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.