Monday, August 30, 2010

Looking for the log ride at Parrot Pete's

On Saturday, John and I went to have breakfast with two dear friends, Casey and Brandon, who live almost in the middle of the Jean Lafitte Preserve on the Westbank. Seeing as I am very unfamiliar with the geography on that side of the river, the extent of my knowledge being Pho Tau Bay, I asked Casey if she wouldn't mind hunting down an interesting restaurant.

I think we were all surprised when we discovered Parrot Pete's Coffee & Sweets located inside a theme park resort...minus the theme park! This is my 49th cheat and I am down 68 pounds.

When we pulled into Fountain Park Centre, all of us were gawking at the spectacle before us. How often does one find hundreds of palm trees, huge man-made ponds sparkling with tall, playing fountains and scattered statues both in and out of the water mimicking geese, ducks, swans, dogs, turtles and even children on Manhattan Boulevard? I kept expecting to see a log ride or a line of ticket booths off in the distance...perhaps even a man-made mountain with snow-capped peaks, a roller coaster track twisting around it and emitting screams of terror and joy.

Still rubbing our eyes, we stumbled into Parrot Pete's only to be stunned anew by the proliferation of yet even more palm trees, all of which were adorned by several fake parrots, and iron chandeliers with clinging fake cockatoos. One of the many, many staff members told us to choose a seat anywhere in the sprawling restaurant. As this resort restaurant was obviously a great place for families with children,  we attempted, in vain, to avoid the noise and selected a table in the back near a large marble fireplace sporting a painting of (what else?) parrots in palm trees over the mantle.

Since there were only two tables aside from ours filled with rambunctious (and loud) children, the staff outnumbered the patrons and our server was anxious to be busy doing something. He quickly took our order and rushed off to get our drinks.  After he left, we noticed some fun frozen drinks at the bottom of the menu like a "Caramel Freeze" with frozen espresso, caramel sauce and whipped cream.  We were going to order a few when our server returned, but he informed us that the "machine" was down.

We accepted our loss gracefully, especially when our entrees suddenly poured out of the kitchen in a flurry.  Casey and I both got "Lafitte's Pirogue", two delicious buttery biscuits topped with a large slices of spicy andouille sausage, two perfectly cooked, over-easy eggs and a slathering of Hollandaise sauce with dill and large crawfish tails.  I have to admit that the restaurant's theme made me fear an overly-generic approach to poorly prepared food, but I was wrong.  Everything was quite fresh and good, especially the flaky grilled biscuits!  My only complaint would have to be a lack of seasoning on the crawfish tails which were obviously not from Louisiana.

John ordered "Pedro's Burrito", which was basically a large breakfast burrito stuffed with sausage, scrambled eggs, hash browns, cheddar cheese, bell peppers and onions.  This mammoth burrito also offered a side and John selected bacon.  The burrito, while nothing special, was quite tasty using obviously fresh ingredients and a whole lot of 'em!  There was a "salsa" on the side that was pretty disappointing though, almost like a spicy ketchup, something that the restaurant could easily remedy.

Brandon went for a sweet breakfast with "Ain't Yo Mamma's Praline Pancakes" topped with candied pecans and an oh-so-sweet praline syrup.  It was a hefty stack of five pancakes and I was impressed that Brandon made his way though half of it before throwing in his fork. He let me taste a bite of his leftovers and I thought they were quite delicious...fluffy pancakes with a buttery praline syrup could rarely go wrong in my eyes.

Since I had a savory breakfast, I couldn't walk away from a pastry shop without dessert.  When I wandered up to the dessert case to make my selection, several members of the staff recommended the Triple Berry Cake with mascarpone frosting. I simply couldn't say no to something with such an overwhelming fan base!  The cake turned out to be quite nice and light with sweet berries mixed into the middle layer of frosting.  Casey opted for a cannelloni which she thought was tasty, but somewhat average.

Since it was still raining steadily when we left, I was unable to get a lot of photos from the theme-park-lacking resort.  So, we all piled into Brandon's car and headed back to their house on the edge of the bayou.  (Remind me to tell you sometime about the "swamp-Sasquatch-monster" they spotted late one night running across Barataria Boulevard)  Until then, I will keep my eyes out for the missing theme park on Manhattan Boulevard.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

I won!

Before you get your hopes up, I didn't win the lottery. Apparently my horoscope was wrong! Who knew? Well, I suppose I should have known because I usually never win anything.

But this time, this rare and special time, I did win something! I won a Whole Foods Gift Bag full of gluten free, organic goodies from the Gambit!

See?  Now you can be a winner too!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Lager, stout, ale and more beer at The Bulldog

Even though there is a vast bar and restaurant selection within walking distance of my old apartment on Harmony Street, I would often find myself at The Bulldog.  Not only does it possess a very comfortable and relaxed atmosphere, they also serve up some of the tastiest bar food in the city. When I walked into the bar a few days ago, it was the first time I'd been back in several years, but much to my relief, not a whole lot had changed.

The Bulldog, with it's wooden floors, bar and ceiling (reminding me of the hull of an old boat), still offers one of the largest selections of draft and bottled beers in New Orleans. Grinning, I strolled along the length of the bar reviewing the different brands in a long line of uniquely-shaped taps. Craving a stout, but seeking a change from Guinness, I finally selected a Rogue Chocolate which is a sweet stout from Ashland, Oregon (also home of possibly the coolest Shakespeare Festival in the U.S.).

I sipped slowly on the thick, rich beer while watching the other folks in the bar. To the right of me, a few ladies were enjoying what looked like a huge pile of cheesy goo, but I am pretty sure it was the King's Nachos featuring fresh corn tortilla chips, house made refried beans, several different kinds of cheese, jalapenos, diced tomatoes, sour cream and Pico de Gallo.  It was such a large plate of nachos that the three women had no problem sharing.  There was even a decent amount remaining after they got up and left.

Seeing as it was happy hour (2 to 7 p.m. every weekday), I slugged down the rest of my stout and selected a beer on the complete opposite side of the ale spectrum, a Stella Artois. Taking my pint glass in hand (Yes, they use glass!), I wandered outside.  When I used to hang out at The Bulldog, the patio was not heavily used or even in existence.  But now, with a myriad tables and chairs, large umbrellas to block the sun and a cool "fountain" featuring water endlessly gushing from a line of taps, it has become the perfect place to relax and watch the traffic roll by.

As I was drained the remnants of my Stella, the patio was already half-full of folks who had just left work and had met up with friends for a few beers, maybe a few bites and some good conversation.  It was good to see that my old neighborhood tavern hadn't really changed all that much...just enough to make it even better.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Pinkberry: I'm not a groupie...really!

For many months now, folks have been buzzing all over town about Pinkberry, the new frozen yogurt craze that is "swirling" the nation.  When I discovered it's origins in West Hollywood, I thought to myself "OMG! It'll be totally radical dude!"

Well, not really. I was sure it would highlight the plasticity that is Los Angeles. Just looking at the website made me cringe a little (and turn off my computer speakers). Pinkberry's marketing strategy focuses on three things; happy, peppy employees, store design and atmosphere and a great product.  They are community-concsious (like most of our local businesses), but it comes with that California pretension and, well...insincerity.

When I visited the first New Orleans location on Magazine Street yesterday, I was not at all surprised by the clientele packing the tiny shop.  The parking lot was a money-scented slew of BMW's, Lexus and Mercedes and their owners carried Louis Vuitton purses and wore Moss Lipow sunglasses. I suppose I could also blame that on the Whole Foods across the street, but it was still unnerving.  Every single person who walked through those spotted lime-green doors oozed affluence and an innate sense of privilege.  It all felt so very California.

In my mind this shop represented everything New Orleans wasn't. New Orleans is wonderfully down to earth and folks take you for who you are, not who you are trying to be.  They'd love to share a meal or a drink and it doesn't matter one whit that you drove a beat-up Pinto to get there.

My only problem now is that not welcoming a unique shop like Pinkberry would be very inhospitable and very unlike New Orleans. Well, that and the fact that the yogurt rocks!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

It's my birthday and I'll cheat if I want to...

When I woke on Friday, I was feeling pretty gloomy, reflecting the thundering, gray day and reluctant to even open my eyes. I wasn't rising to my first day as a 39-year-old.

John always teases about how immature I can be, but it's true...I don't want to grow up. I never have.  I never thought adulthood was cool aside from what I perceived as complete freedom, being able to do whatever you want, whenever you wanted to do it. Otherwise, nothing was finer than having the time to swim all day at the neighbor's pool, taking field trips to museums or nature reserves, baking with my mom on sleepy Sundays, watching old movies in her California King bed and being so caught in the swirl of a great book that reality simply dissolved around me. Responsibility was a dirty word.

So, yeah. I get a little moody on my birthday.  I spent the whole morning growling alone in my room, denying myself breakfast and lunch, yet coming out  to snap periodically at John and to maintain a joyous birthday facade on Facebook.  Finally, at around 2 p.m., I decide I can't take it anymore. Regardless of the fact that I had a feast the day before, I was going to cheat again, damnit! John made a feeble attempt to veer me back to the diet track, but he knew his effort was in vain. It was my birthday and I'd cheat if I wanted to...

Naturally, the dark clouds that had been looming all morning, burst and dumped their heavy summer rain before we were halfway to our destination on Magazine Street.  I was in the mood for La Divina Gelateria's wonderful panini and some elegant sweets from Sucre just down the street. A little rain wasn't going to stop me. Well, in this case, not even a lot of rain. The closest residential (a.k.a. free) parking was on 6th Street, so we had to slog it through the downpour for two blocks without an umbrella, dodging gutter showers, sidewalk rivers and tourists enveloped in plastic.  I suppose I shouldn't poke fun at the slicker-savvy visitors seeing as they were, at the very least, prepared.

Dripping wet and ornery, I squished my way up to the counter at La Divina and was in the midst of ordering a full Muffalina panini when the girl behind the counter nervously informed me she only had enough ciabatta bread to make one-half of a sandwich, but a delivery was on its way.  All I could do was stand there, stare at her open-mouthed and shiver a little from being soaked to the skin in the air-conditioned shop.

Just as I was about to mount the gelato case and tear off her head, a relieved smile split across her face as she spotted the long-awaited delivery walking in through the door behind me. She seemed to understand how narrowly she eluded disaster and immediately took my order.  The only decently-lit table in the house left was nauseatingly close to a trio of sorority girls who only served to push me deeper into the funk with their incessant chattering, giggling and breathing with pubescent enthusiasm.

Thankfully, I ordered a double mocha.

Almost instantaneously, the chocolate worked its dark magic causing the day to brighten, no matter what the weather was like outside.  The steaming bowl of coffee brought me back to my senses and just as I was contemplating fishing out a goopy mass of chocolate sitting at the bottom of my cup, our panini arrived.  Ravenous, I scarfed down almost half of my Muffalino featuring many of the usual suspects like mortadella, ham, aged provolone and tasty olive salad, but what I really enjoy is La Divina's bread.  The ciabatta gets so deliciously greasy and crispy from the press, it almost doesn't matter what's between the slices.

John had a Francese, which I've enjoyed before on several occaisons.  It features Italian ham, brie, a few sliced cornichon pickles and a slathering of Dijon mustard pressed between that always extraordinary bread. John said he liked his sandwich better, but I loved them both equally...mine was just tangy and spicy while John's was salty and creamy. (Am I the only one blushing from that sentence?)

Although the gelato at La Divina was tempting as always, I wanted something just a tad more decadent, so I dragged John down the street and begged him to buy me a "Big Kid Shake" at Sucre. I love walking into this gorgeously bright pastel store with glass cases filled with gelato, sorbet, pristine pastries and rows upon rows of amazing chocolates. I could have gone completely dippy, ordering enough sweets to make myself sick (and increase my debt exponentially). To our mutual shock, I exercised some self control and settled in to enjoy a delicious concoction called "A Bunch of Nuts" starring Brown Putter Pecan Gelato, Frangelico and Praline Liquor. "The Velvet Hammer" sold John solely with its name, but I thought it was a tasty combination of Vanilla Gelato, Brandy and nutmeg. We also felt a little buzzed after slurping them down.

After everything we went through and all that I finally got to enjoy, I still felt somewhat guilty about cheating twice in one week.  A friend of mine said "birthday calories don't count."  Is that true?

Friday, August 20, 2010

Reinventing the past and conquering childhood fears at Restaurant Cuvee

Seven years ago today, I spent my 32nd birthday all alone in the Crescent City.  It had only been two months since I moved from the Bay Area and I hadn't made any friends yet, but I had made up my mind to enjoy a solo evening out on the town to celebrate.  Out of the blue, I get a call from a friend in California who pitied my lonesome state and took it upon himself to reserve a table for me at Emeril's Delmonico. "Are you sure about this?" I asked.  "Absolutely," he replied, "order whatever you's on me."

I had to take him up on his offer, didn't I?

That night, I arrived at Delmonico where I was seated at my own table near the window so I could watch the streetcars go by.  Accepting my server's most gracious suggestion, I chose to indulge in the chef's tasting menu.  It turned out to be seven courses of pure bliss, each dish paired with wine selected by their knowledgeable sommelier.  The servers started to cheer me on, impressed (or perhaps shocked) that I was able to devour every crumb from every last plate.  When I finally left the restaurant almost three hours later, I was elated, extremely full and superbly contented.  It was easily one of the finest meals I have ever had in my entire life.

The next morning, I got a call from my friend who had obviously seen the rather hefty charge on his credit card and the very first words from his lips were "What the hell did you eat?!"

Here I am seven years later turning 39 and yesterday, I had my weekly "cheat" at Restaurants Cuvee and I am amazed when I consider the parallels to my experience at Delmonico so long ago. This is my 48th cheat and I am down 67 pounds.

John and I were invited to this extravagant luncheon by none other than the "Food Goddess" herself, Lorin Gaudin. We arrived at the CBD restaurant on Magazine Street to find Lorin had already scored the best table in the house.  If you've never been in Cuvee before, know that it has a gorgeous interior featuring the traditional exposed brick walls so often seen in New Orleans combined with a very contemporary shaped ceiling and beautiful iron sculptures posing as light fixtures throughout the dining room and bar.

Only a few months ago, Cuvee was lucky enough to hire Chef Isaac Toups who had been managing charcuterie for many years at where else but Emeril's Delmonico.  Once again I was going to enjoy the culinary creations of Chef Toups only this time, he had full control of the kitchen.  To make it even more spectacular (as if that was even possible), not only would we select items from the lunch menu, the chef was going to prepare some special dinner items just for us.  I settled in for what I knew was going to be a wonderfully long and leisurely luncheon.

We all ordered separately, but it certainly didn't stop us from sampling one another's cootie fears here among the ready, willing and hungry.  John started with a Seared Yellow Fin Tuna served on a bed of arugula and sprinkled with Marcona almonds and a lime-honey vinaigrette.  Delicious and summery, the tuna was cooked perfectly and melted in my mouth.  John heaved a sigh of relief and satisfaction to finally see tuna prepared the way it was meant to be.  My starter was Pork Belly Beet Ravioli braised in white wine with fresh tomatoes and fried shallots on top.  No offense to the rest of the table, but I thought mine was the best!  Just thinking about the deep purple ravioli stuffed with salty, rich pork and the delicate, crispy shallots initiates Pavlovian response and my mouth fills with water.  Lorin's Salade aux Lardons (got to love that pork fat!) with bitter greens and a red wine poached egg was also quite tasty. I especially loved the deep, heady flavor of the egg.

The next round of dishes were what could technically be called our entrees, although there was so many plates it was hard to keep track of it all.  John had the Rabbit Gnocchi with fried sage, mustard greens, fresh tomato, Parmesan and a bit of grated orange zest.  Usually gnocchi tends to be a heavy, cold-weather kind of pasta but this dish was so clean and bright in flavor with perfectly fluffy gnocchi, it was surprisingly well suited to the season.  My dish was much heavier, a Confit Duck Panini with onion marmalade and melted puits d'astier cheese on thickly sliced brioche.  The duck was perfect, tender and juicy, and I loved the odoriferous, yet flavorful cheese.

Lorin was treated to two different scallop presentations, the first being Seared Diver Scallops atop creamy polenta (whipped with mascarpone cheese) and sauteed fresh asparagus surrounded by a charred tomato sauce.  The other dish featured Sea Scallops topped with a thick slice of bacon, all of it resting on thin slice of tangy marinated zucchini and preserved orange sauce.  Both dishes were wonderful and the scallops were perfectly cooked, both juicy and tender breaking apart easily with a fork.  The bacon was out of this world, but it was to be expected with Isaac's masterful curing techniques.

This is when things really got out of hand...

Suddenly we were bombarded with three different appetizers from the dinner menu.  There was the Deux Fois Gras (fattened goose liver prepared two ways) and some Pan Fried Sweetbreads.  As ashamed as I am to admit this, I have NEVER liked fois gras and have avoided sweetbreads like the plague.  Unfortunately, my father tormented me with all kinds of organ meat when I was a child.  Between my mother's disgusting rendition of liver and onions fried in a cast iron skillet and my father chasing me around the house with a huge cow tongue and 'licking" my adolescent cheek with horrific relish (and laughing uproariously the entire time), I just couldn't bring myself to try anything of the sort when I finally reached adulthood.

So when this "organ extravaganza" came to the table, I took a deep breath, screwed up every ounce of courage I possessed and, with encouraging words from Lorin (my friend and mentor), I gave them a try. Braving the "worst" first, I cut a small slice of the pan fried sweetbreads, swirled it in the creamy sweet pea sauce and topped it with a piece of Isaac's house made pancetta and popped it into my mouth.  Much to my surprise (and relief) I found it quite delicious!  It reminded me of really excellent fried chicken and my second bite was taken in a much more relaxing manner.

I decided to face the Shaved Torchon Fois Gras next, a dish I'm going to dub "Fois Gras for Dummies." I knew I wouldn't really enjoy the other preparation, which was a grilled lobe of fois gras, as I had tasted it on many different occasions, always coming to the same yucky conclusion. But, I have to admit that the Torchon was absolutely magnificent, tasting like a thick, creamy butter and I know now, I wouldn't hesitate to order it again.  At last I had been successful, rising to what I felt was a higher level in my culinary education and teaching my palate to appreciate dishes I had always feared.  It might sound silly, but I felt elated and proud.

Our final wave was three wonderful desserts which made the previous round look positively scary.  Who wouldn't want to devour Chocolate Banana Bread Pudding with Butterscotch Ice Cream or an "Elvis" featuring grilled Buffalo Mozzarella Cheese, sliced banana, peanuts and blackberries?  The third dessert was my absolute favorite, a creamy Creme Brulee made with sherry and macerated sour cherries.  It has a thin, crispy sugar crust that, when broken, revealed a decadently cool custard that three of us practically fought over to get every last bite.

After an almost immoral three-hour lunch, we thanked our server and Chef Isaac profusely for a wonderful experience and waddled our way out of the restaurant.  Not only had I experienced another incredible meal similar to the one I had back in 2003 (minus the wine), I had grown as a diner and solidly reinforced one of the biggest reasons I moved here.

Neither floods, nor winds, nor slicks of oil will prevent me from living and loving New Orleans, my home sweet home.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Toasting a local legend at the Garden District Pub

In the 1900 block of Magazine Street lies a quaint, unpretentious neighborhood bar called the Garden District Pub.  Although I have visited quite a few little-known and under-appreciated watering holes in this town (The Saint and the pre-flood Hi-Ho Lounge comes to mind), this was one of those precious local gems I was never introduced to.  I walked into the small, but very comfortable bar the other afternoon during happy hour and reveled in the laid-back atmosphere along with only a few other patrons who were loading up the digital jukebox with an excellent choice of music (three songs for a buck!).

When I asked my usual "signature cocktail" question of Mallory, the bartender on duty, she smiled and said her favorite preparation was a "shot of Jameson and a bottle of PBR." Laughing yet determined to drag a mixed drink out of her, she finally offered a popular classic New Orleans cocktail, an Old Fashioned. It was a bit heavy on the Bourbon, but I still enjoyed it all the way down to the macerated cherries at the bottom of the glass.

Thinking about another drink before I even finished the first, Mallory must have read my mind because she asked what I wanted next.  Since I was undecided, she finally opened up to me..."There is a drink I made up with a drunken customer one night, want to try it?"  I immediately said yes, willing to brave whatever strange concoction she put in front of me.  Hilariously dubbed the "Sophie B. Yeah You Right", this inebriated invention called for Vodka, Gin, Malibu Rum and pineapple juice and was surprisingly tasty.  It reminded me of a Hurricane where you combine all kinds of booze and successfully cover the burn with the sweet-tart flavor of pineapple.  I still enjoyed it, even more so that I wasn't on Bourbon Street.

While gaining a respectable buzz, I asked Mallory about the small park across the street with the statue of Sophie B. Wright.  Apparently, out of respect to Miss Wright and for her own personal amusement, Mallory had been telling tourists that it was a local "tradition" to offer libations and notes of appreciation to Sophie's statue.  This convention took hold so strongly, that on a daily basis she would see chalk-written praises, flowers and even gifts laid at the famous educator's feet.  Mallory expressed her irritation at seeing bums, trash and dog poop littering Miss Wright's memorial and it was about time folks paid some respect to this remarkable female role model.  Regardless of her methods, I heartily agreed.

If ever you find yourself turned around at the triangle or roaming Magazine after a meal at Jackson or Juan's Flying Burrito, stop into the Garden District Pub for an excellent happy hour (my two cocktails totaled $8!), enjoy the amenable atmosphere and employees and select a few songs on the jukebox. Also, it certainly wouldn't hurt if you offered a gift to Miss Wright on your way out.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Shotgun dreams...

Ever since reading The House on First Street, I've been sorely reminded of something I lack...a house of my very own.  Before I hit puberty and was still playing with Barbie, I could care less what clothes she wore (in fact, she often went naked), all I cared about was her townhouse.  At 12, I began sketching out floor plans for my many-tiered house that would include a basement, an attic and a guest house next to the stables. No detail was beyond my vision for the perfect house, even down to the color of paint in each room and secret passageways lurking behind grand tapestries.

At one point, just after high school, I fantasized with my friends that one day I would own a castle somewhere in Europe where we could all live together.  They even assigned themselves jobs as they'd all be under my employ; Johnny was the chauffeur, Charlene would cook, Michelle would be my personal trainer, and Eva would collect hunky men for the know, the usual staff found in any large household. A delusion fit for a queen.

Leaving the Bay Area for New Orleans held many promises for me like great food, fantastic music, an intriguing culture, a long history and as lagniappe to all this splendor, affordable housing.  It was not difficult for me to instantly fall in love with the Creole Cottages, Shotguns, Raised Centerhall Cottages and Double Gallery Houses common to the unique architecture of the area.  Although I might still dream about owning some grand dame like this:

I would be perfectly happy with a cute single shotgun with 12 foot ceilings, sliding pocket doors and elaborate fireplace mantels like this:

Unfortunately, all I can do now is dream, sigh a lot and paint the bedroom in my apartment mustard yellow in the hope that one day, I will finally have a home of my own.

Here's to boudin wishes and shotgun dreams...

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Franky & Johnny's: "Let 'em have it!"

After visiting the Green Goddess last week, I was talking to Casey and John about possible locations for my next cheat and I told them I've been wanting to try Franky & Johnny's.  Almost in unison, John and Casey started chanting "I say, I say, I say" and they laughed when when I asked if they'd both gone mad.

Once again, I was showing transplant ignorance by not recognizing a famous (or should I say infamous) television commercial for a budget furniture store which is also called Frankie and Johnny's.  They dug up the commercial on YouTube so I could experience the silliness for myself.  The Italian gentleman with a terrible hairpiece shuffle-dancing towards the camera instantly reminded me of a crazy local commercial I grew up with featuring Paul, the "Credit Man" from The Diamond Center.

All joking and low-budget commercials aside, I convinced John to take me to Franky & Johnny's...for dinner, not a couch.  It was my 47th cheat and I am down 66 pounds.

I don't want to say "It was a dark and stormy night" because it sounds so cliche, but...well, it was a dark and stormy night when we pulled into the puddle-filled parking lot on Arabella and Tchoupitoulas Street.  Admittedly, it was a bit intimidating when we walked into the practically unlit bar, but we could see clusters of tables in the back and followed our noses.  We were seated right away and served two mammoth Cokes within seconds of ordering.

The small restaurant/bar is located in the basement of a raised Craftsman-style house, so the ceilings are low and there are large beams that separate the space.  The simple, family/neighborhood vibe reminded me of Perino's Boiling Pot on the Westbank, from the relaxed, yet hospitable servers to the red & white checkered tablecloths.

Our appetizers came out first, a small crawfish pie and a choice highly recommended by our waitress, a split order of onion rings and bell pepper rings.  I loved the flavor the celery and carrots in the crawfish pie, almost like a homemade pot pie, but I thought it could be a bit bigger for the price since we gobbled it in no time flat.  The fried bell pepper rings were fabulous, the pepper was still fresh and juicy inside the spicy, crispy batter.

That same batter was used on my 8-inch fried catfish po-boy and John's fried shrimp po-boy.  They dressed both sandwiches with pickles, tomatoes, lettuce and butter (margarine actually).  It was a first for me since most shops I've been to use mayonnaise instead.  The difference didn't bother me one bit, in fact, I really enjoyed it.  Both of our entrees were pretty tasty, but more than we could manage in one sitting.  If we ordered one 12-inch, we probably could have split it.

As stuffed as we were, I simply couldn't walk out of there without ordering dessert. I almost went with the sweet potato pie, but ended up opting for the Chocolate Peanut Butter Pie that "wasn't made in house but was definitely made locally."  It certainly wasn't the prettiest presentation, but it was definitely delicious. I look forward to crawfish season when I can come back to Franky & Johnny's and sample what they are known for, boiled seafood.

Until next time, I have no choice but to let you have it..."with nooo problem!"

Friday, August 13, 2010

Madigan's Bar: A cool neighborhood haunt

Smack dab next to my favorite burger joint in the whole city lies an unassuming Riverbend haunt called Madigan's.  To find it, just look for the large green, neon sign on the corner of Maple and S.Carrollton Avenue, only a short walk from Camilla Grill.  Sometimes, the bar is opened up on the Carrollton-side where you can sit in the open breeze, watch the streetcars trundle by, sip cold drafts and dine on food from GB's.  I've been into Madigan's several times and it's always struck me as a very mixed crowd, not leaning too heavily on the frat side despite it's proximity to the colleges.

John and I followed a couple and their dog inside and took a stool at the bar.  When I asked the bartender, Adriane, if she had a signature cocktail she kind of laughed and said "I should, shouldn't I?"  Then she suggested an Iced Tea Lemonade made with Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka and "a bunch of other sweet stuff."  A fan of Nestea, she's concocted a recipe that tastes exactly like it.  Although I certainly felt it, I didn't taste the alcohol at all, which made it dangerous as well as tasty.

Since it was still kind of slow, Adriane came over to chat and I learned that she's been tending bar at Madigan's for the past two years, but she used to work in Quarter at Molly's and Turtle Bay.  Adriane, born and raised in Metairie and a Grace King High School graduate, expressed a wavering interest in telling her own hair-raising tales when she found out I was writing this blog.  When I asked why she hadn't already started, she said her stories always unintentionally sounded like complaints! I thought she should still give it a go, stories I've written result differently than I intend all the time! You just never know...

I had to have one more drink before heading out and opted to stay on the vodka track with a very dirty Grey Goose martini.  Adriane even gave me a little extra dirt in a small cup, just in case, but the martini was perfect, replete with two plump olives speared onto a tiny plastic sword.

John and I decided to leave when the bar began filling up with avid Saints' fans sporting black & gold jerseys and arriving just in time for the pre-season game against the Patriots. I know I will probably be shot on sight, but I am not a football fan, or even a sports fan in general,  so I saw no point in taking up two perfectly good bar stools that could go to worthier candidates.  Although I don't care to watch the game, it doesn't mean I don't support the passionate fans and their undying love and devotion for the team.  Not to mention, John and I were on our way to enjoy another delicious cheat meal and I was sure the game would be playing there too.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Heebie-jeebies or creepy-crawlies, just get them out of my house!

A few days ago, I was downloading some images onto my computer and there were quite a few shots I didn't recognize.  Among other odd and rather disgusting shots (boys!), there were an array of pictures featuring different bugs John had found around our apartment.

Of all the bugs in the wild, wild world, spiders are the crawlies I hate the most (cockroaches are a close second).  Just seeing pictures like these give me intense "heebie-jeebies" that cause full-body shudders and uncontrollable itching.

Even worse, I know these hairy, eight-legged monsters are in my house and unless I throw a massive hissy-fit with spittle flying, arms waving and screaming at very high decibels...John will leave the nasty arachnids to their own devices rather then smashing them into harmless goo as they ought to be.

All of you spider-savers out there can "go pee up a rope" as my father used to say.  Like every other insect that can, spiders bite me and there is no way I am "okay" with letting them live in my apartment. The superstitious among you might believe killing spiders is bad luck...I DON'T CARE! I promise I won't break any mirrors, okay?

So after all the spider images, I see this....

Can someone please tell me, what the hell is that?  Otherwise I am just going to chalk it up to a miniature alien invasion...and I don't want that in my house either!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Wish it was my New Orleans story: The House on First Street

Let me begin by being completely straightforward...I hate books about the 2005 levee failures a.k.a. Hurricane Katrina.  Perhaps I am too emotional or too sensitive, but I just can't stand them.  I've gotten about halfway through most of them (forcing myself the rest of the way, page by miserable page), but every single story brings tears to my eyes and anger swells in my heart, every book except one.

Just recently, I miraculously tore through The House on First Street: My New Orleans Story by Julia Reed.  It's essentially a memoir of one woman's struggle before, during and after the flooding, a struggle that centers all around a house she purchased a mere month before disaster struck on August 29th.

Why, you ask, was I able to complete this novel and not the countless others that have made their way across my desk?  Because, although I know people like this truly exist, it was so out of step with my own reality that it felt like nothing more than fanciful fiction...even though it really was not.

Julia Reed is a Southern "aristocrat" who comes from a family endowed with both political power and seemingly inexhaustible wealth. She grew up in Greenville, Mississippi and attended Madeira, a prestigious all-girls high school, whose work-study programs gained her access to an internship at Newsweek, where by now she has been an editor and contributor for the past 20 years.

While reading The House on First Street, I felt almost like Nick Caraway in The Great Gatsby, in utter awe and envy of the opulence being taken for granted.  For example, she spent her "bohemian" years living in the slave quarter behind a creole cottage on Bourbon Street, writing in her nightgown, throwing "a lot of great parties" and enjoying regular, leisurely lunches at Galatoire's. During that time, she also bounced back and forth from a flat in New York and her residence in the Quarter.

After three years of dating, her lover asked her for her hand in marriage and she was scared of limiting her options.  She decided to leave New Orleans for a spell to spend three months in Spain where she went "ostensibly to learn Spanish and take in the bullfights."

She finally agreed to marry John after her "self-imposed exile" in Spain and when she and her husband finally decide to buy a house, where do they go?  The Garden District.  They search the district block by block when finally, they find the home of their dreams, a 6,000 square foot Greek Revival-style home built in 1847 by prominent Irish-born architect James Gallier Sr., located right across the street from Anne Rice's well-known house described in one of her bestselling novels, The Witching Hour.

I think my favorite scene in the book proving how money is obviously no object is when, after the storm, she returns to the city and befriends some of the National Guardsmen who come in from Alabama.  She feels so bad that they are forced to subsist off of MRE's, that she orders BBQ and sides for 700 from Podnuh's Barbecue, a tab that only succeeded in raising her eyebrows a bit.

Throughout the book, she is frequenting restaurants like Herbsaint, Cochon, Galatoire's, Restaurant August, Lilette and Stella!, all of which would put me in the poor house after only three if it was from Stella!, easily the most extravagant and expensive restaurant in the city.  Of course, she is very good friends with the famous chefs and restaurant owners in the city like Donald Link, John Besh, JoAnn Clevenger, etc., but do you think that ensures her a discount?

Now don't get me wrong, I thought The House on First Street was very enjoyable, smattered with humor and even moments of hilarity, something not often found in a "Katrina" book.  Julia Reed is obviously an excellent writer and (like me) a lover of the food, music, cocktails, history and culture of New Orleans. I just wonder if she realizes how fortunate she really is?  Some people just have all the luck...

Monday, August 9, 2010

Enlightenment at the Green Goddess

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Casey had accompanied John and I on one of my cheats and unfortunately, it turned out badly.  I felt terrible, especially after constantly bragging about the all the fantastic eateries I had already experienced.  Determined to make it up to her, I chose a special spot for lunch this past Saturday that I knew for a fact would be outstanding and blow both of our minds (not to mention our palates)...the Green Goddess.

This was my 46th cheat and I am now down 65 pounds.

How did I know the Green Goddess would be a good bet? With chefs like Chris DeBarr and Paul Artigues at the helm, how could it possibly go wrong? Both are local heroes known for their creativity at the Delachaise and Surrey's Juice Bar respectively, not to mention that DeBarr is married to one of my favorite authors (Poppy Z. Brite), but that's just lagniappe. My mouth was watering in anticipation for what I knew would be one hell of a meal and at this point, I think Casey was simply hoping I would be right this time.

Although located in the French Quarter, this tiny cafe has an unusual level of intimacy not easily found so close to Royal Street.  Tucked into Exchange Place, a small alley found right off Bienville between Royal and Chartres Streets, we were surprised to find two available outside tables, especially since it was the second day of the Satchmo Summer Festival. I suppose the heat drove most of the patrons inside, but Casey and I thought it was pleasant under the large shady umbrellas and sat down, prepared to relax into a long, leisurely lunch.

With so many drool-inducing items on the menu, it took us a while to order, but our server was patient and accommodating, taking our drink order while we debated our options.  Casey chose a "Pear 75", which was a like a tricked-out Mimosa featuring Oregon Pear Brandy, Austrian apricot liqueur, a house made ginger syrup and topped with champagne. Its flavors were very complex and my only complaint was that I wished it was a lot colder. I opted for "Solidarity Sunshine", a cocktail the restaurant tagged as "an adult lemonade" with Sparkling Meyer Lemon Juice, Sobieski Vodka and fresh basil...a delightful and refreshing drink, reminding me of the almighty Mojito. We both were so dazzled by the "Sunshine" we had to order two more.

Casey's allergies prevented her, but I just couldn't resist ordering the special, a chilled mango puree drizzled with balsamic and laced with thick, crisp strands of prosciutto. Tropical fruits like mango, pineapple, banana, guava etc. intrigue my taste buds to no end and mango soup was an adventure impossible for me to ignore. I have to admit feeling a little guilty devouring the tangy, wonderfully chilled soup without being able to share with Casey...just not guilty enough. I think she understood though, plus the prospect of breaking out in hives while sweating in the mid-summer New Orleans heat was an effective deterrent.

Casey came into her own though with what I thought was the better entree, the "Cuban Luau," a pressed sandwich featuring pulled pork, salame, grilled pineapple, pickled banana peppers and Manchego (Queso) cheese on ciabatta bread. Casey immediately declared that it ranked in her personal top five sandwiches of all time and I'm inclined to agree. Every bite danced you through a crispy, buttery, tangy, creamy, salty whirlwind leaving you breathless, but raring for another go.

Not quite as daring, but still absolutely delicious, I enjoyed the "Lafitte Blue Crab Melt" that was literally loaded with large chunks of juicy crab and melted Robiola cheese with a spicy remoulade sauce on toasted ciabiatta. The slight tang of the cheese complimented, rather than overpowered, the delicate crab meat and I had no difficulty scarfing down the entire sandwich. Actually, since I am re-savoring the moment, I must remember to ask them where they get their bread! Next time...

Casey and I also shared a order of "French Duck Fat Potato 'Home Fries'" served with garlic aioli and roasted, red bell pepper dipping sauces.  Can anyone really resist potatoes cooked in duck fat? The thick potato slices were either super crunchy or soft and greasy, but wonderful nonetheless especially after being dipped.

Bursting at the seams but determined to do it right, I requested the dessert menu, disregarding when Casey helplessly moaned "No more!" Forcing her to my will, I made her scan the menu till we both agreed on "The Sultan's Nest". Regardless of how full she was, Casey couldn't help indulging in several bites of the delightful dessert. Pistachio Gelato and whipped cream sat atop a nest of crunchy, shredded phyllo curls and honey infused with saffron, candied Yuzu peel and orange blossom water. Ambrosial, mysterious and sweet, it was certainly food for the gods, or in this case goddesses, and we'd just been given a brief taste of heaven.

My compliments to the magic-makers at the Green Goddess for a most memorable meal and, more specifically, for helping me regain Casey's trust in my choice of eateries. One thing's for certain, I'll be back to worship at your temple again soon...

Friday, August 6, 2010

A scrumptious Cure

Sometimes too much to drink is barely enough. ~Mark Twain

Seeking to prevent our thirst and to sample some tasty nosh, Anne and I headed over to Cure on the corner of  Freret and Upperline several nights ago, already a little buzzed and excited about what we've heard about the swanky corridor cocktail bar.  Dressed totally inappropriately for the occasion, we sauntered into the hyper-urban atmosphere and plopped down in one of the booths.  Sitting there, it almost felt as if I was in another city, everything was very clean and cold.  The atmosphere was sexy, dramatic and romantic; a darkened loft with drop lights over the bar and a glittering selection of bottles, back-lit and reaching all the way to the ceiling.  There were silhouetted couples dotted against the long bar in front of our booth. It was obviously perfect spot for a date.

So not only was I NOT there to woo Anne, I was dressed in clothing bought from the Avenue with my man-purse slung across my chest and a face devoid of make-up.  In short, I was the complete opposite of everyone in the bar.  Didn't matter, I was there to drink and sample some of their tapas that I'd heard so much about.  That atmosphere actually made it easier to ignore the party next to you, which was as beneficial to them as it was to us, I'm sure.

A man who looked like Buddy Holly took our drink order while we browsed the small plates.  It took a leisurely amount of time for the drinks to come out, but I couldn't conceal my shock when they arrived.  My "Union Jack Rose" featuring Tanqueray, Laird's Bonded Apple Brandy and Applejack  was undoubtedly fantastic, I only wish there were more of it for $10.  Anne's "Rose Hinted Glass" with Lady VSOP Cognac, fennel tea and rose water was equally wonderful, but again...4 oz for $9?

While Cure was a bit short with its cocktails, it was both generous and genius with its tapas. First we had an Artichoke and Goat Cheese Crostini, an elegant combination of sweet and savory on crunchy french bread and similar in effect, if not flavor, as the thinly sliced, aged Serrano ham served with sherry-poached Anjou Pears. Both dishes were excellent in quality as well as quantity.

We also enjoyed Duck and Sweet Potato Hash topped with a Vermouth-poached egg.  When broken, the creamy yolk combined with the hash and I just about died.  Anne was concerned about this particular dish, not being a fan of sweet potato, but I noticed she didn't have any difficulties devouring her half.

The heat enveloped us once again as we stepped outside and I felt like I was in New Orleans again.  Taking a break and leaning against the wall was a young man in a chef's jacket smoking a cigarette. I simply had to shake his hand.  The wonderful dishes we enjoyed (and the ones we didn't) were more than enough reason for a return visit.

Next time though, I might just drink an Abita.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The crawfish boil chronicles: Ryan Tramonte

One of the most important events of my new life in New Orleans was the first time I got invited to a crawfish boil. To me, it was a pivotal, food-related experience that, like no other, had endeared me to the locals and made me feel welcome and included.

Lately, I've had this undeniable urge to discover if that first crawfish boil (or the first you can remember anyhow) is as important to others, both locals and transplants alike, as it is to me.  So, I thought it would be fun to interview folks from all walks of life to find out...what was your first crawfish boil like?

Beneath the shady trees in the empty courtyard behind the Maple Leaf, I met with Ryan Tramonte, a good friend and a good sport who was the first person willing to face my crawfish boil inquiry.  Ryan is the General Manager of the French Art Network, a group that encompasses four prestigious art galleries; two in California and two right here in the historic French Quarter.  He is well-known in the local art community and for his unique and hilarious art blogs on NewOrleans.Com.

Born and raised in Lutcher, Louisiana, Ryan spent his youth surrounded by an extended family who all built houses on a large plot of his father's family's land that became affectionately known as "Tramonteville". Ryan speaks fondly of his cousins (Lou, Cindy, Jodi, Dwayne, Darren, Kristy and Stevie), "they were all my brothers and sisters" and recalls bouncing from house to house where they all had five different meals to choose from on any given night, whether it be red beans and sweet tea at Maw Maw Toni's, spaghetti at Aunt Betty's or cakes and pastries at Aunt Tina's who is such an excellent baker "she could open her own bakery."

In his mid-twenties, Ryan began developing food allergies that have severely limited his dining choices, something I considered a desperate tragedy, made exponentially worse since he lives in a city that is known internationally for it's cuisine. When I asked Ryan to share the last really excellent meal he's had in the city, his mouth slowly widened into a mischievous smile.

"I can't even recall the last really good meal I've eaten," Ryan confessed, "but I can remember my last dessert."  One evening at Cochon Restaurant after imbibing a few too many, Ryan devoured two slices of white chocolate cheesecake when he couldn't even touch his entree (at no fault to the restaurant). His love of sweets and pastries always wins out over his allergies, regardless of the consequences. His motto? "No matter how sick I get, I will always eat cake." I suggested that perhaps Aunt Tina's baking was too good.

When I asked Ryan about his earliest crawfish memory, he candidly relayed that he had been to so many when he was younger that they all sort of blurred together.  But he did distinctly recall when he and his parents would go "crawfishing" in the swamps on the side of the railroad tracks.  His father taught him how to manage the line and how to use "melt" (beef pancreas) as bait. "There were flies stuck to it [melt] all the time," Ryan explained while cringing. "I had a real issue touching it, but then I had a real issue doing anything outside. My poor father didn't have a Louisiana outdoorsman for a son at all."

On one of these fishing trips, Ryan managed to fall onto a railroad spike that gouged a fairly large chunk of flesh from his side.  Apparently, his parents didn't think the injury warranted a hospital visit, but Ryan, being in love with drama as he is, took advantage of his wound, spent a couple of days laid up on the couch where he undoubtedly was tended to, hand and foot. The quarter-sized scar on his side serves as a constant reminder of his fishing incident to this day.

The oft-held crawfish boils, he went on to describe, ran one into the other where he and his parents would catch a sack or two of crawfish and bring them back home. They would boil them up with potatoes, corn, onions and garlic and they would all (aunts, cousins, parents, grandparents and sister) enjoy a big outside meal on a Friday or Saturday night in Tramonteville.

At last, I simply had to ask Ryan one more you suck the heads? He tilted his head and smiled at me.

"It all depends.." he began.

"On the quality of the crawfish?" I asked.

"Oh, we're talking about crawfish?" he laughed.

Our laughter finally faded when Ryan looked at me and said, " Of course I suck the heads...why bother eating crawfish at all if you aren't willing to experience the entire process?"

Why indeed?