Friday, June 29, 2012

After the Fest Has Gone - (New Orleans Part Two)

Boudin Sausage Plate @ Cochon Butcher

The City has quieted down somewhat since the festivities have concluded. The loud whirring of the refrigerator truck that was keeping mountains of Abida beer chilled and at the ready for the crowds along Royal Street, has been replaced by the strains of a lone accordian player who has perched just below the ledge of our hotel window to serenade the few passers by. This particular musician has mastered only the chords of a single song, so the melody is unchanging, which as time passes becomes somewhat monotonous. This is unusual for New Orleans, the buskers here are generally very, very good. Nevertheless, I find the music soothing as it vibrates through the closed window of our hotel room overlooking the busy corner of Chartres and Madison, now nearly abandoned. Yesterday the sound of the party could be heard outside our window into the wee hours of the morning.

Duck @ Herbsaint
Nevertheless, we are able to get some much-needed rest before we head back out into the city for the second part of our stay, which, not surprisingly, also consists of unwinding with food and drink. This is, after all, what one does when in New Orleans. There will be just a little less street music as the City hunkers down in preparation for Jazz Fest, the musical equivalent to the "eye of the storm" as we pass through from one festival to another. Though we have enjoyed our whirlwind tour of the music and dance of our beloved New Orleans, we are ready for some time in the City that is all our own.

We have a grueling schedule ahead of us: shopping, stopping for drinks, visiting the cemetery and a lineup of reservations at some of the finest restaurants in the City. Poor me.
The Monday after Fest, we take a ride on the St. Charles Streetcar up to the Garden District to visit one of our favorite haunts, [Emile] Commanders’ Palace. The restaurant is a fixture in the city — having been run by the Brennan family for the past few decades. Its kitchen has been a training ground for such chefs as Emeril Legasse and Paul Prudhomme. Commanders is one of the original New Orleans fine-dining establishments. Currently led by Chef Tory McPhail, the kitchen behind those familiar swinging doors is a place both inventive and traditional. Behind these heavy black doors (one marked YES and the other NO, to assist in warning off potential oncoming traffic and averting culinary disasters), is a staff capable of the most current of dishes, while managing to evoke in every plate something of the lazy hot Mint-Julep Sundays of centuries passed.

"The" Bread Pudding Souffle
@ Commander's Palace
There are a lot of newer restaurants I will talk about in a moment, but Commanders bears mentioning, not just because it is established, representing the pinnacle of all that which is "Gone With the Wind" but because it is has managed to remain so, fulfilling the expectations of those who cling to a Southern milieu, while at the same time re-inventing itself . Chef Tory takes the traditional flavors and ingredients one expects in New Orleans and blends them into dishes that are light and flavorful and captivating. His style could be termed "Traditional FRESH." Behind the familiar bright turquoise exterior, lays a restaurant capable of delivering as memorable a gastronomic experience as any one of the newer, "hipper" restaurants that have sprung up in the Crescent City post-Katrina, such as Cochon and Stella! New Orleans takes such pride in the history of its food that familiar memes will surface in each of the restaurants around town in one form or another. Occasionally this repetition can seem a bit worn, but nothing in this restaurant will fail to deliver the potency of flavor that wasn’t around in such delicacy of layering even two decades past.

In addition to the plates at Chef McPhail’s table delivering consistently great food, Commanders is also beautiful. Inside, it boasts a glistening interior full of mirrors and linens and twisting passageways, evoking the essence of the mid-forties Deep South. The ambience providing the diner the means to time-travel back to an era when ladies wore gardenias in their hair and carried parasols to keep their skin unblemished by the sun, each accompanied by a gentleman in a Panama shade hat, who would never think to be without a [linen] coat and tie in the dining room. And Commanders maintains all of this historical elegance without for a minute giving the visitor the sense that they’ve stumbled into grandmas’ musty parlor, on the contrary, one is living in the moment — a moment preserved from a beautiful past, but as vital, alive and a part of the present as it ever existed in memory.

Lobster @ August
Commander’s Palace is a restaurant we have visited on every single trip to New Orleans. It remains our touchstone for the "City that Care Forgot," like standing at the foot of the Tour d’Eiffel in Paris or crossing the Plaza at the head of Main Street just beyond the entrance gates to Disneyland, one hasn’t really been to New Orleans until one has been back to Commander’s Palace.
We ate light on this occasion (or as light as we could given that forgoing the Bread Pudding Souffle at CP is simply not an option), as the longer we stay in NoLa, the harder it gets for us to maintain our Olympian-level eating skills. Commander’s bread pudding may be the best dessert on the planet. It is certainly the best version of bread pudding I have ever tasted. It encompasses everything about this staple of the South. Lovely spiced bread, slathered in butter and soaked in milk until it turns the consistency of pudding, then gently coupled with whipped egg whites and baked — a concoction so light and airy one would think it had been whisked by the wings of heaven’s happiest angels. At tableside, the souffle is gently broken open in the top center with a large silver spoon, the waiter then pouring a creamy serving of bourbon sauce from a tiny white pitcher directly into the steaming finished product. Like a saucer of milk beckons to a litter of hungry kittens, we lap it all up compliantly. Purr-fection.

Gnocchi @ Herbsaint, slathered in cheese!

Full and sluggish, we cross the street to wander the Lafayette Cemetery. It is our custom to visit here each time we dine at Commander’s, after which we venture out into the Garden District to stroll amongst the homes that themselves are the stately remains of old Dixie. There are flowers everywhere, in this climate that encourages a multitude of foliage. I assume this plethora of beautiful growing things is how the area got its name. Indeed, the blooms are abundant.

That evening (it is the Monday after Fest) Herbsaint is our destination of choice, which is why we tried so desperately at lunch to "save room for dinner." Originally the brainchild of Chefs Donald Link (Cochon) and Susan Spicer (Bayona), Herbsaint is an upscale "bistro" style resto in the CBD, just down the street from John Besh’s August. Though she was part of the team that helmed the restaurant in its infancy, Chef Spicer is no longer associated with the restaurant creatively, now concentrating her artistic efforts on Bayona, which is her original enterprise. Bayona is in the heart of the Vieux Carre and is an excellent spot to dine, but it so happens we didn’t visit it this time down South. It’s a shame, but I simply can’t eat twice a night. My bad.

The following day we slept in a bit before undertaking our annual walk down to Magazine Street for a little shopping and more eating. I would suppose that many of you might prefer a taxi, as it is a number of miles and quite a hike, but we look forward to the long walk past Canal, the Central Business District and into the quaint section of town that lies just outside the Quarter. We actually met a regular visitor to the City who had never been further out of the French Quarter than Cochon in his five trips to NoLa. I found that more than a little bit shocking, not to mention short-sighted food wise. There is so much to eat beyond the tiny square of French-infused New Orleans. There is the rest of a big, vibrant and beautiful City.

Duck Breast ala "Besh" @ August
We arrived at Cochon Butcher if not starving, certainly ready to dive into a good portion of the offerings to be found at this local treasure. Cochon Butcher is the tiny "hole in the wall" that is part butcher shop, sandwich counter & wine bar that will be found tucked into a tiny space (just a bit bigger than my dream clothes closet will be) at 930 Tchoupitoulas Street. The eatery is helmed by Link’s current partner, Chef Stephen Stryjewski. His food is straightforward, but chock full of complex flavors. And like any good wine bar in New Orleans, they also serve hard liquor. To geaux, no less. Absolutely divine. Nuff’ said.

Our evening reservations for Tuesday were at Chef John Besh’s August, a jewel in the C.B.D. crown. Having visited last year with our kids, we decided we had to make a return trip to see if it was as good as memory served. It was. We even had the same amazingly gifted server, who took us through the meal like a pro. Halfway through, I look up to see a tall (very tall) man in white with the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen on another human being. They were like big blue high-beams. It was his Besh-ness. In person. I confess that my feminine heart was a-flutter as he welcomed us so personally to his restaurant. Nice touch. Ladies, I cannot stress enough. His Besh-ness is as impressive as his food.

Duck in Broth with dumplings
@ Root
The following day we wandered the Quarter, making sure to hit all our favorite t-shirts stops, including any new ones that had particularly fetching versions of "I left my heart in New Orleans’ or any iteration thereof, for our friends back home. There is one worth mentioning, called "Fleurty Girl" that is chock full of lovely tees adorned with all the best inside jokes favored by the natives of the Crescent City. If you hanker for the Vo-dou (Haitian original of Voo Doo) there is a charming little authentic shop run by practitioners directly behind the Place d’Armes called Voo-Doo Authentica. All are definitely worth a look see.

We continued to wander the French Quarter looking for carry-away gifts until late in the day. Too late for a major meal as we’d secured reservations that evening at the new hot spot, Root; but the BH was hungry so with dinner still a few hours away, we pondered our available choices. We both suddenly realized we hadn’t yet taken a "ride" on the Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone. We immediately headed up Royal toward Canal and stopped in for a drink. The bar was almost empty, which is rare, so we sat at the center of the "carousel" and let it carry us away. I had a milk punch, a new staple this trip, and the BH enjoyed their version of a Hurricane. The bar is circular, overhead is the topper to an old-fashioned merry-go-round; the seats each carved to resemble various animals seen on the familiar ride. It rotates, giving those in the seats surrounding the bar an opportunity to peruse the room from all angles (or just to become dizzy with booze consumed at its counters). This is a landmark destination in the City, and though the bar is novel, customers come mostly for the music. The piano bar is legendary, hosting such incredible talent as Tom McDermott and Jon Cleary. It had, in fact, been packed the entire trip, as it was one of the destination locations for local musicians at Quarter Fest. Newly renovated, the piano bar is now twice its former size — allowing a much more comfortable view of the entertainment. Perfect break in a long day. We left refreshed, both our buzz and our moods were significantly improved. And the bear was no longer hungry.

Meat & Pickled Bits Sampler @ Root
(absolutely to DIE for)
We got back to the hotel and had a brief siesta before dressing for dinner. Root was recommended to us some time ago by Chef Dean Dupuis (formerly of Pican in Oakland) who had heard multiple glowing reviews of the place and insisted we put it on our itinerary. Trusting his judgment in all things culinary, we headed to Root expecting to be pleased. I had no idea just how much so I would be. The decor is extremely modern chic, capturing an underground vibe, its green and wood interior recreating in my mind a space that felt much like a cave at the base of a tree. I had the feeling I was visiting an upscale hobbit nest in New York City. Only I was above ground, and in New Orleans. It’s absolutely one of the most successful interior decorating efforts I’ve encountered to date. Magical as Disneyland and extremely inviting. Now for the food.

The menu is varied, with plenty of choices for everyone, but one of their features is a "meat platter" that is a mountain (and I mean a mountain) of meats and pickled goodies. We had a modestly priced version, as we wanted to try other dishes, and it was almost too much for us. There is a $50 dollar version I am dying to try, as this was such a memorable food experience it still keeps me up nights salivating just thinking about it. The meats were house-cured and varied, tongue, liver, salumi, you name it. The assortment of pickled accompaniments were likewise varied, containing pickles, onions, peppers, vegetables of all shapes and consistencies. If it can be pickled they will bring it. The pickling itself was perfectly acidic, some of the selections a bit spicier than others. They also brought this miniature tube of a lovely house mustard to be applied as desired to the combinations. Perhaps it was the "Choose Your Own Adventure" aspect of the serving methods I liked as much as the food, but whatever the reason, I was seriously overwhelmed by the heavenly variety of goodies in my mouth. This is a dish to be had, and had again... and again. They also do a magnificent scallop surprise in a box that is as imaginative in presentation as it is delicious. Do not miss Root if you are ever in New Orleans. Seriously, y’all, do it.

Deconstructed Bananas Foster @ August

That was our last evening in the city, and as we packed up our room, we couldn’t help but comment on what a perfect rip this had been. Music everywhere, plenty of booze, great food and for the most part perfect weather (except the two-day thunderstorm, it was clear for 8 days, which never happens). We took one last walk down to the Riverfront before catching our cab to the Metairie Airport. There is just something about the Mississippi. The familiar smell off the water, carried along on the cool breeze as one walks down Decatur; the calming sound of the water as it laps the rockbed on the shore as one approaches the foot of the steps that take all travelers who venture it, right down to the water’s edge. Her gifts are my last bit of lagniappe before leaving the city I love like home. As we turn to go, The Mighty Mississippi calls on the breeze, she whispers "Don’t go. Stay and rest yourself a bit longer. But if you must leave, do come back. I’ll be here to welcome you when you return. Always." And she is, with her magic and her quiet and her ghosts. I gaze out over the expanse, remembering in the silence all those lost to her waters just seven years ago. They are here in spirit, keeping watch, as the water whispers "Always..."

"Y’all come back..."

200 Julia Street (in the Warehouse District)
New Orleans, LA  70130

301 Tchoupitoulas Street
New Orleans, LA  70130

701 Saint Charles Ave
New Orleans, LA  70130

Cochon & Cochon Butcher
930 Tchoupitoulas Street
New Orleans, LA  70130

Hotel Monteleone
214 Royal Street
New Orleans, LA  70130