Culinary Fireworks in the Big Easy (part 1)
July 4th Weekend, 2015
GBRB takes a New Orleans Holiday
[This is not a typical GBRB post; more of just a general foodie remembrance of a delicious long-weekend. But if you need any ideas for an upcoming NOLA trip...]
For those who know us, hearing that we popped off to NOLA for a holiday weekend will come as no surprise. We try to get back to our "second city" at least three times a year. This trip was a little bit special, since my sister Emily and her girlfriend Bianca came in from Chicago to enjoy the city with us. It's always fun to share my favorite city with those who've yet to come to know her as, um, intimately as I have.
Our first taste was at the Ruby Slipper in the Marigny. We prefer this location because we almost never have to wait, unlike at their downtown (CBD) or French Quarter (FQ) branches. M and I ordered the corned beef bennie, and the girls ordered the smoked salmon bennie. Both were served on near-perfect biscuits with rich, fresh hollandaise, but the corned beef also came with a subtle horseraddish sauce, and a much more intense, well-rounded flavor. We used to get the "Eggs Cochon" just about every time, but we ended up getting the corned beef bennie twice on this trip. It might be the new standard. I also got my first drink of many: a well-garnished bloody mary.
After lounging on the porch for a couple of beers/hours, we sat down at the always incredible Cochon Butcher. I just ordered the charcuterie slate, which included (from memory, so...) lardo, sopressata, a duck sausage, a head cheese, and a country terrine (my favorite), along with their amazing house pickles, spicy mustard, and chow-chow. All great stuff. Mel got her usual Cold Roast Beef sandwich, which she said was as good as usual. Em got a nice crispy pork belly sandwich on toast with pickled veg. We all shared the spicy mac and cheese, grilled brussel sprouts, and an incredibly boozy rum cake for dessert. I drank a "rocking rebel" cocktail, continuing my tradition of ordering whichever cocktail is the first on the menu to include Rye.
Afterward, we headed down to the Garden District, ostensibly so that the ladies could do some shopping. I decided to do some drinking instead at the Bulldog, where the draught selection is second to none (and the bar-food is totally top notch; not that I was hungry). When the ladies caught up with me, we grabbed a trio of "geaux beers" and walked around, checking out some other shops and what-not. You know it's a truly civilized city when no one bats an eye as you walk into Walgreens with a full draft beer.
Not having any dinner plans for the evening, we decided just to "food-tour" it, and seeing as we'd had an ongoing discussion about chargrilled oysters (Drago's vs. Felix's), we headed back to the CBD to stage a comparison. Drago's NOLA location is in the ground floor of the Hilton Riverside hotel. We only ever go there for one thing, and they've never disapointed us. But the price for a dozen chargrilled oysters has climbed steadily year-by-year, and Mel wanted to see if they were worth the premium over Felix's [Note: on their website, they still list them as $20/doz, which may hold true at their other stores, but they're charging $25 at the CBD location]. We sat at the oyster bar, and watched them make us two dozen of the butter soaked, parmesan crusted morsels. Sadly however, this most reliable delicacy really let us down (for the first time, out of dozens of dozens). They were just... off; in both texture and taste. Granted, a scorching-hot July is about the worst possible time for oysters in general, but we've been happy with them in the summer before. A bit later we warily ordered just a single dozen at Felix's. These were much better, but not as good, we agreed, as Drago's when they're on their game. To avoid further disappointment, we decided to go ahead and swear off oysters for the rest of the trip.
In between Oyster stops, we popped into Tiki Tolteca, the semi-secret tiki bar tucked away above Filipe's Cantina on Decatur, just inside the FQ. I'd been in a couple times before, but this stop solidified it as a favorite for me. In addition to the boozy gummies and excellent tropical punch, we decided to order Emily the weirdest thing on the menu since she was in the restroom at the time. We got her "A Huevo," which they make by soaking eggs in a lime-juice and alcohol for weeks until the shells dissolve and the acid partially cooks the egg. Then they blend, strain, and season the mix with more hooch, topping it off with a "Jambu flower" from the Peruvian rainforest. If you eat the flower (my sister and I split it), your saliva glands explode into overdrive, and your tongue and mouth pulsate with an electric tingling. Pair this with a cool, tropical beverage, and the combined effect is a real zinger. Not for the faint of heart, but I loved it!
After that adventure, and with a Hemingway Daiquiri to go, we made our way a couple streets up to Mr. B's Bistro so that Em and Bianca could try the BBQ shrimp we're always talking about. [Note: they generously provide the recipe on their website, and I've successfully executed it several times now to rave reviews; BUT... you just can't get that great French bread to go with it here in Tampa- M]
Unlike the oysters, the BBQ shrimp delivered. Soaking up that amazing sauce with that perfect NOLA French bread made all right with the world again.
After that, there was walking, drinking, walking, dancing, drinking, etc. But this is just a food blog, after all, so we'll leave it at that for day 1.
For our second day, we pulled out all the stops. We grabbed coffees at the Community Coffee house down the street, but skipped breakfast to be sure we could make the most of our 12-o'clock reservations at Commander's Palace.
What a lunch it was. We each got three or four wonderful courses, and we shared bites of everything. I really liked both the turtle soup (although you'd better be a fan of sherry!) and the soup d'jour, which featured artichokes and oysters (oops!) in a light cream bisque. The crawfish beignets were yummy, as was the seafood gumbo (but the chicken-andouille gumbo is better when they have it). I don't remember all the details of our mains (perhaps because of the 25-cent martinis?), but my open-face pork po'boy with crispy onion rings on top made me plenty happy. All three desserts we tried were great too; the caramel cheesecake being my personal favorite.
I really like going to Commander's for lunch. Where else can four people get stuffed on James Beard-winning cuisine (plus have a total of nine martinis) and get out for <$200? (with tip!)
After Commander's, we rolled up-town to The Columns' famous hotel bar (along with about half the other guests it seemed). This is a fantastic spot next to the St. Charles street car line. It was a little hot to be hanging out in our dress clothes on the porch, but we made the sacrifice for tradition's sake. The refreshing cocktails helped quite a bit.
After another round of porch drinking at home (changed back into our short-pants, obviously), we found our way back to the CBD for dinner at Balise. This was the first stop this trip that was new to me, but I had a good feeling about it, having enjoyed Chef Justin Devillier's other restaurant (La Petite Grocery) on several occasions. My instincts were correct; this was the meal of the trip.
The three dishes pictured above comprised our first course, along with a tuna tartare. All four were truly beautiful (and not just to look at). The flavors were so balanced, with every component playing an important part in creating a harmonious experience. We disagreed on how to rank them, but all of us agreed that even the "worst" in our individual rankings was still objectively stunning. Meanwhile, I had a couple of thoughtfully crafted cocktails (which I'd love to describe to you, but can't), then switched to wine. The bar program here is one of my new favorites-- along with a bunch of interesting cocktail choices, they have great selections in seemingly every category (by the bottle and glass, when it comes to wine). I picked out a Cotes du Rhone for myself, a lighter Italian red for Em, and and a sparkling rose' for Bianca.
For our second course we chose three warm dishes: veal sweetbreads, roasted pork belly, and the baked rigatoni. All three were superb, but the baked rigatoni, as unassuming as it sounds, was the real revelation (it's made with a beef-cheek ragout & fontina fontal).
For our last course, we shared the hanger steak dish (pictured above), along with the "chicken-fried" Drum on summer succotash, with confit potatoes & dill buttermilk. Both were wonderful, with my nod going to the Drum as the best dish of the night.
"Anyone want dessert?" she said an hour later while we were all laying around rubbing our protruding bellies. Well, maybe just a couple more cocktails, I thought; "Sure," I said.
At Oxalis, one of my favorite Bywater neighborhood spots, the cocktails are just as much fun, but they're a lot cheaper than down in the FQ or CBD. I got a "Buck": a (strong!) bourbon with house-made ginger beer, followed by a "rattlesnake" (a cocktail made with Rye and shaken with egg white, which I first tried at this very establishment several years ago). Meanwhile, Mel ordered the rum-buttered cajun spiced popcorn, which sounds like a crime against humanity, but is incredibly good (and addictive) in reality, followed by the Brewer's Creme Brulee, which is made with three kinds of brewing malts/grains.
Needless to say, we had to head to Frenchmen St. next to dance all this off.
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