One Man's Daily Quest For Deliciousness
Long before the word "blog" was invented, I was keeping a journal about my restaurant and cooking experiences and publishing it in the New Orleans Menu. In a way, the diary was my restaurant reviews in raw form, reporting on just one meal instead of all the ones I'd ever had in the restaurant, as I would do for a full review.
In the weeks after Katrina, I increased the personal details in the Dining Diary as a way of letting friends and readers know what was going on. I began getting a lot of mail from readers who liked the blending of the culinary and the personal, so I kept adding more of the latter. I don't really understand why, but this made the Dining Diary by far the most-read of the five or six articles I publish every day. I write an entry for every single day, even the boring ones. Haven't missed a day since 2007.
Here are the ten most recent Dining Diary entries, starting with the newest and going backwards, plus links to the twenty before those. For an index to all the Dining Diaries since Katrina, click on Sides>>Dining Diary in the blue bar under the logo at the top of this page.
Tuesday, May 14, 2012.
A Great Show, For A Change. Bringing Soft-Shell Crabs To Brigtsen's.
It was just what I had in mind when I dreamed up the Round-Table radio show idea a couple of years ago. People from different parts of the food-o-sphere would come in and get a lively conversation started, with as many laughs as possible. That's just how it went today.
The funniest part of it was that John Besh--who is organizing the most expensive event in this year's New Orleans Wine and Food Experience, a well-deserved tribute to Leah Chase--was supposed to show up to promote the bash. Besh confirmed, cancelled, reconfirmed, re-cancelled, and repeated the cycle once more before he confirmed that he was cancelling. But he's a busy guy. And these days, I can't seem to get Mark Benfatti from N'Tini's on my show, let alone our city's current chef darling and inspiration.
On the other hand, Tory McPhail was there. The eleven-year exec chef at Commander's Palace found out a few days ago that the James Beard organization named him the best chef in America, Southern division. After Commander's also won the only Wine Spectator Grand Award in town a few months ago, it now looks as if all the things I've been saying about the place for thirty years are credible.
Tory is one of the most engaging and likeable chefs in the biz. He has a low-key style, but then he does something dramatic. Not long after Commander's reopened after K, I visited his kitchen and watched him stand on the opened door of one of his new ovens, to prove how well built it was.
Also in the room was Dr. James Moises, a local ER physician with a winery in Oregon. He is so active in the food and wine biz that I seem constantly to run into him. I think this is the fourth time he's been on the radio with me. Always nice to have him, because he always brings wine.
Danny Millan from Le Foret came along, too. He brought with him a couple of the wines he's serving at his Wine and Food Experience Vintner Dinner next week. They are from Provenance, which is to Napa wineries what the Court of Two Sisters is to New Orleans restaurants. Which is to say better than its reputation, and attractive to tourists.
Danny brought a man who wanted to identify himself as just "Mr. Richard." he is a soft-shell crab "shedder," as people who supply that delicacy are known. We covered the subject in greater depth than we ever have or will, while a box of eight live soft-shell crabs waved at us.
Finally, we were visited by Tracy Beninate, one of the members of the board of directors of the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience. No big issues to discuss there. I hear that NOW&FE has already set a record for tickets sold, and there's still a week to go.
I gave half of the soft-shells given to me by Mr. Richard to my producer Mindy, who said her mother loved to cook them. I kept the other four, even though there wasn't much chance we would eat them at home anytime soon. So I took them to dinner.
"In twenty-seven years, you are the first person to bring me soft-shell crabs through the front door," Frank Brigtsen said. Marna Brigtsen said she had a table available for me, and that I really ought to stay for dinner. How could I say no?
After the server informed me of an off-menu special of soft-shell crabs, I went after what I really felt like eating. Frank's shrimp remoulade knows no equal. It starts with a mound of guacamole in the center of the plate, topped with his coarse, Creole-mustard-heavy remoulade sauce. The shrimp were so big I had to cut them into two or three pieces. Radiating out from the center were several deviled eggs and low levees of corn and peppers.
Next came one each of the baked oysters Rockefeller and Leruth, served in aluminum shells that made the oysters stick a little bit to the bottom--but that was no deficiency. The sauces were marvelous. The one named for legendary chef and late friend Warren Leruth was enough like a Bienville that it could be called that--especially since no two restaurants have the same recipe for oysters Bienville.
Frank cooks the kinds of veal dishes that once were common in New Orleans restaurants, but are now seen only rarely. This one had a brown sauce with oysters and wild mushrooms. Just what I was hoping for, and very good with a glass of Pinot Noir.
Pina Colada bread pudding, from Frank's wide repertoire in that category. "This is one I'm not happy with yet, but I like the idea," he said. "I'm still trying to figure out how to bring the coconut in." I wasn't having any problems with it.
I had to ask about Charlie's Seafood. Frank said it was due to a difference between the landlord and him about a number of issues. Working through it and finally having to walk away was, he said, one of the most stressful times of his life. He is glad it's all over. And no, there will not be a rebirth of Charlie's under his ownership.
I don't eat here half often enough.
Brigtsen's. Riverbend: 723 Dante. 504-861-7610.
To browse through all of the Dining Diaries since 2008, go here.
Monday, May 13, 2013.
New Orleans Cheeseburger. With Remoulade. It's Prom Night.
It's the forty-sixth anniversary of my junior prom, a date I hold in more regard than any day of the year other than our wedding anniversary, the birthdays of Jude and Mary Leigh, and my own birthday. (Although the anniversary of the radio show--which will be twenty-five this July 18--may be catching up.)
Prom Night was the moment I became a man--but not for the obvious reason. (I have explained it all many times before in this journal). I always do something that I did on this day in 1967 to recall the day. This time, I had a cheeseburger. On Prom Night, I had cheeseburgers twice. First around seven p.m. at the soda fountain at Bradley's Pharmacy, on the downtown river corner of Claiborne and Carrollton. The second round, at eleven p.m., involved five cheeseburgers from the Krystal on Airline Highway, across from where Zephyrs Field is now.
The Marys decided that they would sympathize and come along. The source of the cheeseburgers would be the New Orleans Hamburger and Seafood Company in Mandeville. There are others scattered around the city. Some of these, I've noticed, have changed their name to New Orleans Seafood and Hamburger Company. Indeed, a case could be made that the seafood is the best food there. The hamburgers--cooked on grills that aren't nearly hot enough to get exciting--are only pretty good.
This burger was fine, though. It was basic, with the standard lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, and mayo. The cheese was pepper jack. I noticed that there was some sort of mustardy sauce resembling remoulade in the come-on photo of the boudin balls. Could I have that on the burger too? Of course, they said.
Mary Ann had the actual boudin balls, whose flavor was more like jambalaya than boudin. Mary Leigh ate a salad, and also some of my fries, which are as much like roasted potatoes here than like standard French fries. A little garlic butter or something on them.
En route to and fro, I played one of the three CD's recapitulating the top fifty records on the radio on Prom Night. The Marys opined that some of them still hold up as listenable, while others were obnoxious in their datedness.
The main difference between this evening and the one forty-six years ago was that I didn't have even one sub-ordinary girl with me that night, let alone two hot ones.
New Orleans Hamburger & Seafood Co. Mandeville: 3900 LA 22. 985-624-8035.
To browse through all of the Dining Diaries since 2008, go here.
Sunday, May 12, 2013.
Mother's Day. Chicken Cordon Bleu.
Mother's Day at the Cool Water Ranch was long one of our biggest celebrations. All the mothers in Mary Ann's family and their broods came over, and that's a lot of people. On top of that Mary Leigh--who was born on Mother's Day--often combined her birthday party with the gathering. As all these kids grew up, Mother's Day attendance dwindled, but Mary Ann continued to insist that going to a restaurant was out of the question. "I'm a mother," she says. "A mother makes a home, so I want to celebrate mother's day at home. But you can do all the cooking."
She almost changed her mind this year, going so far as to reserve a table at Houmas House Plantation. But she stayed with the tradition--except for the part about my doing the cooking. For reasons I don't understand, she wanted to grill chicken, make a salad, boil some corn on the cob, and that would be it.
I mentioned that I had a surplus of ham, and offered to make chicken Cordon Bleu with it and the extra chicken. I knew the fact that the ham was sitting around would make her go for that. MA's idea of the perfect meal is one made entirely of ingredients already in house--preferably in the early stages of decay. But she would make her own grilled (blackened is more like it) chicken, too.
I pounded the breast meat until it was about an eighth of an inch thick. I shook some Italian seasoning on one side, with a little squirt of lemon juice. Then the ham went down, to be covered by some shredded mixed mozzarella and provolone (also from the going-south drawer of the refrigerator). I folded the chicken over, shook some salt and drizzled a little olive oil over it. I thought I might need toothpicks to hold it closed, but I didn't.
Meanwhile, the broiler and rack were heating up at 550 degrees. I put the chicken foldovers in there and let it broil. After a few minutes, I moved the chicken around to hot sections of the grill rack, so the bottom would cook thoroughly. And that was about it.
"It reminds me of pizza, in a way," said Mary Leigh, who added that she liked it--not, I think, just because I am her dad. I could see what she meant, and it gave me an idea. Pound out some chicken and put it on an oiled pizza pan. lay down a layer of ham, and pour enough pizza sauce (the uncooked kind I learned from Chef Andrea), than some cheese, then another layer of chicken, finished with herbs and a generous sprinkle of Parmigiana cheese. And bake it like a pizza. After it cools a little, slice it into pizza-like slices. I think this could make a pretty good appetizer.
Jude is not here for Mother's Day, but working on a movie. I think it's the first time MA has been without her boy on this day. She thought he wouldn't even call, but he did. Three times. He didn't send her flowers, but he did frame a photograph of Mary Ann and him taken somewhere in the last few months and had it shipped in. That did it for Mary Ann, who by the end of the day was saying that this was everything she wanted from a Mother's Day.
Saturday, May 11, 2013.
The Courtyard. Reunion 45, Part Two.
The house was quiet this morning, bereft of much of its lately energy. The Boy is gone for the summer, back up in his Baltimore home for Mother's Day, then to ROTC maneuvers and other summer projects. Mary Leigh will have to get along without him for awhile. Or so we thought.
Mary Ann offered to have breakfast with me as long as it wasn't a really great place that would tempt her to eat. Good! I wanted to go to the Marriott Courtyard Café in Covington for weeks. I like the way they do their scrambled eggs, among other things. And there's the nostalgia matter. Even when I don't think about the hundreds of times the kids and I came here for breakfast, it feels good to be here.
But that may come to an end. The waitress told us that there were plans to convert the Courtyard Café into a new concept called The Bistro. We experienced one of those at a Courtyard Hotel in Mobile, when MA and I were out that way a few months ago. The advantage of The Bistro is that they cook all the breakfasts to order. The disadvantage is that you order at the counter and pick up, like in a fast-food place. So, no waitresses to joke around with and lend a homey feeling, which is what I want at breakfast.
But you can't argue with corporate.
It rained pretty hard the last couple of days, washing out a Saints training camp that would have pre-empted my radio show. So I had to do one, and so missed the Mass at Jesuit for the class of 1968, of which I am almost one. It was celebrated by Edwin Gros, S.J., who not only was in the same classroom with me at Jesuit but also in sixth through eighth grades at St. Rita's. He hosted the first boy-girl party I ever went to. A mellow guy for a priest, Father Eddie spent his last few years making a big impact on a Hispanic community in El Paso. He has done missionary work throughout South America. He's one of the great lights in our class.
I got off the air in time to drive to the second of that class's two reunions. Last night it was just us guys. Today, we brought our wives. On the way there, I considered that I might be with the most beautiful woman at the party. In fact, I believe that was indeed the case. The other women would probably think of that reflection not as an insult to their own looks but a sweet thing for a husband to think of his wife. But just in case, I didn't bring the matter up in conversation.
The host of this party was Mike McGlone, a marine attorney I often encounter on the sidewalks around the radio station. His office must also be around there. Mike was named the most recent Alumnus of the Year by Jesuit. His Metairie house was quite handsome. It came out that the architect was not only a Blue Jay (a few years ahead of us), but Mary Ann's brother Lee Connell. Further proof of my theory that only 500 people live in New Orleans.
The food came from LaBella's, a long-running caterer from Kenner. Among other good bites, they had a fettuccine with an excellent light cream sauce and andouille.
Bryce Puissegur was one of three or four guys to whom I gave a ride home every afternoon in junior year. I hadn't seen him since. He was (and remains) a very entertaining guy. He dreamed up an odd route to his house that he called the Balkan Shortcut. I used to take the Balkan Shortcut (four blocks longer than the obvious route) when I brought Jude to Jesuit in the mornings--until he begged me to cut it out. I was very surprised to learn that Bryce has no memory of the Balkan Shortcut whatsoever.
The excellent party was even fun for Mary Ann. who found a lot of people to talk with. It ended with our getting a pair of sleek, modern Old Fashioned cocktail glasses, with the familiar Fighting Blue Jay and a non-generic note that they were made especially for the Class of 1968's 45-year reunion. Now on to the real milestone in five years, at which time I will become eligible for an honorary diploma, if I can keep my nose clean and do something nice for Jesuit.
To browse through all of the Dining Diaries since 2008, go here.
Friday, May 10, 2013.
Murder Or Kidnapping. Rejoining Classmates From 45 Years Ago.
We have not seen the dog Steel since last Friday morning. Steel is owned by a young man who lives next door. He is on active duty in the U.S. Army, and is not always around. When still a puppy, Steel took a liking to us when his master was out of town, and more or less moved into our house.
Four or five months later, Steel is a rather large German Shepherd. From any distance longer than in my face, Steel looks just like our old dog Susie, who came out of the woods in 2004 and adopted us.
Susie has been the alpha dog here for most of that time. Steel took that title away a couple of months ago, largely by annoying the bejeezus out of Susie. His favorite trick was coming up behind Susie, latching his jaws around her collar, and pulling her to the ground. Susie never went anywhere without Steel right behind her or in her way.
Susie, however, is an extraordinarily street-smart dog. She takes long strolls down the main highway, disappearing for a day or two. A few years ago she led Fudge, our beloved chocolate Lab, on one of these walks. Fudge never came back. Susie also took Steel on a few of these jaunts, the neighbors say.
Once, after going missing for a day, Susie came back totally worn out, with Steel right behind her as fresh as if he had just awakened. If this was a trick of Susie's to reclaim her hegemony over the Cool Water Ranch, it didn't work.
But last Saturday Susie came back without Steel. Almost immediately, her old personality began to return. She once again comes inside and lets us pet her--things she'd stopped doing. Her depression had made her quit barking at squirrels in the trees or chasing the cats. She even stopped eating. (Although there was another reason for that. Steel always took over the bowl if he saw Susie trying to get a bite.)
But as I write this, ten days after Steel disappeared, Susie is happily following me around on my daily walk again (something else she gave up during Steel's rule). She is eating hearty and barking at the FedEx truck, just like before.
The idea that Steel's vanishing was a deliberate plot on the part of Susie to bump him off is in the minds of all of us. The Marys, especially Mary Leigh, are very suspicious. But how can one get mad at our old dog Susie?
The lady across the road who raises chickens and horses says Steel was so good-looking a dog that dognapping is the probable cause. I'm thinking Steel will come back.
Tonight was the first of two parties celebrating forty-five years since my class at Jesuit graduated. (I didn't, but they let me attend as if I had.) It was a stag affair at the very swell home of real estate man Frank Maselli in the Garden District. Frank is into music, and wants me to let you know that the world's authority on Stradivarius violins is coming to New Orleans for an event. He said he'd tell me more later.
I never miss reunions. The dynamics of them are fascinating to me. You have the guys who have remained in your life enough that they remain friends, even after all these years. Then there are those you remember well enough, but haven't seen in so long that you have no idea what they have done with their lives. Then there are the fellows whose names you remember, but not themselves. And a few you can't recall at all.
The conversations are a mix of two seemingly opposed forces. We are merciless in our kidding one another, particularly about matters remembered from our high school years. On the other hand, we're totally mellow.
To browse through all of the Dining Diaries since 2008, go here.
Thursday, May 9, 2013.
Twenty-One At Harrah's Casino. Seventy-Five At Besh Steakhouse.
Today is Mary Leigh's twenty-first birthday. Her request for her dinner celebration was The Besh Steakhouse, the upscale restaurant in Harrah's Casino downtown. The steak part of it was no surprise. But the casino?
"They won't let you in with out an ID that says that you're twenty-one," she said. "I want to walk up there and show it to them."
She was in deadly earnest about this. She waited until today to renew her driver's license, so she would get the horizontal card. I didn't know this: before you're twenty-one, your license is vertically laid out.
I have not set foot in The Besh Steakhouse, or any other part of the casino. I am unalterably opposed to the casino in New Orleans, for reasons everyone must have heard before, from me and others.
But there are hierarchies of values, and I place love for my daughter and her healthy happiness before my dislike of casinos. A person always comes before an abstraction. Sure, we'd go the casino for her celebration of this big moment.
The casino is across the street from the radio station, so I was the first to arrive. I ordered a glass of Orogeny Pinot Noir and scoped out the place. It was only six-thirty, and hardly anyone was there. The main crowd shows up later.
Chef Todd Pulsinelli discovered me and came over to say hello. He was the opening chef at Besh's American Sector, and said that while running this show was much different from any other restaurant he's worked, he liked the hours. (They only serve dinner.)
The Marys arrived grinning ear to ear. Sitting in for Jude (he's in the thick of a movie production in L.A. and couldn't make it) was The Boy. Who often fills Jude's old space at the table.
The Marys were not much impressed by the look of the Besh Steakhouse. A place full of Blue Dog paintings makes a statement they disagree with. I intended to keep my thoughts to myself, so as not to take anything from ML's big day.
My misgivings, however, began with the reservation. When I called, I kept getting bounced back and forth between two automated menus of possibilities, none of whose options led to the Besh. I finally hit 0 for the operator, who once again returned me to the two apparently unavoidable menus of things I didn't want. The second operator finally got me through.
So here we were. Chef Todd lifted our spirits with an assortment of appetizers. A row of four sliders the size of normal hamburgers had an interesting sauce and garnish. If I had eaten a whole one, however, it would have finished my appetite. And another sandwich quartet followed, these made with Chinese steamed buns cut to look like puffy tacos. Korean-style grilled beef and condiments were nestled in the fold. These were even better than the sliders, although I don't think I'll ever develop a taste for Chinese steam buns.
Salads next. Mine was the funny-looking one, made with beets and spiky-looking greens. For once, here was something that wouldn't fill me up. Mary Ann, on the other hand, swam through a pool of seafood gumbo. She said it was terrific.
The shank of the dinner had the young lovebirds splitting a ten-ounce filet mignon, with sides of gratin dauphinoise and asparagus. For her main course, Mary Ann commandeered an appetizer assortment consisting of an ordinary crab cake, shrimp remoulade, and a fried oyster.
My main interest was in The Besh's dry-aged, eighteen-ounce, boneless sirloin strip. My favorite cut of meat. It was beautiful to behold and delicious to eat, although the dry-aged flavor I prize wasn't really apparent. The steak was so big that after I ate all I could and sliced off some more for the others, half a steak remained.
It came an upstanding marrow bone and an even taller tower of four mammoth, stacked onion rings. I will never understand why anyone thinks onion rings this size are good.
The list price for this platter was a gasp-inducing $75. The filet was $46--also a cut higher than average. These are probably the highest steak prices in town. Yet I might consider paying it forth again, were it not for some other matters.
While we were there, The Besh was patronized largely by people who were. . . well, let's just say underdressed. At a table ten feet from ours a big couple wore dirty shorts and T-shirts. We didn't see the dirt, actually. We smelled it.
At another table not far from ours were a couple of guys whose aromas were also less than attractive. Mostly in the heavy- cigarette-smoking part of the olfactory spectrum. (They didn't smoke in the restaurant, of course, but clearly had gotten ahead of the game before coming in.)
I've dined in enough casino restaurants to know that a) there's nothing a restaurant can do about this sort of thing and 2) this kind of customer is very common. But who am I to say that such people shouldn't celebrate a big hit at the tables, or be excluded for any other reason?
I do, however, claim the right never to have to subject myself to it again.
Mary Leigh and The Boy took fifteen dollars into the casino and played some slots and drank beer. Why not? They're old enough. I can't really picture this as becoming part of their routine, however.
The Besh Steakhouse. CBD: Harrah's New Orleans Casino, 8 Canal. 504-533-6111.
Wednesday, May 8, 2013
Porter & Luke.
Oliver Kluna--forty-year friend, best man at my wedding, my former landlord, godfather of my son--called a couple of weeks ago to invite us to dinner, noting that it's been much too long. Radio listeners may have heard me refer to Oliver in my commercials for Charlie's Steak House, because he and I used to go there every month or so, and kept track of whose turn it was to pay by writing the info on the back of a sign in Charlie's old dining room that said "Closed Sun. & Mon."
Mary Ann was out of town when he called, and I knew she'd want to not only be there but make all the arrangements. She had dined a few times in Porter & Luke--the new buzzer café on Metairie Road--and thought that would be the perfect place.
It's not quite six months since the place opened in the former Zeke's. But my main criterion for knowing when it's time for me to take a reviewing look is when I hear consistent reports from my callers and emailers. And that has been going on for some time. The a priori evidence is good, too: the chef is Vincent Manguno, alumnus of La Riviera, the Creole Grille, and Nuccio's (where he created a lot of talk about his fried chicken).
I was the first to arrive. The bar was full, which led me to believe we might have a wait for a table. In fact, the bar crowd runs on its own engine, and there were several tables open. I sat down, ordered a Manhattan, and studied the menu.
It was not what I was expecting. I knew it would be casual with good cooking, but along the lines of a place like Austin's or the Maple Street Café. Instead, it was more like Mandina's or Mr. Ed's, on the low end of the paper/linen napkin divide. The menu was shorter than I expected, and poor boy sandwiches took up a good bit of space.
None of that kept the food from being good. When Oliver and his wife Carolyn arrived (Mary Ann was last, of course), we began with a pile of freshly-fried potato chips. Then baked oysters, sent out in two slightly-different styles. Both were on the rich side, with a good bit of cheese. One had something like andouille in the mix, the other had crabmeat. An appetizer portion was ten oysters for $13.95. In fact, we only got nine oysters, but even that was enough for everybody to have a good taste.
Vincent brought his fried chicken recipe here from Nuccio's (which closed a few months after he left), and Mary Ann decimated it, calling it perfectly to her taste. (At ten dollars for a half chicken, it was a terrific bargain, too.)
Carolyn bought the waiter's suggestion that the best dish in the house was eggplant Vincent. It's a half-eggplant, hollowed out into a boat, fried, and filled to overflowing with saucy crawfish. She and MA both loved that.
Oliver and I share a love of a good, thick pork chop, but he beat me to it. Of the dishes I had been considering that left the fried trout. Came in that day, strictly fresh, said the waiter. I should have ordered some kind of sauce with it, because the two big fillets were overcooked just enough to register as dry. I thought that might be handled by replacing the standard fries with lima beans from a daily special, but the beans were the big kind, cooked down to the mushy stage. Mary Ann who loves that sort of thing, was as unimpressed as I was.
The next time I come here, I will have a much better meal, now that I know the lay of the land. One must play a restaurant to its strengths if one wants the best food. And it takes a little research to do that.
At least if one is serious about good tastes.
Porter & Luke's. Old Metairie: 1517 Metairie Road. 504-875-4555.
To browse through all of the Dining Diaries since 2008, go here.
Tuesday, May 7, 2013.
Pearl Almost Calls It A Career. A Normal Dinner At Rene Bistrot.
A radio station in St. Louis with the call letters WEW is a small station, even by the standards of AM radio. For most of its history it was daytime-only, with a weak signal even then.
It's also the oldest radio station west of the Mississippi. And somebody must have loved it, because it's still on the air.
Somehow I see a parallel in the Coffee Pot, a little restaurant on St. Peter Street, next to Pat O'Brien's. It opened in the 1940s, and has served breakfast, lunch and dinner ever since. For a long time, it was the favorite breakfast hangout for people living in the French Quarter. But it's not what you would call a famous place.
The Coffee Pot did enjoyed the services of two major figures in New Orleans cuisine. One you've heard of: Leah Chase, who began her cooking career at the Coffee Pot in its earliest years.
The other you would know only if you've been a regular at the Coffee Pot, at almost any time in your life. Pearl Jefferson has waited tables and made the bread pudding at the Coffee Pot since 1959. That makes her the longest-serving employee of any single restaurant in New Orleans right now. (Krasna Vojkovich, whose late husband John founded the Crescent City Steak House in 1934, is a contender. But she owns the place.)
Pearl is retiring this Saturday. Sort of. She will no longer wait on the left half of the main dining room. Her regulars long knew where her tables were, because if Pearl served you, you knew you would be very well taken care of.
However, she's not just taking a long rest. She's going to continue making the bread pudding for the restaurant.
One of the first restaurant reviews I ever wrote was of the Coffee Pot, where in 1970 I picked up the habit of eating there two or three times a week. It was popular among the artist-writer-theatre crowd, which I was moving into. The Coffee Pot was just bohemian enough for an inexperienced gourmet-gadabout to get worked up about the scene, but not so much as to run me off. By that time, Pearl was already established as the person you wanted to take care of you.
Pearl was on the Round Table radio show today. She told me a few things I should have known, after all these years. Like the fifty-four years she waited at the Coffee Pot. That the other waitress I liked--Billie--was her sister. She and her sister came from a little Mississippi town called Arm. She outlasted five owners and who knows how many cooks. And she has never had another job.
It was a nice conversation, recalling unusual dishes that the Coffee Pot should have become famous for. The calas, of course--Creole rice cakes that would have vanished decades ago had the Coffee Pot not continued to serve them. The original red bean omelette. Eggs Jonathan--like a Benedict, but with shrimp. The Dodt omelette, made originally with everything left in the kitchen at the end of the previous day.
Also with us on the how was the current chef, Will Falcon. His job is to make it seem that nothing ever changes at the Coffee Pot, while in fact improving everything in subtle ways. We got into this while running through the Eat Club brunch we're going to hold at the Coffee Pot in Pearl's honor on June 14. "We're going to have corned beef hash and eggs, made from scratch," he said. "They used to just open a can."
Chef Will gives credit for the gentle upgrades to the owner Dustin Palmisano, who is the first boss of the Coffee Pot who is also a chef.
On the other side of the table today was Chef Pete Kusiw, the top guy in the kitchen at N'Tini's. He showed up there not long after he closed his own place, Juniper in Mandeville. I've been asked about that closing a lot. It was a good place to eat. Chef Pete fuzzed the answer a little bit, but it came down to a dislike of management work compared with his love of cooking.
Interesting guy. He came to New Orleans at the same time as the late Commander's Palace chef Jamie Shannon, from the same New England roots. He and his wife at the time started a coffee shop on the lakefront in Mandeville, and expanded into the first iteration of Juniper, just a year before Katrina and Rite ripped it all apart.
The difference between Chef Pete's bistros and N'Tini's is pretty extreme. Owner Mark Benfatti, one of the most hyperactive of restaurant entrepreneurs, is always adding a new event, feature, or meal to the list. The place now does breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days.
Dinner at Rene Bistrot. Having had two previous, recent dinners there, I needed only one more to give me enough material for a full review for my weekly CityBusiness column.
The place was empty, as usual. This is without doubt the restaurant's biggest problem. Rene wasn't there, but it's Tuesday, and he has Mother's Day (which does crowd the place) on his mind.
I started with Rene's onion soup. I suspected that it would be classic and it was, although it did incorporate some oddities. The cheese over the top of the crock was so fresh that it became a liquid, mixing with the soup. Looked funny, but tasted good.
Then came boudin noir. Blood sausage, but not the spicy Cajun kind. It was wetted down with a red wine reduction with wild mushrooms. Tasted good enough, but it came out lukewarm. Maybe even cool.
Then the biggest bucket of mussels I've encountered outside of Belgium. There had to be four dozen in the big enamel green pot. The sauce was made with Thai green curry and lemongrass. It was as good as that sounds. I ate all but four or five whose shells hadn't gaped. (I think they may still have been alive.)
The dessert I should have skipped. The mussels and their accompanying fresh-cut fries had me stuffed. But I went ahead, for research purposes. Fruit tarte with pastry creme, much too rich for me at that moment, although on another day I would have savored it.
There were still very few people here when I left.
The review is online in the edition published the same day as all of the above.
Coffee Pot. French Quarter: 714 St Peter. 504-524-3500.
Rene Bistrot. Warehouse District & Center City: 700 Tchoupitoulas. 504-613-2350.
To browse through all of the Dining Diaries since 2008, go here.
Monday, May 6, 2013.
The Not-So-Good Side Of Macaroni Grill.
An unusually busy radio show brought in much news about the Jazz Festival and its food. Nobody had a new discovery to share. The comments boiled down to the observation that all the food was the same as in previous years. I seem to be the only person troubled by that. But only a little.
The Boy returned to his dorm room for exams this week. Mary Leigh filled the gap by asking me to take her to dinner. We wound up at the only New Orleans-area outpost of the Macaroni Grill, an ubiquitous American chain. This is one of the few chains I find reasonably good. They do a lot of things which, twenty years ago, only the best Italian restaurants did--if then. They make their own pasta, have a wood-burning oven for the very good pizza, and make sauces with balance and character. They're even reasonably adept at seafood, although for the most part it's standard farm-raised fish on the menu.
Perhaps the most appealing aspect of the Macaroni Grill is that it smells terrific. The kitchen is open to the dining room, and the aromas of the bubbling red sauce and olive oil, with herbs and garlic in the background, can't help but perk up one's appetite. This is an idea that very few restaurants have ever attempted to implement, to their detriment.
We began with an order of bruschetta. The bread part is sliced too thick, and so is hard to eat. I got a laugh from ML when an attempt at taking a bite resulted in an explosion of diced, olive-oil-coated tomatoes.
The waiter tried to steer me away from a new dish called quadratini--like macaroni, but square in cross-section instead of round. This is an innovation that serves no known need. The sauce sounded good, though: tomatoes (not far from whole), chili peppers, spinach, and Italian sausage (but not a very good one). I ate almost all of it--good fresh flavor. But I don't think I'd order this again.
Mary Leigh was delivered a salad of parmesan-encrusted chicken that looked good, but which was so overwhelmed by the balsamic vinaigrette as to verge on disagreeable.
The high point of the evening was a dessert tart--almost a cobbler--of peach and ginger. It tasted as good as it looked. The waiter was engaging and helpful, too--something I find pretty consistent at the Mac Grill. And even though the wine is just passable, the idea of leaving a bottle of red on the table and allowing you to help yourself on the honor system is brilliant. The message of welcome to the diners is hard not to like.
Romano's Macaroni Grill. Mandeville: 3410 US Hwy 190. 985-727-1998.
To browse through all of the Dining Diaries since 2008, go here.
Sunday, May 5, 2013.
Second-Hand Jazz Festival. Cinco Of May.
The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is advertised on two walls in my house. With the weather being so fine, I should have gone to the Fest. I probably would have if Mary Ann were nor in Washington, DC visiting her sister. Instead, I worked on other projects.
I did get live information about this years' iteration of the festival from Mary Leigh and They Boy, who went yesterday and spent the whole day eating. Good reports on the Cajun jambalaya ("best I ever ate," says ML), pheasant gumbo, cochon de lait poor boy ("fabulous!"), hot sausage poor boy ("good," sez The Boy, who understates everything), and a sno-ball (ice cream cream--and that is no typo, as any New Orleans sno-ball lover understands).
ML said that Fleetwood Mac played for three hours. She must have been breathing a lot of the special kind of second-hand smoke that always attends concerts of artists from Fleetwood Mac's era.
The kids gave me this briefing during brunch at the Camellia Café, where for some reason they were celebrating Cinco De Mayo. It's not usually a good idea to get ethnic specialty dishes in restaurants that don't have the same ethnic backgrounds as the dishes. We started with some queso, but it was just okay. A Mexican-style Cobb salad wasn't as good as the normal salads they serve here. The special menu also offered a chicken and tortilla soup, but before they could bring me some one of the cooks dropped the pot and lost the batch. The Mayan gods were against this special menu, and I think maybe they ought to forget it next year.
The rest of the afternoon went to coaxing life from the lawn tractor. I gave it new filters, oil, and gasoline, plus a full charge of the battery. Still, it would have been a miracle if it had caught, and three miracles have already transpired this weekend. So, nothing. Next weekend will be the one. I hope.
Steel, the former puppy who decided he liked living with us better than at his real home next door, has disappeared. He and fellow German Shepherd Susie went out for a stroll Friday morning. Susie returned, but without Steel. The leading explanation is that Susie--who lost her position as alpha dog when Steel grew a good bit larger than she is--led Steel deep into the woods, then sneaked away to return home alone. Susie is a highly street-smart dog. Could this have been a plot?
Camellia Cafe. Abita Springs: 69455 LA 59. 985-809-6313.
- Saturday, May 4, 2013. Lee's Is Almost Great. Magnificent Sushi At Megumi.
- Friday, May 3, 2013. Antoine's Jazz Festival Crowd.
- Thursday, May 2, 2013. Gargantuan Fried Oysters, Nine To The Poor Boy.
- Wednesday, May 1, 2013. Eat Club At Rene Bistrot.
- Tuesday, April 30, 2013.. More Deluge. Less Food.
- Monday, April 29, 2013. Explosion. Martinique Is Italian For A Day.
- Sunday, April 28, 2013. The Ideal Meal At Chimes. Almost Making Progress.
- Saturday, April 27, 2013. The Wife Gets Ready To Leave. The Old One Stays.
- Friday, April 26, 2013. Two Tonys #2.
- Thursday, April 25,2013. A Full House At MiLa.
- Wednesday, April 24, 2013. Pat Gallagher Sizzles.
- Tuesday, April 23, 2013. Major Discovery Of Ancient Restaurant. A Taste Of Neyow's.
- Dining Diary Monday, April 22, 2013. Good Old Red Beans And Rice.
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