Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Charlie's Steak House: Is It Worth It?

The opening salvo at Charlie's, onion rings stacked higher than Tulane's Kappa Sigma house. 

Want to know why New Orleans is different? For two and a half months we abuse our bodies with binge drinking and gluttonous gorging. We make poor decisions, commit multiple sins, and smoke too many cigarettes during Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's and Mardi Gras. But on Ash Wednesday and the first Friday of Lent, we have convinced ourselves that if we don't eat meat the charms and delights of heaven, nirvana, or the fields of Elysia await should we meet an untimely death on St. Patrick's Day.

Which is all the more reason why on the first Friday of Lent, I crave a steak. Because of my Catholic schooling, I know that God expects us to yield to temptation, so long as we repent. Not one to let God down, I headed out to Charlie's Steak House on the first Friday of Lent to do some sinning. Charlie's occupies a blink-and-you-miss-it block of Dryades Street about two blocks off Napoleon. Its the kind of neighborhood joint that once littered the New Orleans landscape, before NIMBYs decided such things were as welcome as a varmint bearing Wal-Mart plans.

You enter through the bar, and veer left into a dining room lined with photos, newspaper clippings, and wood paneling. You should feel right at home if you remember the old lions of New Orleans dining - the Brunings, the Mr. Ed's, Bull's Corner. The wine list is short and sweet, but the Old Fashioneds are stout and cold. Soon a plate of onion rings arrive, thin and begging for a few good shakes of salt. The onion rings come not with some newage guacamole aioli, but some hot sauce and ketchup. They are fried crisper than a new twenty dollar bill.

Sometime after eating half of the onion rings, a salad will show up that is so tragically unhip, its cool in the Bywater. Iceberg lettuce, a chip of sliced, grayish red tomato, and a thick blue cheese dressing. If you are a person who looks at wings as an efficient delivery mechanism for blue cheese, this is your salad. Also, we may be soul mates. Pro tip: add the onion rings to the salad.

Your options are limited: a T-bone, a filet, and a newly added ribeye. The ribeye is a massive shingle of glistening fat streaked beef. The filet is taut and thick cut allowing a maximum ratio of charred exterior to rosy or in my case, red, interior. The steaks suffered from a slight lack of salt, but this was remedied by combining the steak and mushrooms bordelaise into one bite. Very rarely does one plus one equal three, but in this case it does. Feel free to skip the potatoes au gratin which are clunky.

Here is the thing with Charlie's. This is the kind of place that isn't anywhere near perfect and it doesn't try to hide its imperfection. You come to Charlie's for the service, which is sharp and funny, the ambiance, which is slightly garage band in a good way, those onion rings, blue cheese dressing that is richer than a Gates, the mushroom bordelaise and a well-cooked steak. I wouldn't recommend coming to Charlie's just once, but if I had to pick one restaurant in New Orleans to become a regular at, this would be in the running.

The road to eternal salvation may not be paved with steak on Fridays, but the path to the garden of earthly delights is.

Charlie's Steak House: Is It Worth It? Yes.
4510 Dryades St.
Dinner only, Tuesday - Saturday

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Slay the Golden Dragon

Ma po tofu at Jung's Golden Dragon II.
Photo by renee b. photography.
Before banh mi started turning up on menus like mushrooms after an autumn rain, before the David Chang fueled ramen and steamed bun craze, and before food nerds were drooling over the Pok Pok phenomenon, an ambitious meal of Asian cuisine usually featured exotic dishes like egg rolls dipped in duck sauce, crab rangoon,  and Mongolian beef. But somewhere along the way, someone decided that Chinese food was too tired, too bastardized for the American palate, and so an entire nation's culinary cannon faded into obscurity like music videos on MTV.

But what most of us ignorant lambs failed to realize is that Chinese food is every bit as exciting as the new bowl of soup that you recently discovered at your favorite pho shop. In this month's issue of OffBeat Magazine, we review Jung's Golden Dragon II, a Chinese restaurant where one can either indulge in familiar fare like shrimp toast and mandarin chicken or explore the unknown in a bubbling hot pot of pig intestine. Both yield splendid results.

Jung’s Golden Dragon II - Birdie
3009 Magazine Street
(504) 891-8280
Open Daily 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Restaurant R'ant

First a word of thanks to the people at Restaurant R'evolution. For too long, I've been a passive diner, content to just let a meal unfold and let small problems slide by forgotten until a dinner post mortem. But see, small problems often hint at larger problems. Like slight tremors along the San Andreas, they foretell much bigger issues. Thanks to R'evolution, I think I'll speak up early and often.

So from now on, when I walk into a nearly empty restaurant and are promptly seated at an awful table, I won't keep quiet. I'll ask to move. Who knows what causes hostesses to place me so close to their hostesses stand? I can't imagine anyone wants to spend anymore time with me than they have to, but there we were once again sitting within airshot of air traffic control.

Perhaps next time I walk into a restaurant where only a select number of the tables have tablecloths, I will ask for the manager. When the manager comes over, I'll make him an offer. Either move us to one of those tables or take ten percent of our bill. Why not? If you are going to charge the same prices across the dining room, why shouldn't I get the same cost as other diners? Who makes the decision to clothe only half the tables? You either want the hassle and expense of putting tablecloths on tables or you don't. To do so only halfway shows me you only care about some diners, not all of them. And just a tip, a tablecloth would cover up the ridges in a table where you turn a four top into table for five.

This is a town that likes to be offered a drink. Normally it is customary to do so shortly after sitting down, as a way to welcome your guests. We were seated and we waited. And we waited. And we waited. And we waited. Are you tired of reading that sentence over and over again? Imagine how we felt waiting for a drink order to be taken. We waited another twenty minutes for our drink order to arrive, one of which was a beer, the other three classic drinks which have been made in New Orleans for decades. A 12:30 reservation got its first drinks at 1:10 pm. Next time, I'll bring in a flask. Someone could have died of thirst.

Breads came next. They were dry and stale. This should have tipped us off that the kitchen took a day off. A few orders of crab beignets for the table, which had the dubious pleasure of being one of the better things we would eat. A plate of four came with four different sauces, none of which were provided in sufficient quantity to enjoy and hidden at the bottom of a reservoir under the beignets. I had an easier time getting my freshmen homecoming's date bra off than scooping out these sauces. In both cases, I failed.

Who knows whether John Folse or Rick Tramonto developed the recipe for the snapping turtle soup, but likely each of them would blame the other. It was greasy, bland, and resembled a chili, which is not a compliment. The death by gumbo was delicious, with a rich thick emulsified stock draped around a partially boned and stuffed quail.

With the soup course, the real problem of R'evolution manifested itself. The servers are trying to pull off a highly intricate and choreographed service style with all the finesse and elegance of sumo wrestlers pirouetting. Here is how it is supposed to go. Plates are either dropped simultaneously or the women are served first. When pouring soup tableside, it helps for it to happen in sync. Two in our party got the same soup. The server went back and forth between the two diners filling the bowls in a piecemeal fashion, until all the soup in her tureen was gone. If you don't have the staff or expertise to pull off on-site plating, just add the soup to the bowl in the kitchen. Our server was sweet and tried, but without any management or a maitre d', the whole service was bumbling and adrift. What appeared to be the people in charge spent most of their time huddled over POS machines and idly chattering.

I certainly won't encourage anyone to order the eggs a la creme, which is a martini glass of scrambled eggs topped with a baby spoon of caviar. Good thing someone has the option to spend up to $80 on this. The bird in a cage somehow managed to make braised dark meat dry, breast meat moist, and skin flabby. To paraphrase Meatloaf, two out of three ain't good. The watery broth at the bottom of the bowl vowed to help OJ Simpson find the real coq au vin sauce.  Please learn how to make rich and delicious mashed potatoes before trying to make a truffled version. Your peanut butter ice cream was the highlight: luxurious, creamy, nutty, and slightly salty. Do more of that.

The thing with all restaurants, but especially high end dining, is they need a force, someone in control who sets the tone. They need more than just loads of money thrown at them, faux marriages, Robert E. Lee's camp stove, and press conferences. Restaurants need someone to care about the place and the comfort and enjoyment of the guests on a daily basis. There is a saying in football that if you have a dual quaterback system, you don't have a quarterback. I think that applies here. We left wondering who exactly is in charge?

We are well past the days where one expects to see a chef owner in the kitchen. Usually a chef with other concerns leaves a lieutenant or two to watch over and to make sure his or her vision is executed.  I left unclear as to what the vision at R'evolution even is. Is it fresh spins on classic Creole and Cajun cooking? A high end steakhouse? A time capsule of two men's cooking careers? What are they trying to do?

Until they figure out what they are, I'll complain as best one can, by going somewhere else.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

A Quick Drink: Vodka

There is nothing cool about vodka in the high-end cocktail world. Vodka has very little cache as a serious spirit to those mustachioed mixologists popping up at the newest Death Cab for Cutie inspired craft cocktail bar in your neck of the woods. Perhaps dismissive is too strong a word, but some bartenders certainly view vodka as a boring spirit. To be fair, vodka is not necessarily a liquor one seeks out if one is looking for excitement. By definition, vodka is odorless, flavorless, and colorless. Consider it the reverse of a gated subdivision. The bottles may all look different, but inside the houses are the same. There are flavored vodkas worth exploring. However, save for one or two of them, if I want flavored vodka, I'll just ask for gin.

This only tells half the story. Sometimes you want a spirit that isn't going to do much besides bring the alcohol and stay the hell out of the way. A Bloody Mary with any other spirit besides vodka always seems out of balance with the spirit and the heavily spiced mixer fighting like a bunch of freshmen at their first kegger. A refreshing greyhound needs the vodka to allow the bracing sweetness of that perfect citrus orb to shine through. Vodka gets along great with fruit juices, which is one reason why you got lucky in high school. The other reason was the Dave Matthews Band.

I like this drink because it is a liquid expression of a favorite salad of mine. Grapefruit and fennel are a natural combination. Here the vodka does the heavy lifting with a wash of Herbsaint providing just a tiny whisper that springtime, bathing suits, and days of lounging poolside aren't far off. The splash of sparkling water gives just enough effervescence to set the drink alive.

Spring is Coming

3 parts of vodka
2 parts of fresh squeezed grapefruit juice
Herbsaint or Pernod
Splash of sparkling mineral water
Grapefruit twist, for garnish

Pour a tablespoon or so of Herbsaint or Pernod into a rocks glass. Swirl it around. Dump it out. Park the Herbsaint rinsed glass in the freezer with a handful of ice placed inside while you assemble the drink.

In a mixing glass combine the vodka and grapefruit. Add ice and shake. Strain into the rocks glass. Top with an ounce or so of sparkling mineral water. Garnish with grapefruit twist.

Pro Tip: This wouldn't be a bad drink to batch for a flask along the parade route this weekend. Just add a tablespoon of Herbsaint or Pernod, mix to combine, and pour into your flask. You can omit the sparkling water.