Monday, September 27, 2010

Proving my sanity...

A while back, I posted a picture that was supposed to contain a giraffe and I get the feeling y'all might think I was pulling your collective legs....either that or I simply needed to be committed.

This afternoon the fates were on my side because not only did my friend appear at the end of Tchoupitoulas Street (like he does most of the time), but I also had my camera with me. So, without further ado, here is Mr. (or possibly Mrs.) Giraffe that greets me almost every afternoon. Digital proof my sanity is intact!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Comfort and convenience at Down the Hatch

In the relatively short time that I have lived in New Orleans, the restaurant/bar space on Sophie Wright Place has gone through several incarnations. When I lived in that area, it was the Moonlight Cafe serving burgers and sandwiches, but with a Persian twist. The burger patties tasted like my father's version of chelow kabab and I couldn't resist calling in a delivery for a taste of home every now and again. The Persian owner would often be the "delivery man" and we'd chat about how much we missed our grandmothers' fabulous stews (koresh) or meatloaf (kufteh) which he wouldn't even dream of attempting to re-create.

On Thursday night, John and I decided to visit the latest eatery at this location, Down the Hatch, which has been open for almost a year. This is my 53rd cheat and since I gained two pounds last week (do you think it was the ice cream?), I am back to a loss of 70 pounds.

Feeling altogether lackadaisical, John and I sought the simplicity of bar food. A juicy burger, perhaps some deliciously greasy onion rings and a few beers seemed the perfect evening for this week's cheat. We just weren't in the mood for anything too fancy, too socially demanding or too expensive and (no offense meant) the easy going atmosphere at Down the Hatch was the perfect solution.

Halfway through our first Abita, our server brought out our appetizer, something we considered a rather usual choice for us, their Hell's Kitchen Chicken Wings. Maybe it's because they're so messy or that they tend to be far too hot for too little reward, but I usually don't like chicken wings...and unfortunately, I still don't. Fried and then slathered in their "house made" sauce and served with a side of bleu cheese dressing, these wings were most definitely from hell solely because of the sauce. The meat was juicy and the dressing was thick and creamy, replete with large chunks of bleu cheese, but the sauce just about burned my face off. It consisted mostly of Tobasco and it severely challenged both my stomach and my tongue's high spice tolerance to eat only three wings.

Fortunately, we were saved by another round of Abitas and our anxiously awaited entrees. John got the Chili Cheese Burger that was undeniably juicy and loaded with melted cheddar and (not nearly enough) of their tasty home made chili. The burger also came with a fat pile of crispy, steak fries that we were unable to finish.

I selected their Reuben, which is one of my all-time favorite sandwiches, and did not regret my choice one bit. Luckily for me, the corned beef at Down the Hatch is also made in house was lovingly piled between two toasted and buttered slices of light rye along with hefty helpings of sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and Russian dressing. The corned beef was surprisingly juicy and the sandwich definitely held up in comparison to other fabulous Reuben's I've enjoyed around town. It was accompanied by a pile of thinly sliced,"string" onion rings that were a nice change from the thick-cut style to which I've become accustomed.

They don't offer any desserts, but that wasn't too much of a problem since there was a whole batch of chocolate chip cookies at home that I had baked the day before. As we were heading out to the car, we noticed that Down the Hatch also offers citywide delivery, a convenient and possibly highly profitable move. After all, do you know of any other neighborhood joints that deliver juicy burgers and hot po'boys anywhere in New Orleans? Neither do I...

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Tree road

When we are on our way downtown or to the grocery store, there are many different roads we can take, but if John is driving, it's almost a given we'll go down what we call the "tree road."

Stop by sometime and wave hello to the grand oak growing its way into the pavement in the block between Magazine and Constance Streets.

It might even wave back.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Humor and horror at the Maple Street Book Shops

When I heard that local humorist, playwright and author Bud Faust was appearing at the Maple Street Book Shop on Saturday to sign the second volume of his hilarious book Great Moments in New Orleans History, I couldn't resist stopping by to finally meet the man himself. Not to mention, I've never actually been inside the "new" side of the duo.

If you've never been there, the Maple Street Book Shops consist of two gorgeous, shotgun-style homes that were converted into two separate stores, currently there's a "new" side and a "used" side, both carrying a large selection of books.

I arrived a tad early because I wanted to visit the "used" side first. Out in front leaning against the telephone pole was a huge painted board listing the shops' hours, "Fighting the Stupids Since '64" emblazoned at the end. Researching their website, I discovered that this shop, originally owned and operated by two women, was the "hip" place to gather for intellectual youth and "free thinkers" struggling to support a leftist ideal in a conservative time.

As I browsed I noticed that they carried quite a few hardcovers (which can be unusual for a used bookstore) and several first edition signed copies from some very interesting authors. Quotes handwritten on long strips of paper adorn many of the bookshelves citing wisdom from figures like Richard Nixon. Right in front was a display for Banned Books Week which starts this Saturday, September 25th and runs to October 2nd. What banned book are you reading next week?

I left the "used" side and headed for the "new" as I didn't have a lot of time to linger and discovered Mr. Faust sitting right up front. He recognized me at once and we talked about the new book. Enamored of the new cover art, Faust told how he had the work commissioned by local painter Raven Creature who apparently is often found selling her work in Jackson Square.

I'll soon finish reading Great Moments in New Orleans History, Volume 2. I'll let you know how it was, though I am sure it'll turn out as good as his first. If you missed seeing him on Maple Street, I heard his next gig is at Octavia Books on Thursday, September 30th at 6 p.m. where he'll be reading, too.

After procuring my signed copy, I browsed the rest of the store. I spotted Stephen King's latest epic novel Under the Dome in trade paperback and I just couldn't resist. It had been a long time since I'd enjoyed anything by King, but I decided to give his latest tome a chance.

Making my purchases quickly, I had to run for the door. If I stay too long in any bookstore, I will spend far more money than I ever intend...or can afford. Momentarily sated by my new purchases, I walked back to the car with a smile on my face. Now, which one do I read first?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Finding serenity at Creole Creamery

After breakfasting at Surrey's, we headed home determined to be productive. Slogging through my daily projects seemed especially onerous to me. Admittedly, doing dishes (by hand) can be particularly grueling, but even walking Pippin, something I can't help but enjoy, felt like a chore. Something was off.  Something was missing. It wasn't until late in the afternoon that it hit me.

I didn't have any dessert!

I had completely forgotten my weekly dose of decadence, but my body, obviously, had not. My mind raced through the available dessert options.  Did I want a Hubig's Apple Pie? A napoleon from Brocato's? A thick chocolate malt from Camilla Grill? In the end, the dessert that won out is what usually prevails. Ice cream.

Like a whirlwind, I bounced around the house getting dressed, brushing my hair and grabbing my purse. I was just sliding on my sunglasses when John said "Where the heck are you going?" Rushing through an explanation while pushing him into his clothes, we drove to Prytania and rushed into the already crowded, brightly pink parlor. Everyone else needed Creole Creamery, too.  Maybe it was the moon?

Mostly on my own, I gobbled down a banana split with three luscious flavors of my choosing; Creole Cream Cheese, Salted Caramel and Coffee Pecan Brittle. The split also contained fresh helpings of banana (of course), strawberries, pineapple, chocolate fudge, whipped cream, bright sprinkles and three Maraschino cherries.

John inhaled a Cookie Monster Sundae. A scoop of Cookie Monster ice cream with crushed chocolate chip and Oreo cookies, hot fudge, whipped cream and cookie crumbles...along with about 1/3 of my sundae, of course.

While slurping up the last goopy delicious spoonfuls, I watched people filing into the shop and noticed everyone had that unbalanced look, that physical mark of angst. They were not yet at peace with the world like I was. We left our booth with a smile knowing that they too, would soon find serenity.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

An overdue visit to Surrey's Juice Bar

During my drunken days at the Circle Bar, I often saw Greg Surrey come in for a pint and anyone who could, would tell me about his incredible restaurant.  "You simply have to go for breakfast," people would tell me. "It's one of the best kept local secrets in New Orleans."

Lately, Surrey's Juice Bar has not been a secret at all. You can find reviews all over Yelp, Chowhound and a multitude of other online publications. Only a couple of weeks ago, Blackened Out visited Surrey's second location that recently opened where Fuel Cafe used to be, right next to Le Bon Temps.

After years of hearing glowing reviews, I finally decided to go see for myself what the hullabaloo was all about. This is my 52nd cheat and I am down 72 pounds.

The new location is closer to home, but John and I decided to visit the original on Magazine between Euterpe and Terpsichore (music and dance) in the Lower Garden District. Since it was Friday at lunch time, we were not surprised to see a line stretching out from the front door, but after we put our name on the list, our wait amounted to all of five minutes.

 There were a lot of tasty items to choose from (I almost got the Caribbean French Toast stuffed with Pineapple Cream Cheese), but we finally made our selections and absorbed the bright, yet cozy environment. Tons of local art adorned the walls and I even recognized some cool plaques designed by my friend Will Smith, Jr., who is yet another Circle Bar denizen. Also, I couldn't help grinning at the bikini-clad mannequin lounging in a hammock that was suspended  from the ceiling.

Before we got our second cup of coffee, our breakfast arrived. When going out for breakfast, I am not usually an omelette kind of gal, but I couldn't resist Surrey's Crab Meat Omelette stuffed with brie and fresh avocado and topped with a creamy, lump crab meat sauce. The eggs were fluffy and the avocados were perfect. Plus, I was ecstatic at the generous amount of crab meat that contained no shells whatsoever. I couldn't resist getting a side of Boudin patties which were delicious with the perfect amount of heat.

John ordered the scrambled eggs with smoked salmon, cream cheese, capers and green onions. His plate also came with what they call "hash browns," but the thick wedges of seasoned red potatoes looked more like what would I call "country potatoes."  Potato, potato; tomato, doesn't matter what you call it, they still tasted great to me. It's just that John had a hankering for traditional hash browns, so he was a bit disappointed. His scramble was tasty, but with the capers and the salmon, I think a nice dill sauce would have really rounded out the dish.

John and I both selected a home made biscuit to accompany our entrees and it was crumbly on the outside and tender on the inside, just like my Aunt Edie used to make. Unfortunately, whomever was rolling them out used too much flour. I think a quick brush of melted butter before baking would have wiped away the excess flour and made for optimal browning and better flavor.

I was glad to see Greg's quaint cafe was thriving. I am going to have to come back and try more of the menu because certain items like the Stuffed French Toast or the Migas with chorizo were calling my name.  Alas, there is only so much I can eat in one cheat!

Friday, September 17, 2010

The mystery on my street...

As you might already know, I just love the spooky, unsettling aura that an abandoned property can convey. Something about the broken windows staring down into the street and climbing vines slowly eating away at the wooden siding evokes a sense of mystery and even horror. Who lived in this house? Are they still alive and if so, why did they leave...or did they?

Just a block from my apartment, there is a recently abandoned home that is so overgrown with plants and in such a state of neglect, you'd think it's been blighted for decades. This home offered shelter for lost souls only five years ago when the levees failed. Spray-painted letters still blare to anyone who needs to know there's a "hot shower & beds" and "pets okay" and my favorite, "Hotel Isle of Dry." The painter also reports that "Joe's mom is alive & well" and the author is at the "2nd District Station" which is on Magazine Street and Napoleon Avenue.

I only lived in this neighborhood a year before the mess and I didn't know a lot of my neighbors back then. I suppose I could ask my next-door neighbor Raoul, but I kind of like not knowing.

In fact, this is the only abandoned property I've seen that incites in me the desire to renovate. I want to tear down the drooping wooding fence, clean the rusty iron railing and clear out all the vines.  I would love nothing more than to fix the broken windows and toss the strange debris that has accumulated in the yard.  I want to live here.

Then I will solve its mysteries for myself.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The crawfish boil chronicles: Lorin Gaudin

If I had to name one person who drastically intensified my passion for food in the last decade, it'd have to be my good friend Lorin Gaudin. Known locally as the "Food Goddess," Lorin has been writing and talking about food in New Orleans for over 12 years and knows more about the industry than anyone I have ever met.  A couple of weeks ago, she invited me into her beautiful home (a gorgeous Victorian Side Hall Cottage) and agreed to help me with my crawfish boil crusade.

Born at Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago, Lorin developed a definite sense of independence and self sustainability due to a mostly absentee mother who divorced and re-married many times, moving her and her sister from town to town to town. During the course of her childhood, Lorin attended 13 different schools before she graduated high school.  She's lived in cities like Manhattan, Scarsdale, White Plains, and Los Angeles.

She still vividly recalls living for a year in a small fishing village in Portugal when she was only 5-years-old. She was often left with a maid that spoke only Portuguese, so much so that Lorin learned it fluently and it was her 3-year-old sister's first language.  " I can still feel the dirt on my feet, taste the fresh sardines and remember swimming in the ocean," she recalls dreamily.

Although she was bopping around quite a bit, she did spend four years (from 5th to 9th grade) in Bel Air, California where she and her sister would often take the bus all the way out to Westwood to enjoy food from Taco Bell or their favorite falafel stand.  At one point during her stint in Southern California, Lorin was actually interviewed by Rolling Stone Magazine because she was the only female water polo player in the Los Angeles area, a sport she loved so dearly that she lettered in it.

Although she obviously excelled in some areas, Lorin claims she was a "complete freak" in high school and didn't really get along well with her classmates.  She was particularly proud to tell me that she was always a champion of the underdog. "At 12 I wanted to be the first female U.S. Supreme Court Justice...that ship sailed," she laughed, "but I am justice person...and when I think that something is wrong, I stand up and say it.  I say it with a lot of soul, a lot of passion and a lot of integrity."

After graduating from Latin School of Chicago, a "hoity-toity," prestigious high school, Lorin chose to apply to Tulane University in New Orleans.

When I asked if it was college, then, that finally brought her here, Lorin replied "Oh no, what brought me to New Orleans was actually a soul call." Apparently, when she was only 13, a friend's father who had gone to Tulane law school, talked about the city all the time. "Whether I went to college or not, my plan was always to come to New Orleans."

Although Lorin first applied to Tulane, she found it wasn't for her and instead submitted her application to Loyola. Like most students, she spent her college years bouncing around trying out majors like psychology and anthropology, "All a disaster..." she says. Because of her indecision, she had to buckle down and take some extra-full class loads and her counselor said her only two choices (if she wanted to graduate on time) were English or theater. She chose theater with no regrets and many of her classmates are still close to her today. "I thought my education at Loyola was absolute genius and  I loved every minute of it."

Because Lorin, like me, is so enamored of the local food scene, I was curious what she first ate when she finally made it here at 16-years-old. As it turns out, her introduction to New Orleans cuisine was only what I can describe as my wildest food fantasy.

Hopping a streetcar from the campus, Lorin headed to the Quarter alone, dined on crawfish and Dixie beer from the Desire Oyster Bar, was delighted by her first Banana's Foster made for her by Chef Mike Roussel himself at Brennan's and then enjoyed Coquille St. Jacques and a Cafe Brulot at Arnaud's all in the same day! Not only did she eat some of the finest cuisine in New Orleans (not to mention meeting an incredibly famous local chef), she didn't pay a dime! Not one of those establishments would accept payment from her and their responses to her shock were passed off with a wave, a smile and a "Welcome to New Orleans."

She mentioned later that the only item she payed for that day was an egg roll she got from the Takee Outee, which she also thoroughly enjoyed. With an adventure like that, how could she not become a food writer?

Although Lorin's experiences have taken her to the finest restaurants in the Greater New Orleans area, none hold a candle to the crawfish boils and parties at her husband Andre's parents' house in Bay St. Louis, MS.   Together for 27 years, Lorin and Andre would visit Mississippi every year for a huge crawfish boil on Good Friday...of all days to have a party.  Smiling broadly as she recalled the yearly festivities, Lorin waxed poetic about her mother-in-law Janis who was a "Queen," a strong, matriarchal figure whom Lorin not only admired, but loved with all her heart.

These parties were epic, hundreds of people would attend and revel in the "fun, music, dancing and debauchery" that would begin in the early afternoon and last all night long. Hundreds of pounds of crawfish and tons of booze made this a celebration no one would easily forget. One year, Janis asked Lorin to bring a dip and (unknowingly) she arrived with a meat dip!  They teased her mercilessly (she'll always be the "Yankee"), but they ate the dip anyway.

Tears that were standing in Lorin's eyes gave way and spilled down her cheeks as she remembered the magnanimous Janis.  "She had huge hands, my husband has the same giant hands." she said, her voice shaking. "Remy (her son) has those hands too." Her mother-in-law "never missed a beat" and always dressed to season with "giant fingernails" that were painted to match. Janis succumbed to a severe health condition only two years ago and the pain was still too fresh.

Unfortunately, the beautiful home in Bay St. Louis was destroyed during Katrina, but Lorin and her family have begun their own crawfish boil tradition.  Every year on St. Patty's Day, the Gaudin house is filled with revelers (the parade route makes almost a circle around her house) drinking, running out to catch beads and returning to get their fill of some delicious, spicy crawfish.

When I asked if she sucked the heads, Lorin's eyes widened as she said "Absolutely! I am one of those people that not only do I suck the head, I stick my pinky finger inside and pull it out and if that doesn't do it, I open the shell and lick the inside."

Monday, September 13, 2010

Potentially inspiring: The Three Muses

Long before I delved into the worlds of The Iliad and The Odyssey, I was a huge fan of Greek mythology. Characters like Medusa with her serpent-ridden hair and Charon the skeletal ferryman who received payment in gold coins to carry travelers to the Isle of the Dead were of great interest to me, symbolizing all I love about fantasy and feeding my over-active imagination.

When I moved here, I couldn't help but appreciate that many of the street names (regardless of their unique pronunciations) were for muses like Clio, Calliope, Erato, Melpomene, Terpsichore and Thalia.  Additionally, a lot the Mardi Gras "krewes" in the Greater New Orleans area are also named after Greek and Roman characters like Bacchus, Morpheus, Pygmalion and Zeus.

So, naturally it was no surprise to me when a new restaurant opened called The Three Muses. Although it has been debated, it is generally agreed that there were actually a total of nine muses, but the concept of three is often repeated. Traditionally, the three muses are song, occasion and memory, but in the case of this brand new restaurant in the Marigny, they are Daniel Esses (cuisine), Sophie Lee (music) and Christopher Starnes (hospitality).

This is my 51st cheat and I am down 71 pounds.

On Saturday night, John and I drove all the way across town to experience the music, food and atmosphere that is The Three Muses. We planned to meet our old boss and friend Carl at the restaurant sometime around 5:00 p.m.  Since we arrived so early in the evening, we were able to score an excellent parking space that was just around the corner from the restaurant.  We walked inside to find the chic, French-influenced tavern (several ornately framed mirrors lean out from the walls) pretty much empty.

The problem was finding a table to seat four.

There was one table that accommodated more than four people, but it was currently taken, so when Carl and his girlfriend Beth wandered in, we chose to sit right at the bar. Unfortunately, our seating arrangement and the sounds of a jazz band playing in the front made for awkward conversation.

Since talking wasn't easy, we all immediately dove into the menu. I ordered one of their specialty drinks appropriately dubbed "The Muse." The cocktail includes cucumbers and strawberries with St. Germain Elderflower liqueur (what is with New Orleans' obsession with St. Germain?) and Hendrick's gin. Although the cocktail had a nice fruity, herbal flavor, I would've loved some thinly sliced, muddled cucumber or even strawberry as opposed to the strange pulp I found at the bottom of my glass.

I ordered a ton of different plates since they all seemed "tapas-sized" and hoped they might arrive a bit spaced out.  First, they served us a small plate of Indian-spiced popcorn as an amuse bouche of sorts.  It was tasty, buttery and hot and we all had no problem devouring it.

Next, Carl and Beth got some Rabbit Empanadas with sun-dried tomato aioli.  I didn't get to try these but they looked light and flaky, very similar to a really good meat pie.  They also ordered a Duck Confit & Rigatoni pasta that I did manage to taste. The pasta was nice, but I liked what John and I ordered even better.

Although the Falafel Bits drizzled with a simple yogurt sauce were rather plain and a bit bland, I absolutely loved the Lamb Sliders with tomato chutney and goat cheese. Lamb can be a very finicky meat, something easily ruined by over or even under-cooking, but the sliders were perfect!  Wonderful, Mediterranean flavors permeated the tender, juicy meat and I was hard-pressed to find another plate I adored nearly as much throughout the remainder of the evening.

The next arrival was two, rather large Lobster Egg Rolls served with a sweet, chili-lime sauce. Despite the fact that the egg rolls were crispy and delicious, I had a difficulty tasting the lobster which is my all-time favorite shellfish. I would eat a vegetable (read cheaper) version of these in a heartbeat as all the Asian flavors and veggies were present and accounted for.

As always, I was really excited to taste their Ceviche and chips, loving ceviche as I do.  The flavor and texture of the fish was awesome, I only would like to suggest that the hunks of fish be a bit smaller.  At one point, I felt like I was hoisting an entire fillet onto my tiny (by comparison) tortilla chip.

I didn't expect to find a dish to beat out the Lamb Sliders until I tasted our final savory dish of the evening, the Braised Pork Belly with apple chutney and scallion pancakes.  It was a taste of the divine on a pancake with the rich, fatty flavor of the pork belly juxtaposed against the sweet apple chutney (pork chops and apple sauce?).  Both Carl and Beth agreed.

At last, we all were ready for dessert and we ended up with two orders of the same dish.  After all, would you be able to resist your own plate of Banana-"Marscapone" (oops!) Strudel with rum butter and Mexican-chocolate ice cream?  I wouldn't!  It was absolutely delicious and I especially loved the cinnamon-spicy flavor of the ice cream...I would return to the Three Muses for that dessert alone.

After dinner, Beth had to run out for a scheduled gig at Cafe Negril just down the street. After enjoying one more cocktail (I had to try their delicious "Caiprinha" - where's that darned spell checker at? - made with Cachaca, sugar and lime), John and I walked over to the club and for a while enjoyed the Celtic stylings and bawdy lyrics of Beth Patterson (check out Beth and Carl's collaboration, Potent Bathers) and then made our way home.

Although they've only been open since early August, I was impressed to find that The Three Muses had developed a potentially inspiring menu that requires only a few minor tweaks. They've definitely aroused my interest...and repeat patronage.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Who dat? Fanatic for the fans...

When I think about football, which is a rare occurrence in itself, there is only one positive association. It's early Thanksgiving morning, the scent of Italian sausage and boiling giblets is in the air as my mom prepared the stuffing for the evening feast. Otherwise, football for me was always a real bummer.

First off, watching sports with my father sucked.... a lot.  Not only did he deem me too young (I heard stupid) to understand the rules, he wanted no noise aside from the not-so-funny announcers cracking inside jokes and the loud buzz of the crowd cheering in the background.

Don't you dare play too loud or laugh too loud or (God forbid) cry while my dad was watching "the game."

What made it even worse is that he would watch ANY game.  Baseball, football, golf, basketball, the freaking Olympics, endless hours of soccer (GOOOOAAALLL), bowling, horse races, boxing and even poker were all a part of my father's television-watching repertoire.  Often, I would opt to read in my room and it took years to learn how to block out the constant humming noise...the sports noise.

Much to everyone's shock (including my own), I agreed to brave the Quarter on Thursday and hang out with my friend Ryan who acquired tickets to a Saints kickoff party at the Bienville House Hotel.  Admittedly, there would be free beer and food, a reserved area on Decatur to watch the parade roll by and all of this would occur while surrounded by the splendor of a gorgeous, historic hotel, but all this to watch football?

What would I do when the game started? Pretend?

It certainly seemed like the fates didn't want me to go either.

John had to work that night at the gallery and we knew parking would be impossible and expensive, so we thought the streetcar would be the cheapest and most effective way to beat the traffic  Not 10 minutes before we stepped out of our apartment, the heavy, New Orleans skies let loose.

We huddled under a huge umbrella and dodged most of the massive puddles (will my Birkenstocks ever recover?), as we walked to the stop on Carrollton & Oak. We stood in the rain for about a half an hour before we started to get anxious. A few minutes later, we were informed that the electricity had gone out on the streetcar lines and buses were en route to rescue us.

Over the next 15 minutes we debated our options. Do we take a cab? Should I just drive John into the city and drop him off at work...a convenient escape route from this strange sports adventure I was taking myself on? Do I really want to walk around with wet pants for the rest of the evening?

The bus arrived and made our decision for us.

One and a half hours later, after riding on a bus that was bursting at the seams with vivacious sports fans decked in black & gold and irritably inconvenienced people who just wanted to go home, we finally arrived on Canal and Carondolet. We couldn't help pausing, watching in awe as thousands of fans streamed past us towards the Superdome.

Walking against the flow of foot traffic on Bourbon Street, we said goodbye to Derek, our new-found friend who recently moved here from San Francisco, and made our way to the the gallery on the corner of Royal and Toulouse.

Ryan and I left John in a flurry of goodbyes and made our way to the hotel. Many Saints fans (and a number of Vikings fans too) were still scattered inside the Quarter, but most of the crowds were jam-packed around the parade route that skirted the outside, following Elysian Fields, N. Peters, Decatur and Canal. We arrived at the Bienville House just in time to get some noisemaker beads/party passes and a cold beer before heading out through the garage to catch the parade.

Even though the roll stopped in front of us for almost an hour, the overwhelming sense of excitement for what was about to come was palpable.  The floats and the beads and the incredible brass bands were wonderful, but the fun had barely started because this night was all about the game and the friends there, both new and old, watching it with you.

So when everyone picked their seats in the main lobby, seeking advantageous positioning between the huge spread (Muffuletta's and sliders and po-boys, oh my!) and the big screen t.v., I sat there nervous, watching the devoted fans around us settle in to enjoy something I'd never, ever cared about.

The whistle was blown and the first kickoff of the season...well...kicked off and the avid enthusiasts around me were all riled up and I listened as guys explained plays to their girlfriends, women debating calls by the referees as hotly as the men and an overall sense of togetherness and camaraderie that I had never experienced before, especially in relation to a sporting event.

As I watched the fans watch the game, I realized that I was happy for them. These adherents, devotees, followers, admirers, groupies, zealots and yes, even freaks had this shared passion that broke social barriers and even embraced rivals (there were two brave Vikings fans in the room).  I realized, at last, that while I may not be a "card-carrying" sports aficionado, I am truly a nut for its disciples.

Who knows?  Maybe one day I'll actually watch the game...

Monday, September 6, 2010

Mr. Bingle and the "clicker" bug

Yep. I have a Mr. Bingle doll sitting on my desk and yesterday, he had a visitor! A long, dusty-looking insect with wild antennae was chillin' out on my desk, where it seems all the wild things want to be. How are these bugs getting into my house and why do we get all the weird looking ones?

John called it a "clicker" bug makes a clicking noise apparently. Needless to say, I made him take it outside.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Delicacies come in a modest package at Restaurant Patois

“Modesty is not only an ornament, but also a guard to virtue” -Joseph Addison

Only three short blocks from the Audubon Zoo on the corner of Webster and Laurel Streets, there's what appears to be a humble neighborhood bistro complete with awning and chalkboard specials called Restaurant Patois. Yesterday, John and I carefully avoided tiny lizards scrambling across our path in droves, crossed the street and stepped inside the unassuming, yet elegant eatery for a leisurely lunch. It was my 50th cheat and I'm down 69 pounds.

Like everyone in this town who gives a fig about food, I'd heard the wonderful accolades about Chef Aaron Burgau and his fabulous cuisine, but I thought it was about time I tried it out for myself. In all honesty, I was nervous about appearing in my usual attire. I was under the impression that my lime-green Birkenstocks and hasn't-seen-a-salon-in-moons hairstyle would be frowned upon and I did my best in a short period of time to look as presentable as possible.

As it turns out, my fuss was all for naught.

Don't get me wrong, I'm sure the proprietors would appreciate it if you avoided arriving in flip-flops, cut-off jeans and a wife-beater, but the aura was really rather casual, so I felt right at home.

The restaurant was already busy when we arrived at around noon, but the gracious host quickly seated us at a nice little two-top, proffered simple menus and filled our wine goblets with ice water. There was some serious deliberation about our appetizer after a woman at the next table received a huge bowl of mouth-watering Moules frites (mussels and French fries), but we finally made our selections.

Our server brought out our drinks with a basket of warm rolls. John reached out to take one and I reminded him that he might want to save that for dipping. He sighed, but let his hand drop. "I promise you'll be thanking me later, sweetie." I said.

And he did...

Our appetizer was tender Potato Gnocchi served with moist lump crab meat, fresh-from-the-garden baby lima beans, Porcini mushrooms and shaved Parmesan cheese. The gnocchi were a bit larger than what I've eaten in the past, but that didn't deter from the light, fluffy texture, they almost melted in my mouth. Unabashedly, I squealed "No!" when the host attempted to remove our plate before we had finished wiping the bowl clean with our flaky, buttery rolls that we had saved precisely for this purpose.

We let the host remove the dish only after it was completely spotless and our entrees arrived. Totally out of character, I had ordered a salad, but this was no ordinary salad, it was a Duck Confit Salad with arugula, sliced pears and pear vinaigrette. It's funny, because after lunch yesterday I was describing my dish to a friend and she asked me "What does 'confit' mean?" and when I told her it means the meat is cooked in its own fat, she took a deep breath and said "Ohhhh my!"

Oh my indeed! The duck had an extra crispy skin that I was tempted to pull off and eat whole, and the meat was so tender and juicy, it slid easily off the bone with my fork. The "perfect" bite came when I got all of the ingredients together on my fork; the sweetness of the pear, the rich, heady duck and salty skin with a few leaves of the peppery arugula.

I was able to feed John a few bites of my delectable salad, but he had his hands full with a Beef Brisket sandwich topped with creamy coleslaw and melted aged cheddar on, my favorite, ciabatta bread. This massive man-sandwich was served with a large pile of delightful French fries that I suspect were drizzled with a little truffle oil. I adored the flavor of the brisket, especially the chewy end slices that were extra spicy and flavorful. Since it was just a tad too much sandwich for John, I got to help him finish it.

For dessert (you didn't think I forgot dessert did you?) I chose the Chocolate Hazelnut Gateau created by pastry chef, Lisa Gustafson. This has to be the coolest dessert with the most interesting presentation, that I have ever had the pleasure to devour.

The "gateau" was a small, dense and thoroughly rich chocolate cake filled with chopped hazelnuts and covered in thick chocolate sauce. Budino, as it turns out, is Italian for pudding (yep, I had to look that one up) and this delectable concoction was served in a sealed and chilled glass canister! To top it off, there was a perfectly spherical scoop of Frangelico ice cream delicately balanced atop a disc of a delicious, buttery hazelnut brittle.

I was so completely wowed by our entire lunch, that it took a while to process it all. I've settled for so much less and paid so much more at other eateries (including chains) that my negligence required a firmly planted facepalm and a heavy sigh of exasperation.  All I can say is that I never would have guessed how wonderful food could really be before I'd tasted the work of culinary geniuses and Mr. Burgau is definitely, in my oh so humble opinion, in that number.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Nuptials with a Twist

Chiquita, the blushing bride
It was love at first sniff for Chiquita and Cosmo, two Applehead Chihuahuas whose owners are none other than local social celebrities Margarita Bergen and Cheryl Lemoine.  It was only natural that the two tie the knot...or the leash, as the case may be, and their nuptial celebration took place on Thursday night at Twist, a chic CBD bar in the Lafayette Hotel.

Twist is a part of Mike's on the Avenue, a hip, Asian-Cajun fusion type restaurant, but the night was not about food.  The wedding was not only a sweet moment of doggy-I-do's, it was the culmination of several events benefiting the Southern Animal Foundation. In fact, there were "Top Dog" awards given to the winning celebrity bartenders who raised the most money at their turns behind the bar.  One of the winners happened to be my good friend and local "Food Goddess" Lorin Gaudin...congratulations Lorin!

While mingling, taking pictures and shaking paws with some of the most darling dogs in town, I also enjoyed a few of Twist's signature cocktails and proffered my tips to the "doggy" bank on the bar.  The first cocktail was brand spanking new and called the YLC.  This heady drink featured vodka, rum, gin and tequila with freshly squeezed lemon and lime plus a little simple syrup. Not only was it tasty, $1 of the proceeds benefited who else, but the Young Leadership Council.  Who knew someone as financially challenged as I am could feel so philanthropic in such a short period of time?

The second libation was not so generous, but quite delicious, a little concoction they dub The St. Mojo.  Obviously spinning off of the favorite summertime cocktail, the Mojito, this rendition added St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur (yep, there it is again!) and fresh, muddled ginger along with the usual suspects.

Cheryl Lemoine and Cosmo, the groom
At last, the moment arrived when the four-legged lovers were ready to exchange bow-wows and everyone in the bar huddled around Bonnie Broel, who not only designed Chiquita's gorgeous gown, but who was also conducting the ceremony. All the guests were capturing the event on cell phone cameras and it was difficult to get a peek, but the canine couple bonded for life without further ado much to the delight of the crowd of friends and supporters.  Raise your glasses high in honor of the happy, hairy couple...may their days together be filled with joy, chew toys and plenty of treats!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The crawfish boil chronicles: Anne Baker

Inching ever forward in my "crawfish boil" quest, I met with Anne Baker several days ago to enjoy a few beers and get the "dirt" on the woman who has her hands in the soil of the city.  You see, Anne is quite possibly the foremost local authority on sustainable/organic farming in New Orleans.

Born in Lake Charles, approximately three hours west of New Orleans, Anne lived in many different cities like Ormond Beach, Florida; Jefferson City, Missouri; Evansville, Indiana and all over Dallas, Texas; but she always knew that she wanted to live in the Crescent City.

"We would come here on vacation and when I was five years old, I remember seeing a brass band for the first time and feeling that know those low notes that shake your breath..." Anne said. "I remember going to Jackson Square and seeing the pigeons...Cafe Du Monde...and I just knew that when I saw that brass band, I was like 'I'm movin' here when I grow up.'  That was it."

Even more amazing, Anne vividly remembers seeing world famous jazz trumpeter "Dizzy" Gillespie perform at Preservation Hall when she was just a little girl. "I distinctly remember because I said 'Ma, who is that guy with the big, puffy face?' He looked like a bullfrog and he had that bent horn and I remember him calling me up and I was dancing by his horn, and he kept playing with me..."

The rhythm of New Orleans had firmly embedded itself into her soul, but it wasn't until 1992 that she finally came here to live.

If you've ever met Anne, you'll agree that one of her most distinctive features is a radiant smile.  It was with this infectious grin that she recalled her first digs in New Orleans.  For only $200 a month, she and her boyfriend (at the time) were living in a double shotgun, camel back house on 8th Street in the Garden District.  At first, they tried to renovate the old building with some minor repairs, but it all got to be too much when the plumbing and electricity began to fail and when they started to see the sky through the ceiling on the left side of the house!

When I finally stopped laughing, I asked Anne about the origins of her interests in organic farming. Apparently, Anne spent a lot of time with her Cajun grandmother who lived in the rural town of Sulfur, Louisiana.  While they weren't exactly farmers, they had a few cows and a flourishing vegetable and flower garden.  When comparing the fresh ingredients she ate at her grandmother's house to produce she found in the grocery store, Anne was always disappointed.  She realized that if she wanted fresh produce, she would have to grow it herself.

After working in a Garden Center, Anne knew that organic was the "way to go" because using conventional products (pesticides) always induced some sort of ecological "backlash."  For example, if you used a pesticide that killed all bugs, it wasn't long before the "bad" bugs would come back even stronger and spread disease.

It wasn't long before she was offered a job to run a certified organic farm and nursery at Arc of Greater New Orleans, the local chapter of a non-profit organization dedicated to serving people with developmental disabilities.  At the time, it was the only organic farm in the entire Gulf Coast. Anne also opened another organic nursery in Metairie for Arc and supplied the landscape department.  They would sell the potted plants from the nursery in a retail store front and in garden shows.  But all of the plants Anne grew in the ground, she would sell to local chefs.

After the floods in 2005, Arc scaled down their businesses, including the gardens and nurseries.  Luckily, Anne was hired by the Food & Farm Network, making sure low income families had access to fresh produce and also worked on local and national food justice issues. Later, she opened a farm in Gentilly in the 7th Ward as part of Parkway Partners' effort to help folks open community gardens by obtaining permission from the city to grow on empty lots, installing water meters, etc.

Today, Anne works for Mat & Naddie's in several different capacities including public relations, bartending and waitressing.  She also successfully convinced chef and owner Steve Schwartz to start a garden specifically to grow fresh produce for the restaurant. They even hold sustainable gardening workshops from time to time at the homelike, riverside eatery.

When I finally asked Anne about her first crawfish boil, she replied "I can't really recall the first time. But I do remember that we would always go to my grandma's house, and I'd go play in the ditch and bring little crawfish out and say 'can we eat these?' And she'd say 'No...they're only an inch long, we better wait for them to grow.'"

She said that she often went with her grandfather in his boat or pirogue and would go "oyster dredging, shrimpin', fishin' and bullfrog giggin'."  Never having heard the phrase "bullfrog gigging" before, I asked Anne what she meant.

"You take a trident-like spear and a flashlight and you shine the light into the water and the bullfrog's eyes will reflect back.  Then you take the trident (this is pretty brutal now) and you stab the bullfrog...and then you have frog legs.  Alligators eyes reflect back too, but they are a different color and you definitely, do not want to stab an alligator in the head.  It ain't nice...nothin' pretty"

When Anne attended her first boil in New Orleans, it had been many years since she'd eaten crawfish, but I suppose old habits die hard because the knack for peeling them came back to her in a matter of moments. "I out-peeled everyone at the table. I find myself again and again eating crawfish or crab and I start to feel kind of guilty because I fly through them, I can do it in my sleep."

Then she smiled and said "I definitely suck the heads early on in the boil, but then I quit because a lot of times it gets too salty or spicy by the 2nd or 3rd batch."