Thursday, April 30, 2009

Chinese Brown Sauce: New York vs. New Orleans

There's a reason Chinese food is considered exceptionally good in downstate New York compared to in other parts of the country. It's because it just is that much more superior. Maybe not to Californian Chinese food, but I've never been that far west (ironic, isn't it? I've been to 26 out of our 50 states, and yet the only western city I've visited was Las Vegas), so I can't judge. But what I can say for a solid fact is that in Long Island and New York City, Chinese food is pretty much guaranteed to be delicious no matter where you go, just in different ways.

My favorite dish growing up was a simple one. My dad could cook it in two shakes and it was half nutritious vegetables, so my mother had no complaints. Well, scratch that; once I developed a taste for how good pork fried rice could be with brown sauce drizzled on top, my mother bemoaned the additional calories and my father taught me to make my own fried rice to save him the trouble.

Anyway, this standby was just the basic, classic Chicken with Broccoli. None of that nonsense with thinly sliced carrots or anything -- just straight up white-meat chicken breast, sliced thin and against the grain for optimal tenderness stir-fried with larger scaled bite-sized florets of lush, woody green broccoli in a rich and unplaceable, uninterestingly named "brown sauce" or "brown gravy."

Now there are many ways, though, that you can totally screw up this two-ingredient dish. You can have rubbery, low-quality chicken, fattened up with starchy filler spread as a coating over the meat. You can have old broccoli, limp and low in nutritional value; or you can have bitter, thick chunks of broccoli that have an unpalatable aftertaste. But most importantly, you could have really crappy sauce.

I've found in my five years of living in New Orleans that the sauces here tend to be somewhat watered down, the concentrate of the sauce being filtered out and losing a lot of their deep brown richness. I always thought itt was traditional to use a daily, fresh-made pork shoulder and chicken broth to dilute the deeply concentrated soy-based from-scratch sauce, which I'd observed in my years growing up at my father's Chinese restaurant in Long Island. But it seems that corners are cut when the competition fails to force vendors to step up their game. After all, the fact that mediocre 5 Happiness is continuously voted the best Chinese restaurant in New Orleans speaks volumes about our lowered expectations here for that type of cuisine -- bastardized Chinese.

It's touches like that homemade broth, fresh crushed garlic and soy beans, and hours and hours of simmering that I came here accustomed to and that I miss. The recipes at China East in Selden, formerly Yangtze Kitchen, were created with love and passion, passed down from my grandpa to my dad with the Yangtze Kitchen name. And it's because of the addition of that vital ingredient, soul, that makes all the difference. And trust me, my dad You Feng Lin and grandpa Tik Shun Cheng both cooked with a whole lotta soul. It's reflected in the deep brown, rich, and decadent thick sauce that coats the chicken and broccoli, at China East in suburban Long Island, showing a depth and complexity that spoiled New Yorkers have come to expect for under $5 a pint.

China East
1070 Middle Country Road
Selden, New York 11784

Suitable Substitutes:

Green Tea
1116 Louisiana Avenue
Uptown New Orleans
.. down to the black and red printed menus and the use of the word "pint," this place is a ringer, and where I got the lovely yellow fried rice shown in the pictures

Mandarin House Buffet
3501 Severn Ave
Metairie, LA 70002
... not spectacularly awesome, but one of the best New York-style Chinese buffets you'll find around here. The selection is massive and changed out frequently, but their downfall, to me, is a total lack of anything in the dumpling department.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Epicurean Adventures: Jazz Fest Food Booths!

Here's a soundbyte from Where Y'at, the monthly tabloid-sized free entertainment mag I'm the food editor at, to give you a little highlight of why I love chowing down at Jazz Fest ... also included, an homage to one of my favorite seasonal dishes ever. The first weekend is over, but there's still next weekend!

Forget the Booze; Break Out the Booths!
“Summertime … and the livin’s easy …”

There’s no place where that’s truer than in New Orleans, where spring and summer combine into one glorious season. The fair-weather festivals are rolling in after a long and brisk “winter” and the events we’ve been looking forward to are finally upon us. I’m talking long days of music under a white-hot sun and (more importantly, for me) hours and hours of nonstop options for nonstop eats for just a handful of dollars.
The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival—fondly known the whole world over as Jazz Fest—comes in shortly on April 24-26 and April 30-May 3 with their usual little village of goodies for the fortieth year, with plenty of fan favorites for all. Of course, great alcoholic beverages will be available for side-by-side consumption with the extravagant amounts of food, but as a glutton and Where Y’at’s Food Editor, I plan on saving that room in my stomach for a second plate of something fried and delicious. Now who’s with me?

It’s a big-deal birthday for the beloved and grandest music event of the year, Jazz Fest, who turns the big 4-0 this spring. They’ve got fair food down to a science, with plenty of perennial favorites populating the whimsical village-style painted food areas. Vaucresson’s Sausage Company celebrates being a part of Jazz Fest from past to present, a staple at the Fest since its inception. Hot sausage po-boys and crawfish sausage po-boys are their in-demand specialties, served the same way for 40 years and counting. Vance Vaucresson has picked up where his father left off, “carrying on the tradition,” as Mandy Decker, Marketing and Press Coordinator for Jazz Fest, puts it.

Linda Wheat did the same with Mrs. Wheat’s Foods, offering their popular Spicy Natchitoches Meat Pie, crawfish pie, and broccoli and cheese pie every year, just like her mother did since 1980.

Lil’s BBQ is another that’s been with us since the 70s, Charles and Lillian Brown taking part since 1978. They do a lovely barbequed chicken, on the plate or as a sandwich, corn on a cob to accompany, iced tea to wash it all down with, and some lemon pound cake to clean your palate out and replace it with the sweet, moist goodness of dessert.

The Burks/Douglas’ have also been troopers since the early days, their specialty being red beans and rice, that good old New Orleans boy. They have a vegetarian option available, too, and are also giving up juicy blackberry cobblers this year as well.

This is just a preview of the great things to come this April, and but don’t forget that you also have the first weekend of May to dive into classic Jazz Fest food, too, and honor traditions decades old.

Jazz Fest Jambalaya

VoodooFest may be The Ritual, but I’ve got rituals of my own. One of the most important of these rituals is my annual hunt for what I call “brown jambalaya.” Rather than the red tomato-based jambalaya made famous by award-winning jambalaya master Wally Taillon—who, incidentally, is also the Chairman of the Gonzales Jambalaya Festival—my favorite is actually the one that more closely resembles dirty rice. Since Catering Unlimited supplies my Jazz Fest crack-in-a-bowl, the Fest is the one time of the year that brown jambalaya is available in all its rich Andouille and chicken and simmering heat. Maybe a big part of the appeal is the rarity of that jambalaya, but ever since my first Jazz Fest, I’ve been hooked, buying Fest tickets primarily for access to the jambalaya and using all of my spending money for that dish and that dish only. One word: yum!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Eater's Remorse: Golf Gone Bust

It really shouldn't be classified under Eater's Remorse, since I didn't actually get a chance to eat anything, but the food at the Zurich Classic was a bust to me. Since I didn't fill out the media credentials and ended up going as a "normie" (I can't remember where I heard that from ...), access to Acme, Hooter's, and many of the other tents were closed off to me. The Winn-Dixie tent had some pretty good options, the corporate bigwigs having flown their chef down for the event, but by the time lunchtime rolled around, I was done with standing around and being quiet.

Winn-Dixie was offering prime rib, chicken on skewers, cake bites, bourbon salmon, and a medley of good stuff for $15, which was a great value since it was all you could eat. The other tents were not so generous, and cost quite a bit more. I was shocked that Acme Oyster House was selling admission to even go into their food area for $120. $120! Hooters was a whopping $80 for a bucketful of wings and a cold brewski and some other random things. I didn't even bother to ask how much it would be to check out the charbroiled oysters from Drago's and all the stuff they were heating the grill up for in the little courtyard-looking area.

The Coca-Cola tent had pizza from Reginelli's, chicken and jambalaya from WOW Cafe and Wingery, and Pigeon Caterers (which is honestly kind of an unappetizing name for a catering company ...) ran their biggest selection of food from this hub. The mixed seafood platter sounded appetizing, with fried shrimp, fried catfish, stuffed shrimp, and crawfish cakes with a side of coleslaw for $14, but they ran out of the stuffed shrimp and the catfish and were waiting for a new batch when I got up there. The gorgeous TPC course was huge, so I wasn't really quite able to find my way back, and when I did, I was too busy regretting my shoe choice (open toed white heeled sandals) to think about staying to try and get food when I was already ready to leave.

I was also really thirsty by that point, but couldn't bring myself to pay $4 to Pigeon Caterers for Dasani water. I mean, $4 for 20 ounces of a natural substance found in 80% of the Earth? Sorry, dudes -- just quit my day job and I'm paying for my own wedding ... a $4 bottle of non-Evian, Fiji, or Pellegrino is just a "luxury" I don't think is worth it. My $2 lemonade from Arby's tastes just fine to me.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Zurich Classic, PGA Tour at TPC

As part of my "Be Nice to Boy Because I Missed His Birthday" week, the last day of the PGA Tour Zurich Classic is on the schedule for today. I was at the office all day, then editing the Jazz Fest II issue of Where Y'at at the office, so his 27th went by without much of a to-do. To make it up, a Mrs. Field's cookie card cake was involved, as was my suffering through a few baskets of balls at the driving range, dinner at Muriel's in Jackson Square, and an outing to the TPC, the Tournament Player's Club out in Avondale. Jazz Fest's first weekend is also upon us, with its colorful rows of food booths, and this year, it's been a beautifully sunny one. Wonder of wonders!

So in case you've been wondering where the hell I've been all week (oops ... I didn't realize I only had posts up for until Tuesday!), that's what I've been doing, along with forgetting to bring my camera (double oops), and today, the Zurich Classic is where I'll be eating. If the white chocolate bread pudding I had at Taste of the Town was any indication, it should be a good day today.

See ya there!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Epicurean Adventures: Taste of the Town, Part III

First off -- so sorry! I almost feel like I shouldn't post this long-delayed entry, since it's been a couple of weeks since the event, but I feel I'd be doing the food I ate an injustice by ignoring the other things I tried that night, so here goes. In advance, forgive my sadly failing memory as the details fade into a more general feeling of content reminisces, and bear with me.

Having done some press for Phil's Grill and seeing it so many times on my way to Pearl's Place, the bustling shop that I purchased my wedding dress at, I was curious to check out their offerings. Home of the 27 burger options or something else equally exorbitant, Boy and I decided that since this was, in fact, an Epicurean Adventure, that we'd go for the more unconventional options. The Buffalo burger was excellent, the flavor beefy but more intense, with an iron-tasting gaminess ringing through the aftertaste. This would have been an outstanding burger if it weren't soft, red, and straight up raw in the center. We ate around. The turducken burger, however, was fully cooked and captured the essence of the three fowl well, while successfully mimicking the experience of eating a burger. Normally, it would gross me out that the birds didn't have the texture of birds anymore, but for some reason, this didn't disturb me too much.

The fried crawfish balls from Deanie's Seafood Restaurant were a pleasant surprise, what I thought would be uninteresting, unsophisticated food ending up being rich and delicious, with massive amounts of crunch, luscious bites of in-season fresh crawfish, and whatever else they cleverly decided to roll together and deep fry. Although they were held in the warming buffet servers, they still retained their hard crunchiness and tasted great with the sauce provided. In that same area, I had a little lentil salad type thing with chickpeas from Liberty's Kitchen, I believe with the seafood balls.

The shrimp cocktail from the catering company Pigeon Caterers (I think that's where I had it ... so hard to keep track with 60 restaurants!) was sweet, juicy, and extremely fresh tasting, and I tried two samples of the delectable shrimp. To my great enjoyment, they were well cleaned and the perfect amount of horseradish comprised the cocktail sauce, which can be overwhelming like at Acme, or underwhelming and taste like ketchup.

Onward ho, then, as all good things must pass, and we kept on with the shrimp streak by stopping at what I thought was the Hilton Riverside hotel. I didn't question it then, but how could that be? The Hilton Riverside has Drago's as its anchor restaurant ... so it must be a different Riverside hotel. Anyway, the shrimp here was served chilled with a sesame type of vinaigrette. Regrettably, it was a little too acidic and not particularly interesting, seaweed and all.

Going in the opposite direction, we then joined the group waiting for Vincent's Italian Cuisine, a neighborhood favorite just across St. Charles Avenue from our house, for some mild tender veal with spinach, ricotta, and housemade pasta, rolled up and baked in marinara topped with Alfredo. Now, we all know that Italian food is more often than not found to be lacking in New Orleans, but this veal was delicious. The pasta was not overcooked, even though it was in a catering warming tray, and this textural perfection remained true serving after serving ... according to Boy, who went back for seconds, then "dessert."

Speaking of dessert, we did those wildly out of order that night. After a quick shot of gazpacho from La Petite Grocery, where Chef Justin Devillier manned his own booth (how's that for getting your hands dirty? He's obviously no frou-frou chef afraid to make public appearances, since he was at the French festival for Ecolie, broiling oysters personally), we headed straight for the Sucre table. Trays upon trays of gorgeous chocolates, amazingly not melted or sweating in the humid air, were on display, gold tops shimmering and candy plates shining. The Earl Grey chocolate was a great subtle blast of that distinct tea, but I got no farther in the exotic bonbon selection. It was after I popped that single piece of candy in my mouth that I spotted the mmmacaroons.

In flavors like the sparkly purple and sage green King Cake (cinnamon-y, toothache sweet, and lush), golden Creole Cream Cheese (rich, soft, and heavy), these were awesome limited-time editions to sample alongside the fabulous regular lemon ones.

To wash it down, CC's had some hot, freshly brewed Praline coffee, just sweet enough to not really need sugar, but with enough of that coffee bean harshness to keep it from turning coffee purists against it. It lacked that nasty, plasticine flavor some artificially enhanced beverages sometimes have, and this was a good thing. Boy said this was a perfect complement to the macaroons, and I agree, even though I'd opted for the strawberry iced tea.

All in all, this is an experience I'd definitely repeat, even if I'd have to shell out a hundred-spot myself. Even the memories taste good.

Monday, April 20, 2009

It's Rude to Eat Other People's Food

This may sound like a simple statement of fact, but it seems that not eating other people's food without being invited is not actually a part of common sense canon. What I learned over the weekend was that some people simply do not choose to respect this boundary, going so far as to flout it in a manner that is both crass and offensive, and a little shocking in its lack of decency.

Now, yes - perhaps this may be an overly vehement response to the incident in question, but I'm like a mama bear with her cubs, if her cubs were edible pieces of food and not actually her cubs. Do not mess with me and my food or I will get very, VERY upset and maybe even maim you in an uncontrollable rage. I believe that sharing is caring, but I also believe in verifying the care before the share, not in food-thieves.

Let's go backwards for a minute so that I may explain.

Every month, I volunteer a Saturday morning and afternoon to the Friends of the Jefferson Parish Animal Shelter, working with good souls like Raelynn Kane to help surrendered and stray dogs find loving homes before the clock ticks its last tock and the euthanasia train stops at that sad, disgusting place on Humane Way (what an ironic name for a kill shelter ...), the treasure trove in which I found my Baxter Bear. Starting at about 8:30AM, we walk the dogs that will be shown at the adoption fair at the Jefferson Feed Store, our next stop, and do the best we can until 2PM. A pretty long day, considering that we run around, clean up, talk/sell, and, in best case scenarios, adopt out. So by the time noon comes around ,we're pretty ragged around the edges and hungry as mofos.

They bring in New Orleans original Italian Pie pizzas every adoption fair, and the one they use off Jefferson Highway is particularly tasty. (Hey, not all franchises/chains are made equal.) It comes in hot, fresh, and dripping in cheese; toppings are generous and fresh; crusts are doughy but crisp -- when all's said and done, after chasing around dogs and puppies that spend too long of time cooped up in filthy concrete stenchholes and have energy to burn, it's a welcome perk for the many hours of service.

All I had that morning was a two-day-old lemon poppyseed muffin (almost as good as new after some baking at 350 degrees in the toaster oven for eight minutes) from another New Orleans-based chain, PJ's, I was RAVENOUS by the time the four pies hit the tables.

We all kind of eat in shifts, handing off the remaining dogs so that each of us can eat, and when I had a chance to help myself, it was a good thing. I was standing by the table with the pizzas when our one-eyed pirate German shepherd dog Jillian knocked over four slices of pepperoni. Well, no matter -- who can resist when all you get is kibble? But after this, with my face full of cheese and grease, I took the position of Pizza Guard, defender of pizza from beasts of ye wilde.

Little did I know that it'd need guarding against humans.

A man of advanced age and his wife were looking curiously at the remaining dogs,wandering in our bullpen. The volunteers, all holding leashes or covered in dog hair, were obvious, and it was that group of people that were taking part of the Italian Pies. Duh, right?


Old dude opens up the closest box and grabs a big slice of the chicken pizza. I look over at him and say as politely as it can be said, "Excuse me, sir? These pizzas are actually for the volunteers."

Old dude looks me dead in the eye with nary a twinkle in his humorless ones, opens his sunkened mouth, and sinks into the pizza.

You'd think that's enough of an insult, right? Wrong again, my friend. He retaliates, chewing slowly and with lips smacking with this classy and very mature response: "Too late now." Chomp, chomp. "You want this back or something?"

My colleagues and I just stand there in deep shock. Did that really just happen? Did this man, whose age was closer to 80 than 8, really just stare me down before taking a bite of the volunteers' reward pizza, and proceed to be a total, unapologetic, classless Grade A-hole?

I mean, a typical person's response would be of embarrassment: "Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't realize," followed by a replacement of the slice, which courtesy would then indicate that we would say, "Nah, don't worry about it -- I think there's enough."

But there was no guilt, shame, or sorrow in this grumpy man's demeanor. It was pure satisfaction as he walked around the adoptable animals, very obviously flaunting his stolen goods, insulting the people who were waiting for their break to dig in to that specialty pie, since he'd taken the second to last slice.

Good to know at least that the influx of the lack of etiquette and courtesy in today's world isn't a new problem, since some of our elders are undeserving of that title. Thanks, jerk.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Crawfish 101

I'm not super into crawfish, so for those of you seeking a crash course on the mudbugs that are now in high season and taking over the city by the potful, I want to direct you to fellow food blogger Remy's Vicarious Food Whore-worthy description of these tiny crustaceans.

Click here to read all about the scarlet (-shelled) fever that's taking over New Orleans!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Gratuitous Sexiness: Thai Shu Mai

Shrimp and chicken dumplings from Chill Out Cafe on Maple Street and Burdette uptown. Sweet, thick soy is drizzled on the bottom of the plate and a soy-based sauce sits on the side in a ramekin. Ground shrimp adds a sweetness to the chicken and a toasted garlic topping is a roasted treat. It's not as good as the Thai dumplings in New York, but they sure make an awfully nice picture, don't they?

Friday, April 17, 2009

Epicurean Adventures: French Quarter Fest Passes Over the Quarter Century Hump

Wow, that's a long title!

Anyway, I tend to get really hyped up about festivals and what they mean (i.e. FOODS!), and thought I'd just include my preview on French Quarter Fest that appears in the Jazz Fest I issue of Where Y'at Magazine. Keep your calendars clear this weekend for 18 stages scattered throughout the Quarter and more than enough food to keep you busy from Friday through Sunday. Known as "the world's largest block party," it's only going to get better with age as it enters its next era. Enjoy!

The FQF has plenty to tempt many a New Orleanian to brave the downtown parking and traffic situation, but the food up for grabs is well worth it. Among the tried and trues, we have returning favorites like The Gumbo Shop’s chicken and Andouille gumbo and red beans and rice; grilled chicken livers with sweet hot pepper jelly from The Praline Connection; tasty crabmeat ravioli from Ristorante Carmelo; Ted’s Frostop is bringing Cajun meat or crawfish pies … and that’s just to name a few. Of course, no festival is complete without some hearty sandwiches, and so we have cochon de lait, both hot and alligator sausage, Creole crawfish, fried and barbequed shrimp, beef debris as well as roast beef, and slow-roasted duck po-poys on the list for guest appearances. You can take that to mean Jacques-Imo’s, Alibi, EAT New Orleans, Red Fish Grill, The Original New Orleans Po-Boys, and Love at First Bite are coming to man their spaces.

In addition to these highly anticipated reappearing restaurants, the FQF starts its second set of 25 years with a string of fantastic new vendors as well. For ethnic food, Bravo! Cucina Italiana enters the fray with crawfish ravioli, chicken griglia, and tiramisu; Byblos is presenting chicken kabobs, hummus, and spanakopita; and Vietnamese Saiyen Fresh Express has assorted spring and egg rolls, and lemon chicken and noodles. To cure your itch for regional dishes, Huevos has got Bad Bart’s Black Jambalaya, Creole hot sausage on a stick, and alligator Andouille; there’s stuffed crab, baked macaroni, and crab and shrimp salad from Jack Dempsey’s and pulled pork and smoked beef brisket from their Bywater neighbor The Joint. Henry’s Bakery has stuffed bell peppers, mac and cheese, and king cake; Sammy’s Food Service & Deli bring seafood stuffed jumbo shrimp and Italian sausage and eggplant pasta to the picnic table, and Emeril’s restaurants plan to put out plenty of barbequed ribs. And for dessert, newcomer Gelatto Pazzo Caffe will provide a great non-drinker’s alternative to cooling off.

Standard FQF prices apply, which range from $3 to a rare $9 a selection, but average cost is just $5 an item, allowing you to sample a little something from some of the best restaurants in the city without breaking the bank … although I’m not sure that can be said of your stomach after this amazing festival draws its curtains.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Epicurean Adventures: Food Love Makes the World Go 'Round

My mind is again roaming towards those Drago's charbroiled oysters, a fixation that a dozen in one night at Taste of the Town wasn't able to cure. While at Tipitina's last night for the New Orleans Magazine Annual Jazz Awards (and with French Quarter Fest this weekend and Jazz Fest beginning in just two short weeks, the timing is nothing short of appropriate), Boy and I ended up sitting at a table near the stage with another young couple. Incidentally, they were tourists from Brooklyn--adding to an already fast-growing list of people from Brooklyn I like ... sign from God, maybe, that I should be one of them...?--here on their first trip to New Orleans to take part in the tastes and sounds of the Big Easy.

Tami and Eben were their names, and it was after an uncomfortable 20 minutes (for them -- I was happily chomping away on spinach dip and chicken wings) that they approached me with the question, "What IS this?"

This explained a lot. Their attempt to blend into the wall when they figured out that Tip's was hosting a private event was uncharacteristic of locals, who make themselves at home and say hello to everyone, regardless of whether they're party-crashers or invited party-goers. Ends up they were hiding after they saw us come in and me greet one of my favorite editors in town (and ironically, sorority sister), Morgan Packard, since (hilariously), as one of the only Asian/Caucasian couples they'd seen during the trip, they thought they'd been mistaken for me and Boy, and that this was why they were allowed entry. I laughed my ass off at this.

Anyway, we got to talking, and my personality being probably about 85% food-oriented, it seemed natural that conversation would turn to things that were edible and that I would whip out a some paper and my always handy gel roller and start jotting down my recommendations. They were excited to learn that I was a food writer, and being of the iPhone generation, checked out this blog and read my love letter to the Drago's oyster and became convinced that this was where they should be, oysters at the end of their season as Casamento's "Closed for the Summer" sign indicates.

After an embarrassingly short time of cajoling, I forgot for a minute that I was an old lady with a day job and early hours, and we were talked into accompanying the couple. Of course, though, we offered them a ride back downtown, as our car was parked across the street and their car was ... umm, in New York.

The Drago's downtown in the Hilton was quiet for Drago's, the dinner rush over and service winding down. Our new friends were at first vaguely skeptical due to the corporate look, feel, and sheer size of the place (they politely hid this as best they could), but after walking past one of the grillers pouring liquid butter over a still-massive heap of oysters, they started to get psyched.

A big bowl of gumbo was shared between T and E, and they assured me it was far better than the gumbo they'd already had here. I was satisfied by this assertion, since Drago's makes my top 5 list for gumbo, and it's good to know when I'm not off. Strawberry ale--made with local, in-season Ponchatoula reds--by Abita was ordered for the boys, which E agreed was far superior than the Dixie he'd been drinking in an attempt to be "local." The size of the oysters at the table next to ours was impressive, and I was happy that all eyes around the table widened with excitement as our two dozen were brought to plate. Crisp Leidenheimer bread, only slightly less moist than daytime French bread, was handy as usual in sopping up the rich herbed butter that pooled with oyster water along the bottom of the plates, and the flavor of the oysters was as delectable ... also as usual.

As the night drew to a close and I showed all of my world-weary 24 years, our guests turned into our hosts as they generously insisted on paying for all that was consumed. After multiple attempts to throw the musician and teacher at least a twenty-spot for our dozen, they paid the check amidst our grumblings, which was a touching and magnanimous gesture we appreciated greatly.

Good people, that couple, and if these are the types of tourists we attract into the city, maybe there's hope for Bourbon Street and its frat boys yet.

Hilton Riverside
2 Poydras Street
New Orleans, LA 70140
(504) 584-3911

Monday, April 13, 2009

Epicurean Adventures: A Purple Truck's Transition @ Boucherie

Boucherie, in the Riverbend/Carrollton area of Uptown, was a welcome addition to the neighborhood in the little cottage that still has "Iris" (which is now in the Quarter) etched into it. The owners of The Purple Truck, or, formally known as The Que Crawl, have parked their mobile establishment on Jeanette Street and renamed a flower a butcher shop (per the French translation). In this sunny little house, they're serving up "fine" Southern food at half the price you'd expect.

But then, for a menu whose entrees are under $15, what kind of quality can you expect?

Well, I'd give 'em an A for effort. They tried, they really did, and I appreciated that. The ambience was really nice, the service was superb, and the dishes nicely plated, but there was a certain lack of depth and complexity in all that I ate. Except for the luscious duck salad on a buttery crostini amuse bouche, the flavors weren't as layered or as deeply penetrating as one would hope to taste in a restaurant whose roots were in barbecue.

The boudin balls were really good, big hearty balls of boudin sausage and dirty rice. There proportion of rice to meat was well considered, and the hard crunch of the outside shell was done up just right. The idea of having a garlic mayo type of sauce was smart, but I do wish there was more garlic in it, since it fell a little flat, along with the seasoning of the ball. I loved the texture, with the soft filling and firm rice and thick shell of breading, though, and for $4, I can't really complain, since I definitely got my money's worth.

Next up was the blackened shrimp on grit cakes. There were only three shrimp on this dish, to our disappointment (since the dish was $8), and they were just average large shrimp, not the colossal Gulf jumbos that are showing up in many restaurants around now. The shrimp were meticulously cleaned, which I highly commend, because there's nothing that ruins a presentation more than a nasty, thick vein, pulsing black or violet under the surface of an otherwise delectable-looking shrimp (another reason why I don't like Gulf shrimp). It was served on top of a fried, solid little grit cake, with Fudge Farms Bacon Vinaigrette. The grit cake struck me as a little bland, and the bacon vinaigrette was kind of subtle, but the presentation was nice. The shrimp was tasty as well, but again, just at initial taste. After the first bites of the sweet shrimp as you smear it all over the plate to get a biteful with the sauce and grit cake, you kind of realize the outside zest is just a dusting of Cajun seasonings and the flavor doesn't penetrate.

For our entrees, Boy and I split two so that we could sample more stuff. They all sounded so good that it was tough to make a decision. I was originally going to shoot for the pan roasted duck breast with stir-fried Brussels sprouts and shiitakes, but it was apparently served on the bone. And the bone looked like a leg bone. This confused me, so I nixed it. The Norwegian Salmon with fennel seed spaetzle and beet emulsion sounded fabulous, but beets aren't a "safe" food for me, since I didn't grow up eating them. Colorful and pretty, but I always forget whether I like them or not.

For the first large plate, we chose the Smoked Black Angus Brisket with Garlicky Parmesan Fries, a side which is also offered as a side plate for nearly nothing -- just $4. These fries rank up there with the white truffle fries from 7 on Fulton, and kick the ass of Gordon Biersch's garlic fries. The thin and freshly shredded Parmesan Reggiano lent salt to the fries, as did the garlic butter that glistened on the surface of the crunchy potatoes. The cheese drooped just so over the medium brown shoestrings (none of that half-cooked golden thing going on here -- these were perfect and crisp to the last one) and the flavor was rich and exquisite. This was a standout, and I think that if Boucherie stays open for the next couple of years, they can bring this depth to all of their food, too. The potential is there ... it just hasn't matured fully yet.

Back to "food" food, though. The brisket was luscious and moist, and the barbecue sauce sweeter than it was tangy (just the way I like it). I would have liked some more sauce since the meat itself had a taste that kind of took the back burner, the "smoked" part of its title not that apparent, but it was very good. The meat came apart easily with minimal aid from a knife, and was tender, which, in my experience, I rarely encounter. All the briskets I've had are a little dry, including the one from the overrated The Joint in the Bywater, which was featured on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.

The other big dish we got was the Pulled Pork Cake with Potato Confit and Purple Cabbage Cole Slaw. A vinegar-based slaw, the cabbage remained crispy and light, but it was kind of in between identities. A little more vinegar would have made it similar to the nice, rich braised cabbage at Maple Street Cafe, and I tend to like vinegar in large quantities. I didn't realize until after the meal that there was a garlic and onion-infused vinegar bottle sitting at the table. Oops. So the whole time we were eating it, it basically just tasted like plain raw cabbage with a few accidental splashes of vinegar, with very little character to speak of.

The potato confit was equally uninteresting, served as little patties of what tasted just like ... sliced potatoes. Sliced potatoes with nothing on them, in them, or around them. They just ... were.

The pulled pork cake, however, was generous portion, and the meat was tender, although a little drier than I would have liked. I like my pulled pork pretty saucy, and that's how I'm used to eating it, since I'm a little bit of a condiment whore, so I felt a lot of flavor was lacking in the pork. The meat itself was pretty tender, and it was good, but it just lacked that oomph I like so much.

The verdict? A great value for a restaurant that's trying to find its sea-legs on stable ground, if that makes any sense. It hasn't come into itself just yet with the more refined food it's trying to serve, which is different than, say, barbecue from a purple truck. Once the chef has the chance to develop his dishes more and get that flavor really injected in there, they'll be really great ... but the prices, I'm sure, will increase by that point. For now, the food is much less sophisticated than you'd expect from the menu, but the creativity used to develop the selections are commendable. Again, A for effort ... but there's still a ways to go.

8115 Jeanette Street
New Orleans, LA

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Dish on Deals: Palace Cafe

So, holy crap, this is an insane deal at the Palace Cafe! I guess they're taking their cue from Morton's: The Steakhouse down the block at One Canal Place, who was doing a $5/item bar menu for "Power Hour," from 5-6:30. The Palace Cafe is doing their $5/dish special from Mondays through Friday, 5-7 PM, and include cocktails and wine selections on their promo. This is what they're serving up in the bar area and the outdoor patio:

Small Plates
Crabmeat Cheesecake

Fried Oysters on Grilled Ciabatta

Crab Claws Remoulade

Spinach Salad

Fried Eggplant Fingers

Peter's Planters Punch New Orleans Amber Rum, fresh lemon &
orange juice, housemade cardamom syrup

Classic Cocktail of the Day ask server/bartender for today's special

White Wine
Indaba, Sauvignon Blanc, South Africa

Red Wine
Blackbart, Grenache/Syrah Vin de Pays d'OC

Dish on Deals: La Petite Grocery

So, I went to Chef Justin Devillier of La Petite Grocery's site and realized that he just posted new menu offerings! And they're not expensive! Yay!!

Here's the best parts of what he had to say, plus some stuff I have to say about it after the jump:


baked blue crab Brie, chives 12.5

roasted Gulf oysters piave, shallots, fresh herbs 10

steak tartare red wine mustard, quail egg 11

Springer Mountain Farms confit chicken leg field peas, local pea shoots, pepper jelly vinaigrette 9

apple and celery root salad toasted walnuts, blue cheese 8

chilled roasted beet salad crawfish tails, hearts of celery, pickled onion, horseradish emulsion 10


yellowfin tuna tartine, olive tapenade, tomato, avocado, cucumber, toasted baguette 13

BLT” fried pork belly, green tomato jam, arugula, multi-grain bread, fries 10

LPG cheeseburger home-made pickles, onion marmalade, baby arugula, and gruyere, fries 14.5

Abita-braised short-rib fennel, pickled cucumber, aioli, ciabatta, house-made potato chips 11

grilled cheese, brie de meux, brioche, local loquat butter, petite salad 8.5


grilled hanger steak caramelized onion, fries 19

local gulf shrimp stone ground grits, mushrooms, bacon, thyme 14.5

pan roasted black drum louisiana popcorn rice, blue crab beignet, court bouillon 19

roasted quail smothered greens, boudin, sweet mustard 16

Prince Edward Island mussels roasted tomato, arbiquina olives, saffron wine, basil aioli 14

Comments as follows:
  • This chef knows his way around blue crabs, taking the briney, overly salty, strong flavor of this type of crustacean and turning it to his advantage. And crab + Brie = yum!
  • Gulf oysters are in season. Things that are roasted are delicious. 'Nuff said.
  • Chicken confit seems to be a "thing" right now, because Wolfe's is all over that, too. I guess it just goes to show that our young Mr. Devillier is a "spring chicken," eh? No? Well, it was funny in my head ...
  • Fried pork belly and green tomato jam?! The other stuff is just icing, and together, make a beautiful meat-and-stuff cake. Mmm ... meat cake.
  • I don't like beer, but I do like stuff braised in it. Especially our local spring water-distilled Abita beer, which does add a certain something. The short rib sounds exciting and inventive. Good stuff.
  • Hanger steak is commonly known as the "butcher's cut," often reserved and put aside for the butcher's family. This is, basically, a second secret filet mignon, tender, flavorful, and fabulous.
  • The black drum sounds like a big ol' seafood dream. And it comes with a blue crab beignet. Again, 'nuff said.
  • Prince Edward Island is not only the home of Anne of Green Gables, but also to some of the world's best mussels. The olive sounds like it's going to play an interesting twist to the rest of the flavors, much like a redfish I had at Coquette several months ago.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Epicurean Adventures: When I Had a Taste of this Town

You have to admire a man who can pull together a kickass festival in the face of rain, moving it from Metairie's Lafreniere Park to the parking garage at East Jefferson General Hospital. A smaller man may have quailed from the challenge and cancelled or moved the event, but not Tommy Cvitanovich. Instead, even though it was novelly held in a yellow-lighted (although new) parking garage, the event still went on with as much fun and class

as the original plan, and between concrete beams and plenty of room for airflow, under less humid circumstances than the now-muddied park.

I'd been really psyched about Taste of the Town for a while, ever since Tommy first told me about it, and headed out with an empty stomach and a full heart. With proceeds benefiting the Louisiana Restaurant Association and a long list of top-notch participants, I knew this was going to be an event not to be missed.

One of the first scents that greeted me was that of Drago's signature charbroiled oysters. And if you've been following this blog, I really don't have to say any more since I essentially wrote an ode to their oysters the other day. Omg, love. Really. After passing by several open flame grills, I followed my nose to the booth the massive plates of mollusks were headed towards and immediately hopped on line. After two enthusiastic visits to this stand, the people manning it had already given up on the neat, portioned out servings and were cranking them out, dumping plates of oysters into paper baskets. My last portion of them was heaping, weighing it at SEVEN behemoth oysters. So you'd think that after downing a dozen by my 5'1 self would be enough? Nope ... I woke up the next morning craving more. They were THAT good.

I meandered through the place, making it a point to visit nearly every booth there. There were many outstanding dishes, with only a very slight few disappointments, like the boring shrimp remoulades at Arnaud's (too tart) and Galatoire's (really? That's all ya got? ... But then again, my beef with Galatoire's is personal, so that's as much as I'll say right now). Seafood seemed to be the theme, crawfish and shrimp headlining almost every restaurant, so it was a damned good thing that I began loving seafood shortly after I started eating for real in New Orleans.

5 Fifty 5, restaurant at the local Marriott, was the next batter up to plate. (Haha, I made a pun-ny! And another one! Okay, I'm done. Please don't stop reading ...) Classic mac and cheese was dolled up at this station by adding in nice amounts fresh, sweet chunks of lobster meat to the creamy pasta and cheese sauce. Garnished with a hollow, hard bread stick, this was a fantastic spin on the one-fashioned favorite, the quality lobster meat giving the dish a luxurious edge, and an sauce-like blend of cheeses adding to the high-end-ness of the dish (as opposed to chunks of gooey cheese commonly found in macaroni and cheese casseroles).

I meandered over to the booth of Chops, a nice restaurant across Veterans Boulevard in Metairie across the street from the offices of Renaissance Publications that I'd been meaning to explore. They were offering tuna nachos, which sounded interesting. Not a raw foods person, I was had some trepidation, but as seared tuna goes, I know I like it in small doses. I asked for a tiny bit and they gladly obliged, with three fabulous homemade chips and plenty of toppings, half of which I can't even remember at this point. The tuna was great, fresh and chopped small, and the cheese, guac, and all other necessary components were generous.

We then veered (quite understandably, I'd think) to the giant cupcake stand to peruse this glittering mass of confections. They cupcakes were huge! And they came in a medley of great flavors. Boy and I shared a classic vanilla cupcake, not for lack of daring or for fear of the lemon poppy, passion fruit, or cookies and cream, but because we figured the simplest one would be the most indicative of whether the more exotic flavors would be as delectable. Unfortunately, the vanilla kind of lacked character, which some may argue, IS the character of a vanilla cupcake, but I disagree, since I've had some absolutely fabulous "boring" cupcakes before. Saving room for all of the other goodies, we continued on our mission to taste everything.

Mr. B's Bistro's ("B" for "Brennan," might I add) booth was serving a crawfish corn chowder, which was light, sweet, and only vaguely creamy -- more packed full of stuff than what you'd normally expect from a cream-based chowder, which is usually more cream of- than the "of" part. The consistency was a little thin and runny, which just didn't feel right to me, but the flavor was great. Light, more sweet than salty, a summer stew is more what it resembled than your standard say, clam chowder fare of New England wintertime (which is what I think when I hear "chowder").

On a similar liquid note, I had some seafood gumbo, too, from ... well, quite frankly, I don't know where from! They've all started to meld into one another, these tastings from that night, in a glory of flavors and experiences. The gumbo was okra-based and the roux was not as thick as desired, so perhaps it's better this way, that I don't remember the vendor. It was good, but not great.

The gazpacho from La Petite Grocery was a cool burst of tomatoey freshness, and although more simple than what I've come to expect from Chef Justin Devillier, was still tasty. By that same founder, though, Joel Dondis, was Sucre's table, set up right next door, which I'll delve into on my even more belated follow-up post, since this one is almost illegally long at this point.

Rest your weary eyes for now, and I'll regale you with more tales of eating once this weekend calms itself down a little.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Strawberries Taste Like Strawberries!

Strawberry season has reached its peak, and there's no better time to get ripe, local strawberries from south Louisiana. Gone are the tart or sour light red, green-tinged berries! Away with strawberries with white cores and overly firm outsides! With the Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival already one short week behind us, these heart-shaped, tart, deep red fruits are in their prime and being used in cuisine and desserts all over the city. Shortcakes, ice creams, sorbets, gelatos, jellies, daiquiris, cocktails, and sauces are all being created with these berries in mind, and although I'm allergic to large quantities of them, I can't help but eat as much as I possibly can.

Right now, they're hitting that deep violet/blood-red pretty quickly after your initial grocery store purchase, ripening easily into that color from their usual bright ruby red, making them a snack-ready food. The outside, once it gets to that rich, deep color, will be slightly soft to the touch, but the core should remain firmer, which means the center will be slightly more tart than its sweeter outside layer. The little seeds give a subtle crunch and the strawberries just burst with tangy flavor. The scent fills your mouth, traveling up your throat to your nose, before it even gets to your tongue, and the aroma is pleasant, light, and of sunshine in the spring.

The balance between perfectly ripe and overly ripe is subtle. What you should look for in a sweeter berry is a strawberry that is on the verge of achieving the deep, bluey-purple kind of red but hasn't gotten there just yet. An overly ripe strawberry should be avoided for snacking consumption because it's soft, squishy, and has an oddish aftertaste, lacking that fresh burst of perfect strawberries. The center should still have a little white in it, but be mostly red. If the gradient only goes into shades of scarlet, it's a little too ripe. Strawberries that have been sitting for a little too long also tend to have darker seeds. Ripe strawberries have lovely dark yellow seeds sprinkled evenly on the surface of the berry, and underripe ones have brighter yellow seeds. With underripe ones, place them in a container that allows oxygen to flow and they'll be fine in a few days.

Not only are they delicious, but they're totally good for you. Strawberries are high in antioxidants, vitamin C, iron, and are used to improve the circulatory system. They're also recommended for people with joint problems, who struggle with anemia, and have anti-inflammatory properties.

I love strawberries in any form, but during this time of year, sometimes the best way to eat them is fresh and almost plain. The pure strawberry flavor should shine through right now, allowing you to leave your unnatural sugars, used to enhance them the rest of the time, behind. A bit of creme fraiche goes a long way, as does just a spoonful of sugar. No need to mask any tartness now of the fruit -- they're pretty much perfect right now, a sweet and pretty harbinger of the summer yet to come.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Epicurean Adventures: Tapas = Feast @ Zoe

Forgive the late post, but after a week of good eatin', I needed some time to recover. Last Thursday, I found myself where it all started a year ago. And by "it all," I mean my professional foray into food writing and my being taken seriously as an up and coming talent--something I've worked very hard on and am extremely proud of. The place that my heart will always have a soft spot for? Zoe, the ultra-chic second floor fine dining restaurant in the W Hotel on Poydras, headed by NOWFE award-winning chef Roberto Bustillo, Jr.

The feeling of deja vu was a good one, as we were seated at the long table on the right wall of the restaurant, Beth Ann Brannon, marketing director of the hotel, leading the conversation in that lively manner of hers. There were quite a bunch of media folk, some old faces and some new; Terri Kaupp at Peter Mayer had assembled a great group of folks. However, it was also a hungry one after an hour of cocktails, and Beth Ann, with her typical hospitality, got to ordering.

The menu was revamped a few months ago to reflect the advantages of sharing (because it IS caring, as I often say) food among groups, and voila! High-end gourmet tapas (or, translated: "small plates") are now Zoe's specialty. Huge, easily divisible portions of luxury food, all except for three options, under $20 each.

With this concept in mind, Beth Ann ordered several plates of pretty much everything on that menu, and then urged all of us to get two plates for ourselves of anything we liked. We were more than happy to comply. The Kobe beef short ribs and the sliced duck breast in rhubarb-cherry jus (one of my favorite duck dishes) were tempting, but on the higher end of the price scale, so I wrenched my eyes away from that section of the menu. When I'm not paying for dinner, it almost pains me to order the most expensive items, since I never want to be "that guy" that takes advantage. We all know "that guy." We all know not to be "that guy." And so I wasn't.

La Crema chardonnay was poured, and it wasn't as oaky or buttery as chards can be, which was a relief. I usually drink reds, especially when there's a nice Italian Chianti on the table, but since this particular white was being offered as part of my wedding bar package, I wanted to make sure it passed muster. It did. I mean, any Sauv Blanc would blow it away, but that's just my personal preference. The chard was good, and ended up complementing the majority of the food I ate anyway.

Three round pats of "W"-embossed sweet cream butter sat at the ready, and I anxiously awaited the bread. And when that bread came, I chowed down without shame. Crusty, hot, crisp, soft, lush, thick, dense, and sweet. Heaven. Little curved pistolettes with charming slits cut into them halfway through the baking, they were pretty and delicious. And God, do I love things that make me fat. So when the first wave of plates came, I was ecstatic, since this meant that I was being forced to lay off the enriched white stuff and move on to bigger and better things that I could pretend were more forgiving to the poundage I'm packing.

One of the first things I made sure landed on my plate were the Kobe beef burgers, which were slightly larger than your average slider and three to a plate. The bread (again with the bread!, you sigh) was a sweet yellow roll with a hint of toasted butter. Soft and with an undiscernable crust, your teeth just sank into the puffy little pillows like it were made of marshmallow. The burger itself was lovely, although I would have preferred it rarer, but medium is a perfectly acceptable temperature for a burger for a crowd. Fresh tomato, red onion, and lettuce dressed the meat, and a nice chunk of blue cheese sat in the center just waiting to be spread. The flavor of the burger was rich and delicious to the point that I missed neither cheese nor ketchup and let the beef shine through. I could have easily eaten every one on the table. I refrained.

The other big plate that came out was filled with thick squares of the lump crab and brie sandwiches, which were then covered in a creamy sauce whose main components consisted of tender leek and luxurious shittake mushrooms. Toasted bread cut into little triangles and toasted with lovely grill marks provided a nice crisp note to all of the other warm gooeyness, and the taste of crab was immediately apparent, with only a very small amount of shell, which was barely noticeable. The lemon butter sauce provided a nice, subtle hit of acid that make the little sandwiches easier to eat in large quantities, which I then proceeded to do.

Mini reubens then followed, with hot grilled and shredded corned beef on toasted marble rye, with Thousand Island dressing and pleeeenty of sauerkraut. Rich and flavorful, with mild melted swiss adding a nice neutrality, this was a very intense sandwich. Packed thick with meat and dripping with many different layers of tart and tangy, every bite burst with character. Not being a reuben-eater, I heard mumblings around the table of it being one of "the best reubens" some of the guests had ever had ... and they were only mumbling because their mouths were too full.

The Tuscan antipasti was a massive platter, half of which I ate on the spot, and the other half of which I ended up devouring for a fabulous lunch the next day. I'm normally not into cold foods, but boy, oh boy was this good. The thick, marinated portabella mushrooms had a lovely charred flavor to them without actually having charred it; the mini caprese salad, with fresh, mild, moist buffalo mozzerella and its trademark dense neutrality and ripe tomatoes drizzled with herbacious green pesto, balsamic vinegar, and olive oil, was light and delicious, with every component in perfect proportion. I was afraid of the pickled peppers but dove into the roasted red peppers that were sweet and just butterfly-kissed with the hint of flames. The prosciutto de parma was soft, tender, and not dry at all, but slightly firmer towards the edges. The fattiness and saltiness was absolutely ideal and great on the buttery, crisp crostini that was provided in a well thought out quantity. A mild, cold chorizo was presented as well, along with some breseola, but the proscuitto remained my favorite and the caprese was the first to go. The entire thing had a very thin layer of grease, olive oil and/or butter flavoring it all and giving it a richness that's filling in a way that cold food is often not.

One of the favorite dishes of the day, of course, was the seared sea scallops. Massive and quivering with sheer gravity-defying size as it stood tall and golden on the edges, this NOWFE gold fleur de lis-award winning dish was a study in sophistication. Creamy Tuscan corn grits were a great complement, adding a hearty rustic appeal to the light, perfectly seasoned seared scallops. The mushroom ragout was full of flavor, too, and contributed an earthiness that went well with all of the other components.

And of desserts, there were plenty! We ended the meal with a massive slice of strawberry shortcake, Louisiana strawberries at their lush peak as we speak. Generous helpings of hand-whipped cream frothed above glimmering, light layers of sponge cake. The creme brulee literally must have weighed a couple of pounds, though, both desserts indicative of the whole "sharing is caring" motif Zoe has taken on with its foray into a tapas-only menu. Needless to say, it was delicious, the cool custard and glassy top a perennial favorite.

I raise my glass to another great year of gluttony and writing even more about it, and hope to end the next year of my editorial career at Zoe as well. Cheers, y'all.

W Hotel New Orleans
333 Poydras Street
New Orleans, LA 70130
(504) 525-9444

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Eater's Remorse: Festival Blues

There are much, much longer posts to come about the Taste of the Town benefit, my recent dinners at Boucherie and Zoe, as well as other guilty pleasures that I've indulged in, but I just wanted to address, first, the disappointing day I had yesterday. Saturday, April 4, was one of the most jam-packed days of the spring food festival season, with the Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival taking place all weekend-long up on the North Shore above Lake Pontchartrain, the Crawfish Festival, celebrating the mass return of the mudbugs to our brown waters, the inaugural Louisiana RoadFood Festival, and the Oyster Jubilee.

Being that I only like crawfish at certain establishments and not as a whole, I opted out of that. The strawberry festival was one that I'd already been to, and it was far away. Not only that, but I'm allergic to strawberries in large quantities, but man, do I ever love strawberries in large quantities. A recipe for delicious disaster.

Obviously, then, I opted for the Oyster Jubilee in the French Quarter and the Louisiana RoadFood Festival the next street over.

Both were extremely disappointing.

For one, the oyster festival seemed have went missing. I arrived to the Quarter after running errands with Boy, and from all that activity, both he and I were famished and looking forward to this legendary "longest fried oyster po-boy ever," a Leidenheimer sandwich that was put together by several different restaurants and lining the sidewalks of several city blocks. Well, by 1PM, no such sandwich existed, there were no vendors to see, and Bourbon Street was its usual mess of drunken frat boys and degreaser water running down the street. I found out later that the festival was not until 4, but ended right after the ceremonial cutting of the sammich at noon. But honestly, this festival should have begun later to end later. Who gets up at 9AM, interested in fried mollusks? So yes; I am very, very saddened by the missed opportunity to eat fried P&Js. Especially since the photos online show that it was probably, crunchy, moist, and delicious.

So onward to Royal Street to partake in some of Louisiana's "best" road food. Well, apparently, we don't have a whole lot of road food because the showing of vendors was poor. Boucherie was there in their signature purple truck, but they're listed on the web site as "The Que Crawl." The Tabasco Country Store appeared, too, as did Dunbar's and Cafe Reconcile, which some of the proceeds went towards. But that was about it. And one of the saddest moments was when I saw a shrimp dish that looked pretty good, only to read the little board with their offerings: "Shrimp in Zatarain's Crab Boil."

Wtf?! What the hell kind of lame cop-out is that? To come to a festival advertised as some of the state's "legendary" eats to offer shrimp cooked in seasoning from a box?! Um, no thanks. This even kind of offended me, since it was such a poor representation, especially in the most tourist-occupied area of the city, of the food we really have to offer.

I thought I'd at least get something to drink, but found that the wine offering was basically a joke. Barefoot was the company supplying it, and we all know that you can't really trust $6 supermarket wine in shoddy, outdated branding. I know I'm coming off as a massive snob here, but cheap wine is often exactly that -- cheap wine. And a pox on cheap wine. Ugh.

One thing that actually did stand out, however, was the recently relocated (into a smaller space, oddly enough) Saltwater Grill's fried green tomato and shrimp remoulade po-boy. For only $6, they were selling a foot of this delectable treat, with freshly cornmeal battered fried tomatoes and topped with (get this!) FRIED shrimp. Ordinarily, all shrimp remoulade is generally served cold and boiled, but this shrimp was delectable in a crispy shell of floury chicken-fried goodness. The remoulade sauce came in a bottle from the supermarket, but the brand was at least local. The bread was flaky Leidenheimer, but although the po-boy was considered dressed, it wasn't really, since the lettuce was sparse. But still, this was a fantastic deal, and it must be remembered that this is street vendor food, and still better than most places in the country. I look forward to doing to Saltwater up the block from my house for the real deal.

So that was the shining star of the day. Live music, there wasn't much of, unless you count the usual Royal Street musicians and tap-dancers performing with hats out. I'd be willing to give the RoadFood Festival another chance next year if the lineup doubled, and make sure to check out the oyster one earlier, but for now, I'm sorry I missed the strawberry event and sorry I talked this one up.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Gratuitous Sexiness: Trays of Chocolates

I'm not normally big on chocolate, but these bonbons from Sucre are addicting. My favorites are the Wedding Cake, a decadent white chocolate and toasted almond ganache treat covered in swirled gold and ivory white chocolate (so amazing, I bought a purse of them); the Avery, which is dark chocolate with a creamy caramel and milk chocolate ganache center, enhanced with just a bit of coarse sea salt; and the Earl Gray, which has a white chocolate ganache heart, infused with tea and topped with a hand-painted chocolate plaquette. At $2 a piece, though, it's as expensive of a habit as drugs. But who cares?

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Epicurean Adventures: The World Is My Charbroiled Oyster

It made sense to me that since I was going all the way to Drago's in "Metry" to pick up my tickets for Taste of the Town, I may as well have dinner there. Not having seen my Partner in Dine, Leah, in quite a while, it seemed the perfect opportunity to do so, and scratch an itch for some oysters, an itch I've had since I first experienced them a month ago.

In New Orleans, most fine dining establishments pride themselves on carrying P&J oysters, a particularly flavorful, juicy, and fresh type of oyster with a clean, delicate taste. My first forays into oysterdom were flanked by oysters of that distinction, since I am a wuss and distrustful of things I've never tried. The only time I'll experiment and eat anything new is when I know the quality is beyond reproach -- this way, at least, I know I gave the item in question a good chance. My theory is: if I'm not going to like it at a 4-star restaurant with a reputation for consistent excellence, I'm never going to like it at all. Realistically, I don't want to try something somewhere second-rate and have an inappropriate distaste for the food based on one bad experience.

It then follows that I would sample chargrilled oysters for the very first time at the place they were invented, the place where they were named by a national magazine as "New Orleans' Best Single Bite" (although exactly which publication escapes me as of this moment): Drago's. Of course, it helped my ballsiness that Tommy Cvitanovich, the BMOC at Drago's, put out a plate of them when I was interviewing him for the cover story for the Spring Restaurant Guide of Where Y'at magazine. I obviously then had to eat them or risk being extremely rude; if there's one thing a new-ish and young journalist should not be, it's extremely rude. I had a little trepidation -- these oysters are monstrously larger than your standard P&Js and I knew that the Cvitanoviches used their own local Croation fisherman rather than this well-known distributor, so I was unsure as to what to expect. With a tiny cocktail fork that could barely support the weight of these monstrous in-season behemoths, I dug in.

It was at that exact moment that I fell in love with oysters. Symbolically enough, it was Valentine's Day. Cupid had clearly struck again, and I was dazzled.

As a general rule, I'm usually pro-fried. Anything fried. I like fried shrimp, fried chicken, fried potatoes, fried vegetables, fried ... you get the point. So it was to my utter surprise, since I already LIKED fried oysters, that I adored the Drago's charbroiled oysters. And by adoration, I mean I ate all four on my plate, and came back with Boy and his friend Patryk in tow to eat some more later that night.

So what exactly is it about these squishy mollusks that I love so much?

Honestly, it's almost indescribable. The way Drago's does it is often imitated and varied, but no one even comes close. Cooked on a large open flame on the half shell, fire licking at the oysters and charring the shells, the cloud of smoke that then arises coats the entire thing with a heady charcoal-y flavor that penetrates the surface membrane and is sealed in the core. A perfect mix of salt, garlic, herbs, and butter adds an immensely and immediately satisfying flavor balance to the natural sweetness of the oysters, since the smoky element is tasted in the back of your mouth after the initial hit of seasoning. Since the oysters are cooked in their own juices, they remain moist and retain their own fresh and distinctive characteristics while also absorbing the characteristics of the other ingredients I've already mentioned. To give the surface of the gleaming oysters a nice, charred crisp, parmesan and another type of cheese is sprinkled generously on breadcrumbs for even more deep-seated richness.

My mom was extremely surprised when I called to tell her I ate oysters and enjoyed them. For so long, I'd harbored a disgust for mollusks -- all things in double-hinged shells. I hadn't eaten a whole clam since I was about ten; the last time I ate a mussel was when I was around seven; an allergic reaction to abalone at three meant that I'd never try it again; and I'd never had a scallop until 2008's vintner's dinner at Zoe for NOWFE. But I had these Drago's oysters and my world was turned around.

"But they're so FAT, with bulging, squishy bellies!" she protested.

"Yes, Mom -- and they were delicious," was my response.

This narrative may seem kind of confusing to anyone that's followed my work, since I even dedicated an entire post to how much I couldn't stomach eating things that squished. But that type of squish in the smoked salmon sushi was a totally different kind of squish. That was cold, soft, and squishy was basically its main characteristic. On the other hand, the Drago charbroiled oyster's main characteristic was unadulterated, climactic FLAVOR, with squish being a secondary characteristic. And the way it squished was pleasant. There was the satisfying feel of your teeth puncturing the soft shape of the oyster, and a flood of juices to hit every taste bud in your mouth. It wasn't a soggy, nondescript, flat squish like the smoked salmon, but rather a melting of the oyster as it merged with your mouth and fell apart in a cataclysmic burst of flavor and steam that forces a moan of pleasure out of your mouth as you try to let some of the heat escape.

I finally understood why oysters were considered aphrodisiacs. There was nothing G-rated about eating a charbroiled oyster. Every sensation was sensual; every bite brought uncensored pleasure to every corner of your mouth and every corner of your brain.

And the big chunk of Leidenheimer French bread? Well, I love bread, but after a plate of these plump, luxurious oysters, it was reduced to just a tool for cleaning up the resultant mess, the pools of butter and oyster water that graced the plate.

Frickin' fabulous and nothing less. Although I don't smoke, someone should pass me a cigarette ... I'm fully sated.
Drago's Seafood Restaurant
3232 N Arnoult Road
Metairie, LA 70002
(504) 888-9254

Hilton New Orleans Riverside
2 Poydras Street
New Orleans, LA 70140
(504) 584-3911