Thursday, April 5, 2012
1266 Restaurants Open Around Town (click for the whole list)
We Line Up For Gumbo Z'Herbes At Dooky Chase.
Today is the biggest day of the year for Leah Chase and her restaurant Dooky Chase. Holy Thursday is the day when she makes a gulf of gumbo z'herbes, and when hundreds of people show up to eat it.
The name is a contraction of "gumbo aux herbes." It's made with greens, and it's very different from any other kind of gumbo. The more different greens, the better the gumbo z'herbes. Tradition says you must have an odd number of greens, and that the number will equal the number of new friends you'll make in the coming year. Miss Leah makes hers with quite a bit of meat: brisket and chaurice (hot sausage). Other cooks affirm that there should be no meat in gumbo z'herbes; real purists say there shouldn't even be seafood.
The green gumbo is doled out all day on today. Sometimes a line forms for it. The wait is worth it. Dooky Chase continues to serve as the Galatoire's of the Creole of color community locally. Its clientele transcends race. Everybody loves Miss Lea, one of New Orleans's most famous chefs, still at it in her eighties. Go to Dooky Chase today and get your gumbo.
Dooky Chase. Mid-City: 2301 Orleans Ave. 504-821-0600
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Our annual survey of seafood in Southeast Louisiana this year counts down the 33 best seafood species enjoyed in our restaurants, seafood markets, and homes. For the full survey so far, click here.
Everywhere in the world I go, I ask to try what the locals say is their best fish. I've enjoyed a lot of amazing flavors that way--to say nothing of a galaxy of exotic recipes.
But after all those experiences, my belief that pompano is the world's most delicious fish remained firm.
Pompano is not for everybody. Pompano makes a statement. With a fat content higher than most fish we commonly eat , it has a real flavor. Pompano has so much fat that when you're finished cleaning one, your hands feel as if you rubbed them with shortening.
You don't have to clean it much. Once the fish is gutted, it's ready for cooking. The whole fish, placed on the grill with the help of a fish basket, may be the best possible of pompano recipes. Even if you fillet it, leave the skin on. The scales are so fine as to be edible, and if you don't want to eat the skin it comes right off. Still, it tastes a lot better when the from the skin penetrates and adds flavor and tenderness.
Pompano has an unusual texture, too. It doesn't flake or shred. Nor is it meaty like tuna. All the adjectives and comparisons that come to my mind don't do it justice, so I won't use them.
The flavor is the flavor of fish. I know that sounds nutty, but too many of the fish we are fed don't have that taste. The general preference is for blandness. Pompano detractors describe it as "fishy." So do I. That's what I like about it. And why I like it best cooked simply.
The all-time worst recipe is pompano en papillote--at least when done in the traditional way, with a thick seafoody sauce. The sauce and the preparation are good, but they overwhelm the taste of the fish. Maybe that was the idea. The flavor of pompano may have overwhelmed some palates, and had to be diluted with crab stuffing or the like.
The problem with pompano is that it's seasonal, and the seasons are peculiar. As I understand it, pompano move back and forth along the Gulf Coast, from Florida to Mexico. We get the fish when the schools pass in front of us. With the advent of better shipping of fish, however, we've had pompano much more than we once did.
It's even a pretty fish to behold, with its silver-lamé skin. It's a member of the jack family, and has that wide shape with what looks like a too-small head. The ideal size is between a pound and a pound and a half.
Inferior Alternative. Small pompano don't have the flavor of the full-size fish. That makes it easy to order. If the waiter tells you the pompano is running small, wait for another day. (Unless the only other fish is something like tilapia.)
Tomorrow: Number One!
Wednesday, April 4, 2012.
A Trek To River House.
After the tremendous storms yesterday, another line of meteorological violence came through last night. They say that the Gulf of Mexico didn't cool down during the winter as it usually does, and the warm, moist air from there gets roiled up when the cool air from the west comes in. Last night's was the same system that triggered a bunch of tornadoes in Dallas Tuesday. All this fits predictions from the science of global warming. And does not bode well for this year's hurricane season.
Mary Ann had lunch with Danny Millan, who runs Le Foret and the newer Tamarind restaurant. They have this meeting every two months. It's Mary Ann's method of giving service to her advertising accounts. They went to Borgne, John Besh's newest restaurant,in the reopened Hyatt Regency by the Superdome. She didn't like it the first time she went, but she now says it was terrific. I'm still four or five months away from the place.
While waiting, I've decided that I must go to Kenner at least once a week to catch up on the restaurant scene there. Most of it is about ethnic dining, as I discovered when I went there yesterday to have dinner at the Little Chinatown. But today's visit to Louisiana's sixth-largest city (doesn't sound right, but that's true) took me to an unambiguously local eatery.
The River House opened about a year and a half ago, taking over the charming cottage which for sixteen years housed the excellent Le Parvenu. In one of the most mysterious declines I've ever seen, that restaurant suddenly ground to a halt, and its talented owner-chef Dennis Hutley left to take a job at the Chateau Country Club.
The River House came in shortly after Le Parvenu's demise. From what I could tell and remember, the new owner made only cosmetic changes to the building. (Although he told me tonight that he just had to make a major one, when a tree fell during a storm and wiped out the restaurant's office.)
I get asked about River House often. Mary Ann brought it up just this morning. (She wants to sell them an ad, of course.) The reason I haven't been in all this time is that the reports I hear from e-mails and phone calls remain inconsistent. Most either love or dislike it. The few opinions that land in between makes me even more cautious.
It was a cool, sunny moment in the pre-gloaming, and I took a table out on the porch. I'm not big on outdoor dining, but this is a special place for me. I live and went to school within two blocks of here in the late 1950s, and it feels like home, still. The cats that always wandered around in the Le Parvenu years were still there. Two of them visited my table. I like cats. I think they figured that out.
I started with a well-made Manhattan in a frozen martini glass and too much French bread and butter. (I have learned my lesson about having a cocktail on an empty stomach, which mine was tonight.) The waitress waxed most enthusiastic about the fish of the day: Louisiana speckled trout. She already hooked me with that, so what for an appetizer? The list included cliches from both the past (escargots, fried calamari) and present (spinach-artichoke dip, crab cakes with a cheese sauce).
I asked whether an appetizer size crabmeat au gratin could be had. It could. Except for the easily-ignored melted Cheddar on top, the gratin was good, and came with more French bread for getting up the creamy sauce. Next, a spring mix salad with a dressing not offered to me in a long time: creamy Italian. Served on the side. Twice in one week, I find myself complaining about a salad's not being tossed in the kitchen. I'm fighting a losing battle on this matter, I'm afraid.
In the gap between courses, I was visited by Piero Cenni, the chef-owner of the good but neglected-by-the-public Ristorante da Piero, a door away from the River House. Usual story from Piero. Business is slow, for all the usual reasons except the one most obvious to me: he does very little promotion of his restaurant. Its fans love it, but the other 95 percent have never heard of it.
The trout was pretty. I asked for it amandine style, with some of the creamed spinach offered in the Florentine version underneath. That combination has become one of my favorite old-style fish dishes. It needs a name. First place I ever saw it was at a wine dinner at Galatoire's last year. But I'll bet others have been getting it for awhile. What's French for "trout over and under"?
This particular version of truite sur et sous spent too much time in the pan with the butter, and had lost its firmness. The flavor was all right. The potatoes were like a cross between mashed and au gratin, and good enough that I ate too much of them. Also on the side were some green beans. It seems to me I'm seeing a lot of green beans as a complimentary side in restaurants these days. Just in the last ten days, they turned up at Mandina's, Zea, Keith Young's Steak House, and here.
For dessert, a thick cylinder of bread pudding, a bit on the heavy side but tasty with a lot of cinnamon.
I think the River House has an image problem. The memory of Le Parvenu marks it as a gourmet restaurant, and so does the menu there now. In fact, it's much more like Mandina's than Le Parvenu. All three restaurants do (or did) trout amandine, but at Mandina's you don't have to dress up, and you can get out for under $20. The trout dish I had at the River House was $17, including a salad and two sides. Expectations must be lowered at prices like that, and at that level the place succeeds.
Unfortunately, a lot of people think that a top-class dinner can be had for $17. It can't, and it isn't.
River House. Kenner: 509 Williams Blvd. 504-471-0534.
It's over three years since a day was missed in the Dining Diary. To browse through all of the entries since 2008, go here.
A Festival Of Spanish Food And Wines
Santa Fe Tapas
Wednesday, April 11, 7 p.m.
Lee Circle Area: 1327 St Charles Ave Maison St. Charles Hotel)
$65, inclusive of tax, tip, and wines.
Jumbo Prawn Ceviche
Coconut milk, cilantro
Wine: St. Cosme Little James Basket Blanc
Caramelized Diver Scallop
Corn-fava bean succotash, fine herb ravigote, frisee
Wine: Hermann Moser Gruner Veltliner "Per Due" '10.
Pan Roasted Gulf Fish
Crisp oyster mushroom, artichoke confit, beurre rouge
Wine: Bigvine Pinot Noir Arroyo Grande Valley '09
Rotisserie Lamb Persillade
Flageolet beans, eggplant guisado, mint chimichurri, rosemary mint jus
Wine: Castro Ventosa "El Castro De Valtuille Joven" D.o. Bierzo '09.
Louisiana Goat Cheese Panna Cotta
Lemon-blueberry compote, vanilla tuille
Wine: Il Faggeto Prosecco DOC
Parking is easy: you can enter the hotel parking lot and get to the restaurant through the lobby. Should be an interesting night of Spanish food and wines!
West End Park
"For many people Fitzgerald's is the only restaurant in town," Richard Collin once wrote. That was an accurate statement. Even people who thought that Fitzgerald's wasn't as good as it once was would always bring it up in any conversation about dining out, as if it were as essential to the local dining scene as Antoine's. Fitzgerald's must have been a fine place indeed at some time. Just not in my time.
Or the explanation could be that it was as perfect a slice of New Orleans local color as could be imagined. A tin-roofed building on stilts over Lake Pontchartrain, it was set out farther from the shore than any other West End restaurant. It had lake views in three directions; most other places had only one. You reached it by walking up a wooden pier, above which was an animated neon sign of a smiling fish flapping its tail.
Then you'd wait for a table. Sometimes for a long time. For most of its history, Fitzgerald's was a packed house, and its supplicants would put up with almost anything to get in there.
The menu was bigger than most others in West End, although in essence it was the same. Boiled and fried seafood accounted for most of the orders. The boiled crabs, shrimp, and crawfish were served ice cold. The fried seafood came out in huge platters that held a great deal of seafood on them. By today's standards of overfeeding—Deanie's, for example—it would not be considered supersized. But if you ordered soft-shell crabs, you always got at least two of them. Three full slices of buttered (was that butter, or oil from the seafood?) underlined all of these plates—for what purpose, no one has ever divined.
Fitzgerald's was highly regarded by its fans for its lobsters. These folks would repeat what the menu said, about how Caribbean lobsters were better than Maine lobsters because they weren't tough. (They were also half the price of Maine lobsters, but never mind.)
Like most West End restaurants, Fitzgerald's stuffed a lot of fish and shellfish with crabmeat stuffing. The making of crabmeat stuffing was an art at West End. It was two arts, in fact. One was to make it taste good. The other—more of interest to the owner than to the customer—was how to use the maximum amount of bread crumbs without making people say "Where's the crabmeat in this?" Fitzgerald's was a master of the latter skill.
Fitzgerald's, like all other restaurants at West End, suffered when the new pay parking lot came in the early 1980s. With each passing year, the crowd at Fitzgerald's got smaller and older. The big parties of a dozen people with lots of kids were much rarer.
Ownership changed at least twice. One of the latter proprietors was Andrew Jaeger, whose family had run seafood restaurants for decades—although never before at West End. He kicked some life back into the restaurant, but its reputation among younger diners was hopeless, and the older customers complained about every change. And the place was in pretty bad shape. Hurricane Georges hit the place so hard that it had to be torn down.
Nouvelle Pompano en Papillote
There are few worse travesties than the pompano en papillote found in traditional New Orleans restaurants. It starts with the best fish there is--one so good that sauces tend to detract from, not add to, the flavor. Then this great fish goes into a parchment bag with the gloppiest kind of light-roux, white-wine, three-or-four-seafood sauce. What comes out is anonymous, if rich.
I will admit, however, that the idea of the papillote--to keep the fish moist by cooking it essentially in its own steam--is a fine idea. Looks nice, too. So here's my take. It starts with flounder, a milder fish that steams well. Small salmon and freshwater trout also work well. Of course, you could use actual pompano.
The parchment paper you need for this is more easily available than it once was, and it's always at kitchen stores.
- 4 fillets of flounder (or pompano, trout, or salmon), about 6 oz. each
- 2 Tbs. softened butter
- 1/2 cup green onions, green part only, thinly sliced
- 1/2 stalk celery, cut into matchsticks
- 4 tsp. fresh dill, snipped fine
- 1 tsp. chopped fresh tarragon, chopped
- 1 Tbs. lemon juice
- 2 Tbs. white wine
- 1/4 tsp. Tabasco jalapeno pepper sauce
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
1. Cut the paper large enough to enclose the fish completely, with enough overlap to fold over to make a tight seal.
2. After washing the fish fillets and checking for bones, generously butter each fillet. Place them on the parchment paper. Top with the green onions, celery, dill, and tarragon.
3. Combine the lemon juice, white wine, and Tabasco. Sprinkle the mixture all over the fish. Add salt to taste.
4. Fold the paper over and fold the edges down hard, then fold down again to seal the pouch as securely as possible. Place the papillotes on a baking pan and place them in the center of the oven. Bake for 15-18 minutes (longer if the fish is thick).
5. Remove the papillotes from the oven and place on serving plates. Serve immediately with a sharp steak knife for opening the bags. The fish should be eaten right out of the bag. (On a plate, of course.)Serves four.
April 5, 2012
Days Until. . .
French Quarter Festival 8
Jazz Festival 22
Chef D'Oeuvre Du Jour
#232: Eggs Shannon @ Brennan's, French Quarter: 417 Royal. Brennan's created the fancy breakfast as we know it. Nobody does more varied or better egg concoctions. I like this one particularly because 1) it's big enough to serve as a lunch entree (some of the other egg dishes are a bit too light to tide one over to dinner), b) it combines fried fish and creamed spinach, which are wonderful together, and iii) it's unique to Brennan's. What you have is demi-fillets of fried trout (or whatever's available) on top of a layer of creamed spinach, with poached eggs and hollandaise on top. This cries out for a glass of Champagne alongside, even at nine in the morning. This is one of NOMenu's 500 Best Dishes in New Orleans. Collect all 500!
Legends Of New Orleans Dining
In 1910 on this date, one of the most important New Orleans restaurateurs of all time was born. Thirty-six years later, Owen Edward Brennan founded Brennan's. He was later joined in the business by his siblings Adelaide, John, Ella, Dick, and Dottie, and then by his sons Pip, Ted, and Jimmy Brennan. What came out of that combination was a style of grand dining that dominated the high end of the scale for decades. In its evolved form, it still does.
Owen E. Brennan's first business was the Absinthe House, which he opened in 1943. He was a congenial host, and the place became a celebrated hangout. A running joke was that people would go to the Absinthe House to complain about Arnaud's. Owen duly reported this to his friend Count Arnaud Cazenave. Count Arnaud came back with a fateful challenge: "If you think you can do it better, why don't you open a restaurant yourself? No Irishman can serve French food!"
Owen leased the Vieux Carre Restaurant (across the street from both the Absinthe House and Arnaud's) and opened Owen Brennan's French & Creole Restaurant. Brennan's was a success from the outset. Its freewheeling style--calling the food French cooking, but serving whatever sounded good to the customers--changed the way first-class dining rooms operated. It did so well that the landlord insisted on a piece of the business when the lease came up for renewal. Owen told him to stick it, and found a new location on Royal Street.
A few months before the new Brennan's was to open, Owen attended a dinner of La Confrerie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, a gourmet society of which he was a member, at Antoine's. He ate and drank well. He died in his sleep that night. He was only 45. He left a legacy of hospitality that lives on in all the Brennan restaurants, and those owned by people who worked in them. I wish I had met him.
Legends In Winemaking
Today in 1994, Andre Tchelitscheff died, ending the most influential career in the history of California winemaking. Born in 1901 in Russia, Tchelistcheff worked in the French wine business before going to California as Prohibition ended. At Beaulieu Vineyards he pioneered methods of winemaking and wine marketing that made them what they are today. Tchelitscheff planted French grape varieties and blended wines in a French way, but used American oak barrels for aging. He also was the first to use cold fermentation, and developed methods for protecting vines from disease and frost. His laboratory and wine library was the most respected source of information about viticulture for decades. When you drink a Napa wine especially, you are benefiting from Tchelistcheff's legacy.
Legends In Seeds
W. Atlee Burpee, who founded the seed company that bears his name, was born today in 1858. His company sold seeds nationwide by mail order, and the varieties of plants whose seeds he sold became dominant just by that fact.
Legends In Dairy
Today in 1881, Edwing Houston and Elihu Thomson received a patent for a centrifuge that separated cream from raw milk. It made possible all those creamy soups and sauces we love so much. Cream--is practically a sauce unto itself--is a magic ingredient. So much so that restaurants overuse it, sometimes winding up with too many dishes that taste the same. When you find more than fifteen percent of a restaurant's non-dessert menu made with a substantial amount of cream, you are in a restaurant with a failure of imagination.
In honor of Owen Brennan, whose grand Breakfast at Brennan's redefined the upper limits of the meal, today is Fancy Poached Eggs Day. Most of the egg creations on Brennan's menu were French classics revived by Chef Paul Blange. It shortly became clear that the ones people liked most were poached eggs (which few restaurants offered in the 1940s) set atop some flavorful food (ham, crabmeat, creamed spinach), and covered with hollandaise. From that came the endless variations we find today in any restaurant that serves Sunday brunch. The restaurants love such dishes: few menu items carry as low a food cost percentage as do eggs.
Deft Dining Rule #168:
If you want to see how good a breakfast chef is, ask for coddled or shirred eggs. If they make either without question, you have a winner.
Annals Of Salt
On this day in 1930, Mohandas Gandhi took a group of his followers to a salt flat and began collecting salt from the ground, in defiance of a British rule that all salt had to be bought from England. He was arrested immediately, but scored a moral victory.
Benedict, KS 66714 is in the southeast corner of Kansas, ninety miles east of Wichita. It's a town of 73 people (down from 103 ten years ago), all living in a grid of perfectly square blocks. Most of those blocks are home to many more trees than people, with only three or four houses on each. Benedict first appeared on a map in the 1880s, when the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad touched the Verdigris River here. Farming has always been the main occupation, but the Dust Bowl years were hard on Benedict. Discovery of oil and gas boosted the population in the 1950s. It's not enough to support a restaurant, though, and you have to drive eight miles to Buffalo and Drakes Place Cafe to get a bite to eat. I wouldn't bet on getting eggs Benedict there, either.
eggs Benedict, n.--Poached eggs set atop grilled ham on some kind of biscuit or toast, with the entire stack topped with hollandaise. Eggs Benedict are universal in restaurants serving brunch or fancy breakfasts. Many variations on the idea exist, enough that some menus show a category of "benedicts" or even "bennies." Many other ingredients have been used in lieu of the ham, ranching from other meats to fish to vegetables. How the dish was created is a subject of dispute, with several authoritative sources each telling a different story. Most agree that eggs Benedict became popular early in the 1900s. Several different people named Benedict have been put forth the person who was present at its invention. Food writer Elizabeth David says that it descended from an old French dish made with salted, dried codfish. The main data worth knowing are a) the bread on the bottom needs to absorb the water from the poached eggs without getting soggy, and 2) the hollandaise has to be flavored with a touch of red pepper.
The Old Kitchen Sage Sez:
Non-iodized table salt is the purest salt in the history of salt-making. I can't think of a reason not to use it.
Alberto "Cubby" Broccoli, the producer of the James Bond movies, was born today in 1909. Not only does he have a food name, but one of his ancestors actually created the vegetable by hybridizing cauliflower. . . Gregory Peck was born today in 1916. . . Daniel Bakeman was the last surviving soldier from the Revolutionary War when he died today in 1869. . . The Lord of the Satsuma Clan, which lived on the island of Kyushu in Japan, invaded Okinawa on this date in 1609.
Words To Eat By
"Without butter, without eggs, there is no reason to come to France."--Chef Paul Bocuse.
Words To Drink By
"Bad news isn't wine. It doesn't improve with age."--Colin Powell, former Secretary of State, born today in 1937.
Men Don't Get It, Chapter 530.
Today's report: coffeeshops, and what they're really for. Click here for the cartoon.
Have a lusty New Orleans meal today!