Foodiesaurus’ Uptown Crawl

Yesterday was a day like Foodisaurus hadn’t enjoyed in a long time. Yes, it was hot on this June day in Uptown New Orleans. Yes, it was humid. And yes, the resurfacing of Magazine Street made us long for a nice gravel drive. But the food and locales I discovered on my brief, two meal tour made all of that well worth it.

First, my dining companion and I visited Mid-City and the former J.P. McMahon Funeral Home on Canal Street, now known as Mystère Mansion. Only in New Orleans would people line up out of the door to get married at a slightly post-bellum home, next to a cemetery, across from a mausoleum, which had been most recently used as a mortuary and funeral home.

Rumored to be haunted, the building was stripped to the studs by a corporation which bought the building in 2004 in order to convert it to a day spa. Rebuilding was stopped after the company’s CEO died and the board abandoned the project. Then Katrina struck and the home sat vacant until 2007, when it was purchased and returned to its former glory as a premier events venue and kick-ass haunted house destination during the month of October.

In addition to two bars, a commercial kitchen for use of caterers, a “cake” room, reception room with dance floor and amps for a band or DJ, private theater/meeting room, and VIP guest room, the house also features a séance room (complete with “supernatural” special effects, if desired by client), and an underground “mortuary” which extends under Canal Street and is tricked out with all kinds of theme park quality scary stuff just for Halloween.

Hey, consider it a bonus if your wedding theme is “creepy.” But for other events, you’d never know the house was anything other than a beautifully-restored, traditional New Orleans manor. Fabulous!

Next stop, for lunch was a New Orleans classic—Five Happiness. It’s always nicer to visit a place with friends who have friends at the establishment, so maybe our service was a little more prompt than would ordinarily have been the case, I can’t say. But the food was prepared fresh to order and it showed in the flavor. I had the Twice Cooked Pork.

Mine was served with my choice of a wonderful example of hot and sour soup and shrimp fried brown rice, along with a large, crispy fried wonton (folded but with no discernable meat in the fold). We didn’t order appetizers or desserts, but there was so much on the plate, I was only able to finish the pork from the spicy-sweet (but not overly so) sauce, some of the included green bell peppers and onions, the small but plump shrimp from the rice, and the wonton.

Given that I avoid Chinese food like it’s a religious obligation, I was pleasantly surprised there is still an affordable place left in New Orleans that doesn’t think steamer trays, rapidly-aging “sushi,” and self-serve soft-serve ice cream is necessary for a classic Chinese experience.

After a brief shopping sojourn, we found it was seven o’clock and time for dinner. We decided a salad was in order. Regular readers of this blog may recall my abiding affection for salads at Coffee Rani in Covington, Louisiana. My friend suggested the Uptown location of same (she thought….) on Magazine Street.

As it turns out, though apparently related given the same essential menu, Café Rani clearly was not the same. First of all, there is no espresso machine. “Café” has no coffee. Hmmm. But it has a bar. Okay.

Unfortunately, there was also a weird “wet dog” smell my friend thought was like sewerage. And only two or three tables were occupied at what should have been the front end of the dinner “rush.” Not good. Now, I’ve watched enough Restaurant Impossible to know that sometimes bad smells may mean untold horrors.

Taking no chances, we abandoned ship and embarked on a search for the next place that led us quite serendipitously to possibly the best food I’ve ever eaten. In my life. Ever.

The Delachaise at 3442 St. Charles Avenue is housed in an odd, converted-rail-dining-car-looking building that, who knows, may very well have been one. We stopped because I seem to recall having eaten well in that location sometime in about 1995 or so and because there were diners on the patio facing St. Charles, braving the early evening mosquitoes to eat there. Good sign.

Inside, was a funky bar with a few tables and booths at which were seated casually-attired college students and professions and not a few couples who looked like they might get lucky. The walls were lined with chalk boards bearing handwritten notices of the day’s specials, which were, well, special. Among them the pate du jour. The boards also instructed us to order at the bar.

Along the way, we also found written menu. After some consultation with the Internet to translate the names of some ingredients, chose the Grilled Eggplant “Cannolis,” my second example of twice-cooked pork that day—the Cuban Twice-Cooked Pork—and a lovely Chianti by the glass.

I approached the bar and noticed a row of handwritten chalk boards adorned it as well, listing reasonably priced and very high quality liquor and mixed drinks. Our bartender allowed us to split the check but either payment upfront or a tab was required.

The wine came with a sidecar (bonus!) and the food was a work of art. Nonetheless, we dug right in.

The Eggplant Cannolis was group of three roulade about three inches long filled with ricotta, chevre, and herbs served on a bed of Muhammara with three olive oil drenched and perfectly crisped crostini. Muhammara, it turns out, is a spicy pepper dip originating from Syria. Although the base is apparently ground walnuts, it was reminiscent of smoked hummus, and along with the goat cheese, it elevated this dish to quite another level of awesomeness.

Given the quality and beauty of the first course, we tucked right into the pork entrée and were quickly rewarded.

The cubes of stewed pork were finished in the goose-fat fryer and the result was tender, crispy, slightly redolent of orange mojo, and unbelievably fabulous.

Accompanying the pork were steak fry-like strips of yucca, rendered crispy on the outside and flaky, tender, slightly fiberous and a little sweet by its trip through the goose-fat fryer. The food rested on a bed of top-notch aoili and occupied a good-sized platter. My dining companion and I shared the appetizer and the main but left satisfied.

Unpretentious, affordable, and with totally mind-blowing food—The Delachaise on St. Charles should be a regular stop on any trip through the Big Easy.

Rawr!

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Five Happiness on Carrollton—

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Café Rani on Magazine—

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Food: Unknown

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The Delachaise on St. Charles—

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Fun Friday Recommended Reads

Happy Friday! Here’s a round-up of interesting stuff for you to read while suffering through extremes in temperature or moisture-levels:

Could eating poo-burgers save the Earth?,” Jess Zimmerman, June 17, 2011, Grist.org.

Farm pork not going anywhere,” Tom Laskawy, June 15, 2011, Grist.org.

How pasta became the world’s favourite food ,” Caroline McClatchy, June 15, 2011, BBC.co.uk.

The Scariest Chart About Seafood You’ll See This Year,” Daniel Fromson, June 14, 2011, TheAtlantic.com.

Buy a half-gallon of sugar water at KFC, give a dollar to diabetes research,” Jess Zimmerman, June 14, 2011, Grist.org.

Cheap food: Not what’s for dinner anymore?,” Tom Philpott, June 10, 2011, Grist.org.

Organic Farmers v. Monsanto,” June 10, 2011, SlowFoodUSA.org.

Drought gardening: How will horticulturists cope?,” June 8, 2011, BBC.co.uk.

E. coli: Germany says worst of illness is over,” June 8, 2011, BBC.co.uk.

http://www.grist.org/food/2011-06-07-contaminated-compost-toxins-might-lurk-in-that-bag-youre-buying,” Tom Laskawy, June 7, 2011, Grist.org.

Chef Secrets: Extra Pickle Juice, Please,” James Mulcahy, Zagat.com.

Coffee Rani on Lee Lane is my go-to coffee, salad, breakfast, brunch place on the North Shore

Wherever I am, I tend to work sans office. No office generally means I work from either my home office, my hotel, or a coffee shop. Luckily, when I travel to Covington, Louisiana, there are several coffee options that don’t involve a certain company from Seattle (not that there’s anything wrong with them). My favorite is Coffee Rani located on charming Lee Lane.

I have eaten here at least three times since arriving a week or so ago and each time have been gratified by the quality of the food and the large, pleasant sunny environment that doesn’t leave you reeking of java. And the coffee’s pretty good too—although, the staff usually doesn’t know how to make an Americano. But no worries! Just order a cappuccino, instead, which they do very well.

The first time I ate lunch, I tried the Magazine featuring chopped egg, bacon, almonds, cabbage, cheddar-provo and topped with a lovely chicken salad, tomatoes, and cucumbers with blue cheese. Awesome and awesomely filling! The egg was fluffy and well-cooked, the bacon not overly-salty or underly-meaty, and all-in-all the salad was very, very filling.

Even so, after several more hours of work, I found room for the red velvet brownie. The very tempting pastries here are not made in-house. But the cashier was kind enough to steer me toward the items delivered that day when I asked her for a recommendation. The brownie is a combination of red velvet cake batter and brownie batter, topped with cream cheese icing, and it is large, moist, and good. Very good.

The next time I was there, I had the Soprano. This also-very-filling salad is described as pesto grilled chicken, tomatoes, marinated artichoke hearts, marinated mushrooms, olive salad, feta, creamy parmesan topped with a cheese tweel. What was served, however, was even better than described with two variations: I detected no pesto on the chicken (boring and hardly ever done properly anyway), but the tweel turned out to be cheese and pesto grilled black-brown.

That tweel is right up there with the most surprisingly good things I’ve eaten. A moment more on the grill, however, and I fear the basil would have burned and the effect ruined. As it was, however, the browned pesto brought just the right amount of crunch and tang to the apparently-tapas-inspired-salad party. In my mind, A+ for creativity/lucky mistake and execution/happy accident.

Today, I arrived early for lunch and found they were still serving breakfast. One bacon, egg, and cheddar-provo croissant and single cappuccino fairly dry, please. On top of the very good coffee with a nice solid foam was served a massive breakfast sandwich. (There’s no skimping on the portions here, for sure.)

There must have been three fluffy scrambled eggs in there as the whole sandwich was at least four or five inches in diameter and the egg layer was folded. The bacon was mercifully not overcooked and neither were the eggs. Although the cheese was shredded and unmelted bits were observable through the croissant hole, the heat of the sandwich rendered the part under the top half nice and gooey. I even enjoyed the red grape and sliced orange garnish.

In the final analysis, although the service at Coffee Rani can be young and inexperienced at times, the kitchen is really very good, the portions are fresh, large, and filling (as they don’t skimp on protein or fat), and the coffee and pastry are pretty nice too. That pistachio cake is calling my name.

Rawr!
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The Hampton Street Vineyard is a little slice of bistro heaven in Downtown Columbia

Back in Columbia, S.C., it seemed someone’s Aunt Patti had a gig one night at a place called Hampton Street Vineyard. I would love it. Okay, so we went.

Turned out Aunt Patti (Ficken) played guitar in an outfit called Total Denial, with Liz Cameron, Jody Creel, and Mike Cameron, which just happened to be a very fine four-piece bluegrass band. The all-acoustic group was set to play on the sidewalk out front near the restaurant’s umbrella tables. But we decided to walk down to the entrance, slightly below street level, to have a drink before moving outside.

It seems we were a bit early, but the house mojito special was a welcome relief from the sweltering heat on the street above. The drink was served from a large jug and was perfect. Most of the patrons at the bar seemed to know each other but were very friendly to strangers nonetheless.

To fortify us against the mojitos that fortified us against the heat, we also opted to get some appetizers. I went with the steamed mussels special. Though most of the mussels were very good, I was disturbed to find a few in broken shells or in shells with holes in them.

A companion also pointed out the one he tried tasted “fishy” (not a good thing) and some appeared browned and rather dry on the surface. I’m not sure but suppose the strange appearance of some and any slightly fishy taste may have been a function of too little steaming liquid. The crostini were perfectly black-brown however, and delicious dipped in the rich broth.

Soon it was time to move outside with the band. Unfortunately, after a few numbers, the wind began to pick up; then the rain came. So we decided to move the whole event under the cantilevered roof over the entrance of the Kreel building next door, which we did. That bought us another hour or so of rain falling around us while we continued listening from patio chairs we dragged over.

Then the wind blew through with a force strong enough to send us into a small corner of the entrance. That was the end of the gig—at least for a while. So we went in to eat instead.

For an entrée, I ordered the Crispy Breast of Duck with warm red bliss potato salad, glazed baby carrotsn and a blackberry brandy glazed, which I asked for on the side. Dessert was a Ginger Pear Cobbler with French vanilla bean ice cream.

The duck was a breast that was seared “crispy” and served perfectly medium-rare, cut into medallions, and strewn along the edge of the plate around the potato salad and carrots. The potato salad was a simple one in, what I call, the “German style.” Accordingly, it was slightly vinegary and redolent of bacon. The carrots were glazed but no offensively so. Just enough to give them some spice and to highlight their flavor. A very successful course!

The Ginger Pear Cobbler did not appear as I would have expected—i.e., in a shallow dish with fruit on the bottom and something like pastry or crisp on top. Instead, it was rather like a pear fritter with chunks of fruit enrobed in an oblong pancake-like breading with a scoop of ice cream on the side. But the scent and the taste were amazing.

The ginger accented the pear perfectly. There also seemed to be complements of cinnamon and allspice. The pear came through the exotic spice notes, nonetheless, and with the vanilla bean ice cream made for a fabulous summer dessert.

All in all, Hampton Street Vineyard was a perfect setting for a laid-back but enriching culinary experience. The wine, friendly patrons, and musicians playing bluegrass on our way out made for a memorable evening in Columbia.

Bon Appetite!
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Real Bacon is the Real Breakfast of Real Champions

Those of you familiar with this blog should be well aware of my serious obsession with pork. ‘Cause if pork were a person, I’d sip a pina colada with it!

So the other day at the Rosewood Market, the local real food market in Columbia, S.C., when I saw a certain nondescript package in the freezer section, I nearly jumped for joy. I held back on the jumping though for fear of frightening the other shoppers, but only just barely.

What the nondescript package contained was the most magical and elusive substance I have ever encountered—real bacon. I don’t mean the crap that passes as bacon in most refrigerator sections of even the finest grocery stores. (I’m looking at you, Whole Foods!) I mean Caw Caw Creek Farm’s pasture-raised, salt and sugar cured, untrimmed, thick-sliced, beautiful, life-changing, forever bacon. And it was good. Very good.

To prepare, I spared no expense. First, I thawed overnight in the refrigerator.

Then, I lovingly placed two (no more, no less) strips on a small jelly roll pan (with 3/4″ sides). The sides on this pan are very important for reserving the 1/2 cup of oil that will render out of the bacon. Yes, folks, that’s a full 1/4 cup of delicious oil per slice you can save to make everything else you cook incredible too. (This bacon just gives and gives. It’s a giver.)

Meanwhile, I heated the oven to 425 degrees. I placed the pan containing the bacon in the oven for about 10 minutes or until the meat is browned, the fat is slightly tinged with color, and the whole situation is just about floating.

After carefully removing the pan (so as not to slosh the hot oil) and allowing it to cool, I removed the bacon slices and experienced a flavor and texture that is the stuff of legend. Meaty, melty, comforting, and filling—this was simply the single best food I have ever experienced. Simply bacon.

I’m not sure I can go back to the undersized, over-trimmed, chemically-manipulated stuff I’ve called bacon before this. From now on, I believe I shall refer to this vastly inferior product as “breakfast meat” or “bacon-like product.” If a waiter is confused, that’s his bad luck. Whatever he brings me will suck anyway.

Bon appetite!

Myrtle Beach and the Deep Blue Sea

About two hours almost due East of Columbia, S.C., is Myrtle Beach, a lovely seaside resort town resting beside the green Atlantic Ocean. I recently had my first opportunity to visit there but could only stay for a couple of days. Nonetheless, my esteemed hostess found the time to introduce me to a few of the seafood delights of Eastern seaboard and, one, not so delightful.

Our first stop was a porch facing a marina along Murrells Inlet belonging to a restaurant called Drunken Jack’s. This place is one of about five restaurants hugging the waterway. They all looked pretty good but my friend wanted me to eat at this one and one other—a combo place called Divine Fish House that included an outdoor raw bar named Wahoo’s.

I don’t know what the inside of the restaurant looks like because from our seat we had an excellent view of Goat Island (so-called because of the herd of goats inhabiting the place), were serenaded by the co-habitating peacocks, and even got a front-row seat of some guy having trouble backing his cabin cruiser into a slip just below. Given that, the décor of another kitchy seaside beach restaurant just didn’t seem to warrant a trip inside. Besides they brought my order right out to me.

The first thing I learned was South Carolina had recently become a “free-pour” state with regard to liquor orders. This is a big deal as, in the past, it seems, all liquor served in bars was required to be delivered in those tiny mini-bar bottles. So if you ordered a mixed drink with six different liquors, you got six different bottles. You can see how that might add up.

Now, South Carolina is normal-er so you can buy your mixed drink 1 1/2 ounces at a time. Or if my experience at Drunken Jack’s is any indication, maybe just a smidgen more than 1 1/2 ounces….  Anyway, because we were planning on moving along at some point, we ordered only appetizers from the limited porch menu. I had the fried softshell crab with butter sauce.

Although the crab had a little more visible fat than I care for, it was unbelievably fabulous. It was the kind of crab I used to fish out of the water myself.  Ah, memories. Oh, and the lemon butter I wanted to drink as a vodka chaser!  But back to our story: the next stop was Wahoo’s.

Now one thing not many people know about Foodiesaurus is that of all the food in all the world, there is just one thing she has met so far that she totally cannot stand to eat (although she respects those who do) and that is raw oysters. So it was the special steamed mussels for me this round.

These mussels weren’t the absolute best I’ve ever had but they were right up there with the best—that is, those at a Belgian place I loved in Houston and those at two different Italian restaurants in Birmingham (one of which is owned by a perennial James Beard nominee). The traditional white wine and garlic treatment was just what I was looking for, and the crostini were crunchy and nicely toasted.

All-in-all, the Murrells Inlet crowd was way ahead of expectations.

Before leaving the shore, however, I decided to sample local seafood once more at a place called < a href=”http://www.sarajs.com/” target=”_blank”>Sara J’s.  At least I think it was local.  In all fairness, this restaurant bills itself as a “family-friendly” place so it makes no claim of grandeur.  Even still, I was disappointed.

The soft-shelled crab with horseradish marmalade sounded far more interesting than it was—notwithstanding the fact they did clean it free of fat unlike Drunken Jack’s. Likewise, the shrimp scampi was bland and tasteless. Even the hushpuppies were overly dense and free of any of the interesting bits of onion and bell pepper that are mandatory in Louisiana.

On one hand, my evaluation may seem unfair given the fact my standard of comparison on the hushpuppies is Louisiana. On the other hand, I didn’t like their soft-shelled crabs in a head-to-head comparison with a restaurant located a stone’s throw away.

I think the execution of Sara J’s restaurant was likely proper, I just think whoever developed these recipes failed to take advantage of the abundant and fabulous natural resources that give this area its reputation for amazing seafood.  Or possibly, everything I ate had been precooked or from frozen.  Either way, it is unfortunate then that “family-friendly” seems to have become a euphemism for tasteless and weak.

Although the restaurant appeared clean and neat and the service was friendly, the food was subpar by design, if not by execution. I consider that a major fail.

Bon Appetite!
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DRUNKEN JACK’S/WAHOO’S—

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SARA J’S—

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Fun Friday Recommended Reads

Happy Friday! Here’s a round-up of interesting stuff for you to read while waiting for your sunburn to finish peeling:

The Deli Renaissance,” Vanessa Barrington, June 3, 2011, CivilEats.com.

Mushroom hunting and banjo pickin’ in the Ozarks ,”Daniel Klein, June 2, 2011, Grist.org.

Down with healthy school lunches, says House GOP ,” Tom Laskawy, June 1, 2011, Grist.org.

GROWing a movement,” Vicky Rateau, June 1, 2011, CivilEats.com.

European food outbreak soars; mystery deepens,” AP, June 1, 2011, Nola.com.

In Search of the Perfect Sear, Vol. 1: The Hot Pan ,” Chris Morocco, June 1, 2011, BonAppetit.com.

Kentucky Raw Milk Enthusiasts Live Out Constitutional Freedoms,” Kimberly Hartke, June 1, 2011, HartkeisOnline.com.

Slow Food Gets Prepared by Slow Families,” Sara Tetreault, May 31, 2011, GoGingham.com.

Chasing Chiles: place-based foods & climate change,” April 8, 2011, SlowFoodUSA.com.

The Gourmet Shop: Go for Brunch and Stay Awhile….

My introduction to Columbia, S.C., was really one of the most enjoyable Fridays I’ve spent in some time. It all started with many, many, many Mimosas at The Gourmet Shop along with the best petit fours I have ever utterly failed to imagine I would eat imported from another classic Columbia establishment many miles away called Tiffany’s Bakery.

I started with the petit four.  And I am glad. 

Predictably, the petit four was a delicate white rectangle enrobed in a light buttercream glaze with a colored dollop on top.  Unpredictably, the texture inside was firm with a slightly crispy surface that yielded easily to reveal the tender buttery interior.

It was as if the best cake you’ve ever eaten married the best doughnut you’ve ever had and this bit of confection was their newborn baby.  No other petit four will ever compare.  Ever.  Shut up.  Ever.

Then came The Gourmet Shop’s first counter to the greatness of Tiffany’s: Mimosas.  Here that means a really a large bottle of champagne and a small bottle of orange juice for around $10. You get the picture.

For food, I went with the Hot Egg and Cheese Croissant with bacon or turkey sausage (the correct answer: bacon) and a side, in my case, of cottage cheese. (Gotta be healthy, right?) A cup of Illy café au lait also seemed called for. And it was.

The resulting sandwich was a golden bundle of oozy woozy goodness. The croissant was soft buttery flakiness just like it was supposed to be. The cheddar cheese was a tangy melted crown draped over the top of the fluffy egg layer. Bacon was perfectly cooked. The cottage cheese was nothing really special but who cares.

My companions enjoyed the Yogurt-Granola Fresh Fruit Bowl topped with seasonal fruit and served with the ubiquitous croissant, the Breakfast Bowl including a choice of an egg, bacon or turkey sausage covered in grits and topped with cheddar, and the Breakfast Panini filled with either egg, bacon or turkey sausage, cheese and roasted red peppers. I don’t know what those tasted like. I was pretty with my stuff.

And so the day wore on. Just to be polite, you understand, we ordered more Mimosas again and again and again.

At some point, it occurred to me it was lunch time. So out came menus for round two. This time around mine was the Spinach Salad topped with bacon, very fresh, very ripe avocado, sunflower seeds, cucumbers, tomatoes, and mushrooms with celery seed vinaigrette. (Gotta be healthy, right?)

Copious other available choices included: Create Your Own Sandwich with Medium Rare Roast Beef, Hot Pastrami, Black Forest Ham, etc., on breads including pumpernickel, rye, baguette, and multi-grain, among others; salad combinations; bakery items including Scones; Cheese and Pate Plates and other charcuterie; and several specialty sandwiches on wraps, panini, soups, and bagels.

After all of the mimosas, brunch and lunch, I don’t recall anyone having dessert but they were available, and I imagine if the rest of the food was any example, the dessert was likely wonderful.

The service was responsive and patient. (My companions assured me single sitting multi-courses were a fairly common occurrence there.) And as I passed from our outdoor table to the restroom, I noticed that on far side of the building were indoor tables were in the event of extreme heat, which Columbia is capable of, or rain, I expect. Otherwise, the outdoor street scene (featuring a violinist a discreet distance away) was definitely worth getting there early for.

There is also an actual “gourmet” shop featuring a wide variety of interesting kitchen gadgets and gourmet food items as well. Shopping while dining. Awesome!

At the end of the meal(s), the most pleasant surprise was the cost. My tab (we split five ways) wasn’t $75; it wasn’t $55. It was $47, including tip. Top that!

Bon Appetite!
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