it's okay to play with your food

Saturday, May 31, 2008


I don't think it's possible to rhapsodize about New Orleans without mentioning the effects of Katrina. The Ninth Ward is still recovering; we passed by tent cities on our way to Jazz Fest; FEMA trailers are still called home by many.

But I also don't think you can bring up Katrina without pointing to the resilience of New Orleans. The city finds solace and strength in its traditions. It's doing what it does best: celebrating the present by connecting to the past, whether its with the food they eat or the music they dance to. And New Orleanians love to share.

I really can't wait to go back.

And if you are planning on heading to New Orleans, here are some things you should check out. And you should go. Tourism is the foundation of New Orleans' economy. It certainly isn't dead post-Katrina, but it is not as strong as it once was. Go to New Orleans. And definitely eat in New Orleans.

Eat Me

Play With Me (Andy Vaught's theater company)

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Chapter 5: Odds & Ends

A trip to New Orleans is not complete without a trip to Cafe du Monde, the 24 hour cafe specializing in beignets and cafe au lait. It's an institution, a place praised by locals and tourists alike. So naturally Daniel and I went there. Twice.

Beignet is French for bump. It's a square piece of fried dough doused in powdered sugar, hence it's nickname, the French doughnut. They come out of the kitchen in a set of three and still hot, very hot. Unlike a doughnut, beignets are surprisingly light... airy on the inside and crispy crunchy golden on the outside.

And the coffee was delish. Cafe du Monde is also known for its chicory coffee. The addition of chicory to coffee was used by the French during the civil war to bolster their meek coffee resources. I drank it black on our first trip and then had a cafe au lait the next day.

I love pizza; it doesn't matter what style... thin crust, deep dish, fancypants gourmet style, greasy NY style. It just needs a red sauce. And I wasn't expecting to find amazingly good pizza in New Orleans. The restaurant is La Vita, by the Jazz Fest fairgrounds. We got the La Vita pizza: tomato, salami, pepperoni, green peppers, black olives, mushrooms, light mozzarella cheese and tomato sauce. The veggies were super fresh, the olives were whole kalamatas, the sauce wasn't too sweet, and there was lots of gooey cheese.

In New Orleans, you can come across a cooler full of crawfish, potatoes, and lemon halves just by walking down the street.

One thing we didn't get to try over our three day trip was a muffuletta. But we did peek inside the Central Grocery, known as the home of this New Orleans variation on the Italian hoagie. The smell of the place was a delicious meal in and of itself.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Chapter 4: New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival

Music festivals are rarely known for the quality of their food... not the case with the New Orleans Jazz Fest. In a city that takes it's food as seriously as its music, it shouldn't have come as such a surprise.

Much like the festival roster, the food showcases the diversity of New Orleans. We saw dixieland, zydeco, hip-hop, country/rock, jazz vocals... we ate shrimp mache choux, alligator pie, cochon de lait po-boys, crawfish beignets, snowballs...

Stalls staffed by local caterers and restaurants offered up classic Louisiana cuisine. The mache choux was delicious, a corn and shrimp chowder, with a nice kick. The alligator pie was awesome. I can't say what was in it, but it was damn good. The crawfish beignets were actually disappointing, too much breading, too little actual crawfish.

The cochon de lait po-boy deserves its own spotlight. Recommended to me by an old friend I happened to run into at the festival, cochon de lait is shredded suckling pig that has been seasoned and slow-roasted in a BBQ pit for up to 12 hours. The po-boy is the specialty of Wanda Walker, a New Orleans caterer. Like most po-boys, it's a french bread sandwich, but this one is dressed with fresh cabbage and a homemade horseradish sauce. The warm, tender meat and cool, crunchy cabbage was perfection.

The whole day was great. Daniel and I saw excellent music, the weather was close to perfect, and obviously, we ate very well. The Zydepunks were as cool as their name, Leah Chase is a dynamo, and Allison Krauss makes some beautiful music with Robert Plant. A complete list of the musicians we saw is below.

The Original Dixieland Jazz Band
The Zydepunks
Leah Chase
Allison Krauss & Robert Plant featuring T. Bone Burnett
Ozomatli featuring Chali 2na of Jurassic 5
MOOV of Martinique
Buckwheat Zydeco

And please forgive the lack of photos... it was rather hard to take pictures while walking with a po-boy in my hands.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Chapter 3: Making SPEC Proud

As some of you may recall, I belong to a cocktail club back home, SPEC. At one of our "meetings," we had Sazeracs, a New Orleans classic. Honestly, I wasn't a big fan, but was set on having one in its native home.

As luck would have it, Andy Vaught has a friend who bartends at Luke. Luke was a runner-up in the NYT article on important new U.S. restaurants. And our new friend Blake promised us a Sazerac worth remembering.

An absinthe coated glass. Sazerac rye whiskey. Peychaud bitters. A spritz from lemon zest. A curled lemon rind. I drank it fast, not because I wanted to finish it, but because it was one of the smoothest, tastiest cocktails I've ever had.

Then I revealed to Blake my favorite cocktail in the world. The French 75. Instead of gin, he mixes champagne with brandy, adding a brandied cherry that beautifully sinks to the bottom of the glass. It was a bit heavier than the gin-based version, though very good.

And of course, Daniel and I had to have mint juleps while we were down south. And the place to do it was Columns, a beautiful old hotel with a grand front porch, known as the setting for the Brooke Shields film, Pretty Baby.

The setting was lovely, as we watched the streetcar travel up and down St. Charles. And maybe we were just spoiled after our cocktail extravaganza at Luke, but the mint juleps were a bit light, almost watered down. I drank this one quickly as well... only because I wanted to move on to our final meal in town... crawfish mountain at Frankie and Johnny's.


SPEC was profiled in Philadelphia Weekly's Lush Life column a few weeks ago. The author, Mara Zapeda, learned about the club from kitchenplay.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Chapter 2: Cochon, A Restaurant That Matters

The Menu
Crawfish Pie
Fried Alligator with Chili Garlic Aioli
Fried Rabbit Livers with Pepper Jelly Toast
Louisiana Cochon with Turnips, Cabbage and Cracklins
Rabbit and Dumplings
Strawberry Cobbler with Sweet Ginger Biscuits
Dulce de Leche Ice Cream

It was a New York Times article on some of the best new restaurants in America that led me to Cochon. The article came out on February 27th. On February 28th I made reservations.

I'm just going to let the above speak for itself.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Chapter 1: Frankie and Johnny's

Thank God for Andy Vaught. Besides being an all-around great person, Andy Vaught is the reason Daniel and I actually had a place to stay in New Orleans (hotels during Jazz Fest are few and far between...). Andy Vaught is also the reason for our first and last meals in NOLA, at Frankie and Johnny's.

About a mile from Andy Vaught's house in the Garden District, Frankie and Johnny's is a neighborhood place, with a down-home menu, bar and video games (Ms. Pac-man!).

For our first meal, almost immediately upon arriving in town, Daniel chose the red beans and rice with hot sausage; I was craving my first po-boy, with shrimp. A po-boy is a french bread sandwich; get it with dressing, and that includes lettuce, tomato and pickle. The tiny shrimp were delicately fried (though not deveined, which I tried to overlook). Daniel was happy with his meal, though beans and rice is rarely something I get excited about.

What I did get excited about were the mountains of crimson crawfish coming out of the kitchen every few minutes. We were going to have to make a return visit to Frankie and Johnny's.

And we did, three days later. For our final meal in NOLA, I had to had to had to get some boiled crawfish. Daniel wanted crawfish too, but of the fried and in a po-boy variety. We also had our first taste of Boudin balls, a mixture of rice and boudin sausage that is then fried.

The Boudin balls were tasty, slightly spicy, mushy on the inside, crisp and golden brown on the outside. They were served with some kind of creamy dressing; I think it was a horseradish sauce.

The crawfish were amazing. Spilling out of their red basket, and topped with empty paper baskets for the shells, they were intimidating, to say the least. Neither Daniel nor I knew exactly what to do with them, but the waitress gladly gave us a demonstration: separate the head from the tail, suck out the juice from the head (if desired), pinch out the meat from the tail, eat.

The crawfish were spicy, and the juice was so good. Like any good seafood, it was of the sea, but not too fishy. By the end of my 2 1/2 pounds, I was something of a pro, pinching the tail and sucking out the meat simultaneously (and while I think that food can be really sexy, boiled crawfish does not fall under that particular category of food.)

Daniel was fine with his po-boy, but we both decided that po-boys don't really do it for us. Too much bread, not enough meaty goodness.

Up Next... Chapter 2: Cochon, A Restaurant That Matters