Saturday, November 21, 2009

Epicurean Adventures: Half-iversary with a River View

Living as nomads for a month, then as squatters for close to four, Boy and I hadn't really had the opportunity to really relish married life. For longer than we would have liked, we were regressed into an earlier time, a time when Mom and Dad made your meals and you were happy to not have to share your room. Although my parents were hospitable to a fault (in fact, so much so that all of us, including Baxter, gained even MORE poundage, supplemented by Grandma), after living on your own, it's not only humbling but frustrating to fly back to the nest and roost there.

So with all the frenzy of job-hunting, then house-hunting, working and working on the house closing, and now working on the ACTUAL house (hence the attached photo) into the wee hours, it was to my pleasant surprise to note that our six-month wedding anniversary was already upon us. Long Island Restaurant Week was the week prior to the one that just passed, and a good many restaurants participated in a 3-course prix fixe menu ... including the Riverview and The Snapper Inn.

Both the Riverview and The Snapper Inn were places Boy and I had our eyes on going, now that we've moved into the neighborhood they're located in. Both were beautiful waterfront dining establishments with excellent reputations and gorgeous views ... and both had extended their restaurant week menus into the foreseeable future. Huzzah!

Next was the difficult part - picking the restaurant. The pick between the two restaurants was a tough one, pitting Oysters Vanderbilt (Riverview) against Oysters Rockefeller (Snapper); short ribs with parsnip puree (Riverview) against a queen-cut of prime rib (Snapper); and a 1-lb. Maine lobster with drawn butter against seared Maine diver scallops. Worthy adversaries indeed. In the end, I was swayed by the argument made by the Riverview's oysters and scallops, and without reservations, reservations were made.

Initially, we'd planned a Tuesday night outing, on our actual 6-month-versary, but Boy fell inopportunely ill, to both of our great disappointments (although I suspect he was more disappointed than I, being that I felt pretty damn robust at the time ... my scratchy throat as of yesterday says I gloated too soon ...), so we decided to go last night. Snapper's prixe fix was only Wednesdays and Thursdays anyway, whereas Riverview offered a more competitive Sunday-Friday deal.

We drove there instead of walking per our original plan, since it was still kind of wet out (does it ever cease to rain on this island?) and we were dressed up, and were welcomed by a large dining space, bar that opens out onto the deck (my boss says their summer happy hours are definitely worth going to, between the drink specials, apps, and live music), and cozy dining nooks for intimate parties of ... well, parties, literally, of a dozen-ish people.

The service was excellent, and I was thrilled to discover that our fancy restaurant just up the block believed in amuse bouche. Instant win! A beautiful little bay scallop was served atop a buttery leek sauce, nestled in a perfect scallop shell atop a bed of sea salt. This sauce was in fact so fabulous that it caused Boy to change his order (after much debate) from the short ribs with parnsip puree to what I'd ordered, the seared scallops.

We each got a slice of bread following our hasty inhalation of what was an absolutely wonderful single bite, and the hot, crusty, hearty bread stick came with a cold pat of butter. I found myself going back for the butter several times despite the artisan quality of the bread, but mainly because it was warm enough that it kept melting the butter, and I happen to really like the texture of non-melted butter. Anyway, the bread wasn't particularly notable.

However, the next course, the Oysters Vanderbilt (which we both got) was definitely notable. Fortunately for us, we'd moved from one renowned oyster -- Louisiana's monstrously large Gulf oysters -- to another -- Long Island's Blue Point oysters, so this one was a no-brainer. The difference in flavor is there, with the Long Island oysters having a little bit of a more wild taste than the ones I've had in New Orleans, the hint of brine or something oceanic having a tiny more of a bite to it. The size difference was noticeable, New Orleans oysters at places like Drago's weighing in at what could easily be about two or three times the size. The flavor of the dish itself though was laudable, with spinach and gruyere baked together and topped with sizeable chunks of thick bacon to accent the squishy goodness of the oysters. All it needed were a few granules of the course salt they were anchored on and all systems were go. Boy and I could very easily have eaten a dozen each. They were juicy, fresh, and flavorful, and made us excited for our main courses, since we had both decided to traverse the seafood way that evening.

The presentation of the seared Maine diver scallops was nice and elegant in a simple way, with a good deal of lobster white truffle risotto dolloped in the middle and three very large scallops arranged around it as a frame. A lovely aroma of fresh scallop (very different than freezer-burned, stored scallop, I think) rose up in a sweet cloud of steam, and it was refreshing to see all the bits of lobster poking out of the risotto so generously.

The scallops were more seared on one side than the other for both of our dishes, but not enough to take away from the experience. They were prepared medium as to be firmer on the outside but shiny and soft, yet still easily sliced, in the center, where it was a lighter seashell color than the parts closer to the sear. The flavor was delicious, and with the citrus buerre blanc to give it that acid zest, the sauce and scallop just went together perfectly.

I really enjoyed the lobster white truffle risotto as well, since seriously -- what's not to love? I pity those who can't taste white truffle; it's a wonderful experience, with an earthiness that's difficult to describe in its distinction. The lobster meat was nice, and the risotto cooked perfectly, although I thought the heavier flavors of the risotto competed a little with the lightness of the scallops. However, this is a classic Riverview dish and I hear it's one of their signature favorites. I, on the other hand, would like to see a main course of the amuse that was sent out. That was unequivocably the best dish of the night.

The creme brulee I chose for my dessert course (from options of gelato, sorbet, or cobbler) had a thick crust of the carmelized sugar, and was topped with a single mint leaf and fresh blackberry. These were disposable to me. The custard was slightly tinged with cinnamon, which I found interesting but good. The apple cobbler Boy picked was good, with a sweet crusty streusel topping, nicely prepared apples (not too sweet), and a couple of scoops of vanilla ice cream served on the side rather than atop, which I think is brilliant. I hate wrongful sogginess!

So the final consensus about the Riverview? With it's vacation spot, old-school, luxurious ambience, pretty views, great service, and delectable food, it's a jewel to have within walking distance of your house. For $25 for three courses and an amuse, a commendable selection of French-influenced dishes, and just-right portions, it's a value hard to beat. Will I be back again? Once we figure out how much was can spend on ourselves (we've been putting a lot of money into the new house), most certainly I'll be back. There's a Cedar Roasted Atlantic Salmon with
Citrus Salad, Dill Creme Fraiche, and Pomegranate Vinaigrette with my name on it!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Epicurean Adventures: A Cajun/LI Thanksgiving

One of the hardest things, as you know if you've been following this now-sporadically updated blog (umm ... yeah, sorry about that!), of moving away from a geographic area with a lot of culinary character, is knowing that the luxuries that you took for granted and the novelties that became commonplace over the course of the years, is no longer accessible. As Boy and I are nearing the time for our first family festivities both a) as a married couple and b) as homeowners, we were presented with the internal conundrum of incorporating what we've grown to love as New Orleanians into our New York/Long Island family traditions. This year would be pivotal since it'll be the first of many warm holidays at our waterside refuge, and we wanted to do it up in style and introduce our families to New Orleans things we enjoyed at this time for the past few years.

It was actually Boy's idea, the stroke of genius of how best to incorporate Big Easy novelty into a traditional Northern gathering. I wasn't sure if he'd go for this, so I didn't mention it, so was doubly pleased when he came up with it himself. But what better way to bring Thanksgiving in with an exciting, exotic bang than with an animal as unheard of on Long Island as the Texan jackalope?

Turducken was the answer.

A turducken, for those unfamiliar, is essentially a PETA-disapproved Cajun classic; a smorgasbord of unnecessary overuse of meat. It is, my friends, a chicken stuffed inside a duck inside a turkey, with layers of stuffing to help differentiate. The chicken and duck are fully deboned, and the turkey is partially deboned, usually, so it's actually super easy to carve and serve.

I was intrigued by this when I first heard of it back at my old workplace, the Mudbug office in downtown New Orleans, and upon further research, became determined to try it. My enthusiasm and Boy's penchant for meat and gluttony embarked us on a mission to find this fabulous fowl(s), and so last year, we enjoyed Thanksgiving at John Besh's Luke in the CBD. Served in a cast-iron skillet atop oyster and jalapeno cornbread, with gravy and plenty of collard greens, this was worth the search and as the featured entree for the 3-course prix fixe menu they offer daily, also worth every penny.

Granted, most families head out to K. Paul's Louisiana Kitchen for their turducken Thanksgiving out, but we were young, poor, and looking for quieter ambience, hence our decision to patronize the brasserie instead.

Anyway, this year's hunt for our Thanksgiving bird(s) has been considerably more difficult, due to our distance from Cajun country, and the obstacles presented by cross-country shipping. The price of the turduckens themselves aren't too bad, with full 15-pound birds ranging from $39-89, but the shipping is astronomical. Because it's a very large, perishable item, certain guidelines for shipping must be adhered, and many distributors are wary of shipping anything longer than 3 days. Special packaging is needed, dry ice, and et cetera all get factored into the cost. Therefore, some of the cheapest shipping I was looking at was for $33-98 for shipping alone. And obviously, the places with the cheaper turduckens had the more costly shipping, and vice versa, so an average price of around $120 became the norm in my searches.

Well, having a decent-sized mortgage on our heads, 20+ people attending our first family shindig, and bills, bills, bills, $120 for a novelty bird in addition to the traditional baste-and-roast turkey, was a bit much. Especially since the one that I wanted, with the chicken and andouille jambalaya stuffing, would have cost $138 or so. No oyster cornbread stuffing was to be found, unfortunately, and regular cornbread or pork sausage and dirty rice were the most common options. We were getting kind of saddened and stressed by this since half of each of our respective families were looking forward to trying this mythical animal, and we didn't want to disappoint. It seemed that our only option was to go ahead and order a mass-manufactured Tony Chachere's frozen turducken from Sam's Club (!).

However, at the last minute, I stumbled back upon a web site called Cajun Grocer, who was willing to ship their Lafayette, Louisiana-made turduckens ground! Huzzah! Plus, the Wall Street Journal was quoted as calling them a best value site, and they were on Fine Living Network, so double huzzah for creds! And with a discount code found on RetailMeNot.com (bigeasy2, if you're curious), we saved 10% on top of that, putting in an order for a shrimp and crawfish jambalaya stuffed turducken for $89.

Hopefully, all's well that ends well, and it will be delicious. My expectations aren't so lofty as to expect our well-traveled turducken to rival the deliciousness that was turducken at Luke, but I do hope that the shrimp are properly deveined, the crawfish relatively fresh and juicy (which I'm wary about since it's not crawfish season ... another reason I'd have preferred oysters!), and the meat moist and flavor-rich by Louisiana standards.

For those of you who are interested in where my research took me before I made my final decision, here's a list of places where you can buy a real Cajun turducken and have it shipped:
Happy feasting, everyone! And enjoy your turkey or turducken day, depending on where you are :)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Happy Po-Boy Festival, New Orleans!


My sister (pictured right), a well-rounded, well-read, and much less busy than me due to her status as grad student and not "homeowner" (I almost want to say "lucky" ... ;) sent me an email last night with a link to this article: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/11/dining/11unit.html

If you don't feel like clicking, well the long and short of it is that New Orleans is in the NY Times! The New Orleans Po-Boy Preservation Festival is back Uptown on Oak Street, on November 22 this year, and although it makes my heart glad to know that this little festival that celebrates one of the most simple pleasures of living in NOLA goes on, it also makes it heavy that I'll be missing it for the first time in years.

Flaky Leidenheimer bread. Crunchy breaded shrimp. Shredded lettuce. Pickles on everything. Gravy on fries. REMOULADE! All of these make me homesick.

I remember my first one. My then-boyfriend (now-husband) was out of town, and I went to meet a few people there to brave the crowds for $3 bites of heaven. I got a wrongful parking ticket (meter maids must work on commission there, because let me tell you, I have yet to meet a total of three people who have received even ONE legitimate ticket ...) that I later fought, but had a wonderful time listening to loud music, digesting over a cup of coffee at Zotz, and going back for more.

I remember my last one. My husband was in town, as was his sister, and being a po-boy lover himself, we were offended at her utter lack of enthusiasm for a festival devoted to some of the most delicious sandwiches ever. (Yes, non-foodies actually hurt our feelings, and make me upset. I am aware that I'm a freak.) Nothing daunted, Boy and I ate our way through a total of 6 booths combined, and refused to feel guilty about it since we walked there (having since learned from my first experience with the parking ticket).

This year, I trust that Drago's will be there, Tommy and his crew charbroiling their famous oysters in a thick, black cloud of smoke over open flame. I'll think about the airy French bread crusts littering the streets and crunching underfoot. I'll recall with fondness the feeling of roast beef gravy running down my arms and leaving brown trails of deliciousness (and disgustingness) all over my clothes. More importantly, I'll always remember the fun I had at every New Orleans festival, each of them so unique, and the love I have for this distinctive city I hope to return to one day.

Meanwhile, on Sunday, November 22, I plan to commemorate one of my favorite New Orleans traditions with one of my favorite New York ones -- the Deli Special at Corner (formerly Campus) Heroes.

I raise my loaf of bread in a salute to messy paper-wrapped regional sandwiches on that day -- to the ones I've eaten and enjoyed, and the ones I plan to in the future. Happy giant, gluttonous sandwich day, y'all.