Saturday, April 21, 2012

New Orleans

I have long felt it my duty to visit New Orleans, to check off my list a number of classic American dishes and experience one of the most unique pockets of food culture in our culinarily kaleidoscopic nation. This past winter I finally got to do just that.

Phil and I made the drive over to the Big Easy as our Christmas present to each other. Our first hour in town we stretched our legs and ambled over to Coop’s Place, a casual joint just down the street from our hotel that served all the creole and Cajun archetypes. The sampler plate seemed like a fitting way to kick off the trip: shrimp creole, rabbit and tasso jambalaya, fried chicken and red beans. Only the best red beans I’ve ever had. No big deal.


Might as well round out the meal with fried crab claws and an overflowing bowl of gumbo along with a couple bottles of ice cold Abita. Hey. Go big or go home. We came to eat, and New Orleans isn’t known for its modesty.


Our first meal was out of the way but that initial night in the French Quarter was overwhelming. So many restaurants. So many bars. So much music. So much regality and debauchery and class and tackiness and restoration and beautiful dilapidation. I had researched restaurants and bars for months but in our overwhelmed state we thought we’d take the safe route and go for the time-tested oyster run on Iberville Street. We scouted out Acme across the street but opted for the shorter line at Felix’s. Then we stood in line, in the rain, hungry, with a hundred other tourists who had the same idea we did.

And it turned out that “time-tested” translated to “tourist trap”: our roasted oysters were burnt to a crisp; the Rockefellers were musty and mushy; the tables surrounding us were full of Japanese tourists with their noses buried in travel books; the meal cost five times what we thought it was worth. 


So. Dining well in New Orleans is more challenging than taking advice from a travel guide, or stumbling into any ole place in The French Quarter, huh? I shouldn’t have been surprised.

Resolute and unwavering in my gastronomic goals, the next day we got outside the tourist zone and took a sizeable stroll to Cochon, in the warehouse district. My research had let me to this tiny empire consisting of Cochon Restaurant, oversaw by local legend Chef Link, and the more casual Cochon Butcher next door. Cochon was by all accounts youthful and fresh, offering a modern culinary take on beloved local favorites and even resurrecting traditional Cajun dishes that had fallen out of favor for one reason or another.

Cochon Butcher was bustling when we arrived for lunch, with hungry diners lined up for heavy, hearty sandwiches made with house-cured meats, locally-sourced vegetables and sauces and mustards made with the local Abita brew. It was the deli of my dreams.


I was able to check two native foods off my “must-try” list at lunch that day: the muffuletta and boudin. Apparently there are two schools of thought when it comes to the muffuletta sandwich. At Cochon the sandwich is served warm with melted cheese and a tangy housemade pickle relish on a soft round sesame bun. I didn’t get to try a cold muffulatta during the trip, but Cochon’s version was one of the best sandwiches I’ve had in recent memory.



Like everything else, Cochon’s boudin is made in-house. The sausage was soft and delicate and served barely warm and came with their signature whole grain mustard and tangy pickles.



Phil silently ate his Italian sandwich along with a side of orzo with crisp vegetables as we eavesdropped on a conversation between two local young filmmakers who were, according to them, on the verge of making it “big.” Big in the Big Easy. This felt like the real New Orleans.



We were so impressed that one evening later in the trip we returned to the warehouse district to eat at Cochon Restaurant.

 

The calas were the unexpected highlight of the meal. These fried cakes were a popular Creole breakfast food early in the last century and Cochon has resurrected them with a modern twist. Their griddled version contained pumpkin and was topped with a refreshing apple radish salsa.



The pork and black eyed pea gumbo knocked it out of the park. I had heard that Cochon’s chefs were master gumbo-makers. The rumors were true.


Our mains were less impressive. Phil’s Louisiana cochon over braised cabbage with cracklins (how can you eat at Cochon and not get cochon?) was over-the-top rich with nothing fresh or acidic to cut the richness. My fire-roasted redfish was dry and plain and the roasted onion accompaniment seemed out of place on the plate. We’d go with different choices next time, but the overall experience was no doubt pleasant.



For me, the culinary highlight of the trip just might have been Domilise’s Po-Boys and Bar.
  
I’m a sucker for dives that dish up hearty, locally-specific dishes and this joint fulfills that description without faltering even once.


Line up outside. Anxiously await your turn. Stomach growls. You’ve made it inside! You’re right in the middle of the action, two feet from frying oysters and pink shrimp and bubbling chili and long sticks of fresh bread leaning against the wall. The phone rings and rings, ignored, the cooks too focused on battering oysters and cutting bread and taking orders. It’s somehow frantic yet mellow all at once – obviously they’ve been doing this forever, as witnessed by their imperturbable attitude and effortless pace – but can’t they move faster? Please? Now it’s my turn, gotta get the lingo right, Yes I’d like mine dressed, but when and how do I pay? I peer around the room and find the table that looks closest to finishing, try to strike the perfect balance between hovering annoyance and casual nonchalance. Don’t want to look too desperate. I sure could go for an Abita for distraction, but drats, there’s no place at the bar to wait…



It’s a somewhat stressful experience, really. But that makes it all the more rewarding when you hear your order called out across the room. Truthfully one small sandwich is enough for any hungry couple to share but when you’re only in town once in who knows how long, well, that’s cause for your own personal sandwichy mess.

So we got an oyster and shrimp po’ boy, dressed. Half the sandwich had meaty fried oysters, the other was stuffed with sweet fried shrimp.


And we got a hot smoked sausage po’ boy with chili, also dressed. The chile dribbled down my arms to my elbows and dirtied my cheeks and I was just happy as punch. Domilise’s. You da man.


New Orleans is widely believed to have one of the best culinary scenes in the US, if not the world. Places like Domilise’s have contributed to that honor. However I must point out one major downfall to eating in this city: just how was I supposed to be hungry in time for our dinner reservations with those po’boy bombs sittin’ pretty in my belly?

Thank goodness for a nap and a late reservation at Herbsaint. We vowed to have a light meal. Uh huh. Sure. That worked out… not.

The chicken and Andouille gumbo was the best gumbo we had on our trip. This is what gumbo is all about – rich yet clean flavors, not too thick but not soupy either, perfect amount of heat, meat that retained its integrity without being boiled to death.


I hadn’t had one salad so far on the trip so I mixed it up with an arugula salad with creamy burrata and roasted beets.


Don’t worry – I followed my salad with spaghetti carbonara topped with a fried poached egg and crisp pancetta. You read that right – a fried poached egg. How is that even possible?! My own personal heaven is overflowing with fried poached eggs and free of dietary or caloric concerns. New Orleans is awesome and all but it certainly doesn’t fulfill the latter part of that fantasy.


Phil gobbled down his mussels then sopped up their creamy, spicy Cajun broth with pesto bruschetta and fries. We also shared a perfect bowl of dirty rice.


We broke up the long walk back to our hotel on Frenchmen Street with a cocktail here and a cocktail there before making a late night stop at Café du Monde for beignets and café au lait. I suppose a visit to this uber famous spot is something you must do once in your life, but we were unwilling to wait in the daytime lines. A middle of the night trip was just the solution.


It’s impossible to decide whether the food or the cocktails steal the show in New Orleans; please oh please don’t force me to decide. One evening, while enjoying a pre-dinner cocktail at the bar at Arnaud’s, we struck up a conversation with a local who held a degree in culinary history with a specialization in classic New Orleans cocktails. I tried to hold back my excitement – play it cool, Cari, play it cool, try not to talk using too many exclamation points – as he told us the history of the sazerac and ordered me a version of the classic cocktail the way it was originally intended – with cognac instead of rye whiskey.

He walked Phil and me through the streets and rattled off facts and tidbits about the old guard restaurants in the French Quarter, telling us tales of fourth-generation waiters and asking us to peer into a window like any other that revealed a long, narrow room stacked with bottles and bottles of wines and liquors. Only the best restaurant patrons from the oldest families had a key to this cellar, and they chose their libations at will before meals.

He led us to Pirate’s Alley where the bartender slowly dripped absinthe over sugar cubes from an octopus-like contraption. He took us to the Carousel Bar and talked about legendary writers and celebrities who stayed in the Hotel Monteleone and enjoyed drinks right where we were standing. And he recommended we cap off the night with a Pimm’s Cup and sultry jazz at Three Muses, which was right next to our hotel (we did as he instructed).

I don’t remember his name, although he paid for all our drinks that night. His hospitality was unmatched and back at the hotel, in a cocktail cloud, I thought, This is my favorite city. Ever.

In the light of day the reality that we were scheduled to return home made me sadder than I expected it would. In an effort to delay the inevitable and squeeze in one more N’awlins feast, we drove out of the French Quarter to brunch at Elizabeth’s.



It’s a pilgrimage many make, mostly for their infamous praline bacon, which I obviously had to try before leaving town.



And knowing a nap was surely in my future during the long car ride home, I ordered grillades and grits. Slow-cooked beef, stewy and rich and homey, slopped over an unconstrained pile of relaxed grits… relaxed… relax… nap… goodbye New Orleans. I'll diet until next time.


Friday, March 30, 2012

The making of a Legend

Imagine it. You purchase a ticket to a dinner event, not knowing the menu. Not knowing the location. Not knowing the entertainment. Knowing only the date and the time and the chefs involved. Good thing you have a healthy sense of adventure!

This is the concept for The Legend Series, a new underground dining series that will feature the best chefs in our region along with a rotating array of artists, musicians and performers. Chef Scotty Schwartz from 29 South and I devised the series after one too many brunchtime cocktails at Orsay one afternoon. I’m producing the events in conjunction with some awesomely talented local restaurant peeps (holla Allan & Crystal!) and Scotty and my other chef buddies (more on them soon).


In January, forty willing subjects attended the inaugural event in The Legend Series. The morning of the event they received an email outlining the location and all converged on Riverside’s Intuition Ale Works that evening, just before sundown.


But preparations had been taking place months in advance. You know how Restaurant Wars is one of the hardest challenges for contestants of Top Chef? Conceptualizing an entire restaurant, building a menu, setting it up, executing, pleasing customers and breaking it all down… all in a single day?

That’s what The Legend Series is like. Only on crack.

We were lucky with our first venue that we had such luxurious amenities as electricity and toilets.

For future events we are not going to be so lucky. We’ll truly be off the grid at the next event.

The morning of the first Legends event Crystal Vessels (miss you!) and I arrived early to the brewery to set up the table. Soon we were joined by Annie, Nicole, Linds, Jason & Macky. They polished glassware and did a myriad other activities to make sure we were ready for dinner service.

Crystal gave directions. And contemplated the seating arrangement.



While I helped set the table.


The entertainment for the evening was my friend Philip Pan, violinist and Concertmaster of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra. He composed a music piece inspired by each of the five courses we enjoyed that evening.


Photographer Jensen Hande took portraits of the chefs whenever he could grab them from their work the kitchen.


Speaking of the kitchen… I really should put that in quotes. The “kitchen” consisted of some folding tables, a few propane burners, a fryer and a hot box. Amazing the magic the chefs pulled off using such minimal equipment.


For the first hour or so guests enjoyed passed hors d’ouevres in the tap room of Intuition Ale Works. There was roasted quail breast with pancetta and chestnut honey; ceviche; cold-smoked Beau Soleil oyster with jalapeno mignonette; steamed mussel over horseradish “potato salad”; and crispy Mayport shrimp stuffed with baccala potatoes.


We precariously balanced the cold dishes on top of the kegs in our tiny walk-in…


…while the chefs continued to conjure up magic in the makeshift kitchen.


Soon, guests were led from the tap room to the brewery area where we had set up a single long, white linen-draped table between the tanks.



As the sun set, the dishes began to arrive.


Chef Guy Ferri from Black Sheep Restaurant Group set the tone by starting the evening with a roasted marrow bone accompanied by braised oxtail marmalade and brioche toasts.


Each dish was triply accompanied: by wine generously donated by Vibrant Rioja from the eponymous region in Spain; by beer crafted in the tanks around us from Intuition Ale Works; and by Philip’s violin piece.

Chef Guy’s pairings were 2001 Campo Viejo Gran Reserva, Intuition Ale’s The Factor Scotch Ale and Mussorgsky Bydlo (The Ox) from Pictures at an Exhibition.

Next were Strauss lamb sweetbreads, romesco and Tuscan kale from Chef Tom Gray of Bistro Aix.


Paired with 2007 Bodegas Sierra Cantabria Reserva “Unica” Rioja, Triad Belgian Tripel and Chef Tom accompanying Philip on cowbell to Hugh Masekela’s Grazing in the Grass.

Then. Chef Scotty Schwartz of 29 South’s succulent roasted saddle of rabbit stuffed with rabbit confit and prunes. It was accompanied by a potato playfully crafted to look like a marrow bone and stuffed with the creamiest sformato you can imagine. I think I said as I was eating it that I wanted to die inside the sformato and spend eternity eating my way out. Or something like that.


Scotty paired his rabbit and sformato with the most complicated wine of the night, a 2000 Lopez de Heredia Vina Tondonia Gran Reserva Rosado. O'Connor’s The Road to Appalachia was played as we took our first sip.

Taverna’s Chef Sam Efron perfectly paired his braised veal checks, potato puree, piquillo pepper and Marcona almonds with 2005 Bodegas Dinastia Vivanco Reserva and Quiet Storm Belgian Quad. The dish was brought to the table to the tune of the Pixies Where is My Mind?


As Sam’s course was cleared animal bones were scattered across the tables. Yes. Animal bones. Skulls and such.

Why? you may ask. No biggie. It was just Chef Brian Siebenschuh’s version of nose-to-tail cooking. For his "soup & Sandwich" a la Indochine he used every part of a wild boar. A banh mi sandwich with fromage de tete, braised belly, roasted leg, sambal aioli, cilantro, pickled fennel and fresh cucumber. Pho with raw ribeye, scallion, melted fat, star anise braised ribs, rice noodle and spicy meatballs. And the bones, well, well the bones served as entertainment. Nothing wasted.


The not-so-humble soup and sandwich was served with 2005 Maetierra Dominum Quatro Pagos "QP"  and Intuition’s Dubbel Helix Belgian Dubbel. Philip chimed in with an apropos rendition of the Theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

We ended the meal with piles of cheese. Every meal should end with heaps of cheese. There was cabrales brought by Chef Tom, Reypenaer aged gouda from Chef Brian, Epoisses from Chef Scotty, manchego from Chef Guy and Brillat Savarin from Chef Sam.


Then, after the guests had gone, we drank beer. We took some fun photos. We toasted to a successful first event.


To learn more about The Legend Series (and read an article about this event in Arbus Magazine) visit www.thelegendseriesjax.com. If you’d like to attend a future event, email me at thelegendseriesjax@gmail.com.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Madrid

Our Spanish adventure ended where it began. In culinary terms, our trip had come full circle. We had spanned time and geography, eating classic dishes like tortilla and jamon that are found in nearly every city in Spain. We had also looked to the future with modern interpretations of these classics and dishes that drew inspiration from around the globe.

Madrid is a microcosm of all this. It has classic restaurants and those that harness the genius of today’s forward-thinking Spanish gastronomists.

The Mercado de San Miguel is as good a place as any to catch a glimpse of the ingredients that go into crafting classic Spanish dishes.

Nestled among the tall buildings is this glass pantheon to Spanish cuisine: hams swinging, the smell of frying croquetas and pimientos de Padron, groups of men and women drinking skinny glasses of beer well before most Americans would think it appropriate.

Most stalls are selling items to take home: bulk dried beans the size of your thumb, thick slices of jamon Serrano, cheeses and vegetables and seafood and olives and pickled peppers. 

And many of these stalls are cooking their ingredients for you to sit down and eat at their counters. We settled into a cozy spot next to some Italian tourists, ordered a beer (when in Rome) and ordered an early lunch. First up: deep-fried pimientos de Padron topped with big chunks of sea salt. Most of these bright green peppers are sweet and mild but every once in awhile you’ll get lucky and find the one spicy pepper in the bunch – some people call this Spanish Roulette!  

We also had a few montaditos (open-faced sandwiches) with fresh cheese, tomato, smoked salmon and pepper relish.
  
And tortilla de patatas – my ultimate favorite comfort food. Essentially tortilla is a thick potato omelette made with onions and plenty of olive oil. I could eat it every day.


After resting our eyes for a few hours we headed to La Latina. This neighborhood is known as Madrid’s tapas zone and indeed, every other door in the area was open to hanging jamon and bars serving little scrumptious plates of classic Spanish dishes and those influenced by cuisines from about the world.

We chose a very classic-looking place and sat outside so we could watch the beautiful people stroll by. Our beers came with potato chips which lifted up and floated away in the windy afternoon. The place served dishes you’d find at any straight-up tapas joint: croquetas de jamon (ham croquettes). Montado con jamon y queso (ham and cheese sandwich). Provoleta con tomate (grilled provolone cheese with slices of warm tomato). Chorizo on bread. Lomo (pork sandwich with jamon Serrano and roasted green pepper).

We continued the theme of traditional Spanish fare that night at the Chocolateria de San Gines, happily only a few stumbling blocks from our hotel.

San Gines is a local institution and is the best known place in the city to order chocolate con churros. Our midnight arrival announced we were tourists as real Madrileños stop by on their way home from the clubs around 6:00am.

Chocolate con churros isn’t a sugar bomb in Spain. The chocolate was too thick to be drinkable and only very slightly sweet. We dipped the piping hot churros into it and scooped the rest up with a spoon.


That’s how we left Madrid before exploring the northern reaches of Spain: classic tapas and churros con chocolate. When we came back to spend one more day in Madrid at the end of our trip we capped off two weeks of memorable cuisine in a very fitting way – at Estado Puro in the Prado. Spanish cuisine comes full circle here – extremely modern, creative interpretations of all the classic dishes cooked up by an acolyte of Ferran Adria.

The tortilla siglo XXI is perhaps the best example of the creativity of Estado Puro’s chef. It was an uber-modern take on the classic tortilla, served by the glass instead of by the slab. We were instructed to eat from the bottom up so as to enjoy a bit of caramelized onions and egg and potato foam in each bite.

Boquerones al limon were a light take on fried anchovies with lemon.  

Bombas de carne, literally “meat bombs,” were croquettes stuffed with pulled beef in a sweet and smoky BBQ sauce.

For the mollete de tortilla our tortilla was served inside a little roll instead of perched on top of bread as is traditional.

The berenjanas con miel, or fried eggplant with honey, were shaped like French fries in served in a ceramic fry bag – a novel presentation of a very classic dish.
  
The oxtail meat in our caldero de rabo de toro was plucked from the bone for an elegant presentation and served with toothsome, short-grained rice in personal Staub pots. It all spoke to the big, boney hunks of bull’s tail you might find in Pamplona during San Fermín but it was updated with clean flavors and a modern presentation.

Instead of a sloppy mess of fried potatoes, mayonnaise and sauce, here the patatas bravas were composed packets of elegance with all the traditional flavors. Tiny new potatoes were roasted to a salty crust, hollowed and stuffed with little dollops of mayo and a spicy sauce.

So ended our trip. But my adventures in Spanish cuisine don’t end there…