Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Epicurean Adventures: Impressed by Chef Ganesh (@ Sara's, But That Doesn't Rhyme)

Due to the strong urgings of my wedding florist who is fast becoming a friend, I was encouraged to check out a neighborhood spot in the Riverbend area of Uptown--a charming subsection of the Carrollton area just a turn of the Mississippi (a river known for snaking curves and meandering paths) away from my own humble abode in what was historically known as Black Pearl. I rode my powder blue cruiser with the sweet cream fenders up the road to harass the ultra-talented Ashley Bateman of NOLA Flora about my centerpieces last week, and as we tend to do, we got to talking. I told her about The Vicarious Food Whore and as another avid foodie and good New Orleanian, was full of suggestions about the treasures hidden in our own neck of the woods.

Anyone who has lived here knows that this type of discussion could go on for days and days, from the first cup of cafe au lait to glass of sweet tea to the last mint julep of the night. With a wealth of restaurants nestled into residential blocks, these local "secrets" are some of New Orleans' best. Mat and Naddies, Dante's Kitchen, Brigtsen's, One Restaurant ... and this is just in my tiny nook, within 5 square blocks. But one very, very different type of restaurant had taken Ashley's fancy, and although it's located directly next to hers, wafting aromas to intermingle with her fresh flowers, I found out that convenience was not the only reason she was a fan of Sara's.

Being on good terms with her chef neighbor, she arranged for Boy and I to go to dinner on her referral, and eager to try something new, I of course accepted. In fact, I was so interested that I actually turned down patron tickets to City Park's Lark in the Park event, especially since I had already promised Chef Ganesh Ayyengar that I'd be there and I'd just gotten the invite the day of the event. It's just not me to be a flake.

A tiny little cottage with a tiny little sign hid the magnitude of the elegant dining room of Sara's Restaurant & Bar. Plush, comfortable cigar-room chairs in gem-toned teal surrounded dark wood tables, and the heavy, masculine antique-style furniture along the wall reminded me of the understated elegance of my sorority house. We'd gotten there early in the evening and had the dining room to ourselves to explore as we would, but I waited until later to poke my nose into the private renovated patio-type private room (shown left) in the back and the low table with pillow seating area between the two main spaces.

I always just drink lemon water with my meals, and only if I have to drink anything at all, since I'd rather fill my stomach with food rather than beverage and I like to taste the food by itself without the influence of any drink. So it took me a little bit to notice that there were little pieces of lemon in my ice-cold water already, the juice diluted and serving just to give the water a subtle crispness. This, I thought, was a very nice touch.

Boy and I debated over the menu for quite some time over what I'd get. There were a lot of strange, unfamiliar, and exciting choices and it was difficult to choose. Knowing that the chef's specialty was Indian made us of course veer towards Indian, but this is one of the ethnicities of food that I have no experience with. At all. I don't even know what it is that I've eaten in the past. So even though I was into trying new stuff, I had a twinge of apprehension due to the uncharted waters I was now navigating.

After grilling our patient server, I went with the eggplant dish (which doesn't appear on the menu you can take home, unfortunately) and Boy, who had no such qualms about Indian food nor about basic decision-making, immediately requested their specialty, the Lamb Oxford (photo right). I wasn't starving due to the massive po-boy I'd devoured at Parkway Tavern earlier that day (this was really an excellent Friday, come to think of it), but I couldn't resist also throwing in the Oyster Torte as an appetizer.

For some reason, I was expecting baked oysters in a shell. The description said "Louisiana oysters baked with herbs, Gouda, and Gruyere with Creole mustard cream sauce," and since I've had Drago's and their charbroiled bites of heaven on my mind since I first tried them, my consciousness totally glossed over the word "torte." What came out of the kitchen was a charming mini-pie shaped quiche-like tart with a generous coat of Creole mustard sauce on half of the plate. The spices were done well and each bite had a life of its own, the Creole mustard adding just the right amount of acid to lighten up the denseness of the snack. The oyster flavor was nicely dispersed, but being such a tender and delicate mollusk, some of the smaller pieces toughened up in the baking. However, this didn't detract too much from the dish.

My main course, the eggplant thingamabob, was in short, incredible. Given my past experience with Indian food at the Magazine Street lunch buffet at Nirvana, I wasn't prepared to be too impressed. But boy, was I wrong.

Skin-on perfectly bite-sized pieces of tender young eggplant filled the majority of the sizeable plate. With spices separating from the thick brown sauce, I prepared myself for some fairly intense heat, since in my experience, an oily red sheen means hot chili oil ... that's the Szechuan/Sichuan way, a style I'm familiar with because of my father's dabbling in it. A tentative sniff awakened my appetite instanteanously; the scent was rich and tantalizing. With a triangle of soft, fluffy, and steaming hot naan in one hand and at the ready, I took my first nervous bite.

A sweet, sweet heat filled my mouth and visions of tamarinds obscured my vision. This was love ... and not a pure love. It was a smoldering love that burned after half a dozen heaping forkfuls, that carried with it richness, pain, and pleasure. The vegetables were unrecognizable in the luxurious, thick brown sauce, cloaked in its darkness and mysterious flavors, all smoky sugars and tangy tastes. They were soft but not in an unpalatable way; rather, the vegetables all melded together in a well-orchestrated harmony of soft crunching of seeds, slow separation of skins, and burst of succulent juices from the flesh of the eggplant.

The golden lentils, spilled on the plate like a golden blanket with the dark green embroidery of what seemed to be spinach, was a mild and starchy flavor that offset the complex and exotic spices of the eggplant. The closest comparison in terms of texture that I can come up with is coarsely crushed golden soybeans or cooked dehyrated peas. To set it all off, a ball of white, fluffy Basmati rice with just a pinch of cumin came with it as well, topped off with a thin tortilla-like chip made of lentils for a delightfully nutty taste.

Chef Ganesh sent out a dessert, turning a blind eye to the food babies that were visibly apparent in my belly and Boy's. A white chocolate mango cheesecake, the cool feeling was a welcome relief to the somewhat banked fire that yet smoldered at the back of my throat (a complaint that was laughed off as politely as possible by Boy and the chef himself, while Boy proceeded to literally wipe my plate clean with the remaining naan). The white chocolate was light and refreshing, and the fresh mango flavor a tropical palate-cleanser. A graham cracker crust made it feel much more familiar, as did the ripe strawberry.

Like I said--what a great Friday. And for under $16! This certainly is the good life.

Sara's Restaurant & Lounge
724 Dublin Street

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