Comfort and convenience at Down the Hatch

In the relatively short time that I have lived in New Orleans, the restaurant/bar space on Sophie Wright Place has gone through several incarnations. When I lived in that area, it was the Moonlight Cafe serving burgers and sandwiches, but with a Persian twist. The burger patties tasted like my father’s version of chelow kabab and I couldn’t resist calling in a delivery for a taste of home every now and again. The Persian owner would often be the “delivery man” and we’d chat about how much we missed our grandmothers’ fabulous stews (koresh) or meatloaf (kufteh) which he wouldn’t even dream of attempting to re-create.

On Thursday night, John and I decided to visit the latest eatery at this location, Down the Hatch, which has been open for almost a year. This is my 53rd cheat and since I gained two pounds last week (do you think it was the ice cream?), I am back to a loss of 70 pounds.

Feeling altogether lackadaisical, John and I sought the simplicity of bar food. A juicy burger, perhaps some deliciously greasy onion rings and a few beers seemed the perfect evening for this week’s cheat. We just weren’t in the mood for anything too fancy, too socially demanding or too expensive and (no offense meant) the easy going atmosphere at Down the Hatch was the perfect solution.

Halfway through our first Abita, our server brought out our appetizer, something we considered a rather usual choice for us, their Hell’s Kitchen Chicken Wings. Maybe it’s because they’re so messy or that they tend to be far too hot for too little reward, but I usually don’t like chicken wings…and unfortunately, I still don’t. Fried and then slathered in their “house made” sauce and served with a side of bleu cheese dressing, these wings were most definitely from hell solely because of the sauce. The meat was juicy and the dressing was thick and creamy, replete with large chunks of bleu cheese, but the sauce just about burned my face off. It consisted mostly of Tobasco and it severely challenged both my stomach and my tongue’s high spice tolerance to eat only three wings.

Fortunately, we were saved by another round of Abitas and our anxiously awaited entrees. John got the Chili Cheese Burger that was undeniably juicy and loaded with melted cheddar and (not nearly enough) of their tasty home made chili. The burger also came with a fat pile of crispy, steak fries that we were unable to finish.

I selected their Reuben, which is one of my all-time favorite sandwiches, and did not regret my choice one bit. Luckily for me, the corned beef at Down the Hatch is also made in house was lovingly piled between two toasted and buttered slices of light rye along with hefty helpings of sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and Russian dressing. The corned beef was surprisingly juicy and the sandwich definitely held up in comparison to other fabulous Reuben’s I’ve enjoyed around town. It was accompanied by a pile of thinly sliced,”string” onion rings that were a nice change from the thick-cut style to which I’ve become accustomed.

They don’t offer any desserts, but that wasn’t too much of a problem since there was a whole batch of chocolate chip cookies at home that I had baked the day before. As we were heading out to the car, we noticed that Down the Hatch also offers citywide delivery, a convenient and possibly highly profitable move. After all, do you know of any other neighborhood joints that deliver juicy burgers and hot po’boys anywhere in New Orleans? Neither do I…

Finding serenity at Creole Creamery

After breakfasting at Surrey’s, we headed home determined to be productive. Slogging through my daily projects seemed especially onerous to me. Admittedly, doing dishes (by hand) can be particularly grueling, but even walking Pippin, something I can’t help but enjoy, felt like a chore. Something was off.  Something was missing. It wasn’t until late in the afternoon that it hit me.

I didn’t have any dessert!

I had completely forgotten my weekly dose of decadence, but my body, obviously, had not. My mind raced through the available dessert options.  Did I want a Hubig’s Apple Pie? A napoleon from Brocato’s? A thick chocolate malt from Camilla Grill? In the end, the dessert that won out is what usually prevails. Ice cream.

Like a whirlwind, I bounced around the house getting dressed, brushing my hair and grabbing my purse. I was just sliding on my sunglasses when John said “Where the heck are you going?” Rushing through an explanation while pushing him into his clothes, we drove to Prytania and rushed into the already crowded, brightly pink parlor. Everyone else needed Creole Creamery, too.  Maybe it was the moon?

Mostly on my own, I gobbled down a banana split with three luscious flavors of my choosing; Creole Cream Cheese, Salted Caramel and Coffee Pecan Brittle. The split also contained fresh helpings of banana (of course), strawberries, pineapple, chocolate fudge, whipped cream, bright sprinkles and three Maraschino cherries.

John inhaled a Cookie Monster Sundae. A scoop of Cookie Monster ice cream with crushed chocolate chip and Oreo cookies, hot fudge, whipped cream and cookie crumbles…along with about 1/3 of my sundae, of course.

While slurping up the last goopy delicious spoonfuls, I watched people filing into the shop and noticed everyone had that unbalanced look, that physical mark of angst. They were not yet at peace with the world like I was. We left our booth with a smile knowing that they too, would soon find serenity.

An overdue visit to Surrey’s Juice Bar

During my drunken days at the Circle Bar, I often saw Greg Surrey come in for a pint and anyone who could, would tell me about his incredible restaurant.  “You simply have to go for breakfast,” people would tell me. “It’s one of the best kept local secrets in New Orleans.”

Lately, Surrey’s Juice Bar has not been a secret at all. You can find reviews all over Yelp, Chowhound and a multitude of other online publications. Only a couple of weeks ago, Blackened Out visited Surrey’s second location that recently opened where Fuel Cafe used to be, right next to Le Bon Temps.

After years of hearing glowing reviews, I finally decided to go see for myself what the hullabaloo was all about. This is my 52nd cheat and I am down 72 pounds.

The new location is closer to home, but John and I decided to visit the original on Magazine between Euterpe and Terpsichore (music and dance) in the Lower Garden District. Since it was Friday at lunch time, we were not surprised to see a line stretching out from the front door, but after we put our name on the list, our wait amounted to all of five minutes.

 There were a lot of tasty items to choose from (I almost got the Caribbean French Toast stuffed with Pineapple Cream Cheese), but we finally made our selections and absorbed the bright, yet cozy environment. Tons of local art adorned the walls and I even recognized some cool plaques designed by my friend Will Smith, Jr., who is yet another Circle Bar denizen. Also, I couldn’t help grinning at the bikini-clad mannequin lounging in a hammock that was suspended  from the ceiling.

Before we got our second cup of coffee, our breakfast arrived. When going out for breakfast, I am not usually an omelette kind of gal, but I couldn’t resist Surrey’s Crab Meat Omelette stuffed with brie and fresh avocado and topped with a creamy, lump crab meat sauce. The eggs were fluffy and the avocados were perfect. Plus, I was ecstatic at the generous amount of crab meat that contained no shells whatsoever. I couldn’t resist getting a side of Boudin patties which were delicious with the perfect amount of heat.

John ordered the scrambled eggs with smoked salmon, cream cheese, capers and green onions. His plate also came with what they call “hash browns,” but the thick wedges of seasoned red potatoes looked more like what would I call “country potatoes.”  Potato, potato; tomato, tomato…it doesn’t matter what you call it, they still tasted great to me. It’s just that John had a hankering for traditional hash browns, so he was a bit disappointed. His scramble was tasty, but with the capers and the salmon, I think a nice dill sauce would have really rounded out the dish.

John and I both selected a home made biscuit to accompany our entrees and it was crumbly on the outside and tender on the inside, just like my Aunt Edie used to make. Unfortunately, whomever was rolling them out used too much flour. I think a quick brush of melted butter before baking would have wiped away the excess flour and made for optimal browning and better flavor.

I was glad to see Greg’s quaint cafe was thriving. I am going to have to come back and try more of the menu because certain items like the Stuffed French Toast or the Migas with chorizo were calling my name.  Alas, there is only so much I can eat in one cheat!

Potentially inspiring: The Three Muses

Long before I delved into the worlds of The Iliad and The Odyssey, I was a huge fan of Greek mythology. Characters like Medusa with her serpent-ridden hair and Charon the skeletal ferryman who received payment in gold coins to carry travelers to the Isle of the Dead were of great interest to me, symbolizing all I love about fantasy and feeding my over-active imagination.

When I moved here, I couldn’t help but appreciate that many of the street names (regardless of their unique pronunciations) were for muses like Clio, Calliope, Erato, Melpomene, Terpsichore and Thalia.  Additionally, a lot the Mardi Gras “krewes” in the Greater New Orleans area are also named after Greek and Roman characters like Bacchus, Morpheus, Pygmalion and Zeus.

So, naturally it was no surprise to me when a new restaurant opened called The Three Muses. Although it has been debated, it is generally agreed that there were actually a total of nine muses, but the concept of three is often repeated. Traditionally, the three muses are song, occasion and memory, but in the case of this brand new restaurant in the Marigny, they are Daniel Esses (cuisine), Sophie Lee (music) and Christopher Starnes (hospitality).

This is my 51st cheat and I am down 71 pounds.

On Saturday night, John and I drove all the way across town to experience the music, food and atmosphere that is The Three Muses. We planned to meet our old boss and friend Carl at the restaurant sometime around 5:00 p.m.  Since we arrived so early in the evening, we were able to score an excellent parking space that was just around the corner from the restaurant.  We walked inside to find the chic, French-influenced tavern (several ornately framed mirrors lean out from the walls) pretty much empty.

The problem was finding a table to seat four.

There was one table that accommodated more than four people, but it was currently taken, so when Carl and his girlfriend Beth wandered in, we chose to sit right at the bar. Unfortunately, our seating arrangement and the sounds of a jazz band playing in the front made for awkward conversation.

Since talking wasn’t easy, we all immediately dove into the menu. I ordered one of their specialty drinks appropriately dubbed “The Muse.” The cocktail includes cucumbers and strawberries with St. Germain Elderflower liqueur (what is with New Orleans’ obsession with St. Germain?) and Hendrick’s gin. Although the cocktail had a nice fruity, herbal flavor, I would’ve loved some thinly sliced, muddled cucumber or even strawberry as opposed to the strange pulp I found at the bottom of my glass.

I ordered a ton of different plates since they all seemed “tapas-sized” and hoped they might arrive a bit spaced out.  First, they served us a small plate of Indian-spiced popcorn as an amuse bouche of sorts.  It was tasty, buttery and hot and we all had no problem devouring it.

Next, Carl and Beth got some Rabbit Empanadas with sun-dried tomato aioli.  I didn’t get to try these but they looked light and flaky, very similar to a really good meat pie.  They also ordered a Duck Confit & Rigatoni pasta that I did manage to taste. The pasta was nice, but I liked what John and I ordered even better.

Although the Falafel Bits drizzled with a simple yogurt sauce were rather plain and a bit bland, I absolutely loved the Lamb Sliders with tomato chutney and goat cheese. Lamb can be a very finicky meat, something easily ruined by over or even under-cooking, but the sliders were perfect!  Wonderful, Mediterranean flavors permeated the tender, juicy meat and I was hard-pressed to find another plate I adored nearly as much throughout the remainder of the evening.

The next arrival was two, rather large Lobster Egg Rolls served with a sweet, chili-lime sauce. Despite the fact that the egg rolls were crispy and delicious, I had a difficulty tasting the lobster which is my all-time favorite shellfish. I would eat a vegetable (read cheaper) version of these in a heartbeat as all the Asian flavors and veggies were present and accounted for.

As always, I was really excited to taste their Ceviche and chips, loving ceviche as I do.  The flavor and texture of the fish was awesome, I only would like to suggest that the hunks of fish be a bit smaller.  At one point, I felt like I was hoisting an entire fillet onto my tiny (by comparison) tortilla chip.

I didn’t expect to find a dish to beat out the Lamb Sliders until I tasted our final savory dish of the evening, the Braised Pork Belly with apple chutney and scallion pancakes.  It was a taste of the divine on a pancake with the rich, fatty flavor of the pork belly juxtaposed against the sweet apple chutney (pork chops and apple sauce?).  Both Carl and Beth agreed.

At last, we all were ready for dessert and we ended up with two orders of the same dish.  After all, would you be able to resist your own plate of Banana-“Marscapone” (oops!) Strudel with rum butter and Mexican-chocolate ice cream?  I wouldn’t!  It was absolutely delicious and I especially loved the cinnamon-spicy flavor of the ice cream…I would return to the Three Muses for that dessert alone.

After dinner, Beth had to run out for a scheduled gig at Cafe Negril just down the street. After enjoying one more cocktail (I had to try their delicious “Caiprinha” – where’s that darned spell checker at? – made with Cachaca, sugar and lime), John and I walked over to the club and for a while enjoyed the Celtic stylings and bawdy lyrics of Beth Patterson (check out Beth and Carl’s collaboration, Potent Bathers) and then made our way home.

Although they’ve only been open since early August, I was impressed to find that The Three Muses had developed a potentially inspiring menu that requires only a few minor tweaks. They’ve definitely aroused my interest…and repeat patronage.

Delicacies come in a modest package at Restaurant Patois

“Modesty is not only an ornament, but also a guard to virtue” -Joseph Addison

Only three short blocks from the Audubon Zoo on the corner of Webster and Laurel Streets, there’s what appears to be a humble neighborhood bistro complete with awning and chalkboard specials called Restaurant Patois. Yesterday, John and I carefully avoided tiny lizards scrambling across our path in droves, crossed the street and stepped inside the unassuming, yet elegant eatery for a leisurely lunch. It was my 50th cheat and I’m down 69 pounds.

Like everyone in this town who gives a fig about food, I’d heard the wonderful accolades about Chef Aaron Burgau and his fabulous cuisine, but I thought it was about time I tried it out for myself. In all honesty, I was nervous about appearing in my usual attire. I was under the impression that my lime-green Birkenstocks and hasn’t-seen-a-salon-in-moons hairstyle would be frowned upon and I did my best in a short period of time to look as presentable as possible.

As it turns out, my fuss was all for naught.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure the proprietors would appreciate it if you avoided arriving in flip-flops, cut-off jeans and a wife-beater, but the aura was really rather casual, so I felt right at home.

The restaurant was already busy when we arrived at around noon, but the gracious host quickly seated us at a nice little two-top, proffered simple menus and filled our wine goblets with ice water. There was some serious deliberation about our appetizer after a woman at the next table received a huge bowl of mouth-watering Moules frites (mussels and French fries), but we finally made our selections.

Our server brought out our drinks with a basket of warm rolls. John reached out to take one and I reminded him that he might want to save that for dipping. He sighed, but let his hand drop. “I promise you’ll be thanking me later, sweetie.” I said.

And he did…

Our appetizer was tender Potato Gnocchi served with moist lump crab meat, fresh-from-the-garden baby lima beans, Porcini mushrooms and shaved Parmesan cheese. The gnocchi were a bit larger than what I’ve eaten in the past, but that didn’t deter from the light, fluffy texture, they almost melted in my mouth. Unabashedly, I squealed “No!” when the host attempted to remove our plate before we had finished wiping the bowl clean with our flaky, buttery rolls that we had saved precisely for this purpose.

We let the host remove the dish only after it was completely spotless and our entrees arrived. Totally out of character, I had ordered a salad, but this was no ordinary salad, it was a Duck Confit Salad with arugula, sliced pears and pear vinaigrette. It’s funny, because after lunch yesterday I was describing my dish to a friend and she asked me “What does ‘confit’ mean?” and when I told her it means the meat is cooked in its own fat, she took a deep breath and said “Ohhhh my!”

Oh my indeed! The duck had an extra crispy skin that I was tempted to pull off and eat whole, and the meat was so tender and juicy, it slid easily off the bone with my fork. The “perfect” bite came when I got all of the ingredients together on my fork; the sweetness of the pear, the rich, heady duck and salty skin with a few leaves of the peppery arugula.

I was able to feed John a few bites of my delectable salad, but he had his hands full with a Beef Brisket sandwich topped with creamy coleslaw and melted aged cheddar on, my favorite, ciabatta bread. This massive man-sandwich was served with a large pile of delightful French fries that I suspect were drizzled with a little truffle oil. I adored the flavor of the brisket, especially the chewy end slices that were extra spicy and flavorful. Since it was just a tad too much sandwich for John, I got to help him finish it.

For dessert (you didn’t think I forgot dessert did you?) I chose the Chocolate Hazelnut Gateau created by pastry chef, Lisa Gustafson. This has to be the coolest dessert with the most interesting presentation, that I have ever had the pleasure to devour.

The “gateau” was a small, dense and thoroughly rich chocolate cake filled with chopped hazelnuts and covered in thick chocolate sauce. Budino, as it turns out, is Italian for pudding (yep, I had to look that one up) and this delectable concoction was served in a sealed and chilled glass canister! To top it off, there was a perfectly spherical scoop of Frangelico ice cream delicately balanced atop a disc of a delicious, buttery hazelnut brittle.

I was so completely wowed by our entire lunch, that it took a while to process it all. I’ve settled for so much less and paid so much more at other eateries (including chains) that my negligence required a firmly planted facepalm and a heavy sigh of exasperation.  All I can say is that I never would have guessed how wonderful food could really be before I’d tasted the work of culinary geniuses and Mr. Burgau is definitely, in my oh so humble opinion, in that number.

Looking for the log ride at Parrot Pete’s

On Saturday, John and I went to have breakfast with two dear friends, Casey and Brandon, who live almost in the middle of the Jean Lafitte Preserve on the Westbank. Seeing as I am very unfamiliar with the geography on that side of the river, the extent of my knowledge being Pho Tau Bay, I asked Casey if she wouldn’t mind hunting down an interesting restaurant.

I think we were all surprised when we discovered Parrot Pete’s Coffee & Sweets located inside a theme park resort…minus the theme park! This is my 49th cheat and I am down 68 pounds.

When we pulled into Fountain Park Centre, all of us were gawking at the spectacle before us. How often does one find hundreds of palm trees, huge man-made ponds sparkling with tall, playing fountains and scattered statues both in and out of the water mimicking geese, ducks, swans, dogs, turtles and even children on Manhattan Boulevard? I kept expecting to see a log ride or a line of ticket booths off in the distance…perhaps even a man-made mountain with snow-capped peaks, a roller coaster track twisting around it and emitting screams of terror and joy.

Still rubbing our eyes, we stumbled into Parrot Pete’s only to be stunned anew by the proliferation of yet even more palm trees, all of which were adorned by several fake parrots, and iron chandeliers with clinging fake cockatoos. One of the many, many staff members told us to choose a seat anywhere in the sprawling restaurant. As this resort restaurant was obviously a great place for families with children,  we attempted, in vain, to avoid the noise and selected a table in the back near a large marble fireplace sporting a painting of (what else?) parrots in palm trees over the mantle.

Since there were only two tables aside from ours filled with rambunctious (and loud) children, the staff outnumbered the patrons and our server was anxious to be busy doing something. He quickly took our order and rushed off to get our drinks.  After he left, we noticed some fun frozen drinks at the bottom of the menu like a “Caramel Freeze” with frozen espresso, caramel sauce and whipped cream.  We were going to order a few when our server returned, but he informed us that the “machine” was down.

We accepted our loss gracefully, especially when our entrees suddenly poured out of the kitchen in a flurry.  Casey and I both got “Lafitte’s Pirogue”, two delicious buttery biscuits topped with a large slices of spicy andouille sausage, two perfectly cooked, over-easy eggs and a slathering of Hollandaise sauce with dill and large crawfish tails.  I have to admit that the restaurant’s theme made me fear an overly-generic approach to poorly prepared food, but I was wrong.  Everything was quite fresh and good, especially the flaky grilled biscuits!  My only complaint would have to be a lack of seasoning on the crawfish tails which were obviously not from Louisiana.

John ordered “Pedro’s Burrito”, which was basically a large breakfast burrito stuffed with sausage, scrambled eggs, hash browns, cheddar cheese, bell peppers and onions.  This mammoth burrito also offered a side and John selected bacon.  The burrito, while nothing special, was quite tasty using obviously fresh ingredients and a whole lot of ’em!  There was a “salsa” on the side that was pretty disappointing though, almost like a spicy ketchup, something that the restaurant could easily remedy.

Brandon went for a sweet breakfast with “Ain’t Yo Mamma’s Praline Pancakes” topped with candied pecans and an oh-so-sweet praline syrup.  It was a hefty stack of five pancakes and I was impressed that Brandon made his way though half of it before throwing in his fork. He let me taste a bite of his leftovers and I thought they were quite delicious…fluffy pancakes with a buttery praline syrup could rarely go wrong in my eyes.

Since I had a savory breakfast, I couldn’t walk away from a pastry shop without dessert.  When I wandered up to the dessert case to make my selection, several members of the staff recommended the Triple Berry Cake with mascarpone frosting. I simply couldn’t say no to something with such an overwhelming fan base!  The cake turned out to be quite nice and light with sweet berries mixed into the middle layer of frosting.  Casey opted for a cannelloni which she thought was tasty, but somewhat average.

Since it was still raining steadily when we left, I was unable to get a lot of photos from the theme-park-lacking resort.  So, we all piled into Brandon’s car and headed back to their house on the edge of the bayou.  (Remind me to tell you sometime about the “swamp-Sasquatch-monster” they spotted late one night running across Barataria Boulevard)  Until then, I will keep my eyes out for the missing theme park on Manhattan Boulevard.

It’s my birthday and I’ll cheat if I want to…

When I woke on Friday, I was feeling pretty gloomy, reflecting the thundering, gray day and reluctant to even open my eyes. I wasn’t rising to my first day as a 39-year-old.

John always teases about how immature I can be, but it’s true…I don’t want to grow up. I never have.  I never thought adulthood was cool aside from what I perceived as complete freedom, being able to do whatever you want, whenever you wanted to do it. Otherwise, nothing was finer than having the time to swim all day at the neighbor’s pool, taking field trips to museums or nature reserves, baking with my mom on sleepy Sundays, watching old movies in her California King bed and being so caught in the swirl of a great book that reality simply dissolved around me. Responsibility was a dirty word.

So, yeah. I get a little moody on my birthday.  I spent the whole morning growling alone in my room, denying myself breakfast and lunch, yet coming out  to snap periodically at John and to maintain a joyous birthday facade on Facebook.  Finally, at around 2 p.m., I decide I can’t take it anymore. Regardless of the fact that I had a feast the day before, I was going to cheat again, damnit! John made a feeble attempt to veer me back to the diet track, but he knew his effort was in vain. It was my birthday and I’d cheat if I wanted to…

Naturally, the dark clouds that had been looming all morning, burst and dumped their heavy summer rain before we were halfway to our destination on Magazine Street.  I was in the mood for La Divina Gelateria’s wonderful panini and some elegant sweets from Sucre just down the street. A little rain wasn’t going to stop me. Well, in this case, not even a lot of rain. The closest residential (a.k.a. free) parking was on 6th Street, so we had to slog it through the downpour for two blocks without an umbrella, dodging gutter showers, sidewalk rivers and tourists enveloped in plastic.  I suppose I shouldn’t poke fun at the slicker-savvy visitors seeing as they were, at the very least, prepared.

Dripping wet and ornery, I squished my way up to the counter at La Divina and was in the midst of ordering a full Muffalina panini when the girl behind the counter nervously informed me she only had enough ciabatta bread to make one-half of a sandwich, but a delivery was on its way.  All I could do was stand there, stare at her open-mouthed and shiver a little from being soaked to the skin in the air-conditioned shop.

Just as I was about to mount the gelato case and tear off her head, a relieved smile split across her face as she spotted the long-awaited delivery walking in through the door behind me. She seemed to understand how narrowly she eluded disaster and immediately took my order.  The only decently-lit table in the house left was nauseatingly close to a trio of sorority girls who only served to push me deeper into the funk with their incessant chattering, giggling and breathing with pubescent enthusiasm.

Thankfully, I ordered a double mocha.

Almost instantaneously, the chocolate worked its dark magic causing the day to brighten, no matter what the weather was like outside.  The steaming bowl of coffee brought me back to my senses and just as I was contemplating fishing out a goopy mass of chocolate sitting at the bottom of my cup, our panini arrived.  Ravenous, I scarfed down almost half of my Muffalino featuring many of the usual suspects like mortadella, ham, aged provolone and tasty olive salad, but what I really enjoy is La Divina’s bread.  The ciabatta gets so deliciously greasy and crispy from the press, it almost doesn’t matter what’s between the slices.

John had a Francese, which I’ve enjoyed before on several occaisons.  It features Italian ham, brie, a few sliced cornichon pickles and a slathering of Dijon mustard pressed between that always extraordinary bread. John said he liked his sandwich better, but I loved them both equally…mine was just tangy and spicy while John’s was salty and creamy. (Am I the only one blushing from that sentence?)

Although the gelato at La Divina was tempting as always, I wanted something just a tad more decadent, so I dragged John down the street and begged him to buy me a “Big Kid Shake” at Sucre. I love walking into this gorgeously bright pastel store with glass cases filled with gelato, sorbet, pristine pastries and rows upon rows of amazing chocolates. I could have gone completely dippy, ordering enough sweets to make myself sick (and increase my debt exponentially). To our mutual shock, I exercised some self control and settled in to enjoy a delicious concoction called “A Bunch of Nuts” starring Brown Putter Pecan Gelato, Frangelico and Praline Liquor. “The Velvet Hammer” sold John solely with its name, but I thought it was a tasty combination of Vanilla Gelato, Brandy and nutmeg. We also felt a little buzzed after slurping them down.

After everything we went through and all that I finally got to enjoy, I still felt somewhat guilty about cheating twice in one week.  A friend of mine said “birthday calories don’t count.”  Is that true?

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…