Friday, June 01, 2007

A NEW ORLEANS REPORT (before it goes stale)

At the end of April, Spice met up with friend (and former Holtzbrinck coworker) Krista in New Orleans for Jazz Fest, or, as the locals call it: The Fest. The weekend before the trip, I’d prepped my palate by making jambalaya. Ready to ask every server and local about what constitutes the best jambalaya, I crumbled under the culinary pressure of other choices and ended up eating food items I’d neither find on menus back in Minnesota nor make at home.

Foodie adventures began before I even arrived in New Orleans. My Northwest flight made a connection in Memphis, where the airport positively sings with the rich smokiness of barbecue. Since I had time to eat, and was getting into NOLA late, I found myself drawn to Jim Neely’s Interstate Bar-B-Que like iron filings to a magnet. The vast menu offered sandwiches, sausages and hot dogs, chicken, and ribs. I love pulled pork sandwiches, but have never eaten one in the barbecue belt so I ordered the chopped pork sandwich. Seated next to a sailor in dress white, who was eating an identical meal, and with a blues soundtrack playing, I tucked into a pile of hickory-smoked pork shoulder, chopped and slathered with a vinegar-sharp barbecue sauce, served on a slice of white bread. Beans and slaw accompanied. I’m not a huge fan of coleslaw, but I understand intellectually how its cool creaminess can be perfectly juxtaposed against the tomato tanginess of barbecue sauce.

Did I mention that I was in an airport? Fantastic people watching. On my first flight I read that dresses are back, and I certainly witnessed that civilized trend among these same women.

Jazz Fest food—though I would be remiss not to mention the music*—was easily the best fair food to ever pass my lips. Even though my mantra was "try anything and everything," truth be told, the choices were overwhelming and the heat suppressed my appetite. Oh, and we had a tendency to fill up on sweet SoCo slushies (basically, daiquiris or frozen hurricanes made with Southern Comfort**).

The vast array of foodstuffs included crawfish dishes (po’ boys, bisque, enchiladas), oyster artichoke soup, shrimp macque choux (a creamed corn dish), jambalayas, and gumbos.

Here’s what I ate: trout baquet (pan-roasted in butter and topped with crabmeat), meaty white beans (soupy with ham and sausage), raw oysters on the half shell, crawfish Monica (corkscrew pasta in a creamy, Cajun-spiced, crawfish-laden sauce), a pheasant-quail-andouille gumbo (amazing!), and a large slab of red velvet cake.

If for no other reason than the food, I must get back to Jazz Fest—there's a lot left to try.

No, I didn’t eat at any of the old-guard restaurants—Commander’s Palace, Brennan’s, Arnaud’s, and the like. In my book, that ultra-refined dining is really passé. I much prefer the places that make fresh, local ingredients the stars, with food prepared in an innovative but unpretentious way. So, it was a thrill to eat at Donald Link’s Cochon, which had been nominated this year for a James Beard Award in the Best New Restaurant category. (While Link was edged out for that honor, he did win Best Chef: South.)

Cochon, as the name suggests, is all about the pig. The table shared the boucherie plate, laden with house prosciutto and pork rillettes, which were accompanied by mustard, pickles, and onions. The Louisiana cochon was sumptuous—a marinated, slow-roasted pork shoulder that simply fell apart in anticipation of my fork. It was served with turnips, braised cabbage, and cracklins—no lie, hog heaven. An iceberg lettuce wedge cloaked with buttermilk dressing and adorned with bacon and radishes was a revelation—I get the retro cool this salad is currently enjoying. And, for dessert, the table tucked into the best iteration of Mississippi mud pie anywhere: coffee ice-cream in a chocolate cookie crust, drizzled with liquid pralines.

On Saturday evening, Krista and I were invited—through a friend of a friend of a friend—to attend a crawfish boil. Like a Maine lobster boil or a Maryland crab boil, the main ingredient is cooked up in an enormous stock pot with other items, often potatoes and corn. Crawfish are very small, in fact, they’re often called mud bugs, probably because literally live in the mud and they’re about the same size as the tropical cockroaches that live in NOLA. I apologize for the somewhat unfortunate comparison because crawfish also look like very small lobsters.

Because innuendo is nine-tenths of the law in New Orleans, you go to a crawfish boil to "suck heads and eat tails"—both of which I did.

I won’t pretend to know what goes into preparing crawfish for the boil. Suffice it to say, we parked ourselves in front of a large pan of corn on the cob halves, new potatoes, mushrooms, garlic heads, onion wedges, and juicy kielbasa chunks, all of which had been boiled in Cajun spices.

I had been warned—but didn’t believe it until I experienced it firsthand—that the corn would be lethally spicy. When each batch of crawfish was dumped out on the newspaper-covered table, we elbowed in for our share. Eating crawfish is fun, delicious, and highly social—I love this kind of meal and will look for a way to re-create it at home.

Finally, New Orleans is famous for booze (witness Krista and Tim enjoying hand grenades in "to go" cups).

On the first evening, Krista and I went pub crawling, and one of the places we hit in the Quarter had absinthe. Not the wormwood-derived, hallucination-invoking spirit of yore, but a close approximation, served traditionally by pouring the liquor over a sugar cube that rests on a special slotted silver spoon, then topped off by a slow stream of water, which turns the otherwise clear liquid cloudy. I’m not a huge fan of licorice-flavored liquor so I passed on the opportunity.

Someone needs to keep me away from the sazeracs though. Mostly rye whiskey with a dash of Peychaud bitters and simple syrup, shaken with ice, and strained into a glass that has been rinsed with absinthe (or pastis). Very good, a little sweet, and perfectly boozy.

We also drank French 75s at Arnaud’s truly elegant French 75 Bar. Named after the French 75mm howitzer used in WW1, the cocktail is made by shaking gin, lemon juice, and simple sugar with ice, straining into a flute, and topping with champagne. Even though this is one of those drinks that goes down easily, then sneaks up on you, I think it may be Hambone and Spice’s summer 2007 cocktail. Gin and tonics are for sissies.

Of course, a few mornings began in the most civilized fashion: beignets and chicory cafe au laits at Cafe du Monde. To describe it would be obscene—this is truly a "what happens in NOLA stays in NOLA" treat!

I look forward to returning to this amazing city with Hambone—and I know my friends Tracy A. and Steve C. would each love Jazz Fest. Many clubs and restaurants need to be explored, as does a cemetary or two.

*We went for the music, which could be viewed from any of eleven stages in the blistering, late-April sun. And the music was spectacular—Dr. John (an institution), Charmaine Neville (sparkling), Trombone Shorty (brass-tastic), Bonnie Raitt (wailed, pictured above), Van Morrison (still has it), New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars (had a packed audience doing circle dances), Terence Blanchard, Norah Jones, Irvin Mayfield and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, George Thorogood and the Destroyers, to name but a few.

**Before you scoff, Southern Comfort, though now bottled in Louisville, KY, is an authentic New Orleans spirit. As legend has it, M.W. Heron, a young Irish bartender in the French Quarter, softened harsh barrel whiskeys coming into New Orleans in the 1880s by adding sugar, cinnamon, and peach, orange and vanilla flavors, thus “conjuring” a liqueur that could be consumed straight or mixed in cocktails. And, you read correctly, SoCo is a liqueur, not bourbon whiskey as commonly believed. More to the point, SoCo is a neutral grain spirit derived from corn, such as everclear. According to wikipedia, Southern Comfort gained popularity as Janis Joplin’s drink of choice.