Thursday, June 17, 2010
1103 Restaurants Open Around Town
Patron Tequila Train In N.O. Station
Tonight, To Help Fishermen
Patron Tequila's private railroad car, is traveling around the country to raise money for the fishermen whose lives have been wrecked by the oil spill. After earning $60,000 for that cause in Washington last week, it's due to pull into Union Passenger Terminal (Loyola Avenue at Earhart Blvd.) this afternoon. The grand old heavyweight private car (vintage 1926) will be the center of several events over the weekend.
The first is a cocktail party this evening. From 6-9 p.m., hors d’oeuvres prepared by Chef Justin Devillier of La Petit Grocery and Aaron Burgau of Patois will be paired with Patrón cocktails. The price is $50, with all the proceeds going to the St. Bernard Project to help the fishermen.
Part Two is Saturday night, when a five-course dinner will be swerved aboard the railroad car to 25 people. The chefs will be Tory McPhail of Commander’s Palace, Chris Lusk of Café Adelaide and Nathan Gresham of Galatoire’s of Baton Rouge. The dinner is $250. This sounds very cool. To reserve a place on The Patrón Tequila Epicurean Express for either event, email email@example.com.
Formerly New City Grill; New Owners, Same Chef
Old Metairie Bistro Opens
A couple of months ago the New City Grille--a classy, tasty bistro on Metairie Road at Labarre--suddenly closed down for no apparent reason. The popularity of the place became apparent immediately. I got two or three calls asking about the closing every day for weeks on my radio show, which was about fifty times as many as I heard about the place when it was open.
Now, after some remodeling and all the other tasks that attend starting a new restaurant, the place is back in business as the Old Metairie Bistro. Monday, June 14 was the official opening day. The owner is Louis Fuquet III; the chef will be William Mauk. He was the man in the kitchen at the previous restaurant, and a very good one, I thought--particularly when he cut loose with specials.
Other than Chef Mauk's presence, there's no connection between the New City Grill (the old place) and the Old Metairie Bistro (the new one). The new menu leans more heavily to the chef's more innovative side. Other than that, the new establishment seems to be picking up where its predecessor left off, with the same contemporary Creole style.
As for what happened to the previous owner, Derrick Todd: he had a distracting personal issue that forced him to close the place. I expect we'll see him again somewhere else, since he's had a long, successful career running eateries.
Old Metairie Bistro. Old Metairie: 2700 Metairie Rd. 504-836-6972. Contemporary Creole.
Tuesday, June 8. Beef Sandwich From Bear's. Beef Fondue At Pho Orchid. Some Thoughts On Vietnamese Food. The Marys made a sortie into Mandeville for reasons I'm better off not knowing about. One of the targets was Bear's, where Mary Ann would score a poor boy and Mary Leigh would down a large order of cheese fries--the only thing she eats there, but enough of a lure to have Bear's on her A-list.
My loving wife brought home a small roast beef poor boy for me. The French bread was thoroughly saturated with gravy, beginning to dissolve in it. (Another reason never to get take-out anything.)
But I know how to fix this problem. I cut the sandwich in half (no way I can finish a whole one), put one half on a wire rack atop a pizza pan, and put it into the oven at 400 degrees. Eight minutes later (the oven wasn't pre-heated), I took out a crisp, hot poor boy, and relished eating it. Not quite as good as if it had come right out of the restaurant's oven (the lettuce had wilted, among other fine details injured). But a nice treat for lunch.
Tuesday is my Ethnic Day. I don't know how or why that got started, but it goes back to my earliest radio restaurant reviews, in 1975. I did one every day, and it helped to have some sort of framework. Ethnic Day influences my choice for Tuesday dinner venues, too.
Tonight I was at Pho Orchid in Metairie. It has never been busy when I've gone, but any call from a listener always radiates praise. It's a Vietnamese restaurant specializing in the beef noodle soup of its first name, but its menu is more comprehensive than most Viet cafes.
Pho Orchid is also a nicer-looking restaurant than most in that category. The address has seen enough former restaurants to require both hands to count. The current owners thoroughly renovated the space, making it dark, cool, and elegant. They're not quite finished, apparently. One wall was covered with plastic sheeting while new windows are installed.
I've had the pho and the bun and the spring rolls and the other Vietnamese standards here. Tonight I wanted to push on into something more elaborate. While looking over the menu from the other wide of a bottle of a Halida Vietnamese beer, I saw that they offer a number of variations on beef fondue. This is a less-than-accurate name--but there's no other English word for it.
Vietnamese fondue is prepared atop the table, and you do it yourself. A pan of stock with savory vegetables simmers over a little propane burner. The variation I ordered had a good bit of vinegar in it, too. Then come the bowls of the same sorts of things you get with pho: fresh basil, lettuce, cilantro, cooked noodles, a couple of spicy dipping sauces.
On another plate was a stack of rice paper "pancakes" (another imperfect translation). These look and feel as if they're made of stiff, translucent plastic, and not particularly edible. But dip them into the big bowl of hot water, and they become wet, slippery ghosts, gossamer thin but surprisingly strong and stretchy. The transformation reminded me of what happens when you stuff a wad of cotton candy in your mouth and, a second later, wonder where it went.
The final plate to arrive on this now very crowded table bore slices of raw beef, thin enough to let light pass. I'm not positive, but it looked like round steak.
How all this stuff merges into a dish is complex enough to require outline form:
1. Soften one of the rice papers, by rotating it in the bowl of hot water until it's entirely wet.
2. Position the rice paper on the plate. This takes a little dexterity, because the thing is not only like thin silk but it sticks to itself and anything else it touches.
3. Tear off a few green leaves and drop them in the center of the rice paper.
4. Chopstick up a small bundle of the cool rice noodles and try to extend them along one diameter of the rice paper, leaving an open space at one limb of the pancake.
5. Pick up a slice or two of the beef and swish it in the simmering stock until it's cooked to satisfaction. (Even well-done, this only takes a few seconds.) In this it's identical to the Japanese dish shabu-shabu (so named for the sound one makes when swishing the beef).
6. Let the beef drain for a second, then move it atop the pile of stuff on the rice paper.
7. Roll the rice paper up. Fold over the unfilled end. Dip this roll in one of the sauces. Raise it to the lips. Open mouth. Insert roll. Eat.
The lady who (I think) owns the place came over to tell me I was doing something wrong. At first, I spooned the sauce onto the pile before rolling. She said that the contents of any rice paper-wrapped roll must be kept as dry as possible, or the rice paper will become unmanageably slippery. Which it indeed was in my first attempt. Live and learn.
At the end of the procedure, there is an eighth step. The vegetable-filled stock in which all the beef has been swished is now a soup. And enough noodles and vegetables remain to make it into something very much like pho.
Noting that, I decided to commit to virtual paper something that's been on my mind for years now. In that time I've waited for the magic of Vietnamese cookery to convince me of its brilliance. The way it has to so many other New Orleans diners. There had to be more to the cuisine than I was tasting. And I have been eating Vietnamese longer than most of its most avid, non-Asian local fans have been alive.
Okay. I like Vietnamese cooking well enough. This dinner was very interesting. (It must have been for me to get three pages out of one dish.) But the appeal came more from its exotic provenance, not its flavor. Even with all the folderol, what this boiled down to (literally) was a different way of serving pho. Broth, beef, noodles, herbs. Almost everything in most Vietnamese restaurants is a variation on pho. Which is not so interesting a flavor that it requires a hundred or more listings on a menu.
Take out all the forms of pho, the spring rolls, and the undeniably delicious mystery-meat banh mi sandwiches (Vietnamese poor boys), and most Vietnamese restaurants are left with little on the menu. A few--Kim Son, Nine Roses, Café Minh, and now Pho Orchid--get a bunch of my stars by having much bigger and more widely varied menus. But those aren't the ones people rave about. The simplest pho shops get all the attention.
I read an article in the New York Times a few weeks ago about the resurgence of the New Orleans restaurant scene. I was astonished by the writer's ten best places to dine in New Orleans. In it were three Vietnamese restaurants, all of them pho and banh-mi shops. What? Did he talk with anybody here over the age of thirty, living outside the Marigny and Bywater? To read the article, you'd think pho were more important to the local eating scheme than gumbo is.
Vietnamese food is unquestionably unique, fresh, and interesting. The people command the highest respect for their victories against unimaginable adversities, for their matchless work ethic, and for their determination to preserve their culture.
But if I never ate another bowl of pho, I wouldn't miss it.
I'm hoping this rumination kicks off a big controversy on the messageboard, so I can find what it is I should be missing. If anything.
Pho Orchid. Metairie: 3117 Houma Blvd.. 504-457-4188. Vietnamese.
Wednesday, June 9. Eat Club At Mandina's. It was difficult to attract diners to our Eat Club dinner at Mandina's in Mandeville tonight. Enough so that it has made me question the whole Eat Club concept. It's probably time I did. The series of weekly dinners began almost seventeen years ago, and after a bit of early evolution, the format has never changed. Seventeen years in other matters subject to style and vogue can wreak enormous changes. Starting in 1940, say, pop music went from the Big Band sound to rock and roll. Benny Goodman to Chuck Berry. (On the other hand, it also went from Sinatra to Sinatra, which tells us that some things really are timeless.)
Lately, I've experimented with lowering Eat Club prices. If anything, that has lowered enthusiasm--although I think it's a good idea to do a less-expensive dinner once in awhile. We've done too many lately. The tonight at Mandina's in Mandeville was $60, down from our typical $75-$85 of the last eight years. Yet some people still complained it was too high. It could be that this kind of customer doesn't value the Eat Club enough, and never will.
Bringing Ockham's Razor into play (look this up if you don't know what it is--it's something everybody ought to know), the reason we could only round up about thirty diners tonight is that the dinner was on the North Shore. South Shore people are reluctant to cross the lake for dinner on a weeknight. The radio station's signal is borderline unlistenable on the North Shore. So it shouldn't be surprising that all our dinners over there over the years have been weakly attended.
Actually, thirty people wasn't so bad. (Forty is my favorite size.) And the dinner itself was delicious and a serious bargain. We began with a new dish created by the Mandeville Mandina's: a fried green tomato topped with buffalo-milk mozzarella, then with warm crawfish remoulade. Then mock turtle soup, for which Mandina's is rightly famous. One complaint: the servers put the cups of soup right down on the table, with no underliner plate. This is a bad trend I'm seeing in a lot of restaurants lately, and I hope I can raise consciousness about it among diners.
Next was trout amandine, a major specialty at Mandina's. It lived up to its fame completely. They said it would be a half-portion, but it was more like a two-thirds. Crisp, hot, fresh, buttery--delish.
I didn't get the second entree, veal Parmesan. I was too busy visiting all the other eaters. A lot of first-timers tonight, who don't yet know that I am not the celebrity they think I am. It was hard to leave that kind of attention, and the service staff lost track of me. I didn't need to eat anything else, anyway.
We wrapped up with bananas Foster bread pudding. I don't know who came up with that idea or when (it has been within the last decade), but it's a wonder it wasn't thunk of before.
The dinner cruised on later than I would have guessed. The pretty-good wine flowed freely. The conversations and laughter bubbled over. It was a textbook example of what I try to achieve with these dinners: an evening of easy pleasure, with new friendships being made at every turn.
But I still think I need to make them better, after all these years.
Mandina’s. Mandeville: 4240 La. 22. 985-674-9883. Neighborhood Cafe.
Neighborhood Cafe. Seafood. Sandwiches.
Metairie: 1001 Live Oak. 504-838-0022. Map.
Kenner: 910 W. Esplanade, 504-463-3030. Map.
Lunch and dinner continuously Monday-Saturday.
AE DC DS MC V
WHY IT'S NOTEWORTHY
Mr. Ed's is a fine example of the latter-day New Orleans neighborhood restaurant. The original neighborhood cafes were nearly extinct when the first Mr. Ed's opened. The local love for such places was easy to revive, with the right, all-encompassing menu. Ed McIntyre put that out there, and his restaurant became hugely popular right away. Part of the program: it's amenable to family dining, from little kids to their great-grandparents.
WHY IT'S GOOD
If there's any part of the menu in which Mr. Ed's stumbles badly, I haven't found it. The poor boy sandwiches are as good as the seafood platters, which are as fine as the spaghetti and Italian sausage and the fried chicken. The complaints I might be able to work up involve little things, like the heating of muffulettas and the sometimes grossly oversize portions. The restaurant defeats such matters with its very appealing prices and routine cooking of everything to order.
Ed McIntyre opened the first, modest version of Mr. Ed's in Bucktown in 1989. It grew from there, both in that location and others. Some Mr. Ed's opened and were later sold off. Currently, in addition to the Bucktown original, there's a much smaller edition in Kenner (where Calas Bistro used to be). Mr. Ed's Creole Grill on Veterans Blvd. is owned by a relative and has a rather different menu. McIntyre also owns the more upscale Austin's on Chastant Street, also in Metairie.
In Bucktown, there are two big dining rooms with a bar between them, a pleasant but spartan environment. They can get noisy when full. The Mr. Ed's in Kenner is a much smaller restaurant with an almost too elegant dining room.
Shrimp cocktail or remoulade
Grilled chicken salad
Fried shrimp salad
Crabmeat au gratin
Eggplant casserole with crabmeat and shrimp
Bell peppers stuffed with shrimp, crabmeat and crawfish
Fried seafood platters (shrimp, oysters, catfish, stuffed crab or combination)
Grilled red snapper
Fried, grilled, baked, barbecued or stewed chicken
Paneed veal with fettuccine
Veal, chicken or eggplant parmesan
Breaded or grilled pork chops
Red beans and rice with sausage or pork chop
Meatballs or Italian sausage with spaghetti
Poor boy sandwiches (roast beef, ham, meatball, Italian sausage, hot sausage, fried seafood, or panneed veal)
Lemon ice box pie
FOR BEST RESULTS
Because it attracts so many families and older customers, Mr. Ed's is busier in the early evening than later.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR IMPROVEMENT
The red sauce on the Italian dishes could be better. When the place is busiest, there's no comfortable place to wait.
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
- Consistency +1
- Service +1
- Value +2
- Attitude +1
- Wine and Bar
- Local Color +1
- Good for business meetings
- Small private room
- Open Monday lunch and dinner
- Open all afternoon
- Unusually large servings
- Quick, good meal
- Good for children
- Easy, nearby parking
- No reservations
Crab And Brie Soup
This is the signature soup of Dakota Restaurant in Covington. But calling it a soup is a stretch. It's so thick that you could turn a spoonful upside down and it might not come out. I'd recommend serving it only when you can afford to put a lot of lump crabmeat in it. It's very rich.
- 1/2 stick butter
- 8 gumbo crabs (small hard-shell crabs)
- 1 medium onion, cut up
- 1 medium carrot, cut up
- 3 ribs celery, cut up
- 1 clove garlic, crushed
- 2 bay leaves
- 1/4 cup brandy
- 1 cup white wine
- 1 quart heavy whipping cream
- 1/2 cup butter
- 3/4 cup flour
- 8 oz. Brie cheese, rind removed
- 1/4 tsp. salt
- 1/8 tsp. white pepper
- 1/2 lb. jumbo lump crabmeat
- Pinch cayenne
1. Heat the butter in a heavy kettle over medium heat. Crack the crabs with a meat pounder, add them to the butter, and sauté for five minutes.
2. Add the onion, carrot, celery, garlic, and bay leaves, and continue to cook until the vegetables soften.
3. Add the brandy. Bring it to a boil, then carefully touch a flame to it. After the flames die down, add the wine and bring that to a boil. After a minute or two, add two quarts of water and bring to a simmer. Keep the simmer going for about a half-hour.
4. Strain the soup and add the cream. Return to a simmer.
5. Heat the butter in another saucepan and stir in the flour. Make a blond roux, and whisk into the soup pot.
6. Slice the Brie into small pieces and add it to the pot. Stir until the cheese melts in completely. Add salt and pepper to taste.
7. Right before serving, put the lump crabmeat in the bottom of the bowls, and ladle the hot soup over it. Sprinkle a very little cayenne over it and serve.
Serves six to eight.