Archive for the ‘Travelling’ Category

A Quick Trip to NYC

I hadn’t been to New York since January, 2002. My husband needed to attend  a week-long CIO (Chief Information Officer) conference there in September, and he offered to fly me in for a four-day weekend to celebrate our seventh wedding anniversary.

We stayed in Midtown at Flatotel, a nice boutique property with large (for NYC)  comfortable rooms.  The location was ideal…just blocks from Central Park, Rockefeller Center, Carnegie Hall and MOMA.

New York is among my favorite food cities (along with Chicago, New Orleans, San Francisco and  Las Vegas. My only complaint when visiting these cities is, “So many restaurants, so little time!” Like any chef (or foodie, for that matter), planning was key. I began my research a couple months before the trip and narrowed down my restaurant choices from hundreds to less than fifty.

The only disappointment was being unable to get reservations at Mario Batali’s Babbo on any of the nights we were there. But, we managed to have enjoyable meals and snacks over the four-day sojourn.

We covered a lot of ethnic dining territory on this trip…..Greek, Spanish, Chinese, Jamaican, Jewish and of course, Italian.

New York’s street food is legendary…cheap, high-quality, and quick. Alas, wearing Invisalign braces put the kibosh on the street food for me, with the exception of a Jamaican street cart around the corner from our hotel. Called the Jamaican Dutchy, it served rice and peas, Ting and meat patties, with akee and saltfish for breakfast. The meat patty was average, but it brought back great memories of our various trips to Jamaica.

Any trip to New York means two essential stops: Katz’s Deli and John’s Pizza. Katz’s is frozen in time, no different from my first experience there in 1982, and subsequent trips in the 1990s and 2000. The corned beef on rye with brown mustard was everything a corned beef sandwich should be…..somewhat fatty, rich with flavor, served with garlic pickles and attitude.

We walked off lunch by strolling through Little Italy, where vendors were setting up the food booths along Mulberry Street for the annual Feast of San Gennaro. Again, those damn Invisalign braces thwarted any attempt at sampling the street food. Jay, however,  found a booth selling deep-fried Twinkies.  He had always wanted to try one, and he did. It was simply a Twinkie on a stick, dipped into pancake batter and deep-fried. He enjoyed it but won’t repeat the experience. I tried not to gag.

John’s, with locations in the Village, Times Square and the Upper East Side, is my favorite NYC pizza haunt. This time  we visited the Upper East Side location after walking across the width of Central Park on a cool, sunny Saturday afternoon. We were delayed crossing Fifth Avenue for almost 45 minutes by a German-American parade. But we managed to get to John’s for a mid-afternoon proscuitto pizza and a couple beers. Crisp crust from the wood-burning brick oven and the perfect balance of cheese, sauce and proscuitto. My idea of NY pizza heaven.

Spanish was tapas and paella at Sangria 46 near Times Square. A charming restaurant with a lovely back patio decorated in bright colors. The staff was efficient and friendly. The paella was good, not great, but the mussels in the paella were outstanding.

Greek was Avra Estiatorio on East 48th Street. It was a last-minute selection for the one night we hadn’t made dinner reservations. The food was fine, but having been spoiled by all the great Greek restaurants in Chicago, I was not very impressed. We started with fried calamari served with  tzasiki, and an order of grilled sardines, followed by black sea bass and grilled lamb chops. For dessert, a respectable baklava and a bowl of sweetened Greek yogurt. Again, everything was cooked properly and delicious, but certainly not outstanding or memorable.

There was a trip down to Chinatown for dim sum. Dim Sum Go Go on East Broadway was highly rated, so we ventured downtown on the subway, only to get lost by my confusing Broadway with East Broadway. A mile-long hike later, we found the small place, waited 10 minutes for a table, walked upstairs to our tiny table and started ordering. With no cart service, everything comes piping hot from the kitchen when it’s ready. The dim sum was very good…fresh, hot, well-prepared. It didn’t rise to the level of Yank Sing, my favorite dim sum house in San Francisco, but it certainly hit the spot. Afterwards, we wandered around and stopped at a Chinese bakery for winter melon cakes.

The highlight of the trip was dinner at Convivio, a southern Italian restaurant with a kitchen run by Chef Michael White. The dining room was gorgeous and the service excellent. Our starters were cannelini beans with fatback in a tomato broth, and a caprese salad with fresh mozzarella made on premised, micr-basil and heirloom tomatoes. Both were light but loaded with flavor.

We split a bowl of mind-blowing pasta…a fusilli with carravaccio fonduta poured over the top. Rich and unctous, with the fusilli done perfectly al dente and the fonduta as smooth as silk.

My entree was a mixed grill of sweet fennel sausage (house-made), pork belly, roasted zucchini and heirloom tomatoes. I’ve learned through the years to not only appreciate, but also enjoy fatty meats, and pork belly is one of the most flavorful and texturally pleasing of the bunch. The outside was crisy and caramlized while the inside was full of flavor.

Jay enjoyed the braised shortribs in tomato ragu with broccolini. The meat was full of flavor and fall-off-the-bone tender.

Desserts were memorable. I enjoyed a Sicilian chocolate and ricotta layer cake while Jay had the mascarpone with figs, paied with a cordial called Amaro.

We were hoping for a Nathan’s hot dog at LaGuardia, but apparently they closed down the hot dog stand there. Not a great loss, as Chicago is one of the great hot dog cities of the world.

The Joy of Farmers’ Markets

My favorite morning activity in summer is shopping the local farmers’ markets. The Park Ridge market is the one I visit most often as it’s just a couple miles from my home. Most of the participating farmers are from Michigan, although there are a couple from southern Illinois.

There’s nothing like the flavor of fruits and vegetables picked just hours earlier. Right now, strawberries and asparagus are in season and taste fabulous. I am anxiously awaiting Michigan peaches, which should be out within a month or so. Blackberries, raspberries, cherries and apricots are due soon as well. And then there’s the heirloom tomatoes as the summer wears on.

Lest you think it’s all about produce….there’s also a cheese vendor, a flower farmer, a couple bakeries, a garden nursery, the mushroom guy and a salsa guy at the Park Ridge market.

My first experience with farmers’ markets began during college in Madison, Wisconsin, home of one of the largest farmers’ markets in the country. The entire Capitol Square is lined with booths featuring Wisconsin farmers and other purveyors. In Madison, there are a number of organic meat purveyors featuring beef, pork, lamb, poultry, bison, ostrich, venison, and products such as sausages, jerkies and other cured meats.

The artisan cheesemakers are there, along with bakeries, honey vendors, and produce farmers.

As luck would have it, while visiting my in-laws during Passover, the Market opened for the first time this season. Although the pickings were slim after a brutal winter, I was able to find spring garlic and ramps, also known as wild leeks. Ramps are the latest trendy ingredient during spring, and when sauteed in a bit of butter, have an oniony/garlicky flavor that is unmatched by any other combination of plants from the onion or garlic family. Ramps are particularly difficult to find in the Midwest, as the season is very short, and the few farmers who grow them sell their harvest to the top restaurants.

A Non-Fish Lover’s Take on L2O

Last Friday night, I joined a couple foodie/chef friends for dinner at L2O, Laurent Gras’ new fish-centric restaurant in the Belden-Stratford, occupying the old Ambria space.

I’ll admit, right up front, that I don’t like fin fish. Never have. I enjoy most types of shellfish, but never cared for fish with fins and gills. Maybe it was the Friday night Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks I endured during my childhood. Or, too many field trips to the Shedd Aquarium during grade school. My husband introduced me to sushi and sashimi a number of years ago to no avail. He now enjoys sushi with his buddies.

I decided that if I’m ever going to develop a taste for fish, dining at L2O might very well do the trick.

The restaurant had opened on Wednesday and was about half-full when we arrived for our 7:30 reservation. Sitting at the next table was Ina Pinckney, Chicago’s breakfast queen. Restaurateur Rich Melman was there most of the evening, observing his latest venture.

The main dining room is elegant and comfortable, with clean lines, muted colors and architectural flourishes reminiscent of Japanese restaurants. There’s no hint that Ambria ever occupied the space.

After much negotiation, all three of us decided to order the 12-course tasting menu. We each ordered one of their signature cocktails, the Mediterranean Breeze. It was a delicious, refreshing slightly sweet, slightly tart vodka-based cocktail that reminded me of adult lemonade.

I won’t go in to a course-by-course description, because there were just too many. Counting amuses, listed savory and sweet courses, bread service and the chef’s whims, I think we ended up at 16 or 17 courses…most just a bite or two.

I enjoy tasting menus because I can try a variety of items I would not necessarily order, and if I don’t like a particular dish, it doesn’t ruin my evening.

I now know that although I still don’t like fish, I can tolerate mild raw fish. But, even after course after course of this wonderfully prepared meal, I just don’t like the flavor or texture of cooked fish. Salmon, tuna, halibut, fluke…it doesn’t matter. And, I cannot tolerate caviar, no matter what type.

The highlights for me were non-fish related. The above-mentioned Mediterranean Breeze cocktail…a thin slice of foie gras…braised pork belly…praline souffle.

Molecular gastronomy isn’t exactly lost on me, but foams and fizzes and vapors just don’t excite me. Scientifically fascinating, but not soul-satisfying the way I believe food should be. The presentation of each course was inventive, but for me, the “wow” factor ended there, with the exception of the highlights I already listed.

The service was excellent…professional, friendly, knowledgeable, well-paced and not stuffy. After dinner, our server gave a us a short tour of the architectural highlights, and a glimpse into the large kitchen. As we left, she handed each of us an autographed menu presented in a wax-sealed envelope.

Would I return to L2O? No. Would I recommend it to others? Yes, on a qualified basis. This is event dining. If you truly love all things that swim, have an appreciation (or tolerance) for molecular gastronomy, and like to dine at the trendiest restaurants in town, go. Expect to pay a lot of money, but you’ll be treated like a VIP and will certainly have a unique dining experience.

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!

Las Vegas 2008

Enoteca San Marco (Saturday Night): Owned by Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich, it’s a casual place in the Venetian. Those who have been to Italy would appreciate the high quality of ingredients and the style of eating. B&B, their ristorante, was booked solid, so this was our second Batali choice.

Jay and I decided to graze….and it was a great decision. We started with our first of two bottles of “Joe’s Rosso,” a blend of reds from Friuli that Bastianish had created, which worked very well with the assortment of antipasti we enjoyed. The wine list was extensive and expensive, focused on regional Italian and Italian-style American wines. But, they also had reasonably priced wine by the glass or quartino.

First, a salumi selection….bresaola, dried salami and pancetta. Bresaola is a type of dry-cured beef, sliced very thin. Absolutely delicious. The salami was a product from Batali’s father’s salumi deli in Seattle. The best we’ve ever eaten. The pancetta was, well, Italian cured (not smoked) bacon. I use it a lot for cooking, but eaten raw, sliced paper thin, was a wonderful porky experience.

Next were the cheese selections. First, our server arrived with the condiments: brandied sweet cherries in sauce, apricot mostardo (dried apricots rehydrated in white wine and seasoned with mustard seeds and chile flakes) and black truffle honey (transcendent!!!) Jay wanted Parmesano Reggiano. It was even better than the pricey imported stuff I get here in Chicago. We also got tallegio and a soft cheese whose name escapes me, but was better than some of the best brie I’ve had. The flavor combinations were outstanding.

Then, three fried antipasti selections: golf ball-sized arancini were delicious. The proscuitto balls were the same size and truly wonderful. Some how, some way, I MUST get that recipe. Finally, a couple fresh mozzarella and anchovy sandwiches. If you love anchovies (I don’t, but hubby does), this is a grilled cheese sandwich you’ll fantasize about for months.

The table next to us had ordered a couple pizzas, and they looked so good, we just had to try the Pizza Margherita. Approximately 10″ in diameter, super thin crust, fresh-tasting tomato sauce, topped with fresh buffalo mozzarella and fresh basil leaves. Had we not had so much antipasti, we could have eaten two or three of these each.

Dessert was a roasted banana-topped scoop of banana gelato with a rich dark chocolate sauce and a couple Illy espressos.

It was an expensive dinner but with the high quality of food and service, not to mention the two bottles of wonderful wine, it was worth every penny. The restaurant was quite comfortable and the service was quite good.

Sunday night was Table 10, Emeril’s new restaurant in the Palazzo, a new hotel/casino next door to the Venetian. First, the Palazzo is gorgeous, on par with Bellagio. The restaurant was beautiful and comfortable.

Having eaten at a number of his restaurants, we were looking forward to a wonderful experience and we were not disappointed. For a restaurant open only 2 weeks, it seems ALL the kinks had been worked out. Our server was a delight (a NOLA native) who knew the menu inside-and-out.

Jay wanted champagne, so he selected one from a small producer in France. 2002 Pierre Gimmonet Gastronome. Fruity, yet dry with a wonderful fizz and finish.

I started with a simple salad of cornmeal-fried oysters (prepared perfectly, plump, juicy on the inside and nicely crunchy on the outside), arugula, shaved white cheddar cheese and a roasted tomato vinaigrette. Jay had the roasted tomato bisque, which was perfectly prepared. Both were accompanied by fresh, delicate, delicious biscuits with a sweet whipped butter.

Jay was feeling beefy, so he had the NY strip, done rare in a wonderful wine reduction. The flavor was amazing and the steak prepared perfectly.

I had the Kurabuta roasted pork loin in a Calvados reduction. It was truly the best pork I ever had. It reminded me of the pork of my childhood…..tender, juicy, flavorful. It was so rich, I simply couldn’t finish it. I had also ordered a half-bottle of Storybook Old Vine Zinfandel, which was perfect with the pork….enough acid to cut through the fat, while enhancing the pork flavor.

We split a side of lobster macaroni and cheese. Wow! One bite and I was swooning. Not too much cheese (a lovely gruyere), pasta cooked perfectly, chunks of perfectly steamed lobster meat, and just enough breadcrumbs and butter on top for a perfect gratin finish.

By dessert time, we were a bit tipsy due to the wine, and giggly due to the tremendous food. So, we split chocolate bread pudding served with vanilla bean gelato with a dark chocolate sauce. Had we not eaten so much, I would have had another.

Pricy? Yes! Worth it? Indeed. Perfect service (friendly, anticipatory, well-timed), incredible ingredients very well-prepared. Portions were large, but not overly so, like Emeril’s other restaurants. The menu is about 75% classic American with a twist, and 25% typical Emeril New Orleans cuisine. We’d go back there in a heartbeat.

Finally, Monday night was Bouchon, Thomas Keller’s French bistro in the Venetian. We thought we had saved the best for last. They had called us a few days earlier to confirm our reservation, so we thought we were all set.

It was, unfortunately, an incredible disappointment. We arrived at 6:55 for 7:15 reservations and had a drink at the bar while we waited…and waited. When we arrived, the restaurant was half-full, with plenty of two-tops available. At 7:30, Jay inquired about our reservation, after seeing 6 different couples who arrived after us, being seated at two-tops. We were finally seated at 7:55.

Our server was young, enthusiastic and inexperienced. It took 20 minutes for him to come to our table to ask for our drink order. While we sat, awaiting water, bread, our server, or some acknowledgment that we existed, we watched bus boys running into each other, dropping service items, servers arguing about whose table belongs to whom, and in general, a chaotic scene we would never expect from Thomas Keller.

We finally placed our orders…splitting a 1/2 dozen Dabob, WA oysters. Then, onion soup for each of us. Jay ordered the steak frites medium rare, and I ordered the roast chicken.

Our onion soup arrived first (!), followed by the oysters 3 minutes later. Our server stopped by and apologized for the mix-up, blaming the kitchen. We had been so hungry that we had already started the soup, so we just let it go. He told us he would slow down the entree order. Frankly, my onion soup is better.

The oysters were okay, served with three condiments….freshly grated horseradish, a pedestrian cocktail sauce, and red wine vinegar.

As we slurped the last of the oysters, our entrees appeared. Jay’s steak, ordered medium-rare, was quite rare, and tough. The steak at Table 10 the night before, was better quality and much better prepared. The frites were tasty but heavily salted…even for me.

My roasted chicken was the only highlight of the evening. Perfectly cooked, atop a celery root black truffle tartlet.

At the next table, a woman had ordered the foie gras (at $48 per order, we passed on it). It was served in a 4-ounce jar with a few slices of toast. She asked the server if she could take the rest home, and he launched into a 10-minute dissertation on how he’d be happy to package it in the 4-ounce jar, which would cost another $35, or in styrofoam. Mind you, this was a $1.99 Container Store jar (I have a number of them at home).

At this point, we decided to pass on dessert and asked for the check. Our server, who was oblivious to our apparent disappointment, then started in on how they still have a few cookbooks, signed by Keller, available for $50 each. We passed.

Fifteen minutes later, he brought the check, which I picked up (I was buying). As I was examining the check, he told Jay to look it over carefully because they kept getting screwed up. I looked up at him, told him it was fine, and handed him my credit card. Ten minutes later, he returned and gave the check and my credit card to Jay. I grabbed it and the server said, “Oops, I’m from Ohio where we always give the check to the man at the table.”

At this point, I figured that this was a brand new restaurant and they were still working out the kinks. I asked the server how long the place had been open, and he said he should know for sure, but he thinks it opened in 2004!

By the time we left, the place was packed, the bus boys were still running into each other, dropping service items, and in general, maintaining the chaos of the evening.

It was our least expensive of the three dinners (Jay drank beer and I had just 1 glass of wine), but we felt ripped off. Both front and back-of-the-house need a lot of work. The floor manager seemed to be oblivious to the chaos and all the missteps as he regularly circled the dining room. The expediter in the kitchen needed training. The wait staff seemed clueless. Jay thinks it is a tourist trap. I’m debating sending a letter to Chef Keller.

Two out of three ain’t bad……and those first two meals were so delicious and so memorable, they far overshadowed the bad experience at Bouchon.

New Orleans 2003

New Orleans is a foodie’s paradise. Jay and I spent six days eating and drinking all that the Big Easy had to offer. Thanks to some great restaurant recommendations from my cousin Anthony and pal Don, we never had a bad meal. We never even had a mediocre meal!

Here are some restaurant reviews and recollections of our trip. We suggest you check out some of these places the next time you’re in New Orleans.

Remoulade (Arnaud’s Grill), Bourbon Street

This was our first lunch. Jay had a Shrimp Po’ Boy, which he gave a rating of 5 (1 to 10, 10 being orgasmic). I had the Crawfish Pie. Understand that there are few things I enjoy more than crawfish. But, we arrived at the tail end of crawfish season (and the beginning of crab season, another favorite). The crawfish pie was wonderful, chased by Abita Amber beer.

A note about Abita, the local brewery: Avoid Abita Lager at all costs. The stuff is swill. On the other hand, Abita Amber and Abita Turbo Dog are both delicious, especially with spicy food. But, like many local brews (Jamaica’s Red Stripe comes to mind), it is best consumed in its city of origin. Beer from tropical climes does not travel well.

Felix Oyster House, 210 Bourbon Street

Across the street from the better known Acme Oyster House is this casual little gem. Outstanding Turtle Soup and wonderful Crawfish Etoufee. Jay ate both the Oysters Bienville (8 out of 10) and Oysters Rockefeller (4 out of 10). Neither of us care for raw oysters, but reports are that they’re terrific. This dinner was accompanied by Abita Amber, which quickly became our brew of choice for the rest of our stay.

Petunia’s, 817 St. Louis (French Quarter)

This charming, gay-owned and run little restaurant is in an old home, and makes incredible breakfasts. My French toast was a huge portion made with French bread, with a wonderful hint of vanilla in the batter. Jay enjoyed one of Petunia’s specials, Maw Maw’s Cajun Breakfast. Scrambled eggs, rice, shrimp, ham, corn, carrots and mild Cajun seasoning. It was similar to a hash. Luckily, we ate early in the day (10 am is VERY early in New Orleans!) so as not to ruin our appetites for…

Commander’s Palace, (Garden District)

Background: On my first trip to New Orleans in September, 1992, a dear friend took me to Commander’s Palace, where I had the best meal of my life. It has long been known as one of the top restaurants in the world, and some great names in cooking have worked there (Paul Prudomme, Emeril Lagasse, Jamie Shannon). For years, I told Jay that we MUST go to Commander’s, because he’d be astounded by the meal. We made reservations a few weeks before we left Chicago to ensure we’d get in.

After a cursory look at the regular menu, we decided on Chef Tory’s Tasting Menu with matched wines. This was a seven-course extravaganza, with each course accompanied by a half-glass of wine, specifically chosen to complement the food.

The Menu

Breakfast of Champions: Caviar fresh from the Tennessee River valley served with three whole wheat mini-pancakes, creme fraiche, cured salmon, sunny-side-up quail egg and duck ham. Served with Verget, Chardonnay, Burgundy

Jumbo Lump Crab Risotto: Superfino risotto scented with forest mushrooms, shallots and Chardonnay. Served with Hartford, Sonoma Coast, Chardonnay

Green Fig and Foie Gras Profiteroles: Sweet Louisiana figs stuffed with foie gras-Armagnac mousse — garnished with mayhew preserve, port wine reduction, black pepper brioche and roasted pecans. Served with Chambers, Muscadelle, Australia

Butter Braised Lafourche Redfish: With a butter poached oyster and Paddlefish caviar, over a ragout of duck pastrami, artichokes, tomato concasse, peppered arugula and summer asparagus veloute. Served with C.P. Cuvee by Iron Horse

Griswold Seared Muscovy Duck Breast: with a jalapeno and seventeen orchard-honey spoonbread — finished with a Ruston peach-tarragon confit. Served with Bryon, Pinot Noir

Cheese Plate: Assorted imported cheeses with roasted pecans and artisan breads. Served with Chateau Bernadotte, Haut-Medoc

Chocolate Pot de Creme: With naval orange gelee and crisp cookie spoon. Served with Hop Kiln, Late Harvest Zinfandel.

The service was excellent….well-informed, attentive, friendly, but not overbearing. The food was, well, magnificient. Creative pairings, amazing flavors and gorgeous presentations. We both ate things that night that we’d never think to order, as well as things we normally don’t like (for instance, I do not like fish…at all. The Redfish was delicious).

While each course was wonderful and memorable, what stood out most, in retrospect, were the figs stuffed with foie gras mousse. We had never eaten foie gras and were amazed by the flavor. Our head waiter called it “meat ice cream.”

When the final dessert course was served, they had only one Chocolate Pot de Creme left, so they supplemented it with a sour cream cheesecake and bread pudding with whiskey sauce. Oh my.

The meal lasted more than three hours. By the third course, we realized that we shouldn’t eat all of each offering, but every bite was so incredible that we couldn’t resist. Neither of us had ever eaten such a variety of great food in one meal. We ate until we were literally in pain. Truly a joyous experience.

Pascal’s Manale (Garden District)

I had dinner here with a friend in 1992. Their barbeque shrimp was legendary at that time and I was looking forward to having it again. As a matter of fact, my own recipe for barbeque shrimp is based on those memories. Jay and I rode the St. Charles Streetcar to the other side of the Garden District and walked a couple blocks to Pascal’s for lunch. Unfortunately, it was the day after our experience at Commander’s Palace, so our taste buds (and bellies) were somewhat exhausted. We ordered the Combo Remoulade (boiled crab meat and shrimp in a tangy combination of remoulade and cocktail sauce), which was a wonderfully refreshing appetizer. Then, on to the barbeque shrimp. It’s served with heads and shells on (for those of you who get squeamish), in a spicy butter sauce. The spicy sauce wasn’t nearly as spicy as I remembered it (and not even close to the heat level in my recipe), but the shrimp were quite fresh and tasty. Dessert was pecan pie, which wasn’t bad.

The Bulldog (Magazine Street)

We left Pascal’s and started walking through the Garden District when the skies opened up and let loose with a deluge of rain. We scurried into a little neighborhood bar called The Bulldog and were surprised by the incredible selection of brews. They had more than 50 beers on tap, and another 200 (both domestic and international) by the bottle. We watched the ballgame and had a few pints waiting for the rain to let up.

We then walked Magazine Street, full of antique and other funky shops, the Garden District with its gorgeous mansions, and the Warehouse District before heading back to the Maison Dupuy.

Acme Oyster House, 724 Iberville (French Quarter)

Yes, this is the famous oyster house of New Orleans. There’s a web cam there, focused on the actual oyster bar, manned by the most experienced and talented shuckers to ever open shellfish. Quite frankly, the place is a dive, but that’s part of its attraction. It’s busy and noisy…a classic Bourbon Street experience.

I ordered the Hot Sausage Po’ Boy and Jambalaya combo. And what a combo it was. The hot sausage was an andouille patty on a French roll, fully dressed (mayo, lettuce and tomato) and bite for bite, one of the tastiest sandwiches I’ve ever eaten. The jambalaya was very good….full of andouille sausage, bits of chicken and shrimp in a spicy rice.

Jay ordered the Peacemaker Po’ Boy and Red Beans and Rice Combo. The po’ boy was loaded with fried oysters and shrimp, and the red and rice was some of the best he’s ever tasted. All was washed down with large amounts of Abita Amber.

Acme is worth the inevitable wait in line, but if you’re very hungry and can’t wait, go across the street to Felix. The food is good, but it lacks the atmosphere of Acme.

Port’O’Call, 838 Esplanade (French Quarter)

Another neighborhood dive bar with a great jukebox and some of the tastiest, juiciest hamburgers anywhere. There’s almost always a wait for a table, but you can belly up to the bar and be served one of those great burgers for lunch. The burgers are served with baked potatoes….loaded with your choice of toppings. The menu is limited, but it doesn’t matter. The burgers are what people line up for. A great, fast, filling lunch.

NOLA, 534 St. Louis (French Quarter)

Jay and I had eaten at Emeril’s Fish House in Las Vegas and enjoyed it, so the other reservation we made while still in Chicago was at NOLA. This is Emeril Lagasse’s second restaurant and is more casual than Emeril’s and DelMonico’s. The atmosphere is somewhat noisy, the tables are very close together, and the service is excellent. The portions are massive, so consider sharing.

We shared the appetizer, a sweet potato fritter topped with Gulf shrimp and andouille sausage with pear confit. Truly delicious.

We each ordered a salad (the next time we’ll split one). I had the eggplant fritter over arugula, with portobello mushroom confit and some type of chutney. Jay ordered the fried oysters over arugula with Danish blue cheese and homemade bacon. Both were amazing.

The bread basket contained rosemary foccaccio, jalapeno corn bread, french bread and a sweet whole wheat bread with raisin and honey.

Jay’s entree was the smoked half duck on a bed of corn spoon bread, served with corn, haricot vert and a caramel glaze. Somehow, he was able to eat most of it.

I ordered the roasted filet mignon with french-fried shallot rings and Maytag blue cheese. It needed to go back, as I ordered it medium and it was quite rare. It returned to the table a perfect dark pink., which the chef considers medium-well. It was a great steak, but the star of the plate was the Maytag blue cheese.

Dessert was something to behold. We split it and couldn’t finish it….one of our disappointments as it was stupendous. A banana pudding cake with fresh vanilla wafers, a hot fudge drizzle, fresh whipped cream and fresh bananas. The cake was very light, almost like a sponge cake. Had we not eaten so much, we would have finished it and ordered another.

Deanie’s (Dauphine & Iberville) French Quarter

We had lunch here one afternoon and enjoyed it a lot. Instead of bread on the table, the serve boiled new potatoes with very spicy Cajun seasoning. Their Bucktown Boil pizza appetizer is a seafood “white” pizza with shrimp, crab, crawfish, garlic and cheese. Their crabmeat & corn bisque was creamy and delicious. I enjoyed the Blackened Shrimp & Crawfish etoufee. Not too spicy but very tasty.

Redfish Grill (Bourbon Street near Canal) French Quarter

Often voted the best seafood restaurant in New Orleans, this Brennan-owned restaurant did not disappoint. With it’s funky décor, it’s a loud and casual place where locals hang out. Their crabcakes with remoulade put mine to shame and the coconut shrimp on pineapple coulis was magnificent. Jay enjoyed the blackened redfish/BBQ oyster combo, served on a bed of cabbage with sweet potato shaving on top. Dessert was very rich…a double chocolate bread pudding which, try as we might, we couldn’t finish.

Coop’s, French Quarter

A great place for lunch near the French Market. Red beans and rice, fried chicken, cole slaw and fried shrimp were all delicious.