Wednesday, March 31, 2010

New Orleans: Stella!

1032 Chartres Street
New Orleans, LA 70116-3202

(504) 587-0091

Dinner that second night was at Stella! In the French Quarter. It was so close to our hotel that the schedule with our tours worked perfectly.

We walked into the converted old house and noticed that the setting was not what we had imagined (I was quickly figuring out that frequently, things were not what we imagined coming from New York). Stella! Is consistently rated in the top couple of New Orleans restaurants for décor, service, food AND romance, so I expected something a bit like Restaurant Daniel. Instead, it looked like someone’s eclectic but elegant home. There was palm fronds painted on one wall, old country scenes hung on another. There was a fire place and of course, the two rooms of tables we were started to recognize.

The menu was funny to read. Each item was described in more detail that one might want and there was little to pull it together. (I’m going to use full titles just to show you how annoying it was) The Duck Five (or six?) Ways incorporated French and Asian cooking methods, but there were not many overtly Asian dishes aside from it. Jack had the Fish & Chips which was modeled off of the English classic. We were all set to order the Tasting Menu, but when we arrived, our server proudly announced that it was a truffle menu. What about the people who don’t like truffles THAT much? Shouldn’t there be another option? The a la carte menu was studded with the fancy fungi anyway. Still, since we’d seen a few disjointed menus in our previous meals and had enjoyed the food anyway, we were not scared.

Roasted Heirloom Potato Puree with Applewood Smoked Bacon Lardons, Fingerling Potatoes, Truffle Scented Petite Brioche Croutons and Truffle Crème Fraiche Caviar. This dish came as a soup. It was very good with changing textures and flavors. I can’t remember tons about it except that the potatoes were smooth and silky with a strong oomph of truffles.

Gulf Shrimp and Andouille Sausage Risotto with Baby Shiitake and Maitake Mushrooms, Melted Brie and Scallions…was quite possibly the single most astounding taste of the trip. The risotto was creamy with just enough bite to it. The cheese, mushrooms and sausage melded together so you couldn’t tell exactly where each flavor began, ended, or ran into the next. Each food tally we took from that moment on included a respectful pause for the Gulf Shrimp and Andouille Sausage Risotto with Baby Shiitake and Maitake Mushrooms, Melted Brie and Scallions.

The Lobster, Egg and Truffles: Farm Egg, Canadian lobster, Italian Black Truffles arrived in the egg shell. I really like when egg dishes are served in a clipped shell. Despite the truffle theme, it was an appetizer that we both wanted to try, so we shared one as a mid course. It was good. The lobster was fresh and plump and the egg was good. The truffles were too strong.

Porcini Crusted Dutch Valley Veal Tenderloin Medallions with Fingerling Potato Confit, Roasted Winter Root Vegetables and Calvados Escargot Herb Reduction…are you sick of the titles yet? I’m almost done and they get shorter from here. The Veal was delicious. Perfectly cooked, tender and meaty with a tiny bit of earthiness coming from the Porcini. I haven’t ordered a red meat dish in a while and it was very satisfying but not incredibly memorable. There is no sweet sigh of longing when I think back on it. But it was definitely a well executed and yummy choice.

Fish and Chips- Tempura Beer Battered Japanese Anago with Sweet Potato Puree, Curried Taro Root Chips and Spicy Red Chili Caramel. These Fish & Chips were sweeter than spicy. The plate was a bit intimidating with the fried fish on one side, a large dollop of the sweet potato puree and the taro root chips sticking straight out the top of it; like a triceratops. The reason for the upright presentation, we realized, was that the chips became soft pretty easily when mixed with everything else. The first few bites were crunchy and sweet and salty and good, the last few, once it got cold and mixed together were not as satisfying.

Desserts were good and strange. Both. Equally. The Chocolate cake with Hot Buttered Pink Lemonade had a fudgy brownie with a very tart and citrus finish that came from the lemonade. I liked it, but the tartness was pretty forceful. The Grilled Cheese sandwich with Triple Creme Cheese and Dark Chocolate Ganache was more savory that sweet, but it was fun to eat. And the ganache played really well off the cheese and toast. It was like the Jelly in your PB&J.

Reading this post back, it sounds like Stella wasn’t great. But it was. The service was smooth and flawless while still feeling easy. The drinks were good. The wine list was a bit disjointed, but we met the new sommelier who is about to launch a new list. With our own wine experience, and a funny instance with a corked bottle or two, we quickly became friendly. He showed us his new list and not only does it have wonderful things on it, but it is perfectly laid out. He is an excellent addition to the team I am sure. And how could the home of such mesmerizing risotto not be at the top of my list. There is every intention to drag my parents here in October when we are all back for the weekend, but I’m sure that Dad will have a lot of old favorites he wants to go to.

I recommend this restaurant to anyone looking for a truly lovely evening. And don’t fear the menus. They have a great kitchen and a really good selection of wines.

New Orlins 2 (Tours and Mules)

Because my foot refused to walk miles upon miles that day (we ended up walking about 5 anyway), Jack and I decided to take tours. We did a bus tour that took us all over the city and then a Ghost tour of the French Quarter. Both were interesting.

The bus tour was almost four hours long. We got out and walked around one of the cemeteries, saw a stone that was a man’s will, inscribed on his grave because he didn’t trust lawyers to carry out his wishes when he died.

We went to a few neighborhoods where the Katrina damage is still in frightening disrepair. There are holes in people’s roofs where they were chopped to release people trapped by the floods.

We went into the garden district and saw some of the original houses with their “iron lace” railings and details along the balconies that make New Orleans famous. There were mounting blocks built into the sidewalks in front of some houses for ladies to more easily get on and off horses or in and out of carriages and special nubs on street lamps where horses could be tied up.

Our guide had a freaky infatuation with celebrities so we now know about every house that was once owned by someone we’d heard of and every restaurant or building that a movie was shot in. Brad Pitt is the local hero.

We rushed from the bus tour to our walking Ghost tour where an actor/historian named Bill led us down a few different streets in the French Quarter telling us about who had died where or how many ghosts there could be in hotels that were once hospitals. But he also told us that the balconies stretching across the sidewalk, with support pillars to the street are called “galleries” and that many of them have spikes to keep intruders from scaling the poles, or to keep would-be suitors from virgin daughters. (whichever you prefer)

The carriages around New Orleans are pulled by mules. The first one I saw, I assumed was a fluke; mules are not hugely popular in the North East and I think they mostly happen by accident. But after a couple of walking hours, we noted that ALL carriages were pulled by mules. Bill was able to explain it to me. It made him one of my favorite people of the trip. I mean, as a horse lover and a New Yorker, why wouldn’t you use the stronger, better looking horses to pull you carriages? The answer is that horses will pull and work until they die; which then becomes annoying to clean up and expensive to replace. Mules are almost as strong as horses but like donkeys, will stop in their tracks when they are dehydrated. Apparently, they will sit down exactly where they are and hee-haw until water arrives. So carriage drivers have been known to dash into a local pub for water while his mule is sitting, butt in the street, carrying on at loud and miserable tone, with a bunch of tourists in the back and cars backing up behind them. Basically the funniest thing ever.

New Orleans: Antoine's (Jazz Brunch)

713 Saint Louis Street
New Orleans, LA 70130-2182

(504) 581-4422

Antoine’s is one of the oldest restaurants in the country. 160 years or something insane. My dad strongly suggested that we go and when I saw that they did a Jazz brunch, I thought, “Bingo.” I’m not a huge music person so this would be a great way to get a ration of jazz while eating somewhere really old.

Before 11am, the restaurant is closed, but shopping can be found at the Praline shop across the street. I got some Christmas presents and tried some Pralines and almond brittle. All were so good!

At 11:02, we were safely seated in a box. The restaurant is a solid and even sided box, decorated with light colors and old detailing. The waiters are all dressed up and seem to have been there since the dawn of time. They aren’t even that old, you can just tell that they know their way around the place and the menu in a way that means they have been there through it all.

Mimosas were the starter drinks, then the Antoine’s Smile which was pink and sweet and so much like a Swedish Fish martini from my days in Worcester, MA, that I wanted to giggle when I had it.

The Alligator soup had a slight spice to it and a murky, homey quality that surprised us at first, but came to be what we looked for in good soups as the meals continued. The little bits of meat that made the soup thick were the largest difference between the alligator soup and the Gumbo. It was also murky, homey and a bit spicy. This time, it was smoother with a hint of the sea. I liked it. I liked my first Gumbo.

Jack had the Crab omelet with a spicy Creole sauce on top. It was basically a large, seafood number with salsa. He seemed happy with it, but not enthralled. My own Fried oysters and bacon over pecan rice pilaf with beurre blanc had highs and lows. The Pilaf was really good on its own with the chopped up pecans adding complexity and texture to it. The fried oysters were good. They were big with a nice, hefty crust that went crunch just as well-fried things should. The beurre blanc sauce was sad. It was like a very old paste, drizzled across my plate. And as I mixed it with rice or oysters, the sticky bland seemed to envelope the whole thing. Salt would have helped, but I don’t think anything could have saved this sauce.

Our waiter encouraged us to have dessert. We were full, it was 12pm, and we had already eaten two courses and listened to a jazz trio try to sell us their CD. They were fun and nice, but $20 per disk was a little um…no way. He told us that when he started, 25 years ago, he had eaten one of the meringue desserts every day for over a year because he couldn’t spend a shift without it. He also said that the guys who’d already been there fifty years had gout and major problems with their limbs because of the meringue ice cream dessert so he’d taken their example and quit as soon as he could…a year. He also said something like “of course you’ll want the pecan pie.” He said it like, everyone always has pecan pie or else they are New Orleanian impostors. I certainly didn’t want us to be one of those so we had both (sort of the opposite of no desserts if you think about it).

The pecan pie was warm and sticky with a heated nut crust on top that broke like a crème brulle when you started eating it. It pretty good. Jack liked it more than I did. The Vanilla ice cream over baked meringue with chocolate fudge sauce and sliced toasted almonds was sort of like death. I usually find vanilla ice cream to be boring and a waste of ice cream-calories. Meringue, while not a waste of calories, seems to be sort of a waste of air and sugar to me, and fudge sauce, while good, is a substance I seem to have long learned how to live without. All together, the sweet, the creaminess, the crunch and crumble and the warm, oozing fudge was something I could not stop eating. I didn’t finish either dessert, but I came closer than I’d planned on both.

Antoine’s is old. It’s as old as I said and more. The menu and food are old, the room feels old. Someone at our hotel said that Katrina was a secret help to the restaurant because it allowed them to use insurance money to spruce up their antiquated everything. There is something to love though, about career waiters, especially those in bow ties. In New York, restaurants come and go, staff come and go. Our restaurant culture isn’t one that encourages people to stay.

Monday, March 29, 2010

New Orleans: Lilette

3637 Magazine Street
New Orleans, LA 70115-2553

(504) 895-1636

Lilette looks like a French Bistro that has just gotten a fresh coat of paint of slightly the wrong color for a bistro. The acoustics are tough even though they’ve stuck absorbent pillows under the tables to muffle some of the reverberating sound. My dad wouldn’t be able to go here.

Jack had a Ward 8 cocktail which was strong and I had an Alberto which was very minty but also sweet in a very sharp and unpleasant way.

The White Bean and Garlic Soup was excellent. It had more bean and less garlic and was far more of a soup than my garlic gravy at lunchtime. There were tiny bits of fried duck on top that, once stirred, dispersed evenly throughout the dish, creating surprise little crunches as we ate it.

The Truffle Parmesan crouton with roasted mushrooms and a glace was a truly French and memorable dish. It was only an appetizer and I kept telling Jack how much I would love to go back for the small crust of flavorful cheesy bread with deep, sweet, meaty and mushroomy flavors on top. This thing was GOOD.

I had ordered us a 2005 Gigondas to go with the meal. It was a great eating wine. A bit harsh by itself and then smooth and velvety with each bite. And it managed to compliment soup and crouton alike.

The Sticky Beef Shortribs were good; and sticky. But the cucumber salad garnish it sat on was out of place flavor-wise and the sauce was not as taste-bud popping as we expected. The Pork Belly Salad with Pea Shoots and Melon, on the other hand, was one of my favorite things of the trip. I love crisp, fat chunks of pork belly. I have always loved pea shoots, and the thick, ripe cantaloupe cubes added a sweet, juicy refreshing touch to the salty, crunch of the meat. It was an awesome dish. I will try to remember to make it for you sometime. Well, I'll make it for me and take pictures to tell you about it. Then you can make it.

We were too full to order whole desserts, but the ice cream flavors looked good. There was a Peanut Brittle flavor hidden away in the regular choices that we substituted into the Ice cream selection. It was yummy, but basically peanut brittle in vanilla ice cream. The Caramel-Fleur de Sel was good and the vanilla was good.

We walked carefully out to Magazine street and got a cab home. My pedometer read that we had walked sixteen miles and since I had committed to wearing dresses the entire trip, my appropriately/inappropriately clad feet were beginning to scream.

Sunday we woke up pretty early but could not go for much of a walk. I had a blister the size of the Mississippi and it would take a while before I could coax my feet to go anywhere that wasn’t a meal.