Tuesday, October 27, 2009
1033 Restaurants Open Around Town
Eating Around New Orleans Today
Today's newsletter is being written from the harbor of Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, in the Canadian Maritime provinces. Prince Edward Island (or PEI, as it's often abbreviated) is to mussels what Louisiana is to shrimp. They are simply the best, their blue-black shells enclosing delicious bivalves. All the many restaurants specializing in mussels in New Orleans get them from this place. One of my favorite versions is the big bowlful you get at the Flaming Torch. The sauce is different from most in being both creamy and pepper. It also qualifies as spicy in the strict sense: the seasoning mix has a touch of curry spices. They have them all the time as either an appetizer or as an entree.
Flaming Torch. Uptown: 737 Octavia 504-895-0900.
Physiology Of Eating
Today in 1975, the American Medical Association endorsed Dr. Henry Heimlich's method of delivering assistance to people choking on food. The rescuer puts his arms around the victim from behind, clasps his hands, positions this double fist right between the navel and the sternum, and gives a sudden, upward-diagonal jerk. This often pushes a blast of air from the lungs into the windpipe, blowing out the food caught in the throat. It can also crack a rib, but that's a lot less serious than the death that comes very quickly if the victim can't breathe. If you don't know how to do this, learn.
Annals Of Popular Cuisine
Planet Hollywood opened its original New York location today in 1991. It got a lot of publicity because among its owners were Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, and Demi Moore. A New York friend who should have known better told me he stood in line for two hours to eat in the place then. We had a Planet Hollywood in New Orleans for awhile, but it died a well-deserved death. We only go for real restaurants here.
Food In Sho-Biz
John Cleese was born in England today in 1939. He was one of the original writers and performers in Monty Python's Flying Circus, but he may be even more famous as Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers, the insane show about a hotel pretending to be a first-class operation while failing at everything, especially food.
Annals Of Etiquette
Emily Post was born today in 1872. She grew up amidst wealth and refinement in Baltimore and New York. In the summer, she spent her time (very appropriately) at Tuxedo Park, a New York resort developed by her father. She went on to write a newspaper column about manners, and Etiquette: The Blue Book of Social Usage, published in 1922. The book is now in its seventeenth edition, currently being written by Emily Post's great-granddaughter-in-law Peggy Post.
Today is National Baked Potato Day. The world's greatest food authorities love baked potatoes as well as the common man does. I once had lunch with James Beard at the Pontchartrain Hotel's Caribbean Room. The thing I remember most about our conversation was his saying this: "Most people don't understand how good a perfect baked potato can be, without even any butter or salt. When it's very fresh and plucked at the perfect time, of course."
Paul Prudhomme told me more or less the same thing. When he was growing up, the kids in the big Prudhomme family went to the garden too pull up potatoes. When they had enough, they'd run inside to start cooking them. He said you could easily tell the difference.
Few of us have enjoyed these brink-of-goodness experiences. But we still like our baked potatoes. Few restaurants serve them well, largely because it takes over an hour to properly bake a potato, and it's only at peak right as it comes out of the oven. As a result, baked potatoes in restaurants are usually overbaked, or kept at a decent state by being steamed rather than baked.
Baked potatoes are best made at home. The starting point is critical: you want large russet potatoes, without any hint of green in the skin (lightly scratch the skin with your fingernail to check this). And no hint of sprouting, of course. While preheating the oven to 375 degrees, scrub them under cold running water. Then put them right on the oven rack in the center of the oven. If you have a convection oven, use the convection feature. Bake them for between an hour and an hour and fifteen minutes (longer for bigger potatoes). That temperature is lower than what most people use, but I prefer it because it allows a bit more margin for error, and it makes a better skin for eating. (I always eat the skin of a baked potato.)
James Cook, the British sea captain who discovered the Sandwich Islands (we now call it Hawaii, but still this qualifies the guy for a double food name award), was born today in 1728. He also discovered Australia and many other places in the South Pacific. That's why his name comes up more often in this department than any other. . . Actress and Donald Trump wife Marla Maples was born today in 1963. . . Astronaut Michael Baker blasted off his life today in 1953.
Words To Eat By
"Bread that must be sliced with an axe is bread that is too nourishing." --American writer Fran Lebowitz, born today in 1950. She has a few other good food quotations:
"Breakfast cereals that come in the same colors as polyester leisure suits make oversleeping a virtue."
"Cheese that is compelled by law to append the word 'food' to its title does not go well with red wine or fruit."
"Large, naked, raw carrots are acceptable as food only to those who live in hutches eagerly awaiting Easter."
"My favorite animal is steak."
New York, New England, And Canada Cruise Journal--2
Monday, October 19. Lunch With Max. The Taft. Dinner At Union Square Café. I had breakfast in the hotel, thinking it would be something like the Marriott Courtyard's breakfast back home. It was much, much less than that. The kind of place where only people on the run, those who had to eat urgently, could possible accept.
I finished writing a newsletter just in time to take a subway downtown to meet my old friend Steve Singer. He currently works for a design firm run by a woman who was the original art director for Food and Wine Magazine. I remember it well back then, before American Express bought it. I impressed her by remembering the typeface the magazine used then. (Sometimes my geekiness about stuff like that comes in handy.) We talked about the demise of Gourmet Magazine. She said the offices have been cleared out and it was over. I said that I did not believe that Gourmet would just disappear, and even ventured the opinion that it wouldn't miss a single issue.
She brushed that off and gave us a tip about where to have lunch. "Let me make reservations for you at Tre Dici," she said. I told her we were just going to walk over there immediately. But she insisted on making the reservations anyway, to get some goodwill from the owner of the place, or points on Open Table, or something like that.
Tre Dici? Unless I'm misunderstanding an idiom, that means "Speak three times." I imagined having to repeat everything to a gruff waiter. In fact, the sleek dining room was staffed by beautiful young women baring the kind of cleavage that dared one to either look at or ignore. I was glad that a woman had chosen this place, so I wouldn't feel like a voyeuristic male pig.
By contrast, Steve looked about the same as I remembered him, taking into account the effects of the passing decades. The biggest difference was that he wore earrings and unusual glasses, but he always was much closer to the cutting edge of style than most people I know. And he's an artist. His description of his current life--"Could be better, could be worse"--seemed about right. He was a little bothered by the fact that he's worked in the same office for seven years, although he seems to like the situation. I told him that I've had the same job for twenty-one years--but he said he'd expect that of me. We unloaded our various pleasures and regrets. If I understood him correctly (and I'm not sure I did), he seemed to be saying that he wished he'd stayed in New Orleans. But he's from Atlantic City originally, and has a decidedly Northeastern outlook on life. And he's sixty-four. He and his wife have a rent-controlled apartment on the Lower West Side. So life can't be too terrible.
Lunch was good. I started with tuna tartare, served brilliantly with two sauces spread thinly on the plate. Then pumpkin ravioli, which the waitress said had just been added to the fall menu. She also knew that everything was made in house, from the pasta to the bread. "The chef has pumpkins back there right now that he's cutting and pureeing for the ravioli." It certainly seemed that way. Steve had a panini of fresh tuna which he said was terrific.
We compared notes about mutual friends. Quite a few of them had wound up in New York, especially after the hurricane. I was surprised by the fates of a few of them. One--a brilliant photographer who I'd been trying to contact for photos I could use in my book--is beset by some pretty deep physical and mental problems. Others were doing better. Still, this conversation left me a little bummed out. The people involved were from a glowing, youthful time in our lives. That's what happens when too many years intervene.
I walked with Steve back to his office. It's across the street from the Fashion Institute of Technology, where Mary Leigh spent a month taking classes in the summer of 2008. She relished that experience, but she left it certain that she didn't want to live in New York. Not even after she and Mary Ann spent the month in a very nice apartment a block away. But the Fashion District is a bit raffish, and raffishness is not to the Marys' tastes.
The day had dawned cold but with a blue sky, and now it was easily nice enough for me to walk all the way back to the hotel. The straight line took me right through Times Square. The renaissance of that recently-disreputable neighborhood has been cause for celebration in New York. It registered to me as disgustingly dirty and run-down as little as twenty years ago, but has improved with every visit. Now about the only thing that gives me pause is the extent to which the chain restaurants have taken over the neighborhood. Red Lobster, Bubba Gump's, TGI Friday's, and that ilk are all here with very large, showy restaurants. If New York's most famous, glittering intersection can't keep these bastions of ordinariness at bay, what place can?
Just past Times Square, I found a place I've wondered about for a long time. On my first visit to New York--my high school senior trip in 1967--we stayed in the Taft Hotel, a grandiose old palace. By then, however, it had descended two or three ranks. Its name was gone by the 1980s, when I tried to stay there for the sake of nostalgia. I couldn't even find out where it was, and wondered whether it had been torn down. It hasn't. It's called the Michelangelo Hotel now, and it's supposed to be pretty good. I walked around it and entered the lobby, looking for anything to fire off a spark of recognition. Nothing. They renovated too deeply for memory to survive.
I took a long nap, then took the subway down to Union Square, there to meet Ann Lee and Chris Conway. They're from Santa Rosa in Sonoma County, and in the wine business in a small way. They are also great lovers of New Orleans, and visit several times a year, mainly for the purpose of eating. My kind of people.
Ann and Chris are personal friends of a chef at the Union Square Cafe, one of the string of restaurants owned by Danny Meyer and associates. Meyer is one of the leading restaurateurs of the new school, highly regarded by both diners and other food people. I was a couple of minutes early, but Ann and Chris beat me there, and were having cocktails in the bar. They greeted me with a nice gift: a book about Delmonico's, the first real restaurant in America. Founded in 1837, Delmonico's created such a sensation that it was copied everywhere else in America. For a time, there was a chance that what we now call a restaurant might have been called a delmonico instead.
As soon as I saw the book, it hit me that I should have planned a dinner there. The current Delmonico's is in the original location in the financial district. But its history has been punctuated by closings, other locations, and many owners. Still, one of these days I want to write a book about such ancient restaurants, which I find tremendously interesting. (It helps that New Orleans has more of them than any other American city.)
But back to the present. The crowd at Union Square was youthful, excited, and convivial, with a service staff to match. The restaurant categorizes itself as American, but it's heavily influenced by the Italian style. The first two courses course at our table, for example, included fried calamari and two pasta dishes. Pappardelle pasta with wild mushrooms showed up at my place. Atop it was a poached egg, creating the sauce for the thick pasta ribbons when it was cut into. I went straight to the entree from there, with a pair of lamb chops so luscious that I neglected to take a photo of them.
It turned out that the chef friend of Ann and Chris was not in the restaurant that night. And here we were thinking we were getting special service! It came from a sharp, aware, young woman who was totally hip to the food and the style of the place. This, I decided, is the main advantage New York has over New Orleans. We surely have restaurants that could turn out this kind of food--or any food I'd had anywhere else in Gotham, except perhaps in its most expensive restaurants. But we don't have many service people if the caliber that is routine around New York. Why? Because these people are educated, and our people aren't. If only we could make the population understand this, we could get somewhere with this old problem. But the citizens of New Orleans are too poorly educated to understand what a disadvantage it is to be poorly educated.
Chris, Ann and I bade each other farewell until we met again on the ship. I took the subway back to the hotel and packed it in at around midnight. I don't know whether I will have lunch with Leslie Stoker, my publisher. If I do, it will be a very hectic day.
WHY IT'S NOTEWORTHY
"Bennachin" is a Central African word for the dish we call jambalaya. The owners, who are respectively from Cameroon and Gambia, cook the food of their homelands--related to, but not to be confused with, African-American food. That said, it's not too far removed from what we ate growing up in New Orleans. Creole cuisine has a big African component.
WHY IT'S GOOD
As long as this place has bveen around, it has managed to prevent its food from tastling like that of just another New Orleans restaurant. Even the dishes that require a sense of adventure are kept in their time-honored African forms. Some of the textures are unique. Fu-fu, for example, is the African answer to mashed potatoes, made with true yams (not sweet potatoes). But it tastes a little different and feels a lot different in the mouth. On the other hand, it's hard not to like the namesake jambalaya, or any of the chicken or vegetarian specials. It all winds up being as delicious as it is interesting.
Alyse Njenge and Fanta Tambajang opened Bennachin in Fat City (of all places) in the early 1990s. (It was where Kanno is now.) The restaurant has moved around a bit over the years, to the Marigny for awhile and more lately to the downtown end of the French Quarter.
The surroundings are colorful but minimal, both in size and decor. It's possible to walk right in front of the restaurant's door without seeing it. The service is friendly and quick to make recommendations.
Doh-doh (fried sweet plantains).
Egusi soup (beef in ground melon seed sauce with spinach).
Bennachin (African jambalaya, with spinach).
Thiebujin (stuffed fish jambalaya).
Janga (shrimp and vegetables with couscous or rice).
Cope ni Cone (chicken, broccoli, rice).
Cope moutard (broiled chicken with mustard).
Yasa (chicken and cabbage couscous).
Nsouki Alyse (chicken, shrimp, and cashews in brown sauce with rice).
Okra stew (beef, okra, ginger,rice).
Bikai ni Curry (curry of eggplant, mushrooms, bean sprouts)
Bomok-chobi (whole baked trout).
Kembel-loppa (lamb, bell pepper, broccoli).
Fu-fu (fluffy, glutinous mashed yams).
FOR BEST RESULTS
This is a restaurant for those who want to try some new flavors--but not too exotic. They cook a lot of the food to order, so don't come in a hurry.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR IMPROVEMENT
I think these people could raise their ambitions and prices notch or two and do even more business than they already do. It would allow them to use better fish than tilapia.
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
- Value +2
- Attitude +1
- Wine and Bar
- Hipness +1
- Local Color +1
- Open Sunday lunch and dinner
- Open Monday lunch and dinner
- Open some holidays
- Open all afternoon
- Unusually large servings
There are so many different ways to make gumbo that categorizing them is done only at the peril of starting an argument. My own definition of a seafood gumbo requires the presence of okra, a seafood-based stock, and (of course) seafood. As a result, some gumbos that have a lot of seafood, but also chicken, sausage, etc., didn't make this list. Not because I don't like them, but because this is the seafood list. We'll have the other kinds another day.
1. Commander’s Palace. Garden District: 1403 Washington Ave.. 504-899-8221. A classic flavor, really, but made with the attention to detail a gourmet kitchen would give. Beautiful ingredients.
2. GW Fins. French Quarter: 808 Bienville. 504-581-3467. Not enough seafood gumbos have oysters in them. This one does, plus much more.
3. Galley Seafood. Old Metairie: 2535 Metairie Rd. 504-832-0955. A classic in the lighter, old-fashioned style, with a marvelous flavor.
4. Drago’s. Metairie: 3232 N. Arnoult Rd. 504-888-9254. ||CBD: 2 Poydras. 504-584-3911. They make it a day ahead and let the flavors come together. Old style, with a little tomato.
5. Fury’s. Metairie: 724 Martin Behrman Ave.. 504-834-5646. I get it every time I go. Lighter broth, great flavor.
6. Joey K’s. Uptown: 3001 Magazine. 504-891-0997. Dark roux, texture thicker than most, lots of shrimp.
7. Crazy Johnnie’s. Metairie: 3520 18th St. 504-887-6641. A real surprise for a budget steakhouse to have a fine seafood gumbo. But they always have.
8. Acme Oyster House. French Quarter: 724 Iberville. 504-522-5973. ||Metairie: 3000 Veterans Blvd. 504-309-4056. || Covington: 1202 US 190 (Causeway Blvd.). 985-246-6155. Absolutely consistent, because they get somebody else to make it for them. And so good my gumbo-loving son never passes it by.
9. Gumbo Shop. French Quarter: 630 St. Peter. 504-525-1486. With a name like that, it better be good. But it's a bit inconsistent.
10. Liuzza's By The Track. Esplanade Ridge: 1518 N. Lopez. 504-218-7888. All the seafood is added at the last second, but the broth is made a day ahead.
Have I missed a good one? If you know of a seafood gumbo that belongs on this list,
Shrimp and Tasso Stuffed Potato Skins
The baked, stuffed potato skin came from the chain restaurant world, but that doesn't necessarily make it terrible. This version borrows the basic premise and works a New Orleans taste in. Small peeled fresh shrimp are often a bargain and pretty good; this dish puts them to work.
- 10 medium-small russet potatoes
- 1 stick butter
- 3 green onions, chopped
- 1 lb. small peeled shrimp
- 1/2 lb. tasso
- 1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
- 8 oz. sour cream
- 2 Tbs. prepared horseradish
- 1/2 cup mayonnaise
- 1 Tbs. Creole mustard
- 1 tsp. Worcestershire
- 1 tsp. Louisiana hot sauce
1. Select only potatoes without any serious blemishes. Scrub the skins well with a brush or curly scrubber under cold running water.
2. Bake the potatoes till a little underdone--about one hour.
3. After they cool, slice the potatoes from end to end into quarters. Scoop a little more than half the white part out of each potato quarter. Save what you scoop out for mashed potatoes.
4. Heat a tablespoon of the butter in a skillet over high heat. Sauté the shrimp, tasso, and green onions until the shrimp turn pink--just a couple of minutes at most.
5. Chop the shrimp and tasso mixture roughly.
6. Turn on the broiler. Brush the insides of the potato tops and bottoms with butter. Broil the potatoes until you see a little browning around the edges.
7. Remove and spoon into each potato skin about two tablespoons of the shrimp-and-tasso mixture. Top with enough shredded cheese to almost, but not quite cover. Return to the broiler until the cheese begins to bubble.
8. Mix the sauce ingredients. Serve the potato skins with the sauce on the side for dipping.
Serves six to ten.
Missing something from the old format? I've moved a few departments to the column at left. Click below to go to them.