Thursday, November 29, 2012

Beat the Dirty Birds

As if we needed another reason to hate the Falcons, apparently a few Atlanta airport workers decided to throw eggs at the Saints team bus.

It's game day. Do your job.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Willie Mae's Scotch House: Is It Worth It?

A sleeper on the Willie Mae's menu, a country style fried pork chop.

A place like Willie Mae's Scotch House is tailor made to be a complete bust. Featured on more travel shows than voodoo, Willie Mae's was rebuilt by a cadre of chefs following the federal flood. With such an influx of attention and cameras, one could understand if they began hawking seasoned flours and stovetop chicken fryers on HSN. What's more, Willie Mae Seaton has long since turned the place over  to her granddaughter. It would be very easy for Willie Mae's to cash in on its fifteen minutes, follow the lead of other "World Famous" New Orleans restaurants, and begin buying stamps at a discount rate.

No way in hell that has happened or will happen at Willie Mae's.

This restaurant is so charming I thought it was going to take Lindsay home. The servers have a warmth and personality that will steer you away from say a regular fried pork chop to the country style pork chop, which has a more coarse coating, but a juicier interior. Perhaps it is the fact that your seat may be under a grotto filled with well-wishes from Jesus, but there is something both holy and homey about the food served here.

Red beans are costume de rigueur at the carnival clubs that are New Orleans' neighborhood restaurants. To be clear, the ones at Willie Mae's are an excellent example of the Creole standby. However, pass them up as a side to your fried chicken or pork chop for a plate of the butter beans. They are smoky, rich, and silken like a a bootlegger's smoking jacket. Skip the cornbread and macaroni and cheese; order more beans.

The fried chicken at Willie Mae's could perhaps be the best in the world. The crust is a shade below mahogany and shatters just slightly less than a Christmas ornament dropped on the ground. Break the seal of the crust, and a waft of sultry, fragrant steam floods out as if you had opened the door to a sauna filled with Victoria's Secret models. The interior, juicy and salty, is worthy of an interview with James Lipton. One of the great experiences in this mortal coil is to run a palmful of fried chicken crust through the last bits of butter beans on your plate. A standard order comes with three pieces, you might as well order two.

If you go early, you will deal with crowds, lines, and a long wait for chicken. Go around one and you will waltz right into one of New Orleans' best restaurants.

Willie Mae's Scotch House: Is It Worth It? Absolutely.
2401 St. Ann St
(504) 822-9503
Open daily.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Verti Marte: Is It Worth It?

An All That Jazz at Verti Marte

Just about any internet message board that remotely references the French Quarter will include a suggestion to "Hit up Verti Marte for the best po-boys in town." This desire to feed an intoxicated stomach filled to the brim with red tinged punch or ectoplasm hued Hand Grenades is as old as drinking itself. The Italians have a tradition of midnight pasta, the British fish and chips, the French, a pack of cigarettes. The French Quarter's late night sponge food of choice is an All That Jazz at Verti Marte.

Like Rocky and Carlos, Verti Marte has bounced back from a kitchen closing fire. The deli has been spruced up. Well wishers marked up the plywood which covered the doors during the remodel with good tidings, and these get well soon placards now hang on the wall. Order at the back counter, pay up front. Cash only. ATM in the corner.

A stunning array of food is on offer at Verti Marte. Po Boys, sandwiches, rib lunch plates, stuffed this, baked that, sides, salads, chips, macaroni and cheese, and beer. An All That Jazz, a Royal Feast, macaroni and cheese, and two waters. How a place like Verti Marte does not sell non-diet Barq's Root Beer is a mystery to me.

The macaroni and cheese uses thin strands of linguine in place of the typical elbow macaroni. I can't say this makes a better macaroni and cheese. Rather than clinging to the bechamel, the thin strands of pasta slip through the sauce. The result is a puddle of watery queso at the bottom of a Styrofoam container.

All That Jazz is a cacophony of flavors, textures, and temperatures. Grilled ham, shrimp, turkey share a loaf with two types of cheese, mushrooms, tomatoes, and Wow sauce. The po boy manages to taste like nothing and everything at the same time barely achieving some sort of Buddhist enlightened state. Reaching nirvana may be a laudable goal, but not for a po boy. At the end of the day, an All That Jazz, just is not all that.

The Royal Feast is just a disappointing sandwich to try and eat sober. Again here comes a trifecta of grilled lunch meats, more melted cheese, canned slices of black olives, grilled onions, and more Wow sauce. A few bites in and the saltiness of all the components will make you wish you were drunk.

Shows how much the internet knows.

Verti Marte: Is It Worth It? If drunk, perhaps. If not, no.
1201 Royal Street

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Thanksgiving Checklist

You may or may not know this, but a week from now the single greatest American holiday will be upon us. Thanksgiving, that celebration of the Pilgrims seeing their shadow and getting six more weeks of winter, is as American as threatening to leave if your presidential candidate loses. Now some of you will use Holy Thursday as an opportunity to eat out. That is certainly your Second Amendment right, and if so, you can stop reading.

For the rest of you, this is a strategic gameplan to help make America's birthday as enjoyable as possible.

  1. You are going to be rushed. There is just no way around this. You will wake up with the best intentions, but then the oven acts up or cousin Larry shows up an hour early, and suddenly you are scrambling. Solution: You have all weekend to do those little prep jobs that are tedious but necessary. Making green beans? Blanch them, drain, and pop in the fridge. Need stock for stuffing, gravy, Bloody Bulls (you do)? You have all weekend to let bones simmer on the stove. Cranking pepper can put a strain on your arm, so pound peppercorns out while the Saints pound the Raiduhs. 
  2. Do most of your grocery shopping this weekend. I have no idea what is on your list other than my kiss, but most likely you are going to need a lot of butter, an extra box of Kosher salt, a few bottles of white wine both for drinking and cooking, kitchen twine, cream, bags of potatoes, parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme, a Simon and Garfunkel Box set. You get the idea. Get it now. By Tuesday, all those once a year buys will be tough to find.
  3. That "really, super cute" Thanksgiving themed cocktail you found on the world wide web, is a world wide horrible idea. Set a bar, get some ice, and let grandma serve herself into oblivion. You need a bottle of bourbon, vodka, rum, and scotch, per person. To be safe. Get some mixers this weekend as well - orange juice, tonic, club soda, lemons and limes. 
  4. There is a dish you think you have to make because everyone loves it. They don't. They are being nice.
  5. If you are planning on frying your turkey, I feel real sorry for your guests. Instead, follow this recipe.  Frying a turkey is just a bad idea. Injecting your turkey is an even worse idea. Injecting than frying is what people do who cheer for the Falcons. Fact, a golden, roasted turkey was the original model for the Mona Lisa. Look it up if you don't believe me. 
  6. Desserts you will spend far too much time worrying about; same goes for appetizers. Better Cheddar and a bowl of vanilla ice cream with a slice of pie is sufficient. 
Follow these rules and you will enjoy a Thanksgiving worthy of launching 400 plus years of tradition. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A Rant: Treme Sucks

I gave Treme a shot for its first two seasons. This was mainly because I failed to believe, or wanted to believe, that the same group behind The Wire could be this awful at telling one of the easiest and most compelling stories of the young 21st Century. Early on Treme focused on telling the culinary side of the Katrina epic. Most importantly, telling it correctly. They even brought in Anthony Bourdain, to consult in order to make the restaurant and kitchen scenes authentic.

Unfortunately and infuriatingly, they got the post-Katrina culinary story as wrong as a well done steak. I stopped watching after episode 1 of Season 3 and here is why.

According to Treme, Janette Desautel owned a popular Uptown-ish restaurant prior to Katrina. After Katrina, her restaurant was able to re-open quickly and she soon had dining rooms full of New Orleans locals and world-class chefs. Then boom, she runs out of money and has to close.


If a restaurant was able to open fairly quickly after Katrina and you were a good enough chef to attract Colicchio and Chefs, you would not have ever closed due to lack of money. End of discussion. First of all, you would have been booked solid. Any no shows would promptly be replaced by people waiting in the bar. The citizenry of New Orleans took to open restaurants like a moth to flame. Mostly, this can be attributed to many people not having kitchens at home, so dining out became the default option.

Secondly, people were going out to chat with neighbors, learn about insurance hangups, socialize and drink. Guess what is one of the leading revenue and profit drivers of a restaurant? Ding, Ding, Ding, booze. So a restaurant may have been only able to serve meatloaf or chicken salad, but they would have sold say $50 of cocktails or wine per table. Expenses would have been lower as labor costs were limited by the simple unavailability of it. While Janette may not have been able to buy a Porsche, she would have been able to keep the lights on and the doors open.

Thirdly, the logical thing for chefs in New Orleans was to expand after Katrina. In all reality, Desautel would have had a second restaurant under construction and plans for a charcuterie line within one year after Katrina. Did anyone on Treme's much vaunted writing staff even pick up the phone and talk with a New Orleans chef?

After losing her restaurant, Desautel then exiles herself to New York. She throws a drink at Alan Richman, works for David Chang, and eventually feels the tug back to New Orleans. Make no mistake what the implication is here. It is not that she wanted to leave New Orleans; or start over. That happened and still happens with chefs, lawyers, plumbers, teachers, you name it. What Treme implies, with a heavy hand, is that Janette had to go to New York to be a better chef and businesswomen. That a chef in New Orleans just isn't skilled enough to be successful at running a "real" restaurant.

You see, she was just a hayseed. Just a Cajun-Creole girl who gosh darn it could cook well enough for New Orleans before Katrina, but not after. The Richman drink throwing scene was completely undone, by proving his point throughout the rest of Treme: that New Orleans isn't a good town for chefs or food. According to Treme, in order to be legitimized, Desautel needed the blessing of the New York Chef Mafia. She needed to learn about hydrocolloids or cooking with pork fat under the tutelage of the chefs Treme's writers think are important. This is such utter horseshit.

New York is an excellent restaurant town, to be sure. And there is always something to learn from others, but spare us the protective custodian of helpless New Orleans angle. We didn't need your blessing, and we certainly did not need you dumping the lower half of Williamsburg into the Bywater like a trash barge looking for a port.

You got the story wrong. You got it horribly wrong. Why don't you just shift it and put Desautels in a food truck slinging free range goat ramen in the parking lot of a Brooklyn haberdasher. Worse you already explored this exact "New York as the gateway to New Orleans" story with Delmond Lambreaux. On top of being incorrect, it is redundant. Your story of New Orleans' culinary reemergence after Katrina is about New York, not about anything that happened down here.

Before you jump down the comment throat and say, "Lighten up, its TV," that isn't the point. Reality TV is staged, sitcoms and dramas are written, Treme attempted to be some adaptation of what happened in New Orleans. The restaurant industry in New Orleans doesn't get enough credit for what it did after Katrina. It offered refuge, sustenance, and socialization when they could have tucked and ran or hid behind their aprons. Instead of heading to New York or Atlanta or Houston, the chefs, cooks, waiters, and bartenders of New Orleans returned and rebuilt. For that they deserve our gratitude and an honest assessment of their story. Treme failed to do so.

Monday, November 12, 2012

And It Tastes Just Like Cherry Cola

Photo by renee b. photography.
We apologize that you will now have The Kinks' hit song stuck in your head for the rest of day.

After the Blackened Out twins each traveled separately to Spain over the previous 12 months, we have both had a hankering for jamon and other delicacies from Iberia. And so for this month's Dining Out column in OffBeat Magazine, we review Lola's, one of the forerunners of Spanish cuisine in the city.

Lola's has always been well known for its paella, the one pot rice dish which often serves as the introduction to Spanish cuisine for most newbies. And while the fervor for Spanish food has been driven by tapas and Michelin rated restaurants such as Arzak and Carme Ruscalleda's Sant Pau, Lola's has stuck to the nation's most recognizable dishes.  Seven days a week, cast iron paella pans fill nearly every table inside Lola's dining room on Esplanade, where diners sip sangria as if they were seated outside Las Ramblas in Barcelona or Paseo Maritimo in Valencia. Angel Miranda would have it no other way.

3312 Esplanade
(504) 488-6946
Sun-Thur 5:30-9:30
Fri-Sat 5:30-10:30

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Game On at Manning's

Rumors of the first family of football opening a sports bar in New Orleans had been swirling around the city long before Manning's opened on the Fulton Streetscape earlier this year. The concept seemed like such a no-brainer that it's a wonder why it took so long to come to fruition. After several false starts in construction and one ejection from the back of the house, the 210 seat man cave has finally settled into a groove and earns the spot as the default answer to one of the most common questions that I get from out of towners staying in the French Quarter:

"Where is a good place to go to watch the ___________ game?"

Cochon de lait fries and sweet potato skins from Manning's.
The restaurant is huge, with tons of tables and multiples TVs in view of every seat in the house. Pictures and memorabilia of Archie, Peyton, and Eli cover the walls, and even Cooper makes an appearance here and there. The prime seating inside is in "The End Zone" - a special section of leather reclining chairs tiered in stadium-style seating in front of a 13 x 7 foot flat screen. An expansive courtyard (complete with its own projection screen) beckons on cool fall afternoons.

Even though Manning's labels itself as a "restaurant", most would consider it first and foremost a place for game watching. But as we all know from our own gameday parties, the activity on the field is only half the entertainment. In order to show special emphasis on the food, Manning's brought in Anthony Spizale, a chef who has had more relationships with restaurants over the past few years than Heidi Montag has had surgical procedures. Chef Spizale's menu (which largely remains in place today) was curiously heavy on knife and fork fare, which seemed out of place for a sports bar. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy grilled fish meuniere with seasonal vegetables every now and then, but not while I am yelling at Les Miles for calling a fake field goal pass behind the line of scrimmage on 4th and 12 from our opponent's 30 yard line.

Duck "Wings" glazed with pepper jelly from Manning's.
A few months ago, Jared Tees took over the kitchen and introduced a special gameday menu of shared appetizers which makes for a better fit with the overall concept. The highlights include cochon de lait frites, which proves that the combination of pork, french fries, and cheese curds is a fool proof recipe for deliciousness. The reconfigured sweet potato skins with goat cheese and bacon marmalade were stellar as well and worthy of a second round.

Unfortunately, several of the dishes fail to reach the end zone. Cheddar and Abita beer bisque was surprisingly thin, and the accompanying bacon popcorn terribly stale. Duck "wings" covered in a sticky sweet pepper jelly glaze would have better with a classic buffalo wing approach, and the Archie burger was thin, dry and flavorless. Looking back, the food reminds me a lot of a Mike Leach coached football team - lots of razzle dazzle which puts points on the scoreboard but weak fundamentals can cost them the game.

But while Manning's may not earn top honors as a restaurant, it excels as a sports bar, albeit a refined one. The beer is served ice cold and at a reasonable price. The servers are happy to accommodate most requests for turning the channel to a particular game, which is great news for those of you who have action on the Central Michigan vs. Eastern Michigan game. And even on busy weekends, a table is usually easy to come by after a minimal wait.

Manning's - Birdie for Atmosphere; Par for Food
519 Fulton Street
(504) 593-8118
Sun-Thur 11am-10pm; Fri-Sat 11am-11pm

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Bon Ton Cafe: Is It Worth It?

The interior of the Bon Ton Cafe should be required viewing for any would-be restaurateur. The exposed brick, tight spaces, and general coziness of the space fill the restaurant with warmth and bonhomie. The wait staff is all female and don white nurses uniforms with black petticoat aprons. A wall of wine anchors the back, and the tables are just close enough to allow eavesdropping. Nothing in the design of the restaurant is utilized to distract, rather the elements are used to wrap you in a bear hug of hospitality.

This is also a restaurant of another era. Of a time of sweeter liquor drinks as evidenced by the Rum Ramsey, which is a rum fueled cousin of a whiskey sour. It was too sweet for my tastes, but the Sazerac brought forth a stout glass filled with a pale red textbook version of the drink that perhaps launched it all.

Entrees are served with a house salad and your choice of side. On the table is both bread and crackers, a restaurant version of belt and suspenders. The salad gets points for including blanched carrots and spicy radishes, but the dressing was both too vinegary and applied with too heavy of a hand. The fried catfish bits which show up with a vat of Alzina's Sauce - a mayo based concoction - are crisp and greaseless and a good excuse to order a cold beer.

An over salted crawfish etouffee could be a kitchen mistake or a chronic problem. But it doesn't really matter because you should be coming here for the crabmeat au gratin. A cauldron of pearly white crabmeat floats in a spoonable bechamel. Across the top of this delicacy of brackish waters is a carpet of melted American cheese. Now you may snicker at the use of American cheese in post-Foodie Revolution America, but if Adam Biderman can use it with fantastic results at Company Burger, why not here?

Crabmeat au gratin at Bon Ton Cafe is a fantastic dish, but the rest of the menu is in desperate need of attention.

Bon Ton Cafe: Is It Worth It? For the crabmeat au gratin, yes. The rest is skippable.
401 Magazine St.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Monday Night Countdown

Fact: If the Saints beat the Eagles tonight, we are only one loss behind Seattle for the final wild card spot.

Do you believe?

But before you stand up and get crunk in the Dome, you likely want to sit down and get stuffed at the dinner table.  In my younger years, a Monday night game meant fighting off hunger until just before the 8:00pm kickoff, when I made a stop by the nachos booth (extra jalapenos, please). The end of the first quarter usually called for a chicken-on-a-stick, then a Dome dog at halftime, followed by a DoveBar for dessert.

Today, I usually do most of my eating before I take my seat in the Dome. While the food options on this end of Poydras have greatly expanded since the Dome patrol days, my pre-game meal loyalties lie almost entirely with the Besh family of restaurants.

Domenica, Luke, and Borgne all run happy hour specials everyday from 3:00-6:00, and for Sunday and Monday night Saints games these deals are impossible to beat:

  • Domenica - Half off pizzas, beers, specialty cocktails, and wines by the glass.
  • Luke - $0.50 oysters and half off drink specials.
  • Borgne - $1 pulled pork empanadas, $1 catfish buns, $0.50 crabmeat croquetas, and half off draft beers, well drinks, and wines by the glass.

Who Dat?