April 11, 2016 – April 18, 2016
Monday: Kale, sausage and Sweet Potato Stew – Braised Leeks with Tomatoes, Olives and Polenta
Tuesday: Rigatoni with Italian Sausage and Rapini Red Sauce
Wednesday: Pan-Roasted Salmon with Asparagus Stew
Thursday: Raw Oysters / Roasted Oysters / Green Beans and Radishes
Friday: New Orleans – AACR Dinner
Saturday: New Orleans – WW II Museum – Toup’s Meatery – Apps at Drago’s – Dinner at Sylvain
Sunday: New Orleans – St. Louis Cathedral (Jackson Square) – Brunch, Café Pontalba – Sazeracs, Hotel Monteleone – Receptions – Drinks at Cure
Monday: Lunch – Cochon; Dinner – Borgne
[Housekeeping: Jan Sloman, a college friend, master violinist, and one of the wittiest people on the planet, has sent along notes on some excellent meals he had while visiting his sons in L. A. You can read these by clicking on the restaurant tab and scrolling down to “L. A.” Oh – and you are welcome to send in your own notes and reviews from your travels or from your exploration of the ‘burgh.]
It began with the cabbies and Uber drivers. Larry counseled me about dealing with a spouse: “I have remained married for 44 years, Bill, because I chose to be happy rather than right.” Nick from New Jersey told us that his navigation system had recently ordered him to “pull over and turn off the engine,” reminding him of his wife. And Arlene the Queen, who gently scolded other drivers for going too fast, gave us a quick overview of Louisiana state politics and then hugged us at the airport before our flight. And I almost forgot the Rector of St. Louis Cathedral who admonished us, after Mass, to go out and have a drink on Deacon John (who had given the sermon and is scheduled to be ordained in May).
New Orleans is full of friendly, gregarious people, including the waiters and cooks, and the food and drink is as friendly and gregarious as the people.
What follows is a bit of travelogue and notes on a bunch of restaurants, the stand-out being the spectacularly and forthrightly named Toup’s Meatery. You can also read about the restaurants under the ‘New Orleans’ heading in the “Restaurants” tab. We had a surfeit of good eating at home as well, including roasted oysters anticipating their stellar counterparts at Drago’s in New Orleans, rigatoni with sausage and red rapini sauce and the comforting and savory sweet potato, kale and sausage stew. But I’m going to focus on the oysters and on the simple but memorable asparagus stew I discovered in an old “New Complete Techniques” tome by Jacques Pépin. These recipes follow the travelogue, just scroll down.
I love traveling and people watching and have been happy in – God help me – Beckley, WV and Coudersport, PA. So going to New Orleans was not a penalty. But I have never enjoyed New Orleans as much as other ‘great’ American cities– until this trip.
I can’t prove it, but I feel in my bones, that New Orleans has become a greater city since Katrina* – vastly improved general restaurant scene, friendlier people and a bit less run down and more clean. In any event, I like the place – it’s worth a visit – and the food scene is remarkable, from joints to destination restaurants.
*I would settle for a lesser city and no Katrina – but that ship has already sailed or, perhaps, sunk
The first revelation (shades of Patmos) was Drago’s fire-grilled oysters on the ground floor of the Hilton Riverside. Picture vast grills covered with oysters on the half-shell with flames flaring up and singing the oysters and the shells as ladles of garlic butter are poured over them by a raucous crew of gigantic and gregarious chefs (“How about a raw oyster on the house, Sir?”) whose interplay with the crowd at the bar and their fellow chefs is itself worth the price of admission. That would be Drago’s. The oysters are huge and sweet and the grilling and flame gives them a meatiness that is not to be missed. Not fancy – not expensive – just good – get your butt to Drago’s.
To back up a bit – on our first night in town for the AACR (American Association for Cancer Research) Conference at which Barbara hosted a reception and during which she held a board meeting (she was working – Billy and I were on vacation) we had an excellent dinner, along with 300 of our closest friends, at the Ritz-Carlton. It really was a fine dinner, and the choreography of the servers was something to behold but, as with all mass dinners with pre-set menus, the mystery and possibility of discovering something great or new was lacking. Like reading Time Magazine in its heyday versus an essay by George Orwell.
The next day, Saturday, Beez was free and after coffee and juice we all headed to the National WW II Museum, which is overwhelming, if you have any connection to that conflict (Beez’ father and my father both served during the war). The conditions those men and women faced (well, boys and girls for the most part) are easy and frightening to imagine in the well-thought-out exhibitions strung through an old warehouse and two recently built wings. The blunt outlines of the airplanes of that era seem particularly dated in comparison with the sleek, streamlined look of today.
Weary from all the walking and a bit shell-shocked by the exhibits, we chose, by serendipity, the most impressive of our NOLA restaurants, the wonderfully-named Toup’s Meatery. The name says it all and we were soon driving our cholesterol levels through the roof with buffalo prosciutto, cracklings, coppa, hog head-cheese, boudin, chicken liver mousse, candied pork belly, and various wonderful pickles and mustard. Just to make sure that we had reached the cholesterol red zone, Billy and I shared a Toup’s burger with pulled pork and bacon. Barbara wimped out and had a Caesar with grilled romaine.
It was later that day, after some restorative napping that we hit Drago’s (Billy’s discovery of the previous evening). From Drago’s, having restrained ourselves to 3or 4 oysters each, we headed to Sylvain’s in the French Quarter. With an ill-lit street window and nearly invisible entrance, Sylvain’s seemed “closed tonight” to our driver – but a little exploration corrected this misperception and we were soon sitting in a charming courtyard where, looking up at immense trees in surrounding courtyards, we realized that a lot of the beauty is not visible from the narrow streets of this fascinating, teeming, claustrophobic part of town. The food at Sylvain was good (Speckled Trout and Beef Cheeks), the service slow – but the place gets by on its charm, which is considerable. (And the waitress was pretty)
On Sunday we went to Mass at the rococo St. Louis Cathedral and afterwards hustled over to the Café Pontalba to secure a table. This nicked-up Cajun joint with waiters and waitresses who appear to be on recovery programs (and good for them), serves up eggs and wonderfully spiced sausages and has revived millions of New Orleans revelers (and saved the lives of quite a few, I don’t doubt) over the years. In any event, it put us back together after one too many martinis on Saturday, and sent us off, pulsing with energy, Barbara to her conference and Billy and I to our self-guided (and often quite misguided, backtracking) tour of the French Quarter. There are fascinating and beautiful buildings and houses here, more than a few of which date back over 2 centuries and street bands of remarkable quality, as well as ‘dead dog’ acts, magicians, red-necks reveling in the beauty of open-container drinking in the streets, and marvelous and bizarre shops of every sort, Chi-wa-wa Gaga – a large shop for dinky dogs, being my personal favorite. We also came across “Faulkner House Books” in the front of a luxurious town house. The shop contains a small but select collection, but make sure you go to the side room to look through the iron grill with the “Private” sign on it to see how magnificent a gracious home in the French Quarter can be.
Feeling a bit weak in the withers, at this juncture, Billy and repaired to the Hotel Moteleone for a restorative. We could not find a seat at the inner-ear upsetting carousel bar – yes, it revolves, though very slowly – and settled for a table. But “settled” is not the correct word for drinking one of the signature Sazerac’s that this place concocts. This version is much subtler than the pronounced bitter and alcohol forward version you get in most of the country – I suspect it’s the mellowing effect of the sugared absinthe, but Sazeracs are to drink, not to analyze.
Later, after a medically necessary nap, we headed out for a series of Cancer Center receptions and then met Billy for late drinks and snacks at a nifty bar, Cure, in the uptown district of the city. The bar is very handsome and the drinks are superb – martinis worth travelling for. And they make a pork terrine which is also worth diverting your trip for.
On Monday, Billy and I wandered through the Garden District – magnificent piles with gallery porches, enough wrought iron to furnish the armies that fought over Troy, and mysterious, alluring, half-visible courtyards and gardens – and then lunched at Cochon, one of New Orleans trendiest places. We had more grilled oysters, another meat plate – different than Toup’s and with a pork rillete I want to market nationwide and . . . wait for it . . . a bacon and oyster sandwich. I could feel the arteries coming to a full stop as I headed back to the hotel and Billy left for the airport.
Monday was a busy day for Barbara and we caught up at the reception she hosted before heading out for one final, good meal. Borgne is not John Besh’s signature restaurant – with 20,000 ravenous cancer researchers in town, getting a reservation at August would have required a personal relationship – but it is an excellent restaurant built around the fish that the head chef used to catch in the nearby Lake Borgne. We shared a platter of raw oysters – the best we had had so far, and Beez had a good crab and pork gumbo and I a finely-spiced and earthy ettoufé of crawfish and mustard greens with very light (think gnocchi) dumplings. A fitting and restrained farewell dinner to this friendly, loosely-moraled city.
No matter where y’at in this city – you will run into interesting people and food and you will never, ever be thirsty.
Grilled Oysters (Serves 4)
I know that some people will not eat an oyster. I keep crackers and kibble for such folks and make no judgment about their taste. I can’t help but feel sorry that they won’t have the regular pleasure of consuming this bivalve raw or cooked.
It is, I suppose, a coincidence, that we had our own oyster feast during the week before we headed to New Orleans – a very happy one. Our own feast involved a plate of raw oysters on the half-shell followed by a grill pan full of oysters cooked until their shells popped open. If you love raw oysters as we do, you will be pleasantly surprised by the earthy meatiness oysters take on when you grill them. At Drago’s in New Orleans they have blazingly hot grills – to cook these on your own grill, you will need to heat up a pan (I buy the inexpensive foil pans you can find in any super-market) in your oven to about 500 F, while your coals are getting hot. Unless you are a Shao-Lin priest, I strongly suggest that you use a really good oven mitt to carry this pan to the grill.
Here’s what else you need to do:
Buy oysters at a good fish market. You’ll need 20 large oysters for 4 people. (We like brinier oysters). Whole Foods is the only large market I know that has a fish department consistently good enough to give you quality oysters (their oysters are never bad – even the ones that don’t pop open can be opened with an oyster knife and will be good).
Clean the oysters thoroughly. This is the only difficult part of this falling-off-a-log recipe. I use a potato brush and clean the oysters under running cold tap water, placing each cleaned oyster into a colander and then putting the colander in a large bowl and covering it with a moist dish towel and refrigerating until it’s time to shuck or cook.
For oysters on the half-shell, you just need to shuck and serve with a mignonette or hot sauce or just a dash of tabasco and some lemon wedges. See below for hot sauce and mignonette recipes.
To shuck you’ll need a screwdriver or (much safer) an oyster knife and some practice. There are videos on the web – basically, you insert the knife next to the hinge where the shell opens and work it in until you can slide it along the shell crease, opening the oyster. Then you use the knife to separate the oyster from the muscle and cartilage that holds it to the shell. NOTE: always holds the oyster with the deeper-cupped side downward – you want to preserve as much brine in the shell as you can.
To roast oysters you can either place them directly on a very hot grill or, if you want to preserve the liquor, in a pre-heated pan on a very hot grill and wait about 10 minutes until all or most of the shells have opened (they won’t open much, but you will no trouble separating the top shell from the oyster and the bottom at this point. Serve with one of the sauces below (the Bobby Flay recipe is great):
Cut a lemon into wedges and place on the plate with the oysters. (If you’re serving raw oysters, use rock salt or crushed ice to create a surface where you can nestle them horizontally to preserve the liquor)
(If you’re serving grilled oysters put on individual plates and serve with a good crusty bread)
Tabasco – just unscrew the cap
Prepared horseradish – spoon it from the jar into a bowl
Hot sauce: Just mix good horseradish and Heinz Ketchup in whatever proportion appeals to you.
Bobby Flay’s Jalapeno-Herb Mignonette: Stir together the following ingredients and let them sit at room temperature for a while for the flavors to mingle: 1/3 cup rice vinegar, 1 Tablespoon fresh lime juice, 2 Tablespoons finely diced red onion, 1 small serrano or jalapeño pepper seeded and finely diced, 2 Tablespoons each of finely diced chives, cilantro and tarragon, kosher salt and ground black pepper.
EXTRA: ASPARAGUS STEW (from Jacques Pépin’s New Complete Techniques)
As Jacques notes: ‘This is a very simple, elegant and delicious dish. It can be served as a first course or as an accompaniment to any sauceless meat. We had it with pan-roasted salmon.
For 4 people, buy or assemble:
2 dozen asparagus spears
1/3 Cup of water
Good pinch of salt
½ stick of butter, cut into pieces
¼ cup finely chopped parsley
Peel the asparagus if it is thick (this means to peel the bottom 2/3 or so, after you have snapped or cut off the tough ends)
Cut the asparagus on the diagonal into 1-inch lengths
Put the asparagus into a skillet with the water and salt, cover and bring to a strong boil and boil for 1 and ½ minutes.
Uncover and add the butter and parsley and return to a strong boil, shaking the pan to mix and bind ingredients for about 30 seconds. The mixture will rise like milk ready to boil and as soon as it foams, remove it from the heat. Serve.