Thursday, May 13, 2010
1086 Restaurants Open Around Town
John Besh Cooks Dinner At Cafe Reconcile
Tonight, Chef John Besh shows up at Cafe Reconcile to cook a dinner in support of that important New Orleans institution. It's four courses of food from his excellent new cookbook, My New Orleans--and you get an autographed copy of the cookbook, which sells for $40.
Cafe Reconcile is a brilliant concept that has succeeded fantastically in its main goal: to give at-risk (the new term for what used to be called "troubled") young adults the opportunity to learn the skills needed to work in the restaurant business. That not only gives them the means to make a good living, but also pulls them away from the problems that may have beset them in the past. The dinner begins at 6:30 p.m., and if I had the menu I'd tell you what it is. The $165 price includes everything, and all the proceeds go to Cafe Reconcile. For reservations, call 504-299-3962.
Cafe Reconcile Lee Circle Area: 1631 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd.
Wednesday, May 5. Jackson Returns With New Menu. Jackson is back open. It's an oddly-configured bistro on Magazine Street, in the last block uptown before it becomes a two-way street. A number of restaurants have come and gone in this space during the last decade. The original Jackson--run by some departees from Brennan's--was very good, but just disappeared one day. The owner said they just weren't making enough money. I think this may be because it was the most gentrified establishment on the block. The Lower Garden District is much busier and more interesting with each new year, as those marvelous old buildings (many of which predate the Civil War) are renovated.
The space in use this night was downstairs, where I have rarely dined in the past iterations. (A sort of mezzanine on the second floor was the typical main dining area.) The table gave me a clear view of the kitchen, which I don't mind--especially not when I lack a dining partner.
The new Jackson is owned by different people, with a different chef cooking a different menu. It was not the menu I expected to see, dominated as it was by hamburgers and other very casual eats. On the other hand, the main menu was accompanied by a list of much more ambitious specials, enough that it seemed to have come from a different restaurant.
But interesting enough. I began with Jackson's answer to oysters a la Drago, grilled on the shells with butter and parmesan cheese, and topped with a shrimp. That sounded good to me, but it wasn't a great idea. Oysters and shrimp, when both are in their nearly-native states with little in the way of sauce or broth or pasta to bring them together, clash with one another. I wound up eating all the shrimp, then all the oysters. Not a terrible fate, but. . . well, I think they ought to come up with a new approach.
The waitress--who was charming and helpful--thought my idea of following the oysters with the mussels was sane. I wasn't sure, so I threw a salad in between. It reminded me of the famous one at the Marigny Brasserie, made with spinach, strawberries, blue cheese, pecans, and what looked like cracklings, with a balsamic vinaigrette. Quite good.
The mussels looked perfect. They were served amply and cooked just right, plump and juicy and fresh. But I had an issue with the sauce. It was made in the classic way with the juices of the muss les, savory vegetables, and white wine. But the concoction needs to be brought to a good boil and left there for a minute or so, to burn off most of the alcohol from the wine. Alcohol is not a good flavor in non-sweet dishes, coming across as bitter. Not bad enough to send back, but a bit of a disappointment.
I will chalk this up to having come too soon, and will return for the hamburger, which a number of people tell me is excellent.
Jackson. Garden District: 1910 Magazine. 504-522-5766.
Lacombe: 27491 Highway 190. 985-882-9443. Map.
Open noon-7 p.m. Sunday.
AE DS MC V
WHY IT'S NOTEWORTHY
The most popular white-tablecloth restaurant on the North Shore got that way by serving terrific New Orleans-Italian food in tremendous portions, at prices so low it makes one wonder how Sal Impastato makes a buck at it. It made that reputation during two decades in a smelly wreck of a building. Its much more atmospheric current quarters cement the relationship with a million regulars, and the place is always packed.
WHY IT'S GOOD
You can go a long way with large portions at low prices. But even if they halved and doubled those respectively, the food here would still seem like a good deal. Particularly in the seafood department, Sal Impastato's cooking excels. His pasta dishes (especially those involving shrimp and crabmeat) are light and perfect. First-class sauces make everything a little bit better still.
Sal Impastato and his brother Joe (who runs his own restaurant in Metairie) came to New Orleans from their native Sicily. They wound up working for Jimmy Moran at his La Louisiane in the French Quarter, a legendary and first-class Italian eatery. Moran taught the Impastato brothers their strokes. Joe calls Sal "the chef in the family," and this is a fact. Sal opened Sal and Judy's in the late 1970s. (Judy, his ex-wife, left to open other restaurants.)
Two well-furnished dining rooms provide only a few more seats than the old shack did, but the restaurant seems much more spacious and certainly more comfortable, albeit in a suburban style. Sal is always roaming around the dining room, but he spend most of his time cooking, as the condition of his shirt and apron amply prove.
Stuffed artichoke (with bread crumbs and garlic).
Baked oysters Cinisi (mushrooms and Italian sausage).
Trout Jimmy (with artichokes and lemon).
Soft shell crabs.
Spaghetti aglio olio with Italian sausage and roasted peppers.
Spaghetti with oysters.
Veal any style.
FOR BEST RESULTS
Make reservations as far in advance as you can, especially on weekends. Order one course less than you normally would, to adjust for the large portions. The restaurant's printed menu hides the fact that they have many more dishes; just ask if you want something a little offbeat.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR IMPROVEMENT
They need to use bigger plates, because the food goes all the way to the edge in many cases.
FACTORS OTHER THAN FOOD
Up to three points, positive or negative, for these characteristics. Absence of points denotes average performance in the matter.
- Dining Environment +1
- Consistency +2
- Service +1
- Value +3
- Attitude +1
- Wine and Bar +1
- Local Color +1
- Good for business meetings
- Open all afternoon
- Good for children
- Easy, nearby parking
ANECDOTES AND ANALYSIS
It doesn't matter much who you are. It's going to be tough getting a table at Sal and Judy's on moment's notice. That's even if you know Sal. Everybody knows Sal. Sal is one of the nicest guys in the restaurant business. He comes across as just another Italian immigrant who hasn't quite figured things out, and he lets his regular customers fill him in. (It's interesting to watch this, as some of them go so far as to talk with a bad Italian accent.)
In fact, Sal Impastato is one of the most savvy restaurateurs around. Nobody except Paul Prudhomme or Emeril can match his success in marketing his sauces, salad dressings, seasonings, and olive oil, which are everywhere in New Orleans supermarkets. (They're successful largely because they really duplicate the flavors served in the restaurant.) And the restaurant is packed all the time. For the best of reasons: the food really is good enough to be worth a trip across the lake and the trouble of making a reservation well in advance.
"Macquechoux" is the Cajun French rendition of a word used by the Native Americans who lived in what is now Louisiana. It meant "cooked corn," so "corn macquechoux" is redundant. But never mind. It's a delicious and common side dish in Cajun country, good enough that it's made its way into New Orleans Creole cooking. The corn is cooked down with all the ingredients of a Creole sauce and a lot of butter. The corn becomes soft and almost a stew, but the kernels don't disintegrate. In some families, enough sugar is added to the concoction to make it unambiguously sweet. Macquechoux can be turned into an entree by adding crawfish tails, small shrimp, or diced andouille sausage to the mix. Those variations are typically made with more pepper than for a side dish.
- 5 ears fresh yellow corn
- 1 stick butter
- 1/2 cup chopped onions
- 1 small red bell pepper, chopped
- 1 rib celery, chopped
- 2 small, ripe but firm tomatoes, seeds and pulp removed, chopped
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 1/2 tsp. black pepper
- 1/4 tsp. cayenne
- Tabasco jalapeno sauce to taste
For an entree:
- 2 lbs. fresh Louisiana crawfish tails or medium shrimp or andouille sausage (the latter diced)
1. Shuck the corn and rinse with cold water. Hold the corn upright with the tip of the ear on a shallow plate. With a sharp knife, cut the kernels off the ear. When finished, use the knife to scrape the ears to extract as much of the corn "milk" as possible. Do this for all the ears.
2. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, heat the butter until it bubbles, and add the onions, bell peppers, and celery. Cook until they soften.
3. Lower the heat. Add the corn and the corn milk, and all the other ingredients up to and including the cayenne. Cover and cook, stirring every few minutes, for 20-25 minutes. If the mixture becomes so dry that it's hard to stir, add a little half-and-half to loosen it up.
4. Adjust the seasonings with salt and Tabasco jalapeno sauce. Serve as a side dish with almost anything.
For an entree: If using shrimp, add them to the butter in step 1 before the vegetables, and cook until they turn pink. Remove and reserve. Add the shrimp back to the pot, with all their juices, when the corn has about five more minutes to cook.
If using crawfish tails, add them to the corn when it has about ten minutes left to cook. Use extra Tabasco.
If using andouille, cook the dice in a pan to extract some of the fat. (This can also be done by wrapping the andouille in a paper towel and microwaving it for two minutes or so.) Add the andouille to the corn when it has about ten minutes left to cook.
Makes eight side dishes or four entrees.