New Orleans Day 1: Hanging in The Garden of Eatin’with a Few MoPhos

I have heard mixed things about New Orleans.  Some have told me they love the party atmosphere while others say the city was a mess before Katrina and is even worse after. I landed with “New Orleans is Sinking” playing over and over in my head.  The flight from Detroit was decent and was made more exciting by a half dozen drunkish but well-behaved  guys who were on the way to a bachelor party.

My goals for the day were simple. First, I wanted to get accustomed to the weather which  characterized by constant humidity, warm nights and random thunderstorms.  Second, I wanted to explore the city a little and hit up a few DDDs along the way. Third, I was looking forward to ending by going to the James Beard nominated Mo-Pho for dinner.

Once I hit the hotel, I began my trek toward the lowering garden district which is characterized by small shops and some of the hottest restaurants in NOLA.  Among these eateries lie 4 triple Ds. My first stop was Joey K’s, an American restaurant with a cajun/creole flare and daily specials ranging from oven roasted turkey to ham hocks with lima beans. I was surprised how busy it was given the time of day.   I sat at the bar and was greeted by a friendly waitress who promptly served me a frozen goblet of Abita.  Afterwards, I chatted with the waiter and, given I had just landed, decided to go authentic with the eggplant napoleon appetizer ( I was drawn to the crawfish cream sauce) and rice and beans with smoked sausage. He chuckled a bit and suggested I stick with a side of the rice and beans since the appetizer was “big”. It was a good call.  The eggplant was huge and ridiculously delicious.  It was served piping hot and the sauce was the star.  The rice and beans were bona fide belly friendly and I was quite happy I didn’t opt for the full portion.

In the end, Joey K’s has a fun vibe, good service and great food whether you are looking for comfort food or authentic southern cooking.

Food-4.5 Guyz

Service- 4.5 Guyz

Vibe- 4 Guys

Total- 13/15

My second stop was Mahony’s Po’boy which was located just a little down the road in the Garden district.  It wasn’t nearly as busy as Joey K’s but it was a bit later.  Once again, I was greeted by a friendly waitress who recommended a Abita Strawberry Harvest Lager which was the perfect pairing for the heat and humidity.  The Po’Boy is a New Orleans staple which legend says was named after the fact that striking workers were named poor boys and that restaurateurs Benny and Clovis (great names) Martin coined the term for that reason.  The peacemaker is a particular po’boy which at one time contained shrimp and oysters but has evolved (at least in the case of Mahony’s) as a sandwich with one or the other.  After a chat with the waitress, I opted for the fried oyster version.  I realized I’m not really a fan. I love raw oysters and frying them is a disservice, especially when served between a toasted baguette, especially when the condiments are skimpy and the cheese isn’t melted.

mahonys sandwich
The Peacemaker $14.95

Food- 3.5 Guyz

Service- 4 Guyz

Vibe- 3 Guyz

Total- 10.5 Guyz

My third stop in the Garden district was the Creole creamery,a rather unorthodox DDD in the fact that all they serve is ice cream.  From reading the reviews, I was told to expect bold and unique flavours.  Deep down I was hoping for something really cool like rice and beans but that said, there was still some interesting choices.  Even better was the fact they offered a 4 scoop sampler for $4.50 which allowed for a little diversity.  I decided on cream cheese, hibiscus cranberry, thai basil coconut and magnolia flower. When I have ice cream I hope the custard base balanced enough to give great mouth feel but not so overwhelming that it masks the unique flavour of each offering.  CC passed the test.  Each scoop was distinct and recognizable.  The magnolia flower was the best of the bunch; it was subtle but very present. The environment was very American ice cream parlor but the service was quite laissez-fare.

creole creamery ice cream
Croele Cream Cheese, Hibiscus Cranberry, Thai Basil Coconut and Magnolia Flower Sampler  $4.50

Food- 4/5 Guyz

Service- 3/5 Guyz

Vibe- 3.5/5 Guyz

Total- 10.5/15 Guyz

I was hoping that a 15 km walk through the garden of eatin’ would burn some of the food I ate and get me ready for my nightcap at MoPho. Lead by James Beard and food and wine “best new chef” Michael Gulotta, MoPho is best described as Southeast Asia by way of New Orleans. I was excited to see how exactly the two would be fused.

The location is a bit of a hike out of our New Orleans core and the space itself is very stripmally. That said, the interior is a trendy interpretation of a Thai joint and they have a great and nicely cheesy patio out back which we braved along with the normal early summer humidity of Louisiana.

For the most part, the menu was straight forward Thai and Vietnamese with a little Southeast America in the form of Cedar Key clams and P and J oysters.  Other hints of New Orleans included Creole cream cheese (similar to the aforementioned ice cream) roti and  annatto (a condiment commonly used in Latin food sometimes in the Philippines) beignets. They also offer a nice array of local pints which strengthened the local flare just a bit.  

We ordered an array of dishes including the Som Tan salad, mimita brisket, clams, paella, the pork belly bowl, wings, brussel sprouts and the lamb curry. In general, the flavours were very South Asian and one would need to use their imagination a little to fully appreciate any huge gulf coast influence.  That said, the food had good, aggressive flavours and a nice amount of spice. If you are a fan of a delicate pho, “the standard” was a bit heavy compared to most I have had.  The roti and the beignets were delicious.  The brussel were the comfort foodie food and the wings were a decent representation of this seemingly southeast staple.

In the end, I was hoping for more of a Southeast meets Southeast experience but that said, it was still a tasty experience in Thai/Vietnamese fare.  In general, Day 1 was a good day. Traditional food started the day and some Asian fusion ended it.  It was clear I needed a few more days of stuffing my face before I could reach a verdict on the state of the dining scene in a city that the Tragically Hip have assured me has been sinking for almost 30 years.

MoPho Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Sandwiched Between the Young and Old at BarVolo

BarVolo got me thinking about what I was doing in 1985, the year it was established.  I was a 12 year old elementary school student whose diet consisted of cooked ham on white, apples and a thermos full of fruit drink.  The highlight of my school day was sniffing copies of handouts from the ditto machine like a drug addict.

Here’s a few other food things that happened in 1985

  • James Beard died at the age of 81.
  • New coke was released only to be scrapped later the same year, spawning the old but new Coca-Cola classic.
  • James Dewer, inventor of the twinkie in 1930, died.
  • Raspberry Beret by Prince hit #1 on the charts.

Source:   http://www.foodreference.com/ (a good reference site for food geeks).

BarVolo is a small brewpub located near Yonge and Wellesley.  There are a handful of tables and a bar area that stands 15 comfortably. It has a vibe of a old schoolhouse, the centrepiece a large blackboard boasting over 30 types of beer (and a couple of wines and ciders) ranging from house brew to hearty stouts and porters. Otherwise, you can order well over a hundred bottles including some rare and expensive choices from the cellar.  They don’t take reservations, so you leave your name, slink up the bar and hope for the best.  A look around at the crowd suggested that I was among the 5 or 10 people in the entire bar that was probably alive in 1985.

One of my highlights is the fact that they serve 6 different cask ales including  their own black ESB.  It was a good punch in the mouth although the aftertaste was a little acrid. Next,  in homage to my daughter,  I ordered the house ale swag out (imperial stout with swag). As an uncool parent, I have been instructed that I cannot use the words YOLO or swag in any context at any time. She never said I couldn’t drink it though.  It turned out to be a killer version of a great winter beer.  The 8.5 percent alcohol was subdued by the intense malt and hop flavour.  Great balance.

When you ask for food, you are handed a laminated menu and a pen to check off any of the many menu offerings. It consists mainly of snacks and nibbles including cheeses, pates, terrines and charcuteries. Condiments are also available for a price. You can also grab one of a half dozen sandwiches if you want. I opted for a taste of each of the major categories, which they arranged on a platter. Included were smoked duck sausage ($5), clothbound cheddar ($5.50), venison terrine ($5), a brooklyn’s finest pickle ($3) and peanut bacon fudge ($5).  I also ordered some hot trap mustard on the side ($1.50).  It was a delightful mix of taste and textures.  The duck sausage was melt in your mouth delicious.  The pickle was spicy with a distinct crunch.  The cheddar was firm and salty; a true reflection of an artisan cheese which deviates a bit from the original.  The terrine was decent but didn’t burst with the cherry and nut flavours I was promised.  The sourdough bread (from nearby Woodlot) and mustard were wonderful compliments, nicely adhering  the diversity of tastes on the plate.

I ordered the fudge because it was the only thing that slightly resembled a dessert on the entire menu.  Whether it was the contrast of the sweet against the salty and sour flavours of the rest of the plate or the fact it was just delicious fudge, I thoroughly enjoyed it.  The specks of bacon scattered among the sweet yet savory peanut flavour just worked.

Platter with pickles, mustard, venison terrine, fidge, duck sausage and cloth bound cheddar
Platter with pickles, mustard, venison terrine, fudge, duck sausage and cloth bound cheddar

The fish board was equally delicious.  Smoked salmon, trout and pickled herring were served with a FANTASTIC horseradish sauce and a unique but delicious slaw that I’m still trying to figure out.  The pickled egg and beans added some nice acid to the board.

Fish Platter $18
Fish Platter $18

My Take

BarVolo is a great venue for those who want a little food with their beer (which includes 6 casks and a number of house brews).  That said, the grub is far from substandard although some may be reluctant to pay $3 for a pickle and a buck and a half for a ramekin of mustard (sounds like a lyric from the Tragically Hip’s Little Bones in a time where Gord Downie still had hair and most patrons were still in diapers).  There’s a spectrum of menu items packaged in bite size and sharable morsels which can appease a solo diner or a table of 6.  The biggest issue is whether a table of 6 is even possible.  The place is small and doesn’t take reservations, leaving those waiting to frolic in a holding tank the size of new coke’s popularity. It’s more crammed than cozy. Plus, I get a tad annoyed when establishments boast about how big their lines are on facebook and twitter, especially when they don’t have the greatest means of dealing with them.

Although 1985 produced some nasty and forgettable things, barVolo wasn’t one of them.  Despite the fact that it’s inundated with clientele who weren’t exposed to Reaganomics or the Flames’ only Stanley cup win, there was some solace when a trio of 60 something hipsters walked in, looked at me and likely wondered if I was alive the last time the Leafs won the cup.  Regardless of whether one can relate to Pierre or Justin Trudeau or anybody in between, those who appreciate good beer with salty snacks (I didn’t try the sandwiches) will enjoy barVolo.  After all, the small confines physically don’t allow for a generation gap anyway.   YOLO, right?

Bar Volo on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Little Italy/Portugal Village:Rock Lobster

As far as twitter goes, Rock Lobster is a busy community.  Every night I get numerous tweets and retweets from happy people raving about their recent experience. I must admit I was quite excited for a piece of the action. Walking through the door, I was looking for a place to happen and was greeted by three friendly, plaid wearing barkeeps who quickly sat me at the bar. Looking around, I felt like I was an extra in a Tragically Hip video.  Nostalgic Canadian paraphernalia  filled the walls and the menu followed suit, offering a near coast to coast menu.  It only made sense to salute the flag and partake in the cross country adventure.

Must

Nothing signifies the start a Canadian road trip like a classic caesar.  It followed all the rules including celery and steak spice with the luxury of half a lobster tail  for 12 bucks.  It wasn’t bland nor watery and didn’t require a fire in the hole warning either.  It was yummy and spicy and good.   The tail didn’t hurt either.

Classic Caesar with Lobster Tail
Classic Caesar with Lobster Tail

Ironically, the best item on the menu wasn’t lobster. A trip over the hundredth meridian offered a grilled flank steak  served with homemade hickory sticks, a soft yolked duck egg and a side of homemade tangy dipping sauce  for $14.  The steak was grilled to absolute perfection. The egg was served with a shiny, runny yellow which would trickle down onto the crispy and smoky version of delicious of the Canadian classic snack. Despite the richness of each of the ingredients it was far from a greasy jungle; I would describe it more as hearty small plate presented with skill and determination….and grace, too.

Flank Steak with Hickory Sticks and Duck Egg
Flank Steak with Hickory Sticks and Duck Egg

I stayed out west for my second drink of the night. I ordered an “Iginla Fizz”, a  $10 modern spin on a rye and ginger.  It was simple but delicious. Maybe it was the drink itself or the fact that  I’ve always felt so hard done by as a Calgary  fan and drinking a cocktail named after the Flames captain in Leafs nation was final  and just retribution for the Gary Leeman/Doug Gilmour trade.

The "Iginla Fizz"
The “Iginla Fizz”

One of the showcases of Rock Lobster is a cooler displaying the restaurant’s namesake as well as other things born in the water.  The fresh PEI malpeque oysters drew my attention, especially at a price of two and a quarter each.  One of the bartenders pulled three out, shucked them and served with all the fixings including fresh horseradish she ground with a box grater right at the bar. It was a great offering  other than the mignonette sauce, which I found a little off. She didn’t know for sure what she regularly shucks in a shift  but figured she may do a 20o plus on a good night.

Rock Lobster Oysters
Rock Lobster Oysters

I was told the  lobster roll is the mainstay of the restaurant concept  itself. It had all the fireworks of the classic east coast sandwich.  Chunks of lobster were coated in a rich but not overbearing mayo and served on a fresh and lightly toasted roll. Normally served with fries and a McClure’s pickle, I asked if  they could sub the fries and they gladly doubled the pickle.  This may not sound that exciting, but these pickles have been considered some of the best in the business for a long time running.

Lobster Roll
Lobster Roll

Maybe

Rock Lobster’s Quebec contribution was a lobster poutine.  The fresh fries hit the mark, the cheese curds were authentic but the bisque gravy fell a bit short.  Although full of flavour, the bisque was a little scarce and  served luke warm which prevented the heart of the melt, a bit of a cardinal sin in the poutine world. I know it didn’t blow my mind but I couldn’t figure out if it left me yawning or snarling.

Lobster Poutine
Lobster Poutine

I have a confession.  One of the twitter feeds bragged about diners enjoying whale tails which left me wondering if this was a taboo spin on the Parkdale offal movement.  Much to my relief, the “whale tail” was instead a spin on the classic Canadian beaver tail pastry. It was a crispy and nicely presented, coated in cinnamon sugar and served on a chuck of tree with a shaker of maple sugar.  It came with a few irrelevant trickles of creme anglaise.  It was good enough but wasn’t too hard puttin’ down.

Whale Tail
Whale Tail

My Take

Rock Lobster has rapidly become a  lionized addition to the Ossington strip. The service was friendly, attentive and didn’t take forever.  I can’t explain the exact feeling, but it has a modern spirit that so many foodies crave  as much as the grub itself.  The ironic coupling of  extensive twitter hype with a certain degree of secrecy, the dark canuck ambiance and most importantly the solid execution of a cross-section of Canadian classics from hickory sticks to lobster tails define this eatery as a  pelagic pinnacle as opposed to a nautical disaster.

 

Rock Lobster on Urbanspoon