NOW&FE Grand Tastings;
John Besh & Friends Honor Leah Chase
The main acts of the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience are today and tomorrow. The Grand Tastings each run for three hours in Hall J of the Morial Convention Center. Chefs from some sixty restaurants cook and serve the food, while and even greater array of wines--as many as a thousand of them--get poured. Friday's Grand Tasting begins at 6 p.m.; Saturday's at 2 p.m.
Before each Grand Tasting, a program of seminars goes forth at a variety of locations around town. These combine food and wine--some of it very unusual--in thought-provoking ways. Almost all of these (including my own seminar Saturday) are sold out, but a few are still open. More information and tickets on the NOWFE website. See you there!
The grand finale of NOW&FE this year is the annual bash honoring the winner of the Ella Brennan award. Named for the longtime genius behind the success of Commander's Palace, the award is a lifetime achievement award for New Orleans restaurateurs. This year's honoree is Leah Chase, who deserves this honor for sheer longevity alone. She started cooking professionally in her teens, and is still at it in her nineties. And beloved by all, including everybody over here.
John Besh took personal charge of orchestrating the event, and persuaded many of his chef-superstar friends from around the country to come in for the fete. (A few names: Jacques Torres, Aaron Sanchez, Danny Bowien, Michelle Bernstein, Donald Link, Susan Spicer, John Currence.) It's not just a dinner but a big party, too, with Kermit Ruffins, the Young Fellas Brass Band, and Mia Borders. The money raised will go to the various charities supported by NOW&FE; info on that is at the same site from which you buy the $250 tickets. (Below.) It's at the Hyatt Regency, beginning at 7 p.m. I will be there and I hope you are too.
New Orleans Wine and Food Experience. Morial Convention Center, Hall J. Friday 6 p.m., Saturday 2 p.m. http://www.nowfe.com.
Funkin' It Up With John Besh, Honoring Leah Chase. Saturday, May 25, 7 p.m. Click here for tickets and info.
A Weekend Of Hellenic Hedonism.
The Greek Festival--fortieth annual!) begins today at 5 p.m. It's a total blast, and you don't have to be Greek to dig it. Food galore, from whole lambs roasting on an open fire (they'll cook at least a hundred of them) to a dinner plate of Greek standards (pastitsio, spinach pie, cheese pie, feta salad, olives). The Greek bakers of the community have an astonishing array of Greek pastries, good enough to buy by the box. Meanwhile, the Greek dancer wow you with their well choreographed act. It's a family event, with lots of stuff for the kids to do. If you have Greek friends you haven't seen in awhile, go--they'll be there.
Begun forty years ago as a fundraiser for the Greek Orthodox Cathedral, the Greek Festival supports the oldest Orthodox community in North America. Admission is only five dollars (free for children), and buying a ticket gives you a chance on a trip for two to Greece. It's all on St. Bernard Avenue at Robert E. Lee, alongside Bayou St. John. Park at John F. Kennedy High School; shuttles run frequently all day and night. The Greekness goes until 11 p.m. tonight, from 11 a.m. till 11 p.m. Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. More info at the website below.
Greek Festival. Lakefront: 1200 Robert E. Lee Blvd @ St. Bernard Ave. Map.. . http://www.greekfestnola.com/.
Tuesday, October 21, 2013.
Substandard All Around.
There's a difference between a radio interview and my round-table show. In an interview, I ask a question, the guest gives and answer, and we repeat the process until it becomes boring, or time runs out.
Unless the guest is unusually animated and entertaining, I don't like standard interviews much. They seem forced to me, and I can't imagine that anyone would want to listen to them. My quest for finding a better way resulted in our round-table approach, in which I tell everyone in the room--who may or may not have anything on common--to carry on a conversation as if we were sitting in a restaurant over dinner. That's especially good with engaging people, but even those who aren't sparkling personalities do better with the looser format.
Even so, we have days when nothing seems to happen. This was one of those days. We had the owner of the year-old Dijon restaurant, Kurt Brodtman. And Dr. Nick Moustoukas, the president of the Greek Orthodox community. Which hosts the Greek Festival. Which is this weekend. Cindy Miller, who runs the deli and catering department of Dorignac's. And Butch Stedman, the longtime wine manager of the same supermarket.
I don't know why--and I'm ready to believe it was me--but today's show turned into an ordinary interview. At the end of the hour, we brought it to an end and went back to the open phones.
Afterwards, I was to give a talk to a group of geologists, who were having their annual banquet-with-spouses. Originally Mary Ann was to give the talk, but something came up for her, and I agreed to fill in. Then her other engagement went down, so she was back. Both of us spoke, on our very different topics. (Hers is about her book "The Suzie Homemaker Chronicles," which is about the joys and tears of motherhood.) People liked both of us, and we both sold a fair number of our books.
The dinner these folks were served was so terrible that if I had gone to Winn-Dixie's deli, picked up a soup, salad, chicken dish and dessert, warmed it in the microwave oven and ate it at the kitchen counter, it would have been twice as good as what this restaurant served.
I will not name the restaurant, because if I do the chef will think I am exercising a vendetta against him. And he will miss my point, which is that he ought to be ashamed of himself for serving food like this:
A crab and corn bisque so thick and floury that, even with fresh corn and a lot of crabmeat, it was like something you'd get in an office-building cafeteria. That was followed by a green salad completely wilted by having the dressing applied too lang before the salads were served.
There were three entrees to choose from. I had the chicken with a caper and lemon butter sauce. The waiter wrapped a napkin around his hand so he wouldn't burn himself with the hot plate. He needn't have worried: the plate was at room temperature (with the air conditioning in that room set pretty low). So was all the food on it. The chicken was white, featureless, and tasteless. My daughter--heck, even my wife--would do a better job. (She said so, so it must be true.)
The only good course was a dessert made with sponge cake, pastry cream and fruit. It tasted good, but it was designed with a bit of architectural presentation in mind. That was lost, because the cake had been knocked over en route to me, and lay there broken.
Finally, the white wine was oxidized, something very obvious from its color alone. The man sitting next to me claimed not to know anything about wine, but he guessed correctly that there was something wrong with this stuff.
Chef: if you think there is a reason why you can serve this kind of substandard fodder to your customers, you have completely lost your culinary compass.
By coincidence, four people who were at this dinner also showed up at the NOW&FE Vintner Dinner MA and I attended the next evening. Without my bringing it up, all of them asked me what I thought of the dinner described above. They were as scandalized as I was.
To browse through all of the Dining Diaries since 2008, go here.
Last Updated on Friday, 24 May 2013 10:14
Dozen Best Small But Superb Restaurants
JoAnn Clevenger, the owner of The Upperline, told me once that I should include in my reviews the number of seats each restaurant has. "That fact tells you a lot about a restaurant," she said. She's right, and one day I will collect that data and publish it. (It's harder than it sounds.) I suspect that those looking at the figure will be in search of little restaurants. There's something about a small cafe that makes you want to love it. Which is a good thing: it's hard to make a decent profit with a tiny establishment.
Here's a list of small restaurants with food as good as or better than much bigger ones. Another criterion for the dozen below is a certain charm that makes them romantic. They are ranked by a ratio of culinary excellence to size.
1. Rue 127. Mid-City: 127 N Carrollton Ave. 504-483-1571. This former cottage's tight spaces failed for a couple of previous restaurant tenants. With a brilliant renovation, Chef-owner Ray Gruezke made it work, somehow putting forty seats in there without having to crowd anyone in. It does help to have a few tables in the postage-stamp front yard. The artful bar has three stools. Three.
2. Brigtsen's. Riverbend: 723 Dante. 504-861-7610. High ceilings, doors and windows make Frank and Marna's place look bigger than it is. It's the food that keeps the restaurant full all the time (although that eases a bit in the summer). But it's the abbreviated square footage that makes it intimate.
3. One. Riverbend: 8132 Hampson. 504-301-9061. After a list of restaurants with much simpler food went bust in this place, owners Lee and Chef Scotty had a great idea for their turn: they built nine barstool positions in front of the counter that separates the kitchen from the dining room. That increased the restaurant's seating by a quarter. But this is still a small place, with low lighting and beautiful, original food, enough for the magic to set in.
4. Vincent's. Riverbend: 7839 St Charles Ave. 504-866-9313. ||Metairie: 4411 Chastant St. 504-885-2984. The original Vincent's in Metairie was a small-tucked away trattoria that nevertheless attracted a cult-level crowd. When Vincent Catalanotto bought the former Compagno's on St. Charles Avenue, he knew how to serve first-class food in a crammed-full space. I have a closet larger than one of the dining rooms at the Uptown Vincent's. But who cares when the food is this lusty?
5. Sylvain. French Quarter: 625 Chartres St. 504-265-8123. The coolest little eatery in town places its tables in such a way that most of them are adjacent to only one or two others. Getting to them in this very old building (even by French Quarter standards) involves a briefly-puzzling maze of short passageways. You may dine at the bar, whose liquid works are excellent. The food's goodness is out of all proportion to the premises.
6. Zachary's. Mandeville: 902 Coffee. 985-626-7008. The smallest serious restaurant in the New Orleans area first housed (I'm not kidding) a sno-ball stand. Then a little Indian restaurant, followed by the uniquely-named Hungry Forager. That last one didn't make it, but it did establish the address as a place for careful, interesting cookery. Chef Zach Watters knew what he was getting into--he's a Mandeville boy. But after spending time at Stella, Cafe Adelaide, and Del Porto, he thought he had a shot, if he could run the whole kitchen himself. So far, so good. Really good.
7. Ristorante Filippo. Metairie 2: Orleans Line To Houma Blvd: 1917 Ridgelake. 504-835-4008. With the upstairs dining room considered, Filippo isn't all that small. But who would want to go up there, except lunchers? Both the main dining room and the few tables in the bar find barely enough room. And that tingly, we're-the-only-ones-who-know-about-this-place feeling.
8. Cafe Lynn. Mandeville: 3051 East Causeway Approach. 985-624-9007. It's a repainted, early-model Burger King. Everybody knows this, but nobody dwells on it, because Chef Joey Najolia's food is so fine. But it does put a limit on the number of tables.
9. Boucherie. Uptown 4: Riverbend, Carrollton & Broadmoor: 8115 Jeannette. 504-862-5514. Not only is the floor space in short supply here, but the tables are small, too. Enough that four people will find it hard to have all their entrees and wine glasses on the table at the same time. The bottle might have to go on the floor. But the food--with its tinge of both barbecue and sophistication--is outstanding, and the prices are a bargain. No wonder so many people hang out on the sidewalk waiting for those little tables.
10. Ciro's Cote Sud. Uptown 4: Riverbend, Carrollton & Broadmoor: 7918 Maple. 504-866-9551. For decades, this was a pizzeria, period. Not much was needed of the dining room. The current French bistro in there is no bigger. But that works for the concept, and results in a narrow room with comfy little tables.
11. Baru Bistro & Tapas. Uptown: 3700 Magazine. 504-895-2225. Sidewalk seating came along just in time for this little specialist in the food of Columbia and the Caribbean. The dining room is small and a little dense, but at this season everybody wants to eat outside. They finally have wine.
12. Royal China. Metairie: 600 Veterans Blvd. 504-831-9633. The Royal China--built decades ago in the shell of a fast-food fried chicken place--looks bigger than it is. (The effect involves mirrors.) The menu is, too, with not only the usual comprehensive Chinese card, but a book full of dim sum.
Gretna: 636 Franklin Street
LeRuth's rolled merrily along into the 1980s, installing along the way the first requirement of a deposit for a reservation ever seen in New Orleans. Leruth's sons Lee and Larry, who'd worked in the kitchen throughout their childhood, joined their father in the kitchen full-time.
Leruth renovated the restaurant in the 1980s, greatly upgrading creature comforts. He replaced the old workhorse china with beautiful bone china and heavy, unique silverware. He bought a substantial collection of art, including an original Picasso. Nice new chairs came in, and with them, something new: pillows for the ladies' feet. (Sometimes when the waiters reached down to position these, the ladies reacted with alarm.) The menu grew a little bit, too, the new dishes seeming to have been there all along.
Then he opened a second restaurant. LeRuth's Other Place was in a renovated house across the side street from LeRuth's. It had an Italian tilt, using the best ingredients (it was the first restaurant I remember making a point of serving Parmigiano Reggiano and Pecorino Romano cheeses). The food was very good, the prices were modest, the service informal, and with all the traffic that LeRuth's generated Leruth figured he could make a bundle here on his overflow alone.
He figured wrong. LeRuth's Other Place went nowhere. Or maybe the story was that it was already nowhere and stayed there. You had to have a really good reason to go to that part of Gretna, and the Other Place wasn't reason enough. It closed before a year passed since its opening.
Meanwhile, the center of gravity in the New Orleans restaurant business had shifted. The Uptown gourmet bistros were pulling a lot of business away from LeRuth's and other outlying restaurants. Then came a sudden shrinkage in the local oil industry. That hit the West Bank hard, and within a few years most of the great restaurants there had closed.
And the old man wanted to move on to other projects. He was heavily involved with Al Copeland's restaurants (he created the biscuits for Popeyes, among other dishes), and he had consulting gigs all over the place. He sold his restaurant to his sons Lee and Larry. Both were excellent chefs who had apprenticed all their lives to the master. And LeRuth's recipes were so exact that it wasn't hard to keep the quality level up. LeRuth's continued to do very well. Lee told me in 1985 that LeRuth's was putting a million dollars a year profit into his pocket. That was serious money for a freestanding restaurant in a secondary location back then.
But the brothers had personal problems. Larry dropped out for awhile. Lee opened a second restaurant, Torey's, in the French Quarter (it was where Bayona is now). He told me that it was going to be a restaurant purely of his own creations. None of his dad's food was on the menu. This mystified diners. Torey's did not do well, and Lee's frustration with that took him to the breaking point. One evening a diner asked to talk to him. The diner wanted to compliment the chef, but Lee had had a rough day, and thought it was another complainer. After giving the man a piece of his mind, Lee stormed out of the restaurant and went home.
What happened there is called an accident by the Leruth family. Lee Leruth, alone in the house, was killed by a bullet from his own gun. He was still in his twenties.
Warren Leruth took over the restaurant again. He brought in a chef de cuisine and got the place back up to speed, even though Leruth wasn't always on site. The customers and wait staff were much relieved.
But the momentum was gone. LeRuth's lasted only two more years. Then Leruth sold everything but the name at an auction: wine, china, artwork, everything. A lot of that is still circulating in local restaurants and private cellars.
Leruth kept on working. I saw him once a year at Manresa Retreat House until he died in 2005. He was the same smiling, optimistic, brilliant guy, with a million projects and even more opinions. I loved hearing his insights. My favorite: At one of the silent Manresa breakfasts, he passed me a little note under the table."Too much baking soda in the biscuits!" it said. Things like that were obvious to his astonishingly keen palate and encyclopedic knowledge of cooking.
One project that all his fans wished he would undertake was never done. Leruth wrote two small cookbooks, neither of which had much of the restaurant's food in it. But he never wrote a book of his serious recipes, the ones that made LeRuth's great. Larry Leruth still has the recipes. Maybe someday he'll put them into a LeRuth's cookbook at last.
In its relatively short history, LeRuth's left behind many memories of a golden chapter in the annals New Orleans dining. It was the first serious chef-owned restaurant in New Orleans, and set the standard for all the ones that would follow.
It also left a charming building in its wake, one which was home to a number of restaurants after the LeRuth's era ended. But now even that is gone. A fire burned over half of it to the ground around the time of Hurricane Isaac in 2012. It's all memories now.
Ciro's Cote Sud
WHY IT'S NOTEWORTHY
The intention of the owners was to create a charming, rustic, and very French bistro, full of the aromas, herbs, olive oil, and seafood of Provence. But they were never able to persuade their customers to stop ordering the pizzas that were baked here for decades. So they kept making them--while going right ahead with the true-to-origins French fare, too, with adeptness.
The pizza is in the New York style, with thin crusts with a thinner crisp layer at the bottom. The sauce is lusty in its use of garlic and herbs, and the cheese and toppings are first-class--some of the best pizza in town. But the other cooking is right up there with the work of other French bistros in town. The mussels, steak with fresh-cut fries, fish dishes, and particularly the daily specials are marvelous.
Ciro’s made excellent old-style, thin-crust pizzas on Maple Street for decades, in a minimal space that suited the college clientele just fine. (I was one of them, in the late 1960s.) In 1997, Chef Ollivier Guiot and his wife Sophie--natives of the South of France--renovated Ciro's with the idea of opening a Provençal bistro. The new name Cote Sud ("south coast") captured it perfectly.
A much-remodeled former cottage became a long, narrow room extending from big windows in front to a bar and the kitchen in the rear. It's pleasant but not fancy. The clientele now spans the entire range from the college crowd to the older residents of the neighborhood. The staff is young and speaks French nicely. The chef is in and out of the dining room, chatting up the regulars.
The dish names are in French on the menu. I've translated all but the obvious ones.
»Escargots de Bourgogne
Oysters baked in a blue cheese butter sauce
Charcuterie and cheese plates
»Onion soup gratinee
Soup du jour
Green salad with avocado
Salade maison (greens, olives, mozzarella)
Salad with pears
»Salad topped with warm goat cheese
»Salad with frog legs
Salad with duck confit
Caprese salad (tomatoes and fresh milk mozzarella)
»»Mussels mariniere, or with curry or blue cheese sauce
Salmon with creamed spinach
Fish of the day
»Cornish hen wrapped with bacon
Magret of duck (breast) with peaches
Petite filet mignon with blue cheese
»Hanger steak with fries
»Lamb chops with herbes de Provence
»Pork tenderloin encrusted with mustard
Pasta with seafood
Shrimp and zucchini, garlic, olive oil, fettuccine
»Fettuccine with chicken and mushroom cream sauce
»»Pizzas to order
»Tarte Tatin a la mode
»Pear Belle Helene
Profiteroles au chocolat
Layered chocolate mousse cake
FOR BEST RESULTS
Have the pizza as an appetizer for the table the first time, but don't consider it an essential order for every visit. Too many other first courses and entrees vie for your attention. The daily specials are usually the best dishes every night.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR IMPROVEMENT
The cash-or-check payment policy is an absurd inconvenience for customers, and causes one to order less food and wine than one otherwise might. (How much cash is in your pocket right now?)
FACTORS OTHER THAN FOOD
Up to three points, positive or negative, for these characteristics. Absence of points denotes average performance in the matter.
- Dining Environment +1
- Consistency +2
- Service +2
- Value +1
- Attitude +1
- Wine and Bar +1
- Hipness +1
- Local Color +2
- Sidewalk tables
- Open Sunday dinner
- Open Monday dinner
- Good for children
- Easy, nearby parking
- Reservations accepted
It's pan-sauteed speckled trout with a lemon butter sauce made in the style of shrimp scampi. You can use crabmeat or crawfish in their seasons instead of (or in addition to) the shrimp. This was a great specialty in the kitchens of the late Jimmy Moran: La Louisiane and then Moran's Riverside. The dish lives on at restaurants run by the chefs who worked at Moran's over the years, notably Sal & Judy's and Impastato's. (It has different names at each.) Here is the way I make the dish at home. It's a tribute to the late, great Jimmy Moran.
- 2 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 cloves garlic, crushed
- 12 medium (20-25 count) shrimp, peeled
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- 3 Tbs. lemon juice, strained
- 1/2 cup shrimp or crab stock
- 1 stick butter
- 6 sprigs flat-leaf Italian parsley, leaves only, chopped
- 8 oz. lump crabmeat
- 1 cup flour
- 1 Tbs. salt
- 1/4 tsp. black pepper
- 6 fillets of speckled trout, about 6-8 oz. each
- 1/4 cup olive oil
1. Make the sauce first. Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and the shrimp and cook until the shrimp turn pink. Remove and discard the garlic. Remove the shrimp and set aside.
2. Add the sherry, lemon juice, and stock, and bring to a boil. Reduce the liquid to about one-third the original volume, then remove from the heat.
3. Cut the stick of butter into small chips and whisk them in to make a creamy-looking sauce. Stir in the parsley, then add the crabmeat and the reserved shrimp. Set aside in a warm place.
4. Mix the salt and pepper into the flour. Dust the trout fillets liberally in the seasoned flour.
5. Heat the 1/4 cup of olive oil over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Saute the trout, two fillets at a time, until golden brown--about three minutes per side.
6. Place a trout fillet on each serving plate and top with the sauce, splitting the shrimp equally among the plates.
A Cursory History Of The Tablecloth
Between the days when your Cro-Magnon ancestors stood next to a big rock where they left their communal haunch of fire-roasted wild boar between tugs with their teeth, and today, when you put your paper plate of pulled pork down on. . . well, that big rock will do, there came the tablecloth.
For most of the two centuries of restaurant history, tablecloths made cheaply-built tables appear elegant. Restaurant furniture is far more expensive than diners realize. The tables take a tremendous beating. Look under the tablecloth and see the gouges, scorches, and engraved initials.
Diners liked tablecloths. They were (usually) clean and fresh. They felt good when you rested your arms on them. And if Sister Mary Cunegunda was right when she warned her sixteen-year-old girl students against going with a boy to a restaurant with white tablecloths, the clean white linen puts you in mind of bed.
A very cheap table hides under these crisp white linens.
But about thirty years ago, a corner was turned. The new gourmet bistros, making inroads against the formalities of fine dining without pulling back on the goodness of the eating, began buying nicer tables and left them naked. (Or they covered ordinary tables with butcher paper.
Meanwhile, fine-dining restaurants were complaining about how much it cost them to replace tablecloths and linen napkins. At some point, it became less expensive to build a substantial and beautiful table than it was to change linen on it several times a day in perpetuity.
Now most restaurants--even high-ticket, culinarily ambitious ones with name chefs--open with handsome but uncovered tables.
As if nobody really likes tablecloths. As if tablecloths aren't cleaner than placemats (how often are those things washed?) As if tablecloths don't muffle the noise that is growing louder in eateries daily. As if they don't feel good to lean on. As if they don't remind one of bed.
As if "white-tablecloth restaurants" (as in industry still calls the category) aren't still the most stylish places to eat.