Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Root of Thanksgiving

Phillip Lopez of Root plating his version of Thanksgiving dinner. 

When it opened in 2011, Root became the talk of New Orleans. Reactions were mixed, but mainly positive. The negative views mostly centered on something to the effect of "Are they cooking or performing science experiments?" Originally, I found myself in the confused side of the equation. It wasn't Root's fault. We'd just returned from a week long sojourn through Barcelona, the land of milk and honey foams. Nothing was matching the cooking, techniques, and flavors we'd encountered in Catalonia.

Two years in, and Root is in my Top Five fine dining restaurants in the city. However, it isn't because of anything they do with immersion circulators or dehydrators. Cooking and the military have always been two areas where technology has seemingly huge impacts, but rarely noticeable differences. Sure, it may be a fighter jet or a drone dropping a bomb instead of a platoon of soldiers in a trench lobbing grenades, but warfare is still warfare. Similarly, cooking is still cooking and the cooking at Root is some of the most fundamentally sound in the city. 

Consider Chef Phillip Lopez's charcuterie selections which resurrect old French classics like ballotines and rillettes with the flavors of Morocco. Or the way he combines fiercely cooked and pickled vegetables into a salad that is neither light nor heavy. His chicken wings arrive with a sweet tea brine and miniature biscuits perfumed with a miso butterscotch and lathered with sweet potato sorghum butter in a sublime example of the interplay between salty and sweet. I could go on about his duck heart salad, or the marrow bones, or the desserts, but I'll stop there. Service is polished and ruthlessly efficient like the pit crew of a NASCAR team. An excellent wine and spirits list is overseen by Max Ortiz, who co-owns the joint with Lopez. 

Lopez began his food education in New Orleans as the youngest in a large family. His dad was in the military and at age six he found himself living in Germany, traveling on the weekends with his mom to explore and eat his way around Europe. His family moved back to Virginia as he approached his teenage years. Lopez wanted a bike. His dad told him get a job. He started washing dishes and hasn't left the kitchen. In February of 2004, his mentor suggested he go cook in New Orleans for John Besh. After his stage ended, he and his fellow stagiares were leaving the kitchen when a sous pulled him aside and said, "When can you start?"

Lopez started at August on the garde manger station. He fell in love with a fellow cook. Then Katrina hit. He ended up in Houston, San Antonio, and DC, where he got a job at Michel Richard's Citronelle as a pastry chef. After a few weeks, Richard told him, "I could see you leading this kitchen one day." As flattering as it was, his girlfriend was in New York working at DB Bistro. And so, he packed up and moved to New York, getting an AM sous chef position at Gramercy Tavern. Things were going well, FEMA money was used to buy the girlfriend presents, and opportunities abounded. 

"Right after Christmas, my girlfriend broke up with me. I was all alone in New York City and I wanted to get get out of there. I picked up the phone and called the one person I knew would answer. And at two  in the morning John (Besh) answered. In a few hours, I had all of my worldly possessions packed into a Volkswagen Golf. I drove 22 hours straight to a job with John," Lopez says. 

Lopez soon became Besh's "bulldog" and was tasked with running Besh's offsite cooking camps that were feeding first responders. He'd go on to help reopen Besh Steakhouse, build the farm at La Provence, open Luke, and develop the concept at American Sector. While working for Besh he was able to travel to France, but Spain held his attention. "I got chosen to go to to Barcelona and learn the techniques of so called modern cuisine in an immersion program with the staff of El Bulli. I fly over there, show up, and it turns out the class had been canceled due to the recession," said Lopez. 

El Bulli had closed for the 2007 season. Perhaps they felt pity or astonishment that this American had showed up regardless, but Juli Solier, Albert Adria, and other aide de camps of Ferran Adria found work for him anyway. Lopez helped pack up the restaurant in Roses and set up the workshop in Barcelona. Under their tutelage, Lopez learned the most important lesson in his culinary life. "They took out a lobster, a truffle, and a peach and set it on the counter. They asked me to rank the ingredients. So I put the lobster, then the truffle, then the peach. They said, 'no.' So I put truffle, lobster, and peach. 'No,'" says Lopez. 

The chefs then moved the ingredients into order: the peach, the lobster, and the truffle were all ranked the same. The lesson was to forget about the price of the ingredient. "The goal of cooking is to take the peach and make it just as valuable as a lobster or a truffle" says Lopez,.  

After working together at Restaurant August and Rambla, Lopez and Ortiz opened Root on November 11, 2011. The fury of opening a restaurant and the relentless pace of the first weeks found them exhausted come Thanksgiving 2011. They closed for the day, but invited their families to the restaurant for a Thanksgiving feast. "Growing up, Thanksgiving was always a big thing no matter where we were all living. My siblings and I would play football in the yard and dad would smoke cigars on the back porch after the meal," says Lopez. 

I ask Lopez to create his version of a Thanksgiving meal and in it you can see many of the elements of his culinary odyssey. There is a straightforward roulade - a boned out turkey stuffed with black truffles, rolled and poached, and then wrapped in turkey skin. It sits next to f a cornbread puree, a contemporary compromise between stuffing and mashed potatoes. The flavors of apple pie are reimagined as a broth for preserved cranberries. While Brussels sprouts get charred and caramelized, their heady aroma softening and turning sweet. A smoked duck carcass and that quintessential southern breakfast sauce, red eye gravy, mingle with fantastic results. Smoked pecans and mustard greens are ground into a pesto, proving the old adage that you should always eat your vegetables. The whole dish is topped with basil buds, wild dill, petit mustard greens, a drizzle of Peruvian olive oil, and shaved truffle. 

In case you were wondering, it was delicious. This year at Thanksgiving, Root will once again close. Lopez and Ortiz will invite over their friends and family. They will cook a few turkeys ("one is always vanilla brined and roasted, one fried," says Lopez), pour some wines, and relish a day with loved ones. "We chose the name Root, because it means inception or beginning," says Lopez. 

See also: Thanksgiving

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Guy's Po Boys: Is It Worth It?

Who among us hasn't searched for the ideal po boy spot?

I like Freret St. Po Boys, which has dispensed crusty loaves stuffed with deliciousness since before Freret was FRERET. But Freret St. Po Boys hasn't been around long enough to qualify for Is It Worth It status. So I looked for a po boy spot to fill the void that Parkway couldn't. And yes, I know there are hundreds of other spots I should check out. Please leave them in the comments. (Editor's Note: I love all po boys, even bad ones.)

An Italian sports car designer would have a tough time designing a more prototypical po boy shop than Guy's. A corner store on a quiet, yet close to activity, corner of Magazine, where the walls are studded with Dr. Bob-esque art and stacks of alternative newspapers. Drinks are tucked into a corner cooler. You order at the counter and grab a seat. Wait with baited breath for your name to be called.

What arrives is a loaf of real French bread. Allow a tangent here: if you are a po boy shop and you are serving this iconic sandwich on that soft. squishy imitation po boy loaf, what is your major malfunction? Get in the basement, you maggot. That bread is awful and you know who you are. Stop using that crap. I am not saying that a soggy roast beef po boy cant taste good on bread types different than a traditional po boy loaf, but it certainly doesn't taste good on that pillow you are passing off as bread. So bite the bullet and stop using it.

Suffice it to say, Guy's uses a good loaf. It's slightly dense and chewy, requiring just enough tug to separate a bite from the rest of the po boy. The loaves may be filled with your standard choices or more Galactic choices, like the The Bomb which is a sandwich combining catfish, shrimp, and Swiss and English cheesemakers. One admittedly, I've never had the courage to order. I judge a po boy shop on two criteria: its roast beef and its hot sausage. So that is what I ordered, along with a Barq's in a glass. Halfway through the meal, someone made a t-shirt out of this lunch.

PS I also judge them on fried seafood, but I was dining solo for this visit. Three sandwiches might have drawn suspicion. A hot sausage topped with fried shrimp would be awesome though.

The roast beef is thinly sliced and adorned with a solid gravy that clings to the meat like a well-tailored suit. I do wish there was a touch more flavor or that one po boy shop would throw a roast beef po boy on garlic bread. But a man can dream. The hot sausage would inspire Ernie K-Doe. Crisp Patton's hot sausage, slightly warmer than cold mayo, crisp, cool lettuce, and a half dozen pickle slices rounded out one of the more perfect bites of food in the Western Hemishphere.

The prices are reasonable and the food solid. The only downsides? Cash only and no beer.

Guy's Po Boys: Is It Worth It? Yes.
5259 Magazine St.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Doing the Charleston

The Ordinary in Charleston, SC

We needed a break. The baby was old enough to spend a weekend with Lindsay's parents and we were itching to get out of town. A trip out of the country wouldn't work, as we only had three days tops. The usual suspects: New York, San Francisco, and Chicago were discussed, but ultimately we decided against each for various reasons. 

"What about Charleston," said Lindsay.

A simple flight with a layover in Atlanta, home of the 1-3 Atlanta Falcons, later we arrived in Charleston. Tip: either on the way there or the way back, make it a point to head to Terminal E and visit One Flew South for excellent drinks and fantastic food. Now listen, a word of caution. If you are from New Orleans and heading to Charleston, be prepared to hear some variant of the phrase: "Charleston is a clean New Orleans." While that isn't necessarily untrue, it falls short of the mark. 

All port cities have similarities, but I find Charleston to be more colonial than European, more Southern than Caribbean. We checked into Charleston Place and were talked into an upgrade to a suite with access to a hospitality lounge. Skip this offer. The rooms are in drastic need of an overhaul and the price doesn't justify a cocktail or two or handful of benne wafers a day. For a high end hotel, they sure did say no a lot. 

Shrimp and Grits at Husk

Charleston Place is the place to stay as it is smack dab in the middle of everything. We stashed the bags and headed to Husk, where we swooned over shrimp and grits, pimento cheese and pickles, a bacon studded cheeseburger, fried pigtails, warm peas tossed with cherry tomatoes, a few cocktails and some local beers. We then strolled up King Street and picked up cookware we technically didn't need, home furnishings we had no intention of buying, and way too many gifts for the baby. 

A shower later, we headed out to the Gin Joint for a quick round of cocktails. Here came, a pitch perfect daiquiri and a Build-A-Bear cocktail. The premise is simple, you pick three adjectives (bitter, fizzy, and strong, sweet, tart, and herbal, etc...) and they build you a drink around that description. A neat parlor trick but I didn't remember ordering a Relaxed, Content, and Happy.

Pork with butterbean chow chow at McCrady's Restaurant

Onto McCrady's for one of the South's most talked about restaurants. The ingredients are impeccable, the cooking on point, and the service tipped us off on an excellent rose and a few other places in town. We especially enjoyed a plate of beef tartare served with crispy beef tendon and a tender hunk of pork encircled by a ring of field peas, chanterelles, and red onion. 

The Buddha Bowl at The Green Door

The next day we put ourselves in a horse and buggy, toured a massive home filled with way too many antiques, and walked around  the Battery peeking through fences. Then it was off to The Green Door, a food truck-cum-restaurant, serving the kind of fauxthentic street food populating the country. The pork belly falafel were a soggy mess, but the spiced chickpeas, fiery noodle bowl with bone marrow broth, braised beef, and poached egg, and kimchi fried rice were excellent bites no matter which cuisine you call them. 

We ambled back towards King Street and headed up to Mike Lata's The Ordinary, which is simply one of the most beautiful restaurants you'll see. Inside a former bank, the kitchen serves seafood in all of its myriad glories. We started with a few cocktails: an Aperol Spritz and a gin and tonic turned pink with the inclusion of a dash of Peychaud's bitters. Then a bottle of Ameztoi txakolina rose and a platter of clams, raw oysters, and lobster. A more decadent afternoon snack does not exist. We finished off the afternoon with some cocktails at the charming Proof and a massage back at the hotel. 

Later we headed to FIG, where we feasted on more beef tartare, a nine vegetable salad, a plate of gnocchi enrobbed in a rich bolognese, and a seafood chowder. The best bite though was a tomato tarte tatin with a quenelle of whipped goat cheese that made. The finale was a rich and gooey sorghum cake topped with a scoop of cinnamon ice cream. Imagine a diner plopped down someplace in the south of France or the hills of Italy or the coast of Spain, or all three. That is Fig and you should go. 

The next day, we headed up to Two Boroughs Larder for a traditional southern breakfast of spaghetti carbonara and octopus. We poked around the farmer's market, where the bartender from The Ordinary had donned a paper hat to serve homemade sodas. Then off to the airport and home to recover. 

Monday, September 23, 2013

A Quick Drink: Sparkling Wine

If marooned on a desert island or a dessert island, I'd gladly choose sparkling wine to be my beverage of necessity. Sparkling wine isn't just for weddings and holidays; it is a fantastically versatile wine that gets along with most foods or can stand on its own. Let's cover some basics first. Basics, not an exhaustive history and production specs to bore a snob.

All Champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine is Champagne. To be called Champagne, a wine must originate from the Champagne area of France. Where is Champagne? If you find Paris on a map and move your eyes right 100 miles or so, you'd be staring right at it. This area is cold and that lends the wines a distinct acidity. Plus, the chalky soil is perfect not only for growing grapes of character but for storing wine. Most Champagne comes from the juice of three grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. Champagne's bubbly personality comes from a secondary fermentation inside the bottle. It is a long process to make Champagne, one I am happy not to have to do.

Most Champagnes are produced by houses, who purchase grapes or wine from grape growers and create a house blend. My favorite Champagnes are grower Champagnes, meaning the guy who grows the grapes makes the Champagne.

All of which is a long way of saying, my favorite sparkling wine isn't a Champagne. It is that bottle of $14 brilliance you see in front of you. Saint-Hillaire claims to be the oldest sparkling wine in existence. Crisp and refreshing, this sparkler can be drunk on its own, with food, or in a mimosa without breaking the bank. I drink entirely too much of it.

And you should too.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Gautreau's: Is It Worth It?

Sadly the world has moved away from grand fine dining. The hottest restaurants now take few reservations or have some other Byzantine system to gain access to their dining room. The restaurant is likely located in an abandoned strip mall where your food is served by a disinterested English major with a penchant for ignoring you. To make the place hip, they've removed the tablecloths, pumped in synthetic pop, and added a slew of $12 cocktails. Or perhaps there is a food truck serving the cuisine of Ecuadoran Easter where you eat off of cardboard plates outside of an Electronic Dance Music club. Or a pop-up restaurant (guilty as charged) has taken hold of our energies and soon we are all piling into a bakery on a Monday night to eat Jamaican ramen.

Going to the dining destinations of the new Millennium requires the diplomacy, planning, and luck of a White House intern. The snobbery of the old French places have been replaced by the non-caring of today's hot new spots. The attitude of yesterday's sommelier or maitre d' is no match for today's hostess, mixologist, or chef who is convinced their restaurant is the height of a post-Roman civilization. You are lucky to get in, blessed to dine, and dared to complain.

Call me a snob, but sometimes I want the restaurant to actually give a damn about me.

When I want to be pampered, when I want service that matches a $30 entree, and when I want to actually dine in splendor, I head to Gautreau's. If you have been there and enjoyed it, you know what I mean. Behind the plain facade with no sign on Soniat Street and a slight trace of interior light, there is a serene dining room staffed by competent, professional staff. My favorite part of a meal at Gautreau's is perhaps the simplest pleasure of all. Upon being seated, you will not be barraged by a laundry list of specials or even the heft of a menu. Rather in a calm pleasant voice, you will be asked if you'd like a cocktail or perhaps a glass of wine.

Why don't more places do this? When someone comes to your house for dinner, you don't immediately shove food down their gullet. You offer them a drink; you sit; catch up; chat; relax. I love Gautreau's solely for this reason alone. And the act that they make a martini that could force Churchill to give up Scotch.

A drink down, your menu short and sweet shows up. I'm sure the desserts are worthwhile, but we made a decision to focus on Sue Zemanick's savory work. First up were tender and crispy baby artichokes laced with lemon that made one realize a stuffed artichoke is just a cover for bad technique. A plate of sweetbreads were soft on the inside, crispy on the outside, and surrounded by pearls of sweet crab meat, green spinach, smoky bacon, and a hard-boiled quail egg whose yellow interior blazed like a sunflower. A bite of this salad encapsulated the flavors of universal understanding.

Finesse is the difference between how you cook at home and how the great restaurants of the world cook. Witness a stack of just cooked lobster on top of crunchy, julienne vegetables surrounded table side by a coconut broth that evoked the joy of sharing a towel with to a beautiful woman on a Caribbean beach. Less successful was a duck confit, which while cooked well and tossed with arugula, blackberries, and almonds, lacked discussion besides, "Can I have another bite of your lobster?"

Gautreau's and Publican are the only two restaurants in America to give birth to three Food and Wine Magazine Best New Chefs. One reason for this continued success may be the simple roast chicken, the daiquiri of the food world. The skin requires a thorough whacking with a knife or fork to break the taut khaki crust. Underneath is a flesh whose salty, juiciness deserves a pair of shorts with words on the butt. A creamy raft of potatoes, a rich sauce with mushrooms, and crispy green beans round out one of the single best plates of food in America. A plate of grouper came forth gilded by green harissa and an eggplant, chickpea, and peppery hash. It was a tour de force of the cooking of the Mediterranean. All of the above got along pleasantly with an affordable bottle of rose.

Look, you can spend your time chasing down pop food trucks and eating a "chefs" idea of the comfort food of Indonesia. That food has a place in all of our diets. But if you really want to dine with a service staff that could give the Moscow Ballet a lesson on elegance and precision. If you want to eat food that is well-thought out and smart without being an inside joke. If you just want a solid drink, a good roast chicken, and a place to tell someone you love and appreciate them. Then head to Gautreau's.

Gautreau's: Is It Worth It? Absolutely.
1728 Soniat St.
Dinner Mon. - Sat.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Maras the Magnificient

A few years ago, I started hearing rumors about a kitchen of the late nineties early 2000s which served as a graduate school of sorts for today's best chefs in New Orleans. This is the story of that kitchen, as well as a broader story of the importance of one man's arrival in New Orleans about 30 years ago. This story runs in this month's offBeat Magazine

The most important chef in New Orleans history is sitting across from me. He is lithe and his silver hair is pulled back into a tight ponytail. A former cook of his describes him best as a “skinny Willie Nelson.” He is slated to teach a class to mainly tourists later in the afternoon at the New Orleans Culinary Experience. When the weather cools, he will head down to Lafitte and cook for duck hunters at the Little Lake Club. He has no restaurant and hasn’t for almost a decade. He is the primary reason New Orleans is once again the home of sought after reservations and chef driven restaurants. His name is Gerard Maras.

Gerard Maras boasts some impressive branches stemming from the trunk of his cooking tree. You can find his mark at Lilette in a luncheon sandwich of porchetta with pickled cucumber and pickled red onion. His influence is on the menu at Borgne where the heady aroma of crab butter flavors fish en pappillote. Maras touch is on crab cakes at del Porto and is responsible for the charcuterie offerings at Patois. The chicken liver pate at Sylvain’s grandfather is a duck liver pate from Gerard’s Downtown, the restaurant he ran in the Central Business District from 1998-2002. A quick list of chefs who trained under him reads like a James Beard wish list: John Harris, Corbin Evans, Slade and Allison Rushing, Aaron Burgau, David and Torre Solazzo, Anton Schulte, Ann Weatherford, Paul Williams, Brian Landry and Alex Harrell, just to name a few.

Now remember, although this was only within recent memory, culinary concepts like farm-to-table and charcuterie were relative unknowns in the American dining landscape. The nexus point of seasonal driven food in New Orleans’ restaurants can be traced back to Commander’s Palace and Paul Prudhomme, Ella Brennan, Emeril Lagasse, and Maras, who was a then new to town sous chef. “Ella hired me as a sous chef at Commander’s and about a month later Emeril joined. Three months later, I left Commander’s to open Mr. B’s,” Maras says.

At Mr. B’s, Maras would develop recipes which they are still using today for dishes like BBQ shrimp and pasta jambalaya. The BBQ shrimp, he explains, were the result of trying to isolate the flavors of the dish and highlight them with French technique. “When I first tasted BBQ shrimp, Ella presented it to me like it was some delicacy. Quite frankly, the shrimp were overcooked, the butter had separated, and the seasoning had fallen to the bottom of the pan. It was not very impressive,” he says.

He would stay at Mr. B’s until 1995 and then he “wandered” for the next few years before opening Gerard’s Downtown in 1998. But he was doing something else at this time, something that later would win chef’s tv deals, Beard awards, and lucrative Vegas restaurants. Maras began to farm to source things like pea shoots and microgreens he couldn’t get anywhere else. Back in the early 1980’s, he began driving up to Mississippi to meet with farmers like Dan Crutchfield who were growing peppers, black radishes, pink eye peas and raising small pigs and rabbits. Soon he had his own plot of land and was farming his own produce. When he had a surplus of produce, he taught his cooks how to pickle, preserve, and can. A movement which is now all but ubiquitous in any new restaurant. In 1999, it was revolutionary.

Gerard’s Downtown was a graduate school for some of today’s most talented chefs. John Harris had racked up a accolades at Gautreau’s, but before he opened Lilette he spent close to a year running lunch service at Gerard’s Downtown. While Harris had been dubbed a Food and Wine Best New Chef before working for Maras, he still learned a lot from Maras. “One thing Gerard taught me was to always try and be overly generous with your staff. So maybe I only need one or two cooks for a shift, but if I have one more and pay them a little more, that breeds loyalty. And gives them a more steady paycheck,” Harris explains.

Aaron Burgau joined the brigade at Gerard’s Downtown in January of 2000. After a few months, he still recalls being a bit shocked to be tasked with training Harris. “Shortly before Harris started, Slade Rushing joined the line. In walked Allison Vines a few months later. All the cooks tried their hardest to hit on Allison, but Slade won out,” Burgau explains. A few years later, Allison and Slade would strike out for New York, where they would marry and run Jack’s Oyster Bar before returning to Louisiana.

                About the Rushings, Maras is quick to point out that they are first and foremost “master technicians.” That description applies to most of the cooks he trained. For instance, witness the craftsmanship that Alex Harrell at Sylvain puts into elevated bar food in dishes like his handmade pastas. Harrell would spend about six years with Maras, first at Gerard’s Downtown, then later at Ralph’s on the Park, and finally at Table One, Maras’ last stop. Maras’ kitchen demeanor rubbed off on Harrell, “It was Gerard’s manner to be a teacher. He loved working with people who maybe didn’t have the knowledge, but had the desire to cook. As long as you were willing to learn, he would tolerate a mistake. He had an incredibly calm presence in the kitchen and I never saw him raise his voice,” says Harrell.

                Even on his first day in the kitchen, when Harrell dumped an entire steam kettle of mussel soup down the drain accidentally. Harrell, Burgau, and Maras would all recount this story to me with various accoutrements. Burgau explains it best, “I worked with Alex at Bayona and got him a job at Gerard’s Downtown. First day, I tell him to strain this mussel soup base. It was a veloute of mussels and saffron, just a beautiful soup and we finished it a la minute with mussels. The base sat in this steam kettle and it’s the middle of service. I turn around and Alex had poured most of the broth down the drain accidentally. Gerard walked over and gave me a look that said, ‘Where the fuck did you get this kid?’”

                Dave and Torre Solazzo moved to her native New Orleans after a few years in the Bay Area and Napa Valley where farm to table was an established dining trend. They returned to New Orleans in early 2000 and felt like they entered a time warp. “There was very little seasonal cooking, no real farmer’s markets, nothing like we were used to,” Torre says. They would soon join the team at Gerard’s and found themselves poking fun at its simplicity. Roast chicken with aioli, herb crusted lamb racks, terrines and bisques dominated his menus. “The thing was it was all really simple, Gerard just did it really really well,” says Torre.

                David Solazzo recalls how Gerard was the first chef who taught him how to elevate something simple like a pierogi to fine dining fare. “He stuffed them with cabbage and currants, boiled them, and sautéed them in some butter so their edges would crisp up. He’d then serve them with roasted pork loin. He really did them up,” David recalls.

                Does Maras see his teaching on menus around town? “I see techniques more than recipes. The way for instance, all of the chefs who cooked for me all cook pork the same way. First you dry brine it, so the flavors penetrate the meat. Then you sear it. Next, you put it in a very hot oven for a few moments. Finally you pull it off the heat and wrap it in double layer of foil for about 15-20 minutes. What results is a perfectly juicy, just pink in the center cut of pork. They all do that,” Maras says.

                Maras is quick to add that this new generation of chefs and what they have accomplished is incredible. “I always used to tell all my cooks when I ran a kitchen, my sous needed to be better than everyone else in the kitchen. And that I needed to the best chef in the kitchen. I think they are all living up to that. You go into these kitchens and those guys are working the line,” Maras adds.

                There is a quote I’ve long since lost the attribution for and it goes like this. “Judge a person not by what they do, but by what they leave to grow.” I ask Maras one final question, “Does he have any desire to run a kitchen again?”

                “When I work in a restaurant, I am there 12-14 hours a day on my feet, it’s a tough life. Its time to leave all of that to the young,” Maras says.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

A Quick Drink: The Daiquiri

There has been a lot of talk about Go Cups lately. I am not sure who started this ruckus; but quite frankly, it has me craving a daiquiri. The daiquiri, besides being one of those confusing to spell words, began its life in humble circumstances. It soon immigrated from its native Cuba to the United States where it became bastardized into a frozen concoction built for getting teenager girls who don't like the taste of alcohol drunk. While I have no personal qualms with the frozen daiquiri, a true daiquiri does not dispense from a machine.

A good daiquiri should be three things and three things only: cold, balanced, and simple. Think of it as the roast chicken of the cocktail world. How it is made says more about the bartender than his credit score. The tartness of lime juice should blend harmoniously with the rum and simple syrup. The drink should be slightly cloudy from a vigorous shake, with maybe a few shards of ice floating on top. Bayou Rum has become my daiquiri rum this summer. It has a light hint of sweetness that I find allows me to cut back on the simple syrup without comprising the balance of the drink. Look, I'd rather DRINK my sugar than drink my sugar if you catch my drift.

As far as my opinion on Go Cups, let's just say when the City Council says there is no prohibition against Go Cups and then lists all the ways they limit Go Cups, I see no dichotomy in that. Or the fact that the main reason they give for not allowing new places to have Go Cups is litter. Meanwhile, six blocks away from my house, Claiborne Ave. is strewn with litter from Popeyes, Wendy's, McDonald's, Walgreens, and just about any other spot on the road. Funny, I don't recall any provisos limiting their ability to litter the neighborhoods. Or the fact that sometimes neighborhood groups don't request a Go Cup proviso but the City Planning Commission adds one anyway. But hey, nothing to see here.

Solution? Have another daiquiri. You'll feel much better.


2 oz Bayou Silver Rum
.5 oz of simple syrup
Juice of three-quarters of a lime (use other quarter for a lime wheel) or .75 oz fresh squeezed lime juice

Chill a coupe or similar glass vessel.

Combine rum, simple syrup, and lime juice. Add ice. Shake it like it stole from you. Strain into chilled coupe. Add lime wheel. Drink quickly.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Sno-Tales of the Cocktail

The Cocktailians have arrived. That's right the mid-summer exodus of bartenders from their home bars to the Monteleone has begun. If you live in New Orleans and enjoy cocktails and haven't made at least one Tales event, one of those prerequisites isn't true. Here is a piece I had a lot of fun writing. Reprinted here, you can find the article with real photos on newstands and at Offbeat.

There are only two ways to cool off once the New Orleans summer comes. I’m talking really cool off, not sitting in an air conditioned room. You can either guzzle a snoball, its slushiness burrowing into the belly of your soul and making you shiver. Or you can get knock out drunk, such that you forget just how hot it is. Or you can kill two birds with one stone and do both.

For seventy-four years, Hansen’s Sno-Bliz has taken blocks of ice and fed them into a machine. This machine turns the ice into something neither gas, liquid, or solid, but an amalgamation of the three states of being. Upon this ice, they pour housecrafted flavored syrups with varieties like Satsuma, cream of cardamom, and nectar cream. The product is so delicious it creates lines outside on a July afternoon that would give Studio 54 pause.

Mardi Gras a half decade or so ago found me in the third seat of a friend’s SUV, one bloody mary, two screwdrivers, and three beers deep at around eight in the morning (all numbers approximate). We were driving down then vacant Freret towards Napoleon from Jefferson, when a friend pointed at a building and said, “Some guy I know is opening a cocktail bar there in a few weeks.” We all laughed and predicted its demise in various amounts of time.

That bar turned out to be Cure. Opened by Neal Bodenheimer in 2009, Cure has become one of the nation’s premier spots to imbibe. In turn, Freret has become a runaway hit with restaurants, nightclubs, and art galleries filling the once abandoned storefronts.  Bodenheimer then opened Bellocq with Kirk Estopinal. Located on Lee’s Circle, Bellocq traffics in cobblers, a centuries old cocktail of fruit, vermouths, sherries, and ice served in a setting evoking the glory days of legal prostitution. In early July, he will expand into the world of colonial cocktails and Caribbean rum with the opening of Cane & Table on Decatur with partner Nick Detrich.

With a deadline looming and Tales of the Cocktail around the corner, I’ve called Ashley Hansen, the proprietor of Hansen’s to ask about sneaking booze into her snoballs. “We don’t have a liquor license,” Hansen carefully mentions, “but every now and then we see someone coming through the line with a flask in their hand.” Her ice is perfect for mint juleps.

Say, Ashley, would you mind if Bodenheimer & Co. came by one day and made some snotails? I made sure to mention this was for an official assignment for a real magazine, and not just personal curiosity, which of course it is. “Sure. But it needs to be before we open or else customers will riot.”

On an otherwise quiet, hot June day, after knocking the cadence to Iko Iko the doors to Hansen’s creaked open and Hansen welcomed in Bodenheimer, Detrich, Peanut, the trusty photographer of this official venture, and this “reporter”. The walls of Hansen’s are lined with photos from the glory days of little league teams, fraternities and bands that became the Radiators. The syrups are stored in old liquor bottles salvaged from Mardi Gras floats back in the “late 60’s or 70’s by my grandfather’s cousin, Thelma” according to Hansen. Jack Daniels becomes strawberry; Bacardi becomes chocolate.

Hansen is no stranger to mixing an adult snoball. She prefers to use rum with her citrusy flavors, “Rum and limeaid is the perfect daiquiri…but I like bourbon with the richer flavors like vanilla or nectar,” she says, adding, “or just pour Baileys on plain ice.”

Its now noon and Hansen’s opens at one so Bodenheimer and Detrich get to work. They unpack from rucksacks rum, vermouth, sherry, blackberry liquor, amaro, gin, and bitters. Bodenheimer steps behind the counter first. While Hansen powders ice, Bodenheimer shakes together Zucca, lemon juice, and Hansen’s strawberry syrup. He pours it over the ice and sticks a fat strawberry on top. The result is a strawberry snowball that got caught up in the wrong crowd.

Next is a variation on a type of gin sour known as a bramble. In goes two ounces of Ford’s gin, simple syrup, and Hansen’s blueberry. The drink is garnished with a wide swath of lemon zest. After taking a sip, Hansen exclaims, “This is so much fun we should share it.”

Conversation and laughter are now moving between the two young bastions of the food and drink world. Talk shifts to doing this as a special event, maybe at a bar. Hansen will bring the ice, a machine, and some staff. Bodenheimer’s team will make the drinks. Plans for late August are called off.

Detrich moves behind bar. Nick moved down from Bloomington, Indiana, a place where combining alcohol, frozen ice, and syrup before 1 pm is generally frowned upon. He originally began bartending at a strip club on Bourbon St. before finding work at Cure, which sort of sounds like the lyrics to a Bob Dylan song. He begins with a rum Manhattan, using Smith & Cross rum. Distilled in Jamaica, Smith & Cross is “hogo rum, a derivative of a French term meaning roughly the sweet smell of rotting meat,” Detrich explains.

Before slick ad campaigns, rum was a distillation crafted by often unscrupulous people. This rum has a funky nose and is perfect with Carpano Antica vermouth, Angostura bitters, and a float of cream of almond. Detrich turns his sights on that reviled classic of cruise ships: the frozen pina colada. Smith & Cross combined with bitters, fresh pineapple, and cream of coconut. Imagine if a pina colada went to live on a hippie commune for a few months. What, your imagination doesn’t allow you to do that? Too bad.

We finish up this serious journalistic endeavor with something simple: La Gitana Manzanilla sherry and Satsuma. Crisp, tart and refreshing, it gives us the strength to head back into the sun. Now, if you want to try your own hand at making snotails, a few tips to keep in mind. One, chill your liquors before adding them to the ice or your snotail will melt too quickly. Secondly, do this as soon and as often as possible. Hansen’s closes with the first rumors of fall. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

A Quick Drink: The Aperitif

Sometimes it is a relatively mild summer afternoon. Perhaps you are all out of beer and wine seems too demanding for the occasion. A cocktail could work but you aren't quite ready to delve into the high octane of a Saturday night. What is the intrepid drinker to do? Pour yourself an aperitif.

Aperitif comes from the ancient Latin phrase meaning "The food isn't quite ready, honey, distract them with more booze." In general, these are low alcohol quaffers meant to stimulate the appetite. Think of it as the foreplay to a Roman orgy of eating or drinking. Vermouths, pastis, bitter beverages like Campari, and fortified wines, such as sherry, are examples of aperitifs. They are light, interesting, flirty and just the perfect little sip -  the summer romance of the drinking world. Now, I won't try to convince you that I begin every evening with a pull of rare vermouth, a conversation with great aunt Mildred, and a Cole Porter record. However, on a Saturday afternoon, once all the chores are complete, I like one to three.

My preference is for Lillet blanc (pronounced with a soft et, i.e. not pronounced like the restaurant, Lilette). Lillet is refreshing blend of traditional white Bordeaux grapes and citrus flavors plus other proprietary botanicals. Serve it well chilled. This time of year, dropping in a few slices of Chilton County peaches won't hurt. The peaches don't add much to the Lillet, but once you've polished off a few glasses of Lillet, the peaches taste much better than God ever intended.

A Campari and soda with a fat wedge of orange or lemon does well in pinches, if you don't have all the materials for a Negroni (hint: you should). Try an inverted Manhattan with vermouth and rye swapping proportions. And hey, should the afternoon bleed into the night, Champagne is an aperitif in my book. Just make sure to give me a call.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Antoine's: Is It Worth It?

Shrimp remoulade at Antoine's

Six years ago I spent an afternoon with my grandmother at Touro Hospital. Hazel didn't have much time left and we all knew it. We sat mostly in pensive silence as physicians came in and out. Occasionally, she would look over and smile or try and mouth something. Mostly there was just silence. Per her living will, food, water, and lifesaving maneuvers were withheld and eventually she found peace.

I wish Antoine's had a living will.

If Antoine's did, its servers wouldn't be milling around the front desk swapping stories for the dining room to hear that end in "You gotta crawl in attics n shit?" The life-saving measures of old Carnival clubs and Debbie Does Debutante parties which fill its coffers would be withheld. Antoine's would stop feeding on the tourist dollars of a lunch menu featuring .25 cent flavored martinis. It could just peacefully expire, leaving us with nothing but the memories of a once legendary restaurant.

I don't write this to be mean. I write it because once upon a time Antoine's was a place you went to celebrate and dine. It was big, it was grand, the waiters were charming, the food excellent, and everyone always seemed to be laughing at huge tables littered with glassware and crumbs. At the end of the meal, the lights would always dim and a dance of flame and pastry would captivate and enthrall childhood and adult eyes alike. Men wore ties and women dressed up.

The food at Antoine's is food I love. Old French classics that cooks have been making taste delicious for hundreds of years. Antoine's is not doing so anymore. Witness a plate of shrimp remoulade which tasted like weed killer smells. The shrimp were overcooked to boot. The escargot bordelaise, the sauce tasting suspiciously close to Antoine's marchand de vin, was gritty with flour or cornstarch and topped with cheese you can buy pre-shredded at a Rouses. How is that for upholding culinary standards of excellence?

Perhaps the worst baked oyster dish in town is on the menu at Antoine's in the form of an oyster thermidor. Chewy oysters ladled with ketchup and ham. Say that three times fast and the dead rise. Oysters Rockefeller, while invented here eons ago, are made better elsewhere and likely everywhere. At Antoine's they taste of a waterlogged bag of salad. The credit where due award goes to their oysters Bienville which are rich and creamy. Oysters Foch are delicious and salty under a sturdy cornmeal crust, but when they arrive at the same exact time as baked oysters, they become cold. And cold fried oysters aren't very desirable.

Not even the bar could save this meal. One Sazerac arrived pitch perfect and imbued with the luscious aroma of Herbsaint. The next was just whiskey with a lemon peel. Service was clumsy and overbearing at all the wrong times like a large child in a tiny sandbox. A runner would bring food and before you had a chance to eat, the waiter would ask, "How is everything?" Apparently, he believed I was clairvoyant. An order of souffle potatoes ordered with drinks showed up about an hour later. They were overcooked and greasy, devoid of the lightness that marks a souffle potato's ascent to such great heights. After sitting us at an awful table up against a post in an empty dining room, the host asked "Where are you from?"

"Here," we said.

He seemed genuinely surprised.

"I know you are disappointed," Lindsay later said to me, "you hoped it would be better."

Antoine's is just sad now. Gone is the formality and the touches which made it unique. Antoine's splendor has been replaced by shorts, the tourist trade, and tennis shoes. Gone is the grand dining of Escoffier and Alciatore. Verbatim transaction at table next to ours, "Our house blend of five lettuces tossed with our homemade vinaigrette and crumbled blue cheese...Sure we can leave off the blue cheese and put the dressing on the side," the waiter remarks. He just sold her lettuce and free refills of iced tea.

The other grand dames have held onto traditions and standards, and eventually this has paid off for them. The dining rooms at Galatoire's are full, boisterous, and filled with well heeled locals. Dinner at Arnaud's is still marked by formality and solid cooking. The various rooms at Antoine's are largely empty and deservedly so. Antoine's chased the buck and now all that is left is a pitiful reminder of what was once a treasure.

Look, spare me the emails or comments about how you need to dine with a certain waiter to get a good meal at Antoine's. A waiter isn't cooking the food and that is wherein the problem lies. This type of cuisine can taste good; just not at Antoine's.

You can fool the public for a long time. Brennan's did and look where it got them. Eventually the ties to family traditions loosen when all people can remember is bad meals. I don't pray for Antoine's demise, but unless they get a kitchen upgrade, we are all just waiting in a hospital room. Sadly, there is no living will at Antoine's.

Antoine's: Is It Worth It? Nope.
713 St. Louis St.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A Quick Drink: Old Fashioned

Just because Matt Weiner has taken his Don Draper ball and gone home for the summer, doesn't mean you need to give up drinking like Duck Phillips. The Old Fashioned is a simple cocktail combining a base spirit with bitters, sugar, and usually some type of fruit or zest. Rumor has it it got its name from a salty patron who had grown tired of fancy cocktails and demanded something "old fashioned". More importantly, this anecdote confirms that animosity towards newfangled drinking ways is nothing new.

What I've done here is taken out the simple syrup and/or muddled oranges. Instead, imagine a maitre'd standing in front of a gueridon with your order of crepes suzette. What he might do (and they were all men when this went on so I am only slightly sexist) is take a sugar cube and rub it across the skin of orange. The white cube turning a pale orange as the intense citrus oils latched onto the sugar. Do the same thing here and you will get the effect of orange without all the cloying sweetness of orange juice. I like a high proof bourbon or rye, but don't get too fancy with your booze or some salty barfly might call you an insufferable whippersnapper.

An Old Fashioned

2 oz of bourbon or rye
1 demerara sugar cube
1 orange
2-3 dashes of bitters (your choice, Peychaud's, Angostura, or Orange)

Rub the sugar cube on all six sides across the flesh of the orange. You really want to scratch the hell out of it. Place sugar cube in mixing glass, add bitters, and muddle briefly. Add bourbon or rye and ice and stir about 63 rotations. Stain into a rocks glass with a few cubes of ice. Garnish with an orange peel.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Bayona: Is It Worth It?

A collection of cocktails at Bayona

Susan Spicer has been a culinary bad ass for about thirty years longer than the cronut will be popular. Bayona, which she opened with Regina Keever almost a quarter century ago, has been welding cuisines together long before the term fusion. A look around at the chefs of the city's newest darlings reveals that many of them made a stop on Dauphine at one time or another. Spicer's cookbook is solid gold and Mondo is a worldly enough neighborhood restaurant that stock in it could one day be traded on the NYSE. Hagiography done.

But eating at Bayona? Does anyone do that enough?

The answer is probably not. 

It is easy to draw parallels between the interior of Bayona and the much missed Bistro at the Maison de Ville. This would make sense as Spicer was the opening chef of that vaunted establishment. Dark, rich fabrics, sturdy furnishings, paintings, and tablecloths cloak the successive rooms in what would give a modern restaurant designer a heart attack. Service is considerate, young, and punctual enough for you to offer them a job babysitting. They'll even track down a cocktail recipe, should you ask. 

The food at Bayona has always begged to be defined but rarely captured with a simple phrase. Creole seems too generic, world cuisine too self-important, eclectic too dismissive. The food is fantastic. Let's just define it like that.

Spicer's best work is in the early stages of a meal. Her sweetbreads know no peer. Plump and crisp their creaminess plays foil to crisp potatoes and earthy beets. Italian arancini get a Provence, Yall twist with tart goat cheese and Alabama peaches filling in for mozzarella and red gravy. Simplicity as the rule applies on her crouton plastered with goat cheese and adorned with mushrooms in a Madeira cream. A roasted garlic soup is just that: roasted garlic, onions, stock, thickened with bread. 

The smoked duck PB&J is too rich by half and I always regret ordering it. In theory, it sounds like a winner. Smoked duck, cashew butter, and pepper jelly piled onto toasted bread; but the sandwich's flavors come across as muddled and confused. Better is a bowl of barbecue shrimp, pimento cheese grits, and greens which is like putting together an awesome plate of food at a heavenly church picnic.

You likely haven't been to Bayona in some time. Remedy that. And one more thing, get the watermelon jalapeno cocktail. After you do, email me for the recipe.

Bayona: Is It Worth It? Yes.
430 Dauphine St.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

A Quick Drink: Rose

"I f%&#ing love rose!"

One of us over here at Blackened Out Delinquent Bloggers, et al. is very fond of saying the above quote. But to allow both of us to tell our mothers the other one is the foulmouthed brat, we will keep his identity a mystery. What is rose? Well besides the single best overall food wine? Rose is a fantastic summertime wine. Rose is also perfect in the wintertime when infected with secondary fermentation and turned into Rose Champagne. Rose is the perfect funeral wine. One thing is for certain, The Biebs isn't putting on a leather shirt, sipping rose, and sitting courtside at a petanque match anytime soon.

Rose is a good wine to drink while swimming laps or lounging on the beach. Rose's color makes it a perfect match for front porch sitting or intensive games of Trivial Pursuit. We recently returned from a beach vacation where we succeeded in setting a new land speed record for rose consumption. Rose is best consumed in pairs of two; our record is about a half a case over a long afternoon. Good luck trying to top it. But if you attempt it, invite us over.

Basically rose denotes a wine in which the grape juice is allowed a very brief period of contact with the skins. The skins give the wine color and a distinctive dryness. Rose is a staple in the South of France, typically Provence, where the immense heat of summer and temperamental mistral of winter tends to make producing affordable wines of either white or red character difficult. So Provence's offering to inventions's mother is rose. If you've been to Provence, you likely believe in heaven. This is God's juice.

The wine pictured above however, those of you with a rudimentary understanding of Basque language will understand, is not Provencal rose. Instead, I've shown you what is one of the least talked about fantastic wines in the world. A txakolina rose from Ameztoi produced just outside of San Sebastien, which has a slight effervescence. In fact, I think it is the best wine in the world under $20 a bottle.

But you want to know my favorite part of rose wine? No one ever pays attention to or bothers to develop lengthy, boring, erudite tasting nights about rose. Rose is a fun, uncomplicated wine.  Seek it out and drink it up. You will thank me later this summer.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Vieux L'Ecole

Steak au poivre with glazed carrots

Fifty years ago French gastronomy was the end all be all of the American food world. With champions such as Jackie Kennedy and Julia Child, French cuisine represented both high culture and home cooking. But then American food tastes began to shift. Regional Italian became a starlet for a while and still commands a hefty performance fee. Now Asian and South American cooking garners our attention more than trout meuniere ever did. Watch for regional Mexican to explode in the next few years. Sadly, "French cooking" has by and large become the mom jeans of the culinary world.

Of course, this is an imperfect analogy, as things like charcuterie have been reborn in restaurants across America and the food of the bistro will never disappear. Ask yourself this, when was the last time a new restaurant opened that had a pure French bend and was not a bistro? When did you last get a craving for homard l'americaine or bernaise? Luckily there may be no finer cuisine suited to your home cooking explorations as that of the French. Most of the ingredients you already have and it requires very little in the way of intricate tools or burdensome techniques. So pull out those mom jeans and bring them back in style while you Prancercise about the house.

Steak au Poivre

Steak au poivre is a dish that no one will be debuting on a tasting menu any time soon. To make it, use any cut of beef you like, but I prefer the chuck eye roast which is like a faux filet. Most recipes call for veal stock or demi-glace, but you can omit them. The star of this dish is the pepper and the cream. The only key technique is basting this mother continuously as it cooks with hot butter.

Cut of beef, your choice
Peppercorns, a good amount, whole, crushed lightly but not ground
Brandy or Cognac, 2 tablespoons
1/2 cup cream

Crack your pepper corns in a mortar and pestle or however else you accomplish such things. Generously coat your beef with the peppercorns and let sit for thirty minutes. Heat a cast iron skillet till wisps of smoke rise from its surface. Season steak with kosher salt and place on the skillet.

After 3 minutes, flip steak over. Toss in a golf ball sized lump of butter and begin basting the meat. Baste furiously. After another 3 minutes, turn the steak on its side and brown all sides evenly. Continue basting with what should now be delicious brown butter. Remove steak from pan and allow to rest when at preferred doneness. But since you are cooking French food, go rarer than normal. Re-salt when the steak comes off the heat. 

Pour out the butter. Add brandy or cognac to the skillet and return to the stove. Scrape up all those crusty bits on the pan. Add cream, bring to a simmer, taste, adjust seasoning, and serve immediately on top of the steak.

Serve this with lots of cheap Bordeaux. Two reasons to do so. One, no one else is drinking this stuff, so there is a glut of inventory, which translates to affordable wine. Secondly, many of it is actually pretty tasty and almost tastes like expensive, old Bordeaux is supposed to taste like. 

La vie en rose. 

Thursday, May 30, 2013

A Quick Drink: Sangria

"Oooh sangria," you say "let's go drink some at the beach/Fly/Cinco de Mayo." Sangria is a drink, like the Mint Julep or White Russian, that requires a certain time, event, or place sensors to trigger your desire for one. You likely aren't drinking sangria with a bowl of gumbo in January, but once the warmth of spring descends you are looking to drink outside with something refreshing in hand.

We get hankerings for sangria on Sundays; this may or may not have anything to do with the fact that Sunday is technically Funday. Regardless after walking the hounds and baby around the park, Lindsay will remark that if I make a pitcher of sangria for the afternoon she will help me drink it. You may have a wonderful sangria recipe that you learned from a Jerry Jeff Walker song and I am sure it is great. However, next time you get the envie for something legal that also gets you so high, try this recipe from Jason Kosmas and Dushan Zaric's of Employees Only and their fantastic Speakeasy book

What we really love about this particular batch is the incredibly fragrant and sultry simple syrup it requires. Your whole house will fill with the smells of root beer or pho if you are of a Vietnamese bend. We generally do not let it sit overnight as we can never wait that long. Often we serve the saturated fruit on the side instead of in the glass. I find trying to navigate around a chunk of apple and slice of orange often leads to me spilling wine all over myself. You can use a garden variety Syrah from California, which you can pick up for a steal anywhere that sells wine. I try to drink only good rioja so I wouldn't use it in a sangria. This recipe doesn't use brandy which helps keep it light enough to consider making two batches. 

Not a bad way to spend a Sunday. 

Spiced Sangria Roja 
credit Jason Kosmas and Dushan Zaric

2 cups water
1 cup sugar
2 each whole cloves, cinnamon sticks, star anise
1 vanilla pod, split down the middle
3 thin slices of ginger

Combine the above and bring to a boil. Now simmer for ten minutes. Remove from heat and let steep for 30 minutes or so. Strain into a large pitcher.

1 bottle red wine
1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
1/8 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
1 orange, cut into quarter-wheels
1 lemon, cut into wheels
1 cup seeded and cubed melon (often I use apples)
1 cup red grapes, halved

Add the above to the syrup mixture and stir. Pop in the fridge for as long as you can wait. Serve over ice in a large glass. 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Top Shut the F Up

By now, you are likely aware that Top Chef is coming to New Orleans to film. And if you have been paying attention, there is a lot of discussion about whether or not it was proper for some of the funds from the BP disaster to be used to "sponsor" the series. Anthony Bourdain who has always recognized the brilliance and uniqueness of New Orleans suggested the BP money should be donated back to a New Orleans charity by Bravo. Bravo's Andy Cohen brought in tax rebates that went to Treme. That brought in David Simon to offer his point of view. Read this to catch up.

So if you are scoring at home. A New York food personality, a Baltimore newspaper man-cum-director, and a St. Louis exile who traffics in human reality are lecturing each other on the proper usage of funds received by Louisiana from a British company. This is either a punchline to the worst joke in history or a set-up for a Mark Twain quote. Now this may sound xenophobic, but it is quite presumptuous of people who don't live here to tell us what we can and can't do with our money. Sure, we may be jaded at the end of tourist season with outsiders, but really can you just leave us alone?

I have no problem with BP funds used to promote tourism going to Top Chef to lure them here. This is how the game is played. At least it is a better usage than just putting billboards on interstates or catchphrases tucked inside in-flight magazines. This money from BP was earmarked for a specific purpose: promoting tourism. It can't just go into the hands of shrimpers or fishermen or just be given to charity.

My problem isn't with the expense, its with the expectation. Does anyone really think a person who truly enjoys food and cooking doesn't already know that New Orleans is a good spot for both? Is some guy with a platinum rating on Yelp! Charlotte going to suddenly remember to visit New Orleans and see what the fuss is all about because of a Quickfire Po Boy Challenge?

What is more likely is this will be a retread of every New Orleans travel show or segment. There will be Brennan's. Lots of Brennans. There will be oysters, shrimp, and crab and sly references to "Creole" cooking by Padma which imply it sucks. There will be a second line Elimination Challenge and a Sazerac Quickfire. A Toyota Prius will drive from the Whole Foods Uptown to the swamp to cook alligator in a pirogue while Dixieland plays in the background. A cheftestant will wear a white cap and sling their take on beignets at Cafe du Monde. Katrina will be referenced more than Harold McGee by the cheftestants. Mardi Gras and voodoo will exist in a perfect harmony gumbo analogy.

But this is ok. We will watch and point out to each other how the contrived the Cajun challenge was and how old some chef looked. We are used to being painted with a brush as wide as the Mississippi as being a particular and sacrosanct way. The real problem is every tourist (and local) has their idea of how New Orleans is supposed to be. Like two Italian Americans fighting over whose grandmother made the best ragu. One says, "My grandmother's New Orleans used jazz bands, late nights at Lafittes, and oyster po boys." The other says, "Your grandmother is wrong, its Mardi Gras Indians, streetcar rides, and boiled crawfish."

Neither is right and both are wrong. But hey, at least there is food on the table.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

A Quick Drink: Riesling

You and I aren't drinking enough Riesling (pronounced Reese's Peanut Butter Cups). The International Association of Riesling Exporters and Importers' (IAREI) states that the average American drinks only 1 tablespoon of Riesling every two years. Art Vandelay, head of the IAREI, recently expressed his firm desire to "get that number up to 1/4 cup at least every eighteen months."

Well, you might be saying, why should I drink more Riesling? Chances are you are going to go out for spicy food, seafood, barbecue, or Asian food soon. Likely the waiter will come by first to take your drink order and you will request something disgusting like sweet tea or Pepsi. The reason you want these drinks is because of their inherent sweetness. Sweetness brings stability and helps balance out aggressive, bold flavors. Put down the sweet tea and ask for a Riesling instead.

What is Riesling? Riesling is a type of grape, grown mainly in Germany, but also Germany-light (Alsace), the Finger Lakes Region of New York, and other cool areas, such as Washington State and Sean Payton's bachelor pad. Besides having a touch of sweetness or honey on the palate, Rieslings can also have some acidity which makes them the George Gershwin of wines. You can pair them up with fancy food like smoked salmon and caviar or dress them down and pair with boiled crawfish. Try it with poached salmon with a grapefruit and ginger beurre blanc.

In short, drink more Riesling.

Grapefruit and Ginger Beurre Blanc

I use less butter than is traditionally called for per Ms. Child's classic recipe, as I do not think you really need 2 sticks of butter to achieve a rich and luxurious sauce. But look, Mrs. Child is probably right.

1 Shallot, minced
1 joint of ginger about the size of your thumb, peeled and roughly chopped
3 tablespoons of grapefuit juice
3 tablespoons of white wine
8 tablespoons of butter
Salt and Pepper, to taste

In a saucepan, combine the shallots, ginger, a pinch of salt, a few cracks of pepper, wine, grapefruit juice and 3 tablespoons of butter and bring to a rapid boil. Allow this mixture to reduce to a syrupy consistency. Take the remaining 5 tablespoons of butter and cut into small pieces roughly the size of your thumbnail. Or if you are a giant, the size of your pinky nail.

Strain the reduced sauce into a clean, unheated sauce pan. Immediately, add 2 pieces of the reserved 5 tablespoons of butter. Whisk furiously. Then, place pan on low heat and whisk in the remaining butter and remove from heat. Taste, adjust for seasoning, and spoon over poached or grilled fish for best results.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A Quick Drink: German Lager

Sometimes you just want a beer that tastes like beer. Of course, each beer drinker has their own expectations and biases about what beer should taste like. I enjoy a beer that makes me remember my first sip of beer. Maybe you were eight or ten, but at some point, you took a sip of beer when someone's back was turned. Your face promptly contorted into something resembling Jim Carrey's funny days. That will always mean, to me at least, a beer that sort of tastes like Dixie. Albeit, now I want a better version of that.

Lagers. That is what I reach for. These beers are fermented at colder temperatures resulting in a crisper, more refreshing beer than its richer cousin, ales. The Germans are really good at a few things: dismantling Barcelona with efficiency and ruthlessness, invading (but not conquering) other countries, engineering, turtlenecks, and brewing beer. Ayinger is my German lager of choice. This one here is called Jahrhundert Bier which means (pardon my German) "A beer perfect for after cutting one's grass."

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Mr. B's Bistro: Is It Worth It?

I'd love to link to the Mr. B's website, but it still has an automatic loud musical interlude attached to it. Turn it off on one page and go to another page and boom it shows up again. If you watch tv, you are familiar with the song. Never a good sign. Note to restaurants: I am going to your website for roughly the same reason one goes to your restaurant. Loud, abrasive music in either location is not welcome, no matter how much you paid for the jingle.

Onto the food. The bread is good. Warm and crisp and served with lots of cold butter. Come in here, soak up the handsome scene, drink a few martinis and eat two loaves of bread and you may have a pretty good meal. Venture farther than that and you are on your own.

For example the gumbo ya-ya, a longtime staple, leaves plenty to be desired in the diner's mind. For one thing, the broth was bitter perhaps owing to the extremely dark roux. The mini coasters of sausage were mealy and wet. They fell apart at the slightest urging into a crumbling mess. Duck springrolls, had the opposite effect, as their filling was dry and chalky. The just barely cooked wanton wrapper was reminiscent of a wet cigarette. The sweet ginger-garlic dipping sauce that came along for the ride was sugar coma inducing and a mess of muddled flavors. But the big slab of radicchio saved the dish, by giving us a five minute conversation of what it was possibly doing on the plate.

Entrees arrived after a long pause. The paneed veal was tough and led us to wonder if the first time it had been introduced to milk was when it met the overcooked, soggy pasta coated in an insipid alfredo sauce. Perhaps so, but it was not a great first impression for the two.

I've become a big fan of barbecue shrimp, but these had me revoking my fan club membership. The dish works best with Louisiana shrimp that are in the 10-12 count range or smaller. A key element of the dish, in my opinion, is the sweet, briny flavor of smaller shrimp helps offset the heat of the sauce. The shrimp at Mr. B's were too big which leads to them being overcooked. Hence, they become tough to peel. The sauce had a little too much Worcestershire flavor and not enough heat. One is left with an abundant supply of sauce, but the bread served on the side is flabby. Ask for another order of the good bread and plow through. You are almost finished.

Mr. B's Bistro: Is It Worth It? No.
201 Royal St.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Bugs & Brew for Drew

This Saturday April 20th, the Drew Rodrigue Foundation will host the 4th Annual Bugs & Brew for Drew Crawfish Cook-Off and Beer Festival in the River City Plaza at Mardi Gras World. More than 50 teams from around the city will be boiling up there best crawfish and lagniappe with their eyes on the first place trophy in each category, and local breweries will be on hand offering libations to quench the thirst of all those in attendance. The event also offers live music, entertainment for the kids, and a raffle full of prizes.

Drew Rodrigue was a fellow graduate of the Jesuit class of 2000, and a young man who embodied a fervent joie de vivre attitude until he lost his 7 year battle with cancer in August 2009. Drew never gave anything less than 110% in whatever endeavor he undertook - whether that be on the football field during high school, in the chapter room at the Alabama DKE house, in the Superdome cheering on the Saints, or in the treatment center at MD Anderson. The Drew Rodrigue Foundation aims to further Drew's legacy with its mission to change the lives of individuals who have stared their adversities in the face and have bravely decided to suit up and march onto the playing field of life and show others that giving up is not an option.

Proceeds from Bugs & Brew go toward furthering the mission of The Drew Rodrigue Foundation. In its first year, Bugs &; Brew helped the DRF raise $50,000 to establish a research grant with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society targeted towards Advanced Hodgkin's disease. In 2011, the DRF raised money towards the creation of the Drew Rodrigue Memorial Equipment Fund for Abbeville High School, where Drew volunteered as an assistant coach. Last year, the DRF established the Forty-Nine Society, which helps lift the spirits of those individuals fighting terminal disease. This year, proceeds from Bugs & Brew are set to go toward a new wing in the MD Anderson Cancer Center that is designed to provide entertainment  for young patients in the form of a media center.

Admission to Bugs & Brew is FREE. Crawfish, lagniappe, and beers are available for purchase a la carte, but the best bang for your buck is with the Cajun Pass, which is $60 for all you can eat and drink. The event includes a local craft brew exposition featuring selections from Abita, Nola Brewing, Tin Roof, Parish Brewing Co., Bayou Teche, Covington Brewhouse, and Chafunkta Brewing Co. The live music kicks off at 11:00am on Saturday with a performance by the Stone Rabbits, followed by Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes, Honey Island Swamp Band, and Papa Grows Funk closing down the stage.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Arnaud's: Is It Worth It?

All men have bias. One of mine, was a firmly held belief that Arnaud's was a has been, or maybe yet, a never was. A few years ago two group dinners in quick succession cemented in my skull that this old dame was getting by on purely the tourist, debutante, and Carnival trade. This is the worst combination of patrons to rely on for a restaurant recommendation. To wit, a dish of chicken pontalba arrived sans brabant potatoes. On other visit, creme brulee took a downmarket turn by substituting a ramekin of whipped cream for luscious custard. The response from the servers on both occasions, "Yeah, that's how that dish is served traditionally."

I was predisposed to develop a negative opinion on this restaurant.

But then a pitch perfect Sazerac arrived, cold and bracing under a faint whiff of anise. The first one dispatched, a second one arrived with little more than eye contact and desire. The handsome dining room soon took over with its glass and wood evoking, and at the same time establishing, this as a potential great place to spend a few hours eating and drinking. Certainly better, than say, prison.

Then a plate of souffle potatoes which brought to life an M.C. Escher drawing. Tucked into the folds of a starched napkin stood crisp, airy potatoes as fine as any served by its more famous relatives. They were hot and greaseless and a marvel of culinary architecture. It is as if the slices of potato trigger a natural defense mechanism and puff up to scare of prey. Do not worry, they are no match for a hungry appetite.

Less good was the much vaunted shrimp Arnaud, which suffered from a surprising blandness. A few more scoops of mustard or horseradish or a jolt of lemon were sorely needed. Baked oysters were inconsistent with a handful cold under their various topping or suffering from muddled flavors. The soups deserve your attention, especially a comforting and spicy rendition of turtle soup and a smoky, herbal gumbo z'herbes which gives Ms. Leah Chase's version considerable competition.

Pompano, veal, trout, steaks, etc... fill out the entrees with solid execution and minimal fuss. Sweetbreads are plump and crispy by technique and salty and rich by design with a meuniere sauce and capers. The traditions of French Creole classics are strictly adhered to with mostly superior results.

This isn't to say Arnaud's escapes criticisms. For one thing, the wine list is stuck in pre-Neanderthal days. Whoever is buying wine needs to look around and realize there are wine drinkers who a) cant afford a blockbuster Bordeaux or b) aren't content to drink a grocery store white burgundy at restaurant prices. Service, based largely on its proximity to the tourist trade, tends to treat anyone as a visitor. It would be better to reverse this and treat as everyone as a local.

We skipped dessert opting instead for the comfort of an after dinner drink at the French 75 Bar. There among an ambiance of dirty jokes and cigar smoke, Chris Hannah runs probably the finest restaurant bar in the world. If you find a better one, please let me know.

Taken as a whole, Arnaud's is an absolutely delightful place to be proven wrong.

Arnaud's: Is It Worth It? Yes.
813 Rue Bienville

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

A Quick Drink: Brandy

Of all the boozes, brandy appears to be the most uppercrust and pretentious of them all. Brandy even requires its own glass, the snifter, which sounds like an accessory to powdered tobacco rather than a vessel of inebriation. Brandy has such an exclusive air that even scotch drinkers call her twee. Brandy even has a masters level called Cognac, which requires a smoking jacket, manor house, and a chauffeur to even buy a bottle.

All snobbery aside, brandy is a vastly misunderstood alcohol. Let's start with what it is. Brandy is a spirit, normally distilled from wine. Other spirits like gin and vodka are generally distilled from grain. Brandies can also be made from fruits like pears, oranges, or apples, but technically these are called eaux-de-vie. A few years ago, I received a gift of three bottles of French eau-de-vie: Kirsch, pear, and plum. The few months after that are a blur. Use extreme caution.  

Not surprisingly, brandy production is most common in areas that produce wine. From left to right above, pisco from Peru, Spanish gran reserva brandy, and commodity brandy. The Christian Brothers brandy isn't for sipping, but does very well as an instrument to deglaze pans and for the occasional milk punch or Alexander. Use pisco in a classic pisco sour made with whatever citrus is available, currently that means grapefruits. Spanish gran reserva brandy works very well with a large chunk of dark chocolate.

A couple hundred words on brandy and not once did I mention this song? Its good to be back after my Hogs hiatus, but give me a few days to get warmed up.