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.

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.

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.

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


Trying out for Masterchef Canada: My journey for the elusive apron

I decided to test my luck by trying out for the Masterchef open casting a little while back. I watch the US show and often wondered what it would be like to stand face to face with Joe Bastianich and watch his blood boil after I called him a mama’s boy and prepared for a cast iron pan to the side of  the head (or at least a good tongue lashing and that ridiculous stare). I also dreamed of witnessing Graham Elliot piercing a perfectly cooked poached egg yolk  from up close and watch him savour the flavour while staring intently toward the roof as he chewed.  Finally, I wanted to hear Gordon Ramsay up close, referring to everything as the most delicious, freshest  (insert food name here) and explain and maybe demonstrate the appropriate means of cooking such food.

On the other hand, let’s be real. The odds that any of these judges do more than make a guest appearance are astronomical.  Instead, I anticipate Canadian contestants will be dealt one of the half dozen celebrity chefs which grace the airways (that of course depends on whether Bell’s CTV and the  Shaw’s Food Network Canada can play nice in the kitchen).  Might we see the likes of Mark McEwen, Lynn Crawford, Chuck Hughes or Anna Olson?  Or may we see a new crop of judges, possibly chosen with the same rigor and cookie-cutter approach as the contestants themselves.

One option was sending in an application with a video in advance; the other was just showing up, crossing your fingers and hoping for the best.  I put my cinematographic hat on and planned to film myself caressing grape leaves in my back yard in my best seductive voice while explaining how to  stuff and serve them. Instead, I ran out of time and just decided to show up on day 2 and roll the die.   I decided on street food, choosing to make my Poppin’ shrimp tacos in hopes of showing my knowledge of food trends coupled with some pretty standard culinary skills (I’m planning to post the recipe to my Veg..Eat..Ales blog shorty). I spent a number of hours refining everything from the taco shells to the corn pop coated shrimp to the sauces which would slathered on top of the finished dish.

I live 2 hours away from the tryouts, so I arranged to stay at a buddy’s place, figuring I could awake at the crack of dawn and compile a winning dish with plenty of time.  The night before I hunted Kensington and Chinatown  for an Ontario grown cabbage and fresh shrimp.  With the mission accomplished, I grabbed a quick bite at Valdez (review later), got back and crashed, setting the alarm for 4 am, giving myself plenty of time to prep in time for the 7am start.

Different shrimp, different pans and a different stove makes for a different product.  I burnt my first four shrimp in seconds. I’m sure I impressed my buddy’s floor mates as I filled his apartment with smoke at 430 am.  I eventually figured it out and produced 4 pretty decent looking shrimp.   I made the tortillas, fried them and stored them in paper towels to keep moist, mixed the jalapeno lime slaw, packed it all into my cooler and walked over to the open casting a few blocks away. The dish had to be served at room temperature many hours later, so I hoped each component would maintain its integrity. I opted for three small tacos as opposed to a single large one in an effort to showcase the three different sauces I prepared as well as the fact that I made my own tortilla shells from scratch.

I arrived at about 635. Once in  line, I received my green wristband marked #43. Shortly after, the line grew longer and I was confident that I would have my turn prior to dusk.  I waited patiently and we were soon greeted by the staff to be happy when the cameras came by.  Some of us were even given signs like “I want to spoon with Gordon” to rouse the cheers.

My assigned wristband
My assigned wristband

Eventually, I was whisked into the hotel and followed a tedious process to get registered, sign my life away and get my mugshot taken.  I went from number 43 on a wristband to H6 on a blue sheet and was sent into a holding room with about 100 others to await my fate. The cast of characters ranged from 18 year old aspiring chefs to a guy who look in his 60’s wearing a blue blazer and red converse shoes.  At first, most of us  held their coolers like they were live organs, unwilling to share any trade secrets (although our food was already prepared)  As we warmed up to each other  (unlike the food which had to be served at room temperature), we started to divulge stories about ourselves and our dishes.  It was surreal. For example, there was:

  • a  stoic, retired RCMP officer who started saying next to nothing, told us countless stories about the police force before, in a authoritative voice, disclosing that  he had made  blueberry lavender butter tarts as his signature dish.
  • A self proclaimed bitchy mom who actually became a bitchy mom when everybody started calling her Krissy.
  • A guy in a lobster shirt who served…..pork tortillas.
  • A woman who, after realizing the wait was going to be a lot longer than she expected, left only to return 10 minutes later with a fully loaded hot dog from a cart outside the hotel which she proceeded to eat in street meat fashion in front of a hundred, cranky and hungry onlookers.

When your group is finally called you enter what  feels  likes a steam room and set up your station. By luck of the draw, I was front and centre in row 1.  Forty-seven other contestants set up in the same way.  The rules were simple.  Once the clock started, you had three minutes to plate.  So, I mixed the slaw, threw down the shells…two minutes… filled them , topped with shrimp and… minute remaining began the final garnish.  Before I knew it, the familiar shout of “hands up” filled the room and I was unable to top my tacos with chopped cilantro.  Regardless, I was pleased with the dish and got prepared for the judges. After judging we were allowed to snap pictures although all I had was my low resolution blackberry camera.

Poppin' Shrimp tacos with cilantro, avocado and chipotle cream sauce
Poppin’ Shrimp tacos with cilantro, avocado and chipotle cream sauce

The aforementioned blue sheet had my number on one side and the scoring system on the other. Essentially, contestants are judged on taste, appearance, creativity, food knowledge and quality of ingredients.  In addition, there was room for judges to add comments about personal stories and aspirations of each of the contestants.   The main food judges were the executive producers of Masterchef USA.  Other judges included a number involved in the Canadian production. Since I was at the first table, the judges got to me soon.  She confirmed my use of homemade tortillas, cut my shrimp to check if it was cooked and asked me if I used three different sauces.  I boasted yes, yes and yes.  The second judge asked me about the shrimp and I told her about my corn pop coating. She said it sounded that something David Chang would do.  That comment alone was like scoring a birdie during a shitty round of golf…anything else didn’t matter.

So, after an extensive judging period in which not a single judge tasted anything I made, deliberations began.  It was like waiting for a court decision.  My row speculated that the longer it took, the more likely we were to go through. In the meantime, we wandered around the room and admired each other’s dishes.  There was chocolate ravioli, ceviches, tartares, a whole pork roast with three sauces, gluten free cupcakes, ribs and all sorts of other things. After about 30 minutes, they returned and instructed us to either return to the holding room for further interviews if we made it or take the walk of shame out the front door and back to the mundane life of cooking without fanfare and pressure if we didn’t.

In the end, I was dismissed.  I think the most frustrating part was not having any idea why.  Was it my boring story about cooking in a way that will appeal to my kids? Was it the fact I opted for street food as opposed to something more refined? Whatever it was, it wasn’t the taste because..well….they didn’t taste it.

I’m looking forward to the show which should air in January, hoping I recognize a few of the finalists.  Although I won’t  be one of them, I can tell those around me that I would have made it if my hair was blue , if they actually tasted my food or if I made something more refined (as they smile at you while  thinking in their heads.. “You must have been really bad because I can’t believe that schmuck went further than you did). In the end,  it was a fun experience and I can honesty say there are no sour grapes, although I may use them should I choose to try out next year.  Roasted venison with a sour grape reduction on a bed of quinoa and woodland mushrooms…I like the sound of that.

Chicago: Day 1:Black coffee, Blackbird and Friends of Gordon Ramsay

I arrived at Chicago’s infamous O’Hare airport at 7 am.  I ran into a customer on the plane. Upon takeoff, she  kindly offered me her copy of Oprah’s magazine to read  on the plane, so I figured what the hell…I was  going to Chicago and I did learn how to remove a mole with surgery.  When we landed,  we agreed to head into the core together. To my surprise, there wasn’t  a cab to be found. Eventually, one arrived and it was the first of many pristine cabs (yes, I actually enjoyed the cabs in Chicago despite their stop and go and hornophilic nature) I would take during the week.  The drive was slow and I eventually arrived at the Intercontinental Hotel on the magnificent mile.  My room was ready, I dumped my bag and heading for a day of culinary adventure.

Stop 1– Grahamwich

Anybody who knows me is aware I’m a sucker for celebrity chefs.  Graham Elliot’s sandwich shop, Grahamwich, allowed me to experience the fares of the heavy man without the need for a heavy wallet.  Sitting downtown, it offers an arrays of sandwiches with sides including popcorn, chips, pickles and even soft serve ice cream.   It’s a simple joint,  with minimal seating and the trademark GE symbol painted here and there. It also has one of the most annoying songs I have ever heard on a website and no apparent way to turn it off.  The staff resembled Graham himself, with slicked hair and wide-rimmed specs, although few would be able to mimic the speech of expectations related to cutting through the bread of a perfectly toasted sandwich.

I opted for the waldorf chicken sandwich which included grapes, walnuts, gorgonzola and celery for $8.  I threw in a large order of local pickles on the side and a homemade vanilla kola for $3 each.  For good measure, I grabbed a maple bacon Long John which I venture to guess was a product of local bakery Glazed and Infused for $4.

I grabbed my “To Go” pack, hopped on the subway, and jaunted up to Wrigley field to check out the field.  Grabbing a bench outside the park, I dug in.

Wrigley Field
Wrigley Field

The most underrated component of a sandwich is the texture.  This one was a home run!  Each bite was like a great pitching performance and a couple of base hits; the chicken salad that was firm and not soggy and it had perfect walnut and celery crunch and juicy pops of grape.  Delicious! I opened  the cup holding two flavours of pickles (traditonal kosher dill and spicy). Equally delicious.  The drink was subtly sweet and very vanilla flavoured, a polarity that might turn off a soda-pop purists.   All in all, a great lunch by a great park.  I even thought I saw a few tourists scanning the neighbourhood looking for the source of my lunchtime bliss.

Chicken Waldorf Sandwich and Pickles
Chicken Waldorf Sandwich and Pickles

Grahamwich on Urbanspoon

Satisfied, I snapped a few pics and hopped back on the subway and heading up the red line to stop #2.  Along the way, I succumbed to the donut and tore off a quarter.  Anybody that thinks the combination of maple, bacon and donuts works…you’re right! It was sweet and salty and doughy.  Let’s call it an achievement of the donut triple crown….or maybe the Cy Yum award.

Maple Bacon Donut (presumably from Glazed and Infused)
Maple Bacon Donut (presumably from Glazed and Infused)

Stop #2- Metropolis Coffee

There’s a lot of hype about this coffee (it is served at GE’s restaurants after all), so I was hoping the subway ride up would be worth the visit.  I walked past the patio (complete with the classic picture of my favorite bird with a smoke hanging out of his mouth and a caption reading “No Puffin”…come to think of it, how would  a puffin get a cigarette in its mouth to begin with or light it for that matter) and into the rather large interior.  The patrons were like a chess board; all sorts of sizes and shapes.  On the other hand, the staff were similar; young and tattooed and ready to brew.  I grabbed a Chemex (pronounced Chem-ex, not chem-A as some of us Canadians like to say in err) made with a nice Guatemalan bean.  The execution was flawless and allowed 10 minutes or so for friendly banter.  They take their coffee seriously and the final product reflected it. The payment machines  were down, so I got a pat on the back and a “just pay when you leave”. Great coffee, great service, great sign. By the way, I remembered to pay…can’t risk the karma coffee.

Metropolis Coffee
Metropolis Coffee Front Counter

Metropolis Coffee Company on Urbanspoon

Stop #3– BIG and Little’s

Knowing I was in for a late dinner, I figured a mid-afterrnoon snack was in  order.  I decided to take a walk downtown and ended up at my first diner, drive-in and drive of the trip.  BIG and Little’s is the brainchild of Hell’s Kitchen contestant Tony D’Alessandro, who was remembered having  issues with segmenting grapefruit and who’s early and subtle exit was overshadowed by a volcanic blowup by some guy wanting  to punch Ramsey in the face.  Since then, he has found success in this cash only taco/burger/fish shack. It’s like a beach canteen in the middle of the city  minus the seagulls, crying kids and barefoot patrons. The staff were friendly and the service was quick.  I ordered a Big and Little fish taco and al pastor (pork belly).  Both tacos were good although I found too much sauce on the first and not enough rendering on the latter. Otherwise, the fish was cooked perfectly (although it was swimming in a sea of lettuce) and the belly was well seasoned and worked well combined with a few sweet pineapple chunks. The fois gras and fries and fish and chips looked divine, but I was going out for dinner later so I toned down a bit, not knowing of the microscopy-requiring meal to come.

Tacos al pastor and BIG and Little's tacos- $4 and $3.50
Tacos al pastor and BIG and Little’s tacos- $4 and $3.50

Verdict- 3.5 Guyz

BIG & little's on Urbanspoon

Stop #4– Blackbird

I’m going to do a full review in a separate blog, but one of the dangers of Michelin star restaurants is portion size.  In this case, Blackbird could be renamed “Blackbird Food”.  Bitesize frog leg portions, matchbox sized sturgeon and half a chicken wing were highlights of the dishes served.  Although the flavours were nice, the crowded room, average service and the aforementioned small bites left this star shining dimly.  The desserts were good though!

What frog donated these? $16
What frog donated these? $16