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Trip report - three degrees of grits

Missy | Dec 15, 200308:02 PM

Thanks for all the good tips about New Orleans eating. I just got back from a few days there and thought I’d share a few highlights. Well, maybe more than a few.
My plane landed early in the morning so I dumped my luggage at the hotel and caught the St. Charles streetcar to the Riverbend stop, where I stood in line for about 20 minutes before being admitted to the Camellia Grill. This place really is like stepping back in time, with the waiters dressed in snappy black and white with bow ties, and the cooks slinging omelets so fast their arms are almost a blur. I took a corner stool at the long counter and had no trouble at all deciding to order the pecan waffle, a side of bacon, and some grits. The waffle was divine: crisp, malty, stuffed full of toasty pecans and drenched with melted butter. The salty bacon made a great counterpoint. The grits, alas, were of the “instant grits in a box” variety. I did eat them however, because the very nice elderly gentleman sitting next to me, observed that I must have a healthy metabolism if I could down both grits and a waffle in one sitting. The grits of obligation.
A quick dinner at Acme Oyster House was great and lots of fun, as I sat at the oyster bar. I had a half dozen of the best oysters; crisp and briny, squirted with lemon and Tabasco, some nice red beans and rice, and an Amber Abita ale (the ONLY thing to drink with these oysters, I was told.)
For lunch the next day I tried seeking out Lulu’s but found the little spot closed up tight and not looking like it was going to open any time soon. I ended up at Mr. B’s Bistro. It’s a dark and clubby atmosphere. Not sure what all the fuss is about. The food was nothing special. Lots of conventioneers and local business people lunching. Fried oysters on buerre blanc were gritty; melted butter is probably the least appetizing way to sauce a fried thing. Barbeque shrimp were huge and crisp and sweet, but the sauce was a little too bland for me.
I made the mistake of ordering room service for breakfast the next morning. Gross. Please do yourself a favor and DO NOT eat at the Riverside Hilton. If the greasy heavy beignets weren’t enough to put me off, the pineapple cut with a knife that had just cut up some onions really did. And the night before I stopped in at the hotel’s sports bar for some oysters; the bartender did me a favor in recommending Acme, after telling me that the hotel staff shucks the oysters in the morning and they (the oysters, that is) sit in the fridge all day waiting for some out-of-town sucker.

Dinner at Clancy’s was a bit of a disappointment, perhaps because I was anticipating it so much. A crab cake appetizer, despite the server’s assurance it was lump meat, turned out to be machine-picked claw shreds, but the corn relish accompaniment was crisp and sprightly. Salads were limp and overdressed with a heavy creamy vinaigrette. The smoked duck was pretty good, with a crisp blackened skin, but almost raw in the leg joint. The standout entrée was the lobster and wild mushroom risotto. Very chewy, creamy, headily infused with lobster stock and a hint of nutmeg. Desserts were mostly ice cream-based, including an ice cream topped brownie and a lemon icebox pie (it was nice and tart, but not too imaginative).

The next day’s lunch at Deanie’s Seafood, just off Bourbon Street, was an orgy of crispy fried things. A huge plate of crawfish tails, delicious even though they had been frozen, followed by an enormous soft-shelled crab. And instead of bread right off, they bring out hot redskin potatoes that have been cooked in crab boil. Smash those guys up with butter and salt and that’s some good eatin’!!!!
Oh yeah, their bread pudding… it was very dense and eggy, shot through with shreds of coconut and covered with about a quarter-cup of darkly toasted sliced almonds, a warm crème anglaise and a generous dusting of cinnamon.
Dinner that night at Brigtsens was really a highlight of the trip. The butternut shrimp bisque was very smooth and smelled deeply of the sea. A splash of sherry would have made it perfect. The sesame-crusted rabbit on Creole mustard sauce WAS perfect, however. This huge serving was a half-rabbit covered with sesame seeds, sautéed until crisp and served over a winey whole grain mustard sauce, with a dab of cold ratatouille and a side of brilliant green spinach lightly sautéed in sesame oil. The rich, dark sesame flavor melded in a wonderful way with the tangy mustard, lending the dish a kind of an Oriental mustard sauce flavor, minus the heat.
A side dish of jalepeno grits stole the show. These grits were chewy and toothsome, with larger, roughly crushed pieces of corn among the coarse grit. They were the grits of revelations... sparked with diced fresh jalepeno pepper whose rough edges were smoothed by a touch of rich cheese, like a kick-ass biker chick enrobed in a creamy satin wedding gown.
My final meal was a lunch at Herbsaint, full of “ladies who lunch” and business meetings, but with a relaxed pace that was never hurried.
The shrimp and green chile grit cakes was one of those small plates that makes you wish it were an enormous plate. Three perfectly cooked very large shrimp, crisp and sweet, perched tail-up in a pool of warm and creamy tasso ham wine sauce. The grits were the grits of sophistication… a genteel Southern lady with a broad-brimmed straw hat. Very smooth in texture with a hint of green chile flavor and not a bit of bite. The pecan-crusted sautéed drum with a side of asparagus was similarly wonderful
But the browned butter banana tart with caramel fleur de sel was beyond words. It’s astoundingly good. Superb. A buttery, crumbly tart shell filled with sliced bananas and covered with what seemed to be a mixture of deeply browned butter, flour, vanilla, and brown sugar, then baked until the topping and filling meld into one of those creations that is more than the sum of its parts. A few slices of fresh banana drizzled with caramelized sugar, which cooled to a crisp gloss, accented the generous slice. Beneath it, and drizzled over all, the hot caramel and its surprising crunchy sprinkles of salt.
My life will be incomplete if I do not eat this again very soon. That tart alone is worth another trip to New Orleans.

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