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French Quarter - a culinary journey (the wrap up - LONG)

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French Quarter - a culinary journey (the wrap up - LONG)

GDPhalp | Feb 2, 2010 12:07 PM

Well, made it home, with mixed emotions. Happy to sleep in the comfort of our own bed, but already missing the sounds, smells and hospitality of New Orleans. We had a wonderful weekend, and I'm pleased to reminisce about my time in and around the quarter in this review. First of all, let me express my gratitude to all the chowhounders who influenced my culinary decisions throughout our four days in town. Were it not for you, we'd have been lost. One can only be left to imagine what it would have been like eating at places that were merely convenient to our hotel or that drew us in by signage or a well placed barker.
We arrived on Thursday afternoon, less hungry than expected. After a month’s preparation for the "Crescent City Culinary Olympics", our connecting flight out of Memphis was delayed 2 hours, so the first official meal of the trip was in the Memphis international airport. Although, not a part of the New Orleans experience, what we found was amazing! We ate at Jim Neely's Interstate Barbeque. After inquiring about their specialties, we were lead to chopped pork/beef barbequed nachos - which to be frank, sounds like an abomination. But, having an open mind, and an empty stomach - we went for it. Each element (sans 1) individually sounds unappealing - round yellow corn tortilla chips topped with chopped meat & barbecue sauce, drowning in bright yellow/orange nacho cheese, served with a side of sweet vinegar barbeque sauce & pickled jalapenos. Thank you adventurous spirit! This is one of the most deliciously sinful things I've ever eaten. Crunchy, salty, meaty, sweet, sour, rich & unctuous are just a few of the adjectives we've used to describe this creation since eating it. One of the many OMG moments that we would grow accustomed to quickly over the next several days.
After coming out of our food comas, and realizing that our plane had landed at MSY - we gathered our things & headed to the Marriott. After checking in, we sucked it in & headed to lunch #2 at Johnny's Po' Boys. With our appetites having not yet fully recovered, we split a shrimp po boy (dressed) and had a couple of Abitas (Amber ((me)) Purple Haze ((the wife))). This was my first experience with this delicious libation, and frankly I'm not sure that I'll be able to drink another beer - as I'm sure everybody knows: it's "that" good. Another first in this meal was Leidenheimers bread. It took all of 3 bites until I "got it". This is perfect po boy/dipping bread. It is both a blank slate & a flavor sponge all in one. It really allowed me to taste the ingredients. Overall the sandwich was very solid. The shrimp was well cooked and juicy, the breading was decent & the lettuce/tomato/mayo all fresh and crisp. As I had heard the overwhelming recs for Parkway, this sandwich at Johnny's was just what I expected.
The next couple of hours were devoted to being tourists. The weather was nice, so we wandered up St. Louis to Bourbon. The crowds were light, which we found out later was the exception as opposed to the rule. As my wife isn't the biggest fan of crowds, it all worked out for the best. We popped in from bar to bar ordering whatever sounded the most cliché or was on special. I had almost forgotten how fun it is to let my inner kid come out. The bartenders were all very nice, inevitably asking us where we were from as soon as we ordered a drink that came in a collector’s glass. The sounds, smells and, lets face it, alcohol were intoxicating. I really enjoyed spotting places that I had heard and read so much about. After several hours of exploring the streets, courtyards & bars, we headed back to our hotel to prepare for Bon Ton.
Bon Ton Cafe was the first meal of the trip that had some expectation. I had seen the crabmeat au' gratin suggested as one of the top five food items in New Orleans by some CH'ers, the etouffee suggested as one of the better commercial versions & the turtle soup as well above average. As these were all things I wanted to try - it was added to the itinerary. The restaurant was very homely (not in a derogatory manner): the red checkered tablecloths, the friendly lighting, the informal wait staff. Very much reminded me of a place my mother would have opened (if she were Cajun, of course). For the meal, we had the seafood gumbo & turtle soup for starters, the crawfish etouffee & crabmeat au' gratin for entrees & split the bread pudding w/ whiskey sauce for dessert. For starters, both soups were room temperature. The flavor of the gumbo lacked depth & salt. Other than the temperature, my biggest issue with gumbo was the stock. The color was nice from the roux, but it was as if the stock wasn't house made. Either that or it was made hastily. It just lacked that "essence of the sea" that a good seafood stock should have. Also, it lacked what I think is a quintessential ingredient: seafood. The turtle soup was a little bit better. The addition of sherry did help to punch up the flavors quite a bit, but even so it felt like it needed acid. Moving on to the mains, the crabmeat au' gratin didn't disappoint. The crab was buttery, the cheese sauce was smooth and delicious. Overall the dish was a little bit "one note", but that is by design. The crawfish etouffee on the other hand, was less than stellar. The sauce was a bit to tomatoey for our taste, and the crawfish was very small and overcooked. I realize that we aren't exactly in the midst of crawfish season, so why not take it off the menu until the end of February (if that was the issue)? Finishing up the meal was the bread pudding w/ whiskey sauce. The bread pudding was warm & wonderful. Soft, sweet & perfect texture. Very good rendition. My wife didn't like the whiskey sauce, but I enjoyed the taste. What do you expect when they add the whiskey after cooking? Overall, the meal had its ups and downs. Regardless, we left full and satisfied.
Around midnight, my wife was hungry again, so we called down to the front desk and asked for suggestions. The lady suggested Vieux Carre Pizzeria. They were one of only a few places that delivered to the Marriott at that hour. The pizza came piping hot, which means at the very least it was fresh. We ordered a medium bourbon pizza, which had chicken, spinach, pesto & feta. For late night pizza, it wasn't bad at all. The ingredients were plentiful, and my wife liked the cornmeal bottomed crust. The crust was thick for my liking, but I am a Brooklyn style crust guy. Overall, more than what I expected.
The next days eating started early. No sooner than we awoke and showered, we headed down to Cafe Du Monde for cafe au laits and beignets. The beignets were warm & crisp - the coffees strong. We aren't the biggest morning "sweets" people, but everything was very good. These would be our only beignets of the trip.
After spending the morning wandering Decatur, we found ourselves at Mollys by the Market for bloody marys. Tremendous! Spicy, rich and full of flavor. The addition of Guinness really does the trick. Also, found a new appreciation for spicy pickled green beans. After a couple mary's, we decided to pop into Coop's place for an early first lunch. Although the place is dark, dingy & smelly, the food is AWESOME! I got the jambalaya supreme & my wife got the seafood gumbo. This gumbo would turn out to be the single best dish of the trip. Large pieces of crabmeat, shrimp, crawfish & whole poached oysters would find there way into this fabulous stew. The roux was dark, and the stock tasted like the sea. The broth had a very heavy oyster taste, in the best possible way. Rich, briny & full of flavor. Also, the jambalaya supreme was excellent. A little bit tomatoey, but not unpleasant. This cacophony of meat & rice was really good. Each bite was an adventure. TONS of meat - VERY smoky & decadent. Shrimp was perfectly cooked. This did not turn out to be in my top 2 restaurants of the trip due to odor alone. We were the only ones in there at 11, so the service was good - but, the place smelled like wet cat (maybe because there was a wet cat roaming around in there). Oh well, glad we braved it. SIDE NOTE - we would try to return again on Saturday only to find the place packed & we were ignored at the bar for 20 minutes before leaving.
After trying this most delicious gumbo, we decided that we had to try more, and since most of our planned meals didn't feature it, we went on the great gumbo search.
First, I stopped into Central Grocery to buy some olive salad and a Muffuletta that would be eaten a couple of days later (more on this to come).
Next stop was the Gumbo Shop - which, believe it or not, serves gumbo. :) As we were still mostly full, we ordered 2 cups of gumbo. I the chicken andouille, my wife the seafood okra. The chicken andouille was pretty average. The chicken stock was nice and rich, but overall the gumbo lacked depth. The seafood gumbo was very good. The stock had a very nice full flavor. The major drawback of this gumbo was the again the lack of seafood.
Last stop was Napoleon House. Beautiful building, beautiful bar - weird service. Our waiter seemed a little bit out of place, and the service was awkward. The highlight was, of course, the Pimms Cup. Very refreshing & cold - really hit the spot. We ordered a bowl of seafood gumbo to share, and frankly the rye roll that came with it was the highlight. The rye, when dipped in the bowl, added a unique aroma & taste, but alone the gumbo was barely average.
After realizing that we had just eaten roughly a gallon of gumbo, we finally decided to stop eating long enough to prepare our stomachs for dinner. Reservations were for Emeril's French quarter restaurant, NOLA. We arrived a few minutes until 7, and were seated soon thereafter. It is a very unique space, with a very industrial feel. We took the elevator up to the second floor where we were seated at a two-top next to a large, very festive gathering of people. This restaurant is VERY loud. I know, I know, I was warned. Virtually every CH post about NOLA mentioned this, but I didn't listen. My mistake. It's not that I hate noise, or that I don't like a good time. It was just too loud to have a pleasant conversation, and too loud to think. Our waiter was very congenial which met with the atmosphere. We started with gulf oysters, baked in wood oven with garlic butter & herb bread crumbs. This was not a good preparation. The oysters were tender, but swimming in warmed brine. I know this sounds counterintuitive, but this brine lacked salt. Basically, the liquid tasted sort of like oysters, but without the salt. This tasted nothing of garlic butter, and the bread crumbs were wet, making the whole dish pretty unpleasant, the meal, thankfully would get a bit better. After the app, my wife had the Nola Caesar salad & me the gumbo of the day which was cochon, black-eyed peas & andouille. The gumbo was not hot enough for my liking, but had a very nice flavor. The cochon simply tasted like traditional roast pork, but overall the gumbo was well balanced & tasty. My wife's salad served its purpose & was very well dressed. For our entrees, my wife had the special which was a pan seared pompano w/ parsnip puree & truffle oil & I had the shrimp & grits. My wife absolutely loved her entree. The fish was crispy on one side, tender on the other. The addition of truffle oil really elevated the flavor profile. Excellent! My shrimp & grits were a pretty big miss though. The shrimp were slightly overcooked, and the butter sauce errored on the side of sweet. I was hoping that the red chili Abita butter sauce would add a bit of heat to balance the richness of the grits, but it did not. Oh well, overall the restaurant wasn't bad, but wasn't great either.
We walked off our meals & an hour and a half later had our final eats of the day with a dozen raws at the bar @ Felix's oysters. The shucker was a hoot. He did a great job of keeping us entertained as he shucked. They were about out of oysters, so they were a little bit bottom of the barrel, but in our opinion, even that's not a bad thing. The oysters were bright, fresh & briny. There were a few bits of shell that managed their way in our mouths as we slurped, but that's easily overlooked. Great way to end the night.
Saturday started as the day before had ended - on the quest for food. We left the hotel at 8:30 and walked through the warehouse district to the Crescent City Farmers Markets at the corner of Magazine & Girod. It was really cold that morning, which may have contributed to the lack of vendors at the market. There were at most 15-20 vendors, most of which were purveyors of produce. The produce looked nice and fresh, and the few seafood and meat also seemed fresh & reasonably priced. If we could only get $5 a pound gulf shrimp in Kansas City! Overall, however, the experience was disappointing. I had hoped that there would be a larger selection of foods, both raw & premade. We did pick up a couple of blueberry scones while we were there that were pretty tasty. After seeing all there was to see for 30 minutes at the market, we continued to walk down Magazine. We had planned lunch at Casamento's, and as I knew Casamento's was uptown on Magazine, I wanted to do a little exploring. That idea lasted all of 20 minutes, until we could hardly feel our toes. We decided to hitch a ride on the Magazine Street bus. We hopped on at 9:45, and I was surprised that we were the only fares. We struck up a conversation with the driver who was a great ambassador of the city. After swapping a few war stories, picking up a few passengers, and riding the whole Magazine loop, we finally bid adieu to our tour guide @ 11 in front of the best meal of the trip.
Casamentos is not a restaurant; it's a way of life. I can't sing this restaurants praises enough. The building is nothing to write home about, but the food is phenomenal. We started with a half dozen raws & a half order of fried crab claws. They let you mix your own cocktail sauce w/ creamy horseradish & ketchup. We made ours with a kick! The fried crab claws were hot, crispy & full of flavor. The raws were ice cold & beautifully shucked. We were given our choice of size on our second half dozen of raws. All the oysters were perfect. None were damaged & all were salty & clean. After finishing up our raws, our waitress brought in our oyster loaf dressed with mayonnaise, tomato & lettuce. The fried oysters were hot and bursting with flavor. Each bite was better than the one before until the sandwich was completely demolished. If only we could’ve moved in…ah, the memories. Some might be thrown by the thick bread that the sandwich comes on, but you need a man sized bread to contain the amount of filling on this sandwich. Everything was perfectly balanced – this is truly the food I crave. I digress –
After my wife peeled me off the ground, we walked a little way back down Magazine, until we caught the bus again back to the hotel. There we dropped off our things and headed back to the quarter for a stroll. Each time we went for a walk, we seemed to see everything again for the first time. Mid afternoon, we hopped on a donkey driven carriage with another couple for a historical tour of the quarter. Cadillac (the donkey) & Robert (the operator) did a great job of pointing out some of the finer points of the quarter that we had never noticed before. It was a great time.
Last dinner of the trip was at Restaurant August. By this time at night it had become really cold, so the walk down Tchoupitoulus was rushed. Walking into the building, you could really appreciate the beauty of this space. It is a very open and inviting space. The crystal chandeliers and flower arrangements really added to the ambiance. After promptly being seated, we were quickly greeted by our head waiter. He and the staff provided the best service that I have ever experienced at a restaurant. All members of the staff from the hostess to the drink refillers were prompt, friendly and knowledgeable. After months of salivating, my wife and I opted for the nights degustation menu. Before beginning the menu, we were served an amuse of seafood flavored sabayon topped with caviar, served in an egg shell w/ a brioche bread stick. The flavor was rich & lingered on the palate. Very light texture, but a larger portion than expected for an amuse. Although tasty, I don’t know that the amuse served its purpose of waking up my palate for the coming meal. First course we were served spiced pain perdu and roast foie gras with persimmon. The plate presentation was beautiful. Both the pain perdu and foie gras were very rich and tasty. The whole plate was a little bit sweet for my taste, but overall a nice start. The second course was La Provence farmed yard egg raviolo with fresh perigord truffle. The rich dark sauce surrounding the raviolo was full of chopped truffle, and the whole plate had plenty of shaved truffles all over it. The truffle added a terrific earthy element to the richness of the egg sauce that was created when breaking into the pasta. This was a very delicious dish, but the pasta was not very tender. It was tough around the edges, not due to poor cooking, but because of quality of the pasta. Third course was the best course of the night: pan roast sablefish in brandade crust with cauliflower and sauce raito. The salt cod crust added nothing to the flavor, but it allowed the sablefish encapsulated within it to be cooked PERFECTLY. It was the most delicate fish preparation I’ve encountered. Sweet, soft & buttery sablefish with a creamy sauce raito – lovely. Fourth course was not good. It was a pocket roast of veal breast, P&J oyster dressing and glazed turnips. It all sounds delicious, if only it had tasted that way. There were 2 pieces of veal breast with the oyster dressing stuffed in between w/ the glazed turnips on the side. The veal breast was nicely cooked, the turnips were undercooked & the stuffing was almost inedible. There was a whole oyster in the stuffing, which was nice on its own, but the bread dressing was quite possible the peppery-est thing I’ve ever eaten. Horribly over peppered – also it had a smoky element which really overpowered the delicate veal flavor. It took several gulps of water and many chugs of iced tea to clear my palate from this dish. Moving on, fifth course was “pot-au-feu” of elk loin en crepinette with porcini mushrooms, baby root vegetables and oxtail. The elk was wrapped with shredded oxtail & what reminded me of a wellington breading. It was finished with a beautifully clear consommé/elk jous. The flavors were very mild, but pleasant. Very hearty course. Next to last, was one of my favorites of the night – the cheese course. This evening it was Ponchatoula strawberry and rhubarb clafoutis with fleure de teche mousseline and lemon thyme crisp. As far as what a clafoutis was, is beyond me. All I know is that it was similar to a strawberry rhubarb cobbler filling topped with a most delicious cheese mousse. This dish probably had the best balance of the night. Sweet and tart fruit, light and salty cheese mousseline – this course was very aromatic and fun to eat. The final course of the evening, I hate to say it, was the worst dish of the trip. It was chocolate and lemon prepared three ways: crepe cake, macaroon and biegnette. The flight started with an unpleasantly sweet, super dense chocolate donut hole, covered with granulated lemon scented sugar, the second was a semi-sweet macaroons sandwiching a milder lemon custard, and the third was the tartest lemon crepe cake with a sugar brittle. The whole dessert was poorly conceived. They all had the same general flavor profile – super sweet & super sour. Despite the poor ending, overall we enjoyed the meal. It certainly had very high highs, and very low lows but the service brings the restaurant to a status where we would certainly go again. After the meal, we walked back to the Marriott & passed out, stuffed to capacity.
Sunday morning, our first meal after sleeping in was the jazz brunch at Mr. B’s Bistro. We arrived at 10:30 and were one of only a few customers coming in for the early brunch. We had heard so much about the signature barbecued shrimp that we both had our minds made up. Both of the wait staff that helped us warned us about head on shrimp, but we were not to be deterred. We started our meals with a couple of bloody marys that were surprisingly light and crisp. Soon thereafter, our very chipper waitress came to the table to adorn us w/ large white bibs & a paper wrapped loaf of leidenheimers bread. I knew we were in for a treat. The barbecue shrimp was just as kukubura had described it. Rich, buttery & peppery broth, with perfectly cooked head and shell-on shrimp. The broth could have been a little bit hotter, but the flavor was absolutely spot on. This hit every part of my palate on its way down the gullet. One couldn’t help but ask for a second loaf of bread to sop up every last bit of this wonderful broth. For desert, we split a banana’s foster cake w/ ice cream. This was highly unimaginative, the cake was dry, but I hardly noticed the flavor profile because I was still deeply in thought about that sauce. Very glad we took this recommendation, as it was a perfect last meal in New Orleans.
I hope that you will all enjoy reading this review, as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it. Thanks again to all the wonderful people of New Orleans, and we hope to return soon w/ appetites in tow.
Favorite Dishes (Best – Worst)
1. Seafood Gumbo (Coops)
2. Oyster Loaf (Casamentos)
3. Raw Oysters (Casamentos)
4. Barbecue Shrimp (Mr. B’s)
5. Muffuletta (Central Grocery)
6. Sablefish entrée (Restaurant August)
7. Jambalaya Supreme (Coops)
8. Cheese course (Restaurant August)
9. Seafood Gumbo (The Gumbo Shop)
10. Crabmeat Au Gratin (Bon Ton)
11. Shrimp Po’ Boy (Johnny’s Po’ Boys)
12. Yard Egg Raviolo (Restaurant August)
13. Crab Claws (Casamentos)
14. Elk Course (Restaurant August)
15. Raw Oysters (Felix’s)
16. Cochon & Black-eyed Pea Gumbo (NOLA)
17. Turtle Soup (Bon Ton)
18. Beignets (Café Du Monde)
19. Bread Pudding w/ Whiskey Sauce (Bon Ton)
20. Chicken & Andouille Gumbo (The Gumbo Shop)
21. Fois Gras w/ Pain Perdu (Restaurant August)
22. Shrimp & Grits (NOLA)
23. Seafood Gumbo (Napoleon House)
24. Bourbon Pizza (Vieux Carre Pizzaria)
25. Veal Breast entrée (Restaurant August)
26. Crawfish Etouffee (Bon Ton)
27. Bananas Foster Cake (Mr. B’s Bistro)
28. Oyster App (NOLA)
29. Seafood Gumbo (Bon Ton)
30. Desert course (Restaurant August)
Favorite Restaurants (Food + Service)
1. Casamentos
2. Restaurant August
3. Coops
4. Central Grocery
5. Mr. B’s Bistro
6. Johnny’s Po’ Boys
7. The Gumbo Shop
8. NOLA
9. Felix’s
10. Bon Ton Café
11. Café Du Monde
12. Napoleon House
13. Vieux Carre Pizzeria

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