The Sixth Day Of Christmas.
Read Our Twelve Days Of Christmas, New Orleans Eating Style.
1057 Restaurants Open Around Town
New Year's Eve Page Now Online
The 100 best places to dine and welcome 2010, the last year of the first decade of the Twenty-First Century. Click here.
The Last Day. Geese. Drunkometer. Champagne, the Wine and the Cajun Town. Cuvee. Anorexia. Let It Snow. Catfish Hunter.
Dining Around New Orleans Tonight
It's New Year's Eve! The day we celebrate the end the past year's ups and downs. The beginning of a new year, of whose promise we know nothing. But we can dream, and imagine, and make big plans, beginning with a bash with major food and wine. It's the busiest night of the year for restaurants, who are as happy about that as you are. Servers in particular will make real money tonight, and deserve every nickel of it. Almost a hundred percent of the restaurants that normally serve dinner will be open, so there's no problem finding a table. (Click here for my list of the 100 best options.) Let yourself go, get somebody else to drive, and handle someone else (who will watch over you) with care.
The dining rooms are dominated by members of two groups. The first are the well-connected high rollers who have no hesitation to blow a large pile of bills on great food and wine in one of the top restaurants. The other group is of people who never dine in major restaurants except on days like New Year's Eve, and who complain all night about the prices. I fit neither category, so I cook for my friends at home and give them my best.
The Sixth Day of Christmas
We are warned of the gifting by good friends of six geese a-laying, a six-pack of Dixie, a hammered aluminum nutcracker, little silver bells, or (according to our own lyrics for the song) six char-broiled oysters. We like the oysters as the appetizer tonight, and are interested in those geese for a big feast tomorrow. But the eggs? Geese don't lay eggs this time of year, no matter what the song says. However,
Food Through History
Tonight in 1999, as what proved to be unwarranted paranoia about what would happen to computers when the year turned over to 2000, chefs throughout America got ready to shut down ovens should they drop uncontrollably from 400 degrees to 004 degrees, and freezers if they should do the opposite. Nothing untoward happened, although it was reported that for a moment a speck of spinach appeared in the Rockefeller sauce at Antoine's, and somebody at Commander's received 300 shrimp remoulade instead of the customary three. The absence of computer geeks in restaurants (they were all at their machines, ready to stem a disaster) had no noticeable effect on restaurants at all.
Drinking Through History
Today in 1938, the first device able to detect intoxication was implemented in Indianapolis. Called the drunkometer, its targets were drivers, as you might imagine. But think about it: it was not six years after the repeal of prohibition, and already DWI was becoming a problem. The thing was invented by Dr. Rolla N. Harger.
This is International Champagne Day. Of course. Champagne is a wine that started out disadvantaged. It comes from the northernmost of the major wine-growing areas of France, where the soil is chalky and infertile. The grapes make acidic wines, distinctly inferior to those of Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Alsace. But the winemakers happened upon a trick. Somewhere in somebody's cave, some bottles bearing wine of dubious purity underwent a second fermentation. That not only created the bubbles that are the hallmark of Champagne, but also softened up the acidity enough to make the effervescent wine delicious. The rest is history. Champagne is now probably the most profitable winemaking district in the world on a per-acre basis. By international agreement, the name "Champagne" refers only to the wines from that region. Just one more thing before we leave you with a promise for an article about Champagne later in this edition: Champagne goes with almost every food, even hard-to-match stuff like Chinese and Mexican cookery.
Food And Medicine
Today is the birthday, in 1816, of Sir William Withey Gull, a British doctor who first gave a name to the condition wherein a patient develops an aversion to eating. He called it anorexia nervosa. May it never affect anyone you like to dine with.
Food On Stage
A musical play called Bubbling Brown Sugar closed on Broadway today in 1977 after over 700 performances. If they ever produce it here in New Orleans, they ought to rename it Praline.
Music To Drink Egg Nog By
This is the birthday, in 1905, of the composer Jule Styne. Among the hundreds of entries in the Great American Songbook that he wrote is the Yuletide classic, "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow."
Yankee pitcher Catfish Hunter signed a contract today in 1974 for $3.75 million. . . Actor and bohemian Taylor Mead was born today in 1924. He played the title role in Andy Warhol's Tarzan movie.
Words To Eat By
"What is your host's purpose in having a party? Surely not for you to enjoy yourself; if that were their sole purpose they'd have simply sent Champagne and women over to your place by taxi."--P. J. O'Rourke.
Words To Drink By
"Burgundy makes you think of silly things, Bordeaux makes you talk of them, and Champagne makes you do them."--Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin.
"Too much of anything is bad, but too much Champagne is just right."--Mark Twain.
Major New Openings Swing Up In 2009
The Year In Dining
For diners and restaurateurs, 2009 was less than the gleeful, sybaritic banquet of better years. The focus remains more on the past and the future than the present.
Nevertheless, all but the usual complainers are upbeat. The essential tide of travelers will continue to pay for more major restaurants than in any other American city our size. Chefs have enough confidence in our local ingredients and (to a lesser degree) our local flavors, and have backed away from aping Gourmet Magazine. Good thing. Gourmet published its final issue in November.
On January 1, 980 restaurants were cooking and serving on premises in the metro New Orleans area. That was already up 179 restaurants from the restaurant population before Katrina. Today, December 31, the figure stands at 1057. The one-thousandth restaurant opened in April, marking the first time New Orleans had so many eateries.
That is a remarkable statistic. Everywhere else in America--and in the country as a whole--the restaurant population dropped significantly during 2009. If we were still filling in holes left by Katrina, that would be one thing. But that deficiency has long since been filled, and we're still growing.
More large, upscale restaurants opened this year than in the past several. Most growth in 2006-2008 was in neighborhood cafes. Those continue to proliferate, but the interest in opening big-deal dining venues has resumed.
The biggest white-tablecloth splash was the reopening of the Roosevelt Hotel. Three major new eateries came with it: the restored Sazerac and Blue Room, and the new Domenica. The latter is John Besh's fifth restaurant; he followed it with a unique 1940s-style diner in the World War II Museum. Besh now has twice as many New Orleans restaurants as Emeril, and as many as any two branches of the Brennan family here.
The first new gourmet room of note this year actually opened at the end of last year, but few knew it was there until weeks into 2009. Coquette took over an ill-starred location on Magazine at Washington Avenue, with a handful of ex-Commander's Palace employees in charge. Back when I reviewed it in May, I called it the best new restaurant of the year so far.
Most notable among other contenders for that distinction is Le Meritage. Its chef Michael Farrell took over the former Dominique's in the Maison Dupuy Hotel, and installed one of the most innovative menus in town. It wasn't so much the food (well wrought, but familiar) as the format that bid for our attention. The entire menu is available in either appetizer or entree portions, with small or large glasses of wine to match. Most people go for many small ones, often with no big ones. It took months before the restaurant caught on, but it's busy now.
Le Meritage took hold of what is certainly the most pervasive trend in upscale dining this year: small plates. All three of Emeril's restaurant have embraced this concept, with long lists of appetizer-size dishes dominating the offerings. Tapas is everywhere. And we even got our first traditional dim sum restaurant, the Panda King in Gretna. The meal of the moment has many little courses.
Two new restaurants and one resurrected one enlivened the Italian category. John Besh's Domenica made a big splash in the summer with its vast array of house-made cured and smoked meats (another active trend) and its five-ton stone, wood-burning pizza oven. Still hard to get a table there. In October, Chef Adolfo Garcia (RioMar, La Boca) raised some eyebrows when he said that his new A Mano in the Warehouse District would serve the first real Italian food ever hereabouts. Like Besh, he's making a lot of salumi.
The returnee is Maximo's, which for fifteen years before the hurricane was one of the most exciting trattorias in town. It didn't reopen, though, until new owners and the old chef did so early in 2009. It's as good and hip as ever, if not more so, with its Tuscan-style fire-roasting.
As the year wound down to a close, a low buzz emanated from the corner of Camp and Common. There a new restaurant called La Foret, whose chef arrives with a good resume, opened to serve what looks like a contemporary French menu with some Creole flavors. I'll tell you about it in this space next year.
Finally, the West Bank got its first new glitzy gourmet room in many years when the Royal Palm opened in a Las Vegas-style mall in Harvey. With Chef Robert Bruce in the kitchen, this may be the handsomest restaurant ever on the West Bank, which one would think could use some auspicious restaurants. The house may be too big for the customer base, though.
So much for beginnings. The New Orleans dining community lost a few major names in 2009. Archie Casbarian, who thirty years ago acquired the famous wreck that was Arnaud's and turned it back into a brilliant, gleaming restaurant, died as the year opened. His wife and children were already fully engaged in operating Arnaud's, and the restaurant didn't miss a beat. Archie was at least as smart as he was urbane and classy. He finished very high on the all-time list among New Orleans restaurateurs.
Chef Gerard Crozier's final restaurant, Chateaubriand, was one of the most regretted casualties of Katrina. It caused him and his wife to leave town and retire from cooking after almost 50 years behind the stove--33 of them here. The best French bistro chef in New Orleans history, Gerard was working at Wal-Mart in Knoxville, still jogging every day and playing lots of golf, when in September he died at home at 64. Our hopes that he would return ended.
In May, we drank a final toast to the man who inspired more New Orleanians to drink good wine than anyone else. Max Zander went against type as a wine connoisseur, eschewing snobbery and sharing his great knowledge and taste about wine in an entertaining, chummy way. His career (he headed the city's biggest wine wholesale house) began in the 1950s, when hardly anybody drank wine seriously. He was still encouraging us to pull corks almost to the day he died, at 84.
As for 2010: look for soft menu prices, very few closings, still more openings, and the long-awaited boom in Hispanic restaurants. (I'll have an article about what new restaurants are coming in Monday's edition.)
And many of us will wonder whether the next generation of diners will ever take up drinking chicory coffee, eating red beans and rice, or Ramos gin fizzes at the Roosevelt.
Tuesday, December 22. A Great Dinner In A Stark Restaurant. The Marriott Hotel on Canal Street is one of the busiest hotels in the city, with a great location adjacent to the French Quarter. But it only sporadically has cooked food worth talking about. Just before the hurricane, and for the first time in its history, its RiverView restaurant on the forty-first floor had become a good place for dinner. But even with the best view in town, it failed to take off, except for the Sunday brunch boofay it always offered. The RiverView shut down after the storm, and is now used only for banquets. In its place, two years ago the Marriott converted its ground-floor breakfast café into a new bistro called 5Fifty5. They pitched it to the locals, who responded with the usual reluctance to dine in a hotel. And the usual confusion attending any restaurant using a number as a name.
5Fifty5 was good enough when I first tried it a year ago that it's been on my list of places to review. I didn't follow through until a radio show caller a few days ago told me he thought the Reveillon menu was outstanding. I wasn't surprised. When I typed it up for my annual guide, it struck me as not only appetizing but a remarkable bargain: $45 for six courses. With only two more days left for the Reveillon, I thought I'd
better get over there.
The initial impression was chilly, starting with the Marriott's enormous, wind-tunnel-like parking entrance and continuing when I reached 5Fifty5's unattended hostess stand. A woman carrying a tray of food waved at me and said she'd be right over. While waiting, I noticed that the restaurant didn't look like what I remembered. No tablecloths; utensils wrapped in napkins. Many tables set up for breakfast service. In other words, the bistro environment has reverted to coffeeshop style.
That continued in the style of the service. The waitress was pleasant enough, and didn't even bat an eye when I asked for the Reveillon menu. (The fact that she hadn't brought it with the regular menu added to my wariness.) After the first course, she asked me to keep the fork from the first course, coffeeshop style. I told her I wanted fresh silverware with each course, as a dinner like this demands.
But, after all that, from this point everything was fantastic. The Reveillon dinner was even better than it sounded, its concepts creative and its realities beautiful and delicious.
It began with a single plump grilled oyster on the shell with a unique, spicy sauce on top, an interesting tomato ragout next to it, and a fried green tomato slice topped with goat cheese on the right. Next came a cast-iron crock of butternut squash soup, creamy and very interestingly seasoned with a currylike admixture, and roasted pumpkin seeds floating on top. It was the perfect hot, comforting contrast to the chill outside. My only possible complaint would be that this was the fifth or sixth butternut squash soup I've had in the last two weeks. (Why?)
Next came a classic fish course: pan-seared speckled trout, topped with wilted arugula and mache leaves, a little tomato, and a light coating of brown butter. What tasted like a reduced balsamic vinegar gastrique encircled it. Pretty, and tasty. Next in line: an oversize salad of greens, apples, and andouille cracklings. It wasn't until I was nearly finished that I discovered how good those cracklings were. Then I started picking them out with my fingers.
I accord an extra ten points to any dinner in which the subsidiary courses are good, but the entree is best. The lamb chop was just thick enough, very juicy, encrusted with a bit of char, convincingly seasoned with a lot of black pepper. Grilled asparagus, some roasted fingerling potatoes, and a natural jus rounded out the plate. It left nothing to be desired--not even in terms of portion. Like all the previous dishes, if anything it was too generous.
The dinner ended with an architectural dessert that looked like a sandwich wedge. In the center was hazelnut and chocolate, with the "bread" two slices of yellow cake. A shiny bar of chocolate anchored in a pile of spiced apples held the wedge up. Someone had fun thinking this up, and I had fun eating it.
Around this time I was visited by some people from down the banquette. "I always wondered whether you get better service than normal customers," the young woman said. "Now I know that you do!"
I told her that I was quite sure nobody here knew who I was, and asked her what she saw at my table that seemed so much better than at hers. "The waitress brought you fresh silverware after each course," she said. "We had to use the same fork for the whole thing. But the food was good." I told her that I'd almost been victimized by the fork-recycling program myself, but averted it by merely asking. That seemed to satisfy her. "I read somewhere that this place was as good as Vizard's or Clancy's or a place like that," she said. "I would say that is absolutely not true!" I agreed with her, but I could see how a food writer with minimal experience (we have unusually many of those right now) would say something like that.
Judging by the reaction of the waitress to my compliments on this superior dinner, she had no idea what an outstanding buy this Reveillon was. So we have a brilliant bistro chef in a humdrum hotel dining room. They need to tweak this place a little. It would be great for an Eat Club.
5Fifty5. CBD: Marriott Hotel, 555 Canal 504-553-5638. Contemporary Creole.
Restaurant Of The Year 2009
WHY IT'S NOTEWORTHY
Chris Kerageorgiou accomplished what only the greatest chefs can. At La Provence, he created a unique personal cuisine, and made it so good that his restaurant became indispensable. It was so distinctive that when John Besh took over after Chris's death in 2006, it took years before the the restaurant could find its balance and old eminence. Which it has in 2009. The unique goodness of La Provence is back. It's that of the rustic but sophisticated country inn, the kind you find all over Europe. It's better now than it's been at any time since the hurricane, and Chris is smiling down on it.
WHY IT'S GOOD
The menu addresses--in a contemporary way--all the specialties that Chef Chris made favorites: the pate, quail gumbo, lamb, duck, and country-style French dishes from his mother's kitchen. As it was in Chris's day, the menu is ever in flux, and uses many local, custom-raised foodstuffs in their seasons. The dining room and kitchen staffs are young, but waitress "Just Joyce" Bates continues in her thirty-year role as mother hen, in between making great cocktails and writing custom poems. As it had been, La Provence is unique in every way.
Chris Kerageorgiou--native of the south of France, but one hundred percent Greek--came to New Orleans in the 1960s after cooking around the world. After years as the maitre d' at the Royal Orleans Hotel, he ignored all advice in 1972 and opened his own restaurant in small motel in the woods near Lacombe. The North Shore population was much smaller and less inclined to fine dining than it is now. Chris's food was so good that La Provence drew avid eaters from both shores. After Katrina and a health problem that would kill him within a year, Chris sold the restaurant to his former sous chef, John Besh. Besh turned the expansive premises into a small farm, raising chickens, pigs, goats, vegetables, and herbs. He brought in a series of excellent chef-partners, each of whom cooked brilliantly. Problem was, regular customers were put off by the changes. In early 2009, Besh reverted the menu back to its old style, and La Provence found its groove again.
John Besh performed an excellent and subtle renovation in 2006, adding a comfortable bar and opening up many interior walls to add spaciousness. A fireplace in the center of the main room is usually burning unless it would be crazy to do so. A large private dining room has a distinctly Provencal style. All of this is in the setting of an enclosing pine forest, still far enough away from development to feel rural.
The menu changes frequently, but this one is typical:
Heirloom beets with crabmeat and arugula.
Assiette de charcuterie (house-made pates and sausages).
Broiled oysters on the shell with herb butter.
Escargots au pistou.
Shrimp tagine with merguez sausage.
Quail gumbo (the quail is stuffed with jambalaya, which flavors the soup when you cut in).
Grilled redfish with crabmeat.
Tuna with tapenade.
Bouillabaisse Louisiana style.
Scallops with wild mushroom risotto.
Daube of baby goat with grits.
Filet mignon with marrow sauce.
Roasted and confit chicken.
Warm chocolate torte.
Bread pudding with butter pecan whiskey sauce.
FOR BEST RESULTS
At the bottom of the menu every day is a changing, three-course, country-style French dinner for $27. This is not merely a bargain, but a delightfully rustic repast. Try to keep from eating too much of the complimentary house pate before the real food comes. The best time to come here is late Sunday afternoon and early evening.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR IMPROVEMENT
This restaurant must stay on the current program for at least the next three years before any further drastic changes.
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 +3
- Consistency +1
- Service +1
- Value +1
- Attitude +1
- Wine and Bar +2
- Hipness +1
- Local Color +3
- Live music some nights
- Courtyard dining
- Good view
- Good for business meetings
- Large private room
- Early-evening specials
- Open Sunday lunch and dinner
- Open most holidays
- Open all afternoon (Sundays only)
- Good for children
- Easy, nearby parking
- Reservations recommended
ANECDOTES AND ANALYSIS
Most restaurants that gain distinction do so by looking forward. La Provence is The New Orleans Menu's 2009 Restaurant of the Year because it looked backwards. After four talented chefs failed to catch on in the years since John Besh bought the restaurant, Besh took heed of what the customers had been saying all along. Namely, that the heritage of founder Chris Kerageorgiou was more distinguished than anything else that could be installed in that restaurant.
So Besh hired young new chef Erick Loos, and between the two of them built a menu which Chris himself could have come up with--although it was far more creative than just a rehash of the old dishes. The reaction from the regulars was unequivocal: it's about time! The mood brightened all around. Even Ms. Joyce seemed to be smiling more--and that's a telling barometer. A new golden age is beginning at La Provence, which once more is a credible nominee for best restaurant on the North Shore.
Missing Parts Of The Dining Scene
Which New Restaurants Do We Need?
I've asked this question annually for at least thirty years, and here I am again with it:
What restaurant or kind of restaurant would be a strong addition to the local dining scene? What kind of cookery are we missing?
My nominee: a Santa Fe-style southweestern restaurant. A gourmet Mexican place would be my second pick. Already, several other readers have added thier own ideas. Look them over and add your own on our
Baked Blackeye Peas
I love blackeye peas, which have a much more assertive taste than most beans. I really think that you have to cook them differently from the way you cook red beans. This method heads off in the direction of barbecue beans, without the sauce. It helps to boil the beans the night before, then bake them all morning long. This is actually my wife's recipe, and we serve it at most of the casual barbecues we are called upon to do.
- 1 lb. dried blackeye peas
- 2/3 cup Steen's cane syrup
- 1/2 cup dark brown sugar
- 4 whole cloves
- 2 Tbs. Pickapeppa or Tabasco New Orleans steak sauce
- 1/2 cup chopped onion
- 1/2 tsp. summer savory
- 1 tsp. salt
- 2 Tbs. Creole mustard
- 1/2 pound lean bacon, cut into squares
1. Sort through the beans to remove bad ones and dirt, then rinse well. Put them into a pot with enough water to cover them about four inches deep, and bring to a light boil. Boil for one hour.
2. Drain the beans well and put them into a baking dish with all the other ingredients. Mix well.
3. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and bring two cups of water to a boil. Top the beans with just enough boiling water to just barely cover them.
4. Put the baking dish into the preheated oven and bake for three hours. Check it every hour, stirring and adding a little more water if the beans seems to be getting dry.
Makes eight to twelve side portions.
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