New Orleans (part 1)

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I haven't explored much of the Southern US, so I was elated to find out that L had planned a four day trip to The Big Easy for my birthday, revolving around my favourite pastime: food. I could wax on about what a great wife she is, but the best part about L is that she gets (or at least tolerates) my culinary obsession. We spent 4 marvelous rain-soaked days quite literally taking in all that New Orleans had to offer.

I haven't explored much of the Southern US, so I was elated to find out that L had planned a four day trip to The Big Easy for my birthday, revolving around my favourite pastime: food. I could wax on about what a great wife she is, but the best part about L is that she gets (or at least tolerates) my culinary obsession. We spent 4 marvelous rain-soaked days quite literally taking in all that New Orleans had to offer.

Upon disembarking from the plane, we were immediately embraced by a warm humid wall of air that welcomed us to a place more hospitable than our own. It took us a minute to adjust, resisting the innate New Yorker urge to push past the slower pace of life there. The people spoke slower, walked slower, and generally seemed happier for it, despite the hurricane that devastated the region less than four years ago.

We shacked up at the W New Orleans, which is conveniently located in the middle of the Vieux Carré (a.k.a. French Quarter). It was also a sound-dampening 2 blocks south of Bourbon street which helped ensure that we got a good night's rest. It wasn't the nicest W we've stayed at, but our top floor room was large and came with all the usual W trimmings, making it a comfortable stay at a great off-season rate.

After dropping our bags off, we donned our tourist paraphernalia and set out to find the legendary Cafe Du Monde. Considering the place is a conglomeration of chaotic self-seated areas, we lucked out and found a table quickly. The $3 plate of fried dough covered in a mountain of powdered sugar was satisfying, but the three pieces of dough smelled of oil that had seen one too many beignets, and the texture seemed more chewy than it should be. Two days later, my suspicions where confirmed when a bag of golden brown fried dough with the obligatory blizzard of powdered sugar showed up in a bag on my lap. The perfect puffy squares from Cafe Beignet had a crisp exterior and soft, almost creamy interior.
We washed down the Beignet's with a couple Hurricanes from Lafitte's Blacksmith, who claims to be the oldest bar in the US. The drinks weren't great, but the history was all around us, and it made for a fun stop on our way to dinner at Brigsten's

With a Zagat food rating of 28 and a reputation for being one of the best restaurants that New Orleans has to offer, we had high hopes for Brigsten's. Located in a charming cottage, it was warm and welcoming, giving you the feeling that you'd been invited to someone's house for dinner. The the waitstaff was friendly and attentive and were eager to make recommendations off the a menu.

Unfortunately, there was a big discrepancy between the high prices and the quality of the homely food. My seafood platter was unimaginative and over-salted, with one of the baked oysters having more sand and breadcrumbs than oyster. Her blackened tuna was watery and flavorless, with a paint-by-numbers presentation that left much to be desired. I really wanted to like the place, and even gave them a little leeway given it was our first meal in New Orleans, but as the following days would prove, the food was in fact overpriced and uninteresting.

Day two started off much better with brunch at Elizabeth's. It's a popular diner way out in Bywater, that's kitschy in all the right kind of ways, complete with gingham table cloths and walls covered with signs exclaiming "Shut Up & Eat" and "Be Nice or Leave!". We started off with two plastic cafeteria cups of the Ghetto Fabulous Mimosa, which as far as I could tell, was a mix of OJ with some type of malt liquor of the 40 fluid ounce variety. Not the kind of thing I'd typically go for, but it was awesome in a 70's kung-fu flick kind of way.

To go with our Proletarian cocktail, we ordered the praline bacon, which was every bit as good as it sounds. Yes, the plate did come with more than two strips, but the rest of the sugary strips disappeared while I was reaching for the camera. Having greased and pickled out stomachs sufficiently, we moved onto the main event.

She got the Redneck Eggs, which came with fried green tomatoes and perfectly poached eggs covered in hollandaise and served with a pool of grits. The tomatoes were golden brown and crisp on the outside, while sweet, tangy and tender on the inside. With a broken yolk flowing over them and the creamy hollandaise and grits, it was subtle, refined and made the name seem a bit misplaced.

I had hopes of redeeming Louisiana oysters after the ones from the night before, and opted for the Eggs Florentine, which involved fried oysters and poached eggs on a bed of fried potatoes, covered in a creamy spinach puree. The oysters were crisp on the outside, and burst with briny flavour when you bit through their savoury cornmeal crust. They were so good, that many of our subsequent meals involved oysters in one form or other.

After drying off, we headed over to the Polo Club Lounge in the Windsor Court Hotel for some pre-dinner boozing. There, I had the best mint julep I've ever had, and a mighty fine Sazerac as well. In stark contrast to our brunch venue, the atmosphere at the PCL was all crystal chandelier and good-old-boy and made me wonder if I should have worn my brass buttoned blazer.
Sufficiently buzzed, we headed across the street to Restaurant August, where we had one of our best meals in New Orleans. John Besh brilliantly melds local flavours with modern preparations to make for a novel combination of dishes, and the wine pairings were inspired, going for interesting synergies, rather than an obvious matching of flavours. The meal was so good, it made us realize just how bad our meal at Brigtsen's the night before really was.

Like the menu, the interior was a grand juxtaposition of old meets new with two ornate walls covered in crown molding and plush velvet wallpaper, while the two opposing walls were raw exposed brick. Our waiter was very knowledgeable about the food and wine and had an opinion when asked, which was a nice change from the rehearsed lists of ingredients I hear far too often. He also got the chef to substitute in a fillet of beef for the braised short ribs in the prix fixe menu, because I had a hankering for a rare hunk of meat.

We were started off with an amuse bouche of a seafood custard topped with truffled sabayon and local caviar. It reminded me just how much I love the combination of truffles and eggs. This was followed by a warm salad of thinly sliced pieds du cochon (pig trotters), with crisp veal sweetbreads and black truffle. The rich tangy dressing with the creamy sweetbreads and earthy truffles had a depth of flavour and character that brought a smile to my greasy lips.
Besh's deconstructed take on Spaghetti Carbonara was clever, and while the pasta was slightly softer than I would have liked, the slow cooked egg that came with it more than compensated for any textural shortcomings. Instead of cooking the egg in a waterbath at 160 degree F for forty five minutes, this slow cooked egg was cooked at 140 degrees for an hour. The result was a yolk that had the same custardy consistency as the white, making it a simple task to coat the the long thin strands of house-made pasta with the luscious egg.

The lacquered pork belly that came next was exquisite, but by this time it was too dark to take any photos. I was also two sheets to the wind, so my recollection of the rest of the meal gets a bit fuzzy. I do however remember that the fillet would have been delicious had it not been over salted, and that the napoleon served for dessert with the salted toffee ice cream was quite tasty.

I still have a day and a half of eating and sight seeing to cover, but this post is getting a little too long, so you'll have to stay tuned for part II for New Orleans.

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