Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Restaurant August: Is It Worth It?

Restaurant August is the youngest member of the Classic set. Compared to most of the places examined this year, August is a wee lad. The reason it deserved scrutiny is because no other chef/brand in New Orleans history, save maybe Emeril Lagasse, has expanded faster and farther than John Besh. Prudhomme's spice line and a Commander's outpost or two have certainly taken New Orleans' brands to distant lands, but Besh after Katrina was seemingly anywhere a microphone or camera was. TV shows, eight new restaurants, cookbooks, and a foundation followed. All of this took place in a roasting pan of rapidly expanding food media, Twitpics, and Instagrams, making Besh one of the most recognizable New Orleans chefs.

August's location across the street from The Windsor Court gives it access to well-heeled visitors with expense accounts and sophisticated tastes. The cuisine at August has always reminded me, in a good way, of watching the Great Chefs of the World series on PBS. Elegant, multi-component dishes which appear incredibly simple, yet impossible to recreate at home. Take for instance the amuse bouche which sets in front of a diner a hallowed out egg shell brimming with fish fumet, a truffled sabayon, a dollop of caviar, and a baton of brioche sticking out like flag planted on a newly discovered island.

Each time this amuse is delivered by one of the sharp backwaiters, I sigh and utter to myself, "this again." But by the time I am done scooping out the luscious thick mixture of pungent truffle and fish made solid, I consider ordering a half dozen of these. That and a bottle of Champagne from the well-studied list would make one hell of an indulgent list.

But alas, duty calls. The daily lunch menu (hurry only thirteen more days that it will be available for $20.12) offers a selection of three dishes each in one of three courses. I went the economical route; Lindsay decided she wanted to order off the regular menu, which can get pricey. My first course was a simple salad of pear, mizuna, blue cheese, and walnuts. The pears had been sliced thin and cooked, the heat coaxing out a rich sweetness which was a natural pairing for the sharp bite of blue cheese.

The second most famous dish in the Besh cannon is a bowl of gently ridged gnocchi united with crabmeat, truffle, and parmesan. The real value in this dish is the free drag of bread through the deeply flavored sauce. Again, you could make a whole meal out of a double order of this, but this time go with a white burgundy.

Porchetta, that rustic Italian roadside staple, receives a shower, shave, and Saville Row clothing allowance. The kitchen at august crusts the well-seasoned meat in panko and places it on a saddle of sturdy grits framed with tender sprouts and halved cherry tomatoes. Shrimp and grits removes the grits in favor of risotto and surrounds the dish with a rich shellfish stock, thin, floppy disks of gourd, and a pleasant spice.

I wish more attention was devoted to the wine by the glass program, but fine dining's number one rule is to make money on the extremities. A glass of rose which should have been bright and lively was dusty and flat, but one probably shouldn't be drinking at lunch. Desserts under the studied stewardship of Kelly Fields have veered into territory approaching avant garde in New Orleans. Witness a study in devil's food cake, which cast the flavors of chocolate into a galaxy of cherry asteroids, pistachio space debris, and coconut moons orbiting dense planets of decadent brownies and a sun of cocoa pudding.

I am not sure how much time Besh spends in his kitchen at August. But whether it is one hundred hours a week or one hundred minutes a year, his brigade is well-tuned and focused. The faux Besh signature on each page of the menu (and website) needs to be retired; its like wearing a high school letter jacket as a freshmen in college. The front of the house service is polished, professional, and well-timed. I can't help but think that a maitre d' would tie the room together like Lebowski's rug. But we are here to talk about the food, and the food at this newish classic is fantastic and faultless. At twenty bucks for lunch, it is the best deal in town.

Restaurant August: Is It Worth It? Absolutely.
301 Tchoupitoulas

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Programing Note

At the Fourth Annual Blackened Out Media, L.L.C. Retreat and Trust Fall Exercise Summit, Peter and I discussed the future of Ye Ole Blog. In February, this area of the world wide web will turn five, which means we need to figure out soon whether it is going to a public school or private school. Furthermore, the blog just started playing soccer and we finally got the damn thing potty trained.

Quite simply, we needed to figure out how to go forward surrounded by heightened responsibilities. A best practices if you will for a business that has never turned a profit. But one thing we think we have gained is your trust. We don't take ads and we don't have an agenda. We simply enjoy sharing our dining experiences with strangers on the internet. And that trust (if we have it, which is a big if) is perhaps the most important aspect of our interaction.

As you may know, as Hogs for the Cause has grown, my involvement with local chefs and restaurants has increased. Geographically, I live four doors down and around the corner from the chefs of two of my favorite restaurants. Through one event or introduction or another, I have gotten too chummy with the people we critique. While being unbiased and honest has never been a problem here, Peter and I are concerned about how the appearance of impropriety could erode the trust our readers have in our reviews. In light of these issues, we have reached a decision that once I finish out the 2012 Challenge (which will bleed into 2013), I will cease reviewing restaurants for Blackened Out.

Peter will take full over full responsibility for reviewing restaurants which has sort of been the heading regardless. Our goal is to release more "professional" reviews based on a minimum of two visits, rather than reactionary restaurant writing. Reviews will be published once a week on Thursday. Occasionally, one lengthy review may be replaced by a collection of Short Order Reviews. Peter will not take on a challenge in 2013 and instead narrow his energies solely on restaurant reviewing. Finally, we will continue to use our golf style ranking system.

In the past few years, my focus has shifted towards writing about restaurants and chefs, wine and spirits, and home cooking. These types of articles will continue two or three times a week. I have grand plans of reviving the interview series from two summers past, as well as other restaurant focused writing which isn't based around a review. We'll see what happens and we hope you will continue reading.


Monday, December 10, 2012

Changes at Le Meritage

When Brett Anderson awarded four beans to Le Meritage in his October 2009 review, Chef Michael Farrell probably thought that his fine dining establishment in the Maison Dupuy would be one of the few hotel restaurants that bucked the downward trend. The immediate response from local diners was correspondingly positive; it seems that I could not go a week without someone relating a glowing review about a recent dinner there. But as time passed, every time that I heard someone mention Le Meritage it was usually in this context: "Yeah, Le Meritage is a good idea, unless we can find a table somewhere better in the Quarter." Fast forward a little more than three years, and Chef Farrell is now due to depart from the restaurant for an extended "sabbatical" in the Cayman Islands.
Clockwise from top left: lamb t-bone with sweet potato; duck two ways and sweetbread salad frisee; fall beet risotto; braised beef short rib with gremolata.
I have dined at Le Meritage exactly twice since Chef Farrell took over in the kitchen. The first was in October 2011 when the restaurant opened for a FQ business meeting and subsequently set a new bar for the quality of food at a work luncheon. We started with a napoleon of beet red cubes of tuna tartare topped with  a layer of crunchy and sweet corn hiding beneath a silky smooth (maybe too smooth) guacamole. The entrée was a juicy and crispy-skinned airline chicken (boneless breast with drumette still attached) served alongside lemon laced quinoa and braised bitter greens which retained a nice texture. A deliciously rich, smooth, and barely sweetened dark chocolate pot de creme finished the meal.

Of course, my first full dining experience at Le Meritage was just a month before the chef announced his departure. The restaurant was surprisingly empty for theatre week at Mahalia Jackson a few blocks away. For the first hour of our meal, the only other person in the dining room was the John Mayer doppelganger working his solo set and serenading us with Ray LaMontagne’s "Trouble," which I forced The Folk Singer to dance to at our reception. It was a magical night -  the wedding, that is.

Dinner at Le Meritage was a good time as well. In terms of ambience, the restaurant has touches of both universal and French Quarter elegance. Diners sit in wide club chairs at unadorned, dark wood tables while gazing out windows on opposite sides of the dining room looking out upon Burgundy and the courtyard of the hotel. A twisting path of track lighting winds around the dimly lit dining room.

The menu is organized by wine pairing, with wine flights matched with a group of courses based on the flavor profiles of both. In addition, all wines are available by the half and full pour, and each dish is offered in both appetizer and entrée portions. I started with miniature medallions of sautéed sweetbreads on a pile of frisée salad dressed with ponzu, a curious twist on the classic citrus sauce usually served with the glands, which in this case were a bit more chewy than desired. Duck two ways brought thin slices of duck breast and nubs of seared foie gras matched with a fig compote; the classic combination of duck and sweet sauce, which I sometimes feel is about as dated as the Hans and Franz radio spots from French Riviera Spa. A lamb t-bone was grilled to a fatty, succulent rosy red and paired with a terribly boring wedge of roasted sweet potato. For dessert, an individual key lime goat cheese cake tasted stale and from the box, and a dome of chocolate hazelnut mousse topped a dense (if a bit dry) brownie/cookie base. The best part of the meal was the fantastic $82 premier cru burgundy which I was afraid had a "1" missing from the price on the menu, until I received the bill and thankfully breathed a sign of relief.

As we waited for the valet to bring around the car, I began mentally writing up a review in my head:

"Generic fine dining setting in the Quarter. Obvious emphasis on wine. Everything on the menu you have seen before, with a few twists here and there. A few missteps, and no dish really grabbed your attention. All in all, I would definitely go back again ... if I couldn't find a better table somewhere else."

Le Meritage
1001 Toulouse
(504) 522-8800
Tues-Sat 6-10pm

Friday, December 7, 2012

Huevos Brunch

Huevos Benedict.
A long, long time ago, before there was Crescent Pie & Sausage and Pizzicare, Bart Bell and Jeff Baron's first joint venture was Huevos. The breakfast specialist actually served as a Plan B strategy for the duo after Hurricane Gustav caused the collapse of the TV/VCR repair shop that they were renovating for Crescent Pie & Sausage. Featuring a creative menu that benefited from a judicious use of Bart Bell's charcuterie, Huevos was a hit from opening day, and rightfully so. But after a long renovation, Crescent Pie & Sausage eventually opened its doors and garnered the full attention of the two chefs. Then came Pizzicare and more responsibility. Eventually, it was decided that Huevos would close its doors and make way for a retail market.

But like Lazarus, Huevos has risen from the dead, popping up every Sunday for brunch inside Crescent Pie & Sausage. The menu remains much the same, except for one important addition: booze, a necessity at any proper New Orleans brunch. Try the house bloody mary - a concoction of Cathead Vodka, Zing Zang, and  a splash of Lazy Magnolia's Jefferson Stout.

On some days your meal may start with an amuse bouche of bite-sized beignets covered in powdered sugar. For those with a bigger sweet tooth, check out the angel food cake french toast or the chocolate and caramel covered turtle pancakes, an often recurring special. An incarnation of the Blue Jay Special, a/k/a the "Huevorito" is still on offer, but the best chorizo-filled dish on the menu is the Huevos Benedict. Triangular folded crepes filled with pimento cheese form the perfect landing pad for spicy pork sausage patties which are topped with poached eggs and then finished with a drizzle of red pepper sauce, a sprinkle of jalapeno-spiked pico de gallo, and a scoop of guacamole on the side. It's a hell of a way to start your Sunday, save for the fact that the entire plate is a bit small in terms of portion size for a hungry eater, so don't forget to add a side of black beans or potatoes.

Although the kitchen can run into trouble with consistency (over-poached eggs and a failure to season all components of a dish), the return of Huevos is a much appreciated addition to the Mid-City brunch scene. And with a 3:15 kickoff for the Saints-Giants game, Huevos fits right into this week's Sunday schedule.

Huevos - Par/Birdie
4400 Banks Street
(504) 482-2426
Sunday Only: 9am - 2pm

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Bo Kho

For a few days last week, the weather was chilly enough to warrant making a big batch of beef stew. While there is nothing wrong with the traditional Irish beef stew or Beef Burgundy, something had me in an Asian mood. This is a basic braise, but with the subtraction of a few traditional ingredients and the addition of a couple Southeast Asian flavors. After the initial braise, strain the sauce and remove the meat. Then cover the meat with the sauce and cool overnight. The next day add in the blanched carrots and turnips and reheat.

This is the perfect dish to make halfway on a Sunday and then finish off on Monday night. Serve it with warm French bread to soak up the pungent, rich sauce.

My Bo Kho

1 pound beef stew meat
3 carrots, peeled and diced
2 stalks of celery
1 stalk of lemongrass, diced
3 cloves of garlic
1 turnip, peeled and diced
1 leek, diced
1 tablespoon of minced ginger
1 tablespoon of red curry paste
4 cups chicken stock
Vegetable oil
Fish sauce
Juice of one lime
Bouquet garni - bay, coriander, allspice, and clove. I put them in one of those metal mesh loose tea holders - easier than tying or trying to fish out.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Pat dry your beef. Season with salt and pepper. In a Dutch oven, heat three tablespoons of vegetable oil until just smoking. Sear the meat in batches. Add in handful of the carrots (reserve the rest for the next day), the leeks, celery, lemongrass, ginger, and garlic. Stir to combine and let sweat for about five minutes or until soft. Add in curry paste and cook for another three minutes. Then deglaze with a quarter cup of vermouth. Once the vermouth has evaporated, add in the stock, lime juice, the seared meat, a good few dashes of fish sauce, and the bouquet garni. Bring to a boil. Cover and pop in the oven for 2 hours.

Remove the meat and place in a bowl. Strain the sauce into the bowl, cool, and refrigerate for at least six hours but preferably overnight. When ready to serve, blanch the reserved carrots and turnips in salted, boiling water until al dente. In a separate sauce pan, rewarm the braised meat and its sauce, and add in the carrots and turnips.

Serve in warm bowls with plenty of French bread and a crisp beer.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Galatoire's: Is It Worth It?

Editor's Note: This one gets a little weird. I struggled with whether or not to recommend it, but not because of the food (which recent visit showed marked improvement). Rather because the experience far exceeds the food. Which is why there is a dissertation in place of a standard review. Refunds gladly given. Buckle Up. 

Few things are misunderstood in the American dining landscape more than "tapas." Just the name is confusing enough to allow restaurateurs to fool an unsuspecting public. Tapas has come to mean smaller portions served at three-quarters the price of a normal plate. It's a great con if you can get in on it. Next time you split a hamburger or only serve your friends three small shrimp, call it tapas and people will swoon towards you like Hemingway to booze.

I am no authority on tapas, but my idea of tapas is that of a free form experience built mainly around drinking and socializing, and lastly eating. The food component is mostly small snacks delivered here and there, quick bites of something salty or sweet, or savory or bitter. Eaten alone, with strangers, or in the company of friends, tapas describes a style of dining more than the dishes served. Tapas are ordered at a set pace - yours. You choose when to switch from sherry to beer or anchovies to foie gras. There may be a menu, but more than likely you pay it no attention. The bartender or waiter guides you as you order. After a few bites, you move on to a different topic of conversation, drink, or food.

By my definition, Galatoire's, that French-Creole bastion, may provide one of the best examples of a tapas dining experience in America. Now, once you are done guffawing, consider this. First, the line between Spanish and French influence in New Orleans is blurrier than your vision after three Hurricanes. The French Quarter is really Spanish. The Civil Code is either French or Spanish, no one really knows for sure. The Saints were originally called Los Santos, and on and on.

Secondly, Jean Galatoire, the founder of Bourbon Street's classiest address, arrived in America by way of Pardies, French. Pardies, a  French town just outside of Pau, is as the crow flies about 156 kilometers from San Sebastian. San Sebastian is likely one of the birthplaces or at least an ardent follower of tapas. The area of Southwest France and Northeast Spain has an independent streak wider that a country mile. Neither area really believes itself to be Spanish or French, but its own unique culture. Sound familiar, New Orleans?

Galatoire's is not the high-end Louis XIV to Careme to Escoffier fancy French dining of reservations made months in advance. Galatoire's is not the place you go to sit in a hushed room while golden trimmed waiters deliver silver domed dishes while reciting French poetry. This is a place with more in common to a cafe or bar, where a cast of characters filters throughout the day to make noisy conversation over a Pernod, a newspaper, and a few bites of something simple.

Now this is not to say the food at Galatoire's is by any means Spanish. Pommes souffle, bernaise, marchand de vin are as French as striking government workers. The trout, pompano, crabmeat, oysters Rockefeller, lamb chops, and thick steaks are the food of a culture blessed with abundance. The menu - there is one - has shortened its official offerings, but a waiter will still deliver to your table just about anything he thinks you should have.

Rather, it is the style of dining at Galatoire's that is uniquely Spanish. This is a meal best undertaken surrounded by the company of four to six friends. Preferably, ones you don't see often enough. Skip the first rush towards lunch. It requires you to get out there entirely too early. Instead head for the second wave around 1:30 or 2:00 pm.

Your first round or two of drinks should be cocktails, something refreshing. A martini, Pimm's cup, or Bloody Mary will do. After two drinks, your table should be ready. The garlic bread, which now arrives along with the regular foot long of Leidenheimer, is a significant and worthwhile upgrade. Crusted with butter and the tinge of garlic, they are perfect with a glass of Champagne, should you be in the mood to celebrate.

Souffle potatoes are hit or miss. At times they arrive plump and airy, greaseless and the color of ancient papyrus. But there is likely one, two, or more on the plate which are soggy, dark brown, and deflated. Same goes for the fried eggplant. Finish the Champagne with the Galatoire's Goute, the classiest seafood platter in town.  A delicious mound of piquant shrimp remoulade shares top billing with a scoop of pearly crabmeat maison and oysters en brochette. That final offering suffers the same fate as the other fried items. It will either be fantastic or disappointing. All of the food up till now has been served to the table, which encourages sharing, passing and more conversation which leads to more drinks.

After a few more rounds of drinks and idle chatter, move on to Oysters Rockefeller and turtle soup. Time wise, you should be about two hours in to your meal or maybe thirty minutes. Time passes both slowly and fast in Galatoire's. Fish with crabmeat has been a perennial strong point at Galatoire's. Egg dishes and steaks are the sleepers. Steaks are particularly well-done, crusty on the exterior, soft on the inside, draped in your sauce of choice. For me, that often means a few bottles of deep, dark Napa cab. On a recent visit, the Pope upstaged us all with a filet topped with foie gras.

Skip dessert, which has always been a weak point. If you really want a dessert, beg for a hot fudge sundae or ask politely for a Grand Marnier, neat. Contrary to popular belief, Galatoire's is not some restaurant designed only for the elite, rather it is a simple neighborhood cafe serving drinks, bites of food, and a place to socialize. All be it in coat after five and all day Sunday.

Galatoire's is tapas. In the same way it took a Russian composer (Prokofiev) to translate the story of an Englishman (Shakespeare) about Italian lovers (Romeo and Juliet) into music, so it took a Frenchmen in New Orleans to fully execute the genius of Spanish tapas in America. And he accomplished this 112 years ago.

Galatoire's: Is It Worth It? Yes, but not if you are looking for a traditional 3 course meal in an hour.
209 Bourbon St.
(504) 525-2021

Monday, December 3, 2012

Keife & Co.

99 bottles of booze on the wall at Keife & Co. Photo by renee b. photography.
Though the weather outside is far from frightful, Christmas is just around the corner.  And we all know that the most important part of Chri$tma$ is, of course, presents - receiving more so than giving.  Having spent this past weekend in NYC (more on that trip soon), I can attest to the fact that the holiday shopping season is in full swing.  I once thought that my 13 years of Catholic schooling taught me all that I need to know about hell, and then I stepped foot inside Bloomingdale's on 59th and Lexington during December.

Instead of stuffing stockings this year with iTunes gift cards and lip gloss, why not fill them with bottles of single malt scotch and maybe a wedge of aged gorgonzola?  In this month's issue of OffBeat Magazine, we profile Keife & Co., downtown's newest purveyor of fine wines and spirits. Keife & Co. offers the most enjoyable shopping experience of the season, and owners John Keife and Jim Yonkus are happy to assist you in finding the perfect libation for the holiday season, whether it be a fine single barrel bourbon for your boss or a few bottles of burgundy for the neighborhood gathering.

The holidays are about spending time with family and friends. In such a case, booze is a necessity not a luxury. It's time to stock up.

Keife & Co.
801 Howard Ave.
(504) 523-7272
Tues-Sat 10am-8pm