Wednesday, February 17, 2010
1069 Restaurants Open Around New O. The whole list.
Ashes. Sardines. Blondie and Dagwood. Cafe Au Lait. Coffeeville. Grouper. Cadbury. Beery. Wish Bone.
Eating Around New Orleans Today
This is Ash Wednesday--the first day of Lent, and one of the days in which Catholics take Lent most seriously. The seafood restaurants of the city will be very busy today. That's particularly true of well-known casual places like Drago's, Bozo's, Casamento's, and Charlie's. It might be a better idea to dine in a somewhat upscale seafood specialist like GW Fins, the Bourbon House, the Red Fish Grill, or Andrea's. Play this game: it is possible to eat a different seafood in New Orleans for each of the forty days of Lent without repeating. First one to find triggerfish, report it to the messageboard, please.
Julius Wolff of Maine became the first man to can sardines on this date in 1876. The kind of sardines you find in cans are generic fish and of more interest to cats than to humans. However, real sardines--named for the island of Sardinia--are a treat we sometimes see in New Orleans, particularly around St. Joseph's Day. They're six to eight inches long, pan-sauteed or broiled, and served whole. They have a very assertive flavor that will not please those who complain about fish tasting "fishy." For those with more adventuresome palates, they're a delight.
Food In The Comics
This is the seventy-sixth anniversary of the marriage of Blondie and Dagwood. Her maiden name was "Boopadoop." Dagwood was a wealthy playboy whose choice of a bride (not a bad one, if he was looking for a lady with a great figure) caused his father to disinherit him. Dagwood went on to become an iconic chowhound. The overloaded sandwich (regardless of its contents, as long as there's plenty of different stuff, and sardines) is named for him. Dagwood's Sandwich Shop was on the corner of Cleveland and South Carrollton in New Orleans, serving sandwiches named after characters in the strip until. King Features Syndicate found out about it and forced a name change to the much less appealing Dogwood's.
It is National Cafe Au Lait Day. Every day is Cafe au Lait Day for me. In fact, I'm drinking the stuff as I write this. Can't imagine a morning without it. I have so much to say on this subject that I refer you to Matters Of Taste later in today's edition.
Food Through History
On this date in 1454, Philip The Good, Duke of Burgundy, and son of John the Fearless (don't you wish we still used such epithets?), held a magnificent feast in Dijon. At its end, he took the Vow of the Pheasant, and swore that he would go on a Crusade to fight the Turks. Big words at that time, because the Turks had just taken Constantinople. He must have been drunk on Pinot Noir. He never did undertake the Crusade.
Today is the ancient Roman festival Fornicalia, which was not what it sounds like. It celebrated the hearth, wheat, bread, and baking.
William Cadbury, who founded the chocolate manufacturing concern that still bears his name, was born today in 1867.
Actor Noah Beery was brewed up today in 1882. . . Charles de Bourbon, the governor of Lombardy, was born today in 1490. . . Actress Christina Pickles hit the Big Stage today in 1935. . . American film director Michael Bay said "roll 'em" today in 1965. . . Rapper Wish Bone was pulled out today in 1975.
Words To Eat By
"After a few months' acquaintance with European coffee one's mind weakens, and his faith with it, and he begins to wonder if the rich beverage of home, with it's clotted layer of yellow cream on top of it, is not a mere dream after all, and a thing which never existed."--Mark Twain.
Yucatan Cruise Journal, Aboard The NCL Spirit
Monday, February 8. At Sea. Relaxing Everything Except The Drinking And Eating Schedule. This cruise begins and ends with sea days. That puts relaxation time at the two moments when it's most welcome. The day got off on the right foot: I slept late. The one and only advantage of an inside cabin is that, with the lights off, it's pitch black in there, even at noon.
Walking out onto the deck, I found no vestige of the cold in which our ship departed New Orleans. The sea was rocking the boat a bit, but not enough to bother me. I had a brief breakfast of fruit and bread with juice and coffee from the boofay. But where were the espresso-cappuccino machines that were on the NCL Jewel back in October? I thought that was a great addition, making it possible to have coffee with the oomph I'm accustomed to having at home.
I spent most of the morning writing and publishing the Menu Daily. I must keep going through semi-vacations like this, if I am going to take so many of them. The internet on the ship moves at its usual sluggish pace, but at least the price hasn't gone up. Still, it will cost $100 by the end of the cruise.
Lunch in the sushi bar. Last night, while dining on the flying food at Teppanyaki next door, the sushi chefs had not a single customer the entire time. This may prove that all sushi eaters are Saints fans, because the game was on then, too. I talked with them about this on my way out. They told me I really had to come back to try them today. The repast started with the same three preliminaries as last night. Then some hamachi and salmon nigiri, and an interesting small roll made of seared, peppered tuna. All that went down with a Kirin beer.
The chef wanted to show off his dragon roll. I was about to tell him he should be more careful making offers like that in public, but then it hit me he was talking about a menu item. He took a long time making it, and from those pains came a striking presentation. The head and tail of a large fried shrimp served as the front and back of the dragon. Inside and outside were barbecued eel, avocado, tuna, and cucumber. It wouldn't impress the habitues of the best New Orleans sushi bars, but I thought it was good enough for the $15 upcharge.
I need a haircut badly. I thought I'd get one in my spare time on the ship. But the day before I left New Orleans Harold Klein--my regular barber, at the Royal Orleans Hotel--called to ask when I'd be coming in. He must keep records on his regular customers. Well, then. I'll just have to go around the ship looking like a castaway. That's the way my hair is. One day it looks all right, the next one I look like an unusually well-fed street person.
This trip's first convocation of Tom's Six-Thirty Martini Club was attended by eight of our fourteen travelers in the Galaxy of the Stars. The servers were not quite as good as last year's, who remembered my Negroni order after the first day. Here, we had a hard tine being served at all. I bought the first round, and since we had such a small group I covered the seconds, too.
The most fascinating attendee was Captain George Peterson. He is a retired bar pilot. For sixty-three years, he piloted ships in and out of the Mississippi River--across the bar, as the exit is called. He is the son and grandson of pilots, and his son and grandson are also in the profession. Indeed, his grandson was the bar pilot for the very ship we were traveling. The Captain, as we came to call him, took up cruising after he retired. This is his twentieth cruise. He says he will be coming with us on the maiden voyage of the Epic in June. The Captain is ninety-three. He doesn't look it, and he surely doesn't act it. He showed up for everything through the entire cruise, and I encountered him just strutting around Cozumel when we arrived there.
Dinner at the end of the first full day is always in the main dining room. The entire group showed up for that, requiring some reassembly of tables to fit us all. It was the usual main room dinner, with its nice surprises and disappointments. The great dish today was the half-order of pasta or risotto I always get for a preliminary course. This night it was spaghetti carbonara, made so well that I urged it upon everybody else as a side dish. I'm writing this near the end of the cruise, and still the carbonara makes the list of the two or three best dishes I had anywhere on the ship.
The entree was the disappointment. It was billed as monkfish. However, fish nomenclature is anything but uniform, and this was like no other monkfish I've had. Spongefish is what I'd call it. Yuck. But the dinner ended with another unexpected nicety. The bread pudding--a dessert that's almost always terrible outside New Orleans--was very rich and moist, with only the cinnamon component of the Creole version missing.
To karaoke. The song selection was better than on the last ship, and I compiled a long list of songs to sing. But the second one sent me back to my room. It was "Maria," from West Side Story, sung in the style of Johnny Mathis. But it started out on such a high key that I could only have pulled it off with falsetto, which would not have done the song justice. The host knocked it down two tones, but he wouldn't let me start over.
I was in bed at eleven as we plied calm seas toward Costa Maya.
Tuesday, February 9. Costa Maya. Bandito And Señor Sol. Cagney's Steakhouse. It was a perfect, warm day in Costa Maya, a manufactured port of call at the southernmost extreme of Mexico's Yucatan coast. After the port sprouted from essentially nothing, it was all but destroyed by a hurricane in 2007. They built it right back. It's essentially a mall of crafts, tequila stores, a couple of restaurants and jewelers surrounding a plaza and a pool. All of this is immediately adjacent to a white sand beach with blue water, umbrellas, and the rest of the Caribbean set-pieces.
One can visit several Mayan sites from Costa Maya. But except for those with a special interest in the Maya, one site per trip will do it. I've been to Tulum, and tomorrow I'll go to Quirigua in Guatemala. My entire morning went to getting my daily writing done, leaving only enough time for lunch on shore. There for people such as me was Banditos Lobster Grill. Most of its offerings were, in fact, seafood--the namesake grilled tropical lobsters, shrimp, fish tacos, and like that. Waiting for other members of the group who might decide to join me, I indulged in a very fine guacamole and a one-liter (!) Sol beer. The rest of the Eat Club must have been tours, and I didn't see a soul. So I sat alone with my Sol.
Last time I was here, I bought Mary Ann a necklace of silver, black coral, and local jade. She said she liked it, but I can't remember ever seeing her wear it. This time I followed her oft-stated order not to buy jewelry. (She says I have zero sense of what she likes.)
But I had to buy something from these people. I found something else Mary Ann will hate. It was a ceramic wall hanging of a sun--another Sol!--with a smiling face, blue eyes, and a perimeter of sunflowers. You see these everywhere in Mexico. A former French café where the Sesame Inn is now had many of them on its wall, and I always found myself somehow comforted by their benevolent gazes. Here was another such, looking friendly at me from high up the shop's wall. It was large, about sixteen inches in diameter. An older man with a craggy face saw me looking back at this sun, grabbed a ladder and fetched it down, without my so much as asking.
The price started at $150. He said it was made with local clays--he even had a sample of the pre-baked stuff--and that it was made by Mayan people nearby. I didn't know about any of that, but I liked it. I said nothing more until he brought his price to $100. Probably too much still, but I paid it over. He packed it in a battered cardboard box that I know Mary Ann will not allow to enter our house. All I have to do now is figure out where to hang it. I'm certain Mary Ann will insist that my office is the only acceptable place. That's all right. Señor Sol will become my writing companion.
During lunch, a text message from Mary Ann said that she planned to go the Saints parade tonight, a hastily-arranged Mardi Gras-style extravaganza that even by mid-afternoon had people pouring into downtown. The players would ride through the streets on floats donated by an assortment of krewes. She said it was seriously cold and windy, but that she and ML would not miss this.
Señor Sol and I were back on the ship around three-thirty. A nap was interrupted--as every nap would be throughout the cruise--by a knock on the door. It was a plate of pastries, courtesy of the concierge. It came with an invitation to have breakfast and lunch in Cagney's. This is a perk that group leaders get, I suppose to allow them a private place to get away from the group. I've always had the opposite problem. I have to all but bribe the Eat Clubbers to join me in anything. Either they're shy or they don't like me once they meet me. (Mary Ann would vote for option two.)
However, that effect was not in evidence at today's Martini Club meeting. The entire group was there, including a family group of six people who, for almost the entire cruise, spent all their time with one another. As long as they're enjoying themselves, it's fine with me. I ran up another large check for drinks for all the newcomers. That should take care of my hosting requirements for a while.
The entire group of fourteen followed me to dinner together. Tonight's was in Cagney's, the ship's steakhouse. After working through a reservations snafu, we were in the main dining room at two tables. We were off to a grand start with oysters Rockefeller almost all the way around. These were excellent by any standard except familiarity. Everywhere but in New Orleans, oysters Rockefeller have a bit of anise-flavored spinach topped with a lot of Mornay sauce--a bechamel with a little cheese. Since oysters Rockefeller is undisputedly a New Orleans (Antoine's, to be exact) creation, we're the ones who make it "right," with the Mornay gilding seen only occasionally.
Most people moved from there either to lobster bisque or to a wedge or Caesar salad. Then many filets mignon, a few sirloin strips (after I touted it) and a number of double-cut lamb chops. I had the lamb myself, and was exactly halfway delighted with it. The first chop was thick, juicy, well-seasoned, and tender. The second one was uncuttable even with a sharp knife, and all but inedible. The lady to my right, who followed my advice about the sirloin strip, also found it tough beyond easy eating. All the filet people were very happy, as were any eaters who had the potatoes au gratin.
We emphatically closed Cagney's down this night. You can always spot the New Orleans people by how they eat. On this trip, though, there was another dead giveaway: the hoots of "Who Dat?" continued to resound throughout the atrium.
WHY IT'S NOTEWORTHY
Casamento's is a specialist. While they have the full range of fried seafood, this is primarily a place you go for oysters. They are of excellent intrinsic quality, and are fully satyisfying whether you eat them raw, fried, or in a sandwich. The unique premises also endears the place to the hearts of New Orleans eaters.
WHY IT'S GOOD
Casamento's adheres rigorously to the Two Laws of Great Fried Seafood. First, the seafood must be fresh and local. Second, it has to be fried immediately before being served. They take this one step farther by offering excellent fresh-cut French fries. All of this is as good as it gets, and the superb raw oysters caps a simple, wonderful meal.
Second only to the Acme in age among New Orleans oyster bars, Casamento's is in its third generation and still going strong. They're as noteworthy for their quirks as for the goodness of their food. For as long as anybody remembers, they've closed the entire summer every year. They are also doctrinaire about their hours, locking the doors on the dot.
Most first-timers have the same reaction to the tiled walls and floor: "This place looks like a big bathroom!" Or an old-time barber shop. Those tiles are genuine Newcomb pottery, honestly from the Art Nouveau era, before any of that was famous yet. Two rooms of all that, with the oyster bar in the front and the kitchen all the way in the back.
Oysters on the half shell.
Oyster stew with milk.
Fried crab claws.
Fried oyster loaf.
Fried shrimp loaf.
Soft shell crabs.
Fried seafood platter.
Spaghetti and meatballs.
German chocolate cake.
Cafe au lait (made with Union coffee & chicory!)
FOR BEST RESULTS
Start with a dozen raw. This is a good place to have raw oysters for the first time. Know that the oyster loaf here is made with "pan bread," a standard white loaf cut into large slabs, toasted, and buttered. Go somewhere else for spaghetti.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR IMPROVEMENT
The cash-only policy is nothing but an inconvenience to customers and is long overdue to be rescinded. While gruffness of the staff is a long-running tradition, I liked the mellowness of right after the hurricane. It's also time they opened five days for dinner.
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
- Service -1
- Value +1
- Attitude -1
- Wine and Bar
- Hipness -1
- Local Color +2
- Oyster bar
- Quick, good meal
- Good for children
- Easy, nearby parking
- No reservations
ANECDOTES AND ANALYSIS
Although it's not as consistent as it once was, Casamento's--a big, long room covered with enough spanking-clean Art Nouveau tiles that it looks like a gigantic bathroom--is still a first-class vendor of oysters. They're terrific in either raw or fried form; no small number of patrons start with the first and finish with the second.
The oyster loaf here is not a poor boy but a sandwich made on thickly sliced, toasted, buttered "pan bread." Other local seafoods are also fried with the same deftness. No such thing as tepid, soggy, or greasy trout or soft-shell crabs here. The french fries are among the best in town--cut from fresh potatoes and fried to order. The Italian dishes are completely forgettable--red sauce piled atop white spaghetti.
Casamento's closes for the summer every year. They also close at exactly the time they say they will at lunch (1:30 ) and dinner (9:30). Do not expect any leniency.
Ten Best Restaurants For Grits
Deep in the part of America where grits, not potatoes or oatmeal, are the standard accompaniment with breakfast, New Orleans has more than its shares of good versions. And in recent years chefs in the top restaurants have found that grits work very well as a starch with lunch and dinner plates, too. That has shown up most often in the wildly popular shrimp and grits--an import to these parts from the South Carolina Low Country cuisine, but one that fit right into the local tastes.
New Orleans is not without its own great native shrimp cocncotion. Grillades and grits is a slightly-misnamed dish (the meat in it is almost never grilled), but it's a standard at grand breakfasts and making more frequent appearances on dinner menus.
1. MiLa. CBD: 817 Common. 504-412-2580 . Black truffle grits, which might sound like an affectation, are the ne plus ultra of grits in this town. They serve them as a side with sweetbreads, but I always ask for some no matter what I'm getting.
2. Atchafalaya. Uptown: 901 Louisiana Ave.. 504-891-9626. The first of many entries for shrimp and grits on this list, Atchafalaya's version are just perfect: big shrimp, spicy sauce, grits with body and flavor.
3. Emeril’s. Warehouse District: 800 Tchoupitoulas. 504-528-9393. Saffron and chili-dusted shrimp with sweet potato-enhanced grits.
4. Zea. Covington: 110 Lake Dr . 985-327-0520. ||Harahan: 1655 Hickory Ave.. 504-738-0799. ||Harvey: 1121 Manhattan Blvd.. 504-361-8293. ||Kenner: 1401 W Esplanade Ave.. 504-468-7733. ||Lee Circle Area: 1525 St. Charles Ave.. 504-520-8100. ||Metairie: 4450 Veterans Blvd. (Clearview Mall). 504-780-9090. The only stand-alone grits on this list. Made with stone-ground yellow grits, cheese, cream, and whole kernels of corn from whole cobs roasted on the grill. It's more popular here than French fries.
5. Brennan’s. French Quarter: 417 Royal. 504-525-9711. The most elegant presentation of the classic Creole breakfast dish, with the grits always perfect and buttery on the side.
6. Upperline. Uptown: 1413 Upperline. 504-891-9822. An original take on shrimp and grits, with the grits formed into a cake and the sauce a rich reduced shrimp bisque.
7. Pascal's Manale. Uptown: 1838 Napoleon Ave.. 504-895-4877. In the old days, whenever veal liver was served as an entree in a New Orleans restaurant, the starch was not potatoes or rice or pasta, but grits. Manale's never stopped doing that. The liver is unusually good here.
8. Le Meritage. French Quarter: 1001 Toulouse. 504-522-8800. The elegant new restaurant in the Maison Dupuy makes its shrimp and grits with the smokiness of tasso, and excellent stone-ground grits.
9. Lüke. CBD: 333 St. Charles Ave.. 504-378-2840. The best grits you'll find anywhere for breakfast are served here. It's the quality of the grits themselves that make the statement. They show up during the rest of the day on other dishes.
10. Dick & Jenny’s. Uptown: 4501 Tchoupitoulas. 504-894-9880. The grillades here are made not with veal but pork--a very good idea. They come with first-class grits and a Creole sauce with old-style heft.
If you have additions to or subtractions from the list, I would love to read about them. Post your opinions on our
Is Our Local Tradition Disappearing?
Cafe Au Lait
A New Orleans culinary tradition that seemed eternal just a few years ago now seems to be fading from the scene.
It's cafe au lait. The blend of dark roast coffee and chicory brewed so powerful that it cannot be comfortably drunk by the average person without at least an equal amount of hot milk. This is the coffee of the French Market-style coffee stands. Cafe au lait is not latte or cappuccino, although those two will take the place of cafe au lait in a pinch. (Like on the cruise ship I traveled last week.)
I begin every morning with at least two mugs of cafe au lait. Not out of a sense of maintaining tradition. Nor because my parents did.
I love it, relish it, look forward to it so much that I have dreams about it. I look forward to it more than any of those people you see in television commercials who would have you believe that the best part of waking up is Folger's in your cup. Yeah, sure. A see-through, high-caffeine brew, made by the world's largest soap company.
Cafe au lait is not purely a personal taste. Among people who have visited our home, my coffee is legendary. Those who try it for the first time are knocked back in their chairs. If I say so myself, I make an incredible cup of cafe au lait.
It's nothing, really. I'm following the traditional New Orleans formula, one that's been with us for at least a century an a half. Unfortunately, that's been watered down so continuously for so many years that many people have forgotten how great it really is. Even at the French Market they're goofing it up: the coffee is still the same, but they're adding too much milk. And, at the table, cafe au lait drinkers are leaving out an essential step.
And there is another culprit. The biggest-selling coffee in New Orleans these days is Community New Orleans Blend coffee and chicory. Community is not a bad coffee roaster, but their New Orleans Blend. . . well, they should use another name. It is emphatically not a classic New Orleans blend. It's okay if you serve it black, as many restaurants do. But the coffee component is medium roast. For the real New Orleans taste, it ought to be just about the darkest roast possible. Even the chicory component in this stuff seems light to me.
The best cafe au lait is made with French Market (in the bag, not the can), CDM, or Union coffee and chicory. The latter is my favorite. Union comes in a green bag, and it's a little hard to find. Made by the same people who make French Market, Union seems to have a darker roast and a shade less chicory than the others.
Many diehards affirm that real New Orleans coffee cannot be made in anything but one of those white porcelain, slow-drip "biggins." I find that the modern drip coffeemaker does at least as good a job. The trick is using enough ground coffee. I start with three cups of cold water and two heaping standard coffee scoops of ground coffee and chicory. (Believe it or not, there is a standard coffee scoop. Coffee shops sometimes give them out. It's a plastic spoon with a square bowl; in the bottom of the bowl, it says "CBC Approved Coffee Measure." These things hold exactly five fluid teaspoons--a teaspoon shy of two tablespoons.) I overfill the scoops a little.
After you brew this, you get coffee pot is so black that light cannot penetrate the stream as it pours into the cup. If you swirl the coffee, it leaves the side of the cup brown for a few seconds. Now we're getting somewhere.
Next, fill your cup halfway with milk, and microwave it till steaming. (This takes a minute and a half in mine, but microwaves vary greatly.) The milk must be at least two percent milkfat. Whole milk is better. The best is that non-homogenized milk from Smith Creamery or Mauthe's--the kind you need to shake before using.
Then add sugar. Yes, you must. The key to a great cup of New Orleans coffee is balancing off the bitter and acid elements (particularly in the chicory) with sweetness. Use more sugar than usual. Three teaspoons is no sin. (Note that a can of Coke has nine teaspoons of sugar, for the same reason: to balance the sour and bitter flavors.)
When you add the sugar to the microwaved milk, it will foam a little. Stir, pour the coffee in, and you'll see a lovely head around the edges.
This is New Orleans style cafe au lait. Think I'll have another. As I do, I'll say to my wife, "You know, I wish you drank coffee. Because if you did, you'd love me even more than you do!"
Her reply (we have this well rehearsed): "What makes you think I love you?"
Saute of Crawfish
The Louisiana crawfish crop has begun to appear. I can hardly wait for crawfish season so we can once again enjoy this superb, buttery dish, originally created at Commander's Palace. It's equally good as an appetizer served with angel-hair pasta or as a main dish with rice. What makes the dish go is the green onion component: chop them fine, leave out the tough part, and don't cook so long that they lose their crispness. Serve this over crawfish cakes, rice, pasta, or even inside an omelette. This
- 2 Tbs. butter
- 1 lb. fresh boiled crawfish tails, peeled
- 1 cup chopped green onions
- 1 Tbs. salt-free Creole seasoning
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
- 1/2 cup crawfish stock
- 2 sticks butter
1. Melt the 2 Tbs. butter in a skillet. To it add the crawfish tails, green onions, seafood seasoning, and Worcestershire sauce. Saute until heated through--about two minutes.
2. Add the crawfish stock and lower the heat to the lowest possible. Cut the remaining butter into the pan, and blend into the other ingredients by agitating the pan until completely combined and creamy-looking.