Glorious gluttony ensues…

I am the luckiest girl in the world.

Never in my wildest imaginings would I believe that I could not only score tickets to the 2012 New Orleans Wine & Food Experience, I got to be a judge. Oh yes…this simple glutton from the suburbs, this flyspeck on the global culinary radar, was actually fortunate enough to sample more than 17 dishes from some of the finest restaurants all over this wonderful city in a dizzying tour-bus adventure that lasted a day and a half.

Although I was ecstatic about gorging myself on dishes like a Mayan Quinoa Salad from Chef Guillermo Peters at Canal Street Bistro

…or these Crab & Avocado Shooters topped with tiny crab beignets shaped like donuts from Chef Randy Buck at the Hotel Monteleone

…or even this decadent, Southern Style Louisiana Voodoo Shrimp with a sweet and spicy sauce, portabello mushroom, fried green tomato and cheese grits from Chef Duke LoCicero at Cafe Giovanni

…the best part of the trip was that I was able to meet so many interesting people, all of whom possess a great passion for food, just like me!

On the first day, I got to hang out with fellow judge Dale Curry; former food editor of the Times Picayune, writer for New Orleans Magazine and author of New Orleans Home Cooking. Admittedly, I was a bit intimidated at first, but this incredible woman is very familiar with New Orleans cuisine including fads that have come and gone, the rise and fall of chefs and a discerning palate…thank goodness she is super-cool to boot!

I was also finally able to put faces with the names Robert Peyton, columnist for New Orleans Magazine (and bad-ass civil defense attorney) and Doug Brantley editor of Where New Orleans. The stunning shots by Photographer Romney Caruso both taught me about styling, equipment and light while effortlessly putting my food porn to shame. We were also lucky enough to have Executive Director of NOWFE Jamie Peckenpaugh and her texting, Tweeting, Instagram-wielding, on-the-ball, side-kick Chelsea from Georgia who came along with us to chronicle the tastings and to join in on the the fun.

As if this were not enough to make me giddy, I was able to experience things that would otherwise be denied to me because there is no way in hell I would be able to afford it! The most glaring example of this would be our short stint sitting at the chef’s table in Commander’s Palace. Two mountains of large, ripe, Louisiana strawberries set the scene as we watched Executive Chef Tory McPhail demonstrate his “super-strawberry” dessert.

Vacuum-packed strawberries are steeped in strawberry jam and sugar overnight, then dressed with more strawberry jam, strawberry whipped cream, strawberry Pixie Stick dust and strawberry Pop Rocks. Served alongside this childhood-candy-fantasy-come-true, Chef whipped up a delicious strawberry hurricane made with Old New Orleans Rum.

All of this was possible thanks to my friend Kendall Gensler who is editor and publisher of Culinary Concierge Magazine as well as an excellent food stylist…among many other accomplishments. Kendall, if you are reading this, know that I will definitely be available for this again next year…and thank you!

My first mission as Food Godmother: Café Adelaide

Since most of my family lives over 2000 miles away in California, I decided last year to begin my own Thanksgiving tradition. Instead of making a ton of food, a large portion of which would become leftovers that I wouldn’t be able to eat because of my diet, I chose to dine out.

Last year, John and I enjoyed our Thanksgiving at Muriel’s Jackson Square and had a fabulous dinner on top of a beautiful day spent in an unusually quiet French Quarter. This year, we invited another couple and their darling daughter to join us for dinner at Café Adelaide. This is my 62nd cheat and I am down 76 pounds, having lost one of the pounds I gained last week.

John and I appeared for our 4 p.m. reservations to find Dani, Saeed and Posie patiently awaiting our arrival in the lobby of the Loews New Orleans Hotel, which is where Café Adelaide and the Swizzle Stick Bar are housed. We were escorted to our table in their comfortable dining room whose decor (intentionally) echoed the elegance of the 1950’s.

Not long after we placed our order, we were pleasantly surprised by a delightful amuse-bouche, a Creole Tomato Bread Pudding with a tiny dollop of herbed butter. It was a tasty insight into the unique dishes created by Chef Chris Lusk, a kitchen magician who braves unusual flavor/texture combinations that I was anxious to experience.

Before long, our appetizers arrived accompanied by warm, fresh French bread. Though it might seem difficult, all five of us managed to share two very different dishes; Hudson Valley Foie Gras Grillades & Grits and Blue Crab Pound Cake. The “pound cake” turned out to be a dense, sweet cornbread draped in a Port-Salut cheese “icing” with truffled crab claws on top. It was delectable and rich with the flavor of crab. My only complaint would be the quantity…I wanted more!

Posie, our 11-month-old dining companion was delighted by the foie gras and considering my general dislike of liver, so was I! The meat simply melted in my mouth and meshed well with the creamy grits doused in a port wine sauce. That little girl is eating far better than I was at her age. Posie’s mother Dani informed me that it was my responsibility to see that Posie learned how to eat well.  Mission accepted!

We wouldn’t let our servers take the plates away till they were completely cleaned, much to their amusement. In the interim, John and I decided to order a couple of cocktails, both of which were created by one of Swizzle Stick’s most talented bartenders, Shawn Phipps. What’s Thanksgiving without a little libation after all? I chose a “Santeria” with Stoli Vanil Vodka, Nocello (walnut liqueur), Licor 43 (a Spanish citrus liqueur), allspice and a cinnamon-sugared rim. It smelled like Christmas and tasted even better. John’s “Cary Grant” was definitely more of a man’s drink featuring Knob Creek bourbon, vanilla, cognac and orange bitters.

We had just begun sipping when our entrées arrived, served all at once by three different servers. I love this kind of extra-special care when dining, to me it’s one of many signs the restaurant really does have your best interests at heart and good service (along with fabulous cuisine) is a top priority.

Posie and her dad Saeed stayed traditional with a plate of Herb Roasted Ashley Farms Turkey served with shrimp & mirliton dressing, P&J oyster dressing, rye whiskey-Steen’s syrup sweet potatoes and giblet gravy. Posie offered me a taste of her turkey and it was juicy and delicious, just like she said it was…well, not in so many words, but I knew what she meant.

Dani’s Creole Cream Cheese Gnudis were fluffy and cheesy with wild mushrooms and a light, grilled tomato consommé, a delightful dish even though I had expected her to order something a bit heavier. John’s Pecan Smoked Redfish-Soybean Cassoulet was “off the hook” with a house-made andouille encased shrimp that he was reluctant to share, but strangely enough, I thought the white beans stole the show.

Although I was intending to get off my duck “kick”, I simply couldn’t resist the Muscovy Duck & Pumpkin Waffles. Thick slices of moist duck breast rested atop two savory pumpkin waffles and a sunny-side up egg sat quivering on top until I broke it with my fork and let the heady yolk cover everything. It was a fantastic dish in both flavor and creativity and I couldn’t help but inhale it…most vigorously.

We finished off our meal with two lovely desserts, a “Hot Chocolate” Pound Cake and Praline Pot de Creme. Both were wonderful, but for the first time ever I preferred the thick, creamy custard over the dense, rich chocolate. Hey, it had to happen sooner or later! Posie just happened to agreed wholeheartedly…

Capdeville: A street by any other name…

Hidden in the shadow of the monumental John Minor Wisdom U.S. Court of Appeals building (a really cool blog in itself) lies one of New Orleans’ many elusive alleyways, Capdeville Street. Working within mere blocks of this street for two years didn’t manage to bring it to my attention and it wasn’t until the restaurant, Capdeville opened there, that I even knew it existed.

Not feeling very deserved of my 61st cheat (I gained two pounds), I moped about quite a bit, seeking something that wouldn’t be too expensive. Capdeville, a self-claimed “American interpretation of a British social house” piqued my interest and stayed within my budget.

Arriving at the end of the lunch rush, John and I were seated very quickly and offered drinks and menus. Sucking our sodas from large, Guinness pint glasses, we made our selections while admiring the black & white photography adorning the walls, a glowing jukebox pumping out Black Sabbath and a chalk-scrawled quote on the wall by John Bonham, “Nowadays, you can’t be loud enough.”

Stomachs grumbling, we watched other diners receive their large white plates with envy until one of our own came out, a huge order of thin cut fries covered in crumbled Chorizo and shredded Manchengo cheese. The sausage was spicy and the fries were still hot and crisp, but I would have loved some more cheese. Manchego is so creamy and delicious, too much is never enough!

Just as we finished fork-fighting over the remaining French fries, our entrees arrived. John had a delicious Black & Bleu Burger with thick-cut bacon, creamy bleu cheese and Worcestershire mayonnaise. Cooked perfectly to order, the burger was so juicy and flavorful, John was reluctant to share.

I had selected the Duck Confit Club featuring duck cracklings dressed with a roasted garlic aioli, lettuce and tomato on toasted white bread. The condiments saved this sandwich that would have otherwise been too dry.

As usual, I couldn’t leave without dessert and opted for their “Cobbler du Jour” which turned out to be apple. More specifically, a Honeycrisp Apple tart with brown-butter crumble. God forbid I ever turn my nose up at extra fat, but the piping hot tart tasted too buttery and the sweet flavor of the apple was almost completely lost. Maybe I’m more prone to the flavor of a sour Granny Smith for baking.

I’m glad to know Capdeville Street exists, thanks to the eponymous restaurant. I’ll be keeping my eye out for other hidden delights down mysterious alleyways in New Orleans from now on.

*I can’t read that last sentence without giggling…does that make me immature?

We’ll have no gelato today…

While taking some food photos at home the other day, I realized two things; the light in my apartment sucks and my funky, blue dinnerwear does not flatter my food. Period.

So John and I decided to go for a little stroll to the Super10 around the corner to see if we couldn’t find some plain, white plates, as even paper would be better at this point. Strolling around the long way, I discovered, to my utmost dismay, that Gelato Pazzo was closed.

The tables and chairs had disappeared from the sidewalk and when we peered into the dusty window, most of the furniture inside was gone as well. I kept thinking to myself, “When did this happen?” I could have sworn there were folks sitting outside, enjoying their wonderful gelato and munching on delicious panini just the other day…

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…

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.

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…