From October 20-26, 1994, I took a trip back home to do nothing but eat.
I usually go home to visit family and friends, to be back home for Thanksgiving or Christmas or family weddings or Jazzfest (no shortage of eating there, but there's lots of music and visiting and stuff involved there too). Never had I gone home for the express purpose of doing almost nothing but eating in fine restaurants every day, one for lunch and another for dinner (and breakfast and midnight snacks squeeze in when possible).
Also, there were several great restaurants, new and old, in my hometown in which I had never dined, and I figured it was about time. Here's an article I wrote about the trip, including reviews of some of my favorite restaurants in town, which was emailed to family and friends, and is now presented here in its annotated form. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll boggle, you'll be amused, you'll be appalled, you'll think I'm un grand cochon...
Well, I'm back. It's a miracle that I, like a dying star, didn't collapse under my own weight and become a black hole. Just keep clear of my event horizon and y'all should be safe ... just call me Mr. Singularity.
THURSDAY, 10/20Unfortunately, on Thursday my plane landed too late for me to get a nice sit-down restaurant lunch. But my sister Marie picked me up, and at about 3:00pm ... Mother's to the rescue!
Mother's Restaurant, corner Poydras and Tchoupitoulas, as most of y'all know, is one of New Orleans' greatest neighborhood joints, arguably the best po-boys in town and a bowl of turtle soup that even beats Galatoire's. I had me a Ralph Special, which is, of course, just a Ferdi Special with Swiss cheese -- the best baked ham in the world, roast beef, debris (you know, the little bits that fall off the roast beef as it's roasting), gravy, mynez, Creole mustard, on that great po-boy bread ... and I still had to go to dinner that night.
And dinner was at Bayona, 430 Dauphine in the French Quarter, one of the best new restaurants in the city and to me one of the best overall, run by owner/chef Susan Spicer. My sister Melissa came with me, and I treated -- it was great to see her, and her budget doesn't allow for stuff like this:
I had never tasted sweetbreads before this, and I figured it was about time. Melissa blanched a little at the prospect, but boldly and bravely ordered a plate for herself when the waiter took my order.
- APPETIZER - Veal sweetbreads, sauteed with scallions and diced potatoes in a sherry vinaigrette.
They were fabulous. What a delicate taste, almost indescribable. I know that folks tend to be a little squeamish about "variety meats", but I suppose it's best not to think of the term "thymus glands" when you're eating these.
The chop was almost an inch thick, about five inches around, perfectly grilled, tender and juicy. The flavors of the stuffing were intense, and there was a bit of a seasoning crust on the outside. Sigh.
- MAIN COURSE - I had a grilled pork chop stuffed with Fontina cheese, fresh sage and prosciutto. Sides dishes were herbed gnocchi, pureed butternut squash, and steamed haricots verts.
Melissa had a Lamb chop and medallions of lamb loin with lavender honey aioli, and a Zinfandel sauce, with herbed sauteed new potatoes, fresh sweet corn and steamed haricots verts.
And that was the first day.
- WINE - I'm still fairly ignorant about wines, but I have had a few here and there, and tended to stick with what I knew. I sprung for a '91 Robert Mondavi Reserve Pinot Noir, which was lovely.
- DESSERT - I don't remember what it was called, but it consisted of three cookies made of stiff meringue, mixed with crushed pistachios and baked; between the layers of cookies was piped an orange-chocolate mousse, and it was topped with more mousse, whipped cream and a little fence of dark chocolate. The whole assembly sat in a puddle of crème anglaise and crushed pecans. Oh yes, and we ordered a fresh watermelon sorbet, too.
FRIDAY, 10/21Met up for lunch with my uncle Mike at Christian's Restaurant in the Mid-City area. Christian's is owned by Christian Ansel, the grandson of one of three nephews of Jean Galatoire. It's situated in a former church, and the renovations preserved the churchlike architecture, with high beamed ceiling and (secular) stained glass windows. The old altar is now the waiters' station, and the sermon board out in front now lists the menu. It's one of the great Creole restaurants of the city, and caters to locals for about 80% of its clientele.
Just a light lunch, mind you ...
- APPETIZERS - I had Oysters Roland, which are oysters baked in a garlic- butter sauce with mushrooms, parsley, bread crumbs and Creole seasoning. Mike had oysters en brochette.
- SALAD - Mixed greens and tomatoes in a Creole mustard vinaigrette, which added a pungent elegance to what would otherwise have been a fairly ordinary salad.
- MAIN COURSE - We both had the same thing: Filet of fish (it was sheep's head, I believe) stuffed with shrimp and crabmeat, lightly breaded and panneed, served with aioli and crisp fried parsley. It was enormous, and one of the few things this trip that I didn't finish.
- DESSERT - I had Profiteroles au chocolat. Our waiter, who like Mike and me was from da Nint' Ward, recognized the remnants of our Yat accents and made fun of me when I ordered my dessert in properly pronounced French. Guess I kinda axed fo' it, bra ... Mike, who claimed to have no room for dessert (pshaw ... there's always room for dessert) caved in to my pressure and got one of Christian's many homemade ice creams and ices, in this case, homemade cantaloupe ice.
Dinner was with my other sister Marie at Galatoire's, perhaps the most famous of New Orleans' grand old Creole restaurants, next to Antoine's.
As far as I'm concerned, Galatoire's is the only reason to venture onto Bourbon Street (a blight on the Quarter, in my not-so-humble opinion), and is luckily in the Upper Quarter somewhat removed from most of the obnoxious tourists. They still don't take reservations, but our 52-minute wait in line was well worth this ...
Our waiter pampered us like a surrogate father, and he was incredibly friendly and talkative. We got his whole family history, and he some of ours (but not all of it). He's Cajun, but lived in New Orleans since 1963, and had been a waiter at Galatoire's since 1968. He had a Cajun accent mixed with a Chalmette Yat accent, but when he was asked to describe a dish, he held his hands with his fingertips together and spoke as if he was reciting poetry, in a voice that sounded just like Vincent Gardenia as the father in "Moonstruck".
And he made sure to tell us to ask for him next time we came.
- APPETIZERS - We split two ... Oysters Bienville, oysters baked in a rich roux/fish stock/egg yolk liaison sauce with finely minced shrimp. Also, Crabmeat Maison, in a light dressing of oil, vinegar, mayonnaise and Creole mustard with capers.
- SOUP - I had a cup of turtle soup, which was good, but surprisingly not as good as the turtle soup at Mother's, which isn't nearly as grand and upscale as this. Just goes to show you how some of New Orleans' finest restaurants are inexpensive neighborhood joints.
- WINE - I also stuck with a vineyard I sorta knew, and got a '92 Mondavi Reserve Chardonnay.
- MAIN COURSES - I was on a serious crabmeat kick on this trip, as crabmeat in L.A. seems to cost $752 per pound, or might just as well. I ordered Crabmeat Yvonne, which was a huge plate of lump white crabmeat sauteed with diced artichoke bottoms, mushrooms and parsley in butter. Sigh ... Marie had a sauteed red snapper, topped with crabmeat meunière.
- VEGETABLES - Everything is a la carte at Galatoire's, so Marie ordered asparagus with Hollandaise, her favorite. I ordered Brabant potatoes, and our waiter brought me an extra dish of Hollandaise as lagniappe, saying that "it's the best Hollandaise sauce in the world, cher, and I know you want some." He was right. I nearly passed out.
- DESSERTS - We both declared that we were probably too full for dessert, but I had been stealthily planning to order Cherries Jubilee. But John, our waiter, then came over with the pastry tray and Marie buckled; she snagged the caramel custard. Smooth, delicate, delicious. I ordered anyway, and he brought it for two. He arrived at the table with a beautiful silver bowl with blue flames licking over the rim, and when he stirred it to bring up the flames, he took his brulot ladle and drizzled some flaming brandy onto the tablecloth in a cursive capital "G", whereupon the flames danced on our crisp white tablecloth as he ladled the rest of the Cherries Jubilee over our homemade vanilla ice cream.
SATURDAY, 10/22I didn't have any concrete lunch plans, since I figured that they'd be taken care of. The American Dental Association was having their convention in town that weekend -- 36,000 dentists converging in town at once, and all wanting to eat out. (Did I pick a great time to come home or what?) My dad, who's a dentist, booked me and my mom into one of the auxiliary events this morning -- a cooking demonstration by Chef John Folse, owner/chef of Lafitte's Landing, one of Louisiana's finest restaurants, in Donaldsonville, LA. He's also current president of the American Culinary Federation, who named him Chef of the Year in 1990, and as y'all may remember he was the chef for the 1988 Moscow summit between Reagan and Gorbachev (flying fresh live crawfish into Moscow for the occasion).
We watched Chef Folse cook and lecture for two hours, and I learned a lot; he's a terrific speaker. He's got a cooking show that started out locally but is now on PBS, but unfortunately we don't get it in L.A. that I know of.
He fixed seafood gumbo (shrimp, oysters and crabs); chicken, sausage and tasso jambalaya, Spanish-style, which was interesting and which I'll try next time I make jambalaya; crawfish étouffée, which took him about 8 minutes; and bread pudding with crème anglaise. Then afterward we ate everything he made. It was all terrific, although I prefer a lighter, looser bread pudding to the heavy, "packed" style that he makes.
Apparently he's opening a new cooking school at Nicholls State University in Thibodeaux next year, and the interest is already supposed to be intense. I'd love to go, but who the hell wants to live in Thibodeaux?
For dinner my parents wanted to take me to this place they'd discovered in Bush, LA (an hour east of New Orleans) called The House of Seafood. I wasn't thrilled with the prospect of a two-hour round trip in the car with my parents, but it was worth it.
The House of Seafood is, decor- and clientele-wise, as far removed from Galatoire's as you can get. Purely proletarian, Spartan "decor", long tables with family-style seating, but who cares? It was the most humongous seafood buffet I'd ever seen, and it was all you can eat for $14.95. Shrimp, crab, oysters, crawfish, catfish, other fish, prepared in myriad ways -- boiled, broiled, fried, au gratin, you name it. Here's what I had:
Despite my having fled the Catholic Church years ago, I spent some time that evening musing about one of the Seven Deadly Sins, the Sin of Gluttony. I decided that it wasn't such a bad old sin after all ...
- Boiled shrimp, boiled crab, fried crawfish tails, fried alligator tail, crawfish rolls, crabmeat au gratin, soft shell crab, soft shell crawfish, broiled shrimp with Creole seasoning, stuffed crab, alligator sausage, fries, and banana cream pie.
SUNDAY, 10/23As y'all can imagine, I didn't have any breakfast the next day.
But we did have brunch reservations, though, at Andrea's, a five-star Italian restaurant in Metairie operated by Chef Andrea Apuzzo. Thank God the reservations weren't until 2:30 ...
And there was no dinner that night.
- APPETIZER - Fettuccine alfredo. As an appetizer. Oy.
- MAIN COURSE - Almost all of us at the table got the same thing -- Veal scalloppine Marie-Louise. The veal was in a light cream sauce, topped with crabmeat and Bearnaise sauce.
- DESSERT - Strawberry mousse cake
I ended up at Carrollton Station for the regular Sunday night gig with Peter Holsapple and friends. He was great as ever, and that night Leigh "Lil' Queenie" Harris sang with Peter and a little acoustic ensemble -- fiddle, mandolin, standup bass and two guitarists, right up my alley.
I met up with Rich again, and my sister Melissa and her almost-fiancee Jeff came by as well. We drank quarts of fantastic Louisiana microbrewery beer (Abita Turbodog; Abita Purple Haze, which has already gotten some good reviews from me and Rich -- a surprisingly wonderful raspberry wheat beer; Rikenjaks Real Ale and Scottish Ale, from a new micro in Washington, LA -- thanks to Rich for turning me on to that stuff. Dixie's days are numbered, as far as I'm concerned).
Peter finished up around 2:45am, and by that time I was finally hungry. Melis, Jeff and I ended up at the St. Charles Tavern, a 24-hour joint on St. Charles near Melpomene, where I had me a hot sausage po-boy at 3:30am.
MONDAY, 10/24This day was to be a big day, and was not the day to wake up with a hangover and general queasiness from all that beer combined with that middle-of-the-night po-boy. But Our Hero was undeterred; he swigged half a bottle of Pepto and forged ahead.
Lunch at Emeril's Restaurant, on Tchoupitoulas in the Warehouse District.
Emeril was the executive chef at Commander's Palace for 7 years, and opened his own place in 1990. He's one of my hero chefs, who combines old Creole influences with a lot of great new ideas. This is by far one of the finest restaurants in the City, probably one of the two or three best of the newer restaurants.
As I was dining alone today, I asked to be seated at the food bar, which is a dozen seats around a semicircular bar facing one of the final food prep stations. I watched the crazily busy young chef doing the final heating, sauteeing and assembly of lots of dishes like the barbecued shrimp with rosemary bisquettes, shrimp fettuccine with crabmeat, barbecue glazed salmon, shrimp and crab cakes, with all their myriad sauces, accompaniments and garnishes (Emeril's is great at plate garnish, and they're full plates, too).
Then, dessert. Yes, I must be nuts, but I had to have it. The dessert column in the menu was almost twice as long as the list of entrees. Plus, I had a bone to pick with one of his desserts ...
- APPETIZER - Smoked wild and exotic mushrooms (I counted chanterelles, shiitakes, portobellos and oyster) in a home-cured tasso reduction cream sauce over angel hair, topped with Parmagiano Reggiano. This nearly killed me. The flavor was so intense I nearly slid out of my chair. Best thing is, the recipe is in his cookbook, and doesn't seem all that involved, not unlike another mushroom/tasso/pasta dish I've done before. Hoo-boy, can't wait to make this one!
- MAIN COURSE - One of the most agonizing decisions I've ever made in a restaurant. I decided against anything fried or sauteed, as I wanted to give my poor stomach a break that day, so I flipped between fish and chicken and ended up with grilled chicken, gorgeously spiced, with spicy red bean sauce, savory andouille bread pudding and grilled green onions. To my surprise, given how I was feeling, I ate it all.
I had a humbling experience a few months ago. I wanted to try a dessert from Emeril's cookbook, and chose as my first attempt his Banana Cream Pie with banana graham crust, fresh chantilly cream and caramel drizzle sauce.
It was a disaster. The pastry cream didn't set, and it ran out over the edge of my (overbaked) pie crust and out on to the counter, then when I tried to set it in the fridge, it ran all over my fridge too. It was like something out of a '50s science fiction movie ... I thought it was going to attack me, like The Blob. Three days later, my new issue of Fine Cooking arrived with the food science article that explained how I had screwed up, that I hadn't let the starch cook for nearly long enough in the pastry cream, and because of that no amount of chilling would set it. (Also, there was apparently a mistake in the instructions in the book as well.)
So, I wanted a slice of that fucking pie at the restaurant.
But there was absolutely, positively no way I could eat even a bite of something so rich at that point. If I had, you could have called me Chuck Creosote, as Marc suggested ... "Ohh, just one leetle dessert, eet's wahfehrr theeen ..." <BLAAAAMMMMMMMMMM!>
But I still wanted to try that pie, so I ordered a piece to go.
- DESSERT - So ... I ordered the Trio of Fresh Sorbets -- orange, pear and raspberry, with a drizzle of raspberry coulis. That I could handle.
The waitress came back. "I'm sorry, but they won't let you have the pie. Mr. Lou said no."
Mr. Lou is Emeril's pastry chef.
I thought, Jesus, was he watching me eat? Does he know where I'll be eating again later?
Turns out that he said the pastry cream, chantilly cream and caramel sauce are extremely fresh, have no preservatives, and would spoil quickly. He didn't want me to get sick, and he doesn't like the dishes' freshness and his presentation to be taken out of his control. So he vetoed my order.
I was tremendously impressed by this. I told them so, and told her to tell Mr. Lou that I'd definitely make sure I could eat his pie on the premises next time.
As the hour of my dinner reservations approached, I knew that I wasn't going to make it. I had 8:00 reservations at Antoine's, and I was beginning to have serious doubts that I was gonna make it. There just wasn't room for anything. I moved them to 9:30, and things started to settle, so I put on my coat and tie, and headed out to the Quarter.
I was seated in the front dining room, which looked like it could handle 50 people or so. This being my first trip to Antoine's, I had no idea how big the place really is. I was pleased that the menu finally adopted the innovation of English; until several years ago, it was apparently only in French. The menu itself was astonishing -- 8 pages, listing 25 appetizers and 30 fish and shellfish dishes, just for starters.
I was tempted to start with the classic appetizer they invented, Oysters Rockefeller, but decided to keep it light.
The vegetables were a la carte here as well, and as they looked like they were all in either butter or Hollandaise, I opted for:
- APPETIZER - Potage alligator au sherry, a well-seasoned, sherry wine- laced alligator bisque. Just a cup.
I ate slowly but steadily, and at this point was beginning to seriously wonder if I was overdoing it. My breathing was careful and measured, as there wasn't a whole lot of room inside me for my diaphragm to let my lungs expand.
- SALAD - Salade Antoine, a blend of five greens in a simple vinaigrette. The only disappointment, mostly because of its overly high price: $4.50
- MAIN COURSE - Pompano en papillote. The world-famous dish, Antoine's creation: filets of pompano baked in a parchment paper bag with shrimp and lump crabmeat in a white wine/egg yolk liaison sauce. It was enormous. And rich. And delicious. And I ate it all.
The waiter asked if I wanted dessert. Do you really think that I'm going to go to Antoine's and not get dessert? I forged on.
I was offered café au lait, and asked if I wanted it light, medium or dark. The waiter held the silver coffee and milk pots about three feet over the table and carefully poured them together in a single stream into my cup, making the coffee nice and frothy. It was fitting finish to a grand old Creole meal beyond belief.
- DESSERT - Meringue glacée au sauce chocolat. Homemade French vanilla ice cream on a light toasted meringue, draped with chocolate fudge sauce. I was offered a special variation that night: would I like it with toasted almonds and sliced strawberries as well? Sure, why not? And I ate it all.
Afterwards, my waiter asked me if I wanted a tour of the premises, and I did. The place is huge. I was shown the 15 different dining rooms and a banquet room, with a total restaurant seating capacity of 1,150 (although they never fill up every dining room and the banquet hall simultaneously). It's as much of a museum as a restaurant, with menus, plates, photos, etc. going back over 150 years. He showed me the wine cellar, which was almost two blocks long and stretched all the way back to Royal Street, with about 35,000 bottles. He showed me a 140-year-old bottle of cognac, that still had some left in it. He showed me where presidents, kings, princes, czars and movie stars had eaten. And Chuck Jones, who had drawn them a picture of Bugs Bunny in a toque, serving his "Backbay Bunny Bayou Bordelaise a la Antoine's". It was really nifty.
And he offered me his card, and said, "It's been a pleasure serving you this evening, sir, and it would be my pleasure to serve you again. It's a tradition at Antoine's to ask for a particular waiter, and I'd appreciate it if you'd ask for me next time you come in."
Wow. Now that's what I call service.
(And it seems that being a waiter at Antoine's is a career. Apparently you have to be an apprentice waiter for ten years before you become a full waiter.)
This experience was only tempered by the fact that since I did not have my own waiter there, requested in advance, I was seated in the front dining room and "treated like a tourist", as snooty regulars would say. So what?
I returned to Marie's place and collapsed on the sofa -- I didn't even make it to the bed. I felt like one of those lions that eats an entire gazelle and then sleeps for three days.
TUESDAY, 10/25I wanted to kinda take it easy today.
Marie and I ended up at Central Grocery on Decatur and split a muffuletta, with a Barq's and a bag of Zapp's Craw-tators potato chips. Heaven.
I was sufficiently recovered for dinner at one more great restaurant: Brigtsen's, at the Riverbend.
Melissa and Jeff came with me, and they could actually afford it because Brigtsen's, like several other newer N.O. restaurants, has an early bird dinner special. You get a limited choice of appetizers and main course, but it's only $14.95. I went for the main menu, though, as this was a money-is-no-object trip that I had been saving for.
Chef Frank Brigtsen was sous-chef under Prudhomme at K-Paul's for years, and IMO surpassed his old boss. His restaurant, opened in a former private home in 1990, immediately got five beans from Gene Bourg in the Times-Picayune.
Melis and Jeff went for the special, and got panneed turkey breast and oyster dressing, with the same side dishes I had.
- APPETIZER - Paneed rabbit on a bed of sauteed spinach in a pool of Creole mustard sauce. It was fantastic! This is one of the best dishes in the city. And a gorgeous plate presentation.
- MAIN COURSE - Filet of drum fish with a crabmeat parmesan crust and lemon mousseline sauce. Served with garlic mashed potatoes, ricotta-stuffed new potato and asparagus.
- DESSERT - Banana pecan bread pudding with lemon sauce and chantilly cream.
I ended up at Tip's that night to see Freedy Johnston, who was fantastic -- get his new album THIS PERFECT WORLD, on Elektra -- and ran into Derek Huston from The Iguanas, who bought me a beer.
WEDNESDAY, 10/26I had to make one more stop, to the venerable old Camellia Grill for breakfast. I got my old standby, the potato-onion-cheese omelette, major comfort food for this boy.
Then, off to the airport and back to L.A.-L.A.land. One the way, the flight attendant offered me the height of Continental Airlines' food service on this trip -- a little bag of pretzels about half the size of my wallet. I just looked at her. "No thanks," I said.
And now, I gotta join a gym ...
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Chuck Taggart (e-mail chuck)