Half of the time at The Half Shell Oyster Bar & Grill

Other than food quality and service, one of the most important characteristics of a great restaurant is consistency. The reason I am comfortable recommending spots like Herbsaint, Patois, La Petite Grocery and Coquette, is because every time I’ve eaten at any of those restaurants, the food always rocks … every single time. Consistency is obviously important and it always should be. After all, how can you talk up a place where the food is only good some of the time?

A few months back, I was really excited to try The Half Shell Oyster Bar & Grill. John and I made it on a Wednesday for an early dinner. The restaurant sports a completely casual environment with a short of strip-mall feel featuring a good-sized raw oyster bar and tables both outside and in. We perused the menu, placed our order and eyed the big-screen TVs while we waited.

To start, we tried The Half Shell’s house special dubbed “Voodoo Bleu Oysters.” Freshly-shucked oysters are wrapped in bacon, topped with bleu cheese and grilled. The oysters were plump, the bacon and bleu cheese was plentiful and we scarfed them down with a will, you would have too. It’s almost $13 for only a half dozen of these beauties, but we thought them well worth it, especially since we happened to catch one of their oyster deals that day and got a dozen for the same price.

For our entrees, I got a fried shrimp platter with sweet potato fries and John ordered a fried catfish po-boy with onion rings. Though I thought my platter was a bit on on the small side, the shrimp were fat and crispy with a spicy batter, and my fries featured a bit of lagniappe with a sprinkling of sugar. John’s po-boy was perfect and the onion rings were crisp rounds of red onion that had marinated in Crystal Hot Sauce before being battered and fried, adding a tangy edge to the sweet onion.

I had to try dessert (don’t I always get dessert?), but the only item they offered was bread pudding. We got it anyhow, though it was really nothing special, not even one of the better bread puddings I’ve tasted. No matter, we enjoyed most of the dinner and wrote the dessert off as a minor loss.

Now my issue with the Half Shell is that I’ve returned several times since, and it’s never the same as that first time. Once the Voodoo Bleu Oysters (yes, I HAD to order them again) were disappointingly weak on bacon and bleu cheese content, and another time the onion rings came out as a greasy, fried pile-o-mess that I was tempted to send back to the kitchen. What happened? All I can hope is that they get it together and put consistency higher on their list of priorities, otherwise why would anyone come back? Here’s hoping!

The Half Shell Oyster Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon

Geaux Pho Bistreaux!

Let me begin by saying that I never understood nor appreciated the Louisiana fascination with transforming words containing a long “o” into “eaux.” I assume it comes from Cajun names like Boudreaux and Thibodeaux, and I have to admit that I see this phenomenon far more frequently in Baton Rouge (LSU) than anywhere else, but it still appears in New Orleans from time to time and when it does, it itches at me like a fleabite on my ankle. It’s kind of like saying “ax” when you mean “ask” or using “there” when you really mean “they’re” or “their.” I realize it’s a fun way of adding a Louisiana accent to common words or phrases and I really should get over myself already, but what can I say? It bugs me.

So, when I first saw Pho Bistreaux opening up on the corner of Oak and Carrollton, the name immediately turned me off. I thought to myself “Eaux neax!” (Okay, I’m lying. I didn’t think that but I thought that line would be funny.) The name was only the tip of the iceberg, though, considering that corner restaurant has changed from being an Indian food buffet, to a terrible “New York-style” deli (that would have appalled any New Yorker) and a steamed burger joint that was open for all of a few weeks…if that…due to some horrific neon signage that practically defaced the historic building in which the restaurant was housed. It was becoming one of those cursed locations where businesses never last and I was afraid Pho Bistreaux would soon become the latest victim.

Boy howdy, was I wrong!

Let me say that since my first time there a month or so ago, I have returned an obscene number of times because at long last, Oak Street has a fantastic Vietnamese restaurant and if I can keep them in business by my patronage alone, I will. But I don’t think I have anything to worry about. Since my first trip, this corner restaurant has been busy from the time they open their doors to the second they close. It’s that good.

Since I have been to Pho Bistreaux so many times, with camera in hand, it is hard to pinpoint one trip over another, so let me just tell you about some of the tasty dishes I’ve enjoyed thus far. And no, I have still not had everything on the menu, but that day will soon arrive.

I should probably start with the pho. I’ve only enjoyed the filet mignon, but John enjoyed the meatiest oxtail pho he’s ever experienced and Anne (my pho buddy) delighted in their wonderful meatball pho. The broth is rich with sharp, earthy spices and served with huge plates filled with fresh herbs and veggies to add (or not) to your soup. The prices are only a tad higher than I am used to, but the bowls are big, delicious and filling, so no complaints here.

For appetizers, we’ve tried their grilled pork sliders, deliciously seasoned and only $5 for two, and crispy egg rolls, both regular and “Bistreaux” style which is wrapped with a different type of rice paper that makes for an extra crisp and bubbly shell.  We have also enjoyed the New Orleans Roll which combines the best of both worlds, stuffing a crispy egg roll into a spring roll wrapper alongside fresh herbs, vegetables and vermicelli noodles, and served with a super-thick peanut sauce for dipping.

Other entrees we’ve inhaled include a grilled pork “bun” or vermicelli bowl, grilled shrimp “com” or rice plate and a combination banh mi with grilled pork and pate. I think they might put crack in their grilled shrimp because it is quickly becoming one of my favorites and I find it very difficult to order anything else as of late. They also make a delightful flan, believe it or not, and almost every time I am in there, I see at least two other tables order it for dessert, aside from our table of course. Everything has been so delicious and priced so right, that it’s a wonder we don’t eat there everyday. All I can say is “Please don’t ever geaux, Pho Bistreaux!”

Pho Bistreaux on Urbanspoon

Liuzza’s…the other one!

No, I’m not talking about Liuzza’s Restaurant & Bar. I’m talking about Liuzza’s by the Track. “What’s the difference?” Well, one is located on North Lopez Street, just a jump off of Esplanade and less that two blocks from Fairgrounds Race Course & Slots, while the other is on Bienveille, not far from North Carrollton Avenue. One focuses much more on “Creole-Italian” cuisine while the other is more concerned with making the perfect po-boy. I don’t know the history of why there are two restaurants in Mid City that both bear the same name, but I do know that they are owned by two totally different people and that the restaurants are no longer related to one another in any way (if, in fact, they ever were). In a city where a street can be spelled Zimpel when it’s headed towards the river and Zimple heading towards the lake, it’s sometimes easier to avoid all the questions and just go with it. So we did…

A few weeks back, we (John, Posie and I) hopped in my friend Dani’s van and cruised over to Liuzza’s by the Track for lunch. It’s a little difficult to get to considering the strange angle of streets around the Fairgrounds and Bayou St. John, but like my dad always told me, “three rights always make a left.” A valuable lesson to learn if you are navigating the streets of San Francisco or New Orleans.

We moseyed into the small, neighborhood restaurant and fortunately, there was one table left to hold us all. Actually, there were two smaller tables that the friendly waitresses pushed together to accommodate our party, all with bright, genuine smiles and enthusiasm. While I looked over the menu, I couldn’t help gawking at the plates that were coming out and it was difficult for me to decide what to order, but I finally settled on something and tried to wait patiently amidst the other diners gobbling away.

Right as my stomach began to audibly growl, the bowl of gumbo I ordered arrived with a basket of French bread and butter. The gumbo was rich, thick and dark with big chunks of chicken and sliced smoked sausage with almost every bite. It was so good, that I think it is fighting for first place as the best gumbo I’ve ever tasted. I had no difficulty (and a lot of help), slurping down the whole bowl and using the bread to wipe up the leftovers.

For our entrees, we all ordered sandwiches. John chose a Reuben that featured sliced rye piled high with corned beef, provolone and sauerkraut. Dani selected the house special, their BBQ Shrimp Po-Boy that was a “stuffed” version with butter-sauteed shrimp literally pouring out of a hollowed pistolette. It was greasy and fabulous with the peppery, buttery flavor oozing into the French bread and coating all of the shrimp. Posie had a grilled cheese and everyone shared a large plate of hand-cut French fries. I had been craving one for sometime, so I chose a fried shrimp po-boy that was fully (and most excellently) dressed. I dig a lot of mayo on my fried shrimp po-boys and Liuzza’s definitely delivered.

Although I was only able to devour half of my sandwich, I saved the rest for dinner and wouldn’t let my company escape without ordering dessert. Everyone moaned and groaned, saying they were too full (everyone except Posie), but I went ahead and ordered a slice of Double Chocolate Cake and the forks were flying. Posie especially dug the rich, chocolaty cake and was wholly willing to lick the plate clean. Lunch again at Liuzza’s? I’m in!

Liuzza's By the Track on Urbanspoon

Stepping out: Muriel’s Jackson Square

When Casey invited me to a show at Le Petit Theatre a few nights ago, I instantly thought, “Where should we go for dinner?” An evening on the town isn’t complete without a meal after all and I’d recently discovered a fabulous package deal specifically designed for theater-goers, a three course menu for $25, plus (and here’s the real kicker) five hours of free parking in the French Quarter from Muriel’s Jackson Square Restaurant.

This is my 54th cheat and I lost one of the pounds I gained last week, so I am down 71 pounds.

We were joyfully joined by another close friend of Casey’s, so Stephanie made three on our epic girl’s night out in the “Quarters.” We arrived on time for our six o’clock reservations, the car snuggled away in the Place D’Armes Hotel parking lot and dressed “to the nines” for a night without the boys. Well, they were dressed up. My supply of evening wear disappeared when my dress size rose above 22. Still, I knew that Muriel’s attracted a lot of casually dressed diners, so I wasn’t too worried about it. Besides, I’m certain at least a few of the catcalls echoing across the Square were meant for me as well.

We were seated at a nice table and offered menus, though from what we read online, we already had a pretty good idea of what we wanted, but we also selected some drinks. Stephanie likes her vodka straight up, but Casey and I decided to share a couple of Muriel’s special cocktail concoctions, a “Streetcar” featuring New Orleans Spiced Cajun Rum (gotta love Old New Orleans Rum) and a “Neutral Ground” with Hendricks Gin, Campari and absinthe. Giggling at the giddy wave of freedom flowing over us, we (carefully) clinked our glasses together and toasted to the beginning of a wonderful evening.

While we were sipping, the first course arrived. Casey and I both chose the Turtle Soup with Sherry while Stephanie had the Seafood Gumbo. Since Stephanie let me taste a spoon, I can say that they were equally creamy and rich, and both were based from a dark, nutty roux.

Last Thanksgiving when John and I visited Muriel’s, I ordered a double-thick pork chop and I simply couldn’t resist ordering the same thing, even though I did everything in my power to select something new. I get so few opportunities to re-try dishes I’ve tasted before, I just couldn’t help myself. Served with smoky collard greens and pecan glazed sweet potatoes, the juicy chop was almost as good as I remembered.

Casey’s order was the Seafood au Gratin, this bubbling, creamy goodness arrived in a hot cast iron pan featuring a large potato croquette on top. Stephanie got the Pecan Crusted Puppy Drum (it’s not a puppy, right?) served atop a pile of crab meat relish and surrounded by lemon butter sauce. I found both of their dishes tasty, though the Puppy Drum had a nice crust and was cooked perfectly, without the sauce (which she wanted to lick from the plate), it was sadly bland. Neither dish made me regret ordering my beloved chop.

We were all pretty full, but we manage to polish off our delicious dinner with some decadent desserts. I had to get the Creme Brulee, but both Casey and Stephanie opted for the Bread Pudding with rum sauce. Keeping our schedules in mind, we inhaled most of the desserts while the wait staff provided our check, returned with the change and still left us with plenty of time to scurry across the Square to order yet another drink and find our seats at the theater. The show must go on…

Tree road

When we are on our way downtown or to the grocery store, there are many different roads we can take, but if John is driving, it’s almost a given we’ll go down what we call the “tree road.”

Stop by sometime and wave hello to the grand oak growing its way into the pavement in the block between Magazine and Constance Streets.

It might even wave back.