Showing posts with label New Orleans. Show all posts
Showing posts with label New Orleans. Show all posts

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A New Orleans Dining Travelogue (Part 2: New School) - Peche, Root, Coquette, R'evolution, Bar Tonique

In Part 1 of my New Orleans Travelogue, I stuck with the "Old Guard" - traditional places, like Galatoire's, Felix's Oyster Bar, and Mr. B's Bistro, serving mostly traditional dishes. For a long time, it seemed like this was all you could find in New Orleans. New or old, it was as if every place was required by the Napoleonic Code to offer gumbo, shrimp remoulade, étouffée, and blackened redfish. You could tell the more contemporary places because they would affix a sprig of thyme or rosemary like a flag post in the middle of the plate.

That kind of culinary solipsism is sometimes one of the trade-offs of a city with such a passionate food culture. We saw much the same thing on our visits to Spain: the food is mostly outstanding - if you like Spanish food. But nobody talks about the Italian restaurants in Spain. Still, during our more recent visits to New Orleans - post-Katrina - things seems to be changing. The city not only has more restaurants than it did before the hurricane and floods (nearly 500 more, according to Tom Fitzmorris' count at The New Orleans Menu), it seems to be more open to a greater variety of restaurants.

To start exploring what's new, I met up with good friend, talented chef, and Louisiana native Chad Galiano (a/k/a Chadzilla), who returned home this past year after an extended sojourn in South Florida. We had an ambitious plan to hit three spots in the Central Business District for lunch in one day, though sadly ran out of steam after only two (I suspect New Orleans' liberal open container policy - are "go cups" also in the Napoloenic Code? - had something to do with it).


Pêche is a new addition to the small stable of restaurants opened by chef Donald Link. After first making a name for himself at Herbsaint, Link returned to his Cajun roots with Cochon, which opened only a couple months after Katrina (and which was one of the best meals of my last visit to New Orleans). Cochon Butcher, a butcher shop and sandwich shop around the corner, followed soon after. As their names suggest, Cochon is largely dedicated to the pig in all its glorious forms, while Pêche revolves around seafood.

So where better to start than with a big seafood platter?

(You can see all my pictures in this Peche flickr set).

Pêche's seafood platter was mostly a compilation of items that can also be ordered a la carte from the raw bar section of the menu. Oysters come from three different sources along the Gulf (on our server's recommendation, I punctuated them with a dash of the house-made habañero and sweet potato hot sauce on the table). Fresh head-on Gulf shrimp are steamed and chilled in their shells, retaining all their sweetness. A mound of smoked tuna salad has the smooth texture of deli tuna, but with a delicate perfume of wood smoke. Tiny crab claws swim in a soft vinaigrette brightened with chili and mint. A seafood salad combines cubes of raw tuna, tender cooked shrimp and fresh avocado.

I fear I will live out the rest of my years vainly trying to recreate the glory of the massive, over-the-top seafood platter we had at Au Pied de Cochon this summer; but on a more modest scale this resonated in all the same ways. There is something incredibly indulgent about having the bounty of the local waters laid out before you like this - fresh, pure, and essentially unadorned.

(continued ... read on for Root, Coquette, Bar Tonique, and Restaurant R'evolution)

Monday, October 21, 2013

A New Orleans Dining Travelogue (Part 1: Old School) - Felix's, Killer Poboys, Galatoire's, Mr. B's Bistro, Napoleon House

It's presumptuous to think you can genuinely understand a city's dining culture after only a few days. In a place with as rich a culinary heritage as New Orleans, it's downright foolish. Over the past few years I've eaten probably about a dozen meals in New Orleans - just about enough to feel like I'm barely scratching the surface of what the city has to offer. To give you a better idea of what I mean, here's my "New Orleans To Do List":

View New Orleans in a larger map

The places I've actually been to are only a small fraction of the pinpoints on that map. (Incidentally, if you find this map useful, I've got a few more of other cities and can look for excuses to post them). So I will try to restrain myself from the big deep thoughts, and instead recount a travelogue of about eight meals, and a few bars, over a recent long weekend in New Orleans:

Felix's Restaurant & Oyster Bar

I suspect everyone who visits New Orleans more than a couple times develops certain rituals. One of mine is that I like to ingest some oysters as soon as possible. After dropping my bag at the hotel, I headed straight for Iberville Street in the French Quarter. There's always a line at Acme Oyster House; there's almost never one at Felix's Restaurant & Oyster Bar, directly across the street.[1] I'd be willing to bet at least the price of a dozen oysters that they both get their supply from the same exact place. At Felix's they're available on the half-shell, "char-grilled," or in Rockefeller or Bienville modes; I sampled a half-dozen each of the first two varieties.

(You can see all my pictures from Felix's in this New Orleans flickr set).

Their Gulf oysters on the half-shell are plump, cold, mild, and more sweet than briny - maybe not the most characterful of oysters I've had, but far from the most offensive too. They go down easy, other than the fact that their bottoms are still caked with mud, making it tricky to sip their liquor from the shell without getting a mouthful of grit. "Char-grilled," meanwhile, means shucked, warmed on the grill and slathered with garlic butter and a sprinkle of parmesan cheese. Like New Orleans style BBQ shrimp, it's all mostly an excuse for dunking bread into that rich, buttery sauce - but I'll happily engage in that charade.

Speaking of rituals, I was slow to pick up on the DIY cocktail sauce program at Felix's. Every spot at the counter and every table is adorned with a still life composition of hot sauce bottles (both Tabasco and Crystal), Worcestershire sauce, and a tin of grated horseradish. An industrial size container of ketchup and little paper cups are positioned at the center of the bar, the idea being that you combine the ketchup and other accouterments according to your own taste to concoct your own personal magical blend (lemons are also available on request). For me, a dash of Crystal is all the oysters needed. As for the lady a few seats down, eating hers directly off the bar counter, with no ice platter, no plate, no nothing: well, everyone's got their own particular style.

Felix's Restaurant & Oyster Bar
739 Iberville Street, New Orleans, Louisiana

Felix's Restaurant & Oyster Bar on Urbanspoon

(continued ... read on for Killer Poboys, Napoleon House, Galatoire's and Mr. B's Bistro)

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Stella! - New Orleans

It is impossible for me to talk about Stella! without talking about its ebullient chef and owner, Scott Boswell. His life story sounds like something out of the Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. He came to professional cooking as a third career, yet in a short time since then has done stints with Iron Chefs Masahiko Kobe, Hiroyuki Sakai, Chin Kenichi and Masaharu Morimoto (and stages with other luminaries such as Grant Achatz, Charlie Trotter and Eric Ziebold as well). He was one of the first chefs to start the return to normal life in New Orleans after Katrina wreaked devastation, slinging burgers hot off the grill at his not-yet-opened Stanley restaurant for folks in need of sustenance, even as his flagship, Stella, in the middle of a renovation, was demolished. If you told me that he performed a heart transplant in between courses during our meal, I wouldn't have been surprised.

I also can't avoid talking about Chef Boswell because I likely wouldn't have had the chance to eat at Stella without his intervention. Our New Orleans travel plans fell into place late: I only knew around December 23 that we'd be going there a few days later, and there were very limited seatings available the day we hoped to visit Stella. But I also knew - because Chef Boswell is an avid (possibly compulsive) twitterer - that he was in the market for a Momofuku cookbook, for which Amazon had seemingly misplaced his order. I offered to bring him a copy in a transparent effort to curry favor. Though Amazon ultimately rectified his book order, he nonetheless bent over backwards to set us up with a reservation. And when I say bent over backwards, let me be clear: he personally arranged a reservation for us, on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, from Orlando, while on vacation, with his family, in the middle of roasting a 50-pound pig. And then tweeted, emailed or called about a half dozen times during the days thereafter to make sure we were coming. I was floored.

We eagerly arrived a few days later. The restaurant is an eclectically decorated place toward the northern end of the French Quarter, with two separate dining rooms that somehow feel both elegant and homey, perhaps bordering just on the edge of kitschy - like visiting the house of a fancy, rich grandma. As we entered, I spied Chef Boswell in the doorway to the kitchen and upon introducing ourselves we were greeted warmly and shown the kitchen. Chef Boswell is a bundle of non-stop energy and has the perpetually pleased look of a kid in a candy shop. When he's not in the kitchen, he's peeking around the corner to check on the diners like a mother hen tending to her flock, or sometimes roaming the dining room cradling a truffle seemingly the size of a baseball in his hand. I suspect that truffle has embedded its aroma in his palm like an olfactory tattoo by this point (maybe that's his plan).

Since my pictures are terrible, here is the rundown of the tasting menu:

Roasted Heirloom Potato Purée with Applewood Smoked Bacon Lardons, Fingerling Potatoes, Truffle-Scented Petite Brioche Croutons and Truffle Crème Fraiche Caviar
Lobster, Egg and Caviar ~ Farm Egg, Canadian Lobster and American Paddlefish Caviar
Jumbo Gulf Shrimp and Andouille Risotto with Baby Shiitake Mushrooms, Melted Brie, Local Scallions and Virgin Olive Oil
Pan-Roasted Hawaiian Walu with Hot Buttered Popcorn Crust, Louisiana Crawfish and Corn Maque Choux and Sour Cream and Onion Butter
Steak and Egg ~ Seared Filet of Prime Beef Tenderloin and Sunny Side Up Clyde's Farm Araucana Egg with Breakfast Potatoes, Truffled Hollandaise, Texas Toast with Foie Gras Butter
San Andre Grilled Cheese Sandwich with Toasted Almond Brittle and Wild Huckleberry Compote
Chocolate Chip and Autumn Truffle Ice Cream with Truffle Panna Cotta and Raw Truffle Honey

Truffles, caviar, lobster, more truffles ... this is a menu that reads like one of those Iron Chef episodes (the original, not the American spin-off, that is) where the chefs are trying to sway the judges by shamelessly plying them with luxurious food products. Stated another way, it seems like a menu drafted by someone who isn't paying for their own ingredients. It is indulgent and over the top, all in a good way.

Though the wine pairings were tempting, a decent selection of half-bottles provided the opportunity to get to know a couple wines in a little more intimate detail, and so we had a 2007 Louis Michel Chablis Premier Cru Montmain, and a 2005 Arcadian Fiddlestix Vineyard Pinot Noir.

shrimp amuse
Our meal started with a light, delicate bite - a Louisiana shrimp infused with kim chi, nestled in a mango purée, crowned with crispy taro strips. The sweet-spicy aroma of the mango provided a nice bridge between the sweet crustacean and the kim chi flavors, though I would have enjoyed even more chile heat.

kabayaki wonton

A second amuse bouche followed, this beautiful eel kabayaki wonton atop a puddle of a yellow curry sauce, in an equally beautiful glazed ceramic bowl. There was a nice crunch to the fried wonton, contrasting with the rich, salty-sweet filling within, all enhanced by the curry spice which was further enlivened with dots of chile oil.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Cochon - New Orleans

There are few restaurants I can think of that are so simultaneously in the moment and rooted in tradition as Cochon. With nose-to-tail dining and in-house charcuterie all the rage, Cochon's menu appears to be all over the latest trends: pig ears, rabbit livers, boudin, pork cheeks and ham hocks abound. Yet for Chef Donald Link, who also runs the more upscale Herbsaint, all of this is really nothing new: for him, this kind of whole hog dining descends in a not-too-crooked line from his family's Cajun, and ultimately Germanic, traditions.[*] We stopped into Cochon for a late lunch during our New Orleans visit and got some prime seating - the "Chef's Counter" in the back of the long, wood-paneled space, just to the side of the pass and the open kitchen - where we got to drool over every dish as it went out.

This made it all the more difficult to decide, yet we ultimately went with the oyster and meat pie, grilled shrimp with chow-chow, an arugula salad with pumpkin calas, and the boucherie plate. Before those came out, though, we would get to try another bit of the pig:

In addition to bread, Cochon serves fried pork rinds, with a little cane syrup for dipping. How can you not love the place? And yes that's a beer with lunch. I was on vacation, and it was at least 2pm. It isn't your concern.

The oyster pie seems to be a Cajun tradition, with lots of oysters cooked down with the Cajun "trinity" (onions, green bell pepper, celery) thickened with cream and flour to make the filling; the oyster and meat pie appears as a not-uncommon variant. In my vicarious experiences here in Miami from folks with Louisiana roots, I've seen it done either as an actual pie with a cracker-y crust (as Chef Kris Wessel does at Red Light) or, as with Cochon's, like a turnover (as Chefs Chad Galiano and Kurtis Jantz did with an oxtail pie for this Paradigm dinner). The filling of this oyster and meat pie was dense and loaded with flavor, and I liked how the oysters made the flavor transition from briney and seafood-y to rich and meaty, more like the umami-rich dark Chinese oyster sauce than like fresh oysters. The crust was flaky and buttery with just the right amount of crisp on the exterior.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Dante's Kitchen - New Orleans

The single most unexpected and intriguing bite I experienced in New Orleans may have been the first one I had at Dante's Kitchen. It was an amuse bouche: a cube of a beet and chocolate cake, resting in a puddle of a creamy buttermilk dressing, topped with translucent cubes of an onion jam and a little sliver of chive. It seemed an unlikely, almost perverse, combination. Not that nobody has ever done a beet and chocolate cake before; but unlike many of these, which are premised on the notion of "sneaking" vegetables into other foods (as if they are so loathsome that they must be disguised), in this one both the beet and chocolate flavors were vivid and almost synergistic. This started with the roundly earthy flavor of beetroot, but with an almost fruity note to it brought out by the chocolate; the chocolately notes were also somehow made more earthy and deep from the combination. And buttermilk dressing? Onion jam? It made no sense at all, yet it worked perfectly. I loved it.

Just the mere presence of an amuse bouche was something of a suprise. Dante's Kitchen is a casual, laid-back place in the Riverbend neighborhood of New Orleans. It's tucked into the corner of two streets in an old cottage-style house where the servers are all wearing jeans and unmatched, untucked shirts. The wooden flooboards creak and there's funky local artwork on the walls. Also on the walls are jars upon jars of pickled vegetables, giving a strong hint at one of the focal points of Chef Emmanuel Loubier's cooking here: extracting all the goodness possible from the surrounding area's produce.
There's no "sneaking" vegetables into anything here. On a chalkboard as you walk in is a list of "what's local" on the menu, and there have to be at least two dozen items on the list - mostly fruits and vegetables but eggs and charcuterie as well (sorry for some lousy pictures, by the way). The menu features about a dozen appetizers, and maybe about half that many entrées, supplemented with a good selection of "small plates," and rounded out with about a half dozen vegetable options. It's a great menu for grazing, which is the approach we took, ordering an appetizer, a couple small plates and a couple vegetables.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Lüke - New Orleans

Even a successful restaurant has certain inherent limitations on its profitability. You can only squeeze so many butts into so many seats. You can only increase your prices by so much before you wander beyond whatever particular niche of the dining market you've captured. So for many - particularly in this era of celebrity chefdom - at some point there comes the urge to grow, which means adding additional venues.

There are at least a couple different approaches to such growth. Some restaurants take what I call the "clone and colonize" approach, bringing the same package to different regional or even international markets. Nobu has restaurants in nearly twenty different cities in a dozen different countries. Joel Robuchon (after basically retiring from cooking) has restaurants in Paris, London, Monaco, Hong Kong, Macao, Tokyo, New York and Las Vegas. A plethora of chefs have set up satellite offices in Vegas, and over the past couple years the influx of "invasive exotic species" has made its way to Miami as well. Even Thomas Keller has gone bi-coastal with Per Se in New York, plus Bouchons in Las Vegas and now Beverly Hills.

Other chefs stay closer to home, creating fiefdoms in their native territory. In Seattle, Tom Douglas has opened several restaurants all within a few blocks of his original flagship, Dahlia Lounge. Here in Miami, restaurateur Myles Chefetz has done much the same thing on the "SoFi" (South of Fifth Street) end of South Beach with Prime 112, Nemo, Shoji Sushi, Big Pink, and the latest addition, Prime Italian. Jonathan Eismann is looking to do the same in the Design District, where he recently opened PizzaVolante a block away from his flagship Pacific Time and will soon be opening Q and Fin right down the street. (Of course some chefs follow both approaches: Mario Batali has his chubby fingers in nine New York restaurants, three in Las Vegas, and a few in L.A. too).

Unlike the "clone and colonize" approach, which simply seeks to duplicate the same experience in a different venue, the "fiefdom" approach requires that there be something to distinguish one restaurant from another to reach different segments of the same geographic market. The easiest thing to do, particularly if you started with a high-end restaurant, is to do a lower-end, more budget-friendly place (note that David Chang did this in reverse, starting with Momofuku Noodle Bar and later opening the higher-end Ko); but then what? If you want to build an empire, the next step is to diversify the range of cuisines you offer.

That's what John Besh has done in New Orleans. Chef Besh's reputation was made at his Restaurant August, which I'd loosely characterize as contemporary French in style with a strong influence from the Creole and Cajun cuisines and native ingredients of Louisiana. Riding the waves of acclaim for August (to say nothing of other favorable attention including a strong appearance in Top Chef Masters), Chef Besh now runs no fewer than a half-dozen restaurants in New Orleans. They range from the inevitable steakhouse, to an Italian restaurant, Domenica, to the one we visited, Lüke.

Lüke is a brasserie with a curious Franco-Germanic (Alsatian?) tilt to it. The menu, picking up on some of the trends-du-jour (not necessarily a pejorative, I happen to be very much in favor of some of these), features lots of charcuterie and many varieties of pig parts. It also has typical brasserie items like moules & frites, roast chicken, steak & frites, and croque monsieur (or madame). The Germanic/Alsatian tilt manifests in dishes such as flamenküche (a/k/a tarte flambée),choucroûte, and an entirely unexpected matzo ball soup (!)

It's a somewhat rustic looking place with a bit of a turn-of-the-century feel, featuring a long bar with carved wooden pillars, tiled floors, a pressed tin ceiling, and fans operated by a pulley-and-belt system supposedly invented in the 1880s. We showed up early for our reservation and so started our meal at the bar, where we sampled their custom-brewed pilsner and some items from the raw bar.

The local P&J oysters were impeccably fresh and expertly shucked, and the Louisana shrimp were likewise fresh, sweet and tender. I generally prefer a smaller, tighter oyster like a kumomoto to a big sloppy one, but these were a happy medium - plump, firm and loaded with salty liquor. I might have hoped for something more adventurous to go along with them than cocktail sauce and horseradish sauce, but all they really needed was a squeeze of lemon anyway. Both the oysters and the shrimp seemed like a remarkable bargain at $7 and $11 per half-dozen, respectively.