Monday, June 27, 2011

ROAD TRIP NEW ORLEANS: Part Two - Southern Hospitality Defined

Succulent Sausage; Red Beans
& Rice @ Coop's on Decatur

Recently a foodie friend remarked to the Better Half and myself that he thought New Orleans food was overrated. “What do they have in New Orleans that you can’t get in California?” he posited, remarking that he just didn’t see what all the fuss was about. “Don’t get me wrong,” he continued, “I love the food in New Orleans, I’m just not overwhelmed. I think our food here in the Bay Area is better. ”

While it is true enough that San Francisco and Oakland, its little sister across the Bay, are vibrant with food offerings, is it reasonable to assert that our Bay Area Chefs significantly exceed the collective culinary skills of the Chefs in New Orleans? Sure, it’s possible. Are there more restaurants per capita here that offer remarkable food and a multi-star dining experience? Probably, especially if we are talking about the modern definition of finer dining.

It is also a fact is that we are fast becoming a global community. Cuisine that one was unique to a place or region is now available elsewhere. Here in the East Bay one can venture to Tanya Holland’s Brown Sugar Kitchen in Oakland and experience a Barbequed Shrimp and Grits that are as flavorful and well-prepared as any in the Crescent City. If I want to experience the street food of Thailand, I need look no further than Hawker Fare on Webster. If one knows where to go, the flavors of the world are available in one’s own backyard.

Veal a la Clemenceau
@ Feelings Cafe
 So why travel all the way to New Orleans? It’s rough, it’s dirty. More than half of the city was recently underwater. The post-Katrina crime wave continues to challenge law enforcement. (In fact, there is a lot about NoLa that suggests her citizens face many of the challenges met in my home town of Oakland). New Orleans struggles to repair the urban blight from years of government neglect and additional decay resulting from the storm. Signs proclaiming the motto “Rebuild New Orleans” can be seen everywhere. Though I know there are sections of town where a casual visitor should not venture, especially after dark, I can truthfully say I have never felt unsafe there. My Crescent City never fails to entertain her guests. A perfectly schooled courtesan, she treats each visitor as if they are the first, and shows them all only the best of times, with a languid, seductive charm.

She is a City that has much to offer. There is more to the food of any locale than the skill of its collective Chefs or the specificity of its local cuisine. As we say in the food biz, there is the Heart. And Heart is something that New Orleans possesses in abundance.

Strawberry Shortcake @ Lilette

When assessing the food this lovely enclave in Louisiana, one cannot ignore the spirit of the place. It is more about the love on the plate than the seasoning on the shrimp. Although there are dishes to be had in New Orleans that can be found nowhere else, what makes their local cuisine rise to the level of myth and magic is the way it is delivered to the diner. There is a universal enthusiasm in the service, and an honesty on the plate. A visitor is offered only what the locals themselves wish to eat, with an open-hearted sincerity that comes across in every bite. This is what they do better in New Orleans.

It is a skill we are learning, but have not yet mastered in California. When Alice W first pushed local and fresh, there was a pretension and a snobbery to that early California cuisine that lingers. There is a sense that anyone who doesn’t eat fresh, local or “well plated” is on the outside. A buffoon who doesn’t know any better. Those in the know mocked those who were not part of the movement with the relish of mean girls in a high school cafeteria. While it was a brilliant culinary sea change, the movement failed to acknowledge the most basic premise of good food. The sheer joy of it.

Jazz Breakfast @ Mojito's
 So that, in my view at least, is the primary difference. In N’awlins the food is not competitive, it is not status conscious. No dish is offered up without an overwhelming sense of delight in the act of providing it. Their attitude surrounding food perfectly expresses the best of Southern hospitality. Along with that childlike purity of heart comes a vast selection of dishes, dishes that blend the flavors and techniques of a myriad of cultures, all of which are interpreted brilliantly by a people for whom this particular expression of living has been elevated to an art form even on the humblest of tables.

When you consider the societal values of the food of New Orleans, know this above all else: they will not merely feed your belly. They will nourish your spirit, tantalize your palate, elevate your mood with all manner of music and probably buy you a drink. They will do all these things without breaking a sweat. But don’t be discouraged, we’re new at this here in Bay, but as the many articles detailing great local food in my blog can attest, we aren’t so very far behind...


When the BH and I arrive in New Orleans we have a ritual of sorts. We usually get in pretty late in the afternoon, and finding ourselves hungry and tired, we head straight to Coops on Decatur for a decompression of sorts. Coop's is the very definition of local color. Old, dirty and small, the place is casual and the food is excellent. I always have the Rabbit, Shrimp & Sausage Jambalaya. The Better Half chose his usual Coop’s Fried Chicken and one among us had Red Beans & Rice, which arrived with a succulent pair of fat, juicy whole Louisiana Sausages. We ordered beers all round and a tequila shooter for yours truly. It’s how I like to arrive. There is a Margaritaville across the street for the tourists. Avoid it. Eat at Coop’s.

Trio of Foie Gras @ Restaurant August
 Our second stop was a late breakfast at Stanley, the companion restaurant to Stella! (A chic and upscale white table cloth heaven located on the grounds of the Provincial Hotel on Ursulines), Located right on Jackson Square, Stanley serves a dish called Breaux Bridge Benedict, a decadent concoction of Charlie T’s Boudin Sausage, Smoked Ham, American Cheese, Poached Eggs, and Creole Hollandaise. Stacked in a tantalizing tower it is topped with their heavenly poached eggs and a generous drizzle of a freshly whipped Hollandaise sauce. I was worried that a dish that had been the subject of dreams for months would fail to live up to my high expectations. It did not.

Susan Spicer’s Bayona made the cut this year. Beautifully tucked into a courtyard on Dauphine Street, in the heart of the Quarter, the place is lovely and the food was beautiful. Sadly, I came down with sunstroke and was unable to join my companions who swear the food is spectacular. I was able to sample only a small mouthful of a soft and delectable corn salad souffle affair. I can say however that our waitress, Jane, was an absolute delight. It was she who diagnosed my sunstroke, attempting to bring me back to the land of the living with a lovely ginger drink concoction which nearly did the trick. (What did I say about the love?) As is so often the case in New Orleans, Jane turned out to be multi-talented. She performs under the name Jane Harvey Brown & the Traditional Jazz Stars, and we caught her act as she sang some classic jazz tunes at the French Market Stage during Quarter Fest. Seems everybody in New Orleans is multi-talented.

Bread Pudding Souffle
@ Commander's Palace
 Saturday night, after another long, lovely day of music and sun we headed uptown on the St. Charles Streetcar to Pascal's Manale. After a lengthy wait, we managed to board a crowded streetcar and took it Uptown to the restaurant, an old New Orleans establishment that I’d been told was among the very best places to have BBQ’d Shrimp. The recommendation proved correct. The BBQ shrimp here are head-on, juicy-pink, finger lickin’ garlicy perfection. So good, in fact, that they may have replaced Deenie’s in my foodie’s heart of hearts.

Sunday we had piano-brunch reservations at Mojito’s Rum Bar & Grill, to see Tom McDermott on the jazz piano. Mojito’s is a new restaurant at one end of Frenchman Street in the heart of the music club scene. The ownership had reserved our four-top table with a close-up and personal view of McDermott’s piano. Watching his hands as he played was amazing, his slender fingers worked the keys like the fluttering of butterflies. The food was tasty. The crunch on my Creme Brulee French Toast was buttery delicious. There were a few minor first week stumbles, but I’ve no doubt they’ll figure it out. Who cares about minor errors on the plate, when one is surrounded by the sounds of Tom McDermott doing his thing. That’s another thing to love about New Orleans.

Sunday evening we were able to snag a table at Feelings Café, considered “the most romantic restaurant in New Orleans.” It was a cloistered and interesting little “joint” the sort of place that looks like it has been unchanged for decades, but is nonetheless welcoming. Once there we enjoyed a wonderful meal and a celebrity sighting, as Malin Ackerman was enjoying a meal at the next table. Everyone at our table loved their dinner. It was a little like a culinary time machine, but in the best way imaginable. The food Chef Susan Harben prepares is in the traditional Clemenceau style, my veal sitting atop lovely peas and potatoes. Feelings is a local favorite for a reason, and the food was an enlightening experience. Not everything is better when its new. Outstanding.

Succulent Red Drum
@ Commander's Palace
 Commander’s Palace. We enjoy exploring the above-ground cemetery located just across the street — it is beautiful and completely safe to wander, much more so than some of the other historic cemeteries scattered throughout the City. It was the highlight of our first and only guided tour, and we’ve been returning every year like pilgrims to Mecca. The restaurant too is chock full of history. It is a beautiful, rambling structure, the familiar blue and white exterior as inviting a sight as anything in my beloved French Quarter. Every year, as I walk up to the building, I know I am in New Orleans.

At Commander’s we enjoyed Turtle Soup and their famous Bread Pudding Souffle, which is out of this world good. They pour a brandy sauce directly into the steaming hot, cotton candy light souffle. Magic. In addition, our delightful waitress Jenny, talked me into a drum fish special that was as light and moist and blissfully prepared. It was remarkable. There are all manner of restaurants in New Orleans, many roll along on the laurels of their reputation. They serve food that is good, but somewhat mired in tradition. Not so for this meal. And as a bonus, Jenny escorted us on a private tour of the gardens. She took photos of our group; followed up with a private tour of the as yet un-christened private Chef’s table recently installed in the wine cellar.

 Perhaps the most blissful experience was meal at John Tesh’s Restaurant August. My expectations were high, and they were exceeded by miles. August is southern class personified. It has an ambience that speaks to the past, while maintaining a very modern elegance. One can almost hear the lowered voices of men joking about clandestine meetings with mistresses over their mint juleps, and imagine the sight of ladies in white gloves fanning themselves while barely disturbing the thick, summer air under the sprawling branches of a two-hundred year old magnolia tree.

Crab Au Gratin @ Muriel's on Jackson Square

But though August may be pretty; she’s a smart girl too, a woman of substance. I began my meal with a Bourbon infused cocktail, enjoyed a foie gras trio and progressed to perfectly prepared duck. I was already in culinary heaven when I ordered dessert. The Deconstructed Hummingbird Cake that completed my meal was a thing of beauty. All the components came together to dance around my palate like the wings of the bird that bears its name. A tiny winged symphony of pineapple, banana and pecan, with some touches all their own. That was one of the best meals of my life.

Deconstructed Humminbird Cake
@ Restaurant August
 We visited Muriel's Jackson Square, a lovely little local landmark that I have seen countless times and assumed was just another tourist trap. We dined at a fabulous local gem, Lillette, located Uptown on Magazine Street, and before we left we enjoyed an all you can eat breakfast in the sun drenched courtyard of The Court of Two Sisters. As we listened to the smooth vibes of the jazz combo nearby, drank our mimosas and enjoyed eggs benedict I readied myself to say goodbye to New Orleans.

If you haven’t been go. If you have been return. I guarantee you won’t be sorry.

1109 Decatur Street
New Orleans, LA 70116

547 St Ann Street
New Orleans, LA 70116
Chef: Scott Boswell

430 Dauphine Street
New Orleans, LA 70112-3406
(504) 525-4455
Chef: Susan Spicer

Cochon Butcher (way better bet than Mother’s)
930 Tchoupitoulas Street
New Orleans, LA
(504) 588-2123
Chef: Chef Donald Link & Chef Stephen Stryjewski

Pascal’s Manale (Italian Creole)
1838 Napoleon Avenue
New Orleans, LA
(504) 895-4877

Mojito's Rum Bar & Grill (Marigny)
437 Esplanade Ave
New Orleans, LA 70116
(504) 252-4800

Feelings Café
2600 Chartres Street
New Orleans, LA 70117-7312
(504) 945-2222
Chef: Sylvia Harben

Commander’s Palace Restaurant
1403 Washington Avenue
New Orleans, LA 70130-5798
(504) 899-8221
Chef: Tory McPhail

3637 Magazine Street

New Orleans, LA 70115-2553
(504) 895-1636
Chef John Harris

Muriel's Jackson Square
801 Chartres Street

New Orleans, LA 70116-3206
(504) 568-1885

Court of Two Sisters
613 Royal Street

New Orleans, LA 70130-2181
(504) 522-7261