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TND – Eating (& drinking) our way through NOLA

June 29, 2011

When I was in high school my parents and I went on a vacation to Vienna during which it was so cold that every activity was punctuated by a stop in a café for coffee (mit schlag, aber natürlich) and torte and to defrost. The five days I just spent in New Orleans was highly reminiscent of that – substitute heat for cold, air conditioning for radiators and beignets and café au lait for coffee and torte. If we didn’t succeed in eating our way through the city, it certainly wasn’t for lack of trying; and if there were iconic dishes we didn’t sample it was only because there simply were not enough meals in the day.

I’m not sure that it’s possible to get bad food in New Orleans (provided one sensibly avoids restaurants that advertise on bus stop billboards), but even given that caveat we had a series of spectacular meals while we were there. The highlight of the trip was the lunch at August. If you have money to burn, go for the dinner tasting menu, but if you want one of the best deals in town, go for the three course prix fixe ($20) lunch menu. The restaurant is located in an old tobacco warehouse which was mostly gutted and remodeled into an haute cuisine restaurant that manages to combine old exposed brick walls, floor to ceiling sash windows and crystal chandeliers. Even more impressively, it’s the kind of place where you have four waiters per table who come by to fold your napkin for you when you step away from your seat, and yet it didn’t feel pretentious or obsequious. It helps that the food is as impressive as you’d hope for from a restaurant like that. I don’t think we managed to order the entire lunch menu, but between the six of us we gave it a good shot. It’s the kind of menu where I think the maitre d’ would have been able to talk me into ordering anything, including things I would never normally think to try – like crispy lamb belly – and I think that no matter what I’d ordered it would have been one of the most amazing things I’d ever eaten. If you do one (food related thing) in New Orleans, do this.

Other highlights of the trip included:

Starting our trip off right with Rabbit & Sausage Jambalaya at Coops on Decatur.

Pralines from the Southern Candymakers (particularly recommended – the sweet potato pralines which have just enough sweet potato flavor to take the edge off the pure sugar of the praline)

Punctuating our wanderings around the French Quarter with popsicles at the Meltdown (pineapple basil or salted caramel or saffron rosewater or . . . ) on Dumaine. I think between us stopping by twice daily, and then indoctrinating half of the ALA conference into the cult of the Meltdown we made her sales quota for the month. We tried to convince her to create a franchise in Boston, but she seemed unconvinced.

Bookending all visits to Jackson Square with beignets. I’d recommend having your first beignet at the Café du Monde on the square because it’s iconic, and tradition – then going over to Café Beignet on Royal Street for the rest of your beignet needs, theirs are better and the café is charming and less touristy.

In between meals we managed to stop in the St. Louis Cathedral, and visit the Presbytere for their permanent Mardi Gras exhibit and their current exhibit on Katrina: Before-During-After, which was incredibly well put together and (predictably) affecting. I also made it to the Ursaline Convent (proof that I did things other than eat), which I’m really glad I made time for. The Convent itself is beautiful, but it also had an unexpectedly excellent photography exhibit on French colonial architecture in the US. It’s not an exhibit I would have gone out of my way to see, which is a failing on my part because it was interesting and well done.

Ending our meander down Magazine Street into the Garden District with fried green tomato po’ boys at Mahoneys. They are absolutely worth going out of your way for, plus it was nice to get out of the French Quarter and see a different part of the city.

Taking the tour of the Herman Grima House. Mrs. Herman sounds like she was a battle-axe of the first order – the tour guide delighted in telling us about how she would make her daughter-in-law wash the good china after dinner.

Walking up out of the French Quarter (well, just barely out of the French Quarter) to visit the #1 St. Louis Cemetery, and listening in on the various tours that were being given. I particularly enjoyed overhearing the tidbit about rivals buying burial rights in the same cemetery and whoever died first being considered to have ‘won’ because they got the prime death real estate. This is New Orleans, these things matter.

Drinks and food at one of John Besh’s other restaurants – The American Sector at the National WWII Museum. We didn’t manage to make it to the museum (although apparently it also has really great exhibits), but we did manage to make it there for dinner twice. Who can resist a menu with a Tequila Mockingbird cocktail?

The day trip we took out to Nottoway Plantation. It’s maybe not the most representative plantation – and I think next time I’d pick something different, maybe Laura Plantation, or Bocage Plantation, both of which we drove past on our way out – however, Nottoway was beautiful, and the Mississippi is disconcertingly right at eye level as you stand on the second floor balcony.

We drove back along the highway which would be boring, except that it takes you across the Lake Pontchartrain causeway. This doesn’t look exciting on a map, but in reality it’s beautiful. It’s the kind of place I wish I could have stopped and taken a picture, although I’m not sure I could have captured the effect of the long low bridge/road that sits almost on the surface of the lake. It’s impressive how little the bridge disturbs the natural environment of the lake – although I did spend a lot of the 20 minutes it took to cross the bridge thinking about hurricanes and how little it would take to wash out the causeway. That being said, apparently the causeway has never sustained much hurricane damage, not even from Katrina.

The final celebratory meal we had on Wednesday evening at Sylvain. Who doesn’t want to order an Aunt Rose’s Gingered Boom Boom, or Lancelot’s Deception? More to the point, if you can resist a plate of house made pickles that includes perfectly pickled okra, well you’re not us. I think the plate lasted approximately 30 seconds on our table before all that remained was a pool of brine. I promise we didn’t choose all our restaurants based on whether they had cocktails with fun names, but I will say I had more cocktails in five days in NOLA than I have in the previous six months in Boston.

And last, but not least, the grits, biscuits, eggs and ham we had at Mother’s the morning we left (take them seriously when they say that they’re famous for their slow cooked ham – it was ham to dream about after you left). I ate entirely too much of everything, and didn’t feel a need to eat again until 9:30pm that evening after I’d gotten home, unpacked, reassured the cat that I wasn’t leaving again and done laundry.

I would go back to New Orleans in a heartbeat – and not just because my idea of a perfect vacation involves going somewhere with things to see/do/learn that serves spectacular food. We were there for five days and there was so much of the city and surrounding area that we just didn’t have time to get to in between our shopping (Trashy Diva), eating, snacking and meandering around. I’d love to explore some of the other neighborhoods, like Treme and the Marigny. I’d also love to rent a car for longer and spend some time tooling around the back country and the bayou (although, maybe I’d be better off on a boat tour for that?). Plus, I need to go back to August.

Having eaten and drunk our way through New Orleans we’re now all detoxing with vegetables that don’t come fried in bacon fat (not that there’s anything wrong with that), fruit that doesn’t come perched on the edge of a cocktail glass, and proteins that haven’t been deep fried, poached in butter or smothered in cream sauce.

Grilled Chicken & Vegetable Skewers
Pita bread
Tzatziki
Sliced Tomatoes & Red Onion
Watermelon
Radishes
Salad

Grilled Chicken & Vegetable Skewers
I tripled the marinade and used 2/3 to marinate 3 lb of chicken, and 1/3 (minus the yogurt) to brush the vegetables before I threw them on the grill pan to cook. I built my chicken skewers with chunks of chicken interspersed with small pearl onions – partially because I happen to like pearl onions, but also because it helps the chicken to cook faster if it’s not all squished together in a large mass.

I built my veggie skewers with rounds of zucchini, whole white mushrooms and rounds of eggplant. You could also use yellow summer squash, bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, or whatever floated your boat when you went to the grocery store.

I know it’s traditional to do the vegetables and the meat on the same skewers, but I find that the vegetables end up falling off the skewers long before the meat is done because they cook at different rates, so I did them on different sets of skewers.

Marinade
1 lemon, zested & juiced
3 Tbsp olive oil
4 cloves garlic, crushed & roughly chopped (just crush them if you want less garlicky flavor)
2 Tbsp plain yogurt
2 tsp red wine vinegar
2 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp dried thyme
Salt/pepper

Stir all together. Pour over chicken and allow to marinate at least 15 minutes and up to an hour (don’t try and marinate it over night, this much lemon juice will start to ‘cook’ your chicken). Grill chicken until cooked through.

Brush each side of the vegetable skewers with the reserved yogurt-less marinade and then cook until tender.

Tzatziki

Recipe previously given: Things I Fail to Understand

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