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...



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