New Orleans 2008

What a weekend! Great food, too much alcohol, and lots of laughs with old friends. The St. Joseph’s Parade was a blast…family-oriented and fun. I brought home about 15 pounds of beads. The last time I was kissed by that many Italian men was my wedding.

And now…the food:

We arrived very late on a Thursday night. All the restaurants close at 10 pm, so we headed to the HQ bar on Chartres & Iberville, the Jimani. This is a Chicago neighborhood tavern in the Quarter. The owner is from Chicago, and it’s like being home.

They have great bar food so we split a 1/2 pound cheeseburger and drank a lot of Abita Ambers. By 1 am, the kamikaze shots started flowing and we crawled back to the hotel around 3 am.

Lunch on Friday was at Cochon, Donald Link’s Cajun pork palace. They raise, slaughter and cure their own pork products.

We sat at the bar in front of the open kitchen and I had to constantly remind myself that I was on VACATION!

The amuse was fried rabbit livers with a sweet pepper jelly. Sounds gross, but incredibly delicious. Hey, if it’s breaded and fried, I’ll try it!

We ordered the boucherie plate, which had thinly sliced tasso (think Cajun proscuitto), pork liver sausage, bologna, pork pate and head cheese, along with house-made stone-ground mustard, pickled green creole tomatoes, and an assortment of pickled veggies. Aside from the head cheese, it was great. Jay and I figured, with everything else on the plate so delicious, we’d try the head cheese. Definitely not to our taste. The flavor was fine, but the texture was too weird for us.

We also ordered pork cheeks, which were served on a lima bean/cornbread cake with mustard cream. The cheeks were great, and the cake would have been perfect if it weren’t for the lima beans.

Chef Steve Strajewski (Link’s partner) came to our table and we talked for about 20 minutes. Great guy, good service….all-around wonderful lunch.

Around 5 pm, we were getting hungry and our dinner reservations weren’t until 8:30 pm, so we stopped at Acme for a dozen oysters and an order of boo fries. The oysters were delicious…immaculately fresh, needing just a squeeze of lemon and a dash of Tabasco.

Boo fries are their version of Montreal’s poutine….french fries smothered in beef gravy and cheese. Oh my! You need an angioplasty when you’re done eating them.

That night was Restaurant August. The restaurant is decorated in men’s club dark wood with multiple rooms on two floors, each seating about 30.

The amuse was seafood sabayon topped with caviar served in an eggshell. It was very delicious, but I would have run the sabayon thru a chinois to avoid the inevitable lumps. Fresh-baked sourdough baguettes were served with sweet butter.

For the cold appetizer, we ordered foie gras three ways: 1. a breaded and fried foie “fritter” about the size of a golf ball. When you cut into it, you get a small chunk of foie with the melted foie fat and all that crispy goodness.
2. A terrine of foie pate layered with ground calve’s tongue. Sounds gross, but was delicious.
3. Foie “sponge cake” was a terrine with thin layers of foie pate alternating with layers of savory sponge cake. Imagine a savory dobosh torte.

We ordered two hot appetizers:
1. Potato gnocchi with blue crabmeat in a parmesan/truffle sauce, topped with shaved Perigord truffles and parmesano reggiano. The gnocchi were light as air and the bits of lump crab were perfectly matched with the sauce.
2. Shrimp bisque. Jay’s not much of a shrimp fan, so I was surprised when he ordered this. Creamy, fresh, truly a perfect bisque.

I ordered the Chicken and dumplings….dumplings made of fresh ricotta cheese that melt in your mouth. The chicken breast was perfectly prepared and tasted like chicken.

Jay ordered the sweet and spicy duckling, a half-duck served with a slice of seared foie gras. Just wonderful.

Dessert was banana rum cake with white chocolate shavings. I managed to sneak in a few forkfuls as my dear hubby inhaled it.

As we left, I wondered how Commander’s was gonna top this!

We were so stuffed, we went back to the hotel and pretty much passed out.

The next day, we opted for Johnny’s instead of NOLA, as I was craving a crawfish po’boy. Jay ordered their muffaletta hot…imagine a muffaletta panini. The crawfish po-boy was huge and delicious and both sandwiches would carry us through the parade and our 9 pm reservations at Commander’s.

Over the years, I’ve been to Commander’s Palace four times…under three chefs (Emeril Lagasse, Jamie Shannon and Tory McPhail) Each time, I enjoyed the best meals of my life. This time was no different.

Commander’s had been gutted and renovated after Katrina, and I was curious to see the changes. There really weren’t any! The renovation was beautiful. It was the same old Commander’s…Creole elegance, and the best restaurant service I have ever experienced.

I had not had any shrimp (except for a taste of Jay’s bisque) on this trip, so I started with the shrimp and tasso henican. Three luscious pan-seared shrimp wrapped in crispy tasso, served with a sweet Crystal Hot Sauce buerre blanc.

Jay ordered his usual turtle soup with sherry and I managed to steal a couple spoonfuls.

At this point, we both really needed a cigarette, so our server pointed us to the back stairs, thru the kitchen, and out to the courtyard. I was mesmerized by the calmness of the kitchen and efficiency of the cooks. Again, I had to remind myself that I was on vacation! I spied the chef’s table in the kitchen (minimum 4 guests) and informed Jay that we’re gonna drag friends with us next March so we can sit at that table.

Back upstairs, our entrees arrived. Sticking with the shrimp, I had ordered Chef Tory’s take on BBQ Shrimp…served with piquillo, poblano and sweet red bell peppers and garlic, on a bed of garlic grits. I don’t like grits…never have. But, these grits were magnificent.

Jay ordered quail with crawfish in a bourbon-chicory coffee reduction. The plump crawfish tails were a perfect counterpoint to the quail and the sauce brought the whole dish together.

Finally, it was bread pudding souffle with whiskey sauce, Commander’s signature dessert. No sharing this time….we each ordered one. The perfect end to the perfect meal.

Commander’s outdid Restaurant August. How? Service. August’s service was fine…efficient, elegant, well-timed. But at Commander’s, you’re treated as well-respected long-lost friends. There’s a friendliness to the entire staff, both front- and back-of-house, that I’ve never experienced anywhere. The wait staff is non-intrusive yet anticipates your every need.

We cabbed back to the Jimani, grinning like fools, and started recruiting buddies for the kitchen table next year. Many kamikaze shots later and it was back to the hotel to sleep it all off.

On Sunday, we stopped at the Sheraton Starbucks for our lattes and headed around the corner to the Jimani for the finale….a crawfish boil. Jimmy hires a caterer who has a pick-up and trailer, complete with cooler and boil set-up. They cook on the street and bring in the goodies. The buffet had pounds and pounds of crawfish, artichokes, corn, potatoes and andouille sausage. Four buffet trips and 5 Abita Ambers later and it was time to head to the airport.

What a trip!

If you haven’t been to New Orleans, go! If you have, go back!

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