Thursday, August 13, 2009

Cochon Restaurant, pseudo-reviewed

I recently had an amazing dinner at Cochon Restaurant. Known for "Cajun Southern Cooking", my friend Bruce and I shared appetizers of grilled oysters drizzled with a spicy oil, and stuffed crab shell with thin garlic toast. For dinner I had a spectacular catfish filet court bouillion, while Bruce had the fish on a half shell - served in skin and scales, so the fish easily flakes off the "shell". But I did not take notes on the meal, or pictures, so I can't provide a full restaurant review. Instead, I will share with you my memory of the dessert, which well symbolizes the excellence and inspiration at this restaurant.

Simply labeled as chocolate and chickory custard with whipped cream and cayenne pepper, it would be easy to expect little from the dessert, especially when it arrived in an unassuming Mason jar - maybe the presentation could be altered, but it would come at the expense of the surprising intensity of what lays within the jar.

Chocolate with peppery heat is everywhere lately: spicy cinnamon or cayenne hot cocoa, high-end dark chocolate bars with chiles, etc. Cochon capitalizes on this trend by combining a simple dessert, chocolate custard, with flecks of cayenne pepper, in perfect balance. A dollop of whipped cream adds richness, while staying true to the roots of New Orleans cuisine, by the subtle influence of chickory - reminding you that this dessert won't be found anywhere else on the planet. And then, just when all seems perfect, the taste and crunch of a fleck of rock salt shocks the mouth to life. Salt chocolates and salt caramels have similarly become ubiquitous recently - it seems that everyone is experimenting with chocolate and seasonings. Cochon took these trends, and juxtaposed of all these flavors into one small jar: sweet whipped cream, rich chocolate, distinctly New Orleans chickory, spicy flecks of cayenne, and the unexpected, invisible impact of the salt. It made for one of the most simply inspired desserts I've experienced.

On top of this, Cochon suggests dessert beverage pairings, and I went with their recommendation of a ruby red Italian dessert wine, slightly frizzante (bubbly). Initially it had a taste of plum, reminiscent of tawny port. But the dark flavors of the wine disappeared once the taste of the chocolaty dessert was in my mouth, and rich, red fruit flavors of strawberry sweetness emerged from the wine.

This is the kind of dessert experience that makes a restaurant. And that's why on a Thursday night, in the slow season, every table was full.

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Po' Boys for a Po' Boy - The Saga Continues

I've posted previously about adventures with the po-boy. Today I continued my journey, by hitting up a local joint in the CBD (Central Business District).

4th Po' Boy: P&G Restaurant on Baronne (no website, as far as I can tell), on recommendation (over Mother's, which I've been told is a tourist trap, but I plan on visiting anyway before I leave since living here for only 3 months I think technically makes me a tourist). I went for my standard po-boy: roast beef with gravy, dressed. P&G is a turn and burn, cafeteria-style establishment - you get the feeling you are being served by lunch ladies while you are there, and, in a sense, you are. On the other side of a long bar with a sneeze guard is the po-boy fixin's, but also other cafeteria items like meatloaf and mashed potatoes.

The sandwich was standard fare, in my opinion. Nothing special, but better than Court Tavern's. The price was outstanding. Our total lunch consisted of two roast beef po-boys, red beans & rice, an order of mashed potatoes with gravy, and one beverage - total cost with tax, $18 flat. For lunch in the CBD, that's not a bad deal.

On a side note, the red beans & rice were bland to the point of being inedible - luckily hot sauce was on the table.

Also, to give another shout-out to Gumbo Tales, the book has a chapter on po-boys and their likely origin, told through the eyes of another Yankee. Next on my list is to find a place to get a good fried potato po-boy - supposedly the first variety ever made.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Being a kid again: On Snow Cones, Icees, Slushies, and Sno Balls

This post is about Sno Balls, a great New Orleans culinary tradition. But first, a little history of what life is like in the absence of this treat.

I grew up with the snow cone - and what a horrible way to start life. Sold by ice cream trucks, you'd quickly suck out all the juice, and then were left with hard chunks of flavorless ice (or worse - ice that tasted amiss). The best part of the damn things was the rock hard gumball at the bottom of the paper cup.

Some stores served the Icee - this drink in the polar bear-adorned cup was an upgrade over the snow cone. While flavors were limited (cherry, coke, sometimes others), the softer consistency of the ice made for longer-lasting flavor. The problem was that you had to wait for the thing to melt, as they were only served with a straw which seemed to take forever. And you were eventually left with a flavorless ice hash at the bottom of your cup.

Slushees are definitely next up in the ice-syrup hierarchy, with the many flavors of Slush Puppy being a favorite sight for me as a kid. So many choices: at least 8, like a box of crayons! The mix of syrup with liquified ice was a big improvement over the Icee, allowing a drink you could slurp through a straw, though with a sickening sweetness that effectively prevents anyone over 13 from ordering one.

And that brings me to New Orleans, where "Sno-Ball" shops are ubiquitous. Northerners have seen sights like these before - shacks that serve shaved ice soaked in syrup - nothing new to see here, move along.

You have no idea what you are missing.

Thanks to the brilliant book "Gumbo Tales" by food writer Sara Roahen (which I'll review in a later post), I recently discovered that I live blocks away from the premier home of New Orleans Sno-Balls: Hansen's Sno-Bliz.

I can't help but provide a brief history of the shop, as I've learned it. Started by Ernest and Mary Hansen in 1939, it's still run like day one. Ernest had the inspiration for a hygienic, efficient ice-shaving machine (original pictured above) after watching street car vendors scrap ice by hand in carts on hot New Orleans days. Mary cooked the syrups - all her own recipes, kept in meticulously cleaned pouring bottles. The shop was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, and around that time the Hansens passed on, leaving the shop in the hands of their granddaughter, Ashley, who Roahen describes an audience with as "like a teddy bear hug." I highly recommend the book, if for nothing more than this chapter, especially if you are a northerner whose found yourself in this city (the book is subtitled "Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table"). Ashley rebuilt the shop, and has taken the place of her grandparents, keeping the Sno-Bliz coming for more generations of kids (and big kids).

Now let me tell you what a Hansen's Sno-Bliz is not: It's not a snow cone, it's not a slushee, and it's not like anything you've ever had up north.

The genius of the set-up is the ice shaved straight from fresh blocks (bought from an icehouse) using Earnest's machine. After each scoop of ice, Ashley pours the syrup, 3 times for full-flavored effect. And the flavors! Cream of Chocolate, Bubble Gum, Coconut, Root Beer, Limeade, and many, many more, available in combos of your choosing for added effect. And then there's the toppings (more on that below). Cream of Nectar is the house specialty and most popular flavor, described by Ashley in Roahen's book like this: "When you grow up in New Orleans, that's the flavor that makes it all real. That's the flavor that you makes you remember your childhood. It's fluffy. It's pink." Roahen goes on to talk about nectar being the drink of the gods. I think it's better to see it as the drink of eager birds and bees, and there's a reason we are drawn to the brightly colored flavor. It's undefinable, amazing, but feels so life-sustaining - what it must be like to be the fluttering butterfly seeking out the most brilliant blossoms.

But the Sno-Bliz does not stop at syrup. Toppings galore await, like crushed pineapple (add it to coconut syrup for a take on pina colada), marshmallow fluff - another flavor to make you a kid again, condensed milk (found at most stands - try it, you'll love it), or you can get what Hansen's calls a "hot rod" - a scoop of ice cream in the middle of your Sno-Bliz.

So on a hot and humid, typical New Orleans summer Sunday, I strolled the few blocks to Hansen's, waited a while in the line (there's always a line), snapped a few photos, and ordered the ice & syrup concoction I've been waiting for my whole life: A Cream of Nectar Hot Rod. I've not felt more like a kid since the days I sprinted out the door at the sound of the ice cream truck.

Ignore the facial hair. I'm six again.

And as for Ashley, she told me she liked my shirt. And I felt like I had been hugged by a teddy bear.

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Monday, August 10, 2009

Gulf Coast Sushi: Ninja

My friend Jeff and I went to dinner on Friday, only to discover that our intended destination (Jacquimo's) was under renovation. Nearby was a sushi restaurant of which Jeff had heard, but the assassin-fearing side of me couldn't help but resist: Ninja. I was surprised to find some of the best sushi I've experienced on the Gulf Coast.

My cell phone camera did not do justice to the picture below (I need to upgrade, or learn to carry my point and shoot with me to dinner), but Jeff and I stared in awe at the beautiful presentations that passed us by (I highly recommend sitting at the sushi bar to experience this).

The website for Ninja says "Best Sushi in New Orleans," and they might be right. Entering into a lower floor that was a nearly empty bar, but doubled as waiting room, I was surprised when our seats opened up to be directed upstairs enter a bustling second floor room, alive with energy. Austere in decoration, it's only the food that's being displayed at Ninja.

Check out the menu, and don't be shocked by the prices: what Jeff and I came to realize quickly, is that the secret to Ninja is that you get more than your money's worth. I ordered vegetables tempura, two relatively inexpensive rolls (~$7-8), and one mackerel sashimi, and left overstuffed and with nearly an entire roll left over.

Our meal started with the common and complementary bowl of miso soup, followed by a house salad. Unlike the bland iceberg lettuce with oily ginger dressing that follows the soup in most sushi joints, at Ninja they serve a wonderfully creamy cucumber salad, that provides a nice transition from soup to appetizers. And as a guy that makes authentic miso, from scratch, the soup was good, too.

The tempura, how I measure the talent of the fryer, was outstandingly light and delicate. My rolls were the "Angel Roll" (with BBQ eel - it comes with your choice of fish inclusion), which was arguably the best roll I've ever eaten. What makes the rolls at Ninja unique is a thin belt of seaweed. Instead of being left with a mouthful of chewy plant matter, this balanced approach allows the rolls to shine. My second roll was BBQ yellowtail, which meant the fish was cooked. I had expected raw fish with BBQ sauce, and while the roll was good, I was disappointed to see yellowtail ruined by cooking. But I suppose that's another plus of Ninja: the cooked options provide a good entry point for the sushi averse - another sneaky tactic of the Ninja.

Jeff's choice of the night was the cucumber roll, and unlike a good photographer I did not give a good scale for the rolls pictured here: each piece was about 3" across - if Jeff had a complaint, it was that it was impossible to eat without demolishing the presentation. While I didn't try it, I judged from his contentment that the thinly sliced cucumber wrapped log was a success.

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Sunday, August 9, 2009

Consider this Lobster

I just had to write that title!

I'm going to be post an exciting new blog each night this week, and for tonight, for the first time, I'm combining my love of fossils with food.

If you haven't read the book, David Foster Wallace's "Consider the Lobster" is a fun collection of essays. One of the essays, like this post, involves paleontology (about the search for the largest known shark, the aptly named 'megalodon' ["big tooth"], scientific name Carcharadon megalodon).

I'm not a big fan of lobster (nor am I willing to pay that price for a bottom-feeding, scavenging invertebrate!), but I love eating other crustaceans of the Order Decapoda. The decapods, which means "ten feet," include most crustaceans that you know and love (to eat): crabs, crayfish, shrimp, and lobsters.

I spent a summer studying the putative first-ever decapod, Palaeopalaemon newberryi. This creature lived ~375 million years ago - 375 million years of our favorite crustaceans crawling around the ocean depths! And if you saw the specimen (low resolution drawing below), you'd say it looks like a crayfish - except with some big differences. Unlike crayfish, it lived in the ocean, back during the Devonian Period (the Age of Fishes - when great armored fish and a wide diversity of sharks filled the seas). Also unlike crayfish, it had not yet evolved the large claws that we are forced to shackle with rubber bands in the grocer's aquarium. Palaeopalaemon only had tiny pincers, no claws to speak of.

As a kid catching crayfish I would let the small ones pinch me, curious to see how strong they were. For the small ones, not very strong at all. I wouldn't do that with a lobster. As for our friends on the scale, I cannot believe those poor suckers didn't take off the moment they were left unattended! They were there for many minutes. Unfortunately, despite their long evolutionary history, decapods are not known for brains.

Palaeopalaemon newberryi Whitfield - possibly the oldest known decapod - the next oldest fossil doesn't come until 100 million years later!

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