24 June 2011

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

As we left the gates of Jazz Fest and observed the throngs of pedestrians fighting for a cab/bus/shuttle we decided to just hoof it down the Esplanade until we could flag down transportation. Some of the neighborhoods we strolled through were a little shady, but we never really felt in danger since there were a few other groups of people walking nearby.

Welp, next thing we knew we’d walked all the way to the FQ. I didn’t feel like dealing with the Bourbon Street crowd so we hung a right on Dauphine Street which proved to be a much more relaxing atmosphere. It was no coincidence that it happened to lead straight to our next destination: Bar UnCommon located inside the Renaissance Pere Marquette Hotel.

I’d read from numerous sources online that the chief mixologist Chris McMillian was not only the best cocktail man in the city, he was one of the best in the country. Oh, did I mention he’s also the founder of the Museum of the American Cocktail? Yeah, that too.

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We scored two seats at the bar and after a few short words with the man he set to making our drinks. I mentioned I enjoyed Manhattans so that was that, and after a few short descriptives from the wife, he knew what he wanted to serve her. At this point we had a moment to glance around and really take in our surroundings.

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This was probably the fanciest bar I’d ever been to, but luckily all of the patrons were casually dressed. As you can see in the pictures the bar is softly lit and a soothing blue color with millions of tiny bubbles encased in the bar top. It struck the perfect balance of chic and hip without being too over the top. Mr. McMillian was very approachable and eager to speak with us about anything cocktail-related. He was happy to serve anyone, but he always seemed to drift back to us, knowing that we could appreciate the finer points of his handiwork.

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My Manhattan was made with Booker’s Bourbon and “the original sweet vermouth from Turin, Italy” which I tried googling, but too many results came up. It was also garnished with a magical cherry. It had to have been soaked in fairy tears. The beverage was extremely smooth, and went down a little too quick.

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The Mrs.’ mystery drink turned out to be a Pimm’s Cup loaded with fresh lemon, cucumber, blackberries, blueberries, and raspberries. Yes, it was one hell of a drink.

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She’s been dying for a chance for us to recreate it at home, and now that berry season is fast approaching, I might give it a shot…I’d only tried a Pimm’s Cup once before, at my birthday dinner last year at B&O American Brasserie, and I wasn’t really impressed. This was smooth, light, and fresh. A wonderful warm weather cocktail.

After downing my Manhattan I told Mr. McMillian that I heard he makes a great Aviation. He said while it was a great cocktail, he wanted to make me something better—a cocktail called The Blue Train.

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It may sound like a group sex act involving Smurfs, but it’s actually a damn good cocktail. The flavor reminded me of Purplesaurus Rex. I actually preferred this over the Pisco Sours we’d had at the Carousel Bar. But it was soon to be trumped by our next round.

After mentioning he was also known for his Mint Juleps, my wife decided to try one of those for her next round. Aside from actually drinking it, watching him craft this drink was one of the highlights of the evening. He grabbed this huge mallet from one of the shelves behind the bar and proceeded to bash a pile of cubed ice into oblivion. He lightly muddled the perfect amount of mint, making sure to flavor the sides of glass as he did so. He stuffed the glass to overflowing with crushed ice, and then the long pour of Maker’s Mark he put into the drinks was one of the sexiest things I’ve ever seen. It moved. He stirred it up, topped it with a fresh sprig and there it was: The best cocktail I’ve ever had.

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The funny thing was this was also the first Mint Julep I’d ever had. A few weeks ago a coworker of mine gave me a huge bag of fresh spearmint from her mother’s garden and I’ve been working on perfecting the drink myself. I’m very happy to say that I’ve come damn close to matching Mr. McMillian’s iteration.

After tasting hers I immediately ordered one of my own, but he suggested something different, which proved to be his only misstep of the evening. Honestly, it seems like he doesn’t like to be pegged for specific drinks, either that or he doesn’t like making the same drink twice. Either way he decided to make me a Queen’s Park Swizzle, offering me some interesting history behind the name and origins of the cocktail, which I promptly forgot. Hey, it was my third round in less than 90 minutes, what do you expect? Google saves the day: It was apparently created at the Queen’s Park Hotel (ah yes, it’s all coming back to me now…) in Trinidad and it’s basically a glorified Mojito. Actually, it’s exactly like a mojito…

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While I love my mojitos, this one was just a tad too sweet for my tastes. I told him as much and he sampled a sip and told me that I should give it a minute as the crushed ice should melt, loosening it up a bit. Frankly, I don’t really remember if this happened or not, since my tastebuds were going numb, fast. As we were enjoying our third (and final) round of beverages we got to talking to a local sitting next to my wife. A very friendly and cool chap, he recommended a few small dishes for us to try at the Swizzle Stick Bar over at Café Adelaide. Since this was another bar I’d had on my list, we decided to check it out after we finished our drinks.

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The Swizzle Stick Bar was also a pretty chill spot, although slightly more packed. There was a pretty nifty crystal ship, spreading its soft light over the bar and its patrons. The dishes our drinking buddy recommended were the Shrimp & Tasso "Corndogs" with five pepper jelly, pickled okra, chicory greens and Crystal Hot Sauce and the White Chocolate Biscuit Pudding with Abita Root Beer caramel & LeBlanc's pepper jelly pecans.

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The complimentary bread came with whipped butter which was nice and spreadable. The bread also proved to be great for sopping up every bit of that five pepper jelly. That jelly definitely made the dish for me. The corndogs were great with a light crust and a prominent shrimp flavor, but the spicy-sweet jelly was bold and addicting.

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Upon first bite I proclaimed this to be the best bread pudding of the trip. The toasted pecans really brought a great crunchy dimension to the dish. They were toasty and woodsy and awesome.

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Accompanied by a pudding and sauce that were both equally as custardy and rich and not too sweet just like the one from Jazz Fest and I didn’t hesitate to crown a new king. The ice cream didn’t hurt, either. Fortunately, we had the foresight to return the next day to see if this claim would hold true when our palettes weren’t quite as numbed. Now that’s dedication. See what I do for you people?

The next morning I shot out of bed like a lightning bolt. Wasn’t I hungover? Nah, I don’t really get them. Proper hydration is key. I was jazzed (har, har) because we had 11am reservations for Jazz Brunch at Commander’s Palace. In the garden room no less. My excitement may have been a tad excessive as we got off the St. Charles streetcar at Washington Ave. with about 40 minutes to kill.

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I took this opportunity to snap a few pictures of the Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 and when I turned around I noticed Still Perkin’ which looked like the perfect place to grab a pre-brunch beverage.

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As soon as I glanced at the menu I knew what I wanted. The words “Southern Pecan Cold Drop Iced Coffee” sang to me like flocks of happy little bluebirds. Luckily they didn’t shit in my coffee. I seriously doubt anyone got that movie reference. If you did post it in the comments and I’ll give you a prize. So, I ordered a large and tacked on a shot of soy milk.

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I couldn’t drink this thing fast enough. The Southern Pecan syrup made the flavored syrups at Starbucks taste like licking a camel’s nuts. I pretty much took my first sip and didn’t stop until my straw made that loud obnoxious slurping sound. Yeah, I was that guy. But I didn’t care, this drink hit the spot like no other morning beverage has in a long time.

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My only slip up was that I failed to notice the words “Decaf Southern Pecan” right next to the regular. Oops. By the time we sat down at Commander’s Palace I was literally shaking. I highly recommend stopping by this quaint little shop if you are looking to kill some time before your meal at CP.

We did show up a tad early, but they had our table ready and immediately led us away. I felt like we were chasing David Bowie through an M.C. Escher painting a la The Labyrinth, but eventually we arrived at the garden room. This room was gorgeous with huge windows looking out over their lovely garden, and every table was adorned with a colorful trio of balloons. Our hostess assured us that hot garlic bread straight from the oven would be arriving in moments. I told her she reminded me of the babe. What babe? The babe with the power. What power? The power of voodoo. A few moments later the travelling jazz trio appeared and wasted no time in helping me belt out Magic Dance.

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What better way to start our celebratory brunch than with cocktails. I was intrigued by the Apricot Fizz made with Italian Prosecco (I thought that a little redundant, isn’t all Prosecco Italian?), apricot brandy and Calvados. The Mrs. went with a Mimosa (sorry no photo.)

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The Apricot Fizz was exactly what you expect a drink called Apricot Fizz to taste like. Light, refreshing, not too sweet, bubbly, fruity, and slightly bitter. The mimosa was… a mimosa. If you’ve had one, you’ve pretty much had them all.

I read online that they do this insane Foie Gras Pain Perdu dish and to ask for it even if it’s not on the menu. Ya know, a little wink, wink nudge, nudge action. Well, the waitress happily assured me that while she hadn’t heard of the dish she would ask the chef if it was available. It wasn’t. She then brought out a huge rubber stamp with the word ‘JACKASS’ on it and promptly slammed it into my forehead. After the pretty stars faded from my vision I went with the Shrimp and Tasso Henican described as ‘wild Louisiana white shrimp stuffed with spicy Cajun ham with Crystal hot sauce, pickled okra, and five pepper jelly’ as my starter and for my main course I chose the Barbecued Shrimp Pain Perdu (I had pain perdu on the brain) ‘wild white shrimp sautéed with toasted garlic, lemon, and Abita beer over Cognac French toast, grilled 5 onion salad, and New Orleans BBQ sauce.’ Since we’re required to order all of our dishes at once I chose the dessert they’re most known for--their Creole Bread Pudding Soufflé.

Despite our waitresses strong recommendation for the Henican my wife stood her ground and went with the Louisiana Shrimp Remoulade ‘chilled white Louisiana shrimp over marinated hearts of palm & creole tomatoes with Louisiana lettuce, ripped terragon, and spicy lemon vinaigrette’ for her first course, the Eggs Couchon de Lait (her self-proclaimed favorite dish of the entire trip) ‘two farm fresh eggs over slow smoked should of pork with warm buttermilk biscuits, mushroom fricassee, and spicy tasso hollandaise’ as her second course, and finally the Ponchatoula Strawberry Shortcake ‘first of the season local berries layered with warm buttermilk biscuits, Chantilly cream, and Dominos sugar’ for dessert. Apparently I was on a shrimp kick and she was on a biscuit kick. I also tacked on a cup of their famous Turtle Soup, as I’d been told not to leave CP without trying it.

For our second round of beverages I chose the Whiskey Smash which the menu describes as ‘A King Cocktail Dale DeGroff creation, the smash begins with the muddling of fresh spearmint leaves, orange liqueur and lemon then mixed with Maker’s Mark Bourbon and served over crushed ice.’
The Mrs. opted for her usual Bloody Mary which was adorned by a veritable garden of pickled okra, long beans, and green olives.

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The Whiskey Smash was great, but didn’t hold a candle to the magical Mint Julep we’d had the previous night.

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The Bloody Mary was finished tableside with the iceblock vodka. It was very smooth and finished with an aggressive bite that tickled the back of my throat. The pickled okra was nice and spicy. Our only complaint being that only half of the rim was salt/peppered.

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My Henican was magical like a level 12 Warlock. The sweetness from the five pepper jelly, pickled okra, and pickled onion helped to counterbalance the smoky Tasso ham, which apparently they cure in-house. The shrimp were perfectly cooked, but I have a pet peeve about eating shrimp tail-on. I get frustrated whenever I lose half a shrimp to a clinging tail. The spice level was utterly perfect, definitely noticeable but not to the point where it numbed my invaluable taste buds. I would’ve gladly ordered this dish for all three courses if I could have. One of the culinary highlights of the weekend for sure.

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The turtle soup, unfortunately, wasn’t quite on the same level as the one we’d sampled at Jazz Fest the day before. If someone had told me this was beef stew, I wouldn’t’ve batted an eye. The other iteration was thicker, brighter because of the use of the greens, and much more complex. It also had a lot more noticeable chunks of turtle meat. I was glad we were able to sample Chris Montero’s turtle soup, because I wasn’t impressed at all with this so-called “famous” version.

The complimentary bread was good, although quite frail and flaky to the point that when I went to rip off a hunk to sop up the rest of the five pepper jelly on my plate, it literally disintegrated in my hand. The whipped butter also garnered rave reviews from my wife.

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The first thing I have to mention about my entrée is the rich and buttery New Orleans barbecue sauce. I’d never really tasted a sauce quite like it. I mentioned this to the waiter and he wasted no time in jaunting down to the kitchen and coming back with a list of the primary ingredients: Butter, Abita Amber, Worcestershire, hot sauce, rosemary, cracked black pepper, and lemon juice. New Orleans definitely knows a thing or two about sauces. I searched the intarwebs when we got back and found the exact recipe, so that’s a giddy up.

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These were the best shrimp I had all trip. They were perfectly cooked (the tails slid off easily) with a light dusting of Cajun spice and had the perfect touch of char. The pain perdu’s texture was great, with a hearty crispy crust. The sweetness from the caramelized onions and the flavors of cognac and anise from the microgreens really rounded up this carnivale of flavor. It took me quite a while to sort out my rambling voice memo about this dish. It was truly unique and quite spectacular. I think my favorite part was that every bite was different, there was salty, sweet, smoky, tangy, bitter… I turned more than a few heads as my culinary wood thumped the bottom of our table. It made our water glasses tremble like the ominous steps of the T-Rex.

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My wife’s Eggs Cochon de Lait were no slouch either. Along with the Crawfish Monica, she proclaimed this her favorite dish of the trip. It was a wrecking ball of savory goodness. While there wasn’t much textural contrast, the biscuits had pretty much disintegrated when the plate hit the table, the strong flavors made me sit up and take notice. The waterfall of yolk after she pierced the eggs was something truly wonderful to behold, adding richness so the smoky softly shredded pork. It tasted very brown, and in no way is meant to be a bad thing.

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The Creole Bread Pudding Soufflé was the better of the two desserts, but I felt it didn’t quite live up to the raving reviews it has garnered across the internet. Without a doubt my favorite feature was the whiskey sauce, which had a very strong whiskey flavor. It was served piping hot, as is the case with any good soufflé and as I probed the dish I loved finding the spots along the edge and bottom that were slightly crispy and caramelized.

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Since the sauce is added tableside, I don’t think the flavors of the dish really get a chance to meld and seem a little disjointed. There was also a slight undesirable eggy flavor, and the texture was a touch dry. The dish itself had a very bizarre texture, unlike any I’ve ever seen in the food world. The pictures don’t do it justice, but I can only describe it as soft and almost elastic. The smallest amount of pressure caused it to buckle and roll like whitewater rapids. I felt this was an interesting marriage of the flavors of bread pudding with the textures and execution of a soufflé, but in our weekend tally of our favorite bread puddings this one came in dead last.

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I was expecting to be wowed by the Strawberry Shortcake too since we were dining in the height of strawberry season, but this dish fell a little short as well. The pastry had a nice crust, and the fresh whipped cream was a welcome addition. It lacked the punch of fresh strawberry flavor I was expecting, but the ratio of tart to sweet was spot on.

This was without question the best brunch I’d ever had. It was up there with Madre in Montreal, and Locanda Verde and Shopsin’s in Manhattan. Along with Mr. B’s and Bar UnCommon, if you’re a food enthusiast and are taking a trip to New Orleans you simply cannot miss the Jazz Brunch at Commander’s Palace. We’ll be back for sure.

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Jen said...

Oooo me! "oh Broomhilda, look! A happy little bluebird!" totally from memory. I swear on my Everlast chastity belt.

Jen said...

You do "suffer" for your craft, my friend. How many bread puddings did you eat on this trip? Great reviews, as per usual! I can't wait for your SF reviews, so I can put some of your entries to use in the near future.

Mr. Micro said...

Well done Jen. Your gift is located directly in my trousers. I'll give it to you when we go to Woodberry next Sunday.

That was the last bread pudding of the trip. It's definitely one of my favorite desserts, but by that point I was definitely bread puddinged out.

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