Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler - Let the Good Times Roll in New Orleans

The Navy sends John to a few conventions a year, to less-than-exciting places like Panama City. When he asked me to tag along with him for a quick jaunt to New Orleans, my mind wandered off to visions of the historic and colorful French Quarter, dining opportunities at a few of the well-known chefs' restaurants, and a welcome break from the legal world. It would be our first visit to the Big Easy.

Fast forward a few weeks...

Tired, cranky and hungry after a 3:00 a.m. alarm, 6:00 a.m. flight, and mid-afternoon arrival, we checked in at our hotel and set off on foot to the French Quarter, hoping to stumble upon a quaint and cozy restaurant, glass of wine, and bowl of steamy gumbo. After walking up and down the narrow and broken sidewalks, breathing in the not-so-faint odor left behind from the mules pulling carriages, and finding nothing close to my vision of a casual, yet romantic evening, I grudgingly settled for a dive bar (most restaurants serving dinner had not yet opened and the others we saw were empty and unappealing).

I managed to sip down a martini with an order of mediocre fried oysters and rosemary-heavy Crawfish Étouffée. I probably should have taken John's lead in ordering a Hurricane to start - maybe the sweetness would have remedied my sour mood. Unfortunately, as we walked back to the hotel, I quietly regretted the trip.

Had I known our hotel was just a hop, skip and a jump from the Warehouse District, with some of the most fabulous restaurants in town, I surely would have been bellied up to the bar at Cochon, dipping my Fried Alligator into the Chile-Garlic Aioli, slurping oysters off my Wood-Fired Oyster Roast plate, and sampling chasers of Catdaddy Carolina Moonshine. Yes indeed, I would have been as happy as the pig on the brick wall, and my first impression of the Crescent City would have been quite different.

At five the next morning, I awoke with a somewhat refreshed attitude, and was ready to get out and explore. We didn't wait for sunrise, and felt our way along the edge of the Mississippi, through the darkness and eerie fog. We followed the path back up to Decatur Street, to the legendary Cafe Du Monde. At some point the night before, determined to do a little research and have a better plan of attack, I read Cafe Du Monde was a must for Coffee and Chicory Au Lait and Beignets. Oh my, this place is such a cash cow, and I now plan to offer beignets and Newfie Tongue doughnuts when I open my own cash cow coffee cart in Coronado!

As I sipped on incredibly smooth and tasty coffee, and shared two orders of warm and pillowy fried dough, covering my black sweats with a permanent layer of powdered sugar in the process, I glanced up at the painted mural on the wall and managed to eke out a smile. I won't go so far as saying I saw Jesus, but I realized I was slowly waking up to more than another ordinary day, and could feel my first impression of New Orleans lifting away with the fog.

We explored the French Quarter for a few more hours, dodging the lemony spray of the street sweepers as they freshened the streets. We admired the rustic wood, ornate ironwork, gaslamps, balconies draped with purple, green and gold Mardi Gras beads, and intimate courtyards, and we attempted to capture the charm of the morning calm with our cameras.

I retreated back to the room, and John set off to the convention. Our next stop was lunch at August, one of Chef John Besh's acclaimed restaurants. We were excited to meet up with Mr. and Mrs. Bunkycooks, who came from Atlanta to eat and drink with us for a few days.

I recently acquired Besh's first cookbook, My New Orleans: The Cookbook, and have spent hours mesmerized by the stories, stunning scenic and food photography, and recipes I want to try. The restaurant was gorgeous, our four servers extremely attentive, and the food unbelievable. We also received a personalized list of restaurant recommendations and a tour of the two kitchens. In addition to the Gnocchi and Carbonara, John and I shared Grilled Local Swordfish with a warm salad of fresh radish, pickled beets and Plaquermines parish citrus.

handmade potato gnocchi tossed with blue crab
and black truffle

black garlic carbonara pasta a la chitarra, La Provence bacon, and
Maravilla Ranch eggs

visit to the pastry/pasta/catering kitchen

After lunch, we all hopped in the car and took a self-guided tour of the Garden District to view the historic southern mansions and "gingerbread" decorated late Victorian houses, and then ended up back at the Quarter...you guessed it, eating and drinking again! Our first late afternoon stop was for cocktails at Napoleon House, a 200-year-old landmark, and one of the most famous bars in America known for its Pimm's Cup.

For a change of scenery, we meandered down the rugged sidewalks and cobblestone alleys, and into a few shops, before ending up at Mr. B's Bistro.  This place was hopping, but we snagged a few barstools in the corner and enjoyed Fried Oysters on the Half Shell, Gumbo Ya Ya, and an informal Sazerac 101 mixing class.  Head over to Bunkycooks for her post on this sophisticated cocktail.

The next morning, we were back at Cafe Du Monde with the Bunkys, craving more coffee and beignets. After breakfast, we walked over to see Steamboat Natchez, the last authentic Steamboat on the Mighty Mississippi River.

While John attended the convention that morning, and Gwen and Roger took care of some On the Road with Bunkycooks' business, I returned to the room and made lunch reservations at Cochon, #1 on our coveted list of restaurant recommendations. With a few hours to kill before lunch, I wandered the Warehouse District, and stopped in at Emeril's New Orleans to inquire about dinner reservations.

It was getting hot and muggy, but I still had an hour to kill before lunch. I peeked in the door at Cochon, and saw a cute bartender behind the bar looking like he needed to mix me a drink. Within seconds, I was cooled off, relaxed, chatting with Tyler, and sipping an Orange Whiskey Cocktail.

Orange Whiskey Cocktail

Tyler was most gracious during our 3+ hour lunch. He chatted about his life, and how he landed in New Orleans at Cochon. We talked about the upcoming Mardi Gras festivities and his favorite parades. He assisted with menu selections, and gave us a complimentary bowl of Duck and Andouille Gumbo, which had not been ready earlier. He mixed John a Louisiana Hayride, and poured us taster shots of Catdaddy Carolina Moonshine, with hints of vanilla and nutmeg, and housemade Strawberry and Apple Pie Moonshines.

August was elegant, Cochon casual, and the food at both restaurants phenomenal.

fried alligator with chili garlic aioli

wood-fired oyster roast

louisiana cochon with turnips,
cabbage and cracklins

duck and andouille gumbo

I spotted a stack of cookbooks behind the bar and purchased one to take home. My copy of Real Cajun: Rustic Home Cooking from Donald Link's Louisiana, is autographed by Chef Link. I asked Tyler to autograph it also - he wished us "Happy Drinking."

A bit more exploring and taking photos in the Warehouse District...

And then a late dinner at Emeril's, sitting up at the Food Bar...

gumbo of the day - chicken and andouille

saffron-chili dusted jumbo shrimp, with sweet potato-smoked corn grits,
skillet beans, Benton's bacon an mango chow chow

And dessert at a Mano's, just down from Emeril's and also on the list...

flourless chocolate and walnut cake with
cooked "red wine" sauce

We soaked up as much as we could, in the short time we had. The Mardi Gras festivities were just kicking off as we left town, so that experience will have to wait until our next visit, when we return to indulge in more of New Orleans' rich creole dishes, classic cocktails, and abundant charm.

Since we've been home, John found Cafe Du Monde's Chicory Coffee at our local Mardi Gras Cafe, and I've bookmarked several recipes to try from my new cookbooks. For dinner Sunday night, I prepared Chicken Sauce Piquant from Link's Real Cajun. It's a classic Cajun dish and a perfect example of one-pot cooking. Piquant means "spicy," but in Cajun cooking it also refers to a certain preparation that involves pan frying meat and making a roux. Paired with Perfect Steamed Rice, we were instantly transported back to NOLA for another wonderful dining experience.

Chicken Sauce Piquant
Real Cajun: Rustic Home Cooking from Donald Link's Louisiana
Serve 4-6

1 1/2 tablespoons salt
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons chili powder
1 teaspoon paprika
1 (3- to 4-pound) chicken, boned and cut into 1-inch cubes (to save time, use two boneless, skinless breasts and four boneless thighs)
3/4 cup vegetable oil or lard
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 small onion, diced
3 celery stalks, diced
1 small poblano chile, seeded and diced
1 tablespoon garlic, finely chopped
5 plum tomatoes, seeded and diced
2 cups canned tomatoes
5 cups chicken broth
1 tablespoon dried thyme
4 bay leaves
4 dashes of hot sauce
Steamed rice (ratio of 1 cup rice to 1 1/2 cups water, and 2 bay leaves)
Thinly sliced scallions, for garnish

Whisk together the salt, peppers, chili powder and paprika in a small bowl. Cut the chicken into 1-inch pieces and place in a large bowl. Sprinkle the spices over the chicken and use your hands to toss until evenly coated. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to use. Have all of the vegetables prepared, the tomatoes cut, and the broth measured out.

Heat the oil in a large pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat until it begins to smoke slightly. While the oil heats, toss the chicken with flour to coat. Shake off the excess flour from the chicken, transfer the pieces to the hot oil and fry until golden brown on all sides. Fry the chicken in two to three batches so you don’t overcrowd the pan — the chicken pieces should be in one layer, not on top of each other.

Reserve the leftover flour. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the chicken to a deep plate, leaving the oil in the pan.

Add the remaining flour to the oil and cook, stirring constantly, for about 5 minutes to create a medium-brown, peanut butter–colored roux.

Add the onion, celery, poblano, and garlic and cook 5 minutes more.

Add the chicken, tomatoes, broth, thyme, bay leaves and hot sauce.

Simmer over low heat for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally, until thickened to a light gravy and the chicken is tender enough to shred with a fork. Taste and adjust seasonings, adding more salt or hot sauce as desired.

Serve over rice, garnished with scallions.


For a review of Real Cajun: Rustic Home Cooking from Donald Link's Louisiana, see the Houston Chronicle article by Greg Morago, Cooking from the Heart of Cajun Country.  In addition to the Chicken Sauce Piquant, the review provides recipes for Grilled Oysters with Garlic-Chile Butter, and Cathy's Shrimp, Corn and Tomato Stew.

For an interview with John Besh, please see Food Gal's post, Take Five with New Orleans Chef John Besh, on Life Post-Katrina.

And here are the restaurant recommendations from the "coveted" list provided by one of our servers at August

Cochan, Herbsaint, Rio Mar, La Boca, a Mano, Dante's Kitchen, Boucherie, Bistro Daisy, Lilette, Patois, Iris, Crescent Pie & Sausage.  Also, around the corner from Cochon, is Cochon Butcher.  Can you tell I loved Cochon?

I hope you enjoyed a sip and taste of our New Orleans' jaunt. Click here for a few more photos.  We would love to have you share any of your recommendations for good eats and sights.


Anonymous said...

Wow. Impressive! Looks like you had an awesome visit!

bunkycooks said...

What a lovely post (except for that pic of me in Napolean). Your photos and words take me right back to last week. What a great time we had with you and John sharing great food, good times and lots of drinks! I hope we get to do it again sometime soon! BTW, Mr. B just reheated some of my leftover Jambalaya...we are obsessed!

Mom said...

Loved the journey! Felt like I was seeing the Big Easy for the first time, too. Thanks for sharing your incredible adventure through your beautiful photos, wonderful descriptions, notable links, and that amazing Chicken Sauce Piquant presentation.

Carmen said...

My mama used to make this dish with biscuits just like in your photo! Add a pitcher of sweet tea and a cobbler dessert .... mmmm, mmm That's down home.
- Carmencobbler


a fabulous trip and i feel as if i've traveled with you and the Bunkycooks!!! cannot wait to see more recipes!!

Anonymous said...

As a New Orleanian - thanks for coming to visit!

CherylAnn said...

My husband and I are New Orleans natives living in Coronado, courtesy of the Navy. Seems you learned quickly. Everything you do in NOLA revolves around your next meal. John Besh is one of the best. I know of all of the places you've mentioned and want to say THANK YOU for giving us a great review! (And, I'm just a few weeks behind you...I'm 'home' for Mardi Gras (and, more importantly, eating well).

Kai said...

I'm sooo jealous! Great post.