I became friends with Casey and Brandon, a local couple, only a few months after moving to town. Among other things, they introduced me to crawfish boils, late night eats at the Trolley Stop, and life on the Westbank. One night, in appreciation of all they’d done to make me feel welcome, I offered to cook them dinner. The weather had turned cold and I thought it was the perfect opportunity to prepare one of my favorites, butternut squash soup. The recipe I use is a delicate combination of both sweet and savory flavors, seasoned only with white pepper, salt and nutmeg. I ladled out three big bowls, garnished with a dollop of sour cream and fresh chives, and served it with huge wedges of San Francisco sourdough bread my Mom had sent to me from home. Needless to say, I was shocked when after only one spoonful, Casey turned to me to ask “Do you have any Tony’s?”
While I can laugh about it now, I admit I was a little hurt at the time. Did they hate my cooking? Are they just averse to butternut squash soup? What did I do wrong?
I know now that it wasn’t my cooking at all. It was just what they were used to. I don’t deal in absolutes, so I can’t say all New Orleanians expect bold flavors from their food, but I’ve met quite a few that do. Seafood has to be deep fried or burn your mouth a bit with heat and salt and tang. Grits should be covered in cheese, or at the very least infused with butter and cream (or even sugar!). Pasta is overloaded with tangy, creamy sauces and, dare I say it, more cheese. I could go on, but I am sure you get the idea. Generally, it seems the food here has to slap you in the face with flavor.
Mind you, I am not complaining. But you have to understand that, at least while I was growing up, food in California was prepared differently. Heavy sauces and fried foods were something of a rarity, and while we had lots of seafood, it sort of stood for itself. The heaviest seasonings I’d ever had on any seafood items — be it shrimp or fish or lobster or crab — was a little Old Bay, clarified butter and a few squeezes of lemon.
Anyhow, I should probably get to the point already. A couple of months ago, John and I decided to brave the world once again and enjoy an outdoor lunch at Birdy’s Behind the Bower. Located in a comparatively new complex called The Framework managed by the Latter Hospitality group. the new breakfast and lunch spot felt like a different city altogether from the moment we stepped on the sidewalk. Birdy’s is like a daytime offshoot next to The Bower, a dinner-only, high-end, Italian-inspired restaurant.
Though Louisiana born-and-bred Marcus Woodham is the executive chef of both the Bower and Birdy’s, his style is ultra-clean, letting the flavors of foods shine on their own merit without burying them in heavy seasonings and sauces. It’s for this reason, along with the modern, health-conscious, and kind of earthy atmosphere, that gave me that California feeling. Also, it’s entirely possible that this was the vibe the owners were looking for?
We sat outside, still nervous about the Covid, ordered our food and waited, John with an iced tea and me with a perfectly pulled cappuccino brewed with Hey! Cafe‘s beans. I was shivering a bit out there under the bower, I definitely should’ve brought a jacket, but before I had seriously considered driving home for a sweater, our food arrived.
John got a Miso Salmon salad with Napa cabbage, avocado, bell peppers, cashews and a miso vinaigrette. He ate it hungrily, but was a little disappointed by the flavor. I think he hoped for a bit more “umami” (I can’t believe I used that word), or that familiar savory flavor that miso imparts. After a few bites, even I thought that maybe they forgot the dressing altogether? Maybe I expected a flavor bomb that wasn’t even supposed to be forthcoming? The salmon was simple, steamed or possibly baked, and all of the veggies tasted fresh, but nothing was pulling it together.
My dish, on the other hand, was far better than I expected it to be. Dubbed a “Hot Fried Shroom,” it was an entire portobello mushroom cap that was deep fried and served on a buttery, brioche bun like the juicy, nature-made, veggie burger it was and topped with aged Hook’s cheddar and a tangy slaw. It was fantastic. In an odd little twist, the side salad served with my fried mushroom sandwich had more flavor than John’s miso salmon. Because I love him, I gave him half of my mushroom burger, but it hurt a little.
I would love to come back and try out some items from their breakfast menu, the chocolate chip cookie cereal, breakfast board, and bubble waffle piqued my interest, but we probably won’t get another salad. I’d also like to note that The Bower’s menu looks fantastic, but those prices have me gasping a bit. Maybe for a special occasion?