Thursday, November 26, 2009

Muriel’s Jackson Square: A Thanksgiving to remember

There are simply too many things in my life to be thankful for.  I have a loving boyfriend, the cutest dog in the whole world and a wonderful family, who I desperately miss especially on Thanksgiving Day.  Since I often can’t afford to return to California to celebrate this awesome family occasion, I have held parties for my friends where we would feast on fried turkey (purchased hot from Koz’s) and my own Jambalaya-inspired cornbread stuffing.  This year, to save money and my diet, John and I decided to do something I have never done before.  We dined out for Thanksgiving and I am oh so thankful we chose to have our feast at Muriel’s Jackson Square.

Due to a horrid cheat experience and a case of viral conjunctivitis, I have not reported my cheats for the last two weeks.  After such a trying month, I have been looking forward to a new holiday experience plus a fantastic cheat and Muriel’s offered all that and more.  This is my 15th week and my 15th cheat and I am down 44 pounds.

The sun was shining bright over a beautiful, sleepy day in the French Quarter.  The city seemed almost bereft of tourists that made parking a breeze and strolling through Jackson Square a private delight.  Families were scattered here and there, admiring the beauty of the St. Louis Cathedral, watching the sole juggler spin soft beanbags around his head or dancing to a lone tuba player belting out “When the Saints go marching in”, his voice lilting alone across the unusually quiet square.  Hand in hand, John and I found ourselves falling in love with the beauty of New Orleans all over again.

Since 1718 the building that now houses Muriel’s has been everything from a personal residence, a grocery store, a spaghetti factory and even a saloon.  After a major renovation restoring the building as a personal residence, Muriel’s opened its doors in 2001 to the pleasure of both diners and ghost hunters alike.  John and I were escorted through classic New Orleans architecture with exposed brick walls and an elegant indoor gallery overlooking a courtyard bar.  The dining room was crowded with both large and small linen-covered tables with heavily padded chairs that were surprisingly lightweight.  To begin our celebration we ordered some cocktails, a cosmopolitan for me and a very dirty vodka martini for John, while deciding on appetizers.

For Thanksgiving, in addition to offering their normal dinner menu, Muriel’s was offering a 3-course special for only $38.00 per person and we decided to take them up on it.  For an appetizer, I chose the Gorgonzola Tart and John wanted to try the Oyster Pan Roast.  While sipping our drinks, we were brought a loaf of bread spiced for the season with clove and nutmeg served with a creamy whipped butter.  In short order, our appetizers arrived.  The Gorgonzola Tart was served with honeyed pecans, sliced apple and plump fresh blackberries that made a perfect mach for the rich, tart cheese.  John’s plump, juicy Louisiana oysters were swimming in a sauce with leeks, wild mushrooms and thyme and served with a savory apple-smoked bacon corn muffin.  Both dishes were so delicious that, although we shared a few bites, we jealously hoarded the remaining mouthfuls for ourselves.

Although turkey was on the menu, I couldn’t resist ordering a Double-Cut Porkchop for my entrée (surprise, surprise) and John selected a Garlic-Crusted Redfish topped with jumbo lump crabmeat.  Both entrees turned out to be very healthy-sized portions, but we had no difficulties devouring everything on our plates.  The porkchop was perfectly cooked, juicy on the inside, crispy and sweet on the outside.  It was topped with sugarcane apple glaze and served with pecan-glazed sweet potatoes and Southern-style greens.  Each bite was pure bliss and John was more than happy to help me clean the plate.  John’s Redfish was served on brown-buttered, Brussel sprouts, with apple-smoked bacon and red onions and loaded with jumbo lump crabmeat.  Both dishes were divine and we couldn’t have been more pleased with our Thanksgiving bounty thus far.

Finally, for dessert I ordered the Pumpkin pie with Creme Chantilly and John requested the Chocolate Bourbon Pecan Pie (what’s Thanksgiving without pie after all?) and some nice, hot cappuccinos.  We were sinfully surprised by the homemade biscotti that accompanied our coffee and for even extra lagniappe; we were gifted with two perfect chocolate truffles just in case we hadn’t over-indulged enough yet.  Everything was fantastic.  I particularly enjoyed the large pieces of rich chocolate among the sweet pecans in John’s pie, when I finally wrenched a bite away from him.  Also, my Pumpkin Pie was perfectly spiced, heavy with clove that only emphasized the sweetness of my favorite fall squash.  Simply delicious.

Heavily satiated, and sedated, as for any Thanksgiving feast in our past, we sauntered back into Jackson Square feeling elated.  We had an incredible dining experience in a beautiful restaurant in the heart of the city I love, the city that has truly become my home.  Not only am I thankful for the exquisite meal provided by the talented chefs at Muriel’s, I am thankful to live in New Orleans where food this delicious can be had on any old day and not just on special occasions.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Beef Connection

I’m not sure if it’s because I’m preparing to hibernate for the winter or a lack of iron, but I have been craving a nice, juicy steak lately.  Images of a thick, medium-rare filet that yields easily to a knife have been pervading my dreams and even my waking thoughts and I knew I couldn’t put it off any longer.  Although I know of many different steakhouses in the city, I asked around for a casual establishment where I could get a really incredible steak and one of my co-workers mentioned The Beef Connection in Gretna.  She had never been there herself, but her friend had raved how the filets were “like buttah” and I decided to give it a try.  This is my 14th week and my 14th cheat and I am down 43 pounds.

The name of the restaurant sent my other co-workers into giggling fits (the film The Breakfast Club comes to mind), and though it was amusing, it did not deter me in my quest for a mouth-watering steak.  John and I headed over to the Westbank to brave the name and risk the unknown. We arrived at the restaurant at around 7:30 p.m. and were surprised to find that half of the dining room was filled with people gathering for some sort of club.  The hostess led us to a table on the opposite side of the dining room and our waitress came immediately to take our drink order.

Looking around, I couldn’t help feeling that I had stepped back into the 70’s.  The dining room was decorated with peeling floral wallpaper and one wall sported floor to ceiling mirrors that were old and damaged. I’m not a stickler for perfect surroundings but this establishment is due for an update.

Browsing the menu at a steakhouse is always difficult.  I know I want a small filet but do I want an appetizer or a side dish?  It seems that many steakhouses are highly adept at grilling the perfect cut of meat but then their side dishes suffer serious neglect.  John and I, being the brave diners we are, ordered a fried calamari appetizer and two sides to share: Lyonnaise Potatoes and Asparagus Gratin.

In a timely manner, our fried calamari arrived with some clarified garlic butter for dipping.  The calamari was tender and the batter was spiced well and crunchy, but I think I should have requested a different dipping sauce.  The combination of the fried calamari and butter made the dish a little too oily and I would have preferred a good tartar sauce or marinara.  I can only blame myself for not asking.

Our sizzling “small” filets came out next served on extremely hot plates weighing in at what I would estimate to be easily over eight ounces.  I wonder what the large filets weigh!  Cooked medium-rare, the perfectly grilled filets were most definitely “like buttah” and each bite I took practically melted in my mouth.  John and I agreed, heads wagging and mouths full, that the steaks were absolutely perfect.

The side dishes had come out along with our steaks and were easily large enough for two servings.  If you don’t already know, Lyonnaise Potatoes is a fancy way of saying “potatoes sautéed with onion” and regardless of the simplicity of the dish, it was quite tasty.  Unfortunately, the asparagus used in the gratin was obviously canned and ruined the dish.  I realize asparagus is not quite in season until February, but I would rather it wasn’t on the menu instead of substituting fresh ingredients.

As you all know, I couldn’t leave the restaurant without sampling a dessert so John and I ordered the Crème Brule Cheesecake and some coffee.  Our order came out quickly and I found the cheesecake to be okay, although I believe it was store-bought.  The “Crème Brule” topping should have been crunchy, but instead it seemed a little chewy (probably due to refrigeration).

Walking away from The Beef Connection, my boyfriend and I were definitely satiated and highly pleased with our fabulous steaks and friendly service.  I believe that this restaurant could be improved greatly with just a little redecorating along with a commitment to fresh ingredients when it comes to sides and desserts.  But, if you seek a fantastic steak at a reasonable price, I would not hesitate recommending The Beef Connection...just try not to giggle at the name!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Burger perfection at GB’s Patio Bar & Grill

Everyone in New Orleans has a favorite burger joint.  A friend of mine loves the hand-formed burgers and sweet potato fries at Beachcorner Bar & Grill on Canal Street and another touts the overstuffed baked potatoes and heady Monsoons at Port of Call in the Quarter, but my burger of choice is lovingly made at GB’s Patio Bar & Grill.  Located on Maple Street on the river-side of Carrollton Avenue in the Riverbend, GB’s is an unassuming, neighborhood restaurant with a welcoming patio dining area replete with fans or space heaters, as the weather dictates and a small staff that remembers your face and treats everyone like an old friend.  John and I were in the mood for a leisurely burger in a comfortable atmosphere and GB’s always fits the bill.  I am down a grand total of 42 pounds and this is my 13th cheat.

As soon as we sat down, our waiter smiled at us from across the brick-lined patio dining area filed with large iron tables and chairs.  He greeted us with menus in hand and took our order of drinks.  As many times as I have been to GB’s, I have never ordered an appetizer, we always go straight for the burger. But, in the spirit of indulgence, we decided to try the Spinach and Artichoke dip in addition to two 6 oz. cheese burgers cooked medium rare and served with a side of French fries.  GB’s offers other great sides like a baked potato with lots of extras or a small salad, but I was in the mood for fries.

The dip came out in a timely fashion, piping hot and smelling delicious.  It was served with crispy, warm tortilla chips and we gobbled the cheesy concoction down in short order.  I’ve had tons of Spinach and Artichoke dips before and this one was really quite good.  Initially, I had wanted the potato skins, but John overruled me by choosing the dip and I was not disappointed.

After a comfortable interval, our burgers arrived cooked to order with a large pile of freshly grated cheddar cheese atop the perfectly grilled meat.  Fresh toppings like a thick, juicy slice of tomato, some pickles, red onion and shredded lettuce were included on each plate and all of the tables are conveniently equipped with various condiments including mayonnaise and ketchup.  I once asked our waiter why the burgers at GB’s are so tasty and he explained that the owner hand-grinds the sirloin and uses his own combination of spices and sauces to create perfection on a bun.

We always enjoy the juicy burgers at GB’s but I can rarely walk away from their homemade cakes.  Craving chocolate (as usual) we ordered a slice of German Chocolate Cake.  We were served a huge slice, but had no difficulty devouring the moist, rich, chocolate cake with creamy, coconut-laden frosting.  As usual, it was absolutely delicious.

Walking away from the restaurant, we were pleased that we had another wonderfully satisfying cheat and comforted knowing a great neighborhood bar (conveniently in our neighborhood) was still offering an affordable and tasty meal in a relaxing courtyard patio just blocks away.  Perhaps next week we should range further from home, but it’s nice to taste the familiar from time to time and neither of us could think of a better place for the perfect burger but GB’s Patio Bar & Grill.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Ye Olde College Inn Restaurant & Bar

Before the storm, my boss Jay put $40 in my hand and sent me to take out our intern (Gregg) to lunch for his last day at the office. He was moving on to bigger and better things in Dallas, Texas. Gregg and I grinned at each other, excited that we had more to spend at lunch than a $5 dollar meal at McDonald’s and ran out of the office clutching our cash before our boss could change his mind. I clearly recall having a leisurely lunch and one of the best hamburgers I’ve ever eaten at Ye Olde College Inn. Last night I decided it had been too long since my last visit. This is my 12th week and my 12th cheat and I am down 38 pounds.

John and I argued about where our cheat would be this week, he wanted hibachi and I wanted something fried, but I came out victorious and selected to re-visit Ye Olde College Inn on Carrollton Ave. It has been almost 6 years since I last visited this restaurant and I was ready to experience it again, although I was in for a whole new experience.

Ye Olde College Inn had actually moved into an adjacent building that they remodeled a few years ago and, when John and I walked in, I found the décor to be much more appealing, modern and hip.  There were murals on the walls of Canal Street scenes, wooden cutouts of New Orleans-style streetlamps reaching above walls that ended abruptly before an open ceiling that exposed the metal beams and air conditioning units.  An assortment of chandeliers hung above the white linen covered tables and a quaint, stand up piano in one corner. It seems they are trying to attract a younger clientele, though without apparent need, their regulars are very faithful and I was beginning to see why.

John and I were seated immediately and our pleasantly attentive server appeared shortly to take our order.  The simple menu offered a variety of classic New Orleans favorites like etouffee and gumbo, but we were in the mood for some po-boys.  We ordered an appetizer of Slow-Cooked Duck with grilled orange and pecans in a honey BBQ sauce and a tasty looking stack of homemade onion rings.  For my entrée, I ordered a famous Foot-Long Oyster Po-Boy with Havarti Cheese and Bacon and John got the Foot-Long Fried Green Tomato Po-Boy with boiled shrimp and their signature Remoulade.

The appetizers came out quickly and soon we were digging into the rich, moist duck with a sauce so decadent, it almost felt like dessert!  Although the onion rings were delicious by themselves, we couldn’t help but try to soak up the leftover Honey BBQ sauce from the duck and we found ourselves guiltily dipping the rings when we thought no one was looking.

Shortly after devouring the apps and licking the sauce from our fingers, our po-boys came out.  Filling the large dinner plates, we knew we wouldn’t be able to finish our two huge, foot-long po-boys served on crusty, fresh French bread and resigned ourselves to bringing home the leftovers.  The oysters were fried perfectly in a cornmeal-type batter and were plump, juicy and divine.  The bacon and Havarti cheese complimented the decadent oysters easily and it was truly a po-boy to remember.  John’s Fried Green Tomato Po-Boy was fantastic and their Remoulade was easily the best I have tasted so far.

Our server brought to-go boxes and accurately divined that we were ready for some dessert. One dish jumped out at me from the menu and I immediately chose it from the rest (including a Fried Bread Pudding Po-Boy…WOW!), the Chocolate Pecan Caramel Cluster Cake.

In no time at all, our server brought out two cups of coffee and our dessert that we inhaled much more quickly then expected.  The cake was the consistency of a thick brownie with large pecans draped in caramel on top.  It was absolutely wonderful!

We breathed a full, satiated sigh, grabbed our to-go box and waddled out of the restaurant.  This classic, New Orleans, family restaurant turned out to be even better than I remembered and exceeded my expectations.  I can easily see becoming a weekly regular like the generations of families since 1933 who already make this restaurant their favorite stop.