13 May 2011

Heaven is spelled N.O.L.A. Part 1

I really am floored by how many great dining experiences I’ve already experienced this year, and New Orleans definitely ranks up there with some of the best. One thing I was really impressed by is that even though most of the restaurants I visited were considered tourist destinations, they (for the most part) served food of a very high caliber. I guess this is how New Orleans came to be known as a food town, even to those of us who may not consider ourselves to be food enthusiasts. I have quite the story to tell: foie gras 3 ways, shrimp on top of shrimp with a side of shrimp, the best Mint Julep in the world, and more bread pudding than I’d like to admit, so let me waste no more of your or my time and join me on this fantastic culinary quest to stuff my face and drink myself retarded in New Orleans.

Our trip definitely started on less than ideal ground. Thursday was plagued with flood watches and tornado warnings which lead to our flight to be delayed. The Mrs. and I drove to work together and left straight from here to go to the airport. We dropped off our car at the blue lot of Airport Fast Park (which ended up costing only $45 for five days, not too shabby) and in a few short moments were through security and eagerly awaiting our flight at gate D7. The wife had a busy day at work so she needed some sustenance before boarding so we took a load off at the festive looking Rum Island Bar.

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I ordered a Manhattan after I spied Maker’s Mark behind the bar and the wife went with a Bloody Mary and an order of chicken quesadillas.

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My Manhattan was surprisingly decent, albeit not quite as strong as the ones I make at home. Bonus that I got a nice smear of mayo on the side of my glass. It made for a great chaser!

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When I inquired about the BM my wife replied that it tasted like “liquid beef jerky.” Now this wouldn’t be all that surprising coming from my mouth, but from hers? She rarely makes claims like that. But upon tasting it, her assessment was spot on. Liquid beef jerky--A perplexing flavor indeed. Her chicken quesadilla was surprisingly large, a stack of four huge wedges simply oozing with cheese. As you probably already know from reading this blog, my wife is a huge cheese fiend, but that much cheese was too much even for her, which says a lot. She managed to finish about two and a half wedges before waving admitting defeat. Since I’d eaten practically nothing all day (conserving stomach space for the multi-course dinner we had in store later that night) my Manhattan went straight to my head and I boarded the plane slightly tipsy. A first for me.

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With views like that, I don't know how some people hate to fly... Unfortunately our flight arrival caused us to miss the express bus into downtown New Orleans by two minutes, so we had to wait 30 minutes for the next one. This was a great opportunity to experience some of the local flavor firsthand. I was entertained by a babbling toothless leathery-skinned bike-toting gentleman about all manner of New Orleans news, history, and culture. At least, that’s what I think he was talking about, I stopped listening after realizing I could only understand one out of every five words he sputtered out. After explaining to the bus driver exactly where we were trying to go he assured us he would tell us when it was our time to disembark, so we sat back and gazed out into the various passing neighborhoods. We were surprised to see just how much cheaper gas was here then back home in Maryland. We eventually jumped ship at the corner of Loyola Ave and Poydras Street and hoofed it the 8 or so blocks to Hotel Le Cirque located directly on Lee Circle. After checking in and freshening up in our room we phoned the front desk for a cab and were standing outside of Restaurant August on the corner of Gravier and Tchoupitoulas minutes before our 8 o’clock reservation.

When we announced our arrival the hostess informed us that they were just setting our table and we would be seated in just a few moments. There were a few people in the bar area, but for the most part it was empty. The dining room, however, was packed and extremely lively. Loud, even. I was extremely relieved when the hostess finally lead us to our table that it was located in the much quieter, much better lit back dining room. In the corner no less, my ideal dining seat. This would prove to be a trend, for in every single restaurant we dined in while staying in NOLA we were sat either in a corner or against a wall. And with a view like this, I couldnt’ve been happier.

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We inquired about the wine list and our waiter offered to send the sommelier over. She was a very nice woman who patiently waited while I explained our dilemma. I was trying to decide on which moderately priced bottle to go with our entire meal. She suggested we just do a few glasses that she would personally pair with our courses after we’d ordered. And it would be cheaped than buying a bottle. Genius! So that’s exactly what we did.

The menu offered some very tantalizing dishes, and the ability to customize my own tasting menu made it quite difficult in choosing what to order. There were two dishes that I knew I had to try and those were the Fois Gras prepared Three Ways and the Handmade Potato Gnocchi tossed with blue crab and black truffle. I was also set on ordering the Sugar and Spice Duckling, but then I saw the lamb. More specifically the Whole Roast Saddle of Ellensburg Lamb with crispy lamb sweetbreads, baby turnips, and pied du mouton mushrooms. I’d been meaning to try sweetbreads and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. I asked for the waiter’s recommendation and he convinced me to go with the lamb since it was a special whereas the duck is a mainstay. Done. Since my wife and I were splitting the gnocchi she ordered the Curried White Shrimp Bisque (the first of many, many shrimp dishes ordered during our trip) with steamed dumplings and crispy shrimp tempura and the La Provence Mangalista Pork for her main course which featured three preparations: herb roasted tenderloin, slow cooked shoulder, and crispy belly with creamy polenta, spring onions, and baby squash.

Before I could even think about taking notes or photos, plates started hitting our table. First was the complimentary French bread and our amuse bouche—a seafood custard garnished with caviar and brioche served in an eggshell.

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An interesting start to our meal, the custard was light, although I was perplexed as it became much more dense near the bottom of the shell and had to be scooped rather than spooned. I’m not sure if this was intentional or not, but I would’ve preferred one smooth texture. It pleasantly coated the mouth with a rich silky texture. The caviar added the expected salty punch and the greens (chervil?) had a nice bitterness reminiscent of scallion. I have no idea what the point of the brioche was, texture maybe? I think they could’ve come up with a smarter way to incorporate textural contrast into the dish. Personally, I could’ve gone without it. A decent start, but nothing compared to the Bacon Guacamole at Topolobampo or the Scallop Ceviche at Le Bernardin.

The bread, on the other hand, was a sorry excuse for French bread. Well, that may be a little extreme, but considering Chef Besh is a James Beard award winner, I was expecting something a little better than what I could find at my local Subway.

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The sommelier chose a Prosecco to go with my foie gras, and it was pretty standard. That’s not to say it was bad, it was a solid pairing. It was light and crisp and just a touch sweet, but nothing extraordinary. Now on to the foie gras. Ah, yes the foie gras.

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The presentation was stellar, but unfortunately I was so busy gawking at my pretty plate of duck liver that I neglected to catch the finer details of the dish as my food runner splurted them out.

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The dish was accompanied by the most magical brioche that has ever crossed my lips. The substandard complimentary bread was completely forgotten in the wake of this Bread of the Gods. It had to contain the most butter possible without actually leaking butter onto the plate. The crust was perfectly seared, lending a touch of texture and caramelized flavor without tasting burnt or being too crusty. It was simply magical. When slathered with creamy foie gras, well, lets just say I was a very happy boy.  In the mouth.  And in the pants.

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Now about that foie gras. I know the leftmost preparation, which was my favorite of the three, featured alternating layers of foie gras and oxtail and was garnished with strawberry compote. If there were any other details they eluded me. Sneaky buggers. It was silky smooth and rich and light, as any great foie gras should be. It was also very light and I loved the texture and subtle sweetness that the compote added. My mouth is literally watering right now.

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The second preparation was a foie gras stuffed baumkuchen accompanied by a champagne gelee and a balsamic reduction. Honestly, while the first preparation was my favorite, the flavors of this iteration stick out in my memory the most. I think it was due to the sweet/savory interplay of the foie and cake. The gelee was something truly special, adding a nice tartness that rounded the components together. They were like miniature champagne jello shots. The balsamic reduction was nice, as most are, but didn’t really add much to the overall experience. Since this preparation wasn’t spreadable I took alternating bites of tiny wedges of cake and buttery brioche. Not only is my mouth watering now, but my stomach is growling. And I just ate lunch.

The last preparation was braised or… something… in whiskey and was accompanied by a citrus (literally that’s all the guy told me, citrus) which I believe was either blood orange or some type of grapefruit. It had a very bitter tartness to it that slightly overpowered the richness of the foie. This was the most velvety of the preparations, so much so that it was almost impossible to scoop it up with my knife to spread it on the bread. The balsamic reduction on the plate worked better here, helping to reign in the bitterness from the citrus, but even after that I felt it was just a touch unbalanced. The whiskey flavor was very powerful and I loved it. It was basically like taking a shot of whiskey and a bite of foie and swishing them together in your mouth. A foie chaser? Yes, please.

Goddamn, that was a lot to say about one appetizer. Onto the next dish, my most eagerly anticipated dish of the entire meal, the gnocchi. Ultimately, I was underwhelmed with this dish, simply due to the fact that our serving lacked any noticeable black truffle. I’d seen/read/heard so much about this dish, so my expectations may have been a tad too high, but I was expecting it to look like this or the insane one shown here, but I didn’t see a single speck of black.

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That being said, these flavors were quite good. The lump crab was abundant, the sauce creamy, and the gnocchi had a wonderful light texture, but I was left longing for some sort of textural contrast. The shaved parmesan added nuttiness and a touch of salt. Again, it was a very good dish, the flavors that were there were all great, and I’d be happy to eat a whole bowl of it, but had the black truffle been present, it had the potential to be great. I was warned on Chowhound that I may experience a dumbing down of the finer restaurant’s food due to this being Jazz Fest weekend and New Orleans was overrun with tourists. Another explanation could be that those pictured dishes were doctored up for the visiting bloggers. Either explanation I could cope with, but to completely omit a featured, albeit expensive, ingredient? Shame on you Chef Besh. Shame on you.

We had a Chablis paired with our gnocchi, which I didn't get a picture of, and it really made the dish. The wine pairing enhanced the cheesy tang of the parmesan and also helped lighten the relatively heavy dish. If you order the gnocchi, trust your sommalier and go with the suggested wine pairing, you'll thank me.

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While a beautiful piece of meat, this was BY FAR the gamiest piece of lamb I’ve ever had. It was fairly tough too. While it packed a veritable wrecking ball of funky lamb flavor, it was a bit too gamey even for me, a lover of gamey meats, to truly enjoy. On my voice memo I described it as “blow your head back gamey” and a “gamey funk-o-rama.” I was given a 80/20 Cab/Syrah blend from Sonoma pairing which had that little spicy funky flavor at the end that I didn’t quite care for on its own, but when paired with my lamb, it served to partially subdue the gaminess and greatly emphasized the minerality of the lamb.

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The crispy fried sweetbreads I could only describe as the best chicken nugget ever, they were moist and tender, but I wasn’t really sure what I was supposed to be tasting. I really enjoyed them, but I didn’t feel like I got a sense of what makes sweetbreads such a revered ingredient. The lamb belly also had a slight toughness to it, a rareity in my experience. It was crispy fried, which I usually don’t prefer, but it worked here. It was topped with a perfectly dressed bitter green salad that helped round out the caramelized fat and friedness. Surprisingly, my favorite thing on my plate was the turnip. I’d never had a turnip that tasted like that, I thought it was some sort of potato until I went back and read the ingredients. It had an intriguing sweetness to it and a pleasant toothsomeness.

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I only had one bite of my wife’s pork done three ways, but it was a damn good bite. I had the tenderloin paired with the polenta. The pork was tender and smoky, but the polenta stole the show. Creamy, cheesy, and (almost) as smooth as butter. I’m a huge fan of grits, so now I see why people love polenta so much--when done well, it’s a great dish. She was given a Pinot Noir from Truchard Winery in Napa which we enjoyed so much I made a note to check them out when we’re out there for our anniversary in August.

Surprisingly, the dessert course was where I thought this meal really shined. We ordered the Napoleon of Nougatine with Valhrona chocolate bavarois, and salted toffee ice cream and the Ponchatoula Strawberry Streusel Cake with meyer lemon curd, rhubarb, and buttermilk ice cream. Our waiter commended us on ordering the two best desserts on the menu. Yay!

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By this time the wine was starting to kick in so my notes are a little less detailed and a little more rambling. I think what really made this course was the combination of the two dishes. First the nougatine featured in the napoleon had a crispy crunchy texture similar to brittle that I’d never before experienced in a dessert. The strong toffee flavor from the ice cream paired extremely well with the buttermilk ice cream of the streusel.

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The streusel itself was supremely balanced with a heavenly tartness from the lemon curd pound cake and the rubarb. Eaten alone, I probably would’ve preferred the streusel, but when eaten in alternating bites the flavors in both dishes really played well off one another. John Besh obviously knows how to choose his sommeliers, all of our wine pairings were stellar, but after having these desserts together he should seriously consider hiring someone who’s sole job is to suggest these two desserts together. Consider our sweet tooth satiated. But wait, there’s more!

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We were given a lovely little silver tray of petit fours along with our (ouch) bill. There were two pralines, two macarons, and bittersweet chocolate truffle. The praline blew my fucking mind and fought for the title of the best bite of the night. It was creamy, buttery, and melted the instant it hit my tongue. The pink macaron was utterly revolting. It was so floral that it completely overwhelmed my palette and I had to resist the urge to spit it into my napkin. It tasted like a blue ribbon rose garden money shot. The truffle was everything you expect in a great truffle: rich, silky, and decadent.

Looking back I really enjoyed Restaurant August, but while it was one of the nicest restaurants I’ve eve been to, was it one of the best dining experiences I’ve ever had? No. After the conclusion of our meal I really thought about just how much goes into a bill other than just the food. You’re paying for service, ambience, setting, etc. There’s definitely a point when fine dining gets exponentially more expensive, ingredients and technique can only cost so much, right? Our bill at August was $300, our jazz brunch at Commander’s Palace that Sunday was $150. Was August was twice as good as Commanders? No. If given the opportunity to have dinner at August, or do two jazz brunches at Commanders, without question I would go for Commander’s. I think the recent trend in the success of food trucks really illustrates this point. Skip the setting and the service and just give me the food. It’s a hell of a lot cheaper that way isn’t it? I’ve always said that I’ll eat out of rundown shack in a dark alley as long as the food is good, and I mean it. This new line of thought is really making me question whether or not to try to obtain a reservation at The French Laundry. I’m probably looking at a $800 bill if we dine there, but will the food really be that much better than the place down the street that might only cost $150? I’m not so sure about that.

Restaurant August on Urbanspoon

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theminx said...

I think that scallion-flavored stuff in your amuse was a chive flower. My chive plant is in full flower and they're purple and spiky like that.

Sweetbreads are "revered" as you put it, because they are a pain in the ass to prepare. The flavor isn't all that. They're really very bland.

"It tasted like a blue ribbon rose garden money shot." - heh. [snicker]

Jen said...

..."blow your head back gamey” and a “gamey funk-o-rama.”

You need to post an audio file of your food descriptions once you get nice and hammered. I think the ensuing belly laughs would make up my ab work for the month. And there may even be a shart involved for good measure.

Mr. Micro said...

@theminx: Ah, thanks for dropping the knowledge on me Minxy.

@Jen: The shart comment killed me. Ya know, I didn't really start feeling it until the dessert course, that was just my usual self. Looking forward to our day o' fun next week!

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