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.
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.
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.
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.