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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The Irony of Happy Hour at Lee

I’ve met a few celebrity chefs in my travels.   I ran into Lynn Crawford at a food truck festival, met Mark McEwan at a Second Harvest event and snapped a picture of Guy Fieri through the glass at Lakeview diner.  I’m not very bold in these endeavors.  I usually only approach if they are available and usually if somebody else has already asked for a picture before me.  This might explain my reluctance to Susur Lee.  First of all, he scares the hell out of me.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen him smile  and I still remember the way he ripped apart chef Eric Wood during an episode of Chopped Canada.

I was in Toronto at staying in the King and Portland area so I decided to stroll the neighbourhood in order to grab a bite.  I was thinking Portland Variety, the new menu at Valdez or maybe a sausage at Wvrst.  The last thing on my mind was Lee but as I walked down the sidewalk I looked up and sitting on the patio of his own restaurant was Susur himself.  He was dressed in a burgundy blazer with the same stoic look I have always seen on TV.  He seemed engrossed in a business meeting with members of his staff so the last thing I wanted to do was interrupt. Instead I texted a few food geeks I knew  informing them of my discovery.  I attempted to snap a picture but  with my already horrendous camera skills it didn’t go well.

I was still undecided about where to dine until I saw a small sandwich board advertising happy hour at Lee which offered $10 cocktails and a small 1/2 price bar menu.  Sounded good to me.   I walked in and had a seat at the decent size bar.  A friendly bartender was waiting and quickly handed me a food and drink menu.   The drink menu offered 6 cocktails which had an array of spirits as a base.  I started with a burnt orange manhattan (knob hill bourbon, vermouth, grand marnier, cointreau, orange cream citrate).  It had a classic taste with a little twist. The bartender even flamed  the orange peel for extra effect. Although Knob Creek is not my favorite bourbon, it was still a great cocktail, especially for $10.

Burnt Orange Manhattan $10
Burnt Orange Manhattan $10

The half price bar snack menu consisted of 5 items so I went all in and ordered them all.  The first to arrive was the edamame hummus dip ($4) served with sesame crisps, taro root chips and pomegranate.  The silky texture was heavenly and the normal earthiness of a chickpea hummus was replaced with a fresher flavour. The punchy pomegranate seeds and taro chips were great compliments.

Edamame Hummus Dip $4
Edamame Hummus Dip $4

At this point, a buddy of mine joined me.  Shortly after, the spicy tuna tartare and black pepper tuna tataki ($6), spicy jerk chicken ($6) and cheese burger spring roll ($7) arrived.   The tartare and tataki were served on a rice cake and topped with red pepper relish.  The tuna was prepared perfectly but was blunted by the overwhelming rice cake.  The flavours were there, just disproportionate.  The cheeseburger spring egg roll was a brilliant concept, especially with the lettuce wrap and pickled vegetable.  Once again, like the tuna, the main protein was lost among the numerous other things on the plate.  The spice jerk chicken served with the tamarind glaze and chili sauce was phenomenal and easily the best dish of the night.  Moist chicken and a very crisp and aggressive seasoned coating was perfect as a stand alone but the sauces enhanced the flavour even further. It was so good we ordered another one.

Tuna Tartare Tataki $6, Jerk Chicken $6, Cheeseburger Spring Rolls $7
Tuna Tartare Tataki $6, Jerk Chicken $6, Cheeseburger Spring Rolls $7

The last dish on the bar menu was the fois gras and chicken liver pate. Served with ice syrup, ginger mango and ciabatta for $7.  It also had some housemade blueberry compote.  Although pate is rarely my preferred choice on a menu, this worked on all levels. The texture of the pate complimented with the contrasting sweet and  gingery condiments were delightful to the palate.  Ironically, I didn’t eat all the pate but the the rest of the plate didn’t stand a chance.

Fois Gras and Chicken Liver Pate $7
Fois Gras and Chicken Liver Pate $7

For a second cocktail, I ordered a Mayan Solstice, a tequila and gin based drink with chili infused lime juice, cucumber and green apple (with a little chartreuse).  This was fresh and delightful but the heat from the  chili was adequately present with every sip.  It was a great cocktail.

Mayan Solstice $10
Mayan Solstice $10

Whether it was a few cocktails or an general enjoyment of the food and atmosphere, I saw a couple across bar order Susur’s Signature Singaporean-style Slaw.  I felt that the guy from “The Source” commercial who sees his creepy neighbour dancing, looks at the speaker and says “I want that”.  This $22 salad is one of the most recognized dishes at Lee.  It’s an architectural feat, constructed with 19 ingredients.  After a detailed description. the waitress skillfully destroyed  it into something that could fit in one’s mouth.  As much as it was eye candy, it was alliterative mouth candy as well; sweet, salty, sour, spice, savory and sublime.

Susur's Signature Singaporean-style slaw $22
Susur’s Signature Singaporean-style slaw $22

My Take

I stumbled across happy hour at Lee by chance.  It started with a chance sighting of Susur itself and lead to an enjoyable meal. Although it is not your typical cinq a sept joint, the staff are welcoming and treat you as well as somebody who might be dropping a few hundreds bucks for dinner. The cocktails were above average and a great value at $10.  The bar food was a nice representation of Susur’s intense and diverse flavour profiles although I found the tuna and spring rolls  a bit  disproportionate. I’d order two jerk chicken right off the bat just to save yourself a wait. If you like pate,  Susar’s is a must.   The hummus was excellent as well.

The King and Portland area has become the epicentre for the snack food movement in Toronto and Lee has jumped on board (at least between 5 and 7 anyway). The result is a successful menu which offers a sample of Susur’s bold flavours.   Both the cocktails and food are a great value but be warned, you may be tempted to indulge in things like the signature slaw or other dishes which cross your path. In the end, although Susur didn’t look overly happy during his own happy hour, I sure did.

Lee on Urbanspoon

Rockin’ the Casbah at Aziza

I took a long cab ride into the Richmond district of San Francisco to have dinner at the Michelin star rated Aziza. It has an unassuming storefront  and after you open the curtain inside the front door and enter the restaurant, you are transformed into a Moroccan casbah with a variety of tables and booths scattered throughout. I was there with a large group and they were kind enough to wave the need for a set menu since it was later and night and the kitchen could accommodate.  Another thing I was impressed with was the huge cocktail list.  Almost two dozen libations were on the menu, each highlighting a fruit, vegetable or herb. It was more difficult choosing my drink that it was my meal.  Throughout the night I had three;  grapefruit (absinthe, peychaud’s, bourbon), thyme (thyme, cayenne, dry vermouth, blanco tequila) and celery (sage, agave nectar, gin).  I can’t say I had a favorite but they were all among some of the better drinks I’ve had this year.  They were frightfully addictive and beautifully represented their respective eponym. My colleague ordered the concord grape (concord grape, elderflower, peat smoke, laphroaig scotch). I had a sip and it was memorable, complex and aggressive version of the equally assertive grape.

Unlike other places (including most Michelin star restaurants), the menu is not written in hieroglyphics, Gaelic or some other language that gives food critics erections.  I will admit, my ego makes me a little reluctant to ask for clarification around a dish or try and pronounce something which would make my transient menu dyslexia apparent.  Instead, Aziza uses terms like olive, short rib, beet and sturgeon to describe their dishes.  Having said this, there is no compromise on the creativity of their fare.  Take the amuse bouche for example.  A trio of dip including hummus, yogurt-dill and piquillo almond were served with flatbread.  The dish managed to hit the mouth with some authentic Moroccan flavours while teasing  the tongue with hints of Greece and Spain.

Amuse Bouche
Amuse Bouche- Hummus, Yogurt Dill and Paquillo Almond

For an appetizer, I ordered a dish which was simply called cucumber. It had all the components of deconstructed deviled egg.  A soft yolked fried duck egg was served with was cucumber two ways; charred and carpaccio style. Spring onions and   vadouvan (similar to masala) mustard completed the dish. I must say this is the first time I’ve had charred cucumber and I was surprisingly impressed.  As a whole,the dish was a punchy interpretation of the picnic favorite and at $14, I thought it might have been the coveted golden egg.

Cucumber $14
Cucumber $14

I was pleased to see that the market fish of the evening was John Dory (not to be mistaken with John Tory who may be the man who will finally oust the large and in charge, arrogant, homophobic  and obnoxious Rob Ford from the Mayor’s office in October).  It’s not the prettiest fish, but it sure is tasty and there are  many suggestions of the origin of its name.  My favorite is a possible reference to the novel “An Antarctic Mystery” by Jules Verne.  “The legendary etymology of this piscatorial designation is Janitore, the ‘door-keeper,’ in allusion to St. Peter, who brought a fish said to be of that species, to Jesus at his command.” (St. Peter is said to be keeper of the gates of Heaven, in Spanish it is known as “gallo” hence “door-keeper”.) So while I was able to feast on a fish rooted in religion, it came with all the sacred symbols of food-a-ism…artichokes, ramps, favas, fiddleheads and raspberries. The tithe was a pricey $29.    The fish was delicate and moist and keep the overwhelming earthiness of the condiments at bay.  The raspberries added some sweet and sour bite and some ruby red colour to the plate.

Market Fish $29
Market Fish $29

One of the reasons I chose Aziza was the reputation of multiple James Beard pastry chef nominee Melissa Chou. I chose the Vanilla Semifreddo with apricot sorbet, matcha and almond ($10). The crust was like buttery toffee crack.  Don’t get me wrong, the rest of the dish was delicious but that crust will stay in my lingual memory for some time to come.

Semifreddo $10
Semifreddo $10

 

I ended the meal with a delicious spot of mint tea.  Let me point out this was not a stagnant tea bag floating around a warm pot of water. It was a hot, steaming pot of real mint tea which went nicely with dark chocolates served at the end of the meal.

A real cup of mint tea
A real cup of mint tea $5

 

After Dinner Chocolates
Mignardise- Dark Chocolate

 

My Take

Moroccan food is a little mysterious. The flavours are a bit African, a bit middle eastern and a bit European. Most of my experience with this type of food has come from a recipe book and my red Le Creuset  tagine, so I was excited to experience it in Michelin star style. Although I can’t verify the authenticity of the use of fiddlehead ferns or ramps in Northwest Africa,  the dishes were diverse and delicious.  The cocktails were creative and nectarous. There was an irony in eating a fish which is also named after one of Jesus’ disciples in a restaurant whose country of inspiration  is 99% Muslim.    As for dessert, it definitely rocked the casbah.  Much like the 1982 song by the Clash with the same name which calmed Middle-Eastern tension  (at least according to the video), I think the crust on the semifreddo alone could extend the ceasefire in the Gaza war.  Ok, maybe that’s a stretch, but I’m just a believer that a good meal can fix anything.

 

 

 

Aziza on Urbanspoon

From Mexico to Lebannon- A Quick Trip Through Detroit

I love Detroit.  Once the leader of the industrial revolution, it has become the poster city for the collection of  cities that now compose the infamous rust belt.  That said, the pride and determination of the residents has been the blueprint in the evolution of a new Detroit; one which is humble, thankful and kinda cool.

Day one of a March Break getaway was a quick stop in Detroit to get a little closer to my ultimate destination of Tennessee.  After crossing the border, I veered off the highway immediately for a quick stop in Mexicantown. If anything, this area of Detroit is a microcosm of the city as a whole.  It’s wonderfully worn down, bleeding character which leads you to empathize instead of pity the situation.  There are no shortage of eateries within the cramped quarters but I opted for La Gloria, an all day bakery specializing in cinnamon conchas, churros and even a tamale if you’r so inclined. After becoming somewhat confused by the narrow streets and haphazard parking job of the locals, I nestled comfortably in lot beside the noticeably pink building and walked in.

The procedure is rather simple.  Grab a plastic tray, line it with some paper, get a set of tongs and walk by the numerous offerings enclosed within plastic bins.  Most things (from turnovers to heart shaped cookies which say “Te Amo”) range from $0.50-$2.00. When you’re done, your order is rung up and placed in a bag or box depending on quantity.

The conchas are sweet breads similar to donuts that would be considered their “signature” item.  I scooped up a cinnamon one as well as a few churros, a tart and a few other baked treats.  The grand total was about $7.  Collectively. they were quite delicious and well worth the price.  I rolled in around four and was left to imagine how divine everything would taste at 5 am when the place opens.

Assorted Baked Goods ($7) minus one churro (likely the result of a suspicious 14 year old).
Assorted Baked Goods ($7) minus one churro (likely the result of a suspicious 14 year old).

La Gloria Bakery on Urbanspoon

After navigating the narrow streets of Mexicantown and taking a wrong turn or two, it was off to the airport area to crash before the long trip to Nashville.  Romulus is not a mecca for food (it seems confined to a few fast food joints and one strip plaza which has a grille, Chinese place, a Subway and Beirut, a small Lebanese place.  My daughter had a craving for the latter, so I ordered a couple of chicken shawarmas and a appetizer plate which consisted of hummus, baba ghannouj (which is Arabic for pampered papa), a few falafels, grape leaves and fattouch. The total was just shy of $30 (there were also three drinks).  This is the point in which I put in the disclaimer that some of the best Lebanese food I have had is in the Detroit/Windsor area. Toronto lags significantly behind (just read my Dr. Laffa review).  The starter plate was delicious.  The hummus was smooth and full of flavour, the baba ghannouj was smoky and grape leaves were some of the best I’ve had.  They were almost crispy but melted in your mouth afterwards, a far cry from some of the soggy offerings I’ve had at other places. The falafels were average in flavour a little too dry. The soup was piping hot, had a great texture and was seasoned nicely.  The shawarmas were more than acceptable but were a little flimsy in construction (although it’s hard to complain that much for 5 bucks). I like shawarmas that are stuffed with pickles and lettuce and drip toum, tahini or hummus incessantly, making for a ridiculous eating experience.  These were almost too easy to eat given the sparse use of condiments although the chicken was seasoned well.

Appetizer platter $10.99, Lentil Soup $2.99, Shawarmas $4.49
Appetizer platter $10.99, Lentil Soup $2.99, Shawarmas $4.49

Beirut on Urbanspoon

Detroit dining is a mosaic of cultures highlighted by really cool Mexican and Lebanese food. Both La Gloria and Beirut represent their respective cultures in an inexpensive but delicious way. Chances are I’m unlikely to chow down on authentic middle eastern fare as I dive into the depths of Tennessee in the coming days.

Review:Toronto:You Gotta Eat Here:Dr. Laffa

The recent surge in food with a middle eastern flare is evident. Shawarma stands and restaurants have popped up all over Ontario.  I don’t doubt that at some point a Shawma Wars show will appear on  CMT beside the battles between burgers, pizza and tacos. Until then. the battle for the best shawrma has to be left to the likes of  numerous Toronto blogs and celebrities like John Catucci.

So, when I was peckish for a pita, Dr. Laffa seemed a logical choice.  Although located in an industrial area around Dufferin and Lawrence (actually there is a second location on Bathurst located across from Harold the Jewelry Buyer of commercial fame), it is a bustling joint even on a Sunday. Dr. Laffa has been featured on You Gotta Eat Here and has been crowned with the title of Toronto’s best shawrma by BlogTo a few years back.

Upon entry, I was surrounded by smiling waitstaff and seated in the back corner.  I got there just prior to the lunch rush and narrowly avoided the arrival of a large birthday party which filled half of the seats in the modestly sized interior. The menu gives a loose description of the restaurant’s concept which essentially equates laffa bread with manna from heaven itself.  Baked fresh to order, It’s sort of a cross between pita and naan bread.  It is available with hummus orders as well as an option for any of the sandwiches.

Laffa Bread
Laffa Bread

We were immediately treated with a spread of condiments which included pickles, cabbage, corn salad and carrots.  My favourite was the cabbage although they were all pretty tasty.

Dr. Laffa "Starters"
Dr. Laffa “Starters”

Ordering turned out to be quite the ordeal.  The word “shawarma” on a menu can imply a number of different things.  Both myself and my daughter are fans but we both have an aversion for lamb.  I inquired into the content of the shawarma and after great deliberation by numerous members of the waitstaff, I was told it contained both lamb and chicken and it appeared there was no way to change this fact.  Both of us called an audible and ordered the falafel and chicken shish kabob sandwiches respectively.  I decided to break the bank and go for the laffa whereas my daughter played it safe with the pita.

I started with the hummus masabaha (chickpeas and tahini).  It was a rather large portion served with one piece of laffa.  Creamier than most, it had a mild, pleasant flavour.  If you like an earthy, garlicky dip you may be a bit disappointed.   Be prepared to be left with a whole lot of hummus as well since the amount of bread is not nearly enough.

Hummus
Hummus Masabaha $7.99

I decided to take a stroll to the counter to check out the open kitchen.  It was at this point I realized that a chicken shawarma was possible (I had initially assumed that the lamb and chicken was stacked on the same stick).  I explained to the guy that we were told otherwise and asked if we can  switch.  He looked at me rather perplexed but reluctantly agreed….or so I thought.  Back at the table, I updated the waitress.  Sure enough, out come the kabab laffa with the explanation “well, it wasn’t in the computer and he didn’t know which one to switch”.  There was no offer to remedy.  Furthermore, she didn’t order the laffa to begin with! She was stuck with a laffa instead of a pita (for an extra $3 a pop for chicken laffa I’ll add). I would have almost forgiven the whole ordeal if the sandwich would have been mind blowing. The plaque on the wall boasting Dr. Laffa’s commitment to the importance of pickled turnips, hummus and hot sauce as a key component of a shawarma was  misleading because what was sitting in front of us was a sloppy mess of hummus-laden lettuce and huge chunks of onion overpowering the chicken and falafel.  Although the chicken wasn’t dry and the falafel was moist and nicely seasoned, the sourness of the pickle and heat of the sauce were near absent.

Falafel on Laffa $5.99
Falafel on Laffa $5.99

My son ordered fries for $4.99. They were fresh cut and ample ketchup was available so he was happy.

Fries $4.99
Fries $4.99

At this point the birthday party had pretty much arrived and we were left stranded for a while.  Eventually, we were asked if we wanted to take the sandwiches home and the waitress carefully wrapped them table side which was a nice touch. After another lengthy wait we were given the bill and navigated our way out.

My Take

Despite the dismal dining conditions that exist in London Ontario, there are many great middle eastern choices. I can grab a decent shawarma on almost every corner. If Dr. Laffa is the best shawarma in Toronto, then London wins hands down.   I don’t expect Michelin star service in places like this but I get rather annoyed when simple things go wrong.  The ability to provide a simple chicken shawarma on a pita to a 13 year old does not seem like an impossible feat but proved to be so on this day.  It lacked the fundamental elements of a good sandwich that I though would be automatic in a place raved about on You Gotta Eat Here and Blogto.  My falafel was decent but not heads and tails above others I have had. Some patrons have commented that the laffa should not be a dollar and a half  to three dollars more than the pita but I suspect it is bigger  in general given the amount of filling necessary to stuff the plate-sized bread (this is a theory  I never got to test out since I never got a pita to compare it to). Otherwise, the hummus was good and the starting “treats” were a nice touch.    Despite everything, the place was packed, so there appears to be no shortage of fans.   In the end, I went to the doctor but I didn’t leave laffing.

Dr. Laffa Restaurant on Urbanspoon