Thursday, June 3, 2010
1086 Restaurants Open Around Town
Italian Cookbook Author Lidia Bastianich
At Garden District Books This Evening.
The Cookbook Club at the Garden District Bookshop keep bringing in interesting authors. They have a great one today: Lidia Bastianich, well-known for her New York restaurant Felidia and her PBS television show. She has a new cookbook: Lidia Cooks from the Heart of Italy: A Feast of 175 Regional Recipes. The book covers areas of Italy that are less well known in this country: Umbria and Marches, for example. I traveled around Italy with he some years ago for about a week, and learned a lot just listening to her. The Cookbook Club is open to everyone, and you're invited to bring a dish to share with the other people who show up. Cookbook Club members may purchase a copy of this month's selection at a 20% discount. Lidia will be autographing cookbooks from 6 p.m. until around 7:30 p.m. If you can't make it and want to get an autographed copy, call the bookstore and they'll have it done for you.
Garden District Books. 2727 Prytania St. (at Washington Ave., in The Rink). 504-895-2266.
Creator Of Zapp's Potato Chips
Ron Zappe, 67
Ron Zappe died Tuesday, June 1, after a fight with cancer. He was sixty-seven
Zappe (pronounced "zap-ee") had an idea in the 1980s that he was hell-bent on executing. Even though all his friends and every banker and investor he spoke with thought it was a crazy plan.
"Potato chips?" they asked. "What makes you think that you can go up against Frito-Lay and the other big boys? They'll run circles around you in marketing. You'll never get shelf space. A potato chip is a potato chip." Stuff like that.
Of course, Zappe proved right. His small-batch, kettle-fried chips, with their distinctive local names and flavors, were an immediate hit with the hungry public. Why not Cajun Craw-Taters? Why not Tabasco-flavored potato chips? Everybody loved them.
And to make sure, Ron Zappe was always showing up wherever a lot of people might be so they could try his chips. An engaging, generous, and funny guy, he made people smile when they thought of him. When he heard me talking on the radio about going with my son on a Boy Scout campout, he sent a few cases of chips to the school to make it more fun. He was always doing things like that.
Zappe opened his plant in Gramercy, a place where the 1980s oil bust had put a lot of people out of work. Zapp's Potato Chips became an engine of the economy in the area, ultimately employing 200 people.
Meanwhile Zappe's potato chips went beyond Southeast Louisiana. They were essential in any care package of local products sent to people out of town. And then they started showing up in supermarkets far away.
Zapp's Potato Chips will crunch ahead as his legacy. I will miss seeing his burly, smiling face.
Wednesday, May 26. Eat Club, NOWFE At Drago's. A few months ago Tommy Cvitanovich at Drago's asked me to involve the Eat Club in his NOWFE dinner tonight. I could not and would not say no. I knew the food would be good, and the Cvitanovich family planned to give the entire proceeds to charity.
Tommy contracted with the radio station to broadcast live before the dinner. Early in the show, a man called in with a great idea. "Everybody's so worked up about this top-kill thing they're going to do to the leaking oil well today that I couldn't get the words out of my mind," he said. "I think Top Kill would be a good name for a new cocktail!"
Within five minutes we had three bartenders working on this project. Efforts to build a layered drink using black Sambuca failed because the stuff sank to the bottom. But failure of early strategies fits right into the story of BP's oil spill. The first success was what looked like a frozen blue daiquiri, topped with a blob of chocolate syrup and a few chunks of Oreos. "That's the oil," the bartender said, "and the cookies are the tar balls." It tasted a little minty and good.
The second entrant resembled the water just off the mouth of the Mississippi. It was made with Bailey's Irish Cream, and had chocolate syrup sliding down the sides of the glass. The third cocktail--and, everybody agreed, the best--came from Ivana. She shook two ounces of Stoli Vanil vodka and a half-ounce of blue Curacao with ice. Then squirted chocolate syrup around the inside rim of a martini glass. It oozed downward. She strained the pale-blue Stoli mixture into the center, so it wouldn't act as a dispersant to the chocolate "oil." It looked like blue sea water, all right. But the flavor--tinged with chocolate, even though the "oil" hadn't dissolved into the "water"--was truly delicious.
A new classic is born! I hope the top kill works on the well when they do it later today.
The dinner was huge--about 120 people. The main dining room wasn't big enough, and a few people had to sit elsewhere in the building. I made my rounds of as many tables as I could, but missed a few. I hope those people weren't miffed. (They sometimes are.) As always occurs when we have a big crowd, the servers lose track of me, and I miss courses.
I made up for that with an experimental dish: grilled mussels. "I'm a little concerned with the supply of oysters," Tommy said. "There's oil in Barataria Bay now, and that's where we get a lot of our oysters. I wouldn't be surprised if we had no Louisiana oysters in a few days. I don't want to sell Texas or Apalachicola oysters. I'll take oysters off the menu if it comes down to that."
I can't believe I'm saying this, but it could be that Tommy's new char-broiled mussels are even better than his famous oysters. I was not the only one at the table saying this. On the other hand, more than a few people said they didn't like mussels, no way, no how. Why? They couldn't say. The problem is the unfamiliarity of mussels. Lots of restaurants serve them now, but I can remember when years went by between appearances of mussels on local menus.
Anyway, after the oysters came and left there were plenty of mussels. I filled myself up on them. Also part of this course was a new dish: oysters Creole, which was exactly what it sounded like. Oysters poached in a classic Creole sauce (tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, celery). This was better than I expected.
Now a salad of seared tuna. Then the lobster, boiled first, cut in half, and grilled with the same stuff that goes on the char-broiled oysters. I'm glad the servers didn't find me for this, because the wine--Markham Merlot, the winery's flagship and a big, bold red--would have been totally wrong. I just kept going with bread and butter.
Dessert--served with Markham Cabernet, and I wish I'd brought some cheese to go with that--was a variation of Black Forest cake. The innovation was making it with strawberries instead of cherries. Very good.
Mary Ann was in attendance, dining with our friend Kay Miller from Dallas and her daughter. Kaye took us in for a few days when we evacuated from Hurricane Gustav two years ago, and she has been on several of our cruises. Fun lady to hang with. But Mary Ann shooed me away. "We're talking politics," she said. No, I don't want to listen to that.
Drago’s. Metairie: 3232 N. Arnoult Rd.. 504-888-9254. Seafood.
Thursday, May 27. End Of School. (Really.) A Trim. Carousel Bar. Royal Street Stroll. Holidays and computer disasters aside, I publish an edition of the New Orleans Menu Daily every weekday without fail. I did not write one today. That's how busy this day, and how important were the items on the agenda.
The first and biggest was the final assembly for the school year at Louise S. McGehee School. A call two days ago let us know that we ought to be present, because Mary Leigh would be receiving a major award. And she did: the top prize, duly named for a generous alumna, for excellence in art. (That was wonderful, but Mary Ann thought she should have received another one.)
This was the last, really, no kidding, the final whole-school event of the year. And the last time the graduating seniors, who sat on the stage being honored again, would wear their uniforms. After two and a half hours, all that remained was the commencement tomorrow night, as Mary Leigh's Graduation Festival keeps on playing.
My original plan was to go to the radio station, put out at least a cursory edition, then get a desperately-needed haircut. But the Marys were importuning me to go to lunch with them. Mary Ann thought Mr. B's would be the place. I expected that the restaurant would be full. By some miracle, we were able not only to get an immediate table, but the best table in the house, at the corner of Iberville and Royal.
Any lingering doubts I had about whether Mr. B's were back up to its pre-hurricane excitement were washed away by this lunch. I started with a cocktail special: a blueberry mojito, of all things, for three bucks. It was jammed with fresh blueberries and mint, and was better than it had any right to be.
Then gumbo ya-ya, which I have been calling the best gumbo in town for thirty years. It still is. Intense broth, dark roux, great andouille and chicken: perfection.
Mary Ann had a buffalo chicken salad (top, above). Fried chicken chunks, tossed with pepper butter, straddling a pile of greens, with blue cheese crumbles all over. Too big to finish. Mary Leigh had a hamburger, of course: with bacon, cheese, and fresh-cut fries of middling goodness.
My entree dates back to Mr. B's earliest days. They had the first wood-burning grill in modern New Orleans, and from it came the second local example (Café Sbisa had it a year before) of char-grilled fish. The one I had today was trout, liberally sprinkled with Creole seasoning, mellowed with beurre blanc. Delicious and fresh.
I think Mr. B's makes the city's best bread pudding--my favorite dessert. They do it by baking it at a very low temperature--about 275 degrees--for a couple of hours. It comes out wonderfully light. The only way I would improve it would be with more cinnamon--but that's my taste in the matter.
The Marys do not usually get desserts, but the waiter said the magic words to Mary Leigh: chocolate molten cake, with ice cream and strawberries. Bing!
After that, they moved on to the rest of their plans (finishing ML's graduation dress is surely one of them). I adjourned to Harold Klein's tonsorial parlor in the basement of the Royal Orleans Hotel. I was early. Harold took a half-hour to make me look presentable for the Grand Graduation, while ragging on politicians past and present.
When he was finished, I had another chunk of time too short to do anything with but sit around waiting for the show to begin. I walked up Royal Street, through the maze of lines set up for the Royal Street Stroll event of the New Orleans Wine Experience. As usual, my part in that was broadcasting from somewhere along the wine-sipping route. This year I was stationed inside the Monteleone Hotel's Carousel Bar. (Not at the bar, of course; that would have tangled everyone in wires.)
Until the Stroll began at 5:30, I were visited by a number of winemakers, hailing from California to Australia. By the time I finish these interviews (always accompanied by samples of the winemaker's works), I'm about done with wine-tasting for the day. Even if I went to the Stroll, I wouldn't get any food or wine, because people stop me every five feet to chat. (And am I glad they do!) I would go straight home after signing off.
During the final hour of the show, our space was shared with a party celebrating the opening of Sex And The City II, which will premiere in New Orleans tonight at Canal Place. A bunch of women in loud getups--pink feather boas, tiaras with flashing lights, and illuminated martini glasses filled with Cosmopolitan cocktails--partied, ate, and drank. They were business customers of the hotel, who hosted the event. They seemed to be having a lot of fun pretending that they were on the prowl for men. We men know that this is only a pose.
Mr. B’s Bistro. French Quarter: 201 Royal. 504-523-2078. Contemporary Creole.
WHY IT'S NOTEWORTHY
Catch is the casual fried seafood restaurant the Uptown neighborhoods need--almost. They have the platters, the oysters, and the gumbo, along with a few other odds and ends. But it also has an imperative to improve the basics that should have been resisted a bit more. In its more ambitious dishes and specials, it is delicious. But the fried platters need to back off a bit and return to first principles--notably lightness of crust.
WHY IT'S GOOD
Catch has much more variety than the standard seafood restaurant offers. Some of the menu is unexpectedly good as a result--notably the spaghetti and meatballs and the fried chicken. The grilled oysters and the hush puppies are superb. The basic fried catfish, oysters, and shrimp are disappointing, though--and that's what's most needed Uptown, which has few straightforward seafood restaurants.
Tarek Tay, Gabriel Saliba, and Hicham Khodr--three Beirut natives who own the Byblos restaurants, including the one two doors down--opened Catch in late 2009. Hicham is also a partner with Emeril in NOLA, and from that restaurant he hired a few chefs for Catch. This explains the unusual hipness of the menu. The historic building (it dates back to the 1880s) has hosted a number of restaurants over the years, memorably Flagons, Mystic Cafe, and Semolina.
The antique facade fronts a fully contemporary space. Large windows give onto Magazine Street, and visually include the tables on the sidewalk in the tout ensemble. A large bar is on the Pleasant Street side of the expansive dining room. If one were to set out with the goal or building the noisiest imaginable acoustics into a dining room, one would find this one difficult to beat. When full, the place is earsplitting.
Raw oysters on the half shell
Grilled oysters (photo above)
Corn and crab bisque
Fried artichoke hearts
Crabmeat and four cheese pizza
Crabmeat and celery root salad
Firecracker shrimp (in wontons with cucumber kimchee)
Crab and artichoke gratin
Oyster or shrimp poor boys
Fried shrimp, oyster, and/or catfish platter
Fish and chips
Southwestern spiced mahi-mahi
Grilled tuna with pasta and brown butter
Baked drumfish with crabmeat and lemon butter
Spaghetti and meatballs
Fried chicken breasts
Pepper-grilled ribeye steak
FOR BEST RESULTS
Ask for a little dish of the Creole tomato glaze, a sweet-heat red sauce they squirt on the hush puppies, but which is fantastic on other things--notably the grilled tuna. Avoid peak times unless you don't want to speak with your dining partners. Although there is no oyster bar, they do shuck good, fresh oysters to order.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR IMPROVEMENT
They really must do something to tone down the noise.
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 +2
- Wine and Bar +1
- Hipness +2
- Local Color +2
- Sidewalk tables
- Medium private room
- Open Sunday lunch and dinner
- Open Monday lunch and dinner
- Open all afternoon
- Oyster bar
- Good for children
- Reservations accepted
Ten Best Restaurants For Escargots
Eating snails, after languishing as passe for a decade or two, has become popular again. Here are the best snails in town right now. Although a few innovative versions are on the list, most of them are bubbling (we hope) in garlic butter. There's nothing like garlic butter.
5. Brennan’s. French Quarter: 417 Royal. 504-525-9711. This is the garlic-and-herb butter again, green from the herbs. What makes this striking is that it's the only serving of snails in New Orleans that uses actual snail shells.
6. Keith Young’s Steak House. Madisonville: 165 LA. 21. 985-845-9940. The standard garlic-herb butter, best on the North Shore. It's a light appetizer (if you don't eat too much bread), leaving room for the steak.
7. Pelican Club. French Quarter: 615 Bienville. 504-523-1504. They've always served their snails with a sort of Asian-inspired sauce, although there's no lack of garlic either. They're topped with what the restaurant calls puff pastry "hats." Cute, and good.
10. Ciro’s Cote Sud. Riverbend: 7918 Maple. 504-866-9551. The very French bistro and pizza maker brings the classic bourguignonne version out smelling great, with more than the average amount of butter.
Have I missed a good one? If you know of a great version of snails that belongs on this list, post it on our messageboard. (You'll also find other people's suggestions there.)
Shirred Eggs with Crabmeat Remick
The biggest hit we've ever had when we invited people over for Sunday brunch was this dish, which turns a classic crabmeat appetizer into a terrific egg dish. You don't see shirred eggs very often, even in restaurants, but I love the style. The technique is to cook the eggs with powerful heat from above after setting them on something savory.
- 6 slices smoky, thick bacon
- 1 lb. jumbo lump crabmeat
- 1 Tbs. lemon juice
- 12 eggs
- 1/2 tsp. salt-free Creole seasoning
- 1/4 tsp. salt
- 1/2 tsp. Tabasco
- 1/4 cup bottled chili sauce
- 1/2 cup mayonnaise
- 1 Tbs. Creole mustard
- 1 Tbs. tarragon vinegar
1. Slice the bacon into squares and fry till crisp. Drain very well and set aside.
2. Divide crabmeat into six small, shallow au gratin dishes. Sprinkle with lemon juice, and heat in 350-degree oven for five minutes.
3. While waiting for crabmeat to warm, blend all the sauce ingredients.
4. When the crabmeat is hot, top each baking dish with an equal portion of crumbled bacon. Pour the sauce right on top, just enough to cover. Then carefully break two eggs onto each dish, keeping the yolk whole.
5. Turn the oven on broil and place the ramekins under the fire until the eggs have set. Serve immediately with a warning that the dish is mouth-searingly hot!