Reinventing the past and conquering childhood fears at Restaurant Cuvee

Seven years ago today, I spent my 32nd birthday all alone in the Crescent City.  It had only been two months since I moved from the Bay Area and I hadn’t made any friends yet, but I had made up my mind to enjoy a solo evening out on the town to celebrate.  Out of the blue, I get a call from a friend in California who pitied my lonesome state and took it upon himself to reserve a table for me at Emeril’s Delmonico. “Are you sure about this?” I asked.  “Absolutely,” he replied, “order whatever you wish…it’s on me.”

I had to take him up on his offer, didn’t I?

That night, I arrived at Delmonico where I was seated at my own table near the window so I could watch the streetcars go by.  Accepting my server’s most gracious suggestion, I chose to indulge in the chef’s tasting menu.  It turned out to be seven courses of pure bliss, each dish paired with wine selected by their knowledgeable sommelier.  The servers started to cheer me on, impressed (or perhaps shocked) that I was able to devour every crumb from every last plate.  When I finally left the restaurant almost three hours later, I was elated, extremely full and superbly contented.  It was easily one of the finest meals I have ever had in my entire life.

The next morning, I got a call from my friend who had obviously seen the rather hefty charge on his credit card and the very first words from his lips were “What the hell did you eat?!”

Here I am seven years later turning 39 and yesterday, I had my weekly “cheat” at Restaurants Cuvee and I am amazed when I consider the parallels to my experience at Delmonico so long ago. This is my 48th cheat and I am down 67 pounds.

John and I were invited to this extravagant luncheon by none other than the “Food Goddess” herself, Lorin Gaudin. We arrived at the CBD restaurant on Magazine Street to find Lorin had already scored the best table in the house.  If you’ve never been in Cuvee before, know that it has a gorgeous interior featuring the traditional exposed brick walls so often seen in New Orleans combined with a very contemporary shaped ceiling and beautiful iron sculptures posing as light fixtures throughout the dining room and bar.

Only a few months ago, Cuvee was lucky enough to hire Chef Isaac Toups who had been managing charcuterie for many years at where else but Emeril’s Delmonico.  Once again I was going to enjoy the culinary creations of Chef Toups only this time, he had full control of the kitchen.  To make it even more spectacular (as if that was even possible), not only would we select items from the lunch menu, the chef was going to prepare some special dinner items just for us.  I settled in for what I knew was going to be a wonderfully long and leisurely luncheon.

We all ordered separately, but it certainly didn’t stop us from sampling one another’s dishes…no cootie fears here among the ready, willing and hungry.  John started with a Seared Yellow Fin Tuna served on a bed of arugula and sprinkled with Marcona almonds and a lime-honey vinaigrette.  Delicious and summery, the tuna was cooked perfectly and melted in my mouth.  John heaved a sigh of relief and satisfaction to finally see tuna prepared the way it was meant to be.  My starter was Pork Belly Beet Ravioli braised in white wine with fresh tomatoes and fried shallots on top.  No offense to the rest of the table, but I thought mine was the best!  Just thinking about the deep purple ravioli stuffed with salty, rich pork and the delicate, crispy shallots initiates Pavlovian response and my mouth fills with water.  Lorin’s Salade aux Lardons (got to love that pork fat!) with bitter greens and a red wine poached egg was also quite tasty. I especially loved the deep, heady flavor of the egg.

The next round of dishes were what could technically be called our entrees, although there was so many plates it was hard to keep track of it all.  John had the Rabbit Gnocchi with fried sage, mustard greens, fresh tomato, Parmesan and a bit of grated orange zest.  Usually gnocchi tends to be a heavy, cold-weather kind of pasta but this dish was so clean and bright in flavor with perfectly fluffy gnocchi, it was surprisingly well suited to the season.  My dish was much heavier, a Confit Duck Panini with onion marmalade and melted puits d’astier cheese on thickly sliced brioche.  The duck was perfect, tender and juicy, and I loved the odoriferous, yet flavorful cheese.

Lorin was treated to two different scallop presentations, the first being Seared Diver Scallops atop creamy polenta (whipped with mascarpone cheese) and sauteed fresh asparagus surrounded by a charred tomato sauce.  The other dish featured Sea Scallops topped with a thick slice of bacon, all of it resting on thin slice of tangy marinated zucchini and preserved orange sauce.  Both dishes were wonderful and the scallops were perfectly cooked, both juicy and tender breaking apart easily with a fork.  The bacon was out of this world, but it was to be expected with Isaac’s masterful curing techniques.

This is when things really got out of hand…

Suddenly we were bombarded with three different appetizers from the dinner menu.  There was the Deux Fois Gras (fattened goose liver prepared two ways) and some Pan Fried Sweetbreads.  As ashamed as I am to admit this, I have NEVER liked fois gras and have avoided sweetbreads like the plague.  Unfortunately, my father tormented me with all kinds of organ meat when I was a child.  Between my mother’s disgusting rendition of liver and onions fried in a cast iron skillet and my father chasing me around the house with a huge cow tongue and ‘licking” my adolescent cheek with horrific relish (and laughing uproariously the entire time), I just couldn’t bring myself to try anything of the sort when I finally reached adulthood.

So when this “organ extravaganza” came to the table, I took a deep breath, screwed up every ounce of courage I possessed and, with encouraging words from Lorin (my friend and mentor), I gave them a try. Braving the “worst” first, I cut a small slice of the pan fried sweetbreads, swirled it in the creamy sweet pea sauce and topped it with a piece of Isaac’s house made pancetta and popped it into my mouth.  Much to my surprise (and relief) I found it quite delicious!  It reminded me of really excellent fried chicken and my second bite was taken in a much more relaxing manner.

I decided to face the Shaved Torchon Fois Gras next, a dish I’m going to dub “Fois Gras for Dummies.” I knew I wouldn’t really enjoy the other preparation, which was a grilled lobe of fois gras, as I had tasted it on many different occasions, always coming to the same yucky conclusion. But, I have to admit that the Torchon was absolutely magnificent, tasting like a thick, creamy butter and I know now, I wouldn’t hesitate to order it again.  At last I had been successful, rising to what I felt was a higher level in my culinary education and teaching my palate to appreciate dishes I had always feared.  It might sound silly, but I felt elated and proud.

Our final wave was three wonderful desserts which made the previous round look positively scary.  Who wouldn’t want to devour Chocolate Banana Bread Pudding with Butterscotch Ice Cream or an “Elvis” featuring grilled Buffalo Mozzarella Cheese, sliced banana, peanuts and blackberries?  The third dessert was my absolute favorite, a creamy Creme Brulee made with sherry and macerated sour cherries.  It has a thin, crispy sugar crust that, when broken, revealed a decadently cool custard that three of us practically fought over to get every last bite.

After an almost immoral three-hour lunch, we thanked our server and Chef Isaac profusely for a wonderful experience and waddled our way out of the restaurant.  Not only had I experienced another incredible meal similar to the one I had back in 2003 (minus the wine), I had grown as a diner and solidly reinforced one of the biggest reasons I moved here.

Neither floods, nor winds, nor slicks of oil will prevent me from living and loving New Orleans, my home sweet home.

Franky & Johnny’s: “Let ’em have it!”

After visiting the Green Goddess last week, I was talking to Casey and John about possible locations for my next cheat and I told them I’ve been wanting to try Franky & Johnny’s.  Almost in unison, John and Casey started chanting “I say, I say, I say” and they laughed when when I asked if they’d both gone mad.

Once again, I was showing transplant ignorance by not recognizing a famous (or should I say infamous) television commercial for a budget furniture store which is also called Frankie and Johnny’s.  They dug up the commercial on YouTube so I could experience the silliness for myself.  The Italian gentleman with a terrible hairpiece shuffle-dancing towards the camera instantly reminded me of a crazy local commercial I grew up with featuring Paul, the “Credit Man” from The Diamond Center.

All joking and low-budget commercials aside, I convinced John to take me to Franky & Johnny’s…for dinner, not a couch.  It was my 47th cheat and I am down 66 pounds.

I don’t want to say “It was a dark and stormy night” because it sounds so cliche, but…well, it was a dark and stormy night when we pulled into the puddle-filled parking lot on Arabella and Tchoupitoulas Street.  Admittedly, it was a bit intimidating when we walked into the practically unlit bar, but we could see clusters of tables in the back and followed our noses.  We were seated right away and served two mammoth Cokes within seconds of ordering.

The small restaurant/bar is located in the basement of a raised Craftsman-style house, so the ceilings are low and there are large beams that separate the space.  The simple, family/neighborhood vibe reminded me of Perino’s Boiling Pot on the Westbank, from the relaxed, yet hospitable servers to the red & white checkered tablecloths.

Our appetizers came out first, a small crawfish pie and a choice highly recommended by our waitress, a split order of onion rings and bell pepper rings.  I loved the flavor the celery and carrots in the crawfish pie, almost like a homemade pot pie, but I thought it could be a bit bigger for the price since we gobbled it in no time flat.  The fried bell pepper rings were fabulous, the pepper was still fresh and juicy inside the spicy, crispy batter.

That same batter was used on my 8-inch fried catfish po-boy and John’s fried shrimp po-boy.  They dressed both sandwiches with pickles, tomatoes, lettuce and butter (margarine actually).  It was a first for me since most shops I’ve been to use mayonnaise instead.  The difference didn’t bother me one bit, in fact, I really enjoyed it.  Both of our entrees were pretty tasty, but more than we could manage in one sitting.  If we ordered one 12-inch, we probably could have split it.

As stuffed as we were, I simply couldn’t walk out of there without ordering dessert. I almost went with the sweet potato pie, but ended up opting for the Chocolate Peanut Butter Pie that “wasn’t made in house but was definitely made locally.”  It certainly wasn’t the prettiest presentation, but it was definitely delicious. I look forward to crawfish season when I can come back to Franky & Johnny’s and sample what they are known for, boiled seafood.

Until next time, I have no choice but to let you have it…”with nooo problem!”

Enlightenment at the Green Goddess

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Casey had accompanied John and I on one of my cheats and unfortunately, it turned out badly.  I felt terrible, especially after constantly bragging about the all the fantastic eateries I had already experienced.  Determined to make it up to her, I chose a special spot for lunch this past Saturday that I knew for a fact would be outstanding and blow both of our minds (not to mention our palates)…the Green Goddess.

This was my 46th cheat and I am now down 65 pounds.

How did I know the Green Goddess would be a good bet? With chefs like Chris DeBarr and Paul Artigues at the helm, how could it possibly go wrong? Both are local heroes known for their creativity at the Delachaise and Surrey’s Juice Bar respectively, not to mention that DeBarr is married to one of my favorite authors (Poppy Z. Brite), but that’s just lagniappe. My mouth was watering in anticipation for what I knew would be one hell of a meal and at this point, I think Casey was simply hoping I would be right this time.

Although located in the French Quarter, this tiny cafe has an unusual level of intimacy not easily found so close to Royal Street.  Tucked into Exchange Place, a small alley found right off Bienville between Royal and Chartres Streets, we were surprised to find two available outside tables, especially since it was the second day of the Satchmo Summer Festival. I suppose the heat drove most of the patrons inside, but Casey and I thought it was pleasant under the large shady umbrellas and sat down, prepared to relax into a long, leisurely lunch.

With so many drool-inducing items on the menu, it took us a while to order, but our server was patient and accommodating, taking our drink order while we debated our options.  Casey chose a “Pear 75”, which was a like a tricked-out Mimosa featuring Oregon Pear Brandy, Austrian apricot liqueur, a house made ginger syrup and topped with champagne. Its flavors were very complex and my only complaint was that I wished it was a lot colder. I opted for “Solidarity Sunshine”, a cocktail the restaurant tagged as “an adult lemonade” with Sparkling Meyer Lemon Juice, Sobieski Vodka and fresh basil…a delightful and refreshing drink, reminding me of the almighty Mojito. We both were so dazzled by the “Sunshine” we had to order two more.

Casey’s allergies prevented her, but I just couldn’t resist ordering the special, a chilled mango puree drizzled with balsamic and laced with thick, crisp strands of prosciutto. Tropical fruits like mango, pineapple, banana, guava etc. intrigue my taste buds to no end and mango soup was an adventure impossible for me to ignore. I have to admit feeling a little guilty devouring the tangy, wonderfully chilled soup without being able to share with Casey…just not guilty enough. I think she understood though, plus the prospect of breaking out in hives while sweating in the mid-summer New Orleans heat was an effective deterrent.

Casey came into her own though with what I thought was the better entree, the “Cuban Luau,” a pressed sandwich featuring pulled pork, salame, grilled pineapple, pickled banana peppers and Manchego (Queso) cheese on ciabatta bread. Casey immediately declared that it ranked in her personal top five sandwiches of all time and I’m inclined to agree. Every bite danced you through a crispy, buttery, tangy, creamy, salty whirlwind leaving you breathless, but raring for another go.

Not quite as daring, but still absolutely delicious, I enjoyed the “Lafitte Blue Crab Melt” that was literally loaded with large chunks of juicy crab and melted Robiola cheese with a spicy remoulade sauce on toasted ciabiatta. The slight tang of the cheese complimented, rather than overpowered, the delicate crab meat and I had no difficulty scarfing down the entire sandwich. Actually, since I am re-savoring the moment, I must remember to ask them where they get their bread! Next time…

Casey and I also shared a order of “French Duck Fat Potato ‘Home Fries'” served with garlic aioli and roasted, red bell pepper dipping sauces.  Can anyone really resist potatoes cooked in duck fat? The thick potato slices were either super crunchy or soft and greasy, but wonderful nonetheless especially after being dipped.

Bursting at the seams but determined to do it right, I requested the dessert menu, disregarding when Casey helplessly moaned “No more!” Forcing her to my will, I made her scan the menu till we both agreed on “The Sultan’s Nest”. Regardless of how full she was, Casey couldn’t help indulging in several bites of the delightful dessert. Pistachio Gelato and whipped cream sat atop a nest of crunchy, shredded phyllo curls and honey infused with saffron, candied Yuzu peel and orange blossom water. Ambrosial, mysterious and sweet, it was certainly food for the gods, or in this case goddesses, and we’d just been given a brief taste of heaven.

My compliments to the magic-makers at the Green Goddess for a most memorable meal and, more specifically, for helping me regain Casey’s trust in my choice of eateries. One thing’s for certain, I’ll be back to worship at your temple again soon…

Dipping into The Lucky Ladle

My mother is, without a doubt, a shopaholic. As a teenager, I barely endured long, draining Saturdays spent at Hillsdale Mall, dreary only because my mother and I are complete opposites.  Fluorescent lights leeched life from my limbs as I shuffled reluctantly from Lane Bryant to Nordstrom’s and if Beelzebub whispered in my mother’s ear…Macy’s would be added to the tortuous tour. There was one highlight, one bastion of warmth and comfort to be found at the end of the dry marble halls and endlessly irritating crowds, Stone Soup.

Like salve on a wound, the soup worked wonders for my sanity and allowed me to carry on through days I didn’t think would ever end.  A big bowl of clam chowder or potato soup, occasionally accompanied by half a ham sandwich or a hunk of sourdough bread enabled a small taste of hearth and home, to which I desperately sought to return.

With high hopes for a good bowl of soup my friends and I decided to visit a newly opened restaurant, The Lucky Ladle at 1906 Magazine Street in what was formerly the location for J’anita’s.  It was my 45th cheat and I am down 63 pounds.

We strolled into the freshly painted restaurant a little after noon to find only one table filled and an overzealous server.  Although she seemed new to the game, she was very polite, quickly showing us a table and taking our drink order.  Dani and I both selected coffee and were surprised to receive large ceramic, bowl-like mugs that had me bouncing around the rest of the day.

While browsing the menu, I noticed a nice selection of simple sandwiches and breakfast items, but I was a little disappointed by only four soups to choose from.  I suppose that four is two more soups than in your average restaurant, but this is the Lucky Ladle, right?  Additionally, the list of soups was at the bottom of the menu when in my mind, they should be the feature.  Perhaps they could offer four regular soups and two rotating special soups?  Just a suggestion…

We placed our order and watched Dani’s six-month-old daughter Posie while she tried not to be cute and failed miserably.  After 15 minutes or so, all of our dishes came out in a flurry and I had to fight to take pictures before everyone starting eating.  Dani chose the “Elvis” panini, a pressed peanut butter, banana and bacon sandwich on sourdough with a fruit kebab side featuring orange quarters, red and green grapes and fresh strawberries.  My bite proved to have flavor fit for a king with crisp chunks of bacon and a perfect ratio of bananas to creamy peanut butter. And I couldn’t help grinning as I watched Posie love her first taste of orange…it definitely won’t be her last.

I averted my attention to John’s West Coast Turkey Wrap loaded with turkey, bacon, swiss cheese, avocado, fresh spinach and honey mustard.  He chose a spinach salad on the side plus a bowl of French Onion soup.  The wrap was fresh and tasty, extremely simple but good nonetheless and the soup was tangy and rich, loaded with translucent onions and little blobs of parmesean cheese.

My sandwich was called the “Frenchie”, grilled ham and swiss on a croissant topped with bechamel sauce.  Again a very simple, but good sandwich that I thought went well with a bowl of their broccoli and cheese soup.  A thick slice of multigrain bread served alongside proved to be an excellent dipping tool, lifting long strings of cheddar with every dunk.

Although it didn’t quite bring back the nostalgia I had hoped for (they need more soups!), I found the food to be elementary, something I could have easily made at home, but very fresh and good regardless. If I worked nearby, it would be a great spot for a nice, inexpensive, yet wholesome lunch.  They only opened in June and I am sure there are some kinks that need ironing, so you can bet I’ll be keeping an eye out for an expanded soup menu, one that I believe could really make them lucky.

There’s a gator in my jambalaya!

When you are on a strict eating regimen like I am, the most difficult task is finding new and interesting recipes that taste good and are also low in fat.  One of my favorite recipes to make, for so many reasons, is jambalaya.  The only problem is that most andouille sausage brands are ridiculously high in fat…anywhere from 10 to 16 grams per serving!  Needless to say, I haven’t been eating jambalaya for a while…

Then, lo and behold, John was browsing the specialty meat section of Rouses and discovered some smoked alligator sausage made by the Crescent City Meat Company only a stones throw away in Metairie.  And here’s the kicker, it was only 2 grams of fat per serving!  That’s less than a boneless, skinless chicken breast!  Excited and hungry for flavor…I altered my jambalaya recipe just a bit so that I could once again enjoy that spicy, one-pot goodness anytime of the week.

Kim’s Gator Sausage Jambalaya

1     pound of boneless, skinless chicken breasts, diced (season with S&P)
1     pound of smoked alligator sausage, diced
2     red or green bell peppers (sometimes I do both!), chopped
3     stalks of chopped celery
1     large yellow onion, chopped
3     cups of long grain rice (brown rice will be lower in calories plus more fiber)
6     cups of low sodium chicken broth
2     tablespoons of vegetable oil
2     tablespoons of chili powder
2     teaspoons cayenne pepper (or more if you like it real spicy!)
2     teaspoons of ground thyme
1/2  teaspoon of cloves
2     bay leaves
salt and pepper

In a large pot or Dutch oven, brown the chicken pieces in oil, remove from pan and set aside.  Add celery, onions and peppers and saute until the onions become translucent.

Add the sausage and saute for a few minutes.  Then add seasonings and saute until you can smell the aroma of the spices.  Next, add the rice and stir to cover grains with seasoning.  Then add chicken broth, the browned chicken (don’t forget the juice leftover on the plate!), and bring to a boil over medium heat.

Once the mixture is boiling, turn the heat down to low, cover the pot and set the timer for 35 minutes.  Just remember, cooking jambalaya is like cooking rice…don’t lift the lid! Don’t mess with it!  Just trust me on this…I promise it will be delicious!

Just a few blocks to bliss at Boucherie

Not to start any inter-city rivalry, but I think I live in one of the best neighborhoods in New Orleans, especially when it comes to food.  It’s only four blocks to Spoon Bread at Dante’s Kitchen, three to a pork tenderloin & Gouda cheese Canoe at Barcelona Tapas Cafe or the best burgers in town at GB’s Grill and only two blocks to a Rainbow Roll at Ninja.  While doing laundry on Maple Street (only six blocks away), I can devour some fried Kibby at Babylon Cafe or indulge in a strawberry turnover at Maple Street Patisserie. The close proximity of so much incredible food is dizzying and I have only skimmed the surface.

Just the other day I visited yet another exceptional restaurant in my ‘hood that I’ve been anxious to visit for some time.  Ever since tasting fried boudin balls from the bright purple Que Crawl truck parked out in front of Tipitina’s almost a year ago, I’ve been dreaming about visiting Boucherie.  This is my 43rd cheat and I am down 61 pounds.

You’ll find Boucherie on Jeanette Street (only five blocks away) in the old Iris location.  John and I arrived on the steps of the quaint, unassuming house featuring a black stencil of a pig at about 15 minutes to noon.  There were only two other tables taken when we arrived, but the small restaurant quickly filled while we dined.

Since we couldn’t decide between two drool-inducing appetizers, we got both; Watermelon & Creole Tomato Gazpacho with Kafir Lime Tuna Ceviche plus the Blackened Shrimp & Grit Cake with warm house made bacon vinaigrette.  The chilled gazpacho was deliciously refreshing, especially with the tangy ceviche center.  I loved the presentation featuring small drops of balsamic vinegar making the whole dish look like a slice of fresh watermelon.

As wonderful as the gazpacho was, I couldn’t help but be deterred by the rich, heavy aroma of the Blackened Shrimp that was served at the same time.  The shrimp and grit cakes were fantastic, spicy and crisp…John and I made sure we split the third shrimp evenly in half as neither one of us wanted less than our fair share.  Conspiracy theory or no, I believe restaurants purposely serve their juiciest tidbits in threes, certain that the uneven number might entice a call for another order.  I was almost bamboozled by their shifty devices, but then I saw my entree.

Roast beef po’boys, when executed well, are a beautiful thing.  The beef should be tender and juicy, drowning in a rich brown gravy, that soaks into the soft, white belly of the French bread. There should be lots of finger-licking and napkin-using and small, leftover puddles of gravy on your plate. My 12 Hour Roast Beef Po’boy did all that and more.  The pickled red onions and spicy horseradish cream contrasted perfectly with the rich, heady beef that practically melted in my mouth.  I think I’ve found my new favorite…

John’s entree was equally wonderful, a Smoked Wagyu Beef Brisket.  Apparently, Wagyu beef from Australia is supposed to be among the most tender and tasty in the world and after a bite of John’s brisket, I can easily see why.  The meat was tender and juicy, falling apart at the touch of a fork and slathered in a sweet house made BBQ sauce.  I managed to snag some tasty garlicky Parmesan fries from his plate too.

After such a decadent meal, we really should have been finished, but not without dessert! I wasn’t leaving until I tried the house made Fudge Farms Bacon Brownie.  Could you?

The brownie arrived shortly after we ordered it, warmed through with a couple large dollops of freshly whipped cream speckled with vanilla bean. The rich chocolate flavor burst into my mouth in my first chewy bite with a distinct aftertaste of smoky bacon.  Although I enjoyed the whipped cream, I would have loved a scoop of their homemade ice cream on top instead.

When at last we received our check, I was completely stunned! After all that food, our tab only came to $54 before tip. On their website, Boucherie describes their passion/mission of bringing “fine dining to the people.”  I’d say they succeeded wonderfully!

I know there are other neighborhoods in New Orleans that have awesome restaurants to choose from just like in the Riverbend, but I couldn’t be happier knowing that Boucherie is in mine.

Visiting Katie’s Restaurant & Bar

Ever since I read about the recently re-opened Katie’s in Mid-City, I became anxious to give it a try.  After all, Katie’s has been around since 1984 and though it’s not as old as Mandina’s or College Inn,  staying in business for over twenty years is nothing to sneeze at.  On Thursday, John and I chose to have lunch at Katie’s Restaurant & Bar.  This is my 42nd cheat and I am down 59 pounds.  Slowly but surely…

The lunchtime rush was just starting to fade when we wandered towards the cute, neighborhood cafe on the corner of Iberville and S. Telemachus Streets.  We stopped to read from the specials chalkboard and saw an older woman just inside the door waiting to greet us.  From what I read on their site, I assumed our gracious hostess was Mary a.k.a. the “Hostess with the Mostess” and the mother of owner Scott Craig.  She gave us menus, but I think by that time, we had already mentally selected an item from the specials board.

Our server came and took our order, swiftly returning with our drinks while we eyed the food at neighboring tables.  We were really hungry so the wait seemed longer than it really was, but our forks were clutched in our greedy hands by the time the appetizer finally arrived.  We didn’t even bother with the little plates the server brought us and dove right into Katie’s Homemade Crab Cakes.  The menu elaborated a bit when it touted that they were “over-stuffed with Louisiana crab meat”, but they weren’t the usual disappointment, i.e. crab flavored bread crumbs.  I am pleased to say they offered more crab than I expected and to make it even better, the remoulade was tart, a tad spicy and generally delicious.  In fact, I wouldn’t have minded a bit more sauce.

When my Crawfish Beignet with jalapeno aioli arrived, I almost thought I had received the wrong order.  It kind of looked like a large omelet surrounded by lettuce and cherry tomatoes.  I cut into the “beignet” to find large crawfish tails, tons of cheddar and jack cheese and thick slices of pickled jalapeno.  It was almost like a quesadilla served inside puff pastry with a spicy aioli sauce poured over the top.  I ate it (who doesn’t love cheese and jalapenos?) but it was strange nonetheless.

John’s order, also from the specials menu, was Tuna on “Ciabiatia” a.k.a Ciabatta with Bleu cheese crumbles and mixed greens.  They served the sandwich in a large basket with thin, crispy French fries which I thought was a cute presentation technique.  Unfortunately, although John ordered his tuna rare it arrived done and was rather dry.  The manager offered John something else, but his dining mood was ruined (this had happened to him several times in the past) and he declined.  With no more ado, she removed the cost of his sandwich from the bill.

We considered dessert, but all they were only offering White Chocolate Bread Pudding.  As delicious as it may have been, John and I have been a bit burned out on bread pudding.  I understand it’s a classic New Orleans dessert, but so are pralines and banana’s foster…

Anyhow, on my suggestion and with a big hearty sigh from John, we drove across town to visit Bee Sweet Cupcakes on Magazine Street (is it “Bee” or “Be”? Sign and site disagree with each other), a couple of doors down from Whole Foods.  As soon as you walk in, tiers of fabulously decorated cupcakes greet your eyes and it is difficult to choose only one…so we got four.

We walked out of the quaint cupcake shop drooling over four fabulous flavors; Gimme S’More, Pralines & Cream, Strawberry Tart and a Chocolate Manic Attack.  All four were really wonderful (and incredibly sweet), but my favorite was the Strawberry Tart…both the icing and the moist cake tasted like they were laden with fresh strawberries…absolutely scrumptious and a wonderful finish for my cheat.

I’ve learned quite a few important lessons on this cheat like the importance of proper spelling, that the shape of a beignet is in the eye of its creator and if I want tuna cooked rare, I have to visit a Japanese restaurant.  Most significantly, I’ve learned that even though they don’t always turn out perfectly, each new eatery I visit presents an element of risk and I will never know what culinary surprises await me.  All I have to do is summon the bravery to take the next leap…

An affordable cheat at Cafe Rani

Due to my current financial situation, selecting cheat meal locations that are also affordable can truly be an onerous task.  The spoiled foodie in me can’t help wanting nothing but the best (what I wouldn’t give to dine at Lilette, Gautreau’s or La Petite Grocery!), but any eateries with an average entree price over $15 is, sadly, out of my monetary reach.  Last week I had selected a small restaurant close to my house offering cuisine that had piqued my interest.  Unfortunately, when John and I were standing outside of said restaurant looking at the menu posted by the front door, we felt a bit squeamish when we noticed that there wasn’t even one entree under $20.  Needless to say we were forced to change our plans.

After driving aimlessly down Magazine Street for a while just hoping to spot an interesting, yet affordable location to dine, I spotted the elusive sign for Cafe Rani. In a previous attempt to visit the cafe, I had so much difficulty locating it, I simply gave up.  It seemed somehow a twist of fate that its location was revealed to me and I chose not to fight the cards as they were dealt.  This is my 39th cheat and since I lost two of the pounds I gained last week, I am back to a grand total loss of 60 pounds.

Cafe Rani is tucked into the back of a large courtyard on Magazine located right across the street from Belladonna Day Spa.  When we entered the cafe, we were able to select our own table and chose a spot in the back for privacy.  The decor is relatively modern and clean with framed black & white photos of New Orleans spaced evenly along the walls, simple wood chairs and linen covered tables.  I couldn’t help noticing that several of the photographs weren’t mounted properly in their frames and were slipping down into obscurity.

Pushing the minor irritant aside, I scanned the large menu that featured mostly salads for something naughty to eat.  I realize that Cafe Rani emphasizes healthy cuisine (thus the proliferation of salad entrees), but I was here to cheat, so I selected the heaviest items I could find on the menu.

We started with a Shrimp & Crawfish Bruschetta.  There were rosemary ciabatta “croutons” or triangles topped with shrimp, crawfish, artichoke hearts and tomatoes sauteed in a lobster butter.  Although the dish didn’t look very pretty (or it could have simply been a lighting issue), it was quite tasty and even possessed a bit of a kick with some added red pepper flakes.  It was a tad greasy, but hey…who was complaining?

Shortly after we gobbled down the appetizer, our entrees arrived.  John ordered the Tandoori Tuna Steak sandwich served on a wheat bun dressed with mango aioli, sliced cucumbers and tomatoes. From a choice of sides, John selected their potato salad to go with it. Although I loved the curry flavor of the tuna balanced against the sweetness of the wheat bun, the tuna wasn’t cooked quite right.  John had requested the tuna be very rare (like any good tuna steak should be) and simply seared on the outside.  Whoever prepared it must have not had the grill/pan hot enough because the tuna had just barely turned white on the outside.  All in all though, the dish was tasty and the bacon enhanced potato salad was the star on his plate.

On their website, Cafe Rani touts “one of the best burgers in town” so naturally, I ordered a burger, but not just any burger.  I selected the Creole burger topped with andouille sausage and served with a house Remoulade and cocktail sauce on a wheat bun.  The Remoulade was delicious but spicier than I am used to and I liked the wheat bun and sausage, but the burger itself was rather dry (I requested it to be cooked medium) and there wasn’t any real flavor in the meat itself.  It was served with regular Zapp’s potato chips sprinkled with Tony’s.

I couldn’t leave the restaurant without ordering dessert (naturally), so I selected the Double Chocolate Fudge Cake and we also ordered a couple of lattes on a tip from our friend Lorin Gaudin. Apparently, Cafe Rani gets their coffee from The Coast Roast, a Mississippi roaster who has their own retail store front in Long Beach.  The lattes were aromatic and creamy, just incredible and as good as any California roaster I’ve ever encountered.  The cake was rich and decadent with a moist crumb and a thick vein of chocolate fudge (almost the consistency of a ganache) that we inhaled with ease.

Best of all, we were very pleased when we received the check and noticed that it wouldn’t break the bank. Hurrah for a delicious, yet affordable cheat!

S is for Stanley, that’s good enough for me

Could you imagine knowing the luxury of dining in a restaurant where you are served seven courses of culinary art, each dish an original masterpiece? Have you ever dared to dream of epicurean nirvana, where a chef’s heavenly creations enable sensory bliss? Do you have the financial wherewithal to make this dream a reality by visiting Chef Scott Boswell’s famous Stella! Restaurant?

I don’t. But I can afford to visit Boswell’s Stanley Restaurant in Jackson Square.

My weight was going down pretty steadily for a while, but this last week I have had more difficulty sticking to the “plan.” Surprisingly, my willpower has held out in regards to quitting smoking (going on 4 1/2 months now!), but I’m one of those people who eat when they get anxious or depressed and it seems like life has really been sticking it to me lately. I realize this isn’t a good excuse for a lapse, it’s just an explanation. At any rate, I gained four pounds this week and probably don’t deserve to cheat at all…but I did anyway.

John had to go into to work on Thursday, so we decided to drive downtown a few hours beforehand and enjoy lunch in the French Quarter. It was a hot, sunny day and a simple stroll from the car through Jackson Square became a sweaty affair. I couldn’t help heaving a sigh of relief when we finally stepped inside the cool restaurant. The fans were spinning lazily and blessed air conditioning slapped us full in the face as we selected a table near the window looking out towards the square.

After trying to decide between breakfast and lunch (Eggs Benedict Po-Boy anyone?), we placed our order and watched the people-parade from the window. Our server brought out our drinks and my senses slowly returned as I sipped on the deliciously cool beverage. We couldn’t help but select a couple of Italian Sodas and John chose blood-orange while I opted for watermelon. Both were perfect, not too sweet and ice cold.

Although it was hot outside, I had to order a small bowl of gumbo and I am so glad I did. Flavored with a dark roux, Stanley’s gumbo included P&J oysters, chicken, Gulf shrimp and andouille sausage. Now, I don’t usually like seafood in gumbo, it has a tendency to be overcooked and chewy. This time I was not disappointed. The shrimp was the perfect texture and yet they still managed to soak up the rich, nutty flavor of the roux. John and I made quick work of the gumbo, soaking up the last drops with fresh sliced French bread.

Soon after we finished, our entrees arrived and it was difficult to restrain ourselves as we snapped photos for this blog. We both had opted for lunch items; John chose the Big Stanley Burger, I ordered New Orleans’ Best Reuben and we also got a side of onion rings to share.

As it turns out, New Orleans’ Best Reuben could very easily live up to its name. I used to make Reubens frequently in my own home, but they never tasted quite like this. Corned beef and pastrami draped with both Provolone and Swiss cheeses, grilled sauerkraut and Russian dressing on toasted rye bread. The Reuben at Stein’s Deli is the only version to come close to what I devoured at Stanley. I would have to compare them side-by-side to select a winner…what a lunch that would be!

John’s burger was also very tasty, although I though it odd that the server didn’t ask how he wanted it cooked. 10 ounces of Angus beef topped with two slices of American cheese, three strips of bacon and Stanley’s “Special Sauce” made for a quite memorable and juicy burger. Both of our sandwiches were so large, we were only able to finish half, but the fresh, crispy onion rings were unable to escape our ardor.

We saved half of our sandwiches for later on purpose. You see, although Stanley serves some pretty excellent meals, in essence the restaurant styles itself as an old fashioned malt shop.  So you can understand why we desperately wanted to save some room for dessert…especially the house made ice cream.

We agreed on the Stanley Split, which is basically a banana split featuring fresh berries (strawberries and blueberries), chocolate sauce and three scoops of Stanley’s own Chunky Chartres ice cream.  The house made scoops were full of chocolate chips and walnuts making a spoonful of ice cream feel like so much more than a mouthful, but we still finished the dessert with ease.

Even though I am financially unable to enjoy dining at a stellar restaurant like Stella!, I am glad that I possess enough cash to sample Boswell’s cuisine at Stanley and that’s good enough for me.

Another famous Ziggy at Maple Street Patisserie

When you think of the name “Ziggy”, a slew of famous characters come to mind; Ziggy Marley, Ziggy Stardust, Evander “Ziggy” Hood and even Ziggy, the well-known cartoon strip.  Thursday afternoon I was forced to add another personality to the “Ziggy” hall of fame, Ziggy Cichowski…Master Pastry Chef at Maple Street Patisserie (7638 Maple Street, (504) 247-7912).  This was my 37th cheat and I have lost  a total of 62 pounds. 

Ever since Lorin Gaudin mentioned the new patisserie on Maple Street a couple weeks ago, I have been searching for a way to try it out.  I mean, all of my cheats usually consist of an entire meal that includes an appetizer, entree and dessert.  Was I sure I wanted to sacrifice an entire precious cheat meal for a literal binge session that would only feature large quantities of pastry?  You can bet my ass I would!

Like indulgent children in a candy shop with too much pocket money, John and I visited Maple Street Patisserie with one thing on our minds, enjoying as much pastry as humanly possible before we made ourselves sick.  The enthusiastic gentleman behind the counter was ready and willing to help, suggesting we try one of everything (it was so difficult to choose!) and we almost did.

John just started pointing to delicacies in the case, picking out a raspberry bear claw, an apple danish and a chocolate cupcake.  Showing uncharacteristic restraint I selected only two items, a strawberry turnover and a banana cream tart.  The coffee we ordered came from a “serve-yourself” stand of Luzianne dispensers in the corner of the bakery.  Noticing our excited response to the treats before us, Chef Ziggy came out and offered yet another delight that was his grandmother’s recipe, a apple pastry shaped like a tart, but with a dense sweet crust that reminded me almost of a cookie.

Although we shared our sweet feast, John and I were still unable to completely finish all six pastries.  It was no surprise that the bear claw disappeared quickly, unlike most I’ve tried it was crunchy, flaky and light with large granules of sugar adorning the crust and a thin, tart layer of raspberry inside.  The other items, although fantastic, were simply too much richness to handle.  We were able to demolish most of the strawberry turnover, the filling surprised me mostly with the distinct flavor of fresh berries that weren’t overwhelmed by too much sugar.

We dipped into the decadent banana cream tart featuring thick slices of real banana, creamy custard and whipped cream resting in a chocolate cookie-like shell but were unable to finish it.  We also tried, in vain, to eat all of the apple danish and Chef Ziggy’s most generous gift but we simply couldn’t go on.  The chocolate cupcake wasn’t even touched, although you can be sure we gobbled the moist, heavenly cake later that day.

While catching our breath, Ziggy chatted with us, relating his baking schedules, the popularity of his creations and his upcoming catering gigs.  Animated by obvious enthusiasm and devotion to his craft, he joked with us good-naturedly and encouraged us to request anything we wished from his bakery, confident in his talent and skill.  He offered us a sample of some whole grain bread that was fresh from the oven, relishing our reactions and basking in our praises.  John mentioned my unnatural obsession with bread (it is easily my biggest dietary vice) and Ziggy encouraged it, recommending I visit the bakery in the morning when the smell of freshly baked bread permeates the shop…I wouldn’t be surprised if I could smell it several blocks away.

With a large box full of leftovers, John and I finally left the patisserie.  We were utterly full, sated by the sinfully delicious desserts we just ate and high from an inordinate amount of sugar.  Ziggy’s magical pastries had elevated our senses and further exaggerated why I must stick to my dietary regime.  It will be incredibly difficult to avoid the Maple Street Patisserie in the future.  Don’t be surprised if you see me lurking around the building, sniffing indiscreetly every time the doors open, stealing jealous glimpses of string-tied boxes filled with goodies unimaginable carried by patrons unaware of my stalking.

Only please if you see me, don’t offer me a bite!