First off I'd like to make a big thank you to this message board for endless information and preparation material that helped me greatly in setting my New Orleans culinary agenda. This is truly an amazing resource, and it's due to the people who read and contribute. My apologies for the length of this post in advance as well...I get carried away, but hopefully somebody out there will appreciate the detail.
So, on to the information. I spent 5 days in New Orleans about two weeks ago, and had some amazing food, of course. Here are my impressions along with some (hopefully tantalizing) notes on what I had. The list is in no particular order..although you'll be able to tell Im starting with the places that blew me away...
- Bayona (lunch)
Wow. Certainly one of the best meals I've ever had in my life. I chose to go to lunch at Bayona my first day in town, and I certainly started things off right.
As for restaurant itself, I found it to be a charming place, very tastefully decorated, with beautiful stained glass windows and a casual, yet upscale atmosphere. Not stuffy at all, and the staff is very professional and friendly..but not intrusive.
They had an impressive list of daily specials, including a couple items that I did not end up having but caught my eye like the grilled gulf snapper with fresh cranberry and roasted pepper succotash with sweet corn puree, and the porcini gnocci with grilled veggies and a toasted ricotta salat with basil pesto. The desert special sounded great too, a warm huckleberry tart with vanilla/almond ice cream.
What I did have was equally impressive. I started with the grilled shrimp and black bean cake with coriander sauce. While the dense, moist and smoky flavored black bean cake was a nice contrast with the slightly sharp (but more subtle than I expected) coriander sauce...it was the grilled shrimp that really set this appetizer apart. The shrimp were so pefectly grilled, with a nice crust on the outside, but inside the shrimp were so tender that they literally burst when you ate them. Overall, the combination was savory and a great starter.
Next was the chilled roasted tomato and almost soup. It was also made with bread, cucumber and onion, in almost a gazpacho fashion. Garnished with cubes of cucumber, tofu, almonds and croutons, it was a surprisingly powerful soup. The flavor of roasted tomatoes was intense, and for those who like a true tomato flavor, this would be a treat. The cubes of tofu actually worked tremendously well to help cut some of that intense flavor and add some creaminess to the soup. In retrospect I might of preferred the cream of garlic soup since I am not the biggest fan of tomatoes, but it was extremely tasty.
For my entree I had the daily special mixed grill, which inlcuded a beef tenderloin brochette, a homemade green onion sausage and grilled quail. The grilled items were accompanied by sauteed greens (I believe they had a touch of balsamic vinegar added to them at the end...delicious) and a choice that I at first thought odd, but soon realized was the element that tied it all together, a green olive and carrot in vinegarette relish. The relish helped add some saltiness and sharpness to the rest of the dish, and really complimented the meats. The quail was very good, cooked perfectly tender with a good outter crust. The green onion sausage was terrific, with the sweetness of the onion mixing well with the whole grain mustard served with the sausage. The beef tenderloin brochette was amazing..small end pieces of the tenderloin cooked to a level of tenderness I've never experienced. No seasoning beyond salt, just a *pure* beef flavor that you'd usually associate to a thick steak, not small grilled pieces of beef.
For desert, I was tormented by the warm huckleberry tart, but ultimately could not pass on the 5-spice and dark chocolate delice with a plum compote. The combination of dark chocolate and 5 spice was too alluring, and I was right...Amazing together. The delice is a dense-ish mousse consistency, and had 5 spice infused into the delice along with a very very high quality dark chocolate. The plum compote (red plums I believe) was really nicely tart in contrast to the sweet delice. This set off nicely with the 5 spice in the delice. Also accompanying the delice was a 5 spice infused sugar syrup (not quite caramel...) that helped reinforce the flavors. I must say that the 5 spice (the peppercorns especially) really gave an amazing edge to the sweet, rich chocolate...and depth to the desert. This was the most complex, challenging and satisfying desert I've ever had. The combination of flavors and the perfect preparation made it a cut above anything else.
Overall, I could not recommend Bayona enough. I know that it gets mixed note on this board, but I am of the firm opinion that it is a top-tier restaurant. What sets it in that category for me is the quality of the preparation, along with the flavors. From the grilled shrimp, to the beef tenderloin to the delice..everything was prepared *perfectly*, which allows the flavors that Spicer uses to shine through. True Mastery.
Oh, and to top it off, just because I had to try it, I got one of the smoked duck, cashew butter and pepper jelly sandwiches to go (it also has delicious caramelized red onions in it). Granted it would be best eaten fresh and hot, but even several hours later, this is maybe the best tasting thing I've ever eaten. What an amazing combination of flavor between the savory smoked duck, the slightly sweet cashew butter, then sweet and tangy red onion, the bite of the pepper jelly makes a nice finish to it. Truely awesome.
- K-Paul's (dinner) :
Not at all what I expected. I expected a high traffic, showy place that capitalized on Prudhomme's name. Insead, it was a laid back, casual, friendly, nealry quaint bistro-style place that does not seat very many people and maintains a really welcoming atmosphere.
I started with the shrimp jambalaya. Being a huge jambalaya fan, and it being something I make at home fairly often, I was looking forward to Prudhomme's version. I was blown away. It was great. The jambalaya itself (the rice based portion) was drier than I typically have seen or make, but it was surrounded by a tomato sauce. The whole dish packed quite a spicy heat punch, but the andouille was so tasty, the shrimp well prepared and the tomato sauce combined so well, that the heat is secondary. A generous amount of cooked down tasso tied it all together and gave it depth. Simply the best jambalaya I've ever had, and made me re-think how I should make it myself. I really liked the drier jambalaya with a tomato sauce along side.
For the entree I had a blackened drum served with whipped potatoes and haricovert and carrots with a chipolte compound butter. Again, the preparation was the aboslute key as the drum was so delicate and moist on the inside, but the outter blackened crust gave it a spicy and savory flavor. Spicy, but not hot. The potatoes were absolutely velvety (lots of butter, I suspect) and the chipolte butter was a nice touch on top of both. The butter added some smokiness to the fish, which gave it depth.
For desert, unfortunately they did not have the coconut cake, so I "settled" for the Chocolate Hill...a small home made chocolate bundt cake, with chocolate ganache (warm), and white and dark chocolate sauce surrounding it. Oh...my...god. If you like chocolate..no, love it..then this is for you. So powerfully chocolate its nearly painful. The bundt cake was dark and rich, but very light and so moist, at first I thought it was not quite set...but it was perfectly cooked. To the point of firmness, but still incredibly moist. The chocolate ganache in and around it was so rich it added another layer to the chocolate overload. I could barely eat more than 4-5 bites, because it was so rich. Just an amazing chocolate experience.
One last note about KPaul's...the bread. Great selection of bread. Im not sure if it's baked on site, or they get it from a local bakery, but the black strap molasses roll was unlike anything I've had before. The roll was dense, and had a heavy, molasses (which is sweet, but also a slight bit tart and tangy) flavor and was just awesome. With good quality butter, just a real treat.
KPaul's truly impressed me, both with the atmosphere, staff and especially the level of quality of the food. Like Bayona, the preparation set this place apart...everything perfectly prepared and top notch flavors.
- NOLA (dinner @ chef's counter) :
Only reason I ended up going here was to sit at the chef's counter. I worked in restaurant kitchens all through high school, college and beyond, so I know the job very well, and remember the stress, the pace, the shouting all too well. It was a great blast from the past to sit scross from the kitchen, right next to the expiditers and watch the action. Asking questions, getting the cooks opinions on dishes...really fun stuff.
I wish I could be as positive about the food though. I was disappointed, no question. I started with a crab cake that was unremarkable. Certainly not bad, but nothing outside of the typical crab cake. Not particularly spicy or overwhelming for it's crab flavor (it's no Maryland jumbo lump meat crabcake..). Good accomanying olive relish though.
For my entree I again had the mixed grill, or ancho glazed pork loin, chicken breast and a brochette of BBQ shrimp. The flavors were all fine, but the problem was with the cooking of the meats. The pork loin was a loin chop...which was much too well done for its thickness. The ancho glaze was very good, adding some heat and spice to the pork, but the pork was not tender due to the overcooking. The chicken breast was a little bit bland, and again, overcocoked. It's easy to overcook chicken breast, and they did, just by a little bit. Not juicy enough, due to the cooking. The BBQ shrimp were absolutely torched. One side of the skewer was literally black...not blackened...black. The shrimp were tough, very little flavor and just disappointing. Enough about that.
The desert was the bananas foster bread pudding, in a caramel sauce. This was fine, but nothing outstanding. The bread pudding had a nice consistency and flavor (a little too subtle actually..some banana liquor would of gone a long way) but was a bit lackluster overall. Maybe if I'd gotten it with the white chocolate ice cream as they suggested...
So, overall...disappointing at NOLA. A lot of fun to watch the kitchen, but mediocre food, especially in terms of the preparation. The flavors were good, obviously tried and true recipes..but they need to crack down on their cooks, IMHO.
The rest I'll break down into just (more brief..) notes :
- Gumbo Shop. Had lunch here one day...decent food for the price, nice atmosphere, good location, but not great. The gumbo was surprisingly bland, and looked like it might of been leftover from a day or two before. Just not rich enough. I had the "creole combo" of jambalaya, red beans and rice and shrimp creole.Of the three, the red beans and rice (this was a Monday...after all) was by far and away the best. The jambalaya not bad, but the shrimp creole was really lacking.
- Camelia Grill. Not sure I get all the hype, after having been there now. Pretty much your run of the mill greasy spoon diner type experience. I'd read about the great burgers and whatnot, so I had one, and it was ok, but nothing special. The atmosphere was ok, but I just wasn't impressed by any of the food coming out (not in a picky, "I don't like greasy spoon" sort of way, even for that, I just didn't think it was extraordinary).
- Commander's Palace for brunch. An experience..and fun, but not great food. Good food, but not great. I imagine better brunches (for the food, maybe not the atmosphere, service and tradition of a jazz brunch) can be found...
So, that's about all. There were various assorted po'boys and mufalettas along the way, but you all know the best places for those, so no need to expound.
Hope this has been informative, and enjoyable for some of you. Thanks again for all the information and posts that made it possible.