Monday, March 30, 2009

Eater's Remorse: Soul as a Necessary Ingredient @ Maple St. Cafe

There's a huge difference between food with "soul" and food without. The ability to detect this essential ingredient (or lack thereof) is something, I think, you acquire without fully realizing it. The skill creeps up on you; you grow so accustomed, in New Orleans, to eating food with great big heaps of soul in it, that when you finally eat something that doesn't have that depth and heart, it's actually kind of shocking.

This revelation struck me when I dined at the Maple Street Cafe for the very first time last week. Constantly advertising in the local Clipper magazine for buy-one-get-one-half-off entrees, Boy and I thought it'd be fun to do a cheap meal within walking distance. After all, sometimes it's your own neighborhood that you explore last. A cute little cottage house with the added draw on a warm March evening of alfresco dining, the menu seemed promising. The menu selection was very reasonably priced ($12 and up), and the high-ceilinged bi-level dining room was mom-and-pop cafe cozy. We settled in.

Boy and I were feeling both poor and fat that day, due to the fact that we hadn't gone grocery shopping for a record three weeks, and opted to just get entrees and not load up on appetizers like we usually do. The decision was a pretty tough one since all the options sounded pretty good. The selections were mostly Italian, but I wasn't feeling all that noodly, so after much consideration, I chose the duck. It's my favorite meat, and for under $20 for a seared duck breast, it seemed like a good idea. Boy thought this was a valid point and got the veal something.

We were starving and consequently very happy to see the bread arrive at the table. Crispy, toasted, thick slices of French bread steamed up from the cloth napkins, but it was with great sadness that I noted there were only two pieces. At a table of two, two isn't really enough, in my opinion. Two pieces of bread always look kind of sad and lonely in a basket, and it just seems kind of awkward. Also, two pieces of bread tend to go rather quickly when there's any kind of wait. But alas, two there was; and in a minute's time, two there ceased to be.

The bread was of a nice, dense quality, and the ball of butter in the little dish was pleasant, with herbs and what seemed to be chili flakes mixed into the light yellow. The toasting had the bread warmed all the way through and caused the cool butter to melt on contact. This was nice, since it allowed me to use an even more sickening amount of butter than usual.

After a few long moments of wishing for more bread, our server came out with our meals. Hefty plates just full of color, I was excited. I had ordered the seared pepper-crusted duck breast in a blueberry cognac sauce, a combination I thought fresh, spring-timey, and inventive. It came with several vegetable types, which made me feel really good and less fat about what I'd been eating all week. The veggies added a lush splash of color: royal purple cabbage, sprightly green broccoli, vibrant orange carrots, and ivory mashed potatoes. The sauce was a rich blue-violet over the charcoal-hued layer of pepper over the duck breast, and plump whole blueberries cascaded down the meat into a pool of the sauce, oil-tinged with duck juices. Basically, mom-and-pop cafe, with mom providing a full day's serving of greens ... but a little fancier.

Always saving the best for last, I dove into the vegetables first. The cabbage was great, cooked perfectly and with a lovely acidic tang, albeit a little greasy. The broccoli was less exciting than I thought it would be, just steamed. However, I love broccoli in any form, so I didn't mind that too much. The carrots were also perfectly tender, sweet and buttery, sliced thick. So out of all of that vitamin A and B, the cabbage was far better than the other two options, since it had much more flavor and character.

I then figured, whatever; they're just vegetables, and sliced into one of the precut pieces of my duck ... and was immediately disappointed. The server hadn't asked for my temperature preference on the duck, so I assumed that I'd be served at least a medium breast. I was not. The center was a very, very light pink, and the rest? Brown. My duck breast was medium well.

Now here's the thing -- I like a good well-done duck as much as the next person. Roast duck soup, duck confit, and et cetera are all in my good graces. But when I order a full duck breast, tough skin intact and accompanied by sauce, I expect it ... well, NOT to be cooked all the way through. Duck breast, when served on its own and in one solid piece, is not all that tender, so a bite of well-done duck with thick, resistant skin is just a whole lot of work. By the time you're halfway done chewing, the flavor of the surrounding components have faded, leaving you the labor of still more chomping without the gratification of really tasting anything anymore.

The crusted black pepper over the duck was nice, adding a great pop of spice to every few bites, but because it was just a crust, the flavor didn't penetrate. In fact, no flavor penetrated into the core of the breast. I say all the time that I'm a purist when it comes to meat flavors, preferring meats to shine through sauces with their own distinctive tastes, but this was just kind of bland. The center was so overcooked that it could have been boiled, for all I knew. It was, to say the least, uninteresting.

On the other hand, the blueberry cognac sauce was good of its own merit, and probably the most interesting thing on the plate. Sweet, light, and generously portioned, the fresh taste of berries, violet staining the tan meat, provided a blast of color and brought down the heaviness of the lack of depth in the duck and brought down the pleasant heat of the pepper. The pop of the blueberries as my teeth crunched through the soft skin yielded a pleasant burst of sugary juices, adding a moisture to my mouth that the meat itself did not offer. A sauce like this would have been enjoyable on a less gamey meat like some tender white pork, where flavors wouldn't be competing with none the winner.

Harsh? Well, yes, and I'm really glad I don't know the chef or owner since I know I'm coming down hard on the Maple Street Cafe. Did I really expect a spectacular meal for two at a bargain-basement bill of $30 (courtesy of Clipper)? Well ... also, yes.

You see, I'm utterly spoiled. I've had fantastic food for less than $10 a head; I've had some incredible things at street fairs in New Orleans for as low as $3 a plate. Living in this city for five years does things to your standards, and you come to expect a certain amount of resonating flavor and passion in your food, a soul that brings it to life and makes your dish memorable. This duck had none of those things. There was no fire, no complexity, no special-ness about it. It was simple, but not in a sophisticated way. The Cafe gets an A for effort in trying to get inventive with the combination of flavors, but there was just something very flat in the execution, like an idea half-formed but not carried through. Like a thought or a post that ends with no summation and in ellipses ...

Maple Street Cafe
7623 Maple St
New Orleans, LA 70118
(504) 314-9003

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