Friday, July 2, 2010
1104 Restaurants Open Around Town
This weekend and the week behind it is different from the rest of the year. No other week on the calendar finds so many restaurants closed for vacation. If this were in any way predictable, I'd tell you which ones. But many such closings are decided upon at the spur of the moment. The best idea is to call ahead no matter where you're thinking of going, even if it's a restaurant that has never taken a week off in your memory. Complicating matters is the town-filling Essence Festival, the annual music extravaganza at the Superdome. It's been around enough years to have attracted visitors from all over the country. And all those people want to enjoy our food, too. Dining rooms will be crowded. There's no way I'd go to dinner anywhere this weekend without a reservation. And no reason not to.
No Menu On Monday
Since the radio station gave me the day off on the holiday for the Fourth of July--first time in twenty-two years!--I thought I would join the crowd and goof off a little that day. Not entirely, though: over the weekend, I will build out a page on the NOMenu.Com site showing all the summer specials currently running. I've heard about two or three per day lately, so there's already a good list. I'll be back with that list as well as a full regular edition on Tuesday. Good grilling to you!--Tom Fitzmorris.
Friday, June 25. Nature Busts Out All Over. Café Giovanni. A mind-bending hot day, with both air-conditioning systems just pumping away. I took a walk to re-focus my eyes after several hours at the desk. The meadow by the pont has grass up to my waist. I haven't cut it this year so far, but the last time I looked it didn't need to be. That tells me how long it's been since I went for a walk around the grounds. The recent rains are making all the plants happy. The four cypress trees I planted in 1991--finally taller than I am--look healthier than ever. Along my trail through the woods, the funny ferns that grow only there have filled their little clearing with lushness. But not much else is greening the floor of the woods. The canopy of tall pines and black tupelos have filled in most of the gaps ripped open by Hurricane Katrina, and not much direct sunlight filters down.
Something else I noticed: the queedle-deep bird and the other species that have serenaded me on my woods stroll were not to be heard. It's too hot even for them.
Mary Leigh wanted to have lunch with me, which was enough to make me plan to stay home with the radio show. Then a couple of frantic messages came in from one of the radio salespeople, needing me to come in and record a couple of commercials. It makes me sad to tell my daughter no, especially when it's her idea to go out. But it's not like we never dine together, either. She asked me a few days ago whether we could have dinner together once a week after she moves into the dorms at Tulane next year. I almost cried with joy at the thought of it.
Dinner at Café Giovanni. I don't go often enough for my taste. The singers were mostly new to me. I knew the sole male, but only one of the women, and I didn't recognize the pianist. This had no impact on the music, though, and I tipped them a twenty up front, sat back and enjoyed. The new mezzo-soprano has a very sweet voice with a lot of power when she needs it. (It almost sounds like I'm describing a car, doesn't it?)
The restaurant was very busy, and if I hadn't gone back to the kitchen to say hello to Chef Duke before I left, I wouldn't have seen him at all. He knew I was there, though, and embarrassed me as usual by sending out a gut-buster of a meal. I started with his seafood Caprese salad--a slice of tomato, a slice of mozzarella, and a mixture of crabmeat, shrimp, and crawfish in a kind of ravigote sauce. This was about twice as big as I remembered it, and almost a meal in itself.
Some gumbo came out unordered. Then ravioli bolognese, as luscious as ever, but again about twice as big as my appetite could handle. The entree was a departure from anything I've ever had here before, but it addressed my tastes of the moment. Fried catfish, little filets, coated in cornmeal. With a million little sides. Crisp, light, just right. I could only eat two of the five fillets.
And, as if I needed it, Chef Duke sent out a beautiful lamb chop with polenta. As fantastic as it looked, I could not take even a bite. Café Giovanni, The Home Of Too Much Great Food, he ought to put on his sign.
You can't sing well when your stomach is full, so I didn't ask if I could take a number with the ensemble.
When I arrived home, Mary Ann was cleaning the house. At eleven at night? Yes. Jude is coming for a visit in three days, and the place must look perfect for him. With an invalid dog lying around the kitchen all day, this will be more challenging than usual.
Cafe Giovanni. French Quarter: 117 Decatur. 504-529-2154. Italian.
Saturday, June 26. My Food At A Carwash. Taming The Pasture. Pizza And Pizzaiola At Carmelo. Mary Ann and I returned to Toad Hollow to see whether last week's superlative breakfast there was just a fluke. I had good luck with the southwestern style last week, and tried it again with the sausage migas. Migas is a scrambled eggs dish with pieces of corn tortilla, salsa, and an assortment of other possible items stirred into the eggs as they cook. Tasty, but with a weak spot: the sausage, made with chicken and apples. This was nowhere near as good as a similar pork sausage would be, but no red meats appear on the menu here.
Meanwhile, MA enjoyed another crispy omelette like the one she had last week. We both came to the conclusion that the toast here is exquisite, using as it does a whole-grain bread with actual chunks of grain and nuts in the mix. One slice is not enough, even though it's much more substantial than one slice of any other kind of toast.
We parted company and ran our respective errands. One of mine was to have my car washed for the first time in months. My threshold of automotive filthiness is far too high, but at last it was reached about ten days ago. It took a half-hour for a basic wash and wipe-down, fifteen minutes of that for vacuuming. You don't want to know.
I turned down the cashier's offer of a reduced-price, frequent-washer discount card, then helped myself to a cup of coffee and a free bag of popcorn. (The wash was $33, so I felt no guilt about this.) The waiting room had a lot of things one could buy. I was very surprised by one of them. There, on a revolving rack of books, were three copies of Tom Fitzmorris's New Orleans Food. This was the last place I would have expected to find it. I asked the cashier if she'd ever sold one of them. "One or two," she said. I asked whether she'd like me to autograph the stock. She said she'd have to check with the boss, but he wasn't there.
I hustled back home to get on the air with my WWL show. Every week during that show, with its numerous long breaks for news and commercials, I sort through the food photographs I took in the previous week. I weed out all but the best, sort them into computer files, and edit the ones that needed it. This task occupies a separate part of my brain from the one generating radio conversation. It's one of the few jobs like that. And now, if I don't perform this necessary task during the show, I find myself running behind the rest of the week. That is why I can't get my car washed often.
An efficiency expert might look at what I did after the show and say, "No wonder you can't get your car washed! There you are taking a nap for a half-hour!" But the day I can no longer get my nap most afternoons is the day before the day I go crazy. I picked up the habit in my early twenties, long before the perfect metaphor appeared to explain its effectiveness: it does for my brain what a reboot does for a computer.
I made up for this shocking indolence (one which Mary Ann has never once so much as questioned, thank God) by cutting the grass. It was very high, particularly in the meadow by the pond. Parts of that half-acre were up to my waist, and more than ready for its first trim of the year. The whole project took two and a half hours.
Mary Ann was ready for dinner as soon as I showered. The usual indirection ensued. I brought up Ristorante Carmelo, which I know she loves. But: "Is that a place you need to go to again? We go there a lot." I told her to mind her own business and get dressed. Sometimes a man has to force his woman to do what she wants.
The restaurant was reasonably busy for a Saturday in June, with lots of people away on vacations. I had a Negroni, then another one, because the first one didn't have enough moxie. A pizza came more or less with the cocktail, making an eminently acceptable first course.
"I have a whole redfish I can cook for two," Carmelo said. "I also have grouper and nice red snapper. All fresh. No oil." Ha, ha. The Doonesbury comic strip has begun a series set in restaurants where the management guarantees there's no crude oil in their fish by pointing out that all their fish was bought months ago, before the oil spill, frozen. This stuff kills me. No matter how much evidence and sense there is in noting that no oil-tainted fish could possible turn up in a restaurant, people are still thinking otherwise, and eating significantly less seafood. Pure fear, no reality.
Mary Ann wanted red snapper done up in a style that was more or less a puttanesca: tomato sauce, capers, peppers, and--most appealing to her--olives. Looked good, tasted good.
Many as-yet untried dishes attracted me, but the one I kept coming back to was the sirloin strip steak. Prime, the menu said. Twelve ounces. "Get it!" Mary Ann said. "Why not?" I asked Carmelo if his kitchen staff could make a credible steak pizzaiola. Of course they could. Nice steak, and so was the mushroom-and-red pepper sauce. The combination of steak and a red sauce is underrated, I think. They go very well together.
All four of Carmelo's daughters were there tonight. One of them is one of the lead chefs, the others are performing various dining room duties. Carmelo's wife was also on the scene. Even though it's in a new strip mall, everything about this place has the style of a family-operated restaurant in Italy--right down to what's on television. Sports you can't figure out, dramatic programs with very racy plots and extremely hot love scenes. None of those Italian game shows with topless contestants, though.
Ristorante Carmelo. Mandeville: 1901 US Hwy 190. 985-624-4844. Northern Italian.
WHY IT'S NOTEWORTHY
One of the two or three best restaurant to open in 2009, Coquette is a stylish bistro with a short, evolving menu, clever to the point of delight. It tastes good, too. Both the flavors and the premises make references to New Orleans dining traditions without being swamped by them. Menu prices are a shade lower than in comparable restaurants, with no corresponding quality discount.
WHY IT'S GOOD
The first thing you notice about the menu is how short it is. Six starters, six entrees, and that's it--no specials. But the list is reworked every day, and after a month almost everything on it will have changed. The kitchen cooks in lockstep with current ingredients and presentations. There's a downside to the evolving menu: the consistency is less than perfect. In the bar you find the unique cocktails now demanded by that culture. All of this flows easily, naturally, and pleasurably.
Chef Michael Stoltzfus and dining room orchestrator Lillian Hubbard are a couple that came together in New Orleans because of family connections after Katrina. Michael learned his craft on the eastern shore of Maryland, which has much of the same seafood we do here in New Orleans. Both put in time at Restaurant August; Lillian and some of her staff were in the dining room at nearby neighbor Commander's Palace. They so much liked dining in this building when it was Table One (one of three previous restaurants here since 2004; the others were The Living Room and Takumi) that they kept their eyes on it. When Takumi gave up, Michael and Lillian jumped in.
The building is an 1850s brick townhouse, with dining rooms on two floors. The downstairs, with its oversize bar, tall ceilings, tile floor and mirrors, has an unambiguous old New Orleans feeling. The brick-walled, windowed upstairs is actually the more pleasant place to dine, with almost too much space between and above tables. The stairs to the second floor are a bit more challenging than most, so if you have a problem with climbing, reserve a first-floor table.
The menu changes with some frequency, but this is a good sampling of it:
Burrata crostini with roasted tomato, basil oil
Boston lettuce with candied pecans, goat cheese
Watermelon salad with Creole tomatoes and arugula
Grilled asparagus with crawfish country ham dressing
Fried shrimp with grapefruit, niçoise olives, sambal
Fresh cheese agnolotti pasta with roasted rabbit and sweet corn
Sweet corn soup with bowfin caviar
Black drum with haricots verts, capers, crabmeat, almonds
Gulf shrimp, roasted okra, sweet corn, grits
King salmon, red potato “risotto”, chorizo, saffron, heirloom tomatoes
Soft-shell crab with sweet corn, bacon, fried avocado
Colorado lamb with crowder peas
Mississippi rabbit with fava beans and baby artichokes
Prime flatiron steak, barley, oxtail ragout
Desserts change nightly
FOR BEST RESULTS
The mixologist makes extraordinarily good, original cocktails. Try the Bailout and La Reve.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR IMPROVEMENT
The chef has not yet adjusted his palate to that of the locals in the realm of salt and spice. The menu could use maybe two more dishes in each section.
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 +2
- Service +1
- Value +1
- Attitude +2
- Wine and Bar +1
- Hipness +2
- Local Color +2
- Outdoor tables, drinks only
- Good view
- Good for business meetings
- Large private room
- Open Sunday lunch
- Open Monday dinner
- Open all afternoon
- Easy, nearby parking
- Reservations honored promptly
ANECDOTES AND ANALYSIS
Finding this charming, urbane new restaurant brightened my outlook, and gave me a twinge of nostalgia. It recalled a few moments in our culinary history when crops of small, clever restaurants popped up, creating a new excitement. We haven't had many restaurants--let along crops of them--since the hurricane. Maybe Coquette will start something. The idea of a menu written in the sand is so appealing that it's a wonder more restaurants don't use it. That does require a sophisticated clientele, but there is one Uptown. Perhaps the most telling comment I have about the chef's talents is that, even with only six entrees from which to choose, I always have trouble choosing. And it feels like New Orleans--but the new New Orleans.
I've seen this served here and there in restaurants around town, with variations. The amount of Rockefeller sauce made by this recipe is excessive for this recipe, but making a smaller amount doesn't come out well. The extra sauce can be frozen, and has myriad uses. (Wild idea: how about baked over oysters?)
- 2 ribs celery, cut up
- 1 small bunch green onions, chopped
- 1/2 medium yellow onion, cut up
- 1 pint fresh oysters, with water
- 2 lbs. fresh spinach, very well washed and large stems removed
- 1/2 cup Herbsaint liqueur
- 3 bay leaves
- 2 oz. anchovy paste
- 1 Tbs. thyme
- 1/2 tsp. cayenne
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1/2 cup bread crumbs
- 6 yellowfin tuna steaks, about 8 oz.
- 2 Tbs. olive oil
- 2 Tbs. butter
- 18 fresh oysters
- 3 oz. Herbsaint liqueur
- 6 oz. hollandaise sauce (recipe below)
1. Combine all sauce ingredients except bread crumbs. Puree in batches in a food processor.
2. In a large saucepan, cook the mixture for 30 minutes. Add bread crumbs, stir in well, and cook five minutes more. You now have a good bit of completed Rockefeller sauce.
3. Cook three steaks at a time. Brush the tuna with olive oil. Heat a skillet and cook the tuna about a minute and a half on one side. Turn the tuna and spoon the Rockefeller sauce on top.
4. Put the whole skillet into a preheated 350-degree oven for five minutes.
5. Meanwhile, in a separate skillet heat the butter to bubbling and add the oysters. Saute until the edges curl, then pour on the Herbsaint. (Careful! Herbsaint is inflammable! Pour it from a cup into the pan, never from the bottle!) Carefully touch a flame to the pan and wait until the flames die down.
6. Place the oysters atop the sauce on the tuna, and nap the whole thing with hollandaise. Return the skillet to the oven to glaze the hollandaise--about two minutes.
Hollandaise is one of the "mother sauces" of classical French cooking, and widely used around New Orleans, where it usually contains an extra pinch of cayenne. It's not hard to make if you can keep it from breaking, which will happen if the sauce gets too hot once the butter goes in. I avoid this by whisking in the butter in softened, not melted form. Hollandaise should be made right before it's needed. If you try to keep it warm, it might break. If that happens, you can sometimes bring it back by adding a little warm water. If that doesn't work, start with a fresh bowl with one egg yolk, and slowly whisk the broken sauce into it.
- 2 egg yolks
- 1 Tbs. red wine vinegar
- 1 stick plus 3 Tbs. butter, softened
- 1 tsp. lemon juice
- Pinch cayenne
1. Whisk the egg yolks and the vinegar briskly in a metal bowl set over a saucepan with about an inch of simmering water at the bottom. If you see even a hint of curdling in the eggs, take the bowl off the heat, but keep whisking. Keep going back and forth from the heat until the mixture turns thick and lightens in color. Whisk in a tablespoon of warm water.
2. Begin adding the softened butter, a pat at a time. After about a fourth of the butter is in there, you'll begin to see a change in the texture of the sauce. At that point, you can step up the addition of the butter a bit, and keep going till all the butter is incorporated.
3. Whisk in the cayenne and the lemon juice and serve right away.
Makes about 3/4 cup.