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Loooong report - Desire, Uglesich's, Brigtsen's, Casamento's, Arnaud's, Cobalt, Drago's

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Loooong report - Desire, Uglesich's, Brigtsen's, Casamento's, Arnaud's, Cobalt, Drago's

Tha Groovin' Gourmet | Dec 30, 2003 01:45 PM

Our last minute Xmas splurge turned out to be a wonderful trip, and our eating plans turned out pretty darned good as well. Here's the rundown...

Christmas day/night - arrived at the hotel about 3PM. The missus was hungry and hardly anything was open. Weather was a bit raw for a walk to Zoe Bistro in the W, and ather than pay $14 for a room service sandwich, she opted for the $2.50 Snickers with Almonds in the minibar (to be replaced with a 70 cent version purchased at Walgreen's later that evening).

That took off the edge until we headed into the French Quarter. We had reservations at Begue's in the Royal Sonesta for their $39 buffet, but we stood in line at Desire to surprise her brother who works there. We decided to eat there instead, as ravaging a buffet would have a negative effect on the next day's dining plans.

This would prove to be an excellent choice...in addition to getting some family comps, the food was quite good. We started with an raw oyster / boiled shrimp platter that was excellent...we like the meatiness of Lousiana oysters compared to the west coast varieties we get at home. The shrimp were great too...plenty of that good crab boil flavor.

We also split an order of the crawfish corn cakes, crisply fried outside, creamy in the middle, with nice chunks of mudbug and a decent amount of corn kernels, complemented by a nice honey mustard sauce.

Next up was some yummy crawfish bisque and some really good red beans and rice with 2 nice sized slices of grilled andouille. It helps to have a relative working the floor!

Finally we split the fried seafood platter with shrimp, oysters and catfish. The shellfish were quite good, but the catfish was the standout...nice crisply fried crust surrounding super clean tasting, delicately textured fish. Bro-in-law dropped off a free plate of warm brownies dusted with powdered sugar and surrounded by whipped cream for an excellent ending to an untraditional Xmas dinner that totally hit the spot.

Friday - woke up to an absolutely gorgeous day and resisted the temptation to grab an early breakfast in the hotel as we were heading for Uglesich's for early lunch. We walked to the Fairmont to look at their Xmas decorations, then set out to walk the dozen blocks or so down Baronne to the restaurant.

We arrived just as they were setting the outside tables, and we sat down with the newspaper to wait for 10:30 opening time. Another couple arrived in a cab a few minutes later and the 4 of us were invited in to start looking over the menu. We were first up to order, and pretty much went with the waiter's suggestions after a couple of tries on our own.

We asked for the shrimp/sausage patty with creole mustard sauce, but he shook his head, saying their sausage guy had moved away. Next choice was crawfish maque choux, but he said to go with the crawfish balls instead. We knew the fried green tomatoes were a must, and we also ordered Purgatory Shrimp, an new appetizer listed on the iridescent dry marker board. After ordering a shorty oyster/shrimp poboy we were told we hadn't ordered enough food, so we also went with the shrimp and grits, and we went with a couple of bloody mary's to get going.

DAMN! Even all the praises 'round these parts didn't prepare us for the fine eating that ensued. The fried green tomatoes with shrimp remoulade were every bit as good as expected. An excellent dish that we will always enjoy whenever we return.

The crawfish balls were excellent. An interesting sweet vinaigrette sauce was served with them, and we were told to dump it on the accompanying rice (excellent in its own right) after the balls were gone. Deelish!

The shrimp with grits was another winner...the grits fried up resembling polenta, with tender shimp and a yummy pink cream sauce. Glad there were some slices of bread to sop up the extra sauce.

Oyster poboy was decent...the oysters were really good, but the bread and fixins were average.

That leaves the Purgatory Shrimp, which got mixed reviews. The shrimp are sauteed in butter and Crystal hot sauce, and then deep fried, with some Crystal in the batter so it seems. Served, with a gorgonzola dipping sauce, I thought the dish was a tad salty, but still good. The missus didn't care for the dipping sauce much, so the dish was a miss for her, but that just meant I got a few more shrimp!

Last but not least were the totally propah bloody mary's...Uggy's serves up a most excellent rendition that left a nice glow about the mouth and head for the walk back to our hotel. All in all a most wondeful Chowhound experience...and a place that will stay in the regular rotation when we return.

Dinner that night was at Brigtsen's, with the bro-in-law and a friend tagging along. Though he's worked in the food service industry ever since he moved here, bro-in-law was not familiar with Frank Brigtsen's legacy, so I was looking forward to his take on what is one of our favorite restaurants anywhere.

We were seated about 5 minutes after arriving, and I went ahead and ordered a shimp remoulade for the table. Frank's is a particularly good rendition...yummy, mustardy sauce, perfectly cooked shrimp, with the added touches of killer deviled eggs and guacamole, with a few sprouts for some textural contrast. Split 4 ways it was a perfect little tease to the palate.

The missus went with the sweetbread appetizer, served with shiitakes on a bed of mashed potatoes. She is becoming quite the sweetbread fan, and this version did not disappoint. High brow comfort food.

I went with the rabbit appetizer, a deep fried tenderloin served on an andouille-parmesan grit cake with creole mustard sauce. YOWZAH! This is one kickbutt dish...the rabbit had nice texture and flavor, the mustard sauce was excellent and the grit cake was like a classed up version of the one we had with shrimp at Uglesich's earlier in the day.

Bro-in-law and friend both went with the butternut squash shimp bisque, and it vanished rather quickly so they must've enjoyed it.

I had been thinking about going with the pork entree ever since we planned the trip, but the seafood platter was a very compelling choice, with only one dish, a scallop in red peppercorn sauce, that we had enjoyed previously. When the wife opted for the platter (promising to share...more on that later) I made a sudden zig from plan and asked for the beef tournedos, with marchand du vin sauce and bleu cheese quenelles. The waitress kinda grimaced saying that they had just sold the last one. So I went with my original plan and ordered the pork, as did our 4th dinner guest.

Back to the seafood platter, or at least what I was able to sample! It consisted of 4 more dishes in addition to the above mentioned scallops: blackened drum with shrimp in a lime pistachio sauce, oyster Le Ruth, garlic baked oyster and a mirliton stuffed with ham and shrimp. The oysters disappeared in their entirety, so I can only assume they were good.

The drum was fantastic...the dish that had initially intrigued me turned out to be one of the best fish preparations I have enjoyed at Brigtsen's, and that is saying a bunch. The fish was perfectly cooked, with nice texture and enough flavor to stand up to the blackening. The shrimp were perfectly prepared as well, and the sauce was a revelation...an excellent balance between bright and earthy, it acted as the perfect conduit, joining the 2 seafood ingredients. The stuffed mirliton was yummy as well...nice firm texture to the vegetable offsetting the baked stuffing with its toothsome chunks of ham and shrimp.

Both of us pork eaters totally devoured our entree...tenderloin with a debris sauce with sweet potato dirty rice. The tenderloin was a generous portion, cooked medium rare and wonderfully tender and flavorful. The debris sauce was luscious, dark and very rich, and perhaps a bit salty taken on its own, but the rice was there to balance everything out, and each bite was a marvel.

Bro-in-law went with the tuna steak, a dish which I recommend to any 1st time visitor to Brigtsen's. It was the first dinner I tried there, after a dear, departed friend raved about it for years (he worked in NO for awhile and dined at Brigtsen's weekly...nice life if you can get it!)

The yellowfin was prepared medium rare as requested, served with a red bean salsa, and two luscious sauces...a smoked corn concoction that is evidence of Frank's genius, and a smooth sour cream avocado sauce. This is just a fabulous dish...a great piece of fish combined with some unique tastes and textures that complement each other perfectly.

As if that weren't enough, we each ordered dessert. Between the four of us we ordered the double chocolate cake, the cafe au lait creme brulee, the banana bread pudding and the pecan pie. All were excellent, but the pecan pie was a true standout...and I don't even like pecan pie that much.

The cake was expectedly rich, with some nice sauces, and very good...but nothing to really set it apart from other cakes offered other places. The creme brulee is a nice rendition with the cafe au lait flavor a unique aspect...but it doesn't come anywhere close to the standard by which all others are judged (La Frite in Sherman Oaks, CA)

Banana bread pudding was a surprising choice for me, as I tend to go for rich chocolatey things...but enough people have raved about it that I went ahead and was very pleased with my choice. Very rich, garnished with sauteed bananas with a couple of delicious sauces...a nice caramel and a bourbony creme anglaise.

But it was the pecan pie that rocked everyone's palate...done with cane syrup it has an earthy sweetness that set it apart from other versions. Combined with a crunchy caramelized pecan topping and the flakiest crust I can remember, this is
now our standard bearer for the dish.

After missing Brigtsen's last time, and given other recent experiences, this visit reaffirmed our belief that Frank dishes up some of the finest cooking anywhere, regardless of style. Obviously there are many strong chefs in town, but when it comes to Lousiana cuisine, this is INMSHO the pinnacle. We look forward to many happy returns...maybe even twice the next trip!

Saturday - another delightful day outside, we headed down Magazine St so the missus could do some antiquing and shopping for beads for her jewelry creations. While we usually like to get a lunch at Joey K's, but this day would be about trying some of the classic New Orleans places, so we headed for Casamento's. Got there slightly before noon, to a line of folks inside, but not out the door yet.

We took in the whole scene while we waited for a table, with the wife commenting on the beautiful tile work that covers the walls. Finally got our table and ordered a dozen on the half shell and a couple of Dixies while we perused the menu. The wife continued on her oyster sandwich quest and ordered a full loaf. I went with the small size fried crab claws and half a shrimp loaf.

The raw oysters were excellent, and it was cool creating our own cocktail sauce...a couple of different versions as it were.
The crab claws really kicked too. While the fried shrimp and oysters in the sandwiches were excellent as well, the loaf itself didn't cut it for us...too white-bready and too much of it. We much prefer it when a good French roll is used as in a poboy.

We had made dinner reservations at Arnaud's for 9:30, having been told they had a "few openings later in the evening" when we called. My wife was really looking forward to this meal as she had wanted to go there for years, even before she had ever been to New Orleans...I'm thinking the Folger's commercials back in the sixties had an effect on her.

I dropped her off at the entrance while I headed down Rue Bienville to park. Upon entering the restaurant I checked in with the hostess who said my wife was in the bar and that our table was ready. Went to scoop up the missus and paid her tab for a Kir Royale. At $11.25 it seemed a bit steep, but it tasted as if they used good champagne, so no biggie...the sticker shock would come later.

We were led to our table, a 4-top in the corner of the dining room. The place was mostly full, with couple of boisterous parties. All in all very nice, with most people respecting the dress code (since when does Members Only count in a
jackets-required place???)

We started perusing the menu and wine list...prices didn't seem too bad...our standard Veuve Clicquot NV was $75, about 2.5 times retail. We would wind up with a bottle of Schramsberg Blanc de Noirs that was also reasonably marked up. I ordered a Belvedere martini up and dirty as the wife was still enjoying her champagne cocktail.

We went ahead and ordered a Shrimp Arnaud to split while we looked over the massive menu. It's a great read...lots of yummy sounding stuff that makes it hard to decide.

The Shrimp Arnaud was wonderful. Of all the shrimp this trip, Arnaud's did the best job preparing them...boiled just to doneness. The sauce is boffo as well...this is a dish I could eat ad infinitem...just let me lie on my back and stick a funnel in my mouth! I went ahead and ordered up a second martini as the version poured here was not near as generous as those I had enjoyed the day before at our hotel or later Friday at Brigtsen's.

While trying to decide what to eat I questioned the waiter about their crab cakes. The Veal Wohl featured one along with a veal tournedo and one of their crawfish dishes, but I wanted to know whether it contained bell pepper, as I vehemently avoid the green ones and only begrudgingly eat any other color (if at all). The fact that the waiter didn't know was not appreciated. In a restaurant like this, charging a premium price for everything I expect the staff to know the dishes on the menu, plain and simple. When he came back to let me know that the crabcakes contained not only green, but red and yellow bells that dish's fate was sealed.

As she is a fool for foie, the lovely Denise went with it as her appetizer and was very pleased. While a very simple presentation in port wine sauce, the portion was generous and well prepared. I had a couple of bites, on buttered toast, and was very impressed. I'm starting to gain an appreciation for the stuff, but will never swoon over it like my wife does.

My appy choice were the Oysters Ohan, a most excellent baked oyster dish. Here too, the oysters were prepared to perfect doneness...warm with just a touch of firmness. This dish has the oysters covered with an eggplant/andouille mixture and glazed with hollandaise. The eggplant and sausage were finely minced and made for a killer combination. YUM!!!

Our entrees were impressive as well. I chose the Pompano Duarte and Denise went with veal tournedos (Diana I think). Both were indicated as house specialties, and both were excellent. I love pompano, and it is rare to find it offered. This was a nice version, with pan fried fillets prepared with tomato, green onion, garlic and crushed red pepper. I would have preferred more of the latter ingredient as I like things on the spicy side, but no big deal...just some delicious fish perfectly prepared.

The veal tournedos were done in a wild mushroom cream sauce, served with baby veggies and a lovely saffron risotto. The meat was prepared medium rare as ordered, and was nice and flavorful, but there was a problem. The meat was not fork tender (nor should it have been), but the knives on the table were meant for butter, not meat, and Denise was having a tough time cutting without having to rip at the filet with her utensils. When she asked for a steak knife our waiter seemed a bit flummoxed...they didn't have any. But he would go find something sharper...to return with a couple of serrated knives from which to choose. Problem solved, but again...when paying a premium tariff
for a meal we expect service to be on top of things.

Seeing as this was a splurge meal we decided to go all out and have Bananas Foster for dessert, accompanied by their famous Cafe Brulot. Both were excellent, and the presentations were most impressive. But it also seemed a bit surreal as we were the last people in the place, sitting in the corner watching two servers hard at work, backed by a totally empty and silent dining room.

Our experience at Arnaud's left us with mixed feelings. The food was really good, but for the prices charged we don't feel as if expectations were met. The cocktail prices border on highway robbery...$11..25 of a Kir Royale was pushing it, but my martinis took the prize at $13.25 each, for the worst martinis I have yet to experience in the city.

Service should have been top-notch and it wasn't. I also found it a bit comical that the restaurant wouldn't see to it that staff was attired in clothes that actually fit. Both our servers wore pants with the legs dragging the floor big time. When I am shelling out almost $125 per person for dinner I don't want my servers looking like they buy their work clothes at a thrift shop.

My wife found the stemware to be of low quality given the circumstances, and both of us were complaining about the
uncomfortable ice cream parlor chairs about halfway into our meal. The shpiel on the menu makes a big deal about Arnaud's offering a fine dining experience, but you can't properly enjoy a lengthy, well presented meal if your butt is aching because the chairs don't have decent upholstery and back support.

So while the food is really good, I cannot enthusiastically recommend Arnaud's to other Chowhounds. Our meal at Brigtsen's was better, with better service, in more comfortable surroundings, and with a price per person about 40% less.

Sunday was my day to go see my beloved Dallas Cowboys play the Saints in the Superdome while Denise and her brother headed out to shop and hit the Ogden Museum. My double bloody mary was delicious and the peanuts were fine thank you very much. I was saving myself for our dinner at Cobalt, conveniently located in our hotel, The Monaco. I've read some of the press that Cobalt has generated, and the posted menu looked really good.

We had already enjoyed cocktails in Cobalt, finding the room to be exceedingly cool. Nice touches with the mosaic tiles
scattering onto the ceiling at the tops of the columns, and light projectors shooting phrases on the ceiling (my favorite was a revolving "no blue food") made for a groovy vibe. There's live music Friday through Sunday, and it was groovy too. Happy hour on Friday was decidedly enhanced with the eclectic trio (cajun/jazz violinist, jazz vocalist, rockabilly guitarist) performing inspired renditions of standards, classic rock and Xmas tunes. When we returned for Sunday dinner we thoroughly enjoyed a killer jazz pianist and his excellent trio. Plus the martinis were 3 times the size and about half the price of those at Arnaud's, not to mention shaken thoroughly so there's nice icy film on top.

We arrived for our 8PM reservation and were seated within a minute or two. We halfheartedly looked over the wine list...I was in a beer mood and the missus wasn't up for drinking that night. A quick perusal of the menu had us oohing frequently, so we negotiated what would prove to be a wonderful meal.

I started with the Oyster Pirogue with Bleu Cheese Remoulade. KILLER! A half a potato was carved out and deep fried to a nice crunch...the way potato skins should be but usually aren't. In the scooped out "boat" were nestled a half dozen or so plump and perfectly fried oysters, covered with a smooth remoulade. The bite from the cheese was evident, and it made for an interesting added layer of flavor to a classic N'awlins sauce. The pirogue was served on a bed of greens in a light vinaigrette which was a nice foil for the unctious dish.

I was most pleased when the wife chose her appy, the BBQ Lamb Jammed Green Chile Mac And Cheese. A mouthful in more ways than one! I'd seen it on the bar menu when we were in for cocktails and was intrigued needless to say. KILLER! The dish was every bit as good as it sounds...nice sized chunks of lamb in a tangy barbecue sauce with nicely cooked pasta. The cheese in the dish was very light, not the kind of glop that mac and cheese usually provides, and the addition of the green chile (nice flavor and heat) added another layer to the proceedings. A dish we will return for many times.

For a middle course we split the wilted escarole salad, another KILLER dish! A nice mix of wilted greens was strewn with bits of andouille, dressed in a lovely, balsamic vinaigrette. The addition of hazelnut crusted fried goat cheese provided the final perfect touch. Yummy, yummy, yummy!

Entrees would continue this most impressive trend. I went for the Ancho BBQ Rack of Lamb, served with White Cheddar Mashed Potatoes and Corn And Asparagus Succotash. KILLER! The two generous double bone lamb chops were cooked medium rare exactly as ordered, and were delicious all by themselves. The bbq sauce was perfectly matched...not to strong to get in the way of the excellent lamb taste. The chops were presented architecturally on the bed of subtley cheesey potates with the succotash surrounding the proceedings. A beautifully conceived and executed dish.

The lovely Denise opted for the salmon, topped with fried oysters. It was served on a bed of andouille stuffing, with a layer of garlic-sauteed haricot verts in between. While the stuffing was a tad on the sweet side for our tastes, overall the dish was another winner...excellent piece of fish, prepared as ordered (rare in this case), in an attractive presentation offering well-conceived combinations. Major kudos for the haricot verts...they were awesome...crisp and flavorful on their own, and the garlic provided a noticeable enhancement.

We were more stuffed than any other meal this trip, but it didn't stop us from ordering dessert...yet another winner. The Warm Chocolate Cake with Macadamia Brittle on Cool Coffee Cream was every bit as compelling as the other dishes we enjoyed. The cake had a nice, toothsome texture, but was still a bit molten in the middle, the macadamia brittle was a perfect textural contrast, and the coffee sauce (along with a couple of others it overshadowed) just tied the whole thing together.

All in all, a most impressive meal in a way cool room, with solid, knowledgable service, and all for about $50 a head.
While we won't stay at the Monaco regularly, we're glad that our usual hotel is just a couple of blocks away. Cobalt easily earns a place in the regular rotation.

I had hoped to get to Mother's early for breakfast and Ferdi's to go on Monday morning, but we awoke to a nasty rainstorm. Denise wanted to get in one last house tour and some grocery shopping, so I waited for what I thought would be a lull to walk over to Mother's. BIG MISTAKE. The line was inside because of the weather, and snaked all the way into the back dining room. No way could I get my order filled and make it back to the hotel in time to check out. So, we had to forego our beloved Ferdi's this trip...rest assured I will never make the mistake again. From now on it is Mother's at 6AM on the day we leave for breakfast, Ferdi's to go (debris on the side so the bread doesn't get mushy) and bags of ham trimmings for 50 cents a throw.

Having missed breakfast, we were both pretty ravenous by the time we made it to Metairie on our way to the airport.
Drago's is another of our regular spots, and we were ready to chow. I ordered a dozen charbroiled oysters as soon as the waitress hit the table. As always, they kicked mightily...one of the best hot oyster preparations to be had. We both had spinach and oyster soup to go with the rainy day, and with eyes bigger than stomachs we ordered seafood platters as well...shrimp for me, oyster/catfish combo for Denise. My shrimp were excellent as usual, and the catfish was the best we had enjoyed this trip. The waitress accidentally wrote down shrimp on Denise's order, so we ended up scoring a half order of fried oysters in addition. But by the time the waitress brought them out we were too full. We boxed up the leftovers along with some extra containers of sauce to be enjoyed during our layover in Dallas (and I'm off to microwave the rest as soon as I hit the send key).

While I didn't have room for dessert, I did get to enjoy a little Xmas surprise from the missus...a guidebook to neighborhood N'awlins restaurants. Many of everyone's faves are in there, but there are a few that I haven't heard of, so it will give us some interesting opportunities next time we visit.

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