Thursday, December 30, 2010

New Orleans dining & drinking among the stars - tres bon, mes amis!

Nicholas Cage filming "The Hungry Rabbit Jumps" in the French Quarter - Shirley Ross photo

 Kate Hudson and Gael Garcia Bernal filming "A Little Bit of Heaven" in the French Quarter - Bill Tieleman photo
Wine Barbarian Bill Tieleman with top rated Lousiana Bistro's Chef Mars

Acme Oyster House - fast food bi-valves

"Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans/
And miss it each night and day?"

- Louis Alter & Eddie Delange - recorded by Louis Armstrong, Billie Holliday

If you visit New Orleans to eat and drink, you are going to understand exactly what that song means!

New Orleans has some of the best restaurants and chefs imaginable in one of the most food and drink fixated cities you can find.

Throw in a big helping of movie stars, historic bars and friendly people and you'd be a fool not to head to New Orleans.

The highlight for my wife Shirley and I is easy - big easy if you insist - our two dinners at the Louisiana Bistro, home to Chef Mars and his "Feed Me" dining experience.

It's simple but scary for some diners - you simply say you want a 3-course, 4-course or 5-course meal and Chef Mars decides what you get!  No substitutions, no negotiations - other than food allergies and - if you are polite - a "fear factor" warning.

And every table gets different food!  This isn't a daily special type of deal - Chef Mars turns out unique offerings for each table every night - wow!

The food is remarkable and the price is very reasonable - $39/$49/$59.  Louisiana Bistro is small and casual but incredible.

On our first visit we did the 3-course meal and first up were deep fried frog's legs in a lemon beurre blance sauce with red pepper jelly - simply excellent!  Chef Mars explained between courses that due to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf coast there is only one frog's leg supplier left in the U.S. - a fellow in Mississippi who drives his product into town.

The second course was equally excellent - spice-rubbed swordfish with blue crab meat in a caper, pepper meuniere sauce - called Lake Ponchartain style - accompanied by grits with cheddar cheese.

We were blown away by both course and wondered how Mars could match himself - he did with buffalo shortribs and BBQ sauce on garlic mashed potatoes. 

The food was well matched by our choice of an old favourite - 2001 Conde de Valdemar Gran Reserva for $56 a bottle - a 90 point Wine Spectator rating for this big oaky, smokey, cherry, blackberry and pepper Rioja.

For dessert we had Creole creamcheese ice cream with a balsamic reduction and strawberries - fabulous. And the expert service from Sam and other waiters was another treat.

"Feed Me may not be for you," Chef Mars remarked to another table after they saw our frog's legs and other dishes come out!  But it was for us, because we came back for a 4-course meal our last night.  More on that below after a few other restaurant reviews.

Another great restaurant is Les Foret,  in the Central Business District, where chef James Corwell serves up New Orleans French cuisine in a stylish room.

We started with three amuse bouche - venison tea, rabbit rillette and lobster tartar - all very good indeed.

For an appetizer we shared grilled Hudson Valley foie gras - accompanied by a roasted beet, apple, Satsuma orange and walnut salad - fabulous!

Shirley had a rabbit trio for her main course - a roasted loin, a frenched rack and a braised leg with a pasta terrine with mustard and peeled grapes - all excellent, for $29

I went for the venison steak, which was crusted with shallots, pepper and lemon and accompanied by braised cabbage with caraway, sweet potato tempura and green peppercorn jus.  Simply outstanding, at $29.

We shared a New Orleans classic King Cake with a Les Foret twist - served with buttered rum and pecan ice cream - very good but very sweet.

Our wine choice was once again Spanish - the very good 2006 Termes Numanthia at $48 - a Toro triumph that scored 93 points at the Wine Spectator and was full of plum, chocolate and tobacco and matched our choices well.

If we had eaten nowhere else there would be no complaints - but we had lots more success.

Shirley and I took a long $23 cab ride out to Patois, another well-reviewed restaurant out of the downtown area owned by chef Aaron Burgau.

We started with shrimp and chorizo and polenta with mascarpone cheese - and hot brioche - all very good.

My main was pheasant breast and leg confit in a spiced foie gras emulsion, served with cipolline onions, carrots and a sunchoke puree - it was excellent!  Priced at $30.

Shirley chose the rabbit saltimbocca [Italian for "jumps in the mouth"] which had a great sage hit and came with grits and asparagus.

Her dessert was an unusual red pepper-praline ice cream - very spicy but great.

I had a Meyer lemon pousset with lavender shortbread and pistachios - also excellent.

The wine for the meal was a Guidobono Langhe Nebbiolo at $42 - smoky and full-bodied.

During the daytime we amused ourselves by touring the French Quarter and other districts - where we were twice able to turn paparazzi and take photos of movie stars Nicholas Cage, Kate Hudson and Gael Garcia Bernal - who were shooting on location in New Orleans.

Shirley had the good camera when we ran into Cage shooting "The Hungry Rabbit Jumps" - her best photo is above.

I was on my own when I spotted another film shoot a few days later - Hudson and Garcia rehearsing on Chartres Street for "A Little Bit of Heaven".

Amazingly, despite lots of security blocking onlookers a fair distance away, one of the film crew approached me and told me to stop taking photos!

It gave me a great opportunity - with a small crowd around me I told the security guy: "I'm a tourist - we take pictures. This is a free country - welcome to America!"  and kept taking photos.

"The publicist will get upset," security guy responded before slinking off.  Ha-ha - tell someone who cares.  Several people thanked me for intervening with him - and had no idea I was a Canadian!

We also took New Orleans' most popular tourist outing - "History with a Twist" - a cocktail tour of the city that invented them.

Our guide - and author of the small book by the same name - was Joe Gendusa - a fabulous popular historian.

This is not a pub crawl though - instead you visit three or four historic bars in the French Quarter over a few hours - and the list changes daily.

We started at Tujagues - a bar and restaurant established in 1856 where the "Grasshopper" was first concocted.  Next up was Muriel's on Jackson Square, where we sampled a Pimm's Cup and learned about the ghost who haunts this stylish restaurant and bar.

Then it was on to Tony Seville's Pirates Alley Cafe and Absinth House, a tiny bar where the green liquor flowed elegantly through a special device. 

Lastly we hit Antoine's - the oldest restaurant in the U.S.A. - and it's Hermes Bar.  Operating since 1840, Antoine's has several rooms to seat up to 700 patrons and has been visited by every U.S. president - Barack Obama is likely due to be there soon.

I had a Sazerac there - another New Orleans concoction featuring Peychaud's Bitters - something we had to import for ourselves, as it's hard to find outside Louisiana.

There are lots and lots of other great bars in the French Quarter - we explored quite a few, including the famous Monteleone Hotel where Truman Capote hung out for too long, the fabulous Bombay Club on Conti Street, where David Armstrong plays piano and interacts with guests and on the more modern side, Loa bar in the International House Hotel in the business district - which features very new cocktails like East Meets West - Canton Ginger Liquor and R1 Clearmont Kentucky rye - wow! And Orin Swift's 2007 The Prisoner by the glass - #47 on the Wine Spectator Top 100 list for 2009 and a 92 pointer!

All that drinking left us hungry, so it was time for another dinner - this time we went downscale.

Acme Oyster House usually has a big line up outside - and inside you find out why.  A dozen oysters for $10.99 and lots of other inexpensive Creole food like shrimp etouffee - which was very good - and gumbo.

Only one dinner didn't quite live up to our high expectations - at Cochon on Tchoupitulous.  Deep fried alligator with chile garlic aioli was very good, as were the pork cheeks with beets and watercress.  But the Louisiana cochon with turnips, cabbage and cracklins [$22]and the rabbit with dumplings [$20] were merely good.  We had a bottle of the unusual Scholium Project 2007 Gardens of Babylon petite syrah at $50, which was quite good.

We had many great lunches - including at August - one of John Besh's restaurants - were we enjoyed very good Gulf jumbo shrimp stew and also potato gnocchi with truffles, parmesan chees and blue crab; at the Commander's Palace - where they serve 25 cent martinis - yes, it's true - and an excellent turtle soup with sherry and wild white shrimp with grits; and the colourful Coop's Place on Decatur Street - where they serve excellent red beans with meat and good rabbit and smoked sausage jumbalaya and shrimp creole. As Zagat's guide put it: "Where the not-so-elite meet to eat."

Breakfast - or midnight snack time - means a trip to Cafe du Monde - The Original French Market Coffee Stand - for a sugar-coated beignet - a donut without the hole.

You also don't want to miss oysters at Dickie Brennan's Bourbon House right on the infamous Bourbon Street at about $1 per bi-valve and washed down with some sauvignon blanc or beer - or a great choice of bourbons!

But to finish off our great trip we had to return to the Louisiana Bistro one more time - and Chef Mars was at the top of his game again.

We did the "Feed Me" 4-course meal this time and started with crawfish beignets - yes, the French version of the donut - in a lemon beurre blance sauce with cayenne pepper glace.  Simply outstanding!  And one of Mars' personal favourites.

Next came a blue crab-stuffed mirliton [pronounced mah-lih-tone] - also known as chayote - a type of squash.  It was in a Cajun meuniere sauce and was excellent.

The third course was roast quail stuffed with toasted pecan-pesto garlic rice - simply fabulous and inventive.

The last course - could it live up to the standard of the first three?  Yes!

Local lamb loin was grilled with black pepper and served with bourbon mashed sweet potatoes and a smoked tomato and applewood smoked bacon sauce - totally killer and the best dish of all!

We somehow squeezed in another Creole creamcheese ice cream dessert and again chose the 2001 Conde de Valdemar Gran Reserva to go with the meal.

And thus ended a rather decadent, liquid and filling trip to New Orleans - if you love food and drink, you want to be in NOLA - New Orleans, Louisiana.

Shirley Ross outside Cafe Du Monde
Postscript - we were in New Orleans in January 2010 - sorry for the delay in writing this up - and were thrilled when we got home to watch the New Orleans Saints win the Superbowl! 

Their success was already evident all over town when we were there and it was a huge morale boost for a city still recovering from 2005's Hurricane Katrina.  But do not hesitate to visit - the French Quarter remains intact and was not affected by the disaster, although sadly outer parts of the city have still not been fully restored.


Friday, December 24, 2010

Wine Barbarian has been barbaric in 2010!

Sorry friends - this has been a bad year for the Wine Barbarian - much wine and food consumed but no posts since May!

I apologize for those who visit - though some of the items here are still of interest - and promise to try harder for a better vintage of posts in 2011.

Merry Winey Christmas to all!