Friday, February 20, 2009

Universally Appealing Corniness

I've always been a sucker for cornbread. The fact that I get excited over 33-cent boxes of Jiffy mix should attest to that. I just frickin love cornbread, whether it's the coarse grainy texture of said Jiffy mix, the soft, crumbly yellow squares from the (Southern) supermarket, or best yet, when it's the hot stuff straight from a restaurant's oven.

In New Orleans, I encountered the most special cornbread ever, at a little hole in the wall on Oak Street uptown (a Carrollton neighborhood filled with cute, privately owned restaurants, bistros, shops, bars, and coffee spots and the site of the delicious Po-Boy Preservation Festival each fall) that's actually pretty famous -- Jacques-Imo's.

Owned by renowned chef Jacques Leonardi, a fellow Tulane University alumnus and a graduate of the Chef Paul Prudhomme (of K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen; the "Magic" chef himself) school of cooking, his eclectic style reflects those deep, smoky flavors born of the Cajun style of cooking often found at K-Paul's. His informal, friendly personality does, too, but his personality, as well as the character of the restaurant and food bring daring eccentricity to a whole other level. Serving a lot of fresh gamey meats and a variety of fish and seafood, every entree comes with his signature spinach salad in a black sesame and sweet soy viniagrette blend (the house and only dressing) and two sides for around $30 and change. (*For photos of some key dishes, as well as the original of where I borrowed the above picture from, click here or on the picture.*)

The vibe is funky, bohemian, and exotic--"Jesus candles" light up each of the tables, set with mismatched vinyl cloths; the chairs are a bowlegged ragamuffin bunch; the furiously spinning ceiling fan looks ready to fall from the swamp-shack rear dining room, complete with splintering wood beams; the kitchen is fully exposed and must be walked through to get to the dining area and/or bathroom ... the list goes on. But then again, you wouldn't expect anything less from a founder whose regular uniform is a chef's jacket and Bermuda shorts, whose beard is always perfectly trimmed but whose hair looks styled in a windtunnel.

The food is incredible. The flavors are unexpected yet familiar, complex but strong, and the taste of the meat shines through without being plain. But as an unabashed carb-slut in addition to being a general foodwhore, the fresh corn muffins at Jacques-Imo's really take the cake.

Freshly baked in butter-coated trays all night long, these come to the table piping hot, with crackling crisp edges and a rich corn flavor that is very sweet for cornbread without being achingly so. A perfect balance. These pre-dinner treats are lightly glazed with slighly salted butter, and have fresh toasted garlic on top, filling the little crannies. For a splash of color, since they don't contribute much flavor, dried parsley flakes are sprinkled over it.

There's a satisfying thin crunch as you break into the fragrant muffins, the teasingly sweet corn taste covering your tastebuds as the scent of garlic wafts up your nose for a sensory overload of amazing flavor. With each bite, a small puff of hot steam enters your mouth, and milk or buttermilk-tinged, moist, precious crumbs scatter. It's actually very impressive how extremely light and not at all dry these muffins are, given their external crispness and small size.

To sum it up, you know how a lot of people go to Red Lobster just for those addicting Cheddar Bay biscuits? Up the ante on the food, and the corn muffins are that much better proportionately.

Can't wait for dinner/carb overload tonight!

No comments:

Post a Comment