Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Food of New Orleans

New Orleans. Two things come to mind when you think of this magical city; I do not mean boobs and beads but food and music. It has long been a magical culinary melting pot with easy access to great gulf seafood, amazing cultures and jazz - spicy and deep as a musical genre which lends soul to cuisine.

New Orleans has recently been in our minds due to hurricanes and oil spills but it's a fantastic city with plenty of rich culture and varied people who love the city; with that, comes amazing food.
 I went to Nawlins for the second time but both times were for work conferences. My team and I made it a point to eat well since we wanted to do as they do in New Orleans and eat like crazy. The first big team dinner was NOLA:

Emeril's casual restaurant has a homey bistro feel with exposed brick, black chalkboards and tall ceilings.
For an appetizer, I had the crab cake. A singular crab cake surrounded by corn. Delish. Other folks had chicken which looked awesome as well as an arugula pizza with a fried egg on top - very rustic and I am a sucker for fried eggs. Not happy I didn't get a bite.

It was difficult ordering an entrée since a lot of the options sounded wonderful; I settled on shrimp and grits which is a signature dish (although mine was sans bacon). Who could resist fresh shrimp on top of cheesy creamy grits? The grits were perfect except that I would have liked more of it; they were flavorful with a good balance of creamy without taking away from the grit texture. We weren't so pleased with the shrimp; they were decently cooked although some pieces were tougher than others and they were smothered in an overseasoned barbecue sauce which I think took away from the shrimp. It was as if your tastebuds were too stupid to handle real subtle flavors and needed to be covered up in sweet, salty, spiced, charred sauce in order to be palatable. However, we realized that in the south, flavors are completely in-your-face like a mardi gras in your mouth. Everything is packed with spice and salt. If you are watching your sodium intake, this is not the place for you.

A Pat O'Briens Hurricane
The Alcohol
 Maybe you need to try a mint julep, a hurricane or a hand grenade. Or maybe not. Most bars make the syrupy, pre-mixed versions of these drinks and not the classic versions. I would stay away from these sweet, caloric bombs; not only will they go to your gut, they will make you misbehave. Each hurricane is packed with at least four shots and probably four shots of sugar so it's begging you for a headache in the morning. Unless you want to miss your morning presentation, or as a co-worker of mine did, miss an entire day - stay with something light.

Oyster Po'Boy
This is the holy land for those who love gumbo and po' boys. My friend SV declared that the gumbo he had was the best thus far in all of New Orleans. From the ordering line, you could see the kitchen staff slap luxuriously messy heaps of meat, sausage and condiments on rolls, dish up sloppy ladles of gumbo and greens which made your mouth drool in anticipation. I ordered the oyster po' boy. Great but for me, not the most amazing oyster po' boy although I could tell that the oyster was well prepared - not too greasy and the oyster was fresh. Remco and SV shared a Ferdi special in addition to other goodies. They took huge bites with duck debris dripping all over the plate. However, (and I did not take a bite mind you) the two said it was good but weren't terribly impressed with this famous staple. One thing to note - Mothers is not inexpensive anymore. It probably once was… but they are beyond that now.  Be prepared to wait in line and pay tourist prices for their food.

Last year, my team had a partner event at a private event facility called Calcasieu; I recalled how delicious and elegant the food was. I asked my former teammate who had organized the reception about the place. The restaurant that served it was named Herbsaint so I was determined to get folks there and was even more excited to learn that the chef had won the James Beard award for best chef of the South in 2007. We were originally seated at a table for 8 but we had extra friends so the restaurant was kind enough to seat us in a private back area where we could be loud and obnoxious. I dared to order a Pimms cup to drink - I adored this British summer staple and wanted a refreshing quencher since summer in New Orleans is at hot and humid as you can imagine. It was crisp and delicious, garnished with cucumber. In fact, everyone kept ordering these all night long!
We started the meal with a rocket salad with goat cheese which was decent but quite typical and uninteresting; Seattle places dress up their arugula with more surprises. A few of us opted for a fried soft shell crab for an entree which is a tasty, New Orleans staple. No one had a clue how large the crab would be; basically it was a giant, full-sized crab served a top a nice Asian-inspired cucumber salad with balanced use of fish sauce and mild chilies. The flavors were wonderful and the salad's crispness and acidity cut the fattiness of the fried crab although my crab was a little on the greasy side.
We pretty much ordered everything for dessert. Banana tart? Yes please sir, some more. The goat cheese beignets had a unique flavor but were pretty good.

Buttery rolls
The same folks that own Herbsaint own Cochon, an ode to authentic cajun and the pig. The restaurant has a warm, modern feel - casual, unpretentious and slightly unfinished chic. Brandon, Kevin and I ducked in for a pre-dinner drink and apps after a long day at the conference. Cochon had these large rolls which were served warm, fresh and buttery-perfect. The catch is not to eat too many. The baked oysters were lovely - a perfect mouthful of spice, heat, sweetness, acidity and fresh oyster on the halfshell. I ordered this crawfish pie which ended up being fried crawfish etoufee wrapped in a pie/empanada pastry shell that was spicy - not exactly what I had envisioned so I would skip it if you get the chance. Kevin ordered some sweatbreads and other meaty things - everything was good although some items were more special than others. I would definitely hit this place up again for a more substantial meal - it felt comfortable and the service from our bartender was excellent.

Baked Oysters - nom!

One evening, we forayed to Bon Ton and felt bad for them since we had a party of - I don't know...12 turned 20 people? It's a classic New Orleans establishment and looked as if it hadn't changed much in 100 years with classic décor and homey service. Everything was reminiscent of a time long ago - from the drinks to the plating and the recipes were probably what folks ate in the 1800's.
I started with Denise's salad after it was recommended by the server. When it appeared, it looked underwhelming - a salad with some asparagus, crabmeat, shrimp and tomatoes; the salad was arranged geometrically straight from cooking 101. However, the salad had wonderful flavor which brought out the sweetness of the crab and shrimp. It reminded me of the dressing from back home on Arnie's hot seafood salad. Looks aren't everything and this ended up being a win.
Eggplant, crab, shrimp etoufee
I opted for an entree of eggplant, crab and shrimp etoufee. The mushy eggplant lent a nice flavor profile and texture but the lack of purple eggplant peel made the color of the dish unappetizing; instead of vibrant red or orange, it was a dull green like tomatillos or green tomatoes.
Dessert was their famous bread pudding with a whiskey sauce… which we soon realized meant it was in practicality, a whiskey cocktail with bread pudding garnish. You could seriously get drunk off of dessert and several friends mentioned that they would not have been able to drive home after consuming it. Imbibe or eat with caution.

Palace Café
Fried and green and saucy
We hit up another famous institution for one of our last meals. I started off with fried green tomatoes with crawfish tails. I love crawdads but the dish was a bit too rich with a creamy sauce and not enough acid to cut into the buttery, creaminess and the fried tomatoes. My main dish was grilled tuna panzanella; the tuna was cooked medium more than medium-rare which is more than what I had desired but the salad was a decent balance to the fish and was light, flavorful with fresh tasting bread croutons and fresh spinach - a rarity in New Orleans. Half of the crew had a bottled beer called the Andygator which apparently was very high in ABV - some sort of local doppelbock that was rich and potent. The Palace Café didn't impress me very much - it was a bit heavy handed and obvious compared to the other places we dined at but we still had a decent meal.
Panzanella salad

Café du Monde
How could I almost neglect to mention Café du Monde? One of my favorite spots in New Orleans and one that only takes cash! Even better, this place is open 24 x 7 which makes it not only a great breakfast and afternoon snack spot but a perfect place to walk to at 3am to sober up and grab a greasy pick-me-up.
There are only two items worth mentioning here:
  • The famous doughnuts which are beignets - fried drops of dough rolled in powdered sugar. They are fresh, warm and amazing with a surprisingly balanced texture - not too airy, not too dense. People snort them up like cocaine along with powdered sugar noses and lips to match.
  • The frozen café au lait - basically a simple but not too sweet frozen blended coffee to balance the warmness of the beignets 
Yes, me and beignets. Sigh.
I love this place. It is affordable, open all-of-the-time and is quaint and comforting. Do not settle for beignets anywhere else until you have had a bite of these.

Sweetbread stuff from Cochon

New Orleans is truly lovely; the people are warm, welcoming and have a great sense of humor and optimism that is rare in places that have been hit  by multiple hardships.  It is a bit like Vegas; you can't stay for too long or else you run yourself into the ground but is still a great place to visit and an even better place to eat at. Unlike Vegas which feels phony and dispassionate, the Big Easy has soul.  Deep passion, love, creativity and spirituality flows around New Orleans and the feeling is infectious. The food is like the music - brassy, bright and rich. Almost too rich at times and definitely lacking in healthy roughage as with the rest of the south but delicious nonetheless. Although I missed vegetables and the lightness of fare back home, I did enjoy the culinary delights and traditions of a great, American, multi-faceted city.

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