Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Cooking With Wine

a heavy bottle of red wine
brought up from the cold basement
in a basket of white laundry
 William Carlos Williams

Welcome to the last Cooking With Wine. Studies have shown that people with the name Anonymous absolutely hated this series, while the rest of you just seemed to tolerate it. But that is ok. I enjoyed it and until and unless this jobby starts making us some serious money, the guiding principle around here will be if we enjoy it, we do it.

Mad Max's last selection is another from the Highway 12 portfolio, this time the 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine is 100% Cabernet, with a dark, intense color providing the foreshadowing for dark berries and soft French oak nuances. The silky mouthfeel gives way to aggressive tannins - this is a big, bold wine. Which is why, with final chill of winter in the air, it seemed the perfect time to make a hearty beef stew. The wine retails for around $20, and you can find it at Swirl, Sylvain, Theo's, Dick and Jenny's, and Elio's.

Oxtail and Beef Stew

Braising gives the occasional cook a margin of error wider than the headwaters of the Mississippi. For this beef stew, I like to use two cuts of beef- the gelatinous, sticky oxtails and what is commonly sold as beef stew meat. The oxtails allow a rich, lip smacking sauce to develop while the beef stew meat provides enough tender, shredded meat to go around the table. I like to use bacon grease as my lipid of choice, mostly because bacon is the new black this award season.

Preheat an oven to 300 degrees.

In a large dutch oven, heat enough oil or bacon fat to coat the entire pan in a quarter inch layer of lipid. Meanwhile, pat the oxtails and beef stew meat dry with a paper towel. The dryer you get the meat, the better the sear. The better the sear, the better the stew. Coat the meat with salt and sear in batches until well browned. Once browned remove from heat.

After browning all the meat, toss in an onion, two celery sticks, and two carrots, all coarsely chopped. Sweat for around eight minutes. Then add, a tablespoon of tomato paste. Let this color - you are looking for a dark rust color. Once the roots are rusted, add some salt and pepper, a bay leaf, and a few sprigs of thyme. Now add one whole bottle of decent red wine. Bring to just under a boil, return the meat to the pan, cover, and pop in the oven.

You want to cook this for about three hours or until the meat of the oxtails falls off the bone easily. It is better to overcook here (hardly possible) than undercook. Meanwhile, trim a two cups of green beans, cut them in half, and blanch in boiling, salted water. When done, plunge in ice water. Once cool, drain, and dry on paper towels. Now, peel and slice two carrots into half inch thick rounds and treat just like you did the green beans. Finally, slice some mushrooms of your choosing and saute on high heat in a well buttered pan. Once browned, add in some chopped garlic, salt, and pepper. Stir and remove from the heat.

I want you to remove the meat from the braising liquid. I realize this is sort of time intensive, but it is worth it. Then strain the braising liquid and reserve. (The leftover detritus of carrots, celery, onion, and shreds of meat is best with a sprinkle of chunky sea salt and eaten on crisp rounds of crusty bread or by the spoonful.)

Now, combine the meat with the strained sauce, the green beans, carrots, and mushrooms, and warm through. Taste. Adjust seasoning and serve in a big wide bowl. I topped mine with a gremolata - a fine dice- of preserved lemon, parsley, and garlic.

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Beet Goes On

The moment of reckoning finally arrived in sixth grade. The science fair. Every grammar student's (and parent's) worst nightmare. In the world which existed before wikipedia and google provided the solution to every problem, choosing a science fair project took hours of thumbing through encyclopedias and multiple trips to the public library to browse through periodicals for ideas to steal. And to raise the level of competition just a bit higher, the science fair was the only school project where it was both acceptable and expected for the parents to actively participate. Figuring out who had a doctor for a parent was simple - just look for the kid whose science project was entitled "A Thesis on the Causes of Chronic Pulmonary Problems in the Post-Industrial Era."

After 4 months of painstaking research, internal debate, and much procrastination, I finally decided on the subject of my science fair project approximately 36 hours before the deadline. "Natural Dyes" was the title. Basically, I made coloring agents out of different plants and wrote up a few blurbs about how the natural stuff was just as effective as synthetic paints. Remember what I said about parents assisting children with their projects? Yeah, well when I was in sixth grade, my Mom worked in sales for an upholstery cleaning company. A PhD was not required to understand that a coffee stain is, for all intensive purposes, a stain for life.

I never cared much for science class, and I did not win an award for my opus on the power of natural dyes. (I  believe that the first place ribbon went to 1 of the 15 geniuses who discovered that baking soda + vinegar = volcano eruption). However, one factoid I will always remember from my science project is this: Beets will stain your fingers for about 8 days if you are not careful. But it never really occurred to me that those blood red root veggies might actually be worth eating.

My first experience with beets as food occurred on a trip to Piccadilly, an episode which caused me to suffer with PTSD for the better part of a decade. In the last few years though, I have come to appreciate beets as a delectable delicacy, and lately there has been no shortage of opportunities to indulge. I would guesstimate that close to a third of the ambitious restaurants around town serve a dish which matches sweet roasted beets with a salty cheese. There is the roasted beet bruschetta with goat cheese at Sylvain, the burrata and beet salad at Herbsaint, and the beet and ricotta ravioli at Meauxbar. The popularity of the combination is a testament to it's success, and all of the above are delicious and worth ordering.

One of my favorite uses of beets was at La Petite Grocery, where Chef Justin Devillier used chilled roasted beets and thinly sliced pickled onion as a foundation for cold crabmeat salad spiked with horseradish. Just a phenomenal dish, whose flavors touched upon sweet, sour, spicy, and richness. Unfortunately, that dish is not a part of the current menu at La Petite, but I see that you can still get your beet fix with a salad also featuring arugula, toasted pecans, local citrus, and cane vinegar.

It probably comes as no surprise that my current favorite beet dish in the city comes from the kitchen of Alon Shaya at Domenica. The winter vegetable pizza: roasted yellow beets and carrots scattered with a little goat cheese upon that ethereal crust which just keeps getting better every time I try it. Simple and sublime.

So where are you getting your beet fix?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Delachaise

French fries at The Delachaise.
Wine bars are an anomaly to many people, including myself. We want our lives to be easily defined and compartmentalized, and most wine bars are neither. So when deciding where to go for dinner on a Friday night and someone suggests The Delachaise, the next question is usually: "Is that a bar or a restaurant?"

To me Delachaise is a bar, although one that serves excellent french fries. The long, narrow space which widens as it progresses further away from St. Charles streetcar tracks reminds me of a wine bar on Isle St. Louis or in the Marais. The decor is raffish - stools and benches with unsecured cushions, plywood underneath the bar, and stacks of wine crates impeding traffic to the restroom. On the wall behind the bar are chalkboards listing every food and drink offering, while Christmas lights illuminate the rest of the room. It's charm is in its imperfections.

The Boz sandwich.
 Most are familiar with the story of how Chef Chris Debarr gained a cult following for serving creative and unexpected dishes from the tiny kitchen at Delachaise. Chef Chris has of course moved on to The Green Goddess, but his legacy is still evident in the eclectic menu where Moroccan chicken tagine lives comfortably alongside smoked Salmon johnny cakes and an upscale grilled cheese sandwich.

Even though the Delachaise is a bar, you can still eat dinner here, and I almost always do. The most daunting task between you and dinner may be securing a table when it's crowded, and it almost always is, as I learned on a recent Wednesday night. The best strategy is to divide and conquer. Dispatch one or two members of your party to the bar to secure a bottle of wine and glasses while the rest scope out the lay of the land and try to figure out where to sit. Once you have secured seating, head back to the bar to order food. After taking your order, the bartender will ask where you are sitting, you will point to a general area, he will nod his head in affirmation, and somehow your food always safely arrives at your table. I am always paranoid that instead of table numbers the servers employ colorful descriptions such as "guy in blue oxford who outkicked his coverage."

Flank steak bruschetta.
The menu offers plenty to snack on if your main motivation is imbibing. I thought the $16 cheese plate was a tad expensive but really enjoyed all of the selections in the trio as well as the accouterments of spiced pecans and thinly sliced apple. The french fries really are excellent. Fried in goose fat (though that flavor was lost on me), the crispy fries of medium thickness and varying length are served with a malt vinegar aioli and spicy satay for dipping. Don't be surprised if you find yourself digging into the bottom of the wax paper cone to fish out the last one. For carnivores, the trio of flank steak bruschetta ($10) is a good choice, though the quality has varied. On one visit, we were presented with overcooked beef overpowered by the Peruvian garlic sauce. A week later, the same dish featured perfectly cooked wide, rosy red slices of beef double stacked upon bread smeared with the perfect amount spread.

Gnocchi with pork ragu.
Those hungrier souls can partake in more conventional menu selections. Perhaps a daily special of large, soft (maybe too soft) gnocchi was topped with an acidic pork ragu and griddled manchego, which was an unnecessary addition. An everday choice of twice cooked pork was crispy, but a little dry, which made the orange mojo sauce a nice touch. Sandwiches include the Boz, a rich trio of St. Andre cheese, Tuscan ham, and arugula on ciabatta. The Anabella grilled cheese is even richer, but a dip in the tomato soup - not too sweet or too spicy, with a mellowed acidic taste - helped balance the flavors.

The bar has a very deep wine list, including 58 selections by the glass and $5 daily wine specials - 1 red, 1 white, and 1 sparkling. Unfortunately, none of the reds offered by the glass and very few of the reds sold by the bottle are temperature controlled. This is a personal crusade that I will continue. If you paid $55 for an entree, would you be mad if it was served luke warm? The same standard should apply to wine.

Service is usually a point of contention when discussing The Delachaise. I will admit that the manager/bartender with the French accent can be rather brusque and unpleasant, although I have not seen him express that attitude toward patrons who lack a Y chromosome. All of the other staff though have always been friendly, helpful, and accomodating. And after a rather snarky exchange at the bar one night, Frenchie and I shared gratutious words on the patio as he helped bus our table. Forgiveness is a virtue.

While rereading this post before publishing, I asked myself: "It seems that you could not say one good thing about Delachaise without mentioning an aspect which you did not care for." And that may be true. But the most important question is this: Do I enjoy myself while there? And when it comes to grabbing a glass of wine, a bite to eat, and maybe sitting outside when the weather is nice, Delachaise is one of my top choices in the city.

The Delachaise - Par/Birdie
3442 St. Charles Ave
(504) 895-0858
Open Daily 5:00pm till

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Zimmern and Tooker Team Up To Battle Fast Food Fueled Aliens

 Or something like that.

For a while there, a visit to the Crescent City Farmer's Market at the American Can Company was a mainstay on my weekly calendar. Usually by Thursday, the cupboards and fridge were running a little bare, and a quick trip to the market to pick up something to cook and a bottle of wine made perfect sense. For one reason or another, those visits waned in frequency before ultimately stopping. Which reminds me, I need to start doing that again.

Tomorrow at the Mid-City location of the Crescent City Farmers Market, Andrew Zimmern and Poppy Tooker will be demoing shrimp etouffee. Their delicious dish will be available with a donation to the Crescent City Farmers Market Community Programming Fund. The fun starts at 3 p.m. More info in an officially looking statement. 

  • What: Join James Beard Award-winning TV food personality Andrew Zimmern of the Travel Channel's "Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern" and MSN's new "Appetite for Life with Andrew Zimmern," and WWNO "Louisiana Eats!" host Poppy Tooker as they cook up shrimp etouffee for the crowd at the Mid-City location of the Crescent City Farmers Market (3700 Orleans Ave, in the parking lot of the American Can Apartments) Thursday, January 26, beginning at 3pm. Tastes of the authentic New Orleans dish will be given in exchange for contributions in any amount to support community programming at the Crescent City Farmers Market. Watch Zimmern and Tooker shop for ingredients directly from local farmers and fishers at the market, then learn how to make the iconic dish. The free event will be recorded for an upcoming episode of the new MSN web series "Appetite for Life with Andrew Zimmern" and Poppy Tooker's "Louisiana Eats!" radio program on WWNO 89.9FM.
  • Who: Travel Channel's "Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern" & WWNO's "Louisiana Eats!" Poppy Tooker
  • When: 3:00-5:00pm, Thursday, January 26th, 2012
  • Where: Crescent City Farmers Market, 3700 Orleans Ave., in the parking lot of the American Can Apartments
  • What: a cooking demonstration and sampling of shrimp etouffee during a taping for MSN's new web series "Appetite for Life with Andrew Zimmern" and WWNO "Louisiana Eats!" interview with Zimmern and host Poppy Tooker; samples will be given in exchange for contributions in any amount to support community programming at the Crescent City Farmers Market.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

K-Paul's: Is It Worth It?

The dish which made Paul Prudhomme a legend: Blackened fish, here drum, with crabmeat. 

The first cookbook I ever received was Chef Paul Prudhomme's Pure Magic cookbook. It came, as I can remember, in a box with a set of four Magic Seasonings Blends. This may seem like a strange Christmas gift for a twelve year old, but I was a strange twelve year old. That cookbook got a heavy workout for the next few months and the Magic Seasonings went on everything. As you are no doubt aware, Prudhomme is a giant in the American food world. He is largely responsible for making the cuisine and techniques of Southwest Louisiana household recipes. It is to his credit, or blame, that restaurants around the world serve Cajun chicken breasts and blackened tofu.

The restaurant which vaulted him to fame, K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen, is located on a hidden-in-plain sight block of Chartres Street, across the way from the Louisiana Supreme Court. A call last Friday afternoon, yielded a table for two in the upstairs of the restaurant, tucked away into a corner, and located near one of the large windows. The menu is large, a relic of culinary history, with descriptions that run longer than a Kenyan marathoner. The room is largely brick and ornamented with the artwork of George Rodrigue. There is a well-studied wine list and a good vibe in both dining rooms, as comfort and dining meld together.

First up, the bread basket. Yeast rolls, a cornbread, a jalapeno yeast roll, and a molasses corn bread were sufficient, but the molasses one was difficult to chew- either stale or overcooked, we couldn't discern which. Chicken and andouille gumbo is as good as you would imagine: dark, rich, and chock full of the namesake ingredients. Perhaps better was Lindsay's greens and ham soup. The broth had ceased to be liquid and transformed into a thick porridge of delicious greens. The hambone brought to the soup a well-needed dose of salt. This was delicious soup - too bad we have only had three days of proper soup weather this winter. 

If time machines were legal, I'd like to travel back in time and stop whoever convinced fine dining restaurants to serve salads with dressing on the side. This is such a waste of lettuce and more importantly, their creamy, potent green onion dressing. Until Congress makes time machines legal, restaurants please stop doing this. It kills the salad, resulting in greens that are either overdressed or underdressed. And finally, anyone who orders dressing on the side ends up eating the whole damn ramekin anyway.

After a wait long enough to notice that enough time had elapsed between courses, a runner ran out two plates of food to the table next to us. They looked suspiciously like our order. After a few moments, the couple remarked to one another, "This doesn't look like what we ordered." Sure enough they had received our order. Imagine two tables in a restaurant furtively looking for a waiter or bus boy to alert them to a mistake. Then imagine about five more minutes elapsing before someone comes over. Than imagine, a waiter simply taking the plates off one table and putting them onto your table. If that happens at Parkway, ok. But with entree prices in the mid thirties, there is a level of service one expects. Unfortunately, these sort of things can derail a meal.

As for the entrees, nothing was bad. Except the mashed potatoes on Lindsay's plate, which had the texture of wallpaper paste. They had cooled by the time they got to our table, the butter and starch of the potatoes turning into glue. Lindsay's blackened drum was delicious and moist, but with a less than acceptable smattering of crabmeat. My paneed rabbit was well-seasoned and crusty. A touch dry, a sauce would have gone a long way to making that dish sing. Another element of the plate, jambalaya suffered the opposite fate. I have never had Creole sauce on jambalaya. Perhaps it is some traditional accompaniment. Perhaps I am out of my element, but on the jambalaya, it was a disaster. We each got the 1990's medley of sauteed vegetables, but nothing wrong with that. 

The waitress attempted to make up for the entree screw up by delivering a jar of Magic Seasonings Blends with the check. But by then, my mind was made up. Paul Prudhomme is a legend, a great deliverer, interpreter, and ambassador of Cajun culture. His books and products are wonderful and a welcome addition to your collections. His cooking shows are a downright pleasure. But, a trip to his restaurant, you can skip. 

K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen - Feel free to skip.
416 Chartres Street
Deli Lunch Tues.-Sat. 11:00 am - 2:00 pm
Dinner Mon.- Sat. 5:30 pm - 10:00 pm

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Best Little Mexican Joint in Lakeview

Last year Lakeview added not one but two Mexican restaurants along the Harrison Avenue corridor with the debut of the Velvet Cactus and the opening of the second location of El Gato Negro. The appeal of  this type of food in a neighborhood full of young families makes perfect sense. First and foremost, the prices are cheap. Second, the process of eating chips and salsa can keep children placated for a remarkably long time. As long as the server keeps refilling the baskets with tortilla chips, kids will keep on dipping and eating. As long as the kids are eating, the less likely they will be to cause a scene. And the less likely that the kids are to cause a scene, the more liberties that mommy and daddy have to enjoy that extra cerveza or margarita.

Sidenote: I believe that I just wrote Chapter 1 of the Blackened Out Guide to Better Parenting.

And not only are the Velvet Cactus and El Gato Negro family friendly, the surroundings are sleek enough (flat screen TVs and outdoor seating) and the menus creative enough (pineapple cilantro margaritas) to offer an experience more unique and more local than the average run-of-the-mill Mexican joint.

But for those whose priority is finding the most authentic and best tasting Mexican fare in Lakeview, I implore you to shun the crowds and the hype of everything new and pretty and make your way to Salsas Por El Lago.

Well, technically it's located in West End, not Lakeview, but it's 70124 all the same.

Fish taco with Mexican tartar sauce at Salsas Por El Lago.
The Folk Singer and I love this place, and we try to spread the gospel every chance we get. A few weeks ago I directed a group of co-workers to Salsas for a Friday lunch away from the office. Upon our arrival (and through the end of our meal), our group of 8 made up 50% of the total number of occupied seats in the restaurant. There is always some hesitation when dining in an empty restaurant, but those pre-conceptions were quickly erased after we went through countless baskets of tortilla chips (effective in placating both children AND adults) and a half dozen bowls of the house made salsas named after the characters in Shrek. My favorite is still "The Dip" - the smooth puree of avocado and sour cream with plenty of cilantro - but the tomato-based Fiona is deliciously fresh and spicy.

Torta and tamale at Salsas Por El Lago.
Then came forth a sampling of almost the entire menu. Tacos filled with a wide array of meats, the best being the barbacoa (tender, lip smacking shreds of beef cheek) and chicharron (rich, flabby, fatty pork skin). Flash fried fingers of tilapia are paired with spicy Mexican tartar sauce augmented with diced jalapeno. Tamales - an everyday special - are stuffed with pork and served alongside a cup of thin, warm tomato sauce.

Entomatadas at Salsas Por El Lago.
My favorite dish on the menu is one which can be found on the specials board. Entomatadas may not be a familiar name, but the end dish is easily recognizable as a derivation from classic enchiladas. Corn tortillas get a quick dip in hot oil before being bathed in a mild tomato sauce, double rolled, and filled with cheese and softened onion. A trio of these are then covered in more sauce and a heavy hand of more cheese before getting the broiler treatment and a finishing of sour cream. A delicious dish to be avoided by the lactose intolerant.

The menu is not flawless in execution. Instead of serving fresh local fish, the kitchen uses frozen tilapia. The meat to bread ratio in the torta tilts too far in favor of the latter; same goes for the burrito. The chorizo queso was too thin for my liking. Even considering these minor complaints, the food is still worth returning for time and again.

On every occasion that I have dined at Salsas, there have never been more than a handful of other diners in the room, while a mile or so away the crowds wait 30 minutes for a table on a Friday night. I understand the draw of a restaurant which is both family friendly and lively enough to play host to the weekly meeting of the "Real Housewives of Metairie" - actual words used by a table full of middle-aged women referring to themselves (without a hint of irony) on a recent Saturday afternoon at the Velvet Cactus. But if you are ever in the mood for the best Mexican food in Lakeview regardless of atmosphere, then head to the old Ground Pati.

Salsas Por El Lago - Birdie
124 Lake Marina Drive
(504) 286-3057
Mon-Sat: Lunch & Dinner

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Cafe du Monde: Is It Worth It?

A few months ago, I found myself with two kids under seven in my house for an extended period of time (read here: longer than an hour). No, a girlfriend from long ago didn't show up with a surprise. And no, they were not part of some elaborate Blackened Out International Loomers Child Labor scheme. They were in fact my nephews and I was babysitting.

Sunday morning awoke bright, clear with the first cold snap of the year, when the temperature despite only being in the low 70s is downright frigid. One of the nephews asked me if we could go "to the place with the bennies." So off we went to Cafe du Monde. Although it was just before nine a.m., a line was already out the main entrance and halfway to the Moonwalk. Pro Tip: There is a separate line for take out orders. However, this line is twice as long and twice as slow as just waiting to sit down. Avoid it.

After a twenty minute wait, we snagged an open table covered in the detritus of a previous beignet binge. In no time a waitresses, her Vietnamese complexion a few shades lighter than the cafe au lait she ferries about, wiped the table clean while taking our order. The wait staff at Cafe du Monde is nimble and quick, able to juggle multiple orders, change requests, and the demands of a fast paced restaurant. Cirque du Soleil meets the cafe. When you order beignets (which come three to an order), you would do best to order one more plate than you think you need. It will save you trouble later on down the road.

Despite the crowds and hassle, time spent at Cafe du Monde is time well-spent. For the eyes an ever evolving feast of people watching unfolds in front of you- in one corner a young family, the parents hungover, the kids incredulous that they are getting to eat sugar for breakfast, the other table has two elderly tourists just in from Minnetonka and adorned with money belts, conference badges, and guide books, over back there is that girl "what's her name, you went to school with her brother" and her two kids with a third on the way. Sit at Cafe du Monde long enough and you will run into everyone you know.

Now comes the fare. Thick mugs filled with rich creamy cafe au lait, glasses of orange juice, cartons of chocolate milk, water sweating through its glass, and their justifiably famous beignets. The boys went right to work, soon our faces covered in thick powdered sugar and wide grins. My favorite part of the beignet are the slightly crispy corners which allow you to scrap up the extra sugar from the round plates. Lindsay too got in on the action, tentatively at first. But as we were leaving she said, "I can't get over how good those things actually are."

"This is just coffee and donuts," you'll say. You may think you can skip this because you have it at home or because it is too crowded, too touristy, too cliche. Consider this: you can feed a family of four for around $20.

And you don't have cafe au lait and beignets at home.

Cafe du Monde- Worth It? Yes, especially if you have kids. But go early.

If you can't find Cafe du Monde, just keep looking. It only closes on Christmas Day.

PS: Yes, Morning Call is just as good and less crowded, but let's keep that secret to ourselves, New Orleans.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Grape Expectations

A few days ago I went to Rare Cuts to load up on research material for a future project.  I spared no expense: dry aged strip, wet aged spinalis, twice baked potatoes, creamed spinach, and a medallion of foie gras for good measure. While driving home I called The Folk Singer and told her that in light of the beautiful weather, we would be cooking and dining outdoors on that particular night. Plus, top quality beef begs for top quality wine, and so I proclaimed that we would be opening a bottle of wine from the "lower levels" - code word for the area of my wine cooler reserved for bottles only to be opened on a special occasion.  It was a Thursday, and what better reason need there be to enjoy a fine meal and nice bottle of wine.

Searching through my cooler, I decided on a bottle of 2007 Caymus, one of the most popular cabernets from the Napa Valley. TFS and I have lusted over Caymus ever since a dinner with The Pope at Charlie's Steakhouse when we shared a bottle of 2001 Caymus Special Select, probably one of the best wines that I have ever tasted. We had a few occasions to sample other vintages, but not in at least a year or two. Still, the '07 was definitely a bottle that we had looked forward to drinking.

The evening started out splendidly. We loaded up the cart in our apartment with all of the essentials and rolled it down to the outdoor grill. The wine had been opened and breathing for over an hour, plus we had our handy dandy Venturi aerator at our disposal.  The beef slowly rose to room temperature before hitting a grill as hot as Dante's Inferno.  After a few minutes, the potatoes and creamed spinach were ready to go, the steaks were well rested, and the seared foie had rendered enough fat that I was using it as butter on a crusty loaf of sourdough.

But the wine sucked. At the risk of raising my ACI and of proving myself an oenophilic fraud, this wine tasted like grape juice mixed with rubbing alcohol; a definitive California cabernet fruit bomb. But perhaps my palate is not sophisiticated enough to recognize the genius of these wines; I was not impressed with Opus One the first time that I tasted it either. Still, my expectations were high, and this wine fell far below.

The theme of this story does not revolve around the wine but the disappointment. I fancy myself an amateur wine collector and have a small collection of wine that I have mentally reserved for long term cellaring. Each time I reach into the cooler to pick out a wine to bring to a dinner party, an internal debate always ensues as to whether a particular bottle is ready for opening and if this occasion is worthy of said bottle. Usually, I err on the side of holding, telling myself, "This '05 Barolo is going to be ridiculous. There is no way that I am drinking it with The Pope's grilled chicken wings."

But the fact of the matter is that I have never tried said '05 Barolo or many of the other wines in my cooler, and there is no guarantee that any of those wines will not be a certifiable flop like that bottle of Caymus. Wine, just as life, is full of surprises. When I finally open that bottle of 2001 Valduero Gran Reserva which I have been saving, there is a chance that I may experience the same disappointment (but on a much lower level) as the young doctors and lawyers and such who study for years only to realize that their professional lifelong dream is actually a nightmare.

Thankfully, such an experience helps one gain perspective. It would be difficult to appreciate the truly great wines enjoyed over one's lifetime were it not for a number of disappointing bottles along the way. TFS and I never finished that bottle of Caymus; it's still sitting in our fridge. But the lesson did prompt us to reminisce about that cool fall evening a few months back when we boarded the streetcar and rode up and down St. Charles for a few hours while soaking in the sights and sounds and sipping 2008 Justin Savant out of plastic Mardi Gras cups. An unexpected but welcome trip down memory lane.

On to the next bottle.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


Photo by renee b. photography.
Well, those were a sobering 6 days of football for Southeast Louisiana. The gameday gear has been washed, folded, and stored away till September. It's as good a time as ever to start those New Year's resolutions, and we have just the spot for lunch today to help you make a smooth transition.

Hidden on a quiet block of Julia Street, Carmo is an off-the-path eatery where one can experience a unique array of flavors with roots in the Mid-East, Africa, South America, and everywhere in between. The subject of our review in this month's issue of OffBeat Magazine, Carmo is both an oasis for vegetarians and a delicious alternative for omnivores in search of lunch. It's a place where smoked pork and vegan cheese harmoniously coexist on a menu which defies explanation, but is most often described as "delicious".

527 Julia Street
(504) 875-4132
Lunch: Mon-Sat, 11:30am - 3pm
Dinner: Tue-Sat, 5pm - 9pm

Monday, January 16, 2012

I Have a Dream...

... that LSU will win the BCS Championship in the same year that the Saints win the Super Bowl.

Unfortunately, that dream will have to wait until 2013.

We are taking a holiday today in honor of Dr. King.  See you tomorrow.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Cooking With Wine

Ahab had his white whale; I have brisket. Recently, I have become mildly obsessed with cooking the perfect brisket which is crusty and barked on the outside and juicy and tender on the inside. I am only in the beginning stages of this particular culinary obsession, but if you want to try some incredible brisket (as well as other bbq), make your way to Smokin Buddha BBQieux. Their brisket is fat and tender, with a spiced bark and rich interior. But more on the city's best barbecue later.

Mad Max sent forth a brawny and polished California Cab this week made by the folks at Five Vintners. Sourced from grapes from St. Helena, Rutherford, and Napa, this cab burst forth with red fruits and smooth tannins. Now, I could have easily grilled a fat porterhouse or thick lamb chops and knocked this pairing out of the park. But, brisket was on my mind. Specifically, a brisket that combined the benefits of braising with the glories of barbecue. Something that would not be too aggressive with the wine, but also stand up to the heavy onslaught or wine power that a California Cab brings to the table.

Marinated, uncooked brisket ready for the grill.

The Taste of Braising, the Texture of BBQ 

That is not an entirely accurate description, but let's go with it. What results in a juicy, lip smacking brisket with a deeper flavorprofile than traditional barbecued brisket while retaining more than a touch of smoke. To accomplish this, first get to marinating. Combine 3/4's of a bottle of stout red wine - Malbec will do- a glove of garlic smashed, a sprig of rosemary chopped, enough salt to fit in the palm of your hand, two bay leaves crushed, and ten or so cracks of black pepper. Mix all of this together, and pour over the brisket. Cover and marinate overnight. 

Get a smoker to hold steady at 225 degrees. I added a 3:2 mix of hickory and cherry wood chips, feel free to smoke with what the good lord gave you. Remove the brisket from the fridge and marinade; reserve the marinade. Pat dry and sprinkle some more coarse salt on top. Place in your smoker, cover and smoke at 225 for 3 hours. Meanwhile, reduce the marinade in a sauce pan until only about a quarter of it remains. 

After three hours, remove the brisket, place on a sheet of foil, pour over the reduced marinade, seal the foil, and place back on the smoker for another three hours or so. After three hours, remove from foil, place back on the smoker unencumbered for thirty minutes or so. Then slice across the grain. 

Last time I made this the Saints dominated the Lions in a playoff matchup. If everyone makes this brisket, no doubt the Saints are going to the win. Throw in the wine, and most likely we are hosting an NFC Championship game next Sunday. The 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon from Five Vintners is available at Iris, Commander's Palace, Mr. B's, Houston's, Whole Foods, and The Wine Seller, where it retails for around $37.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Mo's Pizza

Recently artisan pizza has been at the forefront of both local and national culinary trends, and we have written extensively about several of the pizza specialists which have sprung up over the past few years. But for every one of the new Neopolitan, deep dish, and New York style shops that opens, there are at least twice as many old school pizza joints which remain forever endeared to a loyal clientele.

When discussing the city's best places for a slice, Mo's Pizza is always heralded as a fan favorite. As infrequent visitor to the Westwego area, my first Mo's experience was the result of a perfect storm of a boring Monday night with no football plus the requirement to cross the Mississippi River to purchase a gift card. The Folk Singer and I had no expectations whatsoever as we made the long drive on the Westbank Expressway, but we were still surprised at what we found.

Housed in what looks like (and basically is) a warehouse on an indiscreet side street in Westwego, Mo's is a throw back to the old school, no-frills pizza parlors of yore. Slices are pre-baked and left on display at the counter, waiting to be re-fired in the oven upon command. Your order is artfully presented on paper plates transported on plastic trays reminiscent of the elementary school cafeteria. The dining room is full of tables covered in black and white checkered table cloths and adorned with only the obligatory red pepper and parmesan shakers plus a few bottles of hot sauce.  Even the beer prices seemed to be rolled back to a different time - a 16oz. plastic cup of domestic draft will run you $2.75 during all hours of business.

The pizza turnover at Mo's.
And the pizza is delicious. The crust is remarkably crisp given the thickness of the dough (about a 1/4 inch high); the only plausible explanation is an inferno of an oven. Both cheese and toppings are applied at a minimum, but there is ample coverage of the house sauce, which tastes sweeter than most but does not cross into the classification of "red gravy." Portions are laughably large. A single slice is so wide and cumbersome that the kitchen automatically divides them in half for ease of eating.

In addition to pizza, the menu boasts a number of house specialties which are derivations of the same ingredients. Sausage wraps are a guido version of pigs-in-a-blanket. A whole link of Italian sausage is split down the middle and enclosed inside a thin layer of pizza crust, the ends still visible through holes in the end. Turnovers are loaded with all of the meat, extra cheese and minimal sauce stuffed inside the pocket of the thick dough. The Monday special of BBQ beef looked enticing, but I had to wait for that till another day. The cashier was already judging us for our order of 2 slices, 1 turnover, and 1 sausage roll. That amount of food could have easily fed a family of 4, but we made it stretch into lunch for the next few days.

Much praise is deserved for those pizza perfectionists who import their ovens from across the Atlantic, use only artisan salumi as toppings, or replicate the distinctive pizza styles of the Big Apple or the Windy City. I love those types of pies just as much as anyone. But sometimes you just want a slice, and when that's the case, remember Mo's.

Mo's Pizza - Birdie
1112 Avenue H
Westwego, LA 70094
(504) 341-9604
Mon-Sat 10am-10pm

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Casamento's: Is It Worth It?

Welcome to 2012, a year in which Blackened Out will take a hard look at some of New Orleans' most iconic dining and drinking traditions (beignets at Cafe du Monde, dinner at Antoine's, etc...) and find out if it is worth it or not. We have counted up 40 or so spots that seem quintessential stops for a New Orleans tourist. Should be a fun year.


Casamento's is a sea of humanity between 11 am and 2 pm from the first break in summer until they close at the end of May. This, along with its easy to find location, makes it a magnet for tourists. You probable know the rules. Stand in line, bring cash, don't ask too many questions, make sure you are in the door before closing time. That sort of eating can be more than a little stressful, but going to Casamento's at night is a much more pleasing alternative. For one thing, the Magazine St. shoppers have retired for the day. Secondly, they are open for longer hours at night giving you a greater window.

While the crowds don't evaporate at night, Casamento's becomes slightly calmer once dusk falls. The interior of Casamento's is layered in pearls, yellows, and greens. The interior lights filtering through the blinds creates a warm, welcoming glow. As you wait in line, see if you can catch a waitresses attention. If so, ask for a cold beer and a squat, chilled glass. Soon you will meet the Champ and that beer will come in mighty handy. Champ shucks oysters better than anyone in the city and he has the awards to prove it. With a smile larger than the oysters shucks, you can barely wait for him to place the oyster on the oval plate before greedily grabbing them up. They are always cold and fat, the meat glistening under the flourescent lighting. I believe it was Dean Wormer who said, "A dozen raw, with a make it yourself cocktail sauce, and a cold beer is great way to go through life, son."

If it was just for the opportunity to visit with Champ and take in those salty, bulky oysters, Casamento's would be worth it. Pro tip: The Champ's cocktail sauce he crafts is better than anything you will concoct. But there is more to Casamento's once you are seated. The oyster loaf is the biggest celebrity on the menu, a celebration of hot oil, cornmeal, oysters, and soft white bread. I made the mistake of trying the meatball loaf last time I was in, and while it wasn't bad, you will feel like a chump for passing up the oyster loaf.

Before you tackle that celebrity, a cup of the seafood gumbo. The rust colored potion is built on the foundation of a hearty stock and fortified with shrimp, bits of crab, and other miscellany. It goes well with, you guessed it cold beer, and another dozen of the Champs oysters. They should rename this place Champsamento's.

Worth it? Hell Yes.
4330 Magazine St.
Closed Wednesdays, June July, and August; Open 11-2 and 5:30-9

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Lunch at Herbsaint

In a perfect world, lunch at Herbsaint would be a daily ritual. Wake up in the morning, brush your teeth, hit the gym, shower, shave, suit up, read a few emails, make a few phone calls, write a few letters, and then treat yourself to a luscious plate of spaghetti in cream sauce with guanciale and a deep fried poached egg, quench your thirst with a flight of interesting wines, and finish the meal with one of pasty chef Rhonda Ruckman's desserts.

There is no need to continue productivity after a lunch like that. If the entire European continent can do it, then why can't we?

Black pepper ham, Ryal's cheddar, and arugula flatbread.
If my wallet, waistline, and work ethic could collectively afford to dine at Herbsaint every day, then I can safely say that I could do so without risking boredom or a jaded palate. The kitchen at Herbsaint manages to stay creative without completely overhauling the menu and upsetting diners by taking away their favorite dishes. John Q. Public may have gone gaga over the shrimp and zucchini flatbread on his visit a few months ago, but today the cracker crust is topped with thin slices of black pepper ham, shavings of Ryal's cheddar, and a mess of arugula. The same backbone but transformed with seasonal ingredients. Such is also the case with the rotating gumbo of the day, whose foundation is almost always a deep, dark roux whose thin consistency carried a wallop of flavor, more in depth than in spice.

Of course, there are permanent fixtures. An excellent meal could be composed of the three dishes which have always been available during every one of my meals at Herbsaint. To start, the complimentary basket of freshly baked bread and rich, cold butter - an often overlooked aspect of service that I think is as integral to the overall experience as any other food which graces your table. Next, an order of fries (contender for best in the city) dipped in the downright addictive pimenton aioli. To finish, the aforementioned spaghetti with guanciale and deep fried poached egg; carbonara fit for the gods.

Good thing we put off those New Year's resolutions for a few weeks.

Curried lamb.
But as much as I love the classics, I usually find myself ordering whatever new dish on the menu or daily special grabs my attention. I have had varying degrees of success with the special sandwich of the day - the best of which were a heavenly hog pairing of a panéed pork medallion with shaved ham and a recent menu addition of thinly sliced rare tuna sandwiched between two slices of crusty olive bread with avocado and lemon pickle aioli. A special of curried lamb placed atop thick, wide rice noodles and crunchy battonets of carrot might be entering the regular menu rotation soon, a move indicative of a kitchen whose staff has wide ranging talent much broader than the French and Cajun repertoire which they are known for.

Chocolate ganache cake.
But no matter what I decide to order as a first or second course, I always force myself to save room for dessert. With each visit, Rhonda Ruckman impresses me more and more with her ability to do magical things with chocolate, the perfect example being a chocolate ganache cake which is dense and chocolatey rich to the nth degree. My most recent obsession: warm chocolate pudding cake surrounding a reservoir of salted caramel which flows like lava of love once you break through to the interior; the accompanying scoop of cashew ice cream and cocoa nib caramel corn were both delicious in their own right and satisfied the kid at heart.

From beginning to end and every moment in between, Herbsaint continues to show why it is a perennial contender for one of the top restaurants in the city.

Lunch at Herbsaint - Eagle
701 St. Charles Ave.
(504) 524-4114
Lunch Mon-Fri 11:30am - 1:30pm

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Cooking With Wine

The wines made by Abe Schoener are unique, to put it mildly. His Scholium Project crafts wines which often bear no relation to any wine you have ever had. Take for instance, his wine called the Prince in His Caves, which is a sauvignon blanc aged in old red wine barrels. The wine is bottled unfiltered and with a mild orange hue,  it looks more like a wheat beer and tastes like biting into a grapefruit. It is perhaps the strangest, and most memorable wine, I've ever tasted. So when Mad Max's box o' wine revealed the 2009 Naucratis, let's just say a straightforward dish would not due. This wine is made from 100% Verdelho, a varietal more common in Portugal and used almost exclusively for Madeira. The wine is lush, almost oily in the mouth with crisp acidity.

So with those flavors in mind, we wanted to do something that would be able to stand up to the heft of the wine while benefiting from its palate cleansing acidity. What resulted was a leftover meal fit for a king. I must confess though most of the heavy lifting was borne by Lindsay. Should be no surprise then, that this was our favorite wine and food pairing so far.

Mexican Chicken Pot Pie

The night before, Lindsay made chicken enchiladas based on a recipe pulled from one of her television boyfriends, Tyler Florence. The recipe left us with a large pot of black beans and chicken in a tomatillo veloute. So we took a logical step and combined a cup of the beans with the remaining chicken veloute. We tucked it into ramekins and topped it with sheets of puff pastry. Then bake it at 350 degrees until the top is brown and crusty.

Chicken Pot Pie is often boring and bland. This one was anything but. Robust, spicy, with deep flavors and varying textures. Plus, anytime you can add puff pastry to leftovers, you create a dish much greater than the sum of its parts. Which sort of reminds me of Schoener's wines. You can find the 2009 Naucratis at August, Rue 127, Loa, Delachaise, Rambla, Wino, Dick and Jenny's, and Cafe Amelie. It retails for just under $20.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

One Hell of a Burger

Let's be realistic. Even though we started a new calendar a few days ago, our New Year's resolutions don't take effect until the pigskin is put away for good. And if we had our way, that gluten free diet would not start until February 6th after the big game in Indianapolis. Hell, by that point we might as well just keep the good times rolling another 2 weeks through Mardi Gras, and then follow in Jesus' footsteps with a 40 day fast.

Such was my state of mind on New Year's Day when The Folk Singer and I meandered through the Quarter on our way to dinner before a detoxifying evening at the movies. After waking up under the weather that morning and subsisting on only a satsuma for most of the day, my appetite had recovered and I had one thing on my mind:

Two weeks ago on one of my multiple Christmas luncheons, I dined on this beauty and ever since then have been plotting my return visit. The Steakhouse Bacon Cheeseburger at Dickie Brennan's might have been the best burger that I ate in 2011, a year filled lots and lots of burgers.

"Eats like a steak" is an often overused and inaccurate description of non-steak dishes, but that phraseology is perfectly appropriate for this burger. The flavor profile - beef, iron, beef, worcestershire, beef - comes as no surprise after you consider that the hand-formed patties are made from the ground trimmings of all of those prime filets, rib eyes, and New York strips that you see on the other tables. The burger is grilled over an open flame, just as God intended it. Automatic enhancements include shredded cheddar and pieces (not strips) of bacon - unnecessary but essential to the composition. The foundation is an onion roll, which holds up well underneath the weight of the 10oz. patty; my lone complaint is that the bun was untoasted. Green leaf lettuce, shaved red onion, and tomato (but no pickle) are served on the side, but I don’t bother with anything beside a smear of garlic mayo. The price tag includes a super size serving of house fries, which are more akin to potato wedges than their thinner, crunchy matchstick siblings. I like to dip mine in a side of bearnaise.

At $13.50, this burger and fries qualifies as the budget conscious, but no less enjoyable, version of a fancy steak dinner. During my luncheon a few weeks back, several of my tablemates scoffed at my choice, wondering why I would choose a burger over a filet or ribeye. Their judgment turned jealousy after we finished eating. Of course, my victory at credit card roulette is a plausible alternative explanation.

Unfortunately, my craving for this burger went unsatisfied on New Year's Day. (The restaurant was closed for a private event.) Thankfully, I will have several opportunities this week to indulge. While the burger is typically served only in the main dining room on Fridays during lunch and in the bar every night, during football season the burger makes an appearance on Dickie's Game Day Menu, which is offered during lunch and dinner on days when the restaurant opens early for special occasions. Those days include: today for the Sugar Bowl, on Saturday for the Saints-Lions game, and on Monday for the BCS Championship.

The Steakhouse Bacon Cheeseburger - Birdie/Eagle
Dickie Brennan's Steakhouse
716 Iberville Street
(504) 522-2467