Monday, March 09, 2009

Bustin a gut in New Orleans

You know the saddest sight in New Orleans? Anyone carrying a bag of McDonalds, that's what.

Here's a grab bag of some more food and drink experiences from Mardi Gras. We were pleased at how good everything was. We did not have a single bad meal while we were there, and prices at the nicest places we dined were a far better value than similar restaurants in Chicago.

We made two visits to the Acme Oyster House, which I'm happy to report was even better than I remembered it.

It's a nice surprise when a place specializing in fried seafood goes to the trouble of creating distinct types of breading for all their fried items. The fried oysters, catfish and crawfish tails were all noticeably different in texture. And just in case you think your hush puppies could use a little extra fat, they thoughtfully include a couple pats of butter:

Here's something that turns up on a lot of New Orleans menus, but that we hadn't tried before. Oysters Rockerfeller soup:

We are now ready to declare that the Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone serves the best Sazerac we have tried:

Cafe DuMonde continues to be a perfect stop for a non-alcoholic pick-me-up. Don't get the large cafe au lait, because they serve that in styrofoam cups now and it takes away some of the perfection. Get a small cafe au lait and an order of beignets for less than $5.00:

Don't step on a pigeon while you're walking to your table.

Coop's Place has the best jambalaya of any restaurant in New Orleans. It has sausage and rabbit meat, and you can get the "supreme" version which includes a bunch of seafood. I got a small serving at lunch with some salad (they make their own Green Goddess dressing), and MizBubs got a smoked duck quesadilla:

We sat next to two cute French girls who were busy studying their guide book, and a mellow cat who kept watch in the front window:

Coop's has an ample supply of Abita Turbo Dog beer, which is an awesome value for $3.50 a bottle, and they also make a phenomenal Bloody Mary. MizBubs needed her vitamins so she didn't wait for me to take a picture of her cocktail:

The very best meal we had on this trip was at Luke. We had a late lunch there on Mardi Gras, and it was amazing. Wonderful service, delicious food, an open floor plan that was buzzing but not too noisy. It was the best combination of food, atmosphere and service we found on this trip, and I really can't say enough about the place.

We ended up having appetizers and dessert because by the time we finished the appetizers (and a few of their specialty house beers) we couldn't handle entrees. First there was Badischer Presskopf. I've never eaten head cheese before, and wanted to expand my horizons. This was one of the most delicious flavors I've ever had. It was served with a series of pickles on the side that served as a perfect counterpoint:

You can see the raw oysters there in the background. They were the best oysters we had on this trip. Luke has a good raw bar, and from where we sat we could see tray after tray of "Plateau de Fruits de Mer" going out to the tables--silver platters bearing mounds of ice laden with all manner of shellfish, crab legs and shrimp tails erupting from the tops.

The waiter recommended following cold appetizers up with something hot. He suggested something called Flammenkuche, which turned out to be an Alsatian pizza. It also turned out to be possibly the most perfect single combination of flavors and textures I had on this trip. We've been scouring the interwebs since we got home, trying to find a recipe that might approximate this.

Picture a small pizza, but with an insanely buttery, flaky crust more like a pate brisee than a typical pizza dough. Then there was a white sauce, then thinly sliced onion and Emmenthaler cheese and chunks of the best bacon I've ever eaten:

This did us in. The bacon was from a fellow named Alan Benton, and I can tell you he'll be getting some of our mail order business soon enough. I can taste it and feel the texture of the butter on my lips as I type this, it's that good.

We were stuffed, sure, but we still had dessert. I departed from my usual
New Orleans ritual of trying every restaurant's bread pudding, and we had profiteroles with strawberry ice cream and creme anglaise.

We are happy to report that the Napoleon House is staying open later again--they had been closing at 5 or 6 since Katrina--and while Girod's still has not opened they have expanded their cafe menu.

There is one bartender there, I can't remember his name, who makes a fantastic Sazerac. He does this little flourish with the glass as he swirls the Herbsaint, and then flicks his wrist to toss away the excess when he finishes. He was not there on our most recent visit, and I think his absence might explain why the Napoleon House Sazerac has now fallen to second place. It's still a superior cocktail, though:

The meal we were most looking forward to on this vacation was at Cochon. The owner, Chef Donald Link, was named best chef in the south by the James Beard Foundation in 2007, and Cochon was nominated for best new restaurant. We first heard about this place after seeing Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations episode in New Orleans. The place gets rave reviews on Yelp and Trip Advisor. I mean, come on--the restaurant is dedicated to pork, and bears the French name for "pig". Surely we would love this place, no? Not exactly. Maybe they were having an off night--we did visit on the day after Mardi Gras, after all, and maybe the staff wasn't quite feeling their best. Maybe our expectations were too high after reading all the accolades. Who knows...

The place smelled perfect as we walked in. The greeter was lovely, and we were seated right away, and we ordered drinks. Some time after getting my bourbon flight (a sampler of three different bourbons) things just kind of went slightly off the tracks.

We were seated next to two women who had kind of a snooty vibe. One seemed almost haughty, and her dining companion was deferential to her to the point of being obsequious. They were dressed well but not too expensively. There was no obvious bling, or high end purses or expensive shoes. It didn't seem as if they had a reason to feel any better than anyone else in the place. The two had a look that some women begin to carry in adolescence--that of someone who always seems like she smells something bad.

Within a couple minutes a server (not ours) delivered two appetizers to our table. We paused for a moment, uncomprehending, and then told the server it was not our order.

"That's ours" said bitchface next us, and with great clattering of dinnerware the server lifted the items from our table and deposited them in their rightful spot, awkwardly reaching over my bride to do so.

The bourbon flight was excellent. The three bourbons were Sam Houston, Buffalo Trace (now our house bourbon, having replaced Wild Turkey) and a new favorite, Jefferson's Reserve. Wow.

Our appetizer arrived, a slice of andouille sweet potato pie with apples and green slaw. Meh. We were surprised that it didn't make more of an impression on us. I'm sure that in texture and flavor they were going for subtle, but it passed subtle into bland. The slaw didn't even register in flavor or texture.

A few minutes into the meal I looked over at the women seated next to us. They were preparing to leave, having finished less than half of their two appetizers, and with wine still left in their glasses. Neither of them looked like the kind of social x-rays who don't eat full meals. It didn't seem like they'd argued, or been called away by an emergency. I got the impression they felt we had somehow soiled their food by having been uncouth enough to allow a server to set it on our table, however briefly. When they left I told MizBubs I kind of regretted not snatching a quick bite out of their appetizers as soon as the server set them down, or at least sneezing over the plates.

Dinner began to arrive, and a pattern emerged. We'd be left alone for a while, longer than we'd like, and when servers would appear they seemed almost clumsy. A number of times we'd hear a fairly abrupt "excuse me" and have to move out of the way of the servers. It was the first time I've ever experienced service that managed to be, simultaneously, both indifferent and obtrusive.

MizBubs had paneed pork cheeks with goat cheese arugula & beet rösti, and pork and black-eyed pea gumbo with greens. They were both good, but not impressively so. The gumbo was overwhelmed by black pepper to the exclusion of other flavors.

I did well. I had an amazingly perfect item--an oyster and bacon sandwich. The bacon was wonderful, the oysters delicate and flavorful. The slaw that accompanied it was just right, and the sauce on the sandwich...well, I wish I'd paid closer attention to the finer points of the sandwich, but I ate it too fast.

The best part of the meal was dessert. While the dinner items were all good, except for my sandwich nothing jumped out at you. The desserts, on the other hand, were delicious and inspired. We had a cornmeal pineapple upside-down cake with coconut lime sorbet and dulce de leche, and a flourless chocolate cake with cream cheese mousse and pears.

Sadly, the evening ended on another off note. Of the two toilets in the men's bathroom, one of them was badly stopped up, literally full to the rim, and on the verge of spilling over. By the look of it, it had been that way for a while and no one appeared to be doing anything about it. A raunchy toilet can be an entertaining part of the atmosphere in a dive bar, but it's not what you want to encounter in a nice restaurant.

We left Cochon and both felt out-of-sorts. It was not a bad meal by any means, but there was just something about the place that fell really short of expectations.

In 2004, while training for a marathon and running every day (including a 10 mile run in 90 degree heat) I still managed to gain 8 pounds in 3 days. Not so, this time. I managed to avoid the weight gain I usually experience on trips to New Orleans. We walked, a lot, and drank a lot of water too.

The trip has left me even more obsessed with food than usual. I made a creme anglaise for the first time yesterday, and it came out well. Our search for the right Flammenkuche recipe continues. I found out that the Carousel Bar is the birthplace of two cocktails, neither of which I've ever tried, so that's on the horizon too.

For now, though, even with all this thought of food and excess, I'm living a pretty sober life. I weigh less than I did last year, the foot pain is gone, and I'm getting ready to run some half marathons this summer. Camping season is right around the corner, work is busy but not driving me's all (keep your fingers crossed) good.

It looks like maybe Mardi Gras did the trick, and ended up clearing my body,mind and soul to face the challenges and joys ahead.

Here's to a new week. Hope your weekend was good, and that your coming week will be healthy, productive and fun.

See you later, alligators.


SkylersDad said...

Thanks for all of your great reports from New Orleans, and I am sorry that Chocon wasn't what you were hoping for. And I would have grabbed one of their appetizers, tasted it, and thrown it back on the plate.

Yeah, I am fun to go out places with!!

Splotchy said...

Nice post, man. Did you try and make it to Pierre Maspero's?

Some Guy said...

Thanks for this delicious post, Bubs!

Mnmom said...

Excellent post!

My in-laws were born and raised in Monteleone, Italy. Do you know if the Hotel has any connection to the village?

I love friend oysters and I can taste them now.

Good restaurants NEVER move food from one table to another. Never. Ever. Even if it landed on your table for a mere second, it should not have been placed on theirs. The waiter should have left it with you or taken it back to the kitchen.

Jay Simser said...

I gained 5 pounds just reading your post. Thank you very much.

Gifted Typist said...

A foodie tour of NO. Thanks

Barbara Bruederlin said...

This post almost KILLED me! Seriously, I just finished supper and now I am drooling.

The flammenkuche sounds quite similar to something my mom used to make, called Zwebelewie. Not sure that's how it is spelled, but it was essentially an onion quiche with a breadlike flaky crust. It was good!