Saturday, March 22, 2008

A Streetcar Named Delicious

Savory Notes from the Big Easy: With a few days off from work and school for the Easter holiday my better half and I decided to take a quick jaunt to the Big Easy. I’ve never been to New Orleans, LA (NOLA) and have wanted to visit for many years. For me, a place like New Orleans always conjured up images of long, sultry days, languid breezes rustling potted ferns swaying on ornate cast iron balconies while revelers sipped a cold Mint Julep or Sazerac cocktail. The allure of the antebellum homes in the Garden District and the distinctive Creole and Cajun food had always beckoned me to visit someday.

We landed, checked in and headed out for lunch. Our concierge and many other friends of ours had suggested a dive bar called Port of Call for the best cheeseburgers and baked potatoes – an odd combination I thought but I was open to the idea.

We strolled down Dauphine Street past vintage homes with brightly colored stucco and dull painted shutters on the windows. The weather was cool and sunny it was refreshing to escape winter and see blooming flowers with bursts of color. We could smell grilling burgers from blocks away – Port of Call was a rustic hole in the wall with a floor made of bricks – we saddled up to the bar ordered our burgers and baked potatoes and where eager to see what all the fuss was about! The cheeseburgers arrived freshly grilled, made to order, one bite and I understood why this place has such a draw. The fluffy potato was heaped with butter, cheddar and sour cream – a wonderful diversion from the usual French fries. Afterwards we walked off our lunch down to bawdy Bourbon Street to take in the sights and sounds of New Orleans.

No trip to NOLA is complete unless you imbibe chickory-infused café au lait and freshly made beignets (square doughnuts with no hole heavily doused in powdered sugar) at the original Café du Monde. The green and white awning is a veritable welcome sign, jazz filled the air as musicians played for passing crowds and warm beignets are rushed to waiting patrons. A light fried doughnut, one bite and my mind was flooded with childhood memories of local Italian feasts in my own town featuring Italian zeppoles.

Our day wound down with dinner in the Garden District at Lilette – a wonderful little neighborhood bistro whose Chef was awarded a Food & Wine Best New Chef title in 2002. A funny thing occurred to me as each meal passed under my nose on this trip. Everything I tasted came under a new form of scrutiny, I thought to myself how I would have presented the dish, what I would have done differently and what could be improved. I discovered that my palate is evolving; it is becoming more sensitive to subtle flavors and seemingly rejects foods that are not seasoned well.

At Lilette, I started with mussels that were out of the shell and presented in a broth. The broth was bland and I felt it could have been punched up with more seasonings and perhaps reduced a little more. My entrée was Muscovy roasted duck breast – I was curious to see how other Chefs would prepare it and the dish was tasty but the skin wasn’t scored so the fat didn’t render as much as it should have – the duck breast was savory and served with roasted fennel and polenta that I thought was too soupy.

We awoke the next day with a mission to head back into the Garden District after seeing all the quaint shops on Magazine Street as we zoomed past in a taxi the night before. After some shopping therapy we decided to have lunch at Baru Café – a Latin/Caribbean inspired outpost. We started with a flaky cornmeal crusted empanada filled with ground beef and spices served with a vinegary cilantro sauce – mmm, just like Abuelita makes (that’s if I had a Latin grandmother – only wishful thinking). We then had a pulled pork sandwich, slathered with a red pepper spread with spicy arugula – so flavorful and delicious!

Dinner that night was in the French Quarter at Stella! an innovative new American restaurant guided by Chef Scott Boswell. The atmosphere was chic, candlelight danced overhead, and my appetite was ready to sample the creamy mushroom risotto which was fantastic and so satisfying! For my next course I had the black cod with a miso glaze which had a slightly bitter after taste that lingered. The flavors of the black cod and sauce didn’t marry well on my tongue but I left dreaming about the incredible risotto.

Our last day in the French Quarter, we strolled through the quarter and stopped into antique shops, ultimately we decided to have lunch at a restaurant owned by Emeril Lagasse. Aptly named NOLA, we were happy to be seated right away. I’ve read the must-have dishes were Miss Hay's Stuffed Chicken Wings with Homemade Hoisin Dipping Sauce for an appetizer and the Buttermilk Fried Breast of Chicken with Bourbon Mashed Sweet Potatoes, Smithfield Ham Cream Gravy and Sautéed Sugar Snap Peas as an entrée. I thought the appetizer itself lacked flavor but the hoisin sauce was very good. I was eagerly anticipating the Buttermilk Fried Chicken, my first bite was so juicy that I had to catch the trickles of juiciness with my napkin and dab my chin. The dish was very satisfying with a nice balance of flavors – absolute comfort food.

Our last evening in the crescent city we made reservations for dinner at Bayona. We were lucky to have live jazz playing while a wedding reception was taking place in the restaurant’s courtyard. Chef Susan Spicer blends southern flavors with a global spin. We both ordered the braised Niman Ranch pork chop as our entrée and really enjoyed the flavors of the dish. A light strawberry charlotte for dessert completed the meal. On our stroll back, Zydeco, rock and jazz music spilled out of the many bars and filled the streets – I’m happy to report the New Orleans spirit is alive and well!

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