Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Epicurian Adventures: Tantalizing Tidbits @ La Petite Grocery with Sucre

I know I do wrong in terms of best practice every time I post on The Vicarious Food Whore, but I can't help but to get incredibly long-winded over food in a city that never ceases to blow my mind. I know I'm supposed to write short snippets as a blogger, tell stories with images, and keyword my stuff, getting to the crux of the matter right away ... but I don't care. The majority of the time, the type of dining lifestyle I'm fortunate enough to be privy to deserves 500 words or more, and it's liberating to have ownership over your own medium to do that. One such event was Monday night's dinner at La Petite Grocery for Ecole Bilingue de la Nouvelle-Orléans, whose Fête Française is scheduled for this Saturday. In a nod to the "I know what I'm doing" gods, I'm going to break this dinner up into two posts, witholding and pulling back like a tantric acts. I mean, this is the work of a food whore, right?

Chef Justin Devillier (of La Petite Grocery) and Chef Tariq Hanna played hosts that night, recreating for New Orleanians the meal they had teamed up to prepare at the famed James Beard House in New York City, an honor aptly bestowed on the two gifted chefs. It was my first time meeting Chef Devillier, who seemed a little shy and withdrawn, but sometimes with chefs, schmoozing is what you develop with age, and he was under 30. On the other hand, Tariq, that intimidating yet affable genius was clearly in his element, and I was more than happy to see him again ... especially with my wedding coming up and truffles nowhere to be found on my "done" list but prominently on my "to-do."

No matter; let's get to the good part. Like I've said time and time again, you're not here to read about people -- you're here to read about stuff, and I've got plenty of that for ya.

A sunny, intimate little restaurant whose interior ambience belies its busy Magazine Street location, the light colored wood and kitschy sign was very (to me) country French in style. A partition divided the host/ess stand and the bar area, which was drenched in the full afternoon sun from the big streetfront windows. High ceilings made the place seem airier (hence the country feel), and I was immediately greeted with a server wearing a smile and a trayful of snacks.

My first bite boded well. It was the Blue Crab Beignets with Charred Onion Tartar Sauce, which was absolutely delicious. Crispy but in more of a fluffy batter way than a Cafe du Monde beignet way, the center was piping hot and stuffed generously with large, sweet lumps of (more than likely local) crabmeat. There were only about 5-6 to a plate, which meant that every bite would be as steaming and fragrant as the last time the hordes descended on the helpless server. The outer shell of the beignets were slightly sweet in a benign kind of way (nonabrasive, not dull, just a great vehicle for the fabulous crab), but slightly oily and buttery (causing me to instantly regret wearing a satin dress), and hollow on the inside for a truly gratifying crunch for the clouds of steam that erupt when the surface is broken through. The charred onion in the tartar sauce added a sweetness to the tart, thick dipping sauce, and I just adored it, pretty much licking dollops of it off my fingers. But then again, that's not saying a whole whole lot, since I love mayonnaise and onions. However, I do believe these were the highlight of the hand-passed munchies and I could have eaten them all night ... had I been wearing a paper towel and not an overly expensive plum number. So used to wearing jeans and wifebeaters throughout college and all black while working at restaurants, I have a dreadful habit of using my own self as a walking napkin, forgetting that my wardrobe now looks like a Banana Republic catalog, no longer a yoga wear one.

More to the point, after dashing off to the ladies room to wash my hands before I exhibited my usual 'disheveled chic' core by fingerprinting my frock, I decided to be smart and partake in less finger-y finger foods. I made my way through the crowd to make prey of the server carrying little darling cups of something on a stick, figuring that things on sticks were neater and things that came on sticks were usually delicious pieces of meat.

This assumption remained true. What I had been ogling was actually some Bronzed Lobster Sausage, a squishy browned bite sitting atop a little pool of creamy, lightly acidic, soft yellow passionfruit butter (Remy, I will forever link to you whenever anyone has passionfruit butter, and that's a promise!). The texture of the lobster sausage was a little offputting at first, low in density but with an unexpected resistance to the tooth, resulting in a rather springy experience. This kind of reminded me of seafood foam in solid form, since the taste was so diluted from having been ground (probably since juices are lost as chemical bonds are broken down) and thus the flavor became more remiscent of the slightly briny oddness of seared scallops. The passionfruit butter (oop -- there it is again, R!) gave it a citrusy tang, which was certainly interesting, and the texture was kind of custardy rather than like whipped butter. However, a really pleasant surprise was at the very bottom of the passionfruit cream, but unfortunately, it was rather difficult to eat said pleasant surprise with a little knotted stick. If there's one meat that can't really go on a stick, it's caviar, and the tasty black bowfin caviar, a type I'm a big fan of, basically settled sadly to the bottom of the little cup.

The next wee bite was much more exciting, but they disappeared like hotcakes. Served on generous shining silver tablespoons, half-inch by half-inch cubes of tender pork belly sat in a green tomato glaze with pickled jalapenos. As I've found in my experience in New Orleans, pickling doesn't often denote "sour" here, but rather, things that are pickled tend to be sweet, crispy, and back a teeny, tiny punch of heat from teeny, tiny fists of pepper pieces when you least expect it. So the sweet jalapenos (seedless, of course)--cut into little diced squares but maintaining a cool freshness--were a perfect complement to the also slightly sweet but decadently golden green tomato glaze that held just a hint of smoked molasses ... or something else delicious and syrupy. Or perhaps the whiff of smoke was from the pork belly itself? Either way, pork belly wasn't what I'd expected, actually. I thought it was going to be a fatty kind of
tender, but rather, it fell apart in my mouth much the way pork shoulder would, and stuck in my teeth much the way pulled pork would. Tender like a shoulder but flavorful (although in a less lean way) like a cheek, I can see what the fuss about pork belly is about.

Obviously, I wasn't the only one that was drawn to these luxurious bites of opulent sweet flavor and they were gone just as quickly as the blue crab beignets disappeared. Magically delicious indeed! By the time my camera was pointed in the right
direction, the server's hands were empty. I wasn't surprised.

The last of the hand-passed hors d'ouevres was perhaps one of
the most beautifully presented ones: the duck rillette. Served atop a buttery little crostini, a toasted circle cut from a skinny loaf of French bread, the rillette was a generous portion. A big, shaped dollop of what is essentially fat-cooked fine-chopped duck meat mixed with even more fat (which is added until a paste is formed) was plopped on the toasted bread with local Pontchatoula strawberry and rhubarb jam holding the two elements together. The strawberry and rhubarb jam was an utter delight, naturally sweet but not candylike, adding a sugary element that downplayed the heaviness of the rich bread and richer topping. The rillette was surprisingly not heavy-tasting (I was expecting a bacon-like richness and feel), giving off a duck flavor that could only be felt in the finish, if I may use a wine term. To elaborate, what I mean is that when you taste the perfectly room-temperature rillette, you aren't exactly overwhelmed with flavor, but rather, you chew and wait for it to come through the light, light taste and feel. However, swallow and take a deep breath. Taste that duck in the back of your throat by your nose? There it is.

Now, I'm really big on texture, and don't particularly care for things that squish, squelch, or any other word that demonstrates the same kind of onomatopoeia, so I can't really be a fair judge of pate, rillette, or the like, but I didn't dislike the duck or the lobster sausage, although the mouthfeel put me a bit out of my element. But I got over my aversion to oysters with the right oyster dish and I have no doubt that one day, I'll be able to appreciate offal and other things with squish for more than the technical skill involved in its preparation.

Anyway, I think that's enough babbling for today since I'm storing my energy for the even BIGGER post about the actual dinner. Keep your channel locked here, but for the next entry, I'd make sure I eat first, if I were you.

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