Friday, January 29, 2010

A taste of history and home at Le Citron Bistro

Situated on the lonely corner of Religious and Orange Streets in the Lower Garden District lays the unassuming Creole cottage that houses Le Citron Bistro.  I can’t tell you how many times I have passed this restaurant on my way home from the CBD and wondered about it.  How long has it been there?  What kind of food do they serve?  Does anyone know about it? Surrounded by warehouses, dilapidated structures and a concrete manufacturer right across the street, it seemed an odd place for a bistro, but this unusual location is what finally peaked my interest.  This is my 22nd cheat and I am down 48 pounds, as I managed to lose two of the pounds I gained last week.

Because I wanted to be prepared, especially after past mistakes (what’s the saying, fool me twice?), I Googled Le Citron Bistro and discovered some rather interesting tidbits about the property and management.  In 2004, the New Orleans Historic District Landmarks Commission voted to designate the double Creole cottage at 1539 Religious Street as a recognized historic property.

According to the restaurant’s website, Architectural historian Eleanor Burke spoke in favor of the designation, stating that because of the construction type, the property at 1539 Religious Street indicates that it was built sometime between 1810 and 1813, making it the oldest known structure in New Orleans above Canal Street.  Located in what was once known as the Faubourg de la Course, the double Creole cottage becomes more interesting because the area has retained very few cohesive streetscapes and no other buildings prior to 1830 have survived.

Even more fascinating, while owner David Baird was renovating in 2004-2005, he discovered several architectural clues that might indicate that the building is even older, dating back to Jesuit structures of the 1600’s.  Baird uncovered wooden pegs as opposed to nails, bricks over an original doorway that are over 9 inches long (unusual length for the 1800’s), a remnant of a Spanish roof tile similar to a Jesuit site in Bolivia, and the overall similarity of the architecture to those of other Jesuit structures of the 17th century.

Other than the fantastic cuisine, the most significant reason for my move from California to New Orleans almost 7 years ago was the incredible history that permeates daily life here.  I couldn’t wait to visit Le Citron Bistro just to step inside a structure that has been lovingly restored to how it might have looked more than 300 years ago!  At this point I didn’t even care about the food, it was going to be a trip back in time and a chance to absorb history right through my fingertips and the soles of my shoes.

John and I arrived at Le Citron Bistro at 5:40 p.m., a little earlier than we should have.  The restaurant actually opens at 6:00 p.m. even though the website indicated 5:30 p.m.  All in all, it was no big deal to while away 15 minutes taking photos of the exterior and walking around the entire structure before the doors opened.  We wandered in through the front door, wondering at the interior of the building replete with exposed brick walls and high wood beamed ceilings.  Even the uneven floors were made of old bricks that looked as if they had been polished to a high sheen.

A lone server suddenly appeared and quickly steered us to a small dining room that we enjoyed all to ourselves for the entire meal.  The mood was unexpectedly romantic with flames dancing in the dining room fireplace, the lights set low and a highly unobtrusive waitress.  We were able to order quickly from the very simple menu and although the wait seemed a tad long (after all, we were one of two parties in the entire restaurant) our appetizers finally arrived.

We had selected two dishes; I wanted to try the Goose, Green Onion and Andouille Gumbo while John was interested in their BBQ Shrimp.  Now, I have never eaten goose before, but that gumbo was so rich with a medium roux and thick pieces of goose meat and sausage…I am pretty sure that is the best gumbo I have had so far.  That is exactly what I always thought gumbo should taste like.  Simply fantastic!  We were served warm, crusty, homemade rolls with our appetizers and we used them to soak up every last drop of that incredible gumbo. The BBQ Shrimp wasn’t as spicy or buttery as most I’ve tried, but the shrimp were huge, fresh and delicious.

After a rather long wait, our entrées arrived.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I understand there was only one server and judging by the quality of the food, everything was made to order…so I am not complaining.  I certainly wasn’t complaining when our dishes arrived either.  I selected the Catfish St. Jean Baptiste, which was fried catfish topped with lump crab meat salad fried sweet potato chips and steamed cauliflower and broccoli.  The thick, large piece of catfish was sweet and juicy on the inside and crispy with a nice thick batter on the outside.  With just a little lemon and salt, this simple fare was comforting and quite tasty.

On my request, John selected the Fried Chicken with Red Beans & Rice.  The chicken had a perfect scald on it and after one bite, I felt transported back to my Aunt’s kitchen (Aunt Edie was from South Carolina and made the best fried chicken and biscuits EVER).  Both entrees felt so comforting and folksy that along with the old cottage around us, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see the calendar flip back several hundred years and found ourselves guests of some Creole woman who had invited us for supper.

Although neither of us could finish our dishes, I couldn’t resist ordering their only dessert, a simple bread pudding that, as the waitress pointed out with a sinful grin, had just come piping hot out of the oven.  The pudding, like everything else, was simple and perfect, laden with a light caramel sauce, butter and cinnamon.
As we left the fires and comfort of Le Citron Bistro, I thought of how I will never drive past their doors again and wonder...I'll stop in and get some gumbo!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Indulging at Jackson Restaurant

After overcoming many obstacles this week including a lung infection, incompetent physicians and their assistants, and unintentionally quitting smoking (I couldn’t breathe after all)…I was barely even fazed when I stepped on the scale to discover I had gained four pounds. Obviously, even a woman scheduled to write a weekly article regarding the incredible strides she’s made in weight loss and fine dining is bound to have setbacks. Considering I haven’t encountered a serious setback in the five months I’ve been dieting, I would say I am doing pretty well.

Regardless of my gain, I still was determined to eat my weekly cheat meal. John deserved a great meal too considering his patience with me during this trying time. (Will you ever forgive my irrational tantrums? Pretty please?) After much deliberation, I finally decided to try Jackson on Magazine Street. I’d driven past it many times and have considered dining there on many occasions since it re-opened. The time had finally arrived…

John and I got to the restaurant early and were greeted warmly by Mark Anthony, one of the owners of the new incarnation.  Mark informed us that Jackson often offers a special on Thursday nights featuring a Moroccan-themed menu where you can select three courses and a bottle of wine all for around $50 per couple. Although that sounded tempting, I already had my sights set on some items from the original menu, so I opted out this time, but made a mental note to try their special sometime soon.

The interior of Jackson wouldn’t be out of place in the French Quarter with its exposed brick walls and high ceilings.  John and I were seated at a comfy, romantic booth upholstered in what seemed like a rich, brown suede-like fabric.  The white linen-covered tables all featured flickering candles and familiar strains of jazz flowed through the space at a comfortable level from what sounded like local radio station WTUL.

Our waitress kindly tempted us with a special cocktail dubbed a “Jackson Five” which was laden with several different kinds of rum, peach schnapps and cranberry juice.  We were both in the mood for a drink so we accepted, and to our delight, the drink was fresh tasting and fruity, served with rum soaked cherries and a thick slice of orange.  It was a perfect way to begin our evening.

For our first appetizer I selected another special, Cream of Asparagus Soup that was so tasty and laden with bleu cheese I could have scraped the bowl with some bread if I had any.   Next we had the Gorgonzola Cheesecake served with seeded crackers and topped with cheddar cheese and chopped walnuts.  It was really rich but we had no difficulty scarfing it down before our next appetizer arrived, Oysters Jackson.  These charbroiled beauties were laced with butter, Parmesan and topped with shrimp.  Although the oysters seemed a little small for this time of year, the shellfish was cooked perfectly and the flavor was delicious!

Admittedly, we were already getting full by this time but I was still anxious for my entrée that came out, colors flying, shortly after the appetizers.  My mouth was already watering as she laid the plate of Blackened Seared Tuna drizzled with Strawberry Jalapeño Butter served with my selected side of Whipped Boursin Sweet Potatoes.  The tuna was perfectly seared on the outside with a cool, raw center.  The heat from the blackening seasoning and the Jalapeño combined with the strawberry was a flavor my tongue hasn’t encountered before, but absolutely loved and I will definitely be back for more. Oh, and the sweet potatoes, let's just say John doesn't even like sweet potatoes normally, but he certainly couldn't get enough of mine.

Although he enjoyed some of my plate, John couldn't help but focus on his own dish, a Béarnaise Burger with a side of shoestring-style Truffle Fries.  The meat must have been marinated in wine and garlic (among other seasonings I couldn’t place) before becoming the delicious burger it was. Also, I love it when restaurants brush their hamburger buns in butter before grilling as Jackson so lovingly did.  The Béarnaise Sauce and grilled onions were just bonuses added to the delicious meat of the burger.  Before I forget to mention it, the Truffle Fries are awesome and, yes, a little truffle oil can go a long way in flavoring something as simple as a French fry.

Finally, because you know I couldn’t leave without something sweet, we ordered their Stuffed Cookies for dessert.  Simply put, they take homemade chocolate chip cookies and slather ganache and hazelnut chocolate between two to make a sweet little sandwich. They were truly divine!

The only thing that disappointed me about Jackson Restaurant was the fact that we were the only patrons there!  Even when we were leaving at around 7:00 p.m., we were still the only people in the restaurant.  What can I say but get your rears in gear and get over there!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Feasting on raw oysters at Casamento’s

Even before my friend Meghan wrote about her eye-opening oyster crawl, I have been salivating at the mere thought of my favorite mollusk.  There are tons of places in New Orleans that offer what I sought, but I couldn’t think of a better, classic-and-comfortable type of place for several dozen raw oysters than Casamento’s Restaurant.  This is my 20th cheat and I am down 50 pounds.

As many of us know, Casamento’s has been a local favorite for oysters (both fried and raw) for over 90 years.  Established by Italian immigrant Joe Casamento back in 1919, Casamento’s is a unique restaurant known not only for its fabulous oysters, but also for its heavily tiled décor.  Apparently Mr. Casamento wanted to keep his restaurant immaculately clean and thought the best way to accomplish this was to cover every spare inch in tile, which required supplies from four different tile companies from all over the country!
John and I arrived at the restaurant a little early last night, around 5:20 p.m., and discovered a line forming at the front door!  Apparently, we weren’t the only ones who thought we might beat the rush by coming early.   We filed in behind the others and waited patiently for the doors to open.

Shortly after 5:30 p.m., we were allowed inside to find a seat along with the rest of the patrons, whose number had grown exponentially since we arrived.  Quicker than we thought possible, we sat down, ordered and received our first dish in less than ten minutes!  I’ve heard rumors of long waits at Casamento’s, but I have never run into this problem when visiting.  Perhaps I am one of the lucky ones!

A large plate of Fried Crab Claws and a cup of their famous Seafood Gumbo started us out for the evening. Casamento’s corn meal batter is crunchy, delicious and perfect for crab claws (as well as oysters).  It was easy to devour the order after a nice squeeze of lemon and a couple shakes of Louisiana Hot Sauce.  Although I am not a huge fan of seafood gumbo (Is it just me or does it seem like the seafood always gets overcooked?), I did enjoy the rich flavor of the roux and it warmed my whole body after the chill of waiting outside for the doors to open.

John and I decided to make raw oysters our entrée for the evening and soon enough, our waiter delivered two dozen freshly shucked oysters to our table.  After making a sauce of ketchup, Louisiana Hot Sauce and a nice dollop of horseradish from the condiments provided on our table, we prepared to feast.  The oysters were large, plump and salty, and thankfully, the shucking process hadn’t left them liquor-less! That’s my favorite part.  Absolutely divine!  We gobbled them down with some saltine crackers and almost ordered another dozen before I remembered I wanted to leave room for dessert.

The last time I visited Casamento’s, I shared a huge slab of six-layered German Chocolate Cake, and I wanted to have it again.  Unfortunately, the waitress informed me that they didn’t have that anymore, but offered their Chocolate Cake instead.  Since I still craved dessert, I accepted her offer and shortly after, the cake arrived.  It was still six layers with a frosting flavor that reminded me of pudding, but it was rich and delicious, and we had no problem finishing it off.

We paid our bill in cash - apparently, they don’t accept credit cards - and, as we were walking out, noticed that the restaurant had become packed.  Both locals and visitors alike were enjoying the oyster bounty, and we were glad we arrived early!  Although January doesn’t end in “er”, obviously we all knew that the oysters would still be cold, plump and delicious at Casamento’s.

*Was I a noob with the camera or what!?!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Breakfast and a little lagniappe at Coulis

I don’t think there is anything more comforting, delicious and satisfying than breakfast. I’m not talking about a bowl of cereal or a simple bagel. I mean a full-fledged breakfast that would include items like eggs (every way), sausage, bacon, pancakes, waffles, hash browns, omelets, grits, country potatoes, French toast, fresh fruits, cheeses, juices and gallons of steaming, hot coffee. I’m sure there are lots of other goodies to add to that list, but you get the general idea.

Unfortunately, because of the way I have scheduled my cheats, I have not had the opportunity to enjoy a full breakfast meal in all its glory. I have also been seriously irritating my co-workers and boyfriend lately due to my audible (and incessant) breakfast sausage daydreams. In order to satisfy my craving, relieve my friends and finally sample Chef James Leeming’s cuisine, for this week’s cheat I chose to have breakfast for lunch at Coulis. This is my 19th cheat and I am down 49 pounds.

Coulis (3625 Prytania Street) is housed in what once was the Bluebird Café. I had always meant to try out the Bluebird, but never got around to it. I hope I didn’t miss too much, but that train has passed. Coulis is a cute little establishment, cozy and casual with pumpkin-orange walls and various décor featuring photographs of streetcars, paintings of the Three Little Pigs and more. At a signal from a friendly waitress, we seated ourselves and began browsing the menu.

I quickly decided to order one of my favorites, Eggs Benedict, and a side of sausage patties and a croissant. John and Anne (my faithful dining companions) were drawn to the specials chalkboard on the wall behind me and chose to mix it up a bit. Anne ordered a cup of Pumpkin Ginger soup, the Huevos Rancheros and a side of sausage.

The chalkboard items also seduced John, but he selected a cup of the Shrimp & Chorizo Gumbo, a Grilled Bagel with Norwegian Smoked Salmon and a side of bacon. I think the waitress thought we were overdoing it from the skeptical look she gave us, but I forgive her. She didn’t realize we have huge appetites!

The soups arrived almost immediately and I had my spoon in hand so I could grab a taste! John’s gumbo was dark, rich and spicy, and simply loaded with shrimp and chorizo. Anne’s Pumpkin Ginger soup was drizzled with crème fraiche that cooled the spiciness of the ginger just enough so you could also taste the smattering of chive oil to balance the sweetness of the pumpkin.

Before the soup cups could be whisked away, our plates arrived. Two perfectly poached eggs were balanced atop a thick, jalapeno corn cake and pulled pork debris and covered with Hollandaise sauce. I loved the flavor of the jalapeno corn cake combined with the pork debris, my only complaint was that there wasn’t quite enough sauce for me…the Hollandaise was so delicious and perfectly made, why not bring it on? The side order of patties was perfect and completely sated my craving for sausage…for now, and the flaky, buttery croissant melted in my mouth.

Anne and John both graciously allowed me to taste their plates. I might be odd, but I love sharing food at the table. It reminds me of family and home. I had been tempted to order Anne’s Huevos Rancheros and was delighted to find it was as tasty as I had hoped. Two over easy eggs were served on black beans, Creole sauce, corn tortillas, pepper jack cheese and sour cream. I enjoyed the Creole flavors combined in this classic Mexican breakfast and wasn’t surprised a bit at how well they worked together.

John’s dish was fresh and flavorful. -- a grilled bagel with Norwegian smoked salmon, cream cheese, red onions, tomato, avocado, capers and a beet garnish. The flavor recalled to me an awesome little bagel shop I used to visit in California who served delicious shmears and fresh vegetables on huge bagels that I craved on a regular basis.

After sighing contentedly and finishing the last scraps on our plates, Anne reminded me that we didn’t have any dessert. She put forth a brilliant plan, so fitting for the season, of picking up our first king cake of the year at Sucré. When we arrived at the pastel candy shop, it seemed that a lot of people had the same idea we did, but because of the excellent service, we picked up a king cake and were out the door in less than 5 minutes.

When we got back to the office, we greedily snatched slices of the brilliantly glittered pastry and enjoyed a truly incredible treat. I’m at a loss to decide between Cake Café & Bakery and Sucré when it comes to who has the better king cake. They both are fantastic!

Although I was stuffed, I couldn’t help thinking about where I wanted to go eat next week. Does anyone have any suggestions? If not, I am sure to discover another incredible cheat!