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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The Delachaise on St. Charles—

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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 hanging out in the Nicholas Pavilion of the PGA Regions Tradition golf tournament at Shoal Creek Country this weekend:

Girl Scouts censor Facebook criticism of palm oil in cookies,” Glenn Hurowitz, May 5, 2011, Grist.org.

Forget About Horses: A Bourbon Picking Guide for Derby Day, and Every Day,” Tony Sachs, May 6, 2011, HuffingtonPost.com.

How Food Explains the World,” Joshua Keating, May/June 2011, ForeignPolicy.com.

Bad seeds: A plan to phase out the $5 billion in ‘direct payment’ agricultural subsidies,” Jake Caldwell, May 4, 2011, Grist.org.

Strawberry grower shows how to make a profit without poisons ,” ONEARTH, April 26, 2011, Grist.org.

Do You Know How Many Genetically Modified Foods You’re Eating? 8 to Pay Attention To ,” Lisa Gosselin, April 25, 2011, EatingWell.com.

Gary Taubes’ sugar article makes an excellent case for diversifying agriculture,” Tom Philpott, April 22, 2011, Grist.org.

Worried about fake food dyes? 4 tips to avoid them,” Brierly Wright, April 1, 2011, EatingWell.com.

Bees feed us: now they need our help,” The Slow Food USA Blog, March 2, 2011, SlowFoodUSA.org.

Stones Throw Bar & Grill–an Oasis in the Middle of Nowhere

Perhaps it’s unfair that Stones Throw Bar & Grill exists in the former Standard Bistro site, within fairly easy driving distance of Highland Avenue a/k/a the Birmingham Foodie District. In any other town where I’ve lived, except possibly New Orleans, this would easily be the best restaurant around.

When compared with restaurants run by perennial James Beard nominees, Frank Stitt and Chris Hastings, or even 2011 semi-finalist, Chris du Pont (a New Orleans import), however, Stones Throw pales–but only just a bit. And for Mt. Laurel, the developer-created-small-town just off Highways 41and 280 in North Shelby County, this place is an oasis in a desert of country-come-to-suburbia pizza and hamburgers.

It is fine dining in a relaxed and decidedly “unstuffy” establishment. And if you chose to dine on their patio, you will enjoy a serenity and quality of air the aforementioned places, in their very urban settings, cannot approach.

The food ain’t bad either. In fact, it’s really very good. My dining companion and I were eating a fairly restricted diet this evening so we ordered virtually the same meal–a green salad featuring local produce and a braised lamb shank on a bed of wilted spinach instead of minted risotto (the latter of which sounded amazing, BTW).

A generous selection of rustic bread preceded the salad. The hearts of baby romaine forming the salad’s foundation were perfectly light, crisp, and unblemished. It was topped by perfect proportions of blue cheese, bacon, walnuts, and cucumber with a light drizzle of blue cheese dressing, although my companion substituted balsamic vinaigrette.

The lamb shanks were also generously proportioned–think: Yabba-Dabba-Do time–without being embarrassing. The meat was tender and without a trace of “wild” flavor, which to me indicates it likely originated in New Zealand where ranchers butcher lambs smaller than their American counterparts. The spinach wilted in EVOO was tasty and perfectly textured, just as you’d expect from a chef of this caliber.

If you’d ever eaten at the Standard Bistro, you’ll find the decor not much changed. It’s a modern interpretation of an elegant dining room furnished the 1920’s, appropriately set in the retro-styled Town of Mt. Laurel. But as I really enjoyed the space before, I rather glad they kept it as it was. The service was really very good–attentive, timely, and accommodating without hovering.

All in all, if you are looking for a change of atmosphere in your fine dining or live in North Shelby, Stones Throw Bar & Grill will easily become one of your favorite haunts, if it isn’t already.

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