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.

Finding food on Facebook: Fat Hen Grill

Before I began using them, social networking sites and services like Facebook and Twitter used to make me cringe.  I kept thinking, “Does anyone really care if ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is playing over and over in my head or why I prefer mayo to Miracle Whip?”  As it turns out…they do.

But what’s truly amazing about social networking, aside from communing with family and friends across vast distances, is being able to tout yourself and your work.  You can share your efforts with everyone you know in a matter of keystrokes and draw people together who appreciate the same things you do in a matter of moments.  For example, over the past week while I was considering a few different places for my cheat meal, I kept getting menu announcements from Fat Hen Grill on Facebook.  After seeing posts discussing the “synergy of a burger”, Crabmeat Mango Salsa or a Soft-shell Crab BLT, Fat Hen Grill snuck into my list of places to go and I decided to try it out.

This is my 36th cheat and I am down 61 pounds.

Fat Hen Grill is a fairly new establishment that recently moved from their former location on Citrus to the old Pellittieri’s building on Hickory Avenue in Harahan. I think I preferred the old locale only because it looked more like a diner whereas the new building still has the feel of an Italian restaurant with dark green faux-finish on the walls and lots of four-top tables instead of squishy, yet comfy booths.  I let my criticisms fall by the wayside though because the move was very recent and it appeared they were still trying to pull things together.

Fortunately, my friend (and local Food Goddess) Lorin Gaudin and her husband Andre decided to have lunch with John and I for this particular cheat and we ended up languishing over lunch for some time.  It did take us a little while to order, but only because there was so much to choose from! After the three menus circled the table (breakfast, lunch and specials), we finally made our decisions.

We started with the Crawfish Biscuit, a homemade biscuit served with a crawfish cream sauce drizzled on top.  I thought the biscuit was light and fluffy, really quite tasty, but the sauce was just a bit too tart…perhaps a little too much lemon?  Andre had also ordered some Onion Rings that came out as an appetizer which I totally enjoyed.  They were nice and crispy and were also, most obviously homemade.

Before too long, our entrees arrived.  John got a Barnyard Burger featuring American cheese, grilled onions and Fat Hen’s special sauce served with French fries.  Although it tasted nice, I thought it was odd that the patty was all broken apart inside the bun, which made for difficult handling.

I had ordered the Crispy Fried Soft-shell Crab BLT dressed with avocado mayonnaise and a side of macaroni and cheese.  The mac and cheese was tasty with large penne noodles that held a thick, gooey cheese sauce, but my sandwich was somewhat of a struggle.  Even though I enjoyed the flavor, trying to contain a fried soft-shell crab plus several strips of Applewood smoked bacon and fresh lettuce and tomato on small slices of toasted wheat bread made no sense to me at all.  I think using a sturdier bread like sourdough or even French might have saved the day.

Andre chose Chicken Fried Steak served with seasonal vegetables, mashed potatoes and Black Pepper Country Gravy while Lorin opted for the Harahan Patty Melt served on sourdough with American Cheese.  Out of all four entrees, I liked Lorin’s the best, but in general I found all of the food to be a little too heavy for me.  Am I really starting to dislike your typical “greasy spoon” type of cuisine?  Has my diet begun to steer me away from the things I love most?  Regardless, I was really full after only a few bites.  Maybe my stomach just won’t let me eat like I did in college anymore…

Considering I want to lose weight, this isn’t such a bad thing.

Well, even if most of my lunch ended up in a to-go box, I still couldn’t walk away from this cheat without dessert.  There were several options like Banana Cream Pie and a Chocolate “Glob”, but for some reason (okay, it’s my obsession with Queen), I couldn’t help wanting to try the Fat Bottomed Chocolate Cake. The waitress assured us that the cake was house made and quickly saw to our order.  She split the normally humongous slice into two pieces so we could share the dessert in couples.  Even though I enjoyed the rich, chocolate flavor of the cake, it was quite dry and sadly disappointing. 

Although the cheat wasn’t quite what I was hoping for, I still had a fantastic time dining with Lorin, Andre and John and thought that Fat Hen Grill had a lot of potential. It’s obvious they use fresh ingredients and that they care a lot about prompt service and a clean environment.  I will have to come back again and try the infamous “Womlette” (an omelet served atop a Belgian Waffle) or perhaps their Eggs Benedict some time in the future.

Until then, I feel the urge to share “Another One Bites the Dust” while debating the flavor value of non-fat mayonnaise (if indeed there is any) on Facebook. Wanna be my friend?