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Steven Wells Hicks is an epicurean essayist and the author of three novels: "The Gleaner", "The Fall of Adam", and "Horizontal Adjustment," all available through amazon.com

Saturday, April 23, 2011

New Orleans Dining: The Two Perino's

Neither of the two Perino outlets remotely resembles

pastoral bayou backwater daydreams.

This is a test with three (more or less) questions. It’s not one of those silly magazine self-help deals where “there are no wrong answers.” There are wrong answers, and if you happen to stub your toe on one, well, you should probably think of eating somewhere else. Here we go:

1. How authentic of an experience do you really want? No weaseling “I’m a good sport,” but really?

2. How local do you want to go?

3. Do you know how to suck the head, and if so, are you willing?

The correct answers are:

1. (Gulp) Bring it on.

2. Fully leaded.

3. Yes, and you betcha.

Most visitors to New Orleans almost never cross the Crescent City Connection bridge and venture to the West Bank, a continuing cluster of bedroom communities where the farther you go, the bluer the collars get. (Don’t feel bad about it. In truth, natives on the “city side” of the river rarely make the trip, either.)

The main drag connecting the ‘burbs of Algiers, Gretna, Harvey, Marrero and Westwego is the largely elevated Westbank Expressway, which for the most part rises above frontage roads lined with aging shopping centers, big box stores, chain restaurants, fast food joints and other landmarks of suburban American blight. For some reason, whenever I drive it, the word “frowzy” comes to mind.

In hard-working New Orleans, a lot of the people providing the muscle live on the West Bank: refinery workers, fisherman, pipefitters, dockworkers and the like. While the area is gradually becoming, if not gentrified, at least a little more urbane, the ethos remains one of hard work, family values, go Saints and a headstrong demand for better-than-average food at a better-than-average price.

While the culinary landscape on the West Bank is changing along with the demographics (i.e., Vietnamese and Mexican eateries are sprouting up everywhere), the mainstay remains traditional New Orleans cooking. Longstanding places like Café 615 (“Da Wabbit”) and The Red Maple Inn continue to flourish. While success in a food-crazy area is always dependent upon the quality of what’s on the plate, it strikes me that a surefire formula for success in the area would include substantial plate lunches and generous portions of family friendly chow at dinner.

Straddling the line between Harvey and Marrero are two seafood places operated by the Perino family. Sam Perino’s Seafood & Deli is on the westbound frontage road off Westbank Expressway, while Perino’s Boiling Pot II is poised a few blocks away along the eastbound side. In other words, they get you coming and going.

To no one’s surprise, the places specialties are seafood in general and boiled (locally pronounced “burled”) in particular.

Perhaps it’s too many movies or episodes of The History Channel’s Swamp People, but for me, the idea of boiled Louisiana seafood has always conjured up imagery of tin-roofed, cypress shacks trimmed with multicolored Christmas light in clearings of trees dripping with Spanish moss. Yellow light streams out the window and the mating calls of frogs are drowned out by the clattering frottoir, the reedy chords of a piano accordion and the sawing fiddle of a zydeco band as they work their way through yet another rowdy chorus of Jolie Blon.

Well, forget it. Neither of the two Perino outlets remotely resembles such pastoral bayou backwater daydreams.

Sam Perino’s Seafood & Deli (let’s just refer to it as “No. 1” from here on out) is long on seafood and short on deli. It’s really nothing more than a mom-and-pop fish market with three or four small, utilitarian tables in between two rows of cases. The deli counter, such as it is, is a small work area underneath a limited menu board featuring a couple of plate lunches and a few sandwiches. Along a back wall is a metal table covered with whatever seasonal seafood is being offered at the time. In truth, the dining area looks like it should be nothing more than a break room where employees can grab a quick bite before getting back to work. To call No.1 “no frills” would be an overstatement.

The Sensible One and I discovered No. 1 by accident while we were driving in circles looking for Perino’s Boiling Pot, which we had read about in a reliable local entertainment newspaper (Gambit Weekly). On our first step inside No, 1, we knew we either had to be in the wrong place or else the reporter was drunk, but we chose to look around anyway. I don’t know if I was duly or unduly impressed with the place, but favorably impressed I was, and I’ll tell you why.

No. 1 smelled salty and coastal, yet clean. Missing was the immediately recognizable odor of fish on the brink of outstaying its welcome. The absence of such an off-putting aroma encouraged the two of us to wander and look around what proved to be a widely inventoried and well-stocked market. Like the deli area is 100% about seafood and 0% about décor, the market appears to be 100% about freshness and 0% presentation or merchandizing. It is definitely a place we’ll visit again to shop and won’t have the slightest hesitation about grabbing lunch while we’re at it.

Once we got turned around and were headed eastbound, it was only a matter of blocks before we saw the sign for the Boiling Pot. The restaurant is attached to the front of a low-cost motel, which may not have been a hot sheets hangout, but looked like the linens were at least a little warm. Flanking the entrance to the restaurant are kitschy statues of a six-foot crawfish and an equally tall gator that look like fugitives from a crumbling miniature golf course. The rest of the exterior is finished out in an unsteady blend of cartoonish swamp life paintings and beer neons. The overall appearance is that of the kind of place, which, as with clichés, I avoid like the plague.

The interior of the Boiling Pot is visually schizophrenic. Take away the menagerie of taxidermized critters and you’re left with a barroom and a lunchroom with all the charm of a junior high school cafeteria. The tables are in rows arranged for communal seating under fluorescent lights. Arcade games along the back wall flicker and beep. The two rooms are bifurcated by a take-out counter. It would be fair to surmise that the only people who go there for the décor tap the linoleum floors with white canes.

While the Boiling Pot offers three salads, nine fried baskets and four appetizers beyond oysters on the half shell, in addition to keeping the gumbo pot simmering away on the stove, it’s all more or less window dressing. The restaurant’s raison d’être is boiled seafood, period.

Depending on the season, the centerpiece of the menu will be boiled crawfish, shrimp, blue crabs or the larger Dungeness crabs. While Louisiana’s seafood industry hasn’t totally recovered from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010, the shellfish coming out of the Perino boilers are once again plentiful and affordable, not to mention the most thoroughly inspected in the world and totally cleared for safety.

The shellfish species are all indigenous to Louisiana, of course, but the one least known to people outside the immediate gulf area is the crawfish, which itself has become an unofficial logo for the state’s Cajun subculture. For those unfamiliar with the nicknamed “mudbug,” an interesting take on the crawfish’s rise in popularity can be found on New Orleans magazine editor Errol Laborde’s blog (http://www.myneworleans.com/Blogs/The-Editors-Room/April-2011/How-the-Crawfish-Became-a-Star/).

Three of the four available sides are the traditional accompaniments for a Louisiana seafood boil: ears of corn, red potatoes and smoked sausage links. (For diners to whom traditions matter little, the Boiling Pot also serves the ubiquitous French fry.) While the place offers full bar service, the time-honored drink of choice at a seafood boil is beer, cold beer, as icy as possible. The owners of the Boiling Pot obviously understand what a crucial component ice-cold beer is to a successful seafood and suds blowout as evidenced by their thoughtful choice to put plastic-encased batons of ice in every pitcher.

A quick scan around the room with its frosty pitchers and platters of steaming seafood tells you that the people who come to the Boiling Pot take the good life seriously. The dress code, such as it is, falls somewhere between tattered and downright scruffy, because these people know that cracking into crabs, peeling shrimp and sucking the fat out of crawfish heads is wet and sloppy work requiring rolled-up sleeves, rolls of paper towels and a total disregard for the possibility of flying shells and dropping husks rendering spotless fashions into splattered rags.

There’s a shopworn phrase that regularly crops up in magazine ads in tourist towns like New Orleans: “Where the Locals Eat.” That clinker always struck me like quality, honesty and virginity; the more frequently it’s brought into the conversation, the less likely it is to be true. If you really want to eat alongside the locals, make a beeline to either of the Perino seafood operations and open your ears. They will be assaulted by the Broolyn-esque staccato of the Upper Ninth Ward patois and caressed by the lilt of Cajun French.

In the end, there’s nothing fancy about either No. 1 or the Boiling Pot. The rooms forsake style for function and there isn’t a fingerbowl in sight, but the seafood steams, the beer is frosty and if you leave any airs you may have at the door, well, you’re going to fit in just fine.

Sam Perino’s Seafood & Deli

Louisiana Shellfish

6850 Westbank Expressway in Marrero

(9.8 miles by auto from the intersection of St. Charles Avenue, Royal and Canal Streets)

Open Seven days

All major credit cards honored

No reservations

Telephone (501) 347-5410

No website

Perino’s Boiling Pot II

Louisiana Shellfish

3754 Westbank Expressway in Harvey

(7.7 miles by auto from the intersection of St. Charles Avenue, Royal and Canal Streets)

Lunch and Dinner Daily

All major credit cards honored

No reservations

Telephone (501) 340-5560

No website

Friday, April 15, 2011

New Orleans Dining: John Besh's Restauarant August

Photos: Dinah Rogers, The Times-Picayune

Menu pretentiousness (theirs) and snickers (mine) aside,

the food was flawless in terms of both flavor and presentation,

so good that even the gushiest of adjectives would be insulting.

Sometimes I read or hear a funny line and can’t remember who said or wrote it. So with apologies to the person who coined it, when asked to define nouvelle cuisine, the joker said, “I just paid $94 for what?” That line popped out of my memory as I was walking out the door after a superlative lunch at John Besh’s flagship, Restaurant August.

I’m still trying to work through my feelings about Besh in general and August in particular. From watching Besh on television, I think he’d be a fun guy to be around, maybe sit on a counter with a glass of pinot noir, chatter about food and watch him work. He seems to be an extremely affable chap. His cookbook is terrific not only in content, but smartly organized by season as well. I’m sure he’s over it by now, but I still think the telegenic Besh was hosed in 2007 when he came in second to Michael Symon on Food Network’s The Next Iron Chef.

Besh is a local kid (from across Lake Pontchartrain in Slidell) who’s on the threshold of becoming a national celebrity. It seems there’s a three-step process in that business; someone is first a chef, then a celebrity chef and ultimately a celebrity. If that were true, I’d believe Besh to be at Step Two-and-a-Half. With a string of restaurants and his own network cooking shows on The Learning Channel and PBS, he may not be quite in the same room as Bobby Flay, Emeril Lagasse, Paula Deen, Mario Batali and the like, but he’s at least rattling the doorknob.

The pure variety of his five New Orleans area restaurants is intriguing. Beyond August, he is the owner/executive chef of Lüke, which is a step up from the traditional hotel restaurant serving three meals a day; Besh Steak, a glitzy chophouse in Harrah’s New Orleans mega-casino; The American Sector, which serves tricked-up comfort foods (meatloaf, chicken-and-dumplings, hot dogs, etc,) in the National World War II Museum; and La Provence, the très romantic French country inn on the New Orleans North Shore, where some of Besh’s key formative years were spent as an apprentice.

One of the things I like about the talented, young-ish (he’s barely into his mid-40s) Besh is his devotion to local, Louisiana foods. In recent years, it seems every restaurant of any note talks about its preparation of bistro-style cooking featuring locally grown ingredients; hell, linguistic variations on that theme are downright clichéd. What separates Besh from the pack of espousers is the fact that much of the food he cooks and serves has been grown on his properties. He raises and butchers hogs on an acreage adjoining La Provence; a great deal of his produce is raised on a farm he owns near Lafayette, the heart of Louisiana’s Cajun country. In short, John Besh is one of the few restaurateurs in New Orleans who actually walks the walk, and that’s really quite admirable in my book.

But don’t go getting the idea that this is a valentine to Besh.

As much as I truly admire the man, I can’t help but wonder how long he will be inexorably linked to New Orleans. He already has another Lüke outpost in San Antonio, and hosting two television series will ultimately have him spending less time in his kitchens. Yes, he has chefs de cuisine overseeing all of his kitchens, and I’m guessing the former Marine is a fairly uncompromising taskmaster, but it’s just not the same when you go to a headline chef restaurant only to discover that “the man” is preparing something other than your meal. It’s this phenomenon that stopped the legendary Paul Prudhomme’s globetrotting and brought him back closer to his kitchen, and it’s what has made Lagasse more of an occasional visitor than a true hometown culinary force. That’s not a knock on anybody, but an occupational hazard facing “superstar” chefs, and it would be sad for both local and visiting diners to see a talent like Besh to succumb it.

Of all the restaurants in the Besh empire, August is the most European urbane. Located on the corner of Tchoupitoulas and Gravier Streets, the restaurant is a visual knockout. You’ll enter a pocket bar, barely large enough to hold the few people who might be forced to wait until their reserved table is ready.

The chandeliered front room is high ceilinged and airy. There are the old exposed brick walls, which are so much a part of New Orleans architecture, and the walls on two sides are large windows that nearly reach the ceiling from roughly chair-rail height. Normally such windows are half-curtained “bistro” style, but for some reason Besh’s design team chose to leave them unadorned. While The Sensible One and I weren’t seated next to the windows, I think I would have found it disconcerting had we been. The fishbowl effect of passing pedestrians being able to look down at my dinner from two feet away is a sensation that strikes me as downright undesirable in a place as elegant as August.

In the center of the front room is a large stand of flowers next to what appeared to be an oversized ceramic terrine filled with champagne bottles. The tables are spaced pleasantly apart. For some reason, such an arrangement is particularly reassuring to me, saying the place is confident enough that it feels no need to wring a penny out of every square inch and to hell with the guests’ comfort. Rather, it is a conducive invitation to the lazy, extended kind of lunch one might associate with Galatoire’s or another of the old-line temples of Creole cuisine.

Behind the front room is an elegantly paneled jewel of a wine room, with its tables surrounded by wine racks tall enough to require stairs to a second-story catwalk. The room is darker and far more intimate than its counterpart, and could easily be considered one of the city’s most romantic rooms, in that small group that would include the secluded balcony at Arnaud’s, the upstairs wine pantry at Bayona, one of the postage stamp rooms at Irene’s Cuisine or near the lounge’s fireplace on a rainy night at Besh’s La Provence.

Facing no pressing duties the rest of the day, The Sensible One and I decided to do lunch in the classic, unflappable New Orleans style, her starting with an oaky Chardonnay, yours truly with a puckeringly crisp Boodles martini. Our waiter, once told we intended to be leisurely, stayed out of our way, but had an almost preternatural ability to return at the very second we wanted him, the sign of impeccable service.

Over our cocktails, The Sensible One and I perused our menus, and it was at this point where the place started to lose me. I had been told that both the food and drink at August could be considered pricey, perhaps not by Parisian or Midtown Manhattan standards but certainly nudging the stratosphere for New Orleans, so I was not overly surprised when the prices on the à la carte section left me slack-jawed.

To Besh’s and Augusts’ credit, however, everyday there is a price fixe menu offering a three-course lunch (appetizer, entrée, dessert) for the numeric designation of the year, in our case $20.11. Each course offers a choice of three selections, most of which lean toward cuisine nouvelle.

As sensible as a three course lunch for $20.11 may be, the printed menu is at once pretentious, off-putting, thoroughly affected and will send 99 out of 100 diners scurrying to their Food Lover’s Companion. In case you don’t believe me, look at the eight following terms used on the menu the day we were there and count the number you recognize (and tell the truth): ras el hanout, guanciale, mizuma, brandade de morue, persillade, soffrito, pana cotta, and onions (which I added at the end so everybody would score higher than zero). Such prepense, polyglot tohubuhu (Both of us can play these games, J.B.), particularly in the Deep South, can serve no other purpose than to either mean-spiritedly cow or more likely pander to the overblown egos of that second lowest form of life, the food snob.

Menu pretentiousness (theirs) and snickers (mine) aside, the food was flawless in terms of both flavor and presentation, so good that even the gushiest of adjectives would be insulting.

There was only one problem: Even though my days as an incorrigible trencherman are, alas, far behind me, I left hungry. (For the record, my three courses were, (1) pâté de campagne of La Provence pork, pickled wild mushrooms and seasonal marmalades; (2) branade de morue, ravioli nero, mint persillade and soffrito marmalade; and (3) buttermilk panna cotta, Ponchatoula strawberry comsommé and pistachios).

When the visibly small servings came to the table, I recalled many instances of being served main courses in four-inch ramekins and not being able to finish half of it due to the phenomenal richness of the food. This simply wasn’t the case at August. While it may be impossible to overstate the virtues of the kitchen’s wizardry, my food wasn’t ultra-rich to the point it became visually deceptive. To be blunt, I found the portions to be one inch on the good side of “chintzy,” although I quickly add that The Sensible One expressed no similar feelings about her lunch (pâté followed by veal grillades, finishing with custard).

With all due respect to the prodigious talents of Chef Besh and his adroit staff, I’m not certain that August rightfully belongs in a book that celebrates the more traditional and classic restaurants that most visitors associate with New Orleans. Some will no doubt argue that August is the superlative exemplar of a changing of the guard in the city’s kitchens, a group that would include Gautreau’s, Lilette and Stella(!) among others. While I wouldn’t disagree with such an assertion, nor would I hesitate to recommend it to the lovers of cuisine nouveau, I just don’t think there’s a historic or cultural fit between a style of cooking that’s trés au courant and a tradition-bound city that for the most part is anything but.

Would I visit Restaurant August again? Yes, emphatically. But if you see me there at dinner, you can guess I’ll be there as a grateful guest rather than as a prosperous host. And if you catch me there at lunch, you’d better believe I’ll have a snack tucked away in my pocket.

Restaurant August

Cuisine Nouveau

301 Tchoupitoulas (at Gravier) Street)

(Five blocks on foot from the junction of

St. Charles Avenue, Canal and Royal Streets)

Dinner served nightly, 5 p.m. - 10 p.m.
Lunch served Monday – Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Reservations are absolutely essential

All major credit cards honored

Telephone: (504) 299-977

Website: www.restaurantaugust.com