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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Going Retro outside the Metro

The hunt for a great burger sometimes goes outside of the city limits.  I was in Ajax recently and saw Retro Burger tucked in a strip mall on Bayley St. I went for two reasons.  First, I left like a burger.  Second, I wanted to determine what exactly made a burger “retro”.

There was a time when the word retro was used to describe things that occurred well before my time.  As I get longer in the tooth (that saying in  itself ages me), I realize that I am, in fact, retro.  Although I can’t relate to the objects in the Grey Power commercials, I could relate to the Pac-Man icon on the wall and the fact that the smiling and enthusiastic staff were likely half my age.

Growing up, I remember two types of burgers.  The first were the dry, underseasoned and  overcooked  ones I ate at home, likely the result of an exaggerated fear over some type of food-borne illness. The second were the  oversalted fast food variety which included McDonald’s, Deluxe (a Sudbury staple) and  A&W which,at the time, was served on a tray which hung off your car window while you sat in the drive-in.

Retro burger was neither.  I would call it cross  between Five Guys and Harvey’s.  The burger was Five Guys except char broiled : moist and a nice thickness relative to the bun.  What can I say?  Bun:meat ratio is important to me.  The toppings were Harvey’s style; choose your own from the offerings behind the glass.  In addition to the standard condiments, they offer a number of sauces to spice things up.  I went traditional, opting for cheese, mustard, onion, pickles and hot peppers.  A sesame seed bun is always a good call. The fries were skin on and a nice thickness.  The combo (including a drink),  was around $10, taxes in.

Retroburger and Fries
Retroburger and Fries

 

Cross Section of a Retroburger
Cross Section of a Retroburger

There are a number of other items on the menu including philly cheesesteaks, hand- dipped fish and chips and souvlaki. The guy in front in front me order the cheese steak and it looked rather delicious.

My Take

After going to retro burger, I’m still a little perplexed at what makes this place retro.  I couldn’t eat the burger off a tray hinged to my car window. It didn’t remind me of the pitiful, overcooked burgers I ate as a kid.  Maybe it’s the fact that they pleasantly serve  a decent burger at a decent price (including an after 2 pm  special) without  complicating things by offering kobe beef/buffalo patties topped with avocado, pineapple or a fried egg. Although the experience didn’t flood my brain with the nostalgia of 1982 ,  at least I wasn’t put through the torture of Tommy Tutone dialing phone numbers or  forced to ensure one-hit wonder Buckner and Garcia’s “Pac-Man Fever”.

 

Retro Burger on Urbanspoon

Having a Lovin’ Spoonful at Chez Piggy

Music and food have a lot in common.  Both stimulate the senses and both tend to be driven by trends. Kingston’s Chez Piggy is an example of both.  At first, one might think it was a hot spot in the upcoming “Muppets Most Wanted” movie.  The locals, however, know that the claim to fame is the fact that this restaurant was opened in 1979 by Zal Yanovsky who was one of the members of the Hall of Fame Inductee band “The Lovin’ Spoonful”.

The Lovin’ Spoonful are one of those bands that had a number of top ten hits you know but have no idea who sings them.  Even in their heyday, they were overshadowed by other hippie bands  in the mid-sixties.  That said, here are a couple of facts about the Lovin’ Spoonful.  First, in 1966 their biggest hit “Summer in the City”, was Billboard’s number 11 song of 1966, finishing higher than Paperback Writer, the Beatles’ top entry that year. Another fact is that two of the songs that kept the Spoonful out of the top 10 were by Monday, Monday and California Dreamin’. The irony was that these songs  were performed by the Mamas and the Papas, who that had two members who jammed with Yanovsky in the Mugwumps before forming their Hall of Fame band.

The Lovin’ Spoonful are one of those bands who had a bunch of songs people know but can’t identify the band who sung them. For example, I remember numerous commercials asking the question “Did you ever have to finally decide?” while some dude had to decide which super model to choose. On the theme of questions, they also asked the question “Do you believe in magic?”.. a song that has survived the test of time.  I still remember Chris Klein singing it to Mena Suvari  during American Pie almost 35 years later (yes..there were more parts to that movie other than Stifler’s mom and objectophilia).

The question is whether Chez Piggy had evolved with the times or if it is a disguised homage to Zal who unfortunately passed in 2002. At first sight, it’s a secluded stable. When you enter, the landing on the stairway upwards has a tribute to Zal in the form of a picture along with some T-shirts boasting the Chez Piggy experience.  The setup is  more traditional than modern as you are rewound into 80’s decor that is much more intentional than the many retro diners which grace the landscapes.  The waitstaff are not pretentious students but instead a mix of people who have probably  listened to “Daydream” a few times in their lives.

Chez Piggy features a traditional cocktail menu with retro prices.  I opted for the ceasar for $6.35. I was pleasantly surprised as it was absolutely delicious and rivaled many others I’ve had that are priced in the double digits.

Delicious Caesar $6.35
Delicious Caesar $6.35

The menu is like a greatest hits album.  It contains all the classics with a few feeble attempts at new creative expression.  I hounded the waitress about the number one hits and she said the gambas al ajillo.  Not to be mistaken for a Carlos Santana song, it is a fancy of saying garlic shrimp.  This is the dish that has stood the test of time. It’s a pot luck favorite, bringing haute cuisine to picnic tables everywhere. It was deliciously incomplex.  Seven wonderfully cooked shrimp swam circles in a slurry of oil and garlic within the confines of a cast iron skillet.

Gambas al ajillo $14
Gambas al ajillo $14

I was intrigued by the coast to coast canuck plate.  Patriotism on a plate is always a risky en devour.   Consisting of maple cured salmon, duck prosciutto, cured venison, bison and blueberry sausage, highland blue cheese, lankaaster cheese, caramelized onion & cheddar tart, smoked cod spread with scrunchions, pickled beets, red cabbage & horseradish salad, it did fairly represent our great land.  It was plainly served on a white plate which took away from some of the aesthetic value but served as a reminder that a 35 year old restaurant need not succumb to silly trends like serving cured meat on cutting boards or finished cross-sections of tree trunks (although they do charge a very modern $23).  Otherwise, it was a tasty array and captured many of the elements of Canada on a plate.  It was sort of like eating a Tragically Hip song.

Coast to Coast Canuck Plate $23
Coast to Coast Canuck Plate $23

For the main, I got talked into the special, which was a short rib with  potatoes gratin  and roasted beets.  The plate had a forgivable messiness. The short rib was a bit disappointing in that it was too tough,  lacking the “fall of the bone” nature of a perfectly cooked rib. The potatoes were retro-good, another reminder of the days of old where my mom would orchestrate  her scalloped potatoes (served exclusively with ham), microwaves were not an option and hit songs tended to be only two or three minutes long. It pushed the limits of acceptable price with the $30 price tag.

Short Ribs with Potatoes Gratin and Beets $30
Short Ribs with Potatoes Gratin and Beets $30

My Take

I’m not surprised that Chez Piggy is a culinary icon in Kingston.  It appeals to those who enjoy a quiet and traditional dining environment.  I’m always amazed when I sit in a joint where foodies and seniors can co-exist.  I’m also impressed at the fact that, despite the late co-owner’s hall of fame induction, Chez Piggy doesn’t exploit the band. It’s not called the Lovin’ Spoonful (which is actually a cool name for a restaurant).  There are no cocktails called “She is still a mystery” or “Six O’Clock”.  Other than a modest picture by the T-shirt rack, there is no concert paraphernalia plastered all over the walls.  You leave with the impression that Zal wanted it this way.

The food is decent but a bit pricy.  The attempts at modernization are more along the lines of menu items additions like Vietnamese spring rolls and less about following current trends of modern cooking techniques.  It’s a bit of a refuge from the influx of bourbon houses, enotecas and restaurants named after their address.  My guess it’s the leading choice for a Queen’s student who needs to find a place to mooch a pricy dinner off their parents. As a result, it is a little sleepy.

In the end, Chez Piggy is like a concert from a band that hit their peak 30 years ago.  The crowd is diverse, the highlights are the old songs although there are a few ones thrown in and there is always a core group of fans who, despite the fact that the singer can’t hit the same octave as they could in the past, thinks the band can do no wrong.

Although it’s not a place I would flock to in Kingston, it’s not a place where I would say that I’m “Never Going Back”.

Chez Piggy Restaurant & Bar on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Parkdale:Oddseoul

The retro tribute that adorns Parkdale continues with the introduction of Oddseoul, the newish street food joint serving Asian inspired snacks.  Only identified by a red, white and blue barber’s pole, I entered a long, narrow room only lit by a glowing red “prescription” sign and two white signs that looked like they were stolen from an 80s drive-in theatre which display the modest sized food and drink menu. I was seated against the wall and had a  clear view of the kitchen where 3 or 4 cooks were busily buzzing around. It was steady for late on a Monday night, but the service was  like trying to get a haircut the week before school.

In addition to the signs which likely once announced the arrival of “ET” back in 1982, a  printed menu was handed to me on a crinkled sheet that  looked like  a few dozen people had spilled something on it earlier in the night….or week.

Elusive Odd Seoul Menu
Elusive Odd Seoul Menu

Must

The squash poutine ($7) was such a refreshing change from for others which grace most menus.  The cubed squash was the perfect base in both size and texture to complement  the salty, sour and tangy toppings. The subtle sweetness offered a foundation that  rounded off the dish.  The curry gravy added spicy dimensions that just worked.  Lastly, it was served mouth-burning hot, a refreshing change from most poutine which arrive at the table in a semi-congealed state before you take the first bite.

Squash Poutine ($7)
Squash Poutine ($7)

Maybe

Bourbon drinks are the fad right now and I equate a good one to the experience of jumping in a cold pool.  It should hurt a bit at first (I find a first sip of bourbon like a slap in the face) but once you get used to it, you don’t wanna get out. The Bulleit Smash fell a bit short on both fronts and was more like jumping in a luke warm pool. It lacked shock value.  In other words,  I didn’t bond with the drink in a love/hate relationship…it was more like an amicable friendship.

Bulleit Smash ($11)
Bulleit Smash ($11)

The “loosey” ($5) was a saucy, small burger in sandwich form topped with kimchi.  It was a tasty and  messy few bites.  I was hoping for more of a punch with the kimchi but it tasted more like a a Wendy’s quarter pounder in the sense that it had some predominant ketchup and mayo type flavours so I was left buzzing with a fast foodish high.

The "Loosey" $5
The “Loosey” $5

Mundane

I’m becoming increasingly suspicious of pork buns.  It’s a dish where the bun is as important as the filling.  The Oddseoul’s offering was  anemic and sticky. Inside was a whole lot of filling. It was almost impossible to eat.  The  barbeque sauce was perfectly spiced but overwhelmingly tangy which  took over the rest of the dish. Throw that sauce on a chicken wing and now we’re talking.

Steamed  Bun ($5)
Steamed Bun ($5)

My Take

What’s with Steigl? It’s popping up quicker than a Han brothers restaurant itself.  I missed the memo announcing it was the new foodie beer of 2013 much to the dismay of past foodie bandwagon favorites including  Heineken, Stella, Dos Equis  and of course, Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Oddseoul is another invention by the Han brothers.  It’s prescription is for aggressively flavoured asian inspired street food and modern cocktails in a vibrant  setting.  The ambiance features  loud hip-hop music and equally old school decor in the form of bear heads and drive-in movie signs.  Although the food was tasty, most of the dishes had  a monotonous yet “polar” and unbalanced flavour profile (that’s my witty reference to the barber’s pole).  On that note,  I’m not sure whether I’ll be coming back for a trim every eight weeks or so.

Oddseoul on Urbanspoon