Thursday, September 13, 2012

Hittin' the High Hat

High Hat Delta tamales.
The neighborhood restaurant has undergone a partial transformation over the past 7 years. While the stalwarts like Mandina's, Liuzza's, and Mr. Ed's have chugged along with the same menus that they have been serving for 30 years, a new crop of  neighborhood restaurants has shunned the conventional wisdom that everyday eatery is required to serve familiar, everyday food.

High Hat evokes the feel of a meat and three diner which could be found in any small town stretching from Yazoo City, Mississippi to Walhalla, South Carolina. The tile floor and baby blue counter tops hearken the 50s era, and the staff's casual convivial demeanor (led by co-owner Chip Apperson, who is often working the floor) fits the decor. On occasion the retro atmosphere can feel aged compared to the high energy at Ancora next door, which tends toward a younger crowd. But the appearance of David Chang, Wylie Dufresne, and Eric Ripert last November earned High Hat the hipster-food-nerd seal of approval, which can almost never be lost.

Pimento cheese.
The menu seems simple and straightforward enough. High Hat is where the cooking of the Mississippi Delta intersects with New Orleans most famous dishes, where pimento cheese and fried catfish share table space with chicken gumbo ya-ya and BBQ shrimp. But upon deeper examination, you soon realize that something more is going on here.

What can you tell about a restaurant from the pickles they serve? In High Hat's case, quite a lot. There are thinly sliced cucumbers, cured in a bread and butter style whose sweetness is counteracted with a serious jolt of heat. Whole okra retain remarkable crispness, as do the thick slices of green tomato. That the kitchen pays so much attention to a meal component as mundane as the pickle - and that this results in a pickle worthy of an entire paragraph in this write up - is an indication that High Hat is not your mama's neighborhood restaurant.

The whole lot of pickles is served in an $8 appetizer medley along with pimento cheese whose texture reminds me of Southern cheese straw without the flour. Deviled ham is a spreadable pork product which weirds me out for some strange reason, especially considering how much I love deviled eggs (High Hat's included). Pulled pork filled tamales are light in texture and slightly spicy in flavor and served with an oily, slightly sweet dipping sauce made of pork drippings. Don't overlook the supersized boudin cake served with stone ground mustard and, of course, more pickles.

Most come for the fried catfish, and the thinly coated cornmeal crusted fillets - whose size falls directly in between the "thick" and "thin" categories - are probably the best available this side of Pass Manchac. In my opinion, the enhanced flavor from leaving the fish on the bone did not outweigh the difficulty of eating the whole fried catfish because of lack of space to work with both in the serving baskets and on High Hat's smallish 4 top tables. The fried fish baskets are completed with stringy cole slaw (an afterthought), hush puppies (which fill their role), and fresh cut fries (which are elevated to ambrosia when covered with pimento cheese and blasted through the salamander).

Spicy seared gulf fish with shrimp and potato hash.
Fresh Gulf fish ($15.50) seared on the flat top was cooked perfectly but did not live up to its "spicy" modifier - a problem quickly solved with a few dashes of hot sauce and spicy vinegar. The accompanying shrimp and potato hash was simple but good, with both elements having a firm, slightly crisp texture. On past visits the fish was plated atop rich, creamy grits which are worthy as an a la carte selection, as are the braised greens tinged with vinegar for a nice sour note. For carnivores, the slow roasted pork makes for a meal either as a massive hunk on a plate or shredded debris style in a po-boy.

On the specials board is where the kitchen reaches beyond the familiar confines of the menu. You may see seasonal salads combining strawberries and radish in the spring or watermelon, crabmeat, and horseradish in the summer. Or a rotating list of pies such as key lime or a salty peanut with a brownie bottom. But the best special in the house is served in a glass.

One of the bartenders at High Hat makes the most delicious tonic. According to Chef Jared Ralls, who keeps a stash of the tonic behind the bar at La Boca, the tonic is made the old fashioned way from the bark of the cinchona tree, which gives this tonic its purplish pink hue. Mixed with a generous pour of Hendrick's, this is the best gin and tonic that I have ever tasted, and it pairs extremely well with pimento cheese fries.

High Hat Cafe - Birdie
4500 Freret Street
(504) 754-1336
Open Daily 11am - 9pm, Fri & Sat till 10pm.


Anonymous said...

Could not agree more-
We are blessed to have this and Ancora next door.

RBPoBoy said...

TMZ reporting that Emeril is being sued for fraud by the German city of Solingen. Seems the Bamster might have been pushing cheap Chinese knock offs as world-famous German knives.

Dr. Nut said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dr. Nut said...

One thing I never expected to see in a New Orleans food blog were the words "Walhalla South Carolina"....I can only guess yall ate at the Steak House Cafeteria at some point.

Peter said...

Dr. Nut,

I have never eaten at the Steak House Cafeteria but have driven past it many times on my way to and from a little place I like to call "summertime heaven", a/k/a Cashiers, North Carolina.

Usually if we go eat outside of the Cashiers/Highlands/Sapphire area, we make the 2 hour drive to Grits & Groceries. Since Heidi sold Elizabeth's in the Bywater, we are forced to travel to her.

Thanks for reading.


Dr. Nut said...

Yes, we are lucky since Grits and Groceries is just barely over an hour drive for us.