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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

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

New Orleans Dining: Kermit's Treme Speakeasy

Kermit’s Tremé Speakeasy
As befit the environs, Kermit’s dishes up barbecue, soul food and tamales. To put it simply, in terms of food authenticity, it’s the real deal.

“I’m a master chef… and I play a little music on the side.”
            Okay, so the music is better than the joke. For that matter, so is the food. But the truth is, Kermit Ruffins can really cook.
            A fixture in Crescent City jazz clubs for more that a quarter century, Ruffins has become one of New Orleans’ truly iconic musicians. His blazing, big boy trumpet and gravelly voice have led to inevitable comparisons with Louis Armstrong. His small but regular role as himself on HBO’s Tremé series has brought Ruffins to the attention of a national audience. He’s a New Orleans headliner on his way to an international stage.
            That’s all well and good, of course, but Ruffins would much rather talk about the smothered rabbit, sausage and ribs that have built his reputation as the Crescent City’s premier “barbecue swinger.” Twenty years ago, when he left the celebrated Rebirth Brass Band, which he co-founded, to work as a single backed up by his own band (named the Barbecue Swingers, what else), Ruffins became notorious for showing up at gigs with a grill hitched to his back bumper of his red pickup truck. Often serving barbecue between sets, it didn’t take long before New Orleanians were lining up for the chops coming out of his cooker as well as those streaming out of his trumpet.
            These days, the jumbo grilling rig spends most of its time parked in front of his small bar and restaurant on historic Basin Street, four blocks from the French Quarter on the edge of the city’s revitalizing Tremé district. Opened in the spring of 2012, Kermit’s Tremé Speakeasy is a ludicrously small club that allows Ruffins to pursue his two principal passions under one roof he can call his own.
            As clubs go, it’s certainly not a glitzy place, nor do I imagine was it ever meant to be. Seating about sixty at shared tables with standing room for another dozen or so, Kermit’s is not a place for claustrophobics or people who need a lot of elbow room. Décor, such as it is, is minimal. The narrow main room is a deep red, mostly devoid of art, with a small bar in a back corner. A smaller, cream-colored room, dominated by an oversized photo of Ruffins resplendent in his chef togs, is off to the side.
            At the front of the room, a miniscule stage is wedged next to the front door. There’s barely enough room to support the traps, bass and electric piano of the trio that backs up Ruffins on the nights he performs (most Sundays and Mondays). Space is so tight that when the front security door is open, it crowds to the stage to a point it looks like the drummer is in jail.
            Once the music cranks up, conversation becomes virtually impossible, but talk is certainly beside the point when Ruffins and his Barbecue Swingers are cooking on the bandstand. Beyond his virtuosity with his horn, Ruffins is an ebullient performer whose unmistakable joie de vivre is not only obvious, but utterly infectious. As the Cajuns say of their beloved zydeco, “If this music doesn’t make you want to dance, you’re either deaf or dead.”
            Despite Ruffin’s one-liner about being a master chef who plays music on the side, it’s plain to see he takes every bit as much pride in his work in the kitchen he does on stage. In a world where a famous name on a restaurant door is often a virtual guarantee of culinary disappointment, the food coming out of Kermit’s kitchen is not only surprisingly good for a celebrity joint, it’s damned good inn its own right.
            On The Sensible One’s and my first visit, she ordered fried chicken while I ordered smothered rabbit with potato salad, and we decided to split a side of red beans and rice. We had finished and the cleaned plates had been cleared long before Ruffins explained from the stage that his cook had come in two hours late that morning so Ruffiuns himself was forced to tie on an apron, smother the rabbit, make the potato salad and whip up a Monday-sized kettle of red beans.
            The rabbit arrived swimming in a pool of the paprika-tinted sauce in which is it hand been smothered. Since the Louisiana cooking term from smothered is etouffee, I’m guessing that the sauce was traditionally roux-based. It certainly had the richness and depth, if not the brown color, of a traditional roux, and was impeccably balanced with tomatoes, the trinity (onion, celery and bell pepper), a whisper of garlic and fresh aromatics.
            I had considered the potato salad on the plate an after thought, at least until I had my first bite. While there seemed to be nothing terribly unconventional about it and no ingredients appeared to be anything more than ordinary, it was surprisingly rich and vibrant, especially when compared to the potato salads generally offered in restaurants. As superb as the smothered rabbit was, I think the unexpected goodness of the potato salad make it especially noteworthy.
            The Sensible One’s fried chicken was better than most I’ve had in the Crescent City, even though it fell short of equaling the city’s gold standard found at Willie Mae’s Scotch House on the far side of Tremé. This is understandable since Willie Mae’s has substantially fewer items on the menu and is geared toward cooking its chicken to order, while sheer practicality sometimes subjects the chicken at Kermit’s to a spell under warming lights.
            In terms of pure flavor, Kermit’s red beans and rice were, along with those at Willie Mae’s, the best I’ve had in the city, period. Red beans have a tendency to be a little on the bland side, which is why it’s common to see people chopping up jalapenos into them to give them some more life. Those served at Kermit’s may be a little salty for some tastes, certainly not mine, but that’s totally subjective. At any rate, it’s the salt that gives the recipe its lift, which is why it rises so far above the ordinary. About the only drawback to the dish comes from the meat that’s used to season the beans. During our visit, we were both surprised to bite down on small bones that had hidden in the pot, something that had never occurred in all our years of eating red beans. This is a small quibble to be sure, but it’s an area where the kitchen would be well served to pay a little more attention.
            There is no printed menu at Kermit’s Tremé Speakeasy; rather there is a blackboard behind the bar that changes with item availability, seasonal freshness and no doubt the whims of the “master chef” himself. Beyond the board, the day’s menu is recited tableside by one of the affable servers. As befit the environs, Kermit’s dishes up barbecue, soul food and tamales. To put it simply, in terms of food authenticity, it’s the real deal.
            In fact, authenticity may be the watchword of the whole establishment. Despite the large photo of Ruffins in the second room, the place is anything but some kind of shrine to the proprietor. It’s one of the city’s truly solid soul food restaurants and can pass muster on that basis alone. It just happens double as home base for one of New Orleans’ most celebrated jazz masters.
            As the maestro himself is fond of saying when he hoists a cold one, “All aboard!”

Kermit’s Tremé Speakeasy
1535 Basin Street (corner of North Robertson)
Lunch through early dinner daily
No reservations
All major credit cards
Telephone: (504) 309-5828
No website

Friday, June 22, 2012

New Orleans Dining: Acme Oyster House

Nonetheless, I like Acme. Warts and all.

I’m not going to try and talk you out of visiting the Acme Oyster House in the French Quarter. You’ll go there. Hell, everybody does at one time or another.

Whether or not Acme is the most famous restaurant in New Orleans is open to debate, as is just about everything else when it comes to Crescent City dining. I’m not sure anyone would put up too much of a fight were it suggested that Acme would certainly find a place in the top five.

With the rise of The Food Network, The Travel Channel and all the other television programming dedicated to the culinary arts, the number of famous restaurants has expanded multifold. Prior to the media explosion, there was dinner at Antoine’s, breakfast at Brennan’s, blackened redfish at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, beignets at Café du Monde and bivalves at Acme. 

Committed epicures and corporate road warriors may have been able to come up with a slightly longer list that included Galatoire’s or Commander’s Palace, but places now considered American classics like Mosca’s, Central Grocery and Willie Mae’s Scotch House would scarcely garner mentions. All that is now ancient history, of course, but including Acme in a top five of recognizable names is probably still a safe bet.

In fact, Acme’s fame is such that, for decades, it has been part of an old Crescent City axiom that it only takes the answers to three simple questions for a native New Orleanian to size up someone:  Democrat or Republican? Catholic or Protestant? Felix’s or Acme?

All that said, what’s terribly sad is that while Acme deserves its place on any list of famous New Orleans restaurants, it no longer has the chops to be famous for its food. Acme has become the Kim Kardashian of restaurants; it’s now famous for being famous and not much else beyond unrelenting media hyperbole.

Since opening around the corner in 1910 (its current location dates back to 1924), Acme has always been famous for one thing: oysters on the half shell. They gloriously are plump, briny and slide down your throat as they should, but that’s due more to the oyster itself than what any shucker, at Acme or anywhere else, adds to the process.

This is not to disparage the shucker’s art in any way. These guys (and occasionally women, too) don’t wear a chain mail glove for nothing. Opening an oyster requires a knife designed for the task, a certain amount of manual strength, a sharp eye and a steady hand to avoid opening a vein in the shucker’s forearm. While most mere mortals usually tire after a dozen or two, a first-rate shucker can work for hours on end and is regarded with admiration and respect. Indeed, hotly contested shucking competitions are the highlight of many a festival across south Louisiana throughout the spring and fall.

In a city where the great restaurants set trends, Acme doggedly pursues them. A number of years ago, when sushi and sashimi were all the rage, Acme slapped a dash of wasabi and scallion on top of a bivalve on the half shell and tried to market it as “Cajun Sushi.” It didn’t stay on the menu long. More recently, Acme added Chargrilled Oysters, which was developed by Tommy Cvitanovich of Metairie-based Drago’s restaurant in 1993 and been widely hailed as the biggest New Orleans culinary development since Paul Prudhomme blackened his first redfish in the late 1970s. Oysters on the half shell are brushed with garlic butter, sprinkled with a blend of Parmesan and Romano cheeses and cooked on a hot grill. Derivative variations of the chargilled gems have become a mainstay of numerous restaurants citywide.
One of the great city traditions used to be to duck through Acme’s front door, where the actual working oyster bar is on the right. Over the bar is a large mirror angled so people all over the place can watch several shuckers at work. People lucky enough to find a placedirectly on front of the bar get to see the action firsthand. The drill couldn’t be more straightforward. Order a dozen or two, slurp them down, pay and go. While it’s for all practical purposes obsolete, the loss of such a tradition evokes waves of nostalgia from aging regulars.

For people yet to understand and fully appreciate the unbridled joys of devouring a dozen or two on the half shell, Acme has a menu made up for the most part of forgettable renditions of New Orleans standards. It’s the usual suspects: jambalaya, red beans and rice, seafood etouffee, fried seafood platters, poor boy sandwiches and gumbos. While none of them are inedible, all of them suffer by, first, coming out of the kitchen of restaurant dedicated to food that isn’t prepared in a conventional kitchen and, secondly, being surrounded by restaurants forced to make it based on their kitchens rather than their fame.

The gumbo and soups are available in a “poopa,” a name I would guess the establishment coined for a bowl fashioned out of French bread. Having tried it, I can tell you it’s a better idea when the bread is fresh than when it’s the least bit stale. Trust me, I’ve had it both ways.

Not terribly long ago, I was bored brainless and watching one of these foodie TV shows that features food from varying restaurants, when lo and behold, up popped Acme. The item they decided to promote on national television was “boo fries,” no doubt another homebrewed term, which appears to be a plate of ordinary fries slathered with beef gravy and cheese. It’s not a bad combination, really, but hardly original. It’s been served on French bread as a poor boy sandwich for years at the venerable Parkway Bakery & Tavern in Mid-City.
Poor, poor, Acme. After an enviable century, this Crescent City institution is in the process of squandering its senses of heritage, tradition and self and becoming little more than another tourist trap with a name that used to stand for something. Beyond the justifiably celebrated oysters, the food standards have drifted downward into mediocrity. Ridiculously long lines have stripped the place of any charm it once had. They’ve even tried to re-position a particularly lousy alcove as “Poets’ Corner” in a woefully transparent effort to pass it off as something more than a last resort backroom that most customers avoid until the rest of the house is jammed. More care seems to be taken with the branded merchandise for sale than anything else. It’s just damned sad, period.

Nonetheless, I like Acme. Warts and all. I’ve been haunting the place for over forty years, and while recent visits have yielded little more than disappointments, I refuse to give up on the joint.

If the day ever returns when I’m walking down Iberville Street and don’t see a line promising more than an hour’s wait for five minutes of bliss with a dozen on the shell and a cold one, I’ll contemplate once again becoming a regular. Until that day, however, the line will be one person shorter.

But when you come to the city, make sure you take my place and get the dozen oysters that ought to have my name on them. After all, until you’ve been to Acme, you haven’t been to New Orleans.

Acme Oyster House 
Oyster Bar 
724 Iberville (Between Bourbon and Royal Streets) 
Serving Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.,
Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. -11 p.m. 
All major credit cards are accepted,
but reservations are not
Telephone: (504) 533-5973
Website: www.acmeoyster.com

Photos: Courtesy Acme Oyster House, Matt O@yelp.com and JocelynO@yelp.com

Friday, April 27, 2012

New Orleans Dining: Seither's Seafood

It’s smallish, around a dozen tables, a size that seems
to be a harbinger of good chow to come in New Orleans. 

If, as it is said, confession is good for the soul, let me do my scruffy soul a little good.

I have always had a soft spot (not to be confused with my often soft head) for places that can politely be called “shacks,” when not being less graciously called “dumps.”

Surely you know the type of place I’m talking about. You’re driving down a back street that’s totally new to you, when you see a semi-ramshackle joint and drive right on by, even as you comment to your companion, “Gee, I bet they dish up some pretty good chow in there.” When or if you stop, you take a chance, and the odds are roughly 50-50 the meal will either be awful or border on the divine. Sometimes the food ends up being right in the middle, sure, but when the place is enough of a dive, you’re either going to vote it up or down.

The greater New Orleans area is covered up with mid- to downscale dives, but one I happened across when lost and looking for someplace else has become more of a favorite with every visit. Seither’s Seafood has only been around since 2004, making it a relative pup in a city where it seems that most restaurants of its ilk are at least a half-century old and on their second, third or higher generation of family ownership. One look at the building tells you it either had a couple of previous business incarnations or a singularly hard decade.

Seither’s is hidden away in suburban Harahan, a bedroom community with an apparent case of multiple personality disorder not terribly far from the rickety Huey P. Long Bridge. Parts of Harahan are white collar, housing legions of sales representatives and other types whose lives are bettered by proximity to nearby Louis Armstrong International Airport, but the township is mostly middle-class leaning toward blue collar. The combination restaurant and neighborhood fish market is located on Hickory Avenue, a desultory strip of small, nondescript businesses for which high-visibility locations or heavy traffic counts are of seemingly little consequence.

The joint is quintessentially Crescent City. Before opening the place, its proprietor, Jason Seither, sold cars for a spell and worked as a bartender in another combination restaurant and fish market in the next suburb. His namesake restaurant has made as much of its solid reputation through roast beef poor boys as it has for seafood. From all appearances he’s making pretty decent money in a place most people don’t know exists and is tough to find for those who do. All this seems to add up to success in “the city that care forgot,” where few people stick to the rules and many seem to make them up as they go along.

 Once you walk in the gaudily painted glass door of Seither’s, you enter a room that looks exactly like what you’d expect from outside. It’s smallish, around a dozen tables, a size that seems to be a harbinger of good chow to come in New Orleans. It’s a relatively homely room that leaves no doubt that you have entered perhaps the archetypal mom-and-pop café.  The walls are the color of lemon icebox pie, the furniture utilitarian and in place of napkins on the plain tables are rolls of paper towels. A drop ceiling with recessed fluorescents gives the room all the ambient charm of a bail bondsman’s office. All of that is, of course, mercifully secondary to the food.

Years ago, roughly around the time Methuselah and I were a pair of rascally schoolboys, any café or restaurant’s success or failure was determined entirely by the quality of the food served on the plate. Somewhere in the not too distant past, people stopped simply going to lunch or dinner but rather became participants in “the dining experience.” It’s my personal theory that the whole “experience” angle was cooked up by marketing hotshots hired by restaurants where the food sucked. At any rate, it’s Seither’s retrograde and, one suspects dogged, commitment to a laser-like focus on the food that keeps the glass front door swinging open and shut.

The success of Seither’s roast beef poor boy is based upon two divergent factors. The first of these was the havoc wreaked upon the city’s seafood industry by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. When Seither’s reopened shortly after the storm, shrimp and oysters were nigh on impossible to find and buy. Consequently, the fledgling restaurant was forced to concentrate on the foodstuffs it could actually procure for simple survival.

The second factor was also driven by necessity. While many poor boy shops purchase pre-cooked beef for their sandwiches, Jason Seither was still in his early years struggling for survival and he found that he could buy uncooked sirloin tip roast for less. This he did, slowly cooking it in what he refers to as “crock pot style,” a process thought to yield a richer integration of meat and gravy. While self-appointed poor boy purists regularly argue about beef cuts and cooking techniques (a continuing, irresolvable argument no one ever wins), Seither’s version of the New Orleans classic quickly developed a loyal following and remains one of the most commonly ordered items to this day.

Perhaps the most unusual thing about the roast beef poor boy’s popularity is that the sandwich comes from a restaurant that’s an adjunct to a fresh seafood market. It’s certainly not uncommon for a poor boy joint to be serving both meat and seafood creations, to be sure, but it’s somewhat unexpected and perhaps moderately ironic for the restaurant satellite to the seafood market mother ship to set the cornerstone of the combined operation’s reputation upon a foundation of sirloin tip.

It would be a shortsighted mistake, however, to overlook Seither’s seafood poor boys. The shrimp offering overflows with expertly fried shrimp, the taste of which explodes with the unmistakable sweetness of the shellfish when it’s freshly caught

On a recent visit, The Sensible One saw a blackboard special called the “Oysterpalooza” or some equally gimmicky moniker. Essentially it’s Seither’s take on the “Peacemaker,” a combination fried oysters, bacon and cheddar poor boy so named because it was often given to angry wives as a peace offering by husbands staggering in from a hard night of carousing. It was as good as it was big, and the size of it straddled the line between the words “mammoth” and “gargantuan.” We could have easily split the silly thing and waddled out of the joint without even thinking about dessert.

Other poor boys that looked equally intriguing were one featuring a crab cake topped with shrimp sauce, and the shrimp remoulade special the kitchen prepared for the 2010 festival honoring the city’s legendary sandwich.

During crawfish season, the heart of which is generally considered to run from Mardi Gras through Memorial Day, parades of beer trays holding piles of steaming mudbugs steadily stream from the kitchen, augmented by traditional corn-on-the-cob and new potatoes. While the bevy of other choices have so far kept me from sampling a mountain of scorching bugs, I find myself wondering if I’ve made a mistake every time I see or catch a whiff as another tray parades out of the kitchen. They are reputed to be among the city’s best, and the prospect of a steaming pile of them probably merits a single-digit spot on my personal bucket list.

As good as all the sampled chow is and yet-to-be-sampled promises to be, I’m quite sure that if I brought up the Seither’s name in a game of Word Association, The Sensible One would immediately blurt out, “Onion rings!” As much as she considers herself a connoisseur of the deep fried gems, in truth she’s more of a fanatic. While the Seither’s thick cut and heavily battered entry into her relentless quest for the indisputably best onion ring in the world is the most recent to be awarded the crown, it joins a list that over the years has included “frings” at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, the mountainous servings of thickly slicked rings at Mandina’s, Café 615 (“Home of Da Wabbit”) on the West Bank, Katie’s in Mid-City, a brief nod to the thin-cut rings at Charlie’s Steakhouse and even an honorable mention to the deep-fried green pepper rings at Franky and Johnnie’s Uptown roadhouse. Nonetheless, it remains a ringing endorsement, and one richly deserved.

One of the true joys of learning New Orleans, where joy’s pursuit is part of the hardwiring, is coming to terms with the hope that all it takes is making one more turn and you face the very real possibility of stumbling upon a restaurant that’s not only good for lunch, it may be one for the ages.

When I think about another visit down that scruffy Harahan back street to Seither’s, and I find myself doing just that more and more, I am struck by the unexpected convergence of exigent circumstances, inventiveness, resolve and karma it seems to take to elevate a commonplace neighborhood café into a restaurant worthy of a pilgrimage across a city renowned for its eateries.

In a way, it’s like a lightning strike in that you know it happens, you’ve seen it happen, but you know the odds are long that it will ever happen to you. But it happened for Jason Seither and if you’re willing to wander a little bit out of your war, you’ll be rewarded with the chance to savor its power.

Seither’s Seafood
Neighborhood Casual
279 Hickory Avenue in Harahan
Open Tuesday – Thursday, 11:00 a.m. – 8:00 p.m.
Friday, 11:00 a.m. – 9:00 p.m.
Saturday, 5:00 – 9:00 p.m.
Visa and MasterCard Honored
No reservations
Telephone: (504) 738-1116
No website

Food Photos: TereeC.@yelp.com

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

New Orleans Dining: Clancy's

To take absolutely nothing away from Clancy’s,
its inspiration is so transparently based upon
one of the grand temples of Creole cuisine
they could have named the place “Galatoire’s Lite.”

When Anthony Uglesich closed his namesake restaurant three months before Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, I was more distraught than I normally would be by the closing of one of the Crescent City’s better dining establishments.
            Hell, I couldn’t blame the man. “Mr. Ant’ny” had gone to work for his father there some fifty years before. He’s watched the neighborhood go from working class to seed, his knees were shot from spending a half-century on his feet and, try as he might, he couldn’t find a buyer who’d be willing to actually work at the tumbledown joint.
            The reason for my anguish was that the soft-shell crabs so simply fried and served by Uglesich’s were nothing less than the dish’s gold standard. Prior to my fortuitous discovery of Uglesich’s, I had found the source for such a golden designation to be an old Mom-and-Pop called Crecahe’s in, of all places, Jackson, Mississippi.
            Somehow, these two places had led me to believe that the only way to find good soft-shells was to look around for out-of-the-way places that had been around for at least several generations. Now, after six-plus years of sampling soft-shell crabs – fried, sautéed and in poor boy sandwiches – I’ve once again found the elusive golf standard, and wouldn’t you know it, it’s an old, out-of-the way place that’s been around for more than a century.
            The old restaurant that has evolved into the new standard-bearer is named Clancy’s, located at the corner of Annunciation and Webster streets in a quiet, Uptown neighborhood where the houses are more reservedly tasteful than grand. For twenty-five  years, Clancy’s has been an upscale restaurant, but in an American city that will celebrate its 300th birthday in less than five years, that’s merely the blink of an eye.
            The simple frame building has been around since the beginning of the Twentieth Century and, in that time, it has sometimes housed a bar, sometimes a neighborhood café and sometimes a white tablecloth restaurant. Sometimes, like today, it’s been all three.
            Shortly after the end of World War II, the place was bought by a couple named Ed and Betty Clancy, who operated it as a neighborhood bar and poor boy shop virtually inseparable from the similar businesses that seemed to set up shop on every other corner of the Crescent City.
            In 1983, after more than thirty years of minding the store and with no heirs to whom the tavern cum café could be passed, the Clancys sold the business and the building to three businessmen who morphed the bar and restaurant into its current incarnation. About the only thing that didn’t change was the name, which was probably just as well. After all, Clancy’s is a grand Irish name for a saloon, and certainly an easier way to answer the telephone than with the name of the trio of new owners (“Good evening. Thank you for calling Slattern, Livaudais and Wagner’s”). Four years later, the trio sold out to a Brad Hollingsworth, who hand bootstrapped his way from the kitchen up to ownership and who remains one of the partners to this day.
            Clancy’s ultra-slick website proclaims the restaurant as “one of the first Creole Bistros which revolutionized the New Orleans dining scene in the 1980s and became a template for the most prevalent restaurant style in New Orleans today.” As a recovering ad writer myself, I certainly recognize overcooked copywriting when I smell it, and I can only hope such an egregious example of hyperbole is a more byproduct of unbridled corporate enthusiasm than a deliberate overlooking of accepted culinary history.
            The similarities between the two establishments are remarkable. Both are considerably less fussy than some of the grand old dowager restaurants with origins in times when the world was illuminated by gaslight. There is archetypical bentwood furniture, understated crockery and flatware, tuxedoed wait staffs with professional demeanors that border upon the patrician, the mirrors and brass coat hooks on the walls. When the linen wrapped loaf of bread arrived at the table at the start of the meal, I would have sworn it came from the same bakery that purveys to Galatoire’s.
            There are two key areas, however, in which the two restaurants diverge; the first being their physical layouts, and the second being the stages of each cuisine’s development.
            Instead of one substantial dining room, Clancy’s main room accommodates a modest thirteen tables, while another four tables occupy a subdued wine room separated by a galley-style bar containing about a dozen barstools. These smaller venues afford separate intimacies that cannot be found in the table-hopping, cocktail party din of the considerable more voluminous Galatoire’s.
            In terms of cuisine, the thirty year-old Clancy’s has the advantage of relative youth over its 108 year-old forerunner. While both kitchens have their roots in classic Creole cuisine, the cooking staff at Galatoire’s is virtually handcuffed by a hidebound clientele who greet the slightest change from the time-honored with at least suspicion if not outright scorn. By contrast, the food at Clancy’s is more contemporary, yet no so much revolutionary as evolutionary. New ideas, ingredients and techniques are integrated into the cooking, without straying into the eccentric self-indulgences that have proven the downfall of many overly “creative” albeit lesser talented chefs.
            Take for example the soft-shell crab. Before it is fried, it is smoked, which enhances the sweetness of the crabmeat while not overpowering it. On the surface, this is a remarkably simple idea, but in the intensity of a working commercial kitchen there comes a certain degree of difficulty in taking a foodstuff as intrinsically delicate as a soft-shell crab, essentially cooking it twice and not having it come out with the consistency of a pooch’s chew toy. Yet the smoked soft-shell produced by Clancy’s is not only sweet and smoky, but still exceptionally moist as well, and the sweetness becomes further enhanced once the whole thing is covered with even additional crabmeat.
            A fried oyster appetizer, another offering easily rubberized by lack of attention, retains its moistness and is lifted beyond the prosaic by the inspired addition melted Brie. A seared yet tender sea scallop is enhanced by foie gras and a deeply intense port reduction. All of this is serious cooking, based in classical Creole French ingredients and techniques, and flawlessly produced in what amounts to little more than a ramped up neighborhood bistro.
            While the owners of Clancy’s may take a small degree of umbrage to the comparison to Galatoire’s, or even take it as a compliment that it left-handed instead of right-minded, I cannot take credit for it. A reader of an earlier addition of this guidebook, in urging me to investigate Clancy’s referred to it as “the Uptown Galatoire’s,” and I’ve heard other draw the same conclusion over the years. It truly is an almost unassailable truth – and so it this:
            If New Orleans has a dirty little secret to the outside worlds, it’s that there exists a misanthropic element within the Uptown population that takes great pride in its muttered disdain for the French Quarter and the throngs of hungry visitors who make tourism the city’s largest industry following the Mississippi River port. What I find ironic is that it’s these selfsame hard-shelled crabs who make a table at the contemporized clone of Galatoire’s traditions one of the toughest reservations in town.
Now that I know about Clancy’s, I’m going to do all I can to make it even tougher for those hard-boiled bastards, and I encourage you to do the same.
It truly is a matter of good taste.

Creole French
6100 Annunciation Street (at Webster)
Dinner served Monday – Saturday, 5:30 p.m. – 10:00 p.m.
Lunch served Thursday and Friday, 11:30 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
All major credit cards honored and
reservations emphatically recommended
Telephone: (504) 895-11112
Website: www.clancysneworleans.com

Photo Courtesy of Clancy's

Thursday, February 16, 2012

New Orleans Dining: Cochon Butcher

It’s a rare occurrence to find a kitchen

featuring two James Beard Award winners,

and to live up to such accolades, such a kitchen

has to put out food that’s uncommonly superior.

One of my favorite Yogi Berra-isms is, “Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too popular.”

For several years, one of the more wildly popular New Orleans eateries has been Cochon, a restaurant whose doors I have yet to darken. This has surprised a number of people I’ve talked restaurants with. Hell. It’s even surprised me, especially in light of the fact that I consider founder and original chef Donald Link one of the three top chefs in a city famous for producing innovative chefs at a steady clip.

Link, a local product, got his start at age fifteen scrubbing pots and pans in a scullery before heading west, attending the Culinary Institute of America and kicking around Left Coast restaurants. After a two-year stint as sous chef at Susan Spicer’s Bayona and another California sojourn, Link returned to New Orleans and partnered with Spicer to open Herbsaint, now one of the Crescent City’s most celebrated restaurants.

Link eventually bought Spicer’s interest in Herbsaint and started developing Cochon, a partnership between Link and Stephen Stryjewski, which quickly garnered equal acclaim. Cochon is a curious mix of classic French charcuterie and Cajun restaurant. Even with its airy and spacious dining room, the design of which has seemingly Asian overtones, Cochon remains a tough reservation, a situation compounded by its relative short distance from the National World War II Museum, one of the city’s major attractions.

While neither Link nor Stryjewski can be considered household names in culinary circles, particularly outside New Orleans, their virtuosity hasn’t escaped the attention of the people who determine the prestigious James Beard Awards. In 2007, Link was named “Best Chef – South,” and Stryjewsky received the designation four years later. It’s a rare occurrence to find a kitchen featuring two James Beard Award winners, and to live up to such heady accolades, that kitchen has to put out food that’s uncommonly superior.

Although I had sampled and devoured the charcuterie as an appetizer at Herbsaint, the buzz about Cochon had kept me away. On one hand, it was so hyperbolically praised that I was afraid of having unrealistically high expectations; on the other, the same people heaping the glittering accolades on Cochon were griping about prices. A quick glance at the web told me that (a) while Cochon couldn’t be called inexpensive, (b) the prices weren’t all that far out of line, particularly for the products of two chefs with such solid pedigrees and (c) I shouldn’t take the grousing of tightwads as gospel.

Despite the runaway success of Cochon, it soon became apparent that the restaurant could produce more charcuterie meats than necessary to supply both Herbsaint and Cochon. So using adjacent space fronting on what amounts to a glorified alley, Link and Stryjewski opened Cochon Butcher, a so-called “artisan meat and sWine bar,” an equally logical hybrid of a Parisian charcuterie storefront cross-bred with a pocket New York deli.

An examination of Cochon Butcher’s website made it clear that an initial visit to the backstreet deli was probably the more affordable portal into the two operations conjoined by a common kitchen. Indeed it is, and the Cochon flagship eatery has consequently dropped even farther on my list of “gotta-go” places.

“Charcuterie” is an interesting word with two meanings. Its primary usage is as a collective noun for cold, slow-cooked and sometimes smoked meats, predominantly pork, and its secondary use is the appellation for a small French store selling such goods. While the word may have its roots in France, as much if not more of the charcuterie sold in a charcuterie is Italian in origin. Both the word and the food are far more elegant than their Americanization (or some might insist bastardization) into “cold cuts,” our gussied-up stateside term for sliced lunchmeat.

True European charcuterie (the meat) is a far cry from its American cousin – baloney. More craft than commodity, charcuterie represents Old World tradition instead of star spangled convenience. That classic craftsmanship is on full display at Cochon Butcher, in the refrigerated cases, the hanging sausages and hams, and most notably the plates.

In the same way classic charcuterie uses “every part of the pig except the squeal,” Cochon Butcher seems to extract function out of every square inch of what amounts to its storefront operation. Enter from the alley and the cases are on the left, the ordering counter is below the blackboard menu in the back, and the right wall is crammed with house recipe mustards, sauces and condiments, plus a metal rack overflowing with Butcher merchandise.

The line to and through the deli counter moves quickly, and instead of a number, customers are given images on table flagpoles. While I noticed meats and cartoon characters on the small tabletop flags at nearby tables, I was both amused and bemused when The Sensible One and I were handed our sign, which featured Pee Wee Herman. Were they trying to tell me something?

While Butcher Cochon seems to have one foot firmly planted in a European charcuterie (the store) and the other in a New York deli, the pace isn’t rushed. The time between ordering and our food’s arrival wasn’t so much a New York minute as it was a New Orleans spell. Despite the hubbub of a large number of people in close quarters, the pocket-sized room was inordinately chilly, so we took Pee Wee in tow and moved to a high two-top with a pair of stools in the alleyway.

Because of the extremely reasonable prices for New Orleans, I was silently expecting portions as small as the inside room, so the size of our lunches came as a welcome surprise. Using a “when in Rome” philosophy, I ordered the charcuterie plate, based upon my memory of the appetizer I’d so enjoyed at Herbsaint and as a multi-item test of the kitchen’s chops. On the plate was an assortment of five meats (a pâté, duck pastrami, pork belly, a hard salami and one other, with a name that escapes me), all of which were far better than good, the true standout being the duck pastrami.

The Sensible One ordered the day’s special, a cochon du lait (milk-fed sucking pig) poor boy smothered with a melted gruyere and “frings,” onion rings cut like skinny French fries and thusly named by über-chef Paul Prudhomme. Her sandwich was accompanied by pickle slices and a handful of chips, both of which I suspect were made on premises. While not as long as some poor boys we’ve challenged in the past, like the charcuterie plate, it was a more than generous serving. The combination of layered flavors and contrasting textures proved equally superlative.

A pure New Orleans variation on the cochon du lait poor boy special is the cochon muffuletta that gets extra zing through the addition of traditional Italian Olive Salad. It is found on the printed menu that includes eight other sandwiches, including the Buckboard Bacon Melt with collards on white bread, pork belly with mint and cucumber, and “The Gambino” featuring an assortment of house meats with an herbal vinaigrette served upon bread from Gambino’s, one of the few old-line bakeries left after Hurricane Katrina.

Cochon Butcher’s printed menu is filled out with seven “small dishes” (the trendy New Orleans take on traditional Spanish tapas) including a pancetta mac-n-cheese, headcheese with chow-chow and mustard, and sliders featuring a sweet and spicy brisket or the earlier mentioned duck pastrami. There are sides that change daily and a handful of desserts (as if you could possibly need one after everything else).

While I have little doubt that any meal at the Cochon flagship restaurant could be anything less than wonderful food and a memorable experience, the chances of catching me there are now slim. I doubt their food could be any better than that to be found in their little charcuterie in the side alley, and a look at both restaurants’ websites make it clear that Cochon Butcher is an abundantly better value.

There can even be less doubt that I will frequently return to Cochon Butcher in hopes of every visit being, to use another Yogi Berra-ism, “déjà vu all over again.”

Cochon Butcher

Charcuterie & Deli

930 Tchoupitoulas Street

Open Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. – 10 p.m.

Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. -11 p.m.

Sunday, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.

All major credit cards honored

No reservations

Telephone (504) 588-7675

Website: www.cochonbutcher.com

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

New Orlean Dining: Muffuletta Pizza at Mo's on the West Bank

Perhaps that’s a roundabout way of saying that

Mo’s was much better than I expected because

I wasn’t expecting much in the first place.

I doubt I would have ever thought to go to Mo’s Pizza in Westwego on New Orleans’s West Bank if it hadn’t been for my old pal Slider Bob, who has been luring me into all manner of misadventures for more than thirty years.

We were having pre-dawn coffee one morning at the Beagle Bagel in Jackson, Mississippi, when in preparation for an upcoming blog piece, I asked Slider what was the best thing he’d ever eaten in New Orleans. Knowing Slider had been a partner in various Crescent City apartments for more than twenty years, I figured he’d hem and haw, furl his brow and make a dozen false starts before he narrowed the field.

Before that thought could finish taking form in my head, Slider said, “the Muffulatta Pizza at Port of Call.” I was surprised at the speed with which he answered until he said, “or maybe the fried chicken at Willie Mae’s Scotch House.” Well, I know about the chicken at Willie Mae’s because I had introduced Slider to it on a previous visit. And I knew about the Port of Call on Esplanade, because over the past four decades, I’d eaten several dozen of its near mythic hamburgers, reputed to be New Orleans’ best for years. I vaguely recall having seen the muffuletta pizza on the menu, along with steaks, but had never ordered either one, based on the headstrong belief that if a place is famous for burgers, order the burger.

I told Slider I’d try one the next time I was in town and a crestfallen look came across his face as he told me the Port of Call no longer offered it. The truth is, if someone cooked up an ersatz gospel based around the glory of a muffuletta, Slider would elbow every acolyte out of the way until he became the lead prophet. Hell, the nickname “Slider” was hung in front of plain old Bob when he discovered a magazine recipe for muffuletta sliders and he hasn’t been quite right ever since.

A few days went by and I was Google-ing around New Orleans looking for new places to explore, so just for the hell of it, I typed in “muffuletta pizza,” figuring it might be fairly common in a pizza-crazy town where muffuletta sandwiches are almost as common as a “poor boy.” As it turned out, I could only find one place that offered the pizza-sandwich hybrid, Mo’s Pizza in Westwego.

Westwego is a small working-class suburb on the West Bank, nestled among commercial fishing areas, refineries and other industries that rely as much upon muscle as brainpower. Located on Highway 90 West, closer to the unnerving Huey P. Long Bridge than the Crescent City Connection, Westwego has become an unexpectedly regular stop for The Sensible One and me. The reason for our visits is a collection of tumbledown buildings housing Mom and Pop seafood merchants, where the most we’ve ever paid for fresh-caught 6-count shrimp is $5.25 a pound, a price that’s tantamount to misdemeanor larceny.

About a mile away from the ersatz fish market, a couple of blocks off the main drag stands Mo’s. It’s in a non-descript metal building, painted the color of banana pudding, and there’s nothing noteworthy about it except that it’s probably larger than you might expect for a local pizzeria. With its bland exterior and out-of-the-way location, I can only think of two reasons why the business ever located there: (1), the building was cheap, and (2), no, I mean really cheap.

In planning our visit, I had noticed that local restaurant writer Tom Fitzmorris had listed it as the fourteenth best pizza joint in New Orleans, which sounded promising, but also kvetched about the sauce being “a bit sweeter than optimum,” which did not. To be perfectly honest, and maybe a wee bit snobbish, I didn’t approach our visit to Mo’s with a lot of anticipation or confidence.

One of the nice things about low expectations is that the odds are more or less equal you’ll be surprised when a restaurant is better that you ever imagined, as are the odds you’ll be disappointed in a visit to a place that has a glitzier reputation it can’t live up to. Perhaps that’s a roundabout way of saying that Mo’s was much better than I expected because I wasn’t expecting much in the first place.

Mo’s interior is almost as unimpressive as its exterior. It’s a barn of a room with utilitarian café furniture set far apart to fill the cavernous space. Décor is what you’d expect in such a place: beer neons, Saints paraphernalia, and some football memorabilia scattered about. In a room so long on functionality and short on charm, the checkered vinyl tablecloths become a “decorator touch.”

The menu contains advertising for seventeen local businesses, and a look at the advertisers provides fairly decent insight into the world Mo’s serves. Among them you’ll find a tire center, a tint shop, two bingo halls, roofing contractors, a pooch grooming place, a tanning salon, a balloon boutique and a hock shop among others.

While there may be a raffish charm to the downscale décor and the menu with so many ads it looks like a NASCAR special, it’s important to keep in mind that a restaurant with a predominately middle class clientele doesn’t last in as competitive a market as New Orleans unless it serves better than good food and plenty of it. Mo’s does just that. There may be nothing there that will absolutely knock your socks off, but that’s not what Mo’s is all about and in evaluating a place like Mo’s, that’s something to be kept in mind.

The menu is short and to the point. The place is first and foremost a pizza joint and keeping an informal eye on what people were taking away from the pick-up window, I’d guess that pizza is 90% of the business. There are no surprises on the rest of the menu, it predictably including five appetizers, three salads, a couple of turnovers, three sandwiches and four red gravy Italian entrees. There are also two sets of weekly specials, four desserts, beer and soft drinks.

The pizzas are gargantuan. Being rookies in the joint, The Sensible One and I ordered a small muffuletta pizza. As we waited the twenty to twenty-five minutes it took to be prepared, we watched what other customers were getting for lunch. The vast majority of the guys in there were relatively big and most were dressed along the lines of Larry the Cable Guy. To a man, they were ordering two slices and that was a lot of food.

When our pizza arrived, it was eighteen inches in diameter cut into eight slices. (Taking out a calculator and messing around with square roots, radii and pi, I discovered than the inner 50% of the pizza would still be more than a foot in diameter. An average small pizza is usually ten inches.) For the record, we each had two slices, boxed up the rest and made two more meals out of it later.

The term “slice” is almost deceptive in the Deep South, where it seems most pizza have many more pieces, each sliced smaller. Mo’s pizzas are old-style New York/Boston/Philly “street food” slices. The nine-inch slices have a thin enough crust to roll and walk with. (First fold the tip of the slice until it touches the crust. Run your index finger down the center from the crust, and then use your thumb and middle finger to roll the outside edges in half around your index finger.)

The muffuletta pizza itself is very good. Containing the traditional ingredients of the sandwich (ham, Genoa salami, Mortadella, homemade cheese, olive salad and a traditional olive oil sauce), it’s difficult to either agree or disagree with Fitzmorris’ evaluation of the sauce. If there was any of the offending sauce, the taste was masked if not totally covered up by the vibrancy of the other ingredients.

As this is being written, Slider Bob is yet to make the trip to Mo’s to compare its muffuletta pizza with that formerly offered by Port of Call. I know for a fact that Mo’s is now on his radar and I can hardly wait to heart the evaluation by a man who never met a muffuletta he didn’t like. Having known Slider for thirty years, my guess is he’ll call it “a slice of heaven.”

While I probably would never suggest Mo’s is anything more than it is, namely a working class neighborhood pizza joint, I like the hell out of the place. I like the improbability of its location and downscale interior, and the cooking is solid. One final thing that makes me feel good about Mo’s is that every spring they have “Mo’s Fest,” a bands and food fundraiser, which in its first nine years raised more than $130,000 for the West Westwego Fire Department, the Police Department and Children’s Hospital. There’s something nice about visiting an establishment with its heart in the right place.

While I’m not willing to say that Mo’s is worth the eleven-mile drive from the heart of downtown New Orleans, it’s certainly worth a visit should you happen to be in the neighborhood. Perhaps it’s nothing more than good folks and good food, but what’s wrong with that? After all, man cannot live by fois gras alone.

Mo’s Pizza

Neighborhood Pizzeria

1112 Avenue H, Westwego

Open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. – 10 p.m.

Accepts most credit cards

No reservations

Telephone: (504) 341-9650

Website: www.mospizza.net