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!

Enlightenment at the Green Goddess

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dipping into The Lucky Ladle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just a few blocks to bliss at Boucherie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An affordable cheat at Cafe Rani

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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