Friday, May 31, 2013

Random Posse Bites: Monster Artichokes, Enchiladas and Spanx

Random encounters abound with the Posse crew, so I will sum up a few over recent weeks..

Cafe Verona:  Our most recent Posse dinner was held at this Italian food mecca in Independence.  It was prom night, so we were surrounded with teens in taffeta once we were seated. We were also joined by Kiko's friend Fia from Sweden who seemed to stay mildly amused by our antics all night.   Cafe Verona has its interesting flourishes from the romantically significant padlocks on the patio gate to the two-story Botticelli mural painted behind the bar.  The historic feel of the building that was once a popular five-and-dime was also a plus. We were to learn (once we were armed with the white and red house sangrias) that the food is the thing, though, and we ravaged our way through much of it: from the grilled Jerusalem artichokes with lemon and panko to the luscious fig vinegarette with the house salad to the spicy, hearty Chicken Orecchiette pasta with addictive Rosa sauce and finally the marvelous Tartufo-style Italian ice cream dessert featuring two kinds of gelato dipped in a big chocolate ball.  What a sweet ending to an evening of fine Italian fare .

Jim's Enchilada Night:  Our beloved Carolyn had recently returned from her most recent rehab in Omaha and we reunited with her over Jim's marvelous green chile enchiladas and tamales.  He also made a creamy key lime cheesecake as an excellent finish and K and I complimented that with an assortment of wonderful cupcakes from one of downtown Excelsior Spring's newest businesses; DD's Cupcakes.  Carolyn seems more alert now as well as more amused by this funny group.  Apparently, I gave a peek of my boxer briefs under my shorts during dinner and Kiko asked me if I was wearing Spanx.  I vehemently denied it (even though they would probably come in handy) and Carolyn got just a bit too much amusement out of the Spanx teasing, if you ask me.  Aw, who am I kidding?  It is still such a pleasure to see that bright smile.

Finally, I have been oddly ignorant when it comes to artichokes.  Vegetarian Kiko has turned us onto them in various ways, including the grilled hors d'ouerves version on multiple Italian restaurant menus.  Recently, K and I met at Kiko's house for a simple but somewhat surprising dinner.  Paired with a glass of Danza Del Sol Cabernet Franc, we savored delicate steamed petals from giant artichokes she brought back from California dipped in a pesto sauce. Realizing that was all we were having, I was already envisioning what else I would be eating later, but as we continued munching, I found myself completely satisfied.  By the time we had dug into the meaty heart of the artichoke, I was completely full.  I had no idea the power of a single monster random!

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The NOLA Chronicles Part 6: A Tale of Two Cities With Beignets and Willie Mae's

Our last day in NOLA felt as if it was a study in contrasts.  We spent the sunlit morning strolling about the fabled French Market in the French Quarter and stopped for beignets and chicory coffee at the famous Cafe Du Monde.  Cafe Du Monde has been rocking an endless stream of tourists 7 days a week, 24 hours a day since 1862.  We wedged our way in and scored a steaming platter of those square, sweet, powdered-sugar covered doughnuts and large, eye-opening cafe au laits.  Those beignets were little bites of sweet heaven amidst all of the touristy madness.  If there was any residual concern all these years later about whether New Orleans had recaptured its tourists, this maddening scene confirmed otherwise: NOLA is most assuredly open for business and doing fine.

Our last meal in town later that same day was a look at another corner of the Big Easy. I didn't have a lot of time to prep for our NOLA trip as far as isolating places I wanted to visit, but there was one joint that was unfailingly on my radar: Willie Mae's Scotch House.  Willie Mae's was opened by Willie Mae Seaton many moons ago on St. Ann's Street, near the historic Treme neighborhood.  I don't entirely understand how the wards work in NOLA, and researching the area where Willie Mae's resides revealed several articles that said it was in the lower Ninth ward, the Seventh ward and the Fifth ward, so let's say I can confirm it's on St. Ann's street.  Many articles say the restaurant is in the Treme neighborhood, a claim our Willie Mae's server denied, saying I was moreso in the neighborhood when I was at Louis Armstrong Park at the St. Louis Cemetery.  Whatever the specifics of the location, this much was clear: the entire area was devastated by the levee breeches and resulting floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina and it has been a long road to recovery for most of the area's residents and businesses; a road many of them are still on.  Willie Mae's was one of those businesses nearly destroyed by Katrina.  Volunteers from the (clearly amazing) Southern Foodways Alliance gathered to rebuild Willie Mae's after Katrina in the original location and the restaurant stands today in its humble glory.  I was almost driven to visit Willie Mae's, certainly for the said-to-be spectacular fried chicken, but also because she and her business stood as sorely-tested survivors of Hurricane Katrina.  Today, Willie Mae is in her 90's, and her great granddaughter Kerry Seaton holds close the secret recipes and continues the tradition of doling out that famous chicken.

When we arrived, I wasn't even sure it was even open until I saw a group of diners leaving.  We entered the smallish, wood-paneled dining room and took a seat near the door.  The setting may be no-frills, but clearly Willie Mae's is far from a best-kept secret, as evidenced by the multiple awards and certificates adorning the walls.  There are photos of Willie Mae being featured on the Food Network and receiving her James Beard award.  Soon, the supposed holy grail of fried bird arrived in front of us.  We took our first bite of that caramel-colored, nearly artistic latticework of fried skin that wrapped juicy, spicy meat and it was indeed Fried Chicken Shangri-La.  Sure, the accompanying peas and creamy macaroni and cheese were quite tasty, but it was all about the bird.  We lost ourselves in it and once done, agreed with many others who dare say
was the Best Fried Chicken We Had Ever Had.  When we left, we found ourselves standing in front of the restaurant and on an unexpectedly lengthy wait for a cab.  We met a lovely couple from Martha's Vineyard who we agreed to share the cab with.  While we chatted with them, I stood absorbing the sights and sounds of the nearby streets.  The surrounding neighborhood still showed not only some scars of Katrina, but also continuing scenes of rebuilding and rebirth.  Some houses were still shuttered and marked with the spray-painted X, but others were getting new renovations while children played and neighbors gathered and chatted on porches.

The survival and resulting rebound of New Orleans may just be the most soothing, comforting and attractive quality of this southern city to me.  There are many cities I adore, but I always feel a kinship with the ones who crawl out of powerful adversity and regain not only their identities and culture but also a new-found determination to stand together and strong in
even the most unimaginable of circumstances.  NOLA is clearly that and to me, as lively and vital as ever.  I left utterly spellbound by her many charms, and hoped to return again and again.

Won't bow, don't know how.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The NOLA Chronicles, Part 5: Southern Hospitality, The Roosevelt, and One Sublime Dinner at Domenica

There have been many unintentional methods to the driving of my partner Keith to madness, and one of them is my exasperating ways while traveling.  Back at the ranch, I can root like an unwavering homebody when I choose to, but when I travel, I want to do everything.  Everything.  Post-vacation, I leave most places I travel to exhilarated but inevitably tinged with pangs of disappointment of the places and experiences (and particularly food) that I didn't get to.  Keith, however, I leave, exhausted.  While I may miss plenty, I tend to drag him along everywhere to make a damn good go at it.  I think he likes these conference trips, because I venture out on my own and leave him be (for the most part). Well, I missed plenty during my NOLA trip, but I relished all that I did see and do.  I was fortunate to spend a bit of time with two dear friends that turned an already joyous journey in to something very special indeed.
Liz and Tod became my friends in an oddly
roundabout way.  Liz is from my hometown in West Virginia and yet we had precious little interaction while growing up, despite sharing some friends.  Liz moved to New Orleans at a young age and stayed, adopting NOLA as a beloved new home.  Only in the past few years have I come to know Liz better as we became reacquainted during various weekends back in the hometown.  There is where I would meet her husband Tod as well and I would share conversations with them, sometimes deep talks as Liz and I both were losing our fathers to the ravages of age at the same time.  On many of these occasions, Liz would speak longingly and lovingly of her beloved New Orleans, which only deepened my own desire to return to visit.

That day of course came, and knowing what a busy couple Liz and Tod were, I was thrilled they could eke out some time with me.  Sadly, Keith couldn't join us for dinner as it was a set night with his conference mates, but I was invited to meet my friends at the stunning historic Roosevelt Hotel, where Tod is the general manager.  I wandered about the stately lobby before they arrived, trying to discreetly photograph various areas without being too painfully obvious about how geekily gobsmacked I was by the lobby's intricate grandeur.  I fell in love with the striking clock purchased from an 1800s Paris exhibition at one of the entrances and was mesmerized by its hypnotic beauty.  My friends arrived and it was delightful to see them both.  Given Tod's role with the Roosevelt and Liz's tres successful dental practice, it would have been completely understandable had they arrived rushed or exhausted, but instead they descended upon the lobby, warm and smiling with undeniable charm intact and soon we off and running.

We began the evening at the historic Sazerac Bar and upon entering this dark and inviting space, history indeed seemed to come alive.  The shadowy, candlelit banquettes like the one we settled into seemed to invite something secretive and illicit, but instead it merely served as a cozy corner to watch the lively bar scene, admire the gorgeous original Paul Ninas murals and catch up with my friends.  I couldn't resist ordering a Sazerac, the namesake cocktail and one sip had me envisioning the larger-than-life Sen. Huey Long holding court at the African-walnut bar many moons ago.  The classic recipe for the Sazerac here consists of 3-4 dashes of Herbsaint (120 proof absinthe substitute),  2 oz. Rye of Bourbon blended whiskey, 3-4 hearty dashes of Peychaud bitters and one long, thin twist of lemon.  I sipped it while reveling in Tod's tales of the Roosevelt which totally appealed to my long love of historic hotels.

We moved to one of the Roosevelt 's premier restaurants, Domenica, for dinner.  Domenica means "Sunday" in Italian and was created by a partnership between celebrated New Orleans chef John Besh and chef Alon Shaya.  The idea is recreating rustic, traditional Sunday suppers from Italian villages, blending historic techniques with modern twists.  Chef Shaya has been inundated with awards over the past couple of years, including a Best of NOLA designation in 2012.  As dark and cozy as the Sazerac bar was, Domenica is warm and inviting with its bright colors and wooden tables.  We ordered a bottle of Cab Franc and I encouraged my friends in the know to guide me through the Domenica experience.  We ordered the white bean bruschetta and the Affetati Misti which is the chef's salumi, or meats (and cheeses and vegetables) to start out with.  As the first starters arrived, Chef Shaya came to the table to greet us.  Liz revealed to the chef my food worship and Chef Alon was most gracious with indulging me.  Soon, the starters arrived and my, were they a brilliant way to kick off: a carving board laden with assorted meats, cheeses, pickles and olives and crusty bread with a creamy white bean spread topped with serrano ham and a quail egg.  The house-cured meats included a wonderful prosciutto and a delicious breseaola, or air-dried beef and the cheese highlight was the Piedmonte goat's milk cheese.  We had stuck with small plates and one of the house pizzas for dinner, but soon were swooning in a swirl of more, unexpected small plates from the chef.  A gorgeous, gigantic roasted cauliflower landed on the table like some unearthly floral arrangement, as well as a lovely plate of fried Tuscan kale with lemon and parmigiano reggiano.  We dug through the roasted cauliflower,which revealed divine, salty whipped goat feta.  I found the kale downright revelatory...I had sampled fried kale before, but this bright and delicious plate was something I could have snacked on all night.  I was truly amazed that fried kale could be that delicious. Next, a plate of wood-fired eggplant arrived.  The eggplant was bright and meaty; sauteed in olive oil and served with tahini.  Finally, the white pizza arrived and we each dug in.  It was pizza perfection; perfectly balanced with basil, oregano and garlic.  Come this dynamic dinner's end, I was utterly spent, but blissfully so.  I loved that most of the evening I was completely dazzled by the simplest of ingredients: the majority of our fare were just gorgeous vegetables, beautifully prepared.  Of course, the highlight of the evening was to spend quality time with Liz and Tod, laughing and toasting and just enjoying each others company.

Our last night in New Orleans, K and I were greatly fortunate to experience the Roosevelt as hotel guests.  We were tickled to actually have double doors leading into our vast luxury suite, which was beautifully appointed.  We took in and visited many of the outlets of the hotel during our stay, including the moonlit rooftop pool and bar, Teddy's Cafe with its vast displays of gourmet chocolates and delectable pastries and the historic Blue Room, the jaw-dropping event space that evokes the legendary supper club it once was, when it played host to Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong.

We adored our New Orleans trip in every way, but it was extra special for me to spend time with Liz and Tod and experience NOLA from their unique perspective.  Thanks again, friends.

Next and finally, the conclusion to the NOLA Chronicles where I take one final, two-sided last look at post-Katrina New Orleans...


Sunday, May 12, 2013

The NOLA Chronicles, Part 4: Playing Favorites

Oh, to have endless expanses of time to be able to write..but alas, this is not the time of my life where that was meant to be.  Nevertheless, onward with the New Orleans escapades...I was, as I often am, determined to sample many of the dishes the Crescent City was known for on our excursion there.  The trick is finding some great examples in the short window of time available to us and this did not prove easy.  Not because the options were difficult to find, oh no.  Sure enough, we asked the locals; from the cab drivers to the concierges, and all those in the know certainly shared their opinions on their preferred Big Easy chow.  The results just made the choices
more perplexing in a sense..there was no consensus or popular choice; every source asked had a different suggestion.  What a problem to have, though, right?  Folks polled were passionate about their choices as well, hell, some were vehement that we try their choices.  Time (or moolah) didn't allow us to follow everyone's opinion, though, and the truly gratifying outcome was that there was not a sub-par choice among the bunch.  Ahead are some of the dishes and the places we found them...

The Muffaletta sandwich has its origins at Central Grocery (below right), an Italian-American grocery and deli in the French Quarter that dates back to 1906.  I had hoped to hit up Central Grocery itself to try it, but it was closed on Monday and Tuesday, so I settled for an outdoor cafe with Keith's Mainstreet cohorts.  The Market Cafe(pictured at left) has atmospheric outdoor seating replete with live jazz in the middle of the Quarter and boasts a spicy housemade Bloody Mary that's considered a "local favorite".  It was indeed a kick and points added for the pickled green beans as garnishes. The K-Man and I split half of the Market's muffaletta and it was still a monster: thick, crusty Italian pompeian bun laden with mortadella, salami, ham, provolone and tangy olive salad with extra vinaigrette on the side.  Had we realized its size, we might have re-thought splitting also a helping of the thick jambalaya with its succulent shrimp and zingy Andouille sausage, but then I'm quite happy we didn't miss it either.

I ventured off on my own after this fine lunch and took to sauntering about the historic French
Market.  I watched the expert oyster shuckers at work; was tempted to try out a hot sauce bar and finally was stopped in my tracks by the sweet offerings at Loretta's.  Loretta ia known for her pralines, another NOLA specialty, and I had to have them.  I picked up some caramel pecan pralines to take home to share with Keith and enjoyed them thoroughly.

Speaking of the Mainstreet crew, including Keith's "conference wife" Crystal (who I tried to steal for the week), I re-joined them for a fabulous lunch at Dickie Brennan's Palace Cafe the next day.  This grand cafe, owned by a member of the historic New Orleans restaurant family, is set in a gorgeous historic Canal Street building and offers many takes on New Orleans favorite dishes.  I joined the crew at the window looking into the exhibition kitchen and we got a first-hand look at the creation of the decadent desserts.  I had been anticipating and finally got to settle into a plate of Shrimp Remoulade,(pictured top left) a dish I have treasured since the days I was a busser at my first restaurant job in college.  This was a marvelous version; jumbo Louisiana shrimp bathed in Dickie Brennan's version of that joyously spicy remoulade (originally like a mayo-based aioli but in Louisiana it's kicked up with paprika and other spices) sauce over a bed of bright greens.  I also sampled the creamy crawfish macaroni and cheese and it was heavenly.  We had watched the evolution of each of the sweet treats for so long at this point that we knew we had to sample a couple for sure.  We were fascinated with the process of watching chief pastry chef Nettie guide her charges through her clearly perfectionist methods of prepping such striking desserts and wevhad to talk to her ourselves.  She was as charming with us as she was particular with her staff and she personally delivered our devilish delights: a sinful dark chocolate brownie with fresh cream and toasted walnuts, traditional pecan pie with praline ice cream and ta white chocolate creme brulee.  All three were suitably swoon-worthy.

Finally, in the no-frills but must-visit category, K and I checked out Mother's Restaurant for a late dinner near our hotel.  Mother's has enjoyed a long history of flavor-seeking since 1938.  I sought another local favorite here: Mother's red beans; an astoundingly hearty portion of mouth-watering red beans and rice.  With a side of greens doused in peppered vinegar (another dish I've missed since I used to revel in them in Atlanta), this dish felt classically flavorful and I was relishing every bite.

Part of the revelatory take from this trip was that there really wasn't bad food to be found.  I'm sure it exists, but not by us, thankfully.  In my next post, I'll talk about one of the more imaginative food experiences I enjoyed with some cherished friends in NOLA....