New Orleans Day 4: Compere Lapin and Shaya Reminded me that Drew Brees Won’t be Around for Ever

With the NFL season now in full force, I am reminded that there is a changing of the guard when it comes to quarterbacks.  With Peyton’s retirement, the Brady suspension and iffy performances by some of the league’s veterans QBs coupled with the emergence of new blood lad by the likes of Carson Wentz, notice has been served.  This might not be that different than the food scene, especially in New Orleans.  Although the long standing staples of Cajun cuisine continue to be alive and well, one can argue that they are being upstaged by the new kids on the block which include Shaya, the 2016 James Beard winner for best new restaurant in the US.

Day 4 was a brunch more than breakfast day so my food adventures began down the road at Compere Lapin in the Warehouse district.  Once again, the weather was ominous so a location close to the convention centre was most desirable.  The website describes this destination as follows :”Inspiration for the menu comes from the traditional Caribbean folktales featuring a mischievous rabbit named Compère Lapin that Chef Nina Compton read during her childhood in St. Lucia. Drawing on the story’s themes of exploration and play, she mixes the indigenous ingredients and rich culinary heritage of New Orleans with those of her Caribbean roots. Tapping into her classical French culinary training and deep experience with Italian cuisine, the result is a playful menu that takes food you know, and makes it food you love”. In addition, Eater New Orleans included it on their where to have brunch list.

The decor is roomy and industrial.  We were there early so the crowds had yet to materialize.  The smallish brunch menu featured a mix of sweet and savory so I indulged in a little of both.  I started with a vanilla bruleed grapefruit which I thought was a smart twist on the breakfast classic. Next was a mix of two of my favorite things: biscuits and gravy and poached eggs. I found it a bit underwhelming; the heat from both a spice and temperature perspective was a bit lacking.  The service was decent but I actually found the cleanup crew better than the waitstaff. My water glass was never empty and the gentleman was polite and courteous.  The actual service was just ok.

Since it was brunch I really didn’t have a formal midday meal but took the opportunity when I had a few minutes to sample the famous grilled oysters from Drago’s. Almost 25 years ago, a little experimentation with one of nature’s most delicious offerings became what is now Drago’s signature dish.  I was a bit reluctant given my wariness toward cooked oysters in general but figured garlic, butter, herbs and cheese on anything is never a bad idea on anything.  I sat at a seat in front of the grill and watched the magic happen.  With a beer in and a cup of gumbo on the side, I delved into a half dozen for $12. Even with the large chunk of baguette covering part of the plate, it’s clear that a New Orleans half dozen is a bit generous.  Not only that, I felt like a bit of a seagull because I was also thrown an few extra by the guy at the grill once in a while.  I wasn’t complaining because they were delicious and cooked just enough to maintain the taste and texture I enjoy with a platter of raw ones. The gumbo was pretty solid too.  In the end, it was an excellent pseudo-lunch rounded out by great food and incredible service.

Dinner was at the highly anticipated Shaya which took this year’s James Beard crown as best new US restaurant. Also located in the popular garden district,  Shaya, which is the namesake of respected chef New Orleans Alon Shaya,  totally deviates from the definition of New Orleans cuisine and instead offers food inspired by Israel. The decor is a modernized old Europe but we found the table a little odd in the sense that it was ridiculously high.  Perhaps it was a means to deter people from putting their elbows on the table because unless you were six foot five, this task was nearly impossible.  I was happy to be with a larger group which allowed me to sample a number of the small plates they offer on the menu. For example, they offer ten or so small plates for a reasonable $23 when you order 5.  We went with the tabouleh, morrocan carrots, ikra, pickles and baba ganoush.  To go along with it we also got the tahini and soft cooked egg hummus.  All hit the mark in their respective ways.  With that we also ordered a spattering of other traditional offerings including fattoush, crispy halloumi, falafel and some tahini and soft cooked egg hummus.  All were fresh, nicely presented,well spiced and a reasonable value.

The service was less than stellar which is likely one of the reasons there were long delays between the above and main dishes.  That said, it allowed our bodies to adjust to the copious amounts of freshly baked pita (there is an oven in the back) that we inhaled with the above dishes so I wasn’t upset that we only opted for three mains; the chicken, hanger steak and the slow cooked lamb. Each main incorporates both elements of middle-eastern ingredients and cooking styles (eg. tagine and slow roast) to produce food that hit both modern and traditional notes.

Ok, maybe my visit was reminiscent of my childhood compete with soft food, a high chair and service on my mother’s terms but the food was spot on and beautifully presented.  Whether or not it is deserving of best new restaurant in America I will leave it to the real critics but I’m convinced the James Beard committee has a soft spot for both New Orleans and for pumping up the ethnic flavour of the day and Shaya meets both criteria.  What was most disappointing was the service.  It seems like even the boundaries of the big easy, which once housed the definition of southern hospitality, can’t repel the infiltration of self-centred service typical of the new foodie generation. Oh well, I guess even Drew Brees will have to hang up the cleats someday.

Shaya Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Drago's Seafood Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Compere Lapin Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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New Orleans Day 3: Beignets, Trolling in Area 3 and a Graham Elliot Doppelganger

My commitment to three square meals continued on day three in New Orleans; that is if you are willing to accept the fact that a beignet and a cafe au lait is breakfast. Instead of hitting the Cafe Du Monde’s original location, I opted for one close to the convention centre.  It’s hard to argue that dough deep fried in cottonseed oil and covered in powdered sugar can be a bad thing and I was neither let down or really surprised.  I was, however, more intrigued by the coffee.  Historically, chicory was added to coffee by the French during their civil war to preserve rations and that tradition continued from Acadians right through the Louisiana settlers.  The intense bitterness of this plant from the Dandelion family is likely part of the reason the cafe au lait is preferred to straight up black. That said,   I picked up a can and drink it black but it’s certainly a sipping coffee more than one you would down like a shooter during the morning rush.

beighnets-cafe-du-monde
Cafe Du Monde Beignets $5

Lunch was at Peche, which won the 2014 James Beard award for best new restaurant in the US and is part of the Donald Link empire. This seafood-focused eatery is conveniently located a few minutes from the convention centre so it was relatively safe even among the pop-up thunder storms which seem to blast through the Big Easy at any random moment throughout the work day.

Living in southern Ontario, my access to fresh oysters is few and far between and when I can get them, they are usually overpriced Malpeques so I was delighted at the chance to pound back a dozen gems from gulf coast for a buck or two each.  On this day the features included Louisiana Area 3 (shellfish harvest area are given a number which stop at 28 and luckily do not go up to 51).  Area 3 is the easternmost harvest area.  The others were from Alabama, specifically Dauphin island.  Let’s just say if I lived here I would have absolutely no chance of pernicious anemia, would have frank hypercalcemia and I could probably play Robert Downey Jr.’s iron man double.

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Area 3 and Dauphin Island Oysters (much cheaper than land-locked Ontario)

Looking back, I think I told myself I would order anything with the word Louisiana in it.   In this case it was the Louisiana shrimp roll which seemed a suitable lunch choice.  Much like it’s Canadian cousin, it features a soft bun stuffed with mayo drenched seafood.  It was the prefect lunch choice….good size, good taste and good value.  For dessert I couldn’t resist the strawberry custard which was a trendy version of the no-bake  old school strawberry cheesecake my mom used to make.

Although I didn’t have the full booze laden dinner experience, lunch gave me a flavour of the food and vibe of this accolade filled eatery which was impressive.  The service was prompt and courteous but pleasantly pompous.

After a number of modernized New Orleans meals so far, it was time to go old school and visit Brennan’s for dinner.  This well established destination has a long history in the big easy.  What’s not to like about it:it’s  been around since 1946, it’s cheesy and they use words like old-world elegance and pampering service in their description on the website. Plus, their chef’s, Slade Rushing, has a name that sounds like he should be designated chef for the Sons of Anarchy. After a sazarac in the roost bar, I rewound the clock and had a seat in the tacky rounded booth in one of the many dining rooms.

I was pleased to be greeted by a waiter who looked like Michelin star chef Graham Elliot. He was quick and courteous and knowledgeable;another reminder that there still is good and traditional service in the world.  He was pleased to discuss the many aspects of the menu including the specials which included steak Diane.  I quickly checked my phone to ensure I hadn’t stumbled upon a wormhole which transported me back to the mid 20th century when tableside flambees were all the rage. Despite the date confusion, my mind was made up..I was dining on American nostalgia tonight and it was gonna be good.

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Graham Elliot?

I was at a large table so collectively there was good opportunity to get feedback on a number of menu items. Appetizers ordered included the Jackson salad, turtle soup and chilled fois gras. I opted for another bite of history…crab remoulade modernized with shaved jicama, avocado and a mango vinaigrette.  It was a smart and fresh summer starter.  I had a spoonful of the turtle soup as well which was bursting with great flavours but I pondered how anybody could eat it regularly in the midst of regular tropical temperatures.

As I mentioned, the steak Diane was automatic. The other choices at the table included the filet Stanley, grouper and lamb.  We also had a vegetarian at the table who was offered the chef’s special which more or less ended up being a plateful of sauteed vegetables. Back to my dish;  Graham cooked up the steak filet like a pro and entertained us with Louisiana banter the whole time.  It was served with potato medallions and a few carrots…brilliant.  The time machine was still working. It was exactly what I expected… a pan seared piece of steak covered in salty juices. The feedback from the rest of the table on the entrees was positive…even the vegetarian seemed satisfied…but that may have been a side effect from the protein deficiency.

Going to Brennan’s and not ordering Bananas Foster would be like going to McDonald’s and never trying a Big Mac.  This labour intensive dessert’s origins lie within Brennan’s seventy year history. According to Brennan’s website (which annoying has the heading Banana’s Foster…the misuse of apostrophes is a real pet peeve of mine) It was created in 1951 after the chef Paul Blangé was challenged to come up with a dessert using surplus banana’s from a family  business.  As mentioned, table side cooking was all the rage so the bananas foster was born. I’m a true believer that nostalgia tastes incredible so I wasn’t disappointed.  There were a smorgasbord of other desserts which arrived as well including a bread pudding, chocolate pave, creme brulee and crepe Fitzgerald (also prepared tableside). The savory palate at the table opted for the cheese tray which was nicely presented with a trio of offerings.

Brennan’s is a retro oasis in a culinary scene driven by an industrial revolution driven by hipster foodies who dismiss table side cuisine but drink Manhattans because they saw it on Mad Men.  This eatery doesn’t budge on bow ties, lavish decor, crafty cocktails and insisting waitstaff earn their gratuities.  The food is unapologetically  New Orleans with the odd twist here and there.  In the end, like a handful of other eateries in the Big Easy; one can rewind the clock and dine like a mid-century aristocrat for a couple of hours and if luck is in the air, you might actually have a masterchef flambeing fare table side.

Brennan's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

 

New Orleans Day 2: Getting Surrey, Them Feeling Toup of the World and Grabbing a Few Groceries to End it All Off

Day two started with another trip down Magazine Street but instead of ending up in the core of the Garden district I stopped a bit early at Surrey’s cafe, another of the 10 or so DDD in the New Orleans area.  Surrey’s is a breakfast/lunch juice bar. The menu items include some of the standard fare for both meals plus a few choices with a Latin flare.

The place is rustic or run-down depending on what side of the foodie line you stand on.  You know what I mean… wobbly tables on an uneven floor with mismatched chairs and confusing art on the wall.  That said, the waitstaff was attentive and the dude was quick to recommend a few of his favorites.  He talked me into the $11 corned beef hash.  The spin was the addition of both boudin and andouille sausage. It was a delicious and hearty portion which I finished off with a few liberal splashes of hot sauce.

In the end, Surrey’s is your cookie-cutter hipster breakfast joint characterized by a seemingly necessary shottiness.  In this case, there is a Latino flare added…kind of like Corona’s as opposed to Cora’s.  Decent food and a decent vibe providing you go at off-peak times.  Otherwise, you’ll be waiting a while.

Food- 4/5 Guyz

Service- 3.5/5 Guyz

Vibe- 3.5/5  Guyz

Total: 11/15 Guyz

Lunch was another example of me living out my PVR fantasies.  Instead of a DDD, I opted for Toups’ Meatery in the Mid-City.  Not only had Issac Toups been nominated for numerous James Beard awards (including 2016 in which he lost out to the chef of my dinner destination), but he also was a finalist on the popular competition show Top Chef.  Toups’ promises a meat heavy experience with a Cajun twist served  in saloony type scenery. Armed with a carnivorous attitude, I delved into the lunch offerings while doing my best to avoid anything related to salad which meant a smorgasbord including  a cheese board, meatery board, Louisiana crab claws and a side order of cracklins. All were quite satisfying but I really enjoyed the crab claws.  They were served so they could be eaten hand held like artichoke leaves.  The sweet and sour of the pickled pineapple and the heat of the Thai chilis made for a number of exciting bites.  They had a bit of that mindless shoving popcorn in your face effect. With a copious amount of  fat and sodium, the cracklins were a complete exercise in arterial challenge.  I would have been surprised if they were anything short of tongue-tingling.

In the end, Toups’ was a good example of a charcuterie shack with a southern spin. I would be naive to think the small amount of omega-3 in the crab claws offset the saturated fat but the Cajun flare they added certainly increased the NOLA authenticity and reminded me I was in the general proximity of the Gulf Coast.

It was back to the garden district for dinner.  The destination was La Petit Grocery who’s chef, Justin Devillier, was the 2016 James Beard winner for the South region.Unlike the industrial look, the interior of this Magazine Street eatery looks like a place where you might court a southern belle.  The cocktail, appetizer and main I ordered are no longer menu (a reflection of the tardiness of my blogs) but these items were still a good representation of what to expect at La Petit Grocery which is New Orleans first flavours with a little Europe thrown  in.  The alta cocktail, which was a combination of booze from Italy to Mexico and accented with citrus flavours, resulting in a refreshing summer drink.  The fresh green garlic spaghetti was the perfect bed for the sweet crawfish tails and the crispy pork confit was teamed with modernized southern classics including pickled collard greens and dirty rice with a mustard jus which brought it all together.   The wine list is diverse and tackles all price ranges including the middle of the road ones we indulged on such as the Domaine Jean Collet & Fils “Montée de Tonnerre ” Chablis 1 er Cru 2009 for $70 and Oregon’s Moises Wahle Vineyards Willamette Valley 2008 Pinot for a few bucks less.

In the end, day 2 was a bit of everything; from rustic and run down to carnivorous and classic chic James Beard favorites which speaks to the fact that New Orleans has evolved into a scene beyond Cajun and creole.  That said,  they seem to ensure they protect the cuisine of Louisiana’s unique culture and history as well. I would need day 3 to see if this is always the case.

La Petite Grocery Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato