Dozen Best NOW&FE Wine Dinners:
Brennan's, Grgich Hills Wines
It's been a strange year for the NOWFE Vintner Dinners. The dinners that are usually the first to sell out still have space available, while others that rarely used up their space have full houses. For diners, that's good news, because here we have Brennan's--a tough ticket to get even weeks before the event--with one of the most famous wines of Napa. There's even an unusually large menu so more Grgich Hills wine can be poured.
Shiitake Mushroom Pate and Smoked Salmon Potato Pancake
Crumbled goat cheese and sautéed pork belly crostini.
Wine: Grgich Hills Fume Blanc, Estate Grown, Napa Valley, 2009
Lobster and Crabmeat Au Gratin
Gruyere and Parmesan Reggiano cheese topped with puff pastry
Wine: Grgich Hills Chardonnay, Estate Grown, Napa Valley, 2008
Braised Short Ribs Randolph
Shallot and Zinfandel reduction, sautéed grits cake and collard greens
Wine: Grgich Hills Zinfandel, Estate Grown, Napa Valley, 2008
Bing cherry reduction
Wine: Grgich Hills Merlot, Estate Grown, Napa Valley, 2007
Petit Filet Rossini
Sautéed foie gras topped with green peppercorns, demi-glace.
Wine: Grgich Hills Cabernet Sauvignon, Estate Grown, Napa Valley, 2007
Lemon Curd and Berry Martini
The dinner begins at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 22, like all the other NOW&FE dinners. The price is $150 inclusive. Reservations are essential at the number below. I've selected twelve of the menus as the ones most likely to be the best, from the field of thirty-eight. They will appear in this space, in no particular order, every day until the big night. Left out: dinners that are already booked up (!), and those that didn't publish their menus on the NOW&FE website.
Brennan's. French Quarter: 417 Royal. 504-525-9711. www.brennansrestaurant.com.
Wednesday, May 15, 2013.
Big Wine At Atchafalaya.
Mary Leigh flew to the arms of The Boy yesterday. Literally flew: she met him at his home in Baltimore, where he went last week after his term at Loyola ended for the year. I guess they couldn't remain apart as long as they thought.
ML was on the phone this morning with an urgent message. A man she didn't know called her, after he called the Humane Society about a stray dog. They said that there was a report of a missing German Shepherd, and gave him the phone number on a lost dog notice they'd seen.
Mary Ann quickly followed all these leads and was soon at the home of the man. Inside his big fenced yard were a large, beautiful Golden Retriever, an equally well-groomed Doberman, and--a bit ragged by comparison--the dog Steel. Who has been missing from our house for ten days.
All would have been well right then and there. But Mary Ann explained to the man how Steel wasn't really ours, but belonged to an often-away Army corporal next door who, having been told about his missing dog, shrugged his shoulders and said something like, "That's the way it goes, I guess."
The man said that if we didn't want the dog, he would be happy to have Steel. He said his daughter liked Steel a lot. Complicating matters further was the problem Steel has been causing for our old dog Susie, who wasn't happy about the competition.
What will happen to Steel? Tune in tomorrow for the continuing saga.
Dr. Bob DeBellevue called a few days ago with news that there was an open chair at his wine club's dinner tonight at Atchafalaya. Two weeks in a row I was allowed to attend. And I'm nor even a doctor, as most of these guys are.
Better still, we would get a sampling of Christopher Lynch's cooking. He was executive chef at Emeril's for a few years, but left to open the ill-starred Meson 656 (or whatever that number was). That didn't last long, and if he was cooking elsewhere I wasn't aware of it.
Atchafalaya, like all the half-dozen restaurants before it on the corner of Louisiana and Laurel--operates in a well-worn but interesting, old space with some odd corners. The group of a dozen wineheads was in a room barely big enough to hold us. But nobody cares much about that these days, and everybody looked forward to the usual overgenerous wine dose. The theme was Cabernet Sauvignon.
I will jump to the finish about the wines. Everybody agreed it had been awhile since such a high level of excellence was tasted, without a single deficient. Lots of Australian bottles.
The club even liked my wine, although I had my fingers crossed. It had a good pedigree--Heitz Cellars Martha's Vineyard, 1991. But my storage conditions are not great, and even a wine with that strength might not have made it. The cork broke, but not in a disastrous way. And the wine was a little over the hill, but that could be because the other wines were ten or more years younger, and mine came at the end of the evening.
Of the food there were do doubts. After an delicious amuse of a giant fried oyster in what resembled a liquefied version of Rockefeller sauce, we entered a two-course dinner that revealed no flaws. At least not at my end of the table. The most-liked starters were a seared scallop salad, a charcuterie board, a soup of ginger and carrots, and a fried green tomato slice with crabmeat remoulade.
The entrees were better paired with the monstrous Cabernets that came uncorked every ten minutes or so. But it didn't appear that anyone was paying much attention to that issue. Truth be told, only a few entrees were suitable for wine like these.
I got one of them. The waiter said that if someone didn't order the Prime, oversize filet, it would be a missed opportunity. So I did, even though a steak was the last thing I had in mind when I sat down. It was as fine as advertised, broiled as I asked, and served with a veal demi-glace.
Elsewhere, good things were being said about the grilled fish, the chicken (had that last time I was here), and the pork chop.
I don't think anyone had dessert. I sure couldn't. The check was under $50. We stole this dinner. We tipped very heavily.
I'm not sure, but I think I may have offended one of the women there when I told why I think growing old is a good thing for men. We learn to love older women, but continue to find younger women attractive, making for a growing population of women we like every day. What's wrong with that?
Atchafalaya. Uptown: 901 Louisiana Ave. 504-891-9626.
To browse through all of the Dining Diaries since 2008, go here.
Other Than Hamburgers
Dozen Best Ground Beef Dishes
The king of beef dishes is not the steak. Or the roast, stew, paillard, or stir-fry. Far and away the most popular shape of beef (and most other red meats, too) is ground. As in hamburger, the world's most popular meat dish.
The reason for this is clear. A steak needs to be a large, beautiful cut with little in the way of bones or connective tissue. A hamburger (and all the other dishes that begin by grinding the meat) can use any part of the animal, including all the fat and a good deal of gristle. The fat makes the lean meat taste better. The gristle disappears when ground. No waste. Nearly the entire animal is used. Even if sold at a low price, this economy makes grinding beef a lucrative business.
Two more attractions. Ground beef can be cooked in a million ways. And --most important of all--it tastes good.
Here is a list of the dozen best restaurant dishes using ground beef in a starring role. There are so many candidates for the list that I've allowed only one example of each dish. And no hamburger sandwiches, which deserve (and have) a list of their own.
1. Lilette. Uptown 2: Washington To Napoleon: 3637 Magazine. 504-895-1636. Steak tartare is raw ground (or finely chopped, if you want to be a purist about it) beef mixed with the likes of mustard, cayenne, onions, capers, and a few other condiments of choice. It has almost disappeared, even from the upscale restaurants that made it tableside. (Could be that's because such restaurants themselves have mostly disappeared.) Lilette's version, served as an appetizer, is made with hanger steak. Great idea, because of the bigger flavor of that cut, and its need to be chopped up a bit.
2. Lebanon's Cafe. Uptown 4: Riverbend, Carrollton & Broadmoor: 1500 S Carrollton Ave. 504-862-6200. Kibbe is ground beef mixed with cracked wheat, parsley, and seasonings. It's usually made into the shape of a football about an inch and a half long, then fried and served with taratour (ground sesame seeds, mostly). Good appetizer. Another form of kibbe--surnamed nayyih--is served raw--but that cannot be found in restaurants anymore. I wish it could be.
3. K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen. French Quarter: 416 Chartres. 504-524-7394. Shepherd's pie. The layered dish with ground beef on the bottom, topped by mashed potatoes and then finally cheese is something people either love or hate, depending on how good your school cafeteria was. Mine was great, so I love it. K-Paul's might not seem the lace to look for shepherd's pie, but it's been on the menu off and on there since it opened. Very large portion, very spice brown sauce with mushrooms.
4. Vincent's. Metairie: 4411 Chastant St. 504-885-2984. Riverbend: 7839 St Charles Ave. 504-866-9313. Meatballs. The most famous ground beef dish in American Italian kitchens is, of course, the meatball. Vincent makes his with a mix of veal and beef, and they are tender, never dry, and the perfect size. He also makes on occasion a fantastic version of shepherd's pie at lunchtime.
5. Byblos. Metairie 1501 Metairie Rd. 504-834-9773. Uptown: 3218 Magazine. 504-894-1233. Kafta kebab. "Kafta" (and its many variant spellings) is an Indian word denoting ground meat. It's universal in Middle Eastern restaurants, where the beef is mixed with seasonings, parsley, and often ground lamb (although the latter ingredient turns it into a lula kebab). It it all rolled up into the shape of a sausage, a shish is run through it, and the whole thing is grilled. Byblos does this brilliantly.
6. Cafe 615 (Da Wabbit). Gretna: 615 Kepler. 504-365-1225. Hamburger steak. The hamburger steak has nearly arrived in full oblivion, a journey that began with its being one of the most common dishes found in casual restaurants. At Da Wabbit, it comes out big, juicy, and crusty, with brown gravy and onions.
7. La Boca. Warehouse District & Center City: 857 Fulton. 504-525-8205. Empanadas criollo. Empanada means "something enclosed in bread," and it's a common dish throughout Latin America. Its usually made in a half-moo shape, as it is here, with a beef filling that varies widely in its other ingredients. A terrific appetizer at this Argentine steakhouse.
8. Courtyard Grill. Uptown 3: Napoleon To Audubon: 4430 Magazine St. 504-875-4165. Turkish meat pie. Many cuisines make a pie with a meat filling, and here is an example from the Middle East. It's mixed with onions and parsley and baked.
9. Mr. Gyros. Metairie 2: Orleans Line To Houma Blvd: 3363 Severn Ave. 504-833-9228. Moussaka and its variations are found throughout the Balkan Peninsula, but they're best known in Greek restaurants like this one. Sometimes it's made with lamb or a combination of lamb and beef, as they do at Mr. Gyros. It resembles shepherd's pie, but instead of potatoes there's a layer of thick bechamel sauce across the top. And, usually, some eggplant in there somewhere.
10. Capdeville. CBD: 520 Capdeville St. 504-371-5915. Meat pie. When the Natchitoches-style meat pie arrived in New Orleans in the 1980s, it created a sensation. But after a time, it became available in only a few restaurants, and almost every festival with a heavy food component. Capdeville makes them from scratch and served them with a thick red-pepper sauce that sets it off. Great with the cocktails that are the real specialty of the place.
11. Joey K's. Uptown 2: Washington To Napoleon: 3001 Magazine. 504-891-0997. Stuffed bell pepper. This runs as a special a couple of times a week. It looks like the classic Creole version, but after a couple of bites you find that it's stuffed both with ground beef and shrimp. Better than it sounds. They also make a good hamburger steak here.
12. Cafe Reconcile. Warehouse District & Center City: 1631 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd. 504-568-1157. Meat loaf. Another rarity that once was popular, meat loaf is now a daily special--all you need to know is the day. A few retro restaurants make a fuss over it--notably the American Sector. It's a big favorite at Cafe Reconcile.
WHY IT'S NOTEWORTHY
DiCristina's cooks older than it looks. Here is as close as St. Tammany gets to the old-time, Italian-accented, New Orleans neighborhood restaurant. A particular influence comes from the archetypal Chalmette restaurant Rock & Carlo's, including the massive portions, macaroni and cheese everywhere, heavy applications of New Orleans red gravy, poor boys and seafood platters.
Fried everything, poor boys and muffulettas, pasta mountains whose slopes are slippery with both tomato and cream sauces, and the entire range of local seafood all compete for your appetite. This is a given: there will be too much food. Consider splitting appetizers between two or more people. Three entrees will easily food four, with leftovers. The macaroni and cheese--with or without red or brown gravy--will grab you even if you don't want to be grabbed.
Frank and Maria Pyburn opened DiCristina's in the right place (across from the new St. Tammany Courthouse) at the right time (2004). The courthouse generates a lot of lunch business for that neighborhood. And after Katrina, the many people who relocated to St. Tammany Parish from the washed-away St. Bernard were happy to find a restaurant with the food of (and a family connection with) Rocky & Carlo's.
A big, utilitarian space with minimal decoration, DiCristina's fills with lunchers in a hurry and big family groups at night. It's perfect for the latter, especially when kids are involved. There will be many of those in all age groups. Nobody here will notice if someone of any age is laughing loudly or otherwise having too much enjoyment. The dining room staff could not be friendlier or more accommodating.
»Meat-stuffed fried ravioli, crawfish sauce
Fried eggplant, crawfish sauce
Fried artichoke hearts, marinara sauce
»Fried eggplant, marinara sauce
Cheese fries, brown gravy
Most salads can be had entree-size with chicken, shrimp, or oysters, grilled or fried
»Oyster, shrimp, or catfish poor boy
Hot roast beef poor boy
Meatball poor boy
»Chicken or veal parmesan poor boy
Hamburger poor boy
Grilled chicken poor boy, grilled onions
»Italian, hot, or smoked sausage poor boy
Ham, turkey or roast beef poor boy
French fry poor boy, brown gravy
Grilled shrimp poor boy
»Fried catfish, oyster, shrimp, or combo platter
»Fried soft shell crab
»Spaghetti or baked macaroni with meatballs, veal parmesan, chicken parmesan, or eggplant parmesan
Cheese stuffed ravioli, red gravy
Beef stuffed bell pepper
»Filet mignon bordelaise
Banana cream cheese pudding
»Bread pudding, rum sauce
Chocolate peanut butter pie
Spumoni ice cream pie
FOR BEST RESULTS
Daily specials are very good and should be considered first. (The braciolone, for example, in the last of the four photos) The thin fried onion rings and macaroni and cheese must be included in your order. It gets very busy here around noon.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR IMPROVEMENT
The place is a bit stark, but that's clearly intentional and doesn't seem to bother anybody.
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
- Consistency +2
- Service +1
- Value +2
- Attitude +2
- Wine and Bar -1
- Hipness -1
- Local Color +1
- Outdoor tables, drinks only
- Good for business meetings
- Open all afternoon
- Unusually large servings
- Quick, good meal
- Good for children
- Easy, nearby parking
- Reservations accepted
Oysters Fonseca is the third oyster in the trio of baked oysters at Dickie Brennan's Bourbon House. The other two, of course, are Rockefeller and Bienville. The third oyster--each version unique to the restaurants where they are found--is a long tradition among traditional New Orleans restaurant, but one not as common as it once was. That's mainly because not nearly as many restaurant bake oysters with complicated toppings anymore, now that Drago's char-broiled oysters have become so omnipresent.
- 2 oz. butter
- 2 ripe red bell peppers, chopped
- 2 red onions, chopped
- 1 jalapeño pepper, seeds and membranes removed, chopped
- 2 1/2 lbs tasso, finely ground
- 2 medium, rip tomatoes, peeled, seeded and finely diced
- 2 tsp fresh thyme, chopped
- 2 Tbs. white wine
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/4 cup oyster water
- 2 Tbs. heavy whipping cream
- 2 Tbs. parmesan cheese, grated
- 1/2 cup French bread crumbs
- 2 dozen fresh oysters
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
1. Heat the butter in a nine-inch skillet over medium heat until it bubbles. Add the red pepper, red onion and jalapeno, and cook until they soften. Add the tasso and cook until it's heated through.
2. Add the tomatoes and cook until they start falling apart. Add the wine and stir to dissolve the pan ingredients. Add the flour and stir until it's blended in. Cook for about five minutes.
3. Add the oyster water and continue cooking until the mixture shows only a small amount of liquid--eight to ten minutes. Add the cream and grated Parmesan cheese. After that's blended in, taste the sauce (it is now finished) and add salt, pepper and cayenne to taste. Remove the pan from heat and cool.
4. You can finish the dish in either the fancy, restaurant way (on oyster shells, with the sauce applied with a pastry bag), or in small au gratin dishes or even a medium, shallow casserole dish. Either way, top each oyster with two tablespoons of the sauce, then sprinkle with teh bread crumbs.
5. Put the oysters into the preheated 400-degree oven and bake until the sauce starts to bubble and the bread crumbs get toasted--12-15 minutes.
Makes two dozen oysters, enough for four to eight people.
Gretna: 636 Franklin Street
So many superlatives apply to Chef Warren Leruth and his namesake restaurant that it's hard to know where to start. But this should work: LeRuth's was the most delicious New Orleans restaurant of all time.
Leruth (he capitalized the "R" in the restaurant's name, but not in his own) began cooking in the military, as a baker. He kept his baker's habits all his life. LeRuth's always baked its own French bread, at a time when nobody else did that.
His baker's sensibilities carried over into all his recipes. While most cooks of savory dishes approximate ingredients and cooking times, bakers must measure and time everything exactly. Leruth added ingredients by weight—a degree of exactitude I've never seen since in any restaurant. It did wonders for the consistent flavor of the restaurant's food.
LeRuth's milieu was inauspicious. It was an ordinary raised house in a middle-class Gretna neighborhood that was on its way down. To get there, you had to drive through the notorious Fischer Housing Project. Despite that. LeRuth's in its prime years (which was most of them) was always full. Getting a reservation required calling weeks in advance.
Some of that success had to do with lucky timing. When LeRuth's opened in 1966, most of the grand restaurants of New Orleans were coasting on menus that were essentially interchangeable. Nobody was doing anything new.
LeRuth's was ready when a new dynamic entered the restaurant community. In the summer of 1970, Richard Collin published The New Orleans Underground Gourmet, the first rated restaurant guide in the city's history. Its influence on the dining habits of New Orleanians was incalculable.
And the Underground Gourmet said in no uncertain terms that LeRuth's was the best restaurant in town.
LeRuth's food lived up to the accolade. It was based on two sources: restaurants in France that Leruth admired, and Galatoire's. Dinner was a five-course table d'hote repast. These were not tasting portions. When you went to LeRuth's, you needed to be ready for a big, lengthy meal.
The famous appetizer was crabmeat St. Francis, a baked ramekin of crabmeat with a rich, peppery sauce. (It was so good that when Leruth closed the restaurant, he said his greatest regret was that he wouldn't be able to eat crabmeat St. Francis anytime he wanted.) They also made good baked oysters, shrimp remoulade, escargots Bourguignonne, and a couple of other items.
Leruth invented oyster-artichoke soup. He called it potage LeRuth, and it was always on the menu. It was one of only two dishes there that would be widely copied by other restaurants, and is now such a universal classic that it's hard to imagine a time when it wasn't around. Leruth's version had no cream, just a good oyster stock with recently-added oysters, chunky artichokes, herbs.
An interesting measure of how far we've come is that potage LeRuth always was made with canned artichokes and dried herbs. Such ingredients would be unthinkable in a deluxe restaurant now.
Next came a salad with avocado dressing. That was a derivative of the Green Goddess dressing Leruth had developed for the Seven Seas label, and it was as wonderful as it was unique.
The second LeRuth's dish to be adopted by many other restaurants was a big fried soft-shell crab, topped with crabmeat and brown butter. I can remember what Richard Collin said about it without checking: "It defies description and approaches apotheosis." Crab on crab? But why not?
That was great, but to my palate the most memorable entree was canard ferme freres LeRuth. (All the dish names at LeRuth's were in French.) This was a rustic French and Cajun fusion dish, a half duck roasted just right, served atop a smoky stuffing of oysters, herbs, and sausage—a sort of advanced dirty rice—and topped with a peppercorn sauce.
In contrast all this Frenchness was the "Chef's Steak." It was almost certainly the best steak being served anywhere in New Orleans, a twenty-four-ounce prime aged sirloin strip, roasted to crustiness and bulging with juiciness, served in sizzling butter. The chef really did like that, and when someone ordered it his face beamed. "When an order comes in for that, I keep my eye on it personally," Leruth told me. If you got the chef's steak, the only other thing you got was a salad. The chef wanted you to give your entire appetite over to that steak.
Other great dishes included a magnificent stuffed trout; tiny frog legs with butter and garlic; a rack of lamb with fried parsley; sweetbreads meuniere. Leruth claimed to be the first chef in town to use Plume de Veau baby white veal, and every night he made up a new dish in which he used it. Chef Frank Brigtsen, who knew Leruth well, keeps that tradition alive at his restaurant.)
If there was one thing to complain about at LeRuth's, it was that every entree came out with the same two side dishes. Pommes dauphines (rich nuggets of mashed potatoes bound with a little egg and cream, then fried) and bananas au four (underripe, starchy bananas baked till soft) were on every plate. The issue didn't come up often, because few customers dined at LeRuth's frequently.
That wasn't because of the expense. LeRuth's was a bargain, really considering the extent of the dinner. It was just that hard to get a reservation.
And, besides, Leruth did not like complainers. Even mild criticisms were not suffered gladly. Letters expressing displeasure got a scathing reply, written by an anonymous customer (I think I know who), the import of which was that clearly the complainer must be a moron to find fault with LeRuth's.
The response could be worse. LeRuth's had a strategy for real troublemakers. The chef would step up to the table as four waiters moved to each corner of it. On a signal, each one would grab his corner of the tablecloth and lift it, with all the plates, wine bottles, water glasses, food, flowers and everything falling into the center of what was now a large, leaking sack. "I've picked up your check," said the chef. "Get out of my restaurant!" The usual response from the rest of the room was applause.
The wait staff could be asked to do something as outrageous as that because they were totally beholden to the chef. Most of the waiters were the kind you'd find at Galatoire's—from which, in fact, a few of them had come. Gilbert LaFleur and Homer Fontenot were most noteworthy among those. Gilbert ultimately became LeRuth's maitre d'.
Leruth demanded precision from his staff. He lined up the waiters daily to inspect fingernails, shoe shines, and oral hygiene. When one of them objected to this military-like inspection, Leruth told him, "Look. I'm giving you fifteen percent of my gross. You want that, you do it my way!"
The dessert menu was as simple. A centerpiece of LeRuth's offerings was his French vanilla ice cream, made with over twenty-five percent milkfat. It was incredibly rich, far more so than any of the premium brands out there now. Leruth made it himself, to the point of manufacturing his own vanilla. (He created four variations of vanilla extract, later selling the formula to Ron Sciortino, who still sells it under his Ronald Reginald's brand. It's the best vanilla out there.)
My favorite of LeRuth's desserts was the macaroon bread pudding. He made that with coconut, his Melipone (Mexican-style) vanilla, an enough eggs to make it incomparably light. A big pan of it sat on a sideboard in the dining room; it was served at room temperature, without a sauce, and was still the best bread pudding in town.
The wine cellar—which was actually in the attic—was not equaled locally for a long time. At its peak, it held over 30,000 bottles, including some very great ones. It did not start that way, however. In the restaurant's early years, Leruth struck up a lifelong friendship with David Martin, the founder of Martin Wine Cellar. A few times a week, Leruth asked to have a few bottles of an assortment of wines that interested him delivered to the restaurant.
"I kept sending my driver way over there with those little deliveries," Dave Martin said. "I was just about to tell him, 'Warren, I like you a lot, but I can't keep doing this.' Then he called me and said, 'I found the wine I want. Send me two hundred cases.' From then on, he was one of my best customers."
That wine was a Puligny-Montrachet which, along with an Aloxe-Corton, became the house wines of the restaurant (at under $10 a bottle!). But the wine I remember best at LeRuth's was Chateau Latour 1970, which was served with roast beef poor boys one Monday evening in the summer of 1975. The occasion was the publication of Richard Collin's "The New Orleans Cookbook," which Collin wrote with his wife Rima. "The best food in the world and the best wine in the world!" said Collin at the party.
The Latour flowed like water that night. I don't know, but I suspect that Leruth underwrote that. Because, as much an ogre as the earlier stories may make him appear, he was a genuinely likeable man, a lover of living well, laughing most of the time, and often startlingly generous. He founded the Chef's Charity For Children, the first local event in which chefs got together to cook and raise money for a worthy cause, still a sellout every year. When Dave Martin remodeled his deli at Martin Wine Cellar, Leruth sent over a new professional stove of the kind he thought the place ought to have. Martin hardly needed a donation, but to Leruth a friend was a friend.
Part Two next week. . . or read it now here.