NOLA, and its accoutrements

November 12, 2012

A million characters in New Orleans. I wish I knew the story of this one.

I do love New Orleans. The worst thing about going there is trying to decide just which of the nine bajillion places to eat you’ll visit while you’re there.

Will you eat at Galatoire’s? Brennan’s? Two Sisters? K-Paul’s? Arnaud’s? Commander’s Palace? Any of the other big, little, in-between places that dot the narrow streets of the French Quarter, or will you venture outward?

I believe I could spend a month in the Big Easy, eat at a different restaurant every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and still find amazingly wonderful new places to try. And weigh 700 pounds.

I mean, Antoine’s has been feeding people since 1840, Tujagues since 1852. I have yet to sample either. So much Creole, so little time.

I had two dinners, one lunch, one breakfast to spend on gastronomic excess (not to mention I had an iffy stomach) on my recent trip. I guess I could’ve had two breakfasts, had I gotten my happy arse up in time to go and get back before my 9:30 meeting.

I chose, in chronological order, Brennan’s, Felix’s Oyster House, Mr. B’s Bistro, and Cafe du Monde.

Brennan’s was first up, by virtue of it being the first place we got to that we could get in without a reservation on a Friday night. It was also my least favorite of the four, but that should bear the caveat that I had driven eight hours and sat through four hours of meetings, with an iffy stomach, prior to arriving.

I had the soft-shell crab in lemon butter sauce. It was good, albeit way too lemony. I unwittingly contributed to that, squeezing my cheesecloth-wrapped lemon half onto my crab without first tasting it. It was WAY lemony. And something in the crumb coating just struck me as off. Eh. I had an iffy stomach.

My stomach had recovered somewhat by lunch the next day, and was requiring oysters. Which I proceeded to provide for it. We walked down to Acme Oyster House, which at 12:40 p.m. had a line halfway down the block (we later learned it had recently been featured on the Travel Channel, and thus was famous). We opted to cross the street, go to Felix’s, walk right in and sit right down (points if that makes you hum the song it came from).

Felix’s has somehow run afoul of the NOLA authorities and does not presently have a liquor license. However, it is the French Quarter. A short stroll next door yields you a tall Abita Amber and a gin and tonic, which you then convey back to Felix’s before your order gets there.

I had a half-a-dozen char-grilled, and before I got two of them down, my iffy stomach was a thing of the past, and all was right with the world. There ain’t much uglier than a char-grilled oyster. Nor is there much better. That breadcrumb-and-Parmegiano topping soaking in oyster juice, the little babies still plump and juicy — Sweet Baby Jesus. I can only thank the first homo sapiens who cracked one of those ugly, lumpy shells open, scooped out the admittedly unappetizing-looking slimy thing inside, slurped it down, and immediately set about learning to brew beer.

That night was the culinary highlight of the trip — and it was an entree I’d had before, at a restaurant I’d been to before. It was so freaking wonderful the first time I had to try it again to see if I was hallucinating.

I was not.

I will testify, here and now, that the bacon-wrapped shrimp and grits at Mr. B’s Bistro are among the best five restaurant meals I ever had in my life. Were it not that the shrimp were the merest bit overcooked and just a tiny tad on the chewy side, I’d rank it in the top two. (The filet at Felicia Suzanne’s in Memphis ranks first. I’m a homer. Sue me.)

Five great big Gulf shrimp, wrapped in applewood bacon and grilled. Impossibly creamy (more on that in a minute) grits. A slightly sauce they proclaim as red-eye gravy. It ain’t red-eye gravy, which is the drippings from country ham, with strong coffee and water, and reduced. But I don’t care what you call it, it’s outstanding.

My traveling companion, a fellow newspaper wench back in the day, is still a reporter at heart, and she betook herself the next day to the Interwebs to find what she could find about those shrimp and grits. She found the recipe, which I hereby share with you ‘n y’mama ‘n ’em:

From Mr. B’s Bistro
Serves 4

8 strips applewood-smoked bacon, cut crosswise into thirds
20 jumbo shrimp (12 per pound, about 1 3/4 pounds), peeled, leaving tail intact, and deveined
4 large wooden skewers, soaked in water for 10 minutes
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
2 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
3 1/2 tsp firmly packed dark brown sugar
2 1/2 cups dark chicken stock
2 1/2 Tbsp pepper jelly
1 Tbsp cold unsalted butter
3 cups Mr. B’s stone-ground grits (see recipe below)
2 Tbsp minced fresh chives

Season shrimp with salt and pepper. Wrap 1 piece bacon around center of each shrimp (reserve leftover bacon) and line up on a work surface. Skewer 5 wrapped shrimp onto each skewer, leaving a little space in between each shrimp.

Heat a large skillet over high heat. Add 1 tablespoon oil and heat until almost smoking. Add 2 skewers and cook 2 minutes each side, or until bacon gets crisp. Repeat cooking shrimp in same manner. Transfer shrimp to a plate.

To skillet add vinegar and brown sugar and cook about 1 minute, or until reduced by half. Add stock and cook over high heat until reduced by half. Add jelly and cook 1 minute, or until jelly is dissolved. Remove skillet from heat and add butter, stirring, until just melted. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.

In a small skillet cook leftover bacon until crisp. Cool and crumble.

To serve, mound grits (see recipe below) on plates. Remove shrimp from skewers and arrange around grits. Drizzle sauce over grits and garnish with reserved bacon and chives.

Mr. B’s Stone-Ground Grits

From Mr. B’s Bistro
Serves 6

2 cups heavy cream
2 cups whole milk
1 cup stone-ground grits
1/3 cup mascarpone cheese
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

In a medium saucepan bring cream and milk to a simmer over moderately low heat. Whisk in grits and cook, stirring often, 25 minutes. Stir in cheese and season with salt and pepper.

Dear Sweet Baby Jesus. First, nowhere in the Canon of Southern Cooking, which has not yet been written but ought to be, will you find that red-eye gravy has anything sweet in it. No matter. I have both brown sugar and pepper jelly, and be assured I will be happy to put them both to use in this preparation.. I’m not real sure what dark chicken stock is, but I’ll figure it out. Second — by my admittedly innumerate (that’s illiterate, in math) skills, that adds up to about a half-cup of heavy cream and a half cup of milk and a couple of heaping tablespoons of mascarpone cheese per serving. I am not sure how I got out of the restaurant without having a heart attack. Must be all the clean living I’ve been doing.

In any event, this is phenomenally wonderful, and I could take a bath in that not-redeye-gravy-sauce.

The next morning we hit Cafe du Monde, where I employed a trick I learned a few years ago. When the line is a block and half long, you do NOT use the main entrance, which is the one to the south. You use the one that’s across from Tujagues, just north of Jackson Square, where you can stroll right in and sit right down (see how that refrain circles back around?), much to the consternation of people who have been standing in the block-long line for 45 minutes. You also do NOT do as I cannot remember not to do, which is wear a black shirt and dark jeans, because some of that half-cup of powdered sugar is going to sift off onto it, and it is the very devil to try to dust off.

And their cafe au lait is the absolute best freaking coffee drink in the entire civilized word. Starbucks should wish it could turn out coffee like that.

The beignets were not as good as I remembered. They seemed a little tough. No matter. The coffee, and the glow of insider knowledge about how to dodge the line, were aplenty.

November’s a marvelous time to visit the Big Easy. You ‘n y’mama ‘n ’em should go, with a full wallet, an empty stomach, and dinner reservations. You won’t be sorry.

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One Response to “NOLA, and its accoutrements”

  1. Bill Chance Says:

    Nice entry. I love New Orleans so much. In my opinion Cafe du Monde is more of a tourist trap than anything else – there are better beignets and better things to eat than beignets. Really, the only place in the quarter I still like to eat is Mojo Lounge – a bar on Decatur that has ambitions.

    Great observations – thanks for sharing.


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