Friday, September 25, 2009

Dante’s Kitchen

As Steve Tyler screeched, I am “back in the saddle again” and I am ready for yet another culinary undertaking.  A couple of weeks ago in my Ninja Restaurant article, I mentioned that for my next cheat I was trying to decide between two different restaurants that were right across the street from each other.  Unfortunately, due to illness, I was relegated to ordering in.  This week, however, I elected to dine at Dante’s Kitchen …Brigtsen’s (the restaurant across the street) will have to wait for another cheat.  This is my 6th week and 6th cheat and I am down 30 pounds.

Fortunately, Dante’s is yet another restaurant within walking distance of my apartment, so John and I strolled three blocks and arrived in time for our 6:30 p.m. reservations.  Initially, we were seated inside the restaurant, but a couple sitting at the next table had a screaming infant and we requested to sit outside so we could enjoy our dinner in peace.  The hostess was very accommodating and understood why we wished to move.

Without hesitating, she sat us outside on the porch and turned on the wicker-paddled fan, creating a slight breeze to cool us while we dined.  The sun had just begun to set and the air was sweet with jasmine. The cicadas were humming loudly, muting the traffic noises of River Road as we relaxed on the porch of the quaint lavender and lime house secluded by large banana plants.  It was a very comfortable, and quite romantic setting for our first experience at Dante’s.

We started out with some cocktails, I ordered a Ginger Cosmopolitan featuring house infused ginger vodka and John selected Dante’s Lemonade with house infused lemon vodka.  Both cocktails were very tasty and while we sipped, our server brought out a little lagniappe, a Molasses Spoon Bread with honey butter served in a small pan that was still hot from the oven.  It “smelled to heaven” as my Mom would often say and it tasted even better.

Before we finished reeling from the Spoon Bread, our appetizers arrived.  John ordered the New Orleans Style Barbeque Shrimp made with Abita Turbodog beer, rosemary and garlic and I got Chanterelles and Louisiana Crabmeat with house made bacon, lemon zest, toasted brioche, and roasted tomato vinaigrette.  The shrimp were huge, served with the heads on, although they kindly peeled the tail, and the barbeque sauce was spicy and lemony and, in true New Orleans fashion, there was plenty left over for dipping.  The Chanterelles’ peppery flavor was complimented nicely by the lemon zest, tomato and crabmeat: a wonderful beginning to a fabulous cheat.

Growing up, my mother often prepared pork chops that were thin, dry and practically flavorless.  So, when I decided to brave Dante’s Double Thick Berkshire Pork Chop with Ruston peaches, roasted onions, corn & goat cheese grit cake, I still had a lingering childhood fear of dry, tasteless chops.  My worries were delightfully unfounded after I had my first bite of the juicy pork chop bursting with flavor from the Ruston peaches and fabulous grit cake.  In vain, I attempted to clean my plate but I wanted to save what little room I had left for dessert.  John’s entrée was called Trois Mignons which consisted of three petite beef tenderloin filets served on caramelized onion mashed potatoes and topped with pork debris, Stilton cheese sauce and marchand du vin.  The sauces were tantalizing and rich and a bite of the tender medium rare filets with a dollop of the caramelized onion mashed potatoes soaked in the marchand du vin was enough to make my mouth water for more.

As usual for my cheat meals, I stuffed myself silly and by the time dessert rolled around, I was already hurting.  But, I couldn’t walk away from Dante’s without sampling their sweets, so I convinced John that we should hang around long enough to order a Peanut & Mascarpone Torte with a chocolate crust and chocolate and caramel sauce on top.  The creamy mascarpone smattered with chopped peanuts melted in my mouth and I wish I could have eaten more than I was actually able to consume.

John and I finally waddled off the porch and slowly made our way home.  As usual, I was already considering where our next cheat meal should be, but the flavors from dinner were still rich on my tongue and I found I couldn’t quite concentrate.  All I could do was luxuriate in yet another fine dining experience as we strolled home through the Riverbend, listening to the soft rustling of the night.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Fresco Café & Pizzeria

This past week was difficult for me considering I wasn’t feeling well and didn’t have the energy or oomph that I needed to do Pilates everyday.  I still followed my eating regimen, but since I failed to exercise, I hit a plateau and didn’t lose any weight.  I am still down 26 pounds though, and I was still ready to cheat.
Last night I was still feeling weak and a bit woozy, so John and I decided to order in for our cheat.  It seemed fortuitous that we had just received a delivery menu from Fresco Café in our mailbox. We decided to order the Roasted Eggplant Dip, the Fresco’s Special “gourmet” pizza and Godiva Chocolate Cheesecake for dessert.  We were told the order would take almost an hour to deliver, but they were at our door only thirty minutes later.

I tipped the driver well for being so early and slipped the cheesecake into the fridge for later.  We began with the Roasted Eggplant Dip that was described as a roasted eggplant, garlic & parsley spread served with warm pita triangles.  I love roasted eggplant and the flavor it imparts to sandwiches, dips and even pizza is fabulously rich and decadent.  It was really too bad that when trying this particular dip, all I tasted was garlic and I could even feel the texture of chopped garlic on my tongue.  I quickly moved on to the pizza.

Now, I have had “gourmet” pizza before.  There was a restaurant in California that served the most amazing pizzas, one of which I ordered quite frequently called the “California Club”.  It was mozzarella cheese, fresh roasted chicken, bacon, ham, fresh tomatoes, and French dressing-like sauce on a sourdough crust.  Like icing on a cake, after baking the pizza they would slice fresh avocado on top.  Let’s just say I had high hopes for Fresco’s version of a “gourmet” pizza.

The Fresco’s Special certainly smelled good as we lifted the cover of the box.  With ingredients like mozzarella cheese, pepperoni, Italian sausage, ham, caramelized onions and roasted red peppers we thought we couldn’t go wrong.  The pizza had a nice crispy thin crust and they didn’t stint on the cheese, but I was a little confused when I found pineapple pieces on two different slices.  First, I thought I had read the ingredients wrong when ordering, but I was right, there wasn’t supposed to be any pineapple.

Regardless of the stray fruit, the pizza was still pretty good and we certainly were hungry enough to overlook any inconsistencies.  After all, Fresco’s is a chain and I have a habit of never expecting too much from chain restaurants.  That way perhaps someday one will surprise me!

My favorite part of this meal was the dessert.  I mean, who doesn’t like Godiva chocolate?  Although Fresco Café didn’t make the Godiva Chocolate Cheesecake, I have to give them props for ordering it.  Deliciously creamy and smooth with rich dark chocolate mingled with the taste of tangy cream cheese, this cheesecake is truly decadent.

I will be revving up the Pilates routine again for next week because I am determined to see some weight loss by my next cheat.  Wish me luck!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Ninja Restaurant & Sushi Bar

After the devastatingly delicious dinner at Le Meritage last week, I thought I would try some lighter fare for this week’s cheat by going for sushi at Ninja Restaurant.   I love Japanese cuisine and was spoiled by the variety and authenticity of restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area, but I have found some Japanese gems in New Orleans and Ninja is one of my favorites.  This is the fourth week and fourth cheat and I am down 26 pounds.

The first time I tried sushi or raw fish was around ten years ago. My father cooked everything well done and my mother put the fear of salmonella into me young, so I had a reasonable reaction to trying raw fish…”You’re kidding, right?”  A co-worker finally convinced me to try it when she took me to a tiny Japanese sushi bar in San Francisco, right off of 19th Avenue, close to Golden Gate Park.  She ordered salmon nigiri and from the moment the fresh salmon flavor hit my tongue, I was hooked.

My boyfriend and I chose Ninja for several reasons.  First and foremost, Ninja has some of the freshest sushi in town.  I have been to almost every sushi restaurant in New Orleans, and the quality of ingredients at Ninja is truly superb.  Secondly, Ninja offers this quality cuisine in good-sized portions at a very reasonable price.  Third, Ninja is only steps away from my apartment, literally around the corner…you can’t get more convenient than that unless you order delivery, which Ninja offers!

I was reading some other reviews of Ninja and noticed that some people were put off by the strange set up in the restaurant.  When you first walk in, there is a bar downstairs.  The person working the bar will alert the servers in the dining room above that there are new patrons waiting to dine.  Then he/she either tells you to go on up or to wait if the dining room is full.  It is kind of odd, but it definitely wouldn’t steer me away from dining at Ninja.

We strolled to the restaurant at around 6:30 and were seated immediately.  A bit too early for the normal dinner rush, we entered a dining room at the top of the stairs that was mostly vacant.  Our server offered us warm, moist towels to clean our hands and we ordered our favorite drink, Iced Green Tea. If last night were not my “cheat night”, I would have considered ordering sashimi or simpler sushi like nigiri in order to stick to my plan.  But, I thought it would be fun (and truly delicious) to order a few of the special rolls filled with fried goodies and mayonnaise/wasabi mixtures.  I wanted some fat in my rolls and Ninja didn’t disappoint.

We ordered a Rainbow Roll, a Special Crunchy Roll, the Volcano Roll, and after checking out the specials board, an Eggplant Tempura Roll.  We also thought it would be fun to try the Tiger’s Eye appetizer which is squid stuffed with salmon and asparagus.  Our server told us that the Tiger’s Eye would take 30 minutes to prepare, but we didn’t mind and requested the dish be served after our sushi order.  We had a little wait, but we expected it.  If you want to be served your rolls right away at Ninja, I suggest you sit at the sushi bar where the chefs will serve your rolls as each one is ready.  Since John and I chose to sit at a table, the chefs prepare all of our rolls first and serve them at once so it takes a little bit longer.

First, we were served a small bowl of Miso Soup with a small amount of tofu and seaweed at the bottom of the bowl.  Our sushi plate came out next with our beautifully presented rolls lined up along a hefty helpings of wasabi and ginger.  I tried the Eggplant Tempura roll first, it was a rice and seaweed roll filled with eggplant tempura, cream cheese and avocado.  The tempura was still warm and crispy and the perfect bite-sized piece was delicious.  I never thought eggplant and cream cheese would taste so good together!

I had to have a piece of the Rainbow Roll next and my particular slice included fresh tuna on top and a spicy snow crab mixture inside.  This roll is popular in many sushi restaurants but I think Ninja does it best with added lemon slices between each piece and sliced avocado on alternating pieces.  The lemon is key to adding a clean flavor to the already immaculately fresh fish (the Rainbow Roll also has fresh salmon and yellowtail on top).
In every sushi restaurant I have been to, there is a Crunchy Roll, but Ninja’s Special Crunchy Roll is quite delicious and it is always included in my order. It consists of crab mix, crunchy asparagus, egg sauce, eel sauce, chili sauce, pink sauce and crunchy bits of fried tempura batter.

Finally, we were served the Volcano Roll; fresh tuna, shrimp, crab-stick, eel, cream cheese, avocado, asparagus, cucumber, smelt roe, pink sauce, spicy chili and tempura on top.  This roll is huge and the presentation makes it look like a volcano waiting to erupt!  Each slice is at least twice the diameter of a regular slice of sushi and requires two bites!  It was very tasty and spicy and I couldn’t stop eating the cruchies scattered all over the plate.

Our server brought out the Tiger’s Eye appetizer at the end and it was refreshingly simple after some of the heavily spiced rolls we had already eaten.  It looked like the salmon and squid were steamed together and served with a light Teriyaki sauce.  The coolest thing about this dish was the presentation…each slice actually looked like an eye!

Even though I was fully stuffed, I actually considered ordering the Banana Tempura with Vanilla Ice Cream, but John and I were both ready to go home, so we rolled out of the door, our faces numbed into satisfied smiles and spent the rest of the evening in a hazy food coma.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Le Meritage Restaurant

Since it opened in March, I have been dying to dine at Le Meritage Restaurant at the Maison Dupuy Hotel.  The incredible culinary talents of Chef Michael Farrell had reached my ears from many sources and I knew experiencing his epicurean gifts would be a dining adventure to remember.

God, I love it when I am right.

After three weeks on my new healthy regime, I was down a total of 23 pounds, ready and raring for my third “Official Cheat ” and I was aiming to cheat big.  I can hear you ask, ”Did Le Meritage deliver?” Did it ever…  I have visited many fine dining establishments in places like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Napa Valley, Sonoma, Lake Tahoe, Las Vegas, Paris and right here in New Orleans and I have had some truly incredible meals, but last night literally blew me away.  Last night, my meal, my flavor explosion, pushed itself through the ranks and now sits as one of the top two best meals of my lifetime.  Believe it or not, you won’t know until you try it for yourself.

Before I go into detail about my transcendent dining experience, I must mention my love for the .  Before I became a New Orleans transplant, the Maison Dupuy was my “hotel of choice” when visiting our fair city.  The lush courtyard, the friendly staff, warmly decorated rooms and it’s excellent location made for the perfect stay.  Whenever I have the opportunity, I recommend it to friends, co-workers, and even tourists who call NewOrleans.Com for advice on where to stay.   Now I can add that one of the best restaurants in the city resides in my favorite hotel…

John (my boyfriend) and I arrived at Le Meritage Restaurant a few minutes before our 7:00pm reservation.  We walked into the entrance of the quaint “French Quarter Bistro” which fronts Le Meritage.  The Bistro was decorated with Toulouse-Lautrec murals, hardwood floors and a long bar running the length of the back wall.  We were guided by one of the bartenders to the hostess of Le Meritage who graciously introduced herself as Kim and immediately sat us in the dining room.  White linen draped the well-spaced tables and we luxuriated in the large, comfortable chairs, and although the décor was inviting, we could smell the food emanating from the tables of our fellow diners and were anxious to begin.

The menu features six categories of wine characteristics with dishes to compliment those flavor profiles. Even more convenient, every dish on their menu is available as small plates or large plates. I had already thoroughly perused their website menu and had formulated a plan of attack.  In order to get a taste of as many dishes as possible in one evening, I figured that John and I could share five or six small plates. We selected our choices and the waitress brought the dishes out in groups, from the lighter fare (the sparklers) to start and the heavier (Robust Reds) at the end.  Each dish was paired with a wine we selected from the left-hand side of the menu.

Initially we were served richly scented, warm dinner rolls.  I immediately felt spoiled when I saw the tiny, silver-domed butter dish.  We lifted the dome to see an elegant “M” emblazoned into the butter.  I still regret not taking a picture, although the camera we used was not very effective anyhow (as you probably already noticed).  Cool, stylish, yet small surprises like that just enrich the dining experience as a whole in my opinion, and being the silly girl I am, I just love things in miniature.  We were also served an amuse-bouche served in a small ladle containing a few boiled crawfish tails in an aioli.  It was a simple, yet tasty teaser for the dishes to come.

Our first dishes were a Jumbo Lump Crab Cake with crawfish and a Smoked Salmon Salad with Parmesan, spinach, pine nuts, a hard-boiled egg and red onions.  Both dishes were excellent, but truthfully, the crab cake was the star of the pair.  I usually avoid ordering crab cakes because I often find them loaded with breadcrumbs and other fillers, leaving me wondering where the crab went.  This crab cake was loaded with fresh, delicious lump crab meat and scattered crawfish and it was absolutely mouth-watering…easily one of the finest dishes of the evening.  I am still astounded as to how the cake managed to hold itself together.  These dishes were paired with a ’07 Simi Chardonnay from Sonoma County, complimenting the flavors perfectly.

Our next course was Paneed Rabbit wrapped in pancetta served with tagliatelle pasta, fresh peas and baby carrots.  Although I do enjoy rabbit, my co-worker specifically requested I try this dish and report back to her.  Meghan, if you’re reading this, the rabbit was tender and juicy, not too rich or heavily fried and I definitely recommend it.  When it’s your turn to come to Le Meritage, you have to try the duck for me…if I don’t beat you to the punch!

John and I were steadily demolishing each dish as it was served and our voracity had hardly slackened for the next round, Grilled Quail with andouille corn meal stuffing and a Molasses Pork Tenderloin with braised beet greens and fingerling potatoes.  The pork was juicy and sweet with the deep, rich molasses and the quail’s immense flavor surprised and delighted me.  John and I each had a different wine paired with these dishes. John had a 04 Frog’s Leap, Zinfandel from Napa Valley and I chose the 07 Coppola, Syrah from Sonoma County.  Both wines were rich and full-bodied and combined with the flavors of the quail and pork, made for a virtual fiesta in our mouths!

I thought that the dishes couldn’t get any better until the lamb came out.  The Savory Lamb Chops with sweet potato, apple and bacon hash was exquisite.  If I had to choose between the Lamb and the Crab Cake, I would be in trouble.  The lamb chops were crusted with savory seasoning a cooked medium rare and a careful bite arranged with the hash and a sip of the ‘05 Lonko, Malbec from Patagonia, Argentina made for an explosion my taste buds will not soon forget.  I especially loved how the wine left the flavor of cocoa lingering on my tongue.  It set me up for a tantalizing dessert.

Along with some strong coffee (mandatory after the heady wines), John ordered their Frozen Café Au Lait with mini-beignets and I selected the Blueberry Chocolate Panna Cotta served with chocolate sauce and fresh raspberries and blueberries.  Both desserts were fresh and tasty and we couldn’t have rounded off our dining adventure with a better finale.