Friday, February 26, 2010

Taking a risk at Antonio’s Restaurant

In every occupation, there are some limitations that you need to know about. If your career takes you into the wild, you might need to know if you are allergic to any of the animals you might encounter. For a painter, an allergy to certain pigments could be a problem.

My Achilles' heel as a food writer is that Italian tomato sauce (or red gravy) always makes me sick.  Whether it is because of high acidity or combining it with cheese, it never fails, I spend the early morning hours kneeling to the porcelain god, swearing to the tile floor in my bathroom that I will never eat Italian food again, cross my heart and hope to die.

Making this kind of promise is highly problematic because I adore pizza (red sauce and all) and I love Italian cuisine.  What’s a girl to do?  On very rare occasions, I get lucky.  I find an Italian place or pizza joint that plays nice with my belly and the only conclusion I can make from this mystery is that they offer a “quality” red sauce.

What do I mean by this?  To me, a basic, “quality” red sauce consists of fresh tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, garlic and basil.  I’ve made red sauce at home and have never experienced gastrointestinal distress from my own creations.  Quite often I’ve substituted canned tomatoes for fresh with the same, delicious result.  So why have I so frequently experienced this pain when dining out?

With a little online research I discovered that fast food pizza joints will add horrible things like MSG or citric acid to the cheapest tomato sauce they can get their hands on.  It also worries me that formal restaurants who should be using fresh ingredients really aren’t!

Perhaps it makes me naive to believe most restaurants should be using quality produce but all I can really do is tread carefully in the realm of Italian sauces and be discriminating when selecting a restaurant.  Last night, I decided to brave a fairly new Italian restaurant on Maple Street called Antonio’s.  This is my 26th cheat and, to my dismay, I weighed the same.  I am still only down 51 pounds.

Antonio’s Restaurant moved from the West Bank to Maple Street in the Riverbend in August 2009, but the waitstaff, owner and chef remain the same, as well as a pretty extensive wine list.  John and I were rather comforted by the décor that featured rich, burnt orange painted walls, elegant art and warm, low lighting.  The dining room featured sturdy wood tables and chairs that made dining (and lounging) quite comfortable.

Our server immediately brought some warm, rosemary-scented bread to the table with a small dipping plate of olive oil.  The bread was savory and delightful while the oil was flavored with red pepper flakes and sun dried tomatoes.

For an appetizer, we ordered the Fried Calamari (spelled calamary on the menu) as a little test.  Is it just me or does EVERY Italian restaurant feature fried calamari?  Anyhow, I find that ordering this fairly simple appetizer tends to give me an idea of how good the rest of the meal will be.  Antonio’s passed my test with flying colors. The fish was tender and the batter was crunchy and not too oily with just a little bit of heat.  The calamari was served with a marinara dipping sauce that was neither too sweet nor too acidic, but just right.

I was excited when my Lasagna came out because I knew I would enjoy the sauce at the very least.  The meat, a combination of Italian sausage and lean ground beef, was spiced well and tasty.  The Lasagna had several cheeses I don’t associate with authentic lasagna (cheddar, provolone and Swiss as well as the usual ricotta, Parmesan and mozzarella) but the dish was still quite enjoyable nonetheless.

John selected the Linguine Mediterraneo featuring large pieces of shrimp, artichoke hearts, black olives, cherry tomatoes and feta cheese in their “special” garlic sauce.  My taste of his dish proved to be very fresh and flavorful with a nice tang from the artichokes.

Although we couldn’t finish our entrees, I was still raring for dessert and selected a Chocolate Lava Cake with vanilla ice cream.  The cake came out hot with a large scoop of ice cream smothered in chocolate syrup.  Usually, John won’t help me eat most of the desserts, but this time he finished it off!

The best part of this story is that last night I slept like a baby and felt terrific this morning when I woke up!  No tummy problems, not even a hint of indigestion, arose to haunt me and I knew I had found another Italian gem. It was obvious that, like myself, Antonio’s values the use of fresh ingredients, soothing my stomach and making me a happy diner. For that, I can’t help but say “Grazie!”

Friday, February 19, 2010

New to the ‘hood: Barcelona Tapas Café

Being obsessed with food, I tend to notice when new restaurants open up in my neighborhood.  Just the other day, for example, I was cruising down Dublin Street in the Riverbend and noticed a bright new sign exclaiming “Barcelona Tapas Now Open.” Ecstatic that a tapas restaurant had opened up right near me, I slowed my car to a crawl. Several of the drivers behind me were dismayed, but I had figured out my next cheat meal. Last night, I visited the Barcelona Tapas Café for my 25th cheat. I have lost a total of 51 pounds.

Curious about its origins, I called the restaurant (504-861-9696) to request a menu and ask a few questions.  Xavier, the owner, happened to answer the phone and filled me in on some facts.  Apparently, Xavier had formerly owned Laurentino’s Restaurant that was tucked away in a strip mall on the corner of Transcontinental and West Esplanade Avenue in Metairie.  Very recently, the building housing Laurentino’s was sold, and the new buyer intends to demolish the strip and erect a car wash in its place!

As you can imagine, this came as quite a shock to Xavier, who had been enjoying regular clientele since his opening in 2002.  He relayed to me that many of Laurentino’s patrons had actually made the trek all the way from Uptown specifically to enjoy his cuisine.  I’m assuming Spanish food, particularly tapas, was highly unique to the GNO at the time.

So it seemed that fate had lent a hand, forcing Xavier to move his restaurant to this Uptown locale, delighting his regular visitors and new customers alike.

Since Barcelona Tapas Café opened only a mere two weeks ago, I went into the restaurant expecting there to be little quirks that had not yet been ironed out.  Surprisingly, the only setback I discovered was that they can only take cash right now, and the ATM installed in their restaurant was not yet operable.  After a short ride to the bank, John and I came back to Dublin Street, cash in hand and ready to enjoy some delicious tapas.

Our server graciously explained the ordering process; we were used to it, though, since it was identical to that of a sushi restaurant.  After reading the descriptions from the menu, John and I checked off the dishes we wanted on a little piece of paper listing all the menu items.  We got a little carried away at first (like that’s unusual), but we finally narrowed our choices to eight different items. Then came the best part: We leaned back in our chairs to enjoy a cool glass of red wine sangria accented with diced apples.

Before long, the small plates started pouring from the kitchen at a rate John and I just barely managed to match. We quickly demolished a plate of thinly sliced Chorizo and Gouda cheese served on crunchy French bread toast points before our server brought another dish of chilled ceviche.  I oohed and ahhed over the ceviche, which featured large pieces of shrimp and fish marinated in citrus juices (possibly both lemon and lime), finely chopped tomatoes and jalapeño peppers.   It was so fresh and spicy!  I can’t wait to go back and eat it again when the weather heats up.

After the cold tapas, our server brought out our hot orders, starting with what they called a Pork Tenderloin & Gouda Cheese Canoe.  The “canoe” turned out to be a slice of toasted French bread topped with a large slice of pork with Gouda cheese melted on top.  It was the tastiest version of a boat I’d ever eaten, and I almost didn’t share it with John.  Luckily, we also had ordered another delicious “canoe”, this one featuring garlic sautéed shrimp drizzled with aioli and layered with melted Brie.  The most incredible thing about these “canoes’ aside from their incredible flavor was that each dish was only $2.99!

Although all the plates were delightful, I have to say my favorite were the stuffed piquillo peppers that came out next.   These little red peppers were roasted to release a spicy-sweet flavor, stuffed with salmon pâté and covered in a creamy red sauce that I’m guessing was also made from the peppers.  Absolutely wonderful!  I would return for the stuffed peppers alone.

We had two more hot plates to enjoy, an eggplant casserole (or samfaina) and a scallop casserole.  Samfaina is a Spanish dish similar to ratatouille, prepared with onions, garlic, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes and zucchini.  It was very rich, flavorful and rather hearty considering it lacked any meat.  The scallop casserole was very nice with perfectly cooked scallops mixed with a sherry-accented samafaina.

Finally, our server brought us the garlic tomato bread with Danish Cream Havarti and instructed us how to assemble our plate. It just looked like toasted bread with bits of raw garlic, halved cherry tomatoes, several slices of cheese and an elegant little glass carafe filled with olive oil.

Noting the server’s instruction, I gleefully set to work rubbing the raw garlic clove on the toasted bread followed by the tomatoes down to the skin.  Then I drizzled the bread with olive oil and topped it with the fragrant Havarti.  The experience was a lot of fun and scrumptious, too!

We rounded out our dinner with a small dessert, the Catalan Crème Brule that was the same as a regular Crème Brule, only accented with citrus and cinnamon.  Like everything else that evening, it was simply delectable.

We left the new restaurant thoroughly pleased, yet anxious to return to try the many dishes we were forced to skip over.  It seems to me that the dining choices in the Riverbend just keep getting better, and I couldn’t be happier having an awesome tapas restaurant so very close to home.  Y’all should definitely visit the Barcelona Tapas Café, especially if you loved Laurentino’s. Xavier would be so excited to see you again!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Roll into J’anita’s at the Avenue

*Note: These days (4/10/2011), J'Anita's is at the Rendon Inn...

If, at any time this weekend, you’re strolling down St. Charles hunting for something to eat between parades, you can skip the chicken on a stick and find some of the best bar food around at the Avenue Pub. Not too long ago, Craig and Kimmie Gieseke, who ran J’anita’s from a location on Magazine Street, shuttered their doors and teamed up with the folks at Avenue Pub. The resulting combining is great local and imported beers at a neighborhood bar with the incredible cuisine of J’Anita’s. Last night, John and I took advantage of the cold weather and cancelled parades to visit this fairly new collaboration. This is my 24th cheat and I am down 50 pounds.

When J’anita’s was located on Magazine, my co-workers and I visited often and had tasted everything from the Best Fish Sammich Ever to the Swamp Rueben, both of which are still on the menu at the Avenue Pub. But, since their move, I noticed some new items that definitely caught my eye.

John and I dropped into the Avenue Pub at around 6:00 p.m. last night, thankful to be out of the cold. The Avenue is a warm and inviting establishment with the classic high ceilings and wood floors typical of local architecture. Following the brightly designed chalkboards, we walked over to the kitchen counter and ordered our dinner, picked up a few draft Abita Ambers and sat down.

We appeared to be the only ones eating, so our food came out rather quickly. Our appetizer was called Sirloin Bites featuring bite-sized pieces of well-marinated, grilled sirloin served with house-made chimmichurri sauce, Kimmie’s famous guacamole and chips. Although I enjoyed the sirloin, the guacamole stole the show. I’ve had Kimmie’s guacamole before, and it is the best I’ve tasted with large, creamy chunks of avocado.

In short order our sandwiches arrived. John chose the St. Duck Chuck that is, as the menu so aptly states, a sandwich you’ll never forget. It’s a grilled sourdough sandwich with a currant tapenade, Cabernet sautéed duck, granny smith apples, cheddar cheese and bleu cheese. I fought to get as many bites as I could, but I will definitely have to return and order one for myself. All “sammiches” include one side and I couldn’t help but snag a few of John’s seasoned steak fries on the sly.

Please don’t get the impression I wasn’t pleased with my order, the Adult Grilled Cheese Sammich, because it was equally tasty. With an exquisite combination of cheddar, pepper jack and feta cheeses balanced with thick slices of bacon, chopped tomato and grilled onion, my mom’s old grilled cheese made with processed cheese slices would have crawled away in shame. For my side I chose the special, a creamy white bean soup accented with bacon, cheddar cheese and a splash of NOLA Brown Ale.

Although I didn’t get dessert, I was tempted to order from the extensive beer menu, which included items like Lazy Magnolia’s Southern Pecan Ale, offering a different sort of sweet for my drinking pleasure. But, due to the cold weather, all I could think about was curling up in bed to a good book. I’m thrilled that J’Anita’s was able to re-invent itself inside the Avenue Pub, and you should be, too. Don’t forget, when the parades come to a lull and your stomach is rumbling, the finest bar food on the avenue can be found at the Avenue!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Mayas: Alimento de dioses

When it comes to Latin American cuisine, I am woefully ignorant.  My sister, Mina, is a huge fan of Brazilian food and culture: She practices Capoeira, teaches Samba, performs in the Rio Carnival, speaks fluent Spanish and owns (but can’t really play) a berimbau. She has managed to teach me a few recipes featuring palm oil and Jasmine rice, but ultimately, I have not delved too deeply into the preparation of these aromatic delicacies.

When the restaurant I had chosen for last night was mysteriously closed, John and I decided to try Mayas Restaurant on Magazine Street, a newish eatery that touts “Latin fusion cuisine.” I immediately wished my sister was readily available to offer advice on what to order! This is my 23rd cheat, and I am down 49 pounds.  Only one more pound to go until I have lost the weight I gained last week, and then I will be back on track.

Perhaps it is just our luck, but I’ve been noticing that almost every time John and I dine out on Thursday nights, the restaurants we visit are practically barren of life.  I’m forced to ask myself some very serious questions. Have I missed something essential in the local dining scene?  Do people not eat out on Thursdays?  Are people avoiding me on purpose?  Do I smell funny?  If anyone can clue me in on this phenomenon, I would be eternally grateful.

Regardless, Mayas was fairly empty when we stepped in from the rain at around 7:30p.m.  Mentally chalking it up to the nasty weather, I ignored the lack of patrons as we were immediately seated at a comfortable two-top.  Like all things New Orleans, I love the local architecture and Mayas was no exception. The high ceilings adorned with pressed tin and the deep and chocolate-red color of the walls (didn’t the Mayans invent chocolate?) affected the feelings of warmth, luxury and romance.

After browsing the menu and hearing the specials from our server, the choices were almost dizzying, but we finally narrowed them down. We quickly placed our order before we could change our minds again.  We started with one of the suggested specials that our waiter dubbed a “Crab, Mango, and Avocado Stack.”

Larger than expected, this miraculous concoction not only defied gravity, but was incredibly fresh, sweet and spicy all at the same time. The “stack” alternated large pieces of shrimp, chilled lump crab meat, sliced avocado and a house-made salsa featuring mangoes, red onions, more avocado and tomatoes diced into minuscule cubes.  A house-made sauce of chilies and mango provided the sweet heat that tied the entire dish together.  We had also ordered the Jamaican Tostones that turned out to be excellent edible shovels for the seafood on the other plate.

I have had sweet fried plantains before, but these tostones were starchier, almost like a potato, and my curiosity drove me to look up how tostones are prepared once I got home.  In case you’re curious, too, you take thick slices of green or unripe plantains, fry them for 1-2 minutes on each side until golden in color, remove and then pat to remove excess oil.  Afterwards, you pound them flat with a utensil called a "tostonera," or any kitchen utensil that has a large enough flat surface. The plantains are then fried once again until they are crisp and golden brown.  These particular tostones were spiced with jerk seasoning and served with sweet coconut milk sauce, spicy chili sauce and their homemade salsa.  See?  I’m learning!

Although John and I were a bit full after the appetizers, we still couldn’t help looking forward to our entrees and honestly, who could blame us?  John’s dish arrived first, Lechon-Roasted Pork which had been marinated overnight in bitter orange, pineapple juice, beer and garlic mojo sauce served over black beans and rice. The pork was amazingly tender, so much so that it melted in our mouths leaving behind an ambrosial, salty tang on the tongue.

Helpless to resist, I had to choose the Chilean Sea Bass (a.k.a. Patagonian Toothfish).  I know I’ve said I try to eat this fish sparingly, but when I see it on a menu, served with avocado, chilled lump crab meat, grilled shrimp and asparagus, I just can’t help myself!  The spicy coconut cream sauce was delectable with the sea bass, and I just can’t bring myself to regret ordering it.

To the surprise of our server, we requested the dessert menu and quickly selected the Tres Leches cake and two Cuban coffees.  I’m sure he thought our appetites were bottomless by this point, but he seemed willing to humor us.  A Tres Leches cake, in case you were wondering, is a thick butter cake that has been soaked in three types of milk; condensed milk, evaporated milk and heavy cream.  Mayas rendition of this classic dessert was absolutely scrumptious.

By the time we strolled out of the restaurant, the rain had pretty much stopped, and the evening air was cool and refreshing.  It seemed that last night, the fates looked kindly upon us when forcing us from our original decision to a restaurant we had barely considered.  I keep thinking about Mina and how much she would have loved dining there, too.  Do you think I could convince her to visit me from California if I offered to treat her to dinner at Mayas?