crispy crepe are layers of lamb confit and and stewed mustard greens. The greens heighten the natural grassiness of the lamb which creates the sensation of eating not just lamb, but what a lamb would eat. Crispy pork belly could have gone overboard but the supply of just pickled vegetables balanced the dish out. Tamarind's take on an Asian Shrimp remoulade, was a clunky mess with a puck of tempura kohlrabi that was too thick by half and a remoulade that was used twice as much as it should have been.

Plump scallops found a welcome companion alongside butter beans, garlicky noodles, and lemon beurre blanc. The resulting dish wasa harmony of the pungent flavors of Eastern cuisine, gilded slightly by French technique. The duck entree would have been in the same playpen, had it not been for a flaccid skin. The one dessert we sampled was fantastic, a cinnamon chocolate molten cake whose temperature and spice was well deserving of its name. It came with a scoop of Vietnamese coffee ice cream. A welcome end to a great date.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Mad Props

Well, that was quite a Saturday.

As expected, Hogs for the Cause was a resounding success by all measurable accounts. Despite a little mud (OK, a lot of mud), the weather gods blessed us once again, and I have the farmer's tan to prove it. The teams went above and beyond this year with their entries, from candied bacon sno-balls and pork belly banh mi sandwiches to some excellent ribs, which category I was lucky enough to judge. The musicians brought down the house several times, and the pork lovers showed up in droves. There was even a special appearance by an entire groom's party just an hour or so before the wedding. (Shhh, don't tell the bride.)

The Company Burger.
The big winner of the night was, of course, the cause. Next in line was The Company Burger, whose team took home the Grand Champion award. Even though (or perhaps because) I toasted the High on the Hog winner with many a beer and bottle of champagne at City Pork on Saturday night, I decided that an encore was in order on Sunday, so I headed over to Freret Street in search of hangover relief.

The Company Burger delivered in all its beefy, juicy, cheesy glory, as did a generous order of thick, crisp fries dipped in basil mayo. And this may sound strange, but I am a sucker for that soft pellet ice. The mini carrot bundt cakes with cream cheese frosting looked very tempting as a dessert option, but after consuming approximately 13lbs of pork the day before I thought it was in the best interest of my cholesterol levels to exercise self restraint.

We will return tomorrow with our regularly scheduled programming.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

A Pig & A Dream (Come True)

Becker and Rene at the first Hogs for the Cause in 2009.
You know how some locals like to wax on nostalgically about the infant years of Jazz Fest? They like to talk about how the festival was so much better when it was held at Armstrong Park. How the musical lineup consisted of only indigenous acts like Pete Fountain, Fats Domino, and the Meters. How the crowd was nothing more than a few hundred locals who wandered over from the French Quarter and the musicians themselves. And how the modern era Springsteen-led Jazz Fest is a lesson in that bigger is not always better.

This is not one of those lessons.

In March 2009 I was coasting through my final semester of law school when Rene kept interrupting my internet surfing with talk of this pig roast that he and Becker Hall were hosting at the Fly on an upcoming weekend. So The Folk Singer and I made the drive down from Baton Rouge the night before and then headed out to the Fly to eat some pork (actually, TFS made us stop for lunch at Gott Gourmet on the way) and drink off the free keg donated by NOLA Brewing.

That first year "Hogs for the Cause" was actually a misleading title. There was but one pig, and it had been slowly turning on the battery operated rotisserie since the evening before. If I recall correctly, Rene and Becker had both camped out at the Fly to keep watchful eye over the inaugural cochon, because when you put all of your eggs in one basket you better make damn well sure said basket is delivered.

The crowd numbered probably 50-70 people, if I had to guesstimate. Richard Sutton from St. James was there. The Dread Pirate Robert Peyton was there shucking and chargrilling oysters. The Palm Room Hostess, a long lost blog character, was also present, as were several other friends and acquaintances who came out to support Rene and Becker. Anyone who was there the first year of Hogs will be quick to tell you how they went to Hogs before Hogs was cool.

Once the pig was deemed ready, Rene and Becker ferried it over to a table covered in butcher paper, where several of us began to hack away with our knives. There was no regard for presentation, no final lacquering of special sauce, and I don't remember seeing anyone use a plate or a fork or a knife. We tossed the prepared pork into an aluminum tray, and people just grabbed with their hands.

Hogs 2009 "Thank You" poster from Ben Sarrat, Jr.
A few months thereafter, Rene and I sat down for dinner with our women, and he talked about his big plans for the future of Hogs. His vision involved live music, ticket sales, and a team cookoff. I just kept nodding my head and thinking to myself, "I know that Rene is really bored living in St. Louis, but I didn't realize that he had taken up smoking crack."

Three years later, reality has surpassed Rene's vision by leaps and bounds. He and Becker have created a monster - a pork-centric, pediatric-brain-cancer-fighting monster that continues to grow with every year. The Folk Singer summed it up a few weeks ago, "All of these people are coming up to me and talking about Hogs for the Cause. It's crazy. Hogs is like a thing now."

And why should we be surprised? Who doesn't love pork, beer, and music?

But while the Hogs may get all the glory, it's the Cause which is most important. No doubt that fierce competition among the teams has fueled participants to keep raising the bar, and the quality of the food has accelerated the popularity and growth of Hogs. But porkpourri, Boss Hog passes, and the High on the Hog Grand Champion award are simply the means to support the Cause. The origin of the Cause can be traced back to a 4 year old known as "Pirate Ben," and you can read more about his story here. I have no doubt that on Saturday Ben will help deliver beautiful weather from up above.

Hogs has taken out a bounty on pediatric brain cancer, and the pot just keeps getting bigger. Come out to City Pork on Saturday to help out the Cause.

Hogs for the Cause
Saturday March 24th
City Pork
Gates Open at 10:30am

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Angelo Brocato: Is It Worth It?

The term Italian is one like Creole. That is a term that at once conjures up a variety of images and yet has no concrete meaning. So without saying too much, Angelo Brocato is the quintessential Italian ice cream parlor. Inside the pink pastel room, an archway of exposed lights colors the pastries, gelatos, and cakes that line the shelves. There are metal tables and chairs, their seats cradling the knees of countless children throughout the years who peer over the marble tabletop looking for uneaten gelato. There is always a line, but the line moves swiftly.

You would do well to order a brick of spumoni, if only to marvel at how delicious a rainbow can be. The spumoni alternates between tart and fruity, nutty and sweet flavors. Plus, check out the doily!

Strawberry gelato lacked punch and the explosion of flavor that gelato brings to the iced dessert world. The chocolate almond more than made up for this deficiency - coating the slight bitterness of almonds with the luxuriousness of the chocolate like a smile on Cruella de Ville.

With summer coming (ok, it is here already), it is time to enjoy a cool treat now and then. There are few better places to do so than Brocato's.

Angelo Brocato: Is it Worth It? Most definitely.
214 N. Carrollton Ave.
(504) 486-1465
Closed on Mondays.

Monday, March 19, 2012


Photo by renee b. photography.
There are less than 5 days until City Pork erupts into a smoke-filled celebration of the pig, and many of the city's self-proclaimed barbecue experts will be on hand to vie for the coveted Grand Champion award. The local BBQ scene has exploded in recent years, and one of the most successful debuts comes from Neil McClure, a former manager of Dante's Kitchen who now runs his eponymous barbecue pop-up out of the same Riverbend restaurant during lunch Monday through Friday and on Tuesday nights.

Neil McClure has been pursuing a love of barbecue for his entire life, and he finally decided to take the plunge this past November. In this month's issue of OffBeat, we take a closer look at McClure's in our Dining Out column. Give it a read but be prepared for what could be an uncontrollable craving for smoked meats.

It's a long drive from the CBD to the Riverbend for a plate of brisket, but there is a delicious reward at the end of your journey. Neil McClure believes (and we agree with him) that barbecue is best enjoyed as a mid-day meal, which is why he is open to a permanent location closer to downtown. But those of you who can't make the trek to see Neil for lunch this week can rest assured that he will be dishing out plenty of barbecue on Saturday at Hogs for the Cause.

736 Dante St.
Mon – Fri: 11:30a.m. – 1:30p.m.; Tues: 6:30p.m. – 8:30p.m.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Beware the Ides of March

Roast beef po-boy from Parasol's.
When the soothsayer uttered those fatefal words to Julius Caesar, I am 99% certain that the fortune teller was not speaking of the potential dangers of a debilitating hangover caused by overconsumption of green jello shots. But the same warning applies to those revelers who will be attending the Irish Channel Block Party which kicks off today around 10:00am, when the 1000 block of Third Street will be rife with revelers who refuse to believe that today is just another Thursday. Good luck to those brave enough to drink green beer all day long.

Of course, the two anchors of this celebration are Parasol's and Tracey's, two neighborhood bars forever linked by history, controversy, and roast beef po-boys. It's been a while since I partook in the Irish Channel Block Party, so I can't say which bar I would prefer to make my homebase for the block party today and parade on Saturday. But in comparing roast beef po-boys, I can say that Parasol's reigns supreme, with it's debris-style beef and thick gravy on toasted bread whose top layer has a smear of garlic butter and heavy dash of parsley flakes.

For those in search of a more tame and traditional celebration, I have a few suggestions as well. Chef Matt Murphy has dedicated an entire week to his heritage, and the festivities continue at The Irish House through Saturday. Lovers of corned beef might venture out to the Fair Grounds for an afternoon at the races and a lunch consisting of the only guaranteed winner at the track: the corned beef po-boy. The tender, thick-sliced corned beef are piled high on french bread which you are required to slather with plenty of Gulden's spicy brown mustard. Another suprise option for corned beef: Parkway Bakery, make sure to ordered it dressed with creole mustard.

May the luck of the Irish be with you and your March Madness brackets.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Hogs for the Cause

Team Pig Slayer prepares for rock and roll or battle at Hogs for the Cause last year.

And you thought you wouldn't have to read about Hogs for the Cause this year?

That's right. Hogs is turning four next Saturday, March 24th with a huge birthday party at City Pork. I will go ahead and answer the first question you have, no we are not going to run out of beer. Thanks to a free agent pickup that is second only to the Saints getting Drew Brees, Crescent Crown Distributing scooped up the distribution rights to NOLA Brewing last Spring. The result for you beer drinker is four trailers with five taps a piece plus enough canned beer to make Time Saver jealous.

In addition to beer, we are pouring two wines from Mad Max's Neat Wines just in case you find that smoked hogshead cheese needs something with more heft than beer. Back by popular demand, Mar Go Ritas returns with their kid tested, mother approved pouches that pack a punch. The vendor list is strong with snowballs, Taceaux Loceaux, St. James, Big Wil and the Warden, Sucre, Oak Street Cafe, and more. Mississippi Rail Co., Stooges Brass Band, Marcia Ball, The Gourds, VOW All Stars, and Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue provide the pigharmonic orchestral tunes to keep the party going into the night.

After dropping their pig on the ground in season two of Hogs, Team Swine Krewe had revenge on their minds for Hogs Season Three. 

Plus, don't forget with 60 teams competing for your fundraising dollars the pork will flow like the Salmon of Capistrano. Each team has a piggy bank and their goal is to raise as much money as possible. They do this by offering samples of their food in exchange for money. You are familiar with capitalism, no? Drop a ticket, cash, or check into the bucket and thou shall receive a sample of pulled pork or a rib or maybe a pork belly corn dog. Teams are also raffling off prizes everything from helicopter tours (good way to engaged) to spots on a Memphis in May BBQ team, from a Saints tailgate with 10 tickets to dinner in a chef's office for six people.

Becker Hall at the first Hogs for the Cause, attempting to control the massive crowds. Or guide in an airplane, not really sure.

All of this "fun raising" is for the Cause. When Hogs started we had no idea of the financial strain families faced when their children were diagnosed with brain cancer. To date and with your help, Hogs for the Cause has given out over $75,000 to families. In the last two months, we have lost two of our grantees to this horrific killer. And while such loss is heartbreaking, it only strengthens our resolve to do more. We are very excited that this year, Cameron, one of our grantees will be at Hogs enjoying the day with you. Our goal is to shatter all previous pork, pediatric brain cancer fundraising records and raise $350,000 this year.

Tickets can be purchased online. Pre-sale general admission tickets are $10 (pre-sale ends Friday, March 23rd at 7 pm); $20 at the gate. But if you are like me, you are a pay one price kind of person. For you we have two new ticket packages. Market Hog is a $100 ticket. But that gets you unlimited food from competitors and beer and soft drinks all day and night.

If you really want to prove your superiority, the Boss Hog pass is for you. Boss Hog gets you all the privileges of Market Hog, plus access to the Boss Hog tent with catered food, an open bar, and private restaurants. Plus, if you call right now, because I can't do this all day, get a Boss Hog pass and you can judge one of the food categories. And I'll throw in a $150 tax deduction receipt. All of this for $250. I am not sure Jefferson got this good of a deal on Louisiana. I know for certain, there was no bacon involved.

See you next Saturday, rain or shine at City Pork.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

New York City: The Middleweights

The silvered pig at Batali & Bastianich's Eataly. About the only thing you can't buy there. 

The flight into New York's LaGuardia airport on a clear night is one of the prettiest airborne sights imaginable, After the initial approach, the plane banks northwest and scurries past the East side of Manhattan Island. Immediately a diorama of buildings comes into focus, all aglow with shimmering lights. This view of Manhattan is an intoxicating aperitif.

After tossing our bags into the hotel room, we hailed a cab to make the trip from Midtown to what has become an institution: David Chang's Momofuku Ssam Bar. At about 10:30 at night, Ssam was just hitting its second gear with a growing ambiance fueled by loud music, pork, and beer. The dark paneled room and low lights create the sensation of eating in a humidor. Two seats at the bar opened quickly and the feast commenced.

The famed steamed buns of course - pillow soft and filled with succulent slabs of pork belly. A quick glaze with a fiery red sauce helped finish the last of the first round of beers. While those steamed were delicious, they paled in comparison to the kimchi rubbed apples with face bacon. Let's break this dish down John Madden style shall we? First you have the apple, which has just a touch of sweetness and a heavy dose of tart while adding a base layer of crunchy to the dish. Then this guy takes those apple slices and smears kimchi all over them to give it something spicy. Then over here, you got the face bacon lead blocking and bringing that salty, crispiness that makes bacon America's favorite food group.

Perhaps even more impressive was the way Chang and Co. turned chewy tripe into a sublime Asian noodle dish. Tender, shreds of tripe were tossed into a ginger scallion sauce and served at room temperature. Out chop sticks engaged as sword play as we fought for the last morsels. Finally, a clunky dish of rice cakes and Chinese pork sausage. While advertised as spicy, the dish needed acid to round everything out, and on the whole the dish was dry. But then again anything would have paled in comparison to the tripe and apples.

Dessert at the Momofuku Milk Bar. A Crack Pie, peanut butter cookie, and soft serve ceral milk ice cream rounded out the meal. That soft serve ice cream quickly became Lindsay's white whale. Wherever we were in New York for the next few days, she would say, "Look on your Twitter thing and find out if there is a Milk Bar nearby."

Meatballs with potato puree, Fontina cheese, and red wine demi glace at Gramercy Tavern

If there is a Mohammad of Dining in the 21st Century, his name would have to be Danny Meyer. The list of dining "things" he helped pioneer are too long to list, but include such things as quality hamburgers and unpretentious, intelligent service. The room at Gramercy Tavern is warm decorated with arrangements to evoke the season. In late winter, think large birch branches and  jars of preserves. Everyone has a friend whose home they love to visit - it is comfortable but not stuffy, there are fantastic things to drink but nothing fussy, and the food is delicious without being obsessive. That is eating at Gramercy Tavern in a nutshell.

Meatballs, more like meatpucks, have a crisp crust gilded in melted Fontina cheese. Both the cheese and crust struggle to contain the soft textured interior of the meatball. Red wine demi glace and potatoes as smooth as glass round out a well-composed plate. But then you look across at the chicken soup, which is loaded with juicy chicken, vibrant kale, and tender dumplings and wish just for once you had not been such a fat kid when ordering.

Dessert was a symphony of composure. Chocolate pudding, salted caramel, and brioche croutons worked harmoniously to produce the greatest pudding possible. The rhythmic clacking of spoons looking for pudding but finding only ceramic became the crescendo of this movement.

There was of course a stop at Eataly with its miles of Italian food products. It is overwhelming and enrapturing. Aisles of pasta, counters full of meats and seafood, barrels of olive oils and vinegars, jugs of wines and beers,  a vegetable butcher, marble carving classes,prosciutto carved fresh, mozzarella pulled while you wait, and Vespa rentals (only made up two of those). We sat in the pizza and pasta kitchen and devoured a plate of pork and chicken liver agnolotti and a Neapolitan pizza laced with anchovies.

We got out of there in a hurry before the bank called and closed our account.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Dining Al Fresco

The courtyard at Martinique Bistro.
Although it's a rainy Monday morning, these past 2 weekends of beautiful weather have proven that Spring has begun, and with it the countdown has started on the fleeting outdoor dining season. When the sun is shining and the mercury reads 75° or lower, any time spent indoors seems like a missed opportunity, and that includes time spent eating.

Most of my outdoor dining is done on Saturday or Sunday during lunch, and at those times I usually have zero motivation to dress well enough to enjoy the setting of Commander's courtyard or the patio behind Bayona. Luckily, there are plenty of options casual enough to only require throwing on a pair of jeans.

Two weeks ago when I walked my dog through Exchange Alley, I could not believe how many tables The Green Goddess had set up outside. There had to be at least 40 diners enjoying Sunday brunch in the sun, and another 20 or so waiting patiently for the next available table. A few blocks away at Sylvain, the rear courtyard is usually full at all times, and that particular day was no exception. Headed toward Uptown, Martinique is always one of the first restaurants that come to mind during this time of year and is on a surprisingly short list restaurants that offers lunch/brunch on Saturday. Dante's Kitchen is also in that category, as is St. James Cheese Company, which is probably my favorite spot in the city for an outdoor lunch on Saturday.

What are restaurants to do when people are anxious to eat outside but they have no courtyard or patio? Throw a few tables out on the sidewalk, of course. La Petite Grocery and Coquette both offer front row seating to Magazine Street. The sidewalk tables at Cochon are usually full on almost every night during dinner. And although its not open for lunch on the weekends, it seems remiss to write about great outdoor dining spots without mentioning Herbsaint.

Yesterday as I drove down Freret Street, I noticed that Company Burger had set up picnic tables outside, and I had to appreciate the great lengths that restaurateurs will go to accomodate our ever so short al fresco dining season. Whether you are dining on Shrimp Henican in the courtyard at Commander's or scarfing down a roast beef po-boy on a white picnic table in the back parking lot at Parkway Bakery, be thankful that you are enjoying it while you can.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Bagel Me

Breakfast. It's allegedly the most important meal of the day. But for most of us in New Orleans, breakfast is an afterthought. Scarfing down a banana on the drive to work or eating a granola bar at your desk is not exactly the apotheosis of a fine morning meal. And on the weekends, many of us find breakfast to be so inconsequential that we sleep through it, opting instead for brunch - an entirely different animal at which we thrive. But in the springtime, after the busy, hangover-laden months of football and Carnival have passed us by, our weekends open up and we are more inclined to rise and shine, stop and smell the roses, read the morning paper and have a proper breakfast.

Bagels have never been an integral component of a typical New Orleans diet. My earliest memory of eating bagels are the dry grocery store versions whose cut surfaces were as rough as sand paper. Things for the most part have not improved with time, as anyone who has eaten a bagel at a CLE or hotel continental breakfast can attest to. And, I loathe thick thick gobs of cream cheese.

But recently Artz Bagels has me singing a different tune when it comes to the round, boiled and baked breakfast staple. Northeastern transplants, the team behind Artz aims to bring the quintessential bagel to the Big Easy. A New York native in my office has told me on multiple occasions that Artz is the only worthwhile bagel purveyor in the city - good enough for him to warrant weekly trips to stock up on breakfast supplies.

I wasn't born and raised in New York, but I know delicious when I taste it. The bagels at Artz are excellent, with a chewy crust that does not require an extra set of molars for consumption. Bagels are 3" or so in diameter and come in a wide variety of flavors – asiago, salt, onion, garlic, and everything. The breakfast sandwich ($4.25) takes your pick of bagel flavors and fills it with a fried egg, your choice of cheese and pork product. Flavored cream cheeses abound, including creole veggie – an ingenious use of the trinity. Plain bagels are $1.09; add a $1 for a schmear.

Artz can be a bit difficult to locate for first timers. The Magazine municipal address is deceptive, as the entrance is halfway down Ninth Street. The dining room is white, bright, and spacious, with plenty of room to spread out with the morning paper. Definitely a reason to add breakfast to your Saturday or Sunday morning routine.

Artz Bagels - Birdie
3138 Magazine Street
(504) 309-7557
Open Daily: 7am - 3pm

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Mandina's: Is It Worth It?

Mandina's is an easy trek for most conventioneers. Hop on the Canal street car line and jump off when you see a Pepto Bismol pink building on your left. Katrina induced renovations robbed the dining room of its charm, but that charm revolved around a place which looked like it had been ridden hard and hung up wet. The new Mandina's is more expansive with rich woods and earth tones accented by the ubiquitous Jazz Fest placards.

At some point the friendly and efficient staff will offer your table rounds of French bread dripping with melted butter. These are to be avoided. Not because they aren't delicious, but more because you have likely over-ordered. If you gorge on the bread there likely won't be room for the bread pudding. Onion rings are fat sliced and coated in a cakey, crumbly batter. They are devoid of the snappy crispness of a great fried food. There are quite a few hallmark onion rings around town, these are not in that number. 

Of the soups, go for the seafood gumbo which is robust and thick with a seafood stock that jumps with a splash of Crystal hot sauce. The turtle soup was a huge disappointment. As the sherry poured on top, it sat and pooled above the potage which was was thick and jiggly with a bland khaki brown color. Had this soup been a custard, it would have been spot on. The meat in the soup was grainy and mealy, perhaps chicken livers were used. 

Entrees fared a bit better. An open faced roast beef sandwich was a gut buster with a Colossus of thin sliced meat and debris strewn gravy covering sliced (but untoasted) bread. An Indian mound of crispy fries completed the ensemble. Of course, putting all of this into a po boy would have made more sense. But there is a certain perverse joy about attempting to tackle a mound of beef. "Only seen one person finish the whole thing," our waiter mentioned. 

Stuffed peppers here come stuffed with shrimp, meat, and eggplant dressing and covered in creole sauce. They are flavorful, moist and purely indulgent. A choice of sides is offered, Lindsay asked for peas and got peas and mashed potatoes, not that anyone was complaining. Although Lindsay was slightly pouty that the macaroni and cheese this special is usually served with was kaput.  A few beers rounded out the meal. We didn't have room for bread pudding (see above for why). 

Is Mandina's worth it? That is a tough call. The food is far from ideal and there are countless things that could or should be done better. But restaurants like Mandina's thrive in every city imaginable. They are where you take grandma for her birthday. Or swing by when that afternoon wedding around the corner leaves you slightly buzzed and very hungry. Mandina's is well-loved and seemingly thriving. But in making my judgment, I keep coming back to the food. And while there are some highlights at Mandina's, I am not sure they are better than the same dishes elsewhere. 

Mandina's - Worth it? Feel free to skip.
3800 Canal St. 
(504) 482-9179

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

New York City: The Welterweights

One of the most striking dichotomies about New York is that for being such a big city, most of the space is tiny in comparison. Tucked into basements or squeezed into a building's alleyway, restaurants operate on a highly limited spatial budget. Inside these shoebox saloons we found some of the best places to snack. Because there are so many of these spots, this will be a two part sub-series. 

The single best cup of coffee in the world may be served by Stumptown Coffee Roasters. This outpost of a Portland institution serves rich and creamy lattes and forceful cappuccinos in an anteroom off the lobby of the Ace Hotel. The service staff is friendly and cheerful, despite being staffed mainly with hipsters. Just look at all those hats! And suspenders! But these hipsters are the cherubs of the caffeine heaven.

The most impressive aspect of the coffee at Stumptown was its temperature. The coffee is served hotter than warm but not scalding. Boiling hot coffee is a mistake too often made. When that mistake is made you end up spending ten minutes waiting for coffee to come to an acceptable temperature. There would place to do so as at Stumptown there are no tables, just a rail-cum-table on which to lean. If you look up through the large plate glass window, there is a  peek at the top of the Empire State Building. A fantastic cup of coffee with a wonderful view is not a bad way to start the day. 

Cafe 'ino came highly recommended from Bloggle and PNC Peter. It was the beginnings of a bustling brunch when we climbed into a two top right inside the door. Out from the kitchen came two bruschettas which delivered salty and bitter via its green and ricotta salata topped right hook and a knockout blow via Malliard sweetened onions and pungent cacio. With a fontina encrusted carriage of bread filled with a runny egg yolk, a few glasses of Aglianico, and a calm thumb through the paper, Cafe 'ino is the kind of place one could get used to.

A wandering tour of New York has to include a stop or three at dens of sin. Places where one can shed their inhibitions and do something really decadent and pleasureful. For us that was a stop at Dominique Ansel's narrow den of pastry in Soho. Marble and glass contain pastel colored jewels of delight. His macaroons were outstanding, the best being the pink raspberry filled with balsamic vinegar jelly. Or maybe we liked the miniature meringues which came in a plastic tube for both security and eye catching allure. In the back of the shop is a window onto the magic of this bakery. We sat enraptured as a cook formed macaroons, whipped egg whites, and prepared desserts. Free entertainment is always a plus. 

Monday, March 5, 2012

So Long, Farewell

If you are a regular reader of Blackened Out, you probably are fairly knowledgeable of what's going on in the local restaurant scene. The biggest story in post-K New Orleans dining is not only the reestablishment of nearly all of the restaurants which were open before August 29, 2005, but also the proliferation of new restaurants. Despite a reduction in population, there are approximately 300 more restaurants open today in New Orleans then there were 6 years ago. And it seems like more are opening with every turn of the calendar.

Unfortunately, not all of the post-K restaurants have survived. This fact comes as no surprise to those of us who have a fundamental understanding of how supply correlates with demand. (I knew that Economics undergraduate degree would one day come in handy.) But sometimes we believe that our sense of taste will defy the odds.

On a recent weekend trip through Metairie, I faced the realization that my personal opinion on the quality and value of a restaurant's food does not equate with long term success or viability of a business. As we crossed the 17th Street Canal on our way to Lakeside, The Folk Singer and I had lunch on our minds. Who would have known that our first 3 choices had already closed their doors for good.

Mixed grill from Cyrus Restaurant.
 In our June 2011 Dining Out column in OffBeat Magazine, we predicted that Cyrus Restaurant, located on the former site of the Fun Arcade, would "soon become a destination for pleasures of the culinary variety." It was a bold conjecture. But unlike the guy who bet $1000 that a Giants safety would be the first score in the Super Bowl, our long shot did not come through. Despite serving delicious grilled meats and Middle Eastern dips far better than must gyro joints in town, Cyrus served its last order of lamb chops at the beginning of the year. My best guess as to why they didn't make it: prices were significantly higher than other restaurants in the same genre.

Our second option on this Jefferson Parish lunch excursion was Taco San Miguel, which had once been The Folk Singer's favorite carrot to place at the end of her proverbial stick which led the way to Lakeside Mall. Although we both were huge fans of San Miguel's no frills Mexican cooking, it had been quite some time since we last eaten there, opting instead for the close proximity of Felipe's to our home base. And apparently it had been much longer than we realized, because on this day the tiny building on 20th Street which once housed Taco San Miguel was now near the tail end of a renovation into some unknown eatery. A quick google search reveals that it may have closed sometime in 2010.

 Smokin' Buddha's brisket, pork, and sausage po-boy.
 With nachos now on the brain, we completed are reverse trifecta by making our way over to Smokin' Buddha, where a few weeks earlier we had noshed on a delicious pile of thick and crunchy flour tortilla chips which held up well underneath the weight of queso, sour cream, guacamole, green onion, chopped brisket and an unconventional dusting of parmesan cheese. Smokin' Buddha had garnered much attention from the Twitterverse and Yelpers who had proclaimed it as the only BBQ joint in New Orleans which imparted a true smoke flavor to its meats. I had only been once before, but I can safely say that the burnt ends alone were worth keeping this place open. And obviously, I was wrong about that too. Word on the street is that it may have been ownership and/or management issues which eventually led the Buddha to restaurant purgatory.

And so we ended up at Phil's Grill. You already know how that story ends.

Most everyone agrees that New Orleanians are eating better now then they ever have before. Still, it makes me sad to see a few of the better ones close their doors for good. Pour out a little liquor.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Gone Fishin' at Borgne

Many high profile chefs recognize that a banner name on the marquee and on the menu cover is of no assistance to what's going on in the kitchen. A major relies heavily on his captain to organize his troops, and in the same way a chef counts on his sous chef or chef de cuisine to execute their food. John Besh figured out this formula when he partnered with Alon Shaya at Domenica. Now he's done the same with Brian Landy at Borgne, and the result thus far has been just as successful.

Borgne fills what has been a glaring void in the downtown area: a restaurant serving fresh, high quality seafood in a setting somewhere between the fine dining rooms of the French Quarter and the neighborhood restaurants found in Bucktown. The restaurant is more casual than I expected - think Domenica with lighter color tones. Service is friendly and congenial; waiters are there when you need them and absent when you don't. The end result is upscale comfort designed to please the entire spectrum of diners.

The menu is billed as "coastal Louisiana cuisine" - think seafood and lots of it - "with a touch of Isleño influence" - a nod to the Spanish descendants who emigrated from the Canary Islands to St. Bernanrd Parish. Oysters play a prominent role on the menu, and every table should begin with an order of the baked oysters. The menu says "garlic butter" but the preparation is much more clean than the typical overload of parmesan and herbs. The bivalves are served pure and unadulterated - hot, plump and gilded with buttery crisp bread crumbs. On the entree side of the menu, the P&J oysters amandine is a dozen or more expertly fried oysters piled atop a warm spinach salad dressed slivered almonds and brown butter. And the oyster Spaghetti shows how delicious a combination of cream, pasta, and perfectly poached oysters can be.

Of the non-oyster affiliated portions of the menu, I have had the most experience with the starters. A quintet of duck poppers are a riff on the jalapeno, cream cheese, bacon treatment that has immigrated from Texas campfires to ambitious restaurants. Bite size morsels of duck breast are paired with a slice of jalapeno, wrapped in bacon, bakes and placed atop a cream cheese sauce. Yes, they are awesome. A quintet of thin crusted empanadas are stuffed with roast suckling pig that tastes more like pulled pork than cochon de lait and served with a thin pink dipping sauce. The crabmeat croquetas are a smooth mixture of crab and cream cheese in a two-bite sphere. Shrimp toasts have now morphed into shrimp fritters; I have not had the newer version yet, but I am a huge fan of the sambal aioli underneath, which would make a great dip for french fries (hint, hint).

The Spanish influence on the menu is easily recognized by the "a la plancha" description, which roughly translates into "grilled on a metal plate." Both black drum and the rice served with the twice cooked garlic chicken (a riff on a classic paella) are given the treatment. The goat cheese “a la planca” is griddled and sauced with a Christmas color combination of mojo verde and roasted red pepper and topped with crushed pistachios. The blue crab bisque has a rich, creamy base with great flavor. Green salad with blue cheese and the pecan vinaigrette is a less refined (but nearly as tasty) version of the salad at August featuring pumpkin seed brittle and Point Reyes.  The seared tuna salad is a sleeper. Slices of rare tuna are placed atop a base of Italian artichoke salad which more resembled a spicy, crunchy giardiniera. And that was a good thing.

The dessert list has been in constant flux since Borgne's opening, with different selections available on each of my visits. The Hummingbird cake has plenty of crunch with loads of pecans pressed into the sides of the cake which is iced with a whipped cream cheese frosting. The oatmeal cookie ice cream sandwich is the new hot ticket item, but the cookie was hard and tough instead of soft and chewy on my only taste test. The Prince Albert (LOL!) has already disappeared from the menu. The chocoholic's dream dessert was a thin, moist round of chocolate cake topped with a chocolate mousse double the height of the bottom layer, a quenelle of cocoa ice cream and squiggles of chocolate and caramel sauces. It was divine. I never had a chance to try the mini fried pies, which were supposedly spectacular.

But the empty space left by the now-departed Prince Albert has easily been filled by my new favorite dessert. Many of you are aware of my love for Nutella, but the hazelnut flan at Borgne is evidence that hazelnut need not rely on its longstanding partnership with chocolate. The rich, thick, silky, smooth flan is out of f*cking bounds, and the accompanying condensed milk sorbet and peanut brittle are no afterthoughts.

We hesitate to pass judgment on new restaurants in their infancy stages. I have been to Borgne 5 times since it opened 2 months ago and have now written about it twice. It should not be too difficult to figure out how I rate the food.

601 Loyola Avenue
(504) 613-3860
Open Daily 11am - 11pm