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.

peche-oysters
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.

brennans-elliott
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

 

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East Thirty-Six: Breaking Down the Yonge Street Wall

A riddle…

Q. Why did the foodie cross the road?

A. He didn’t.

This is a dumb joke but one that reigns true when we speak of Canada’s longest street. Yonge street is a bit like the Berlin wall. On the west side a vibrant dining scene.  Queen, King, College and Dundas are lined with dozens of hipster havens.  The east side, however, consists of  a bunch of restaurants  compartmentalized into chains, fine dining and student friendly venues.  It’s like there’s a force field of some kind which repels plastic-rimmed glasses.   There are a few hipster oases in the otherwise barren east but for the most part there’s work to be done before the wall is torn down.

Wellington road east is proxy to a number of upscale condos which have tenants who prefer suits to plaid.  It is also within walking distance of venues such as the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts. As a result, bahn mi sandwiches and pulled pork tacos aren’t an automatic go-to.  Instead, restaurants in this area need to offer refined yet current fare or offer a unique enough concept whereas to not be a dreadful bore and keep people coming back. Places like Trevor Bar and Kitchen and C’est What have had longevity whereas Lucien and the Olde Towne Bistro and Oyster bar had shorter lives.

East Thirty-Six now occupies the old quarters of the above mentioned restaurants.  It’s first plan of action was to name itself after its address, a witty move employed by numerous others recently. The second was to adopt a menu which focuses on innovative cocktails and small plates as opposed to the traditional three course meals the east side aristocrats are accustomed to. The focal point of the interior is a large bar which is stocked with a variety of alcohol (including house-made varieties) larger than Lindsay Lohan’s minibar.  Otherwise, it is a classy and well designed east side bar and bistro.

In addition to a panoply of the most current  wines (New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, German Rieslings etc.) Eat Thirty Six boasts an impressive cocktail list with emphasis on and fruit and  fruit-infused liquors ranging from $12-14.  I had read about the high touted E36 smoked Boulevardier, a spin on the classic yet rather unknown cocktail from the 20s.  Called a cousin of the Negroni, E36’s version includes a bit of Lillet Blanc and some smoke tincture.  The solution is allowed to conflate  for a number of weeks to create an elixir which is as smooth as a gossamer.  Frankly, it’s  the best cocktail I’ve had this year. I’d equate to it any dish which is allowed to sit and marinate versus being callously put together and served immediately.  There is no rawness or disjointed flavour..just a general smoothness enhanced with ethereal undertones.

E36Smoked Boulevardier $14
E36 Smoked Boulevardier $14

To date, the menu has been classified as french tapas.  I asked the owner about this and he said this wasn’t intentional.  A small plate concept was definitely the intent, but the influence of chef Brent Maxwell resulted in a seeping of French influence into many of the dishes.  Take, for example, the pork caillettes. E36’s version of these sausages are bite-size morsels stuffed with among other things  pork and liver.  Served like a hors d’oeuvre,  each well seasoned bite was a pop of all things porcine. I also ordered some mixed pickles ($4) which made for a nice starter.

Pork Caillettes $9 (Note: Cameras don't work in the dark)
Pork Caillettes $9 (Note: Cameras don’t work in the dark)
Pickles $4
Mixed Pickles $4

The scallop crudo ($14) was little Italy meets Mexico. It takes the sweetness of scallop and the richness of lardo and  dresses it with tequila and lime.  The rather unorthodox addition of  celery added  a little texture and taste that worked. It didn’t present with the intensity of a ceviche but had enough of an acidity to cut through the lardo and  provide a nice reprieve from some of the heavier items on the menu.

Scallop Crudo $14
Scallop Crudo $14

 

Speaking of heavy, we went to the bottom of the menu for our  dishes.  My colleague and I decided on the short rib ($21), duck confit ($19) and boudin blanc ($18).  That said, all three dishes were delicious choices.  I think I can summarize them with one word: balance. The short rib was nicely accompanied with brussel sprouts, parmesan grits and horseradish.    The duck leg was rendered down nicely and served with egg, mushroom and semolina. If anything, I would have switched the starches because I think corn/duck and beef/wheat pair better together but that may be a bit of a moot point given both dishes were rather delicious. The boudin was an modish interpretation of the sausage in that it used elegant ingredients such fois gras and tarragon.  The additional of the apple and cabbage didn’t make it any less pedestrian.

 

Short Rib $21
Short Rib with Grits $21
Duck Confit $19
Duck Confit with Semolina $19
Boudin Blanc $18
Boudin Blanc with cabbage and apple  $18

For dessert I ordered the lemon custard with shortbread and macadamia ($8) while my colleague ordered another plate of caillettes.  The custard was nice and tart and was served with an impressive number of (hopefully foraged nuts… AND it was served in a mason jar.  Pure hipster bliss.

Lemon Custard $8
Lemon Custard with M academia nuts $8

 

My Take 

On the heels of the short lived Olde Towne Bistro and Oyster bar, E36 has moved into a tough spot with an attempt to fuse modern food and drink trends with the principles of upscale casual dining this area of town is accustomed to. It can best be described as small plate with french influence although there are a number of surprises on the menu.  I wasn’t able to try the bone marrow (served with chicken liver pate), razor clams, sweetbreads or octopus nor one of the other 10 interesting cocktails, many of which frolic with fruit  or tinker with tinctures.   The decor is clean and modern with a beautiful well-stocked bar as its centrepiece.   The service was great but it was a slow night so it would be interesting to see if the conversation and attention to detail continues with a busier assemblage.

East Thirty-Six has a name, a menu and a cocktail list that would appeal to any hipster. I mean, think about it.  Pickled cauliflower in a mason jar?  The dish alone contains three of the Huffington Post’s  22 essential hipster foods:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/15/hipster-food_n_5146632.html?utm_hp_ref=fb&src=sp&comm_ref=false

So, does this mean we finally have a place that would allow the tearing down of the Yonge street wall, finally allowing  the two sides to dine together in harmony while eating offal pork sausage and drinking bourbon concoctions?  Probably not. After all, there’s no need to worsen the carbon footprint  as long as there’s kimchi, kale and PBR on the west side I suppose.

 

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