Saturday, March 31, 2012

Beware of People…

(like me) who possess limited knowledge, but possess unlimited opinions. I will be the first to admit that I have no formal education in food. What I know I have learned from hours of watching Food Network and The Cooking Channel and from our almost fours years of eating across the country. But that isn’t going to stop this negative critique of a 2012 James Beard Foundation “Outstanding Chef” nominee.

While in Lafayette, LA, we had lunch at Donald Link’s Cochon Lafayette, a newer
“sister” of his famous Cochon Restaurant in New Orleans. So we were eager to go to the source and eat at the original (above).

The restaurant was almost full when we arrived shortly past noon and remained so for the duration of our meal. Like Cochon Lafayette, the room was paneled in warm unstained woods with an occasional piece of art depicting a rural Louisiana scene.

Seating included a few outdoor tables, a banquette stretching along the length of one wall, a few stools overlooking the open kitchen, and at the bar were low-backed stools which, to me, looked very uncomfortable. And each table was set with a jar of chili-infused vinegar and a bottle of Cochon-branded hot sauce.

The menu in New Orleans was similar, but not identical, to the Lafayette Cochon. Missing were two of our favorites from our Lafayette lunch—the white beans and the grilled sausage and peppers over creamy grits.

As I observed our fellow diners, most were sharing one or more of the appetizers and sides. Few seem to have chosen any of the dozen or so entrees. The couple to my left was lunching on the mac and cheese, twice baked potato, and collard greens.

We knew that we would start with the boucherie tray which on that day included (clockwise from the white cup) a small cup of pork rilet, a slice of hogs head cheese, country bologna, a cured ham, and capicola. All were produced in-house. As in Lafayette, I thought that the large chunks of meat plus the recognizable presence of gelatin was too reminiscent of German head cheese. And, as in Lafayette, the rilet was the star of the plate. This time Chuck was the first to break through the thin layer of covering pork fat and he quickly indicated that, if I wanted any of this, I should eat fast.

Now, what do we order to fill out the meal?

Bear with me now as I present an episode of “The Past Travels of Chuck and Kate.” We would make a point of traveling to the Chesapeake Bay at least once in late spring through late summer. We would catch the mail boat. Well, we could have caught a fancier air conditioned ferry, but we preferred the more rustic—and cheaper—form of transporta-tion that literally carried mail, plants, groceries, and other necessities of life from Crisfield, MD, to Smith Island, one of the two remaining inhabited islands in the Bay.

Our destination was a small restaurant near the boat dock. Our purpose? To eat soft shell crabs. “A blue crab may shed (or molt) its hard outer shell 18 to 23 times during its three year life span. Each time the crab backs out of its shell, it is a soft shell for only a few hours and must be removed from the water immediately in order to prevent the shell from becoming hard” (somd.com).

We would disembark and immediately go to eat. We would each order the soft shell crab sandwich. When finished, we would order a third to share. And, on more than one occasion, we would follow this with a fourth. The soft shells were just large enough to fill the white sandwich bread on which they were served. Embellishments were lettuce and tomato. If you wanted you could have tartar sauce. But why would you want?
The soft shells were lightly dusted with flour and then pan fried. This was eating at its finest.

In case you are wondering, this is really going somewhere. So the night before our lunch at Cochon, I was again lolling on the sofa and came across an episode of Hook, Line And Dinner on The Cooking Channel. And the host, Ben Sargent was visiting Smith Island. Suddenly I craved a soft shell crab. So I was ecstatic when I learned that a soft shell crab sandwich was one of that day’s specials at Cochon, and we quickly decided to share the sandwich along with the boucherie plate.

But we were soon less ecstatic. First, this was one of the largest soft shells I have seen, and its size may account for our needing to pick pieces of interior cartilage from between our teeth. Second, I suspect that this crab at least had exceeded that two-hour window, because the outer shell was rather tough. But what I question the most was the decision to smother the soft shell under a layer of green tomato, jalapeno, and cabbage slaw that obliterated the sweet taste of the crab. This slaw would have been wonderful on a cochon de lait poor boy where it would have given balance to the rich unctuous pork. But it didn’t work on this sandwich.

I know. Who am I to question a Beard nominee? Well, I am someone who knows what she likes.

We mentioned to our server that we had eaten at Cochon Lafayette. With a dismissive wave of her hand, she said that the menu had to be modified for the—it was implied--less sophisticated folk in Cajun country. Well, we left agreeing that our meal at Cochon Lafayette was far superior and, at least on this occasion, Cochon New Orleans only earned 2.5 Addies.

To review the role of Adler, Kitty Humbug, and the Addie rating system, read the November 14, 2011 blog.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Odell, Leonardi, and Hardeveld

We were sitting in Joey K's on Magazine Street earlier this year (see January 15, 2012 entry), enjoying lunch and the sign work of Simon.

This afternoon, we found the studio of the artist who created these signs, Simon Hardeveld. While showing some of the signs on display in his studio (which is connected to his wife, Maria's antique store), I want to pay a brief tribute to other influential sign makers.

The first is Allan Odell, who pitched a sales idea to his father to use small, wooden roadside signs to pitch their product. Between 1925 and 1963, some 7000 four-, five-, or six-sign groups of white on red signs with their catchy jingles and rhymes sprang up all along highways. And always, last sign concluded the clever advertising scheme with "Burma-Shave".

Sadly with the advent of faster cars and large billboards, sequences like:

If harmony
Is what you crave
Then get
a tuba
Burma-Shave


and

Ben met Anna
Made a hit
Neglected beard
Ben-Anna split
Burma-Shave


disappeared from the landscape.

But, as befits such an important part of American culture, one set is preserved by the Smithsonian Institution. It reads:

Shaving brushes
You'll soon see 'em
On a shelf
In some museum
Burma-Shave


(Rowsome, Frank. the verse by the side of the road.)

My second sign-maker of note is known by fans of the Philadelphia Flyers, simply as "Sign Man."

Since 1972, Dave Leonardi has been attending Flyers games with about 100 signs. He has about 300 more of the 19-by-22-inch signs at home.

Two of his most popular signs were:

Start the Bus: as the Flyers' opponents were close to losing

and

The Ref Eye Chart: an eye chart that reads, as the letters get smaller with each line: “bad call, you’re hopeless.”

"In a Hockey Hall of Fame 'time capsule' for notable characters from the 1970s, Leonardi is mentioned with Derek Sanderson, Dave “Tiger” Williams, Don Cherry and Peter Puck. Impressive company, indeed" (By Bill Fleischman at flyers.nhl.com).

And this brings us to French-born Simon Hardeveld. This artist's specialty is one-of-a-kind, hand-painted signs with slogans.

He struck us as someone who could not spend his days in a loft completing signs and graphics, while a sales clerk handled the requests of the public. He has to be around people. As one of his largest signs says, “We’re not here for a long time, we’re here for a good time.”

While we talked with him about his work and our travels, he was going non-stop: introducing us to his wife, talking about the type of requests he receives, talking about what kind of music to play on the studio's stereo, recounting his early career as a chef, and why he gave himself the title "Creator of the Peppersteak" (above). He was having fun.

His studio was his workshop, his gallery, and his pot-bellied stove, i.e., the center of his work and social life.

But then we saw a sign. A sign that just called to us. And a sign that we think should be on a list of top ten signs that represent Simon's work. It read: "Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost."

Yes, Hardeveld was commissioned to paint the set for a TV station’s evening newscast ("News With A Twist"), and, yes, he has orders for his artwork from around the world, but for these two wanderers, this sign was his major work.

It now has a place in our home on wheels.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

We Lunch at a Legend

“There are few cities in the United States that zealously defend the concepts of ‘tradition’ and ‘heritage’ as much as New Orleans… In this town, restaurants and hotels proudly state the year of their birth as a means of advertising, wearing turn-of-the-century founding dates like politicians wear American flag pins in their lapels.

“Ignore all of it. It isn’t the longevity of a restaurant that should impress anyone (hell, Friendly’s Restaurants have been in business since 1935). With the wealth of eateries in New Orleans, it’s those with the best food that keep customers returning. So don’t visit Casamen-to’s Restaurant because it was founded in 1919; visit because it has the best oysters in New Orleans” (Will Woldenberg at gonola.com).

We ate at Casamento’s on either our second or third trip to New Orleans and, despite the excellence of the food, never managed to return. Good intentions were lost as our time in New Orleans rapidly shrunk. Even five weeks over Christmas left us without our return. This time, I—the oyster lover—was not to be denied.

One of the first things that you notice is that the sidewalk outside this very narrow (maybe fifteen feet wide at most) building is tiled with green and whitish marble (?)/granite(?) in colors that mimic the green and white tiles on the restaurant’s front.

Inside you find a riot of competing patterns. The tile on the front of the oyster bar contains what appear to be medieval shields. The floor, much of which must be original to the restaurant, is an intricate pattern in green and white. And then there are the tile walls which are a story in themselves.

“Casamento's Restaurant was established in 1919 by Joe Casamento, a hard working immigrant from Ustica, Italy.

Casamento's is a spotlessly clean restaurant tiled inside and out. Following building traditions from his native Italy, Mr. Casamento knew tiled surfaces would be easier to clean. So much tile was needed to meet Mr. Casamento's requirements that it took 4 tile companies from across the United States to fill the order. Customers liken it to a giant swimming pool” (casamentosrestaurant.com).

Being New Orleans and with a holiday (Easter) ap-proaching, small pastel colored stuffed animals were hung from hooks on the wall. And, in case you are dining alone or don’t want to converse with your dining companion, Casamen-to’s offers a variety of reading materials (such as the latest copy of Garden & Gun). And, completing the d├ęcor are t-shirts autographed by such famous New Orleans chefs as Emeril Lagassee (left) and Leah Chase (below). Leah is the owner of the revered Dooky Chase’s restaurant which bears her late husband's name.

I suspect that many of our fellow diners were tourists (Remember, we are not tourists we are travelers.), who may have seen Casamento’s featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. One party of four, who were probably older than Chuck and I, entered, and I noticed one of the women in the party was carrying a brochure for a zip line. Go for it, Momma.

Behind the bar you will find two experienced oyster shuckers. Mike has worked at Casamento’s since Katrina. Before that, he spent thirty years shucking for Uglesich's Restaurant, another New Orleans eatery that closed pre-Katrina.

Casamento’s is particular—very particular—about its oysters and completely closes during the months of June, July, and August. “The old guideline was to eat oysters only in months that are spelled using the letter ‘R.’ This came from the days before refrigeration when oysters could quickly spoil. However, there is another good reason to stick to fall, winter, and spring for your oyster forays, particularly when eating raw oysters. Oysters spawn in the warm summer months, usually May through August…. Spawning causes them to become fatty, watery, soft, and less flavorful instead of having the more desirable lean, firm texture and bright seafood flavor of those harvested in cooler, non-spawning months” (homecooking.about.com).

In addition to oysters on the half shell, Casamento’s is known for the “Oyster Loaf” which is their take on the oyster poor boy and looks like a sandwich on extra thick Texas Toast. “Unlike most New Orleans seafood restaurants, Casamento's uses their own signature bread called ‘pan bread’ instead of French bread. Our oyster loaves have been acclaimed as far away as Australia and England and featured in numerous publications including, ‘Best in New Orleans Magazine.’” (casamentosrestaurant.com).

If you prefer not to eat fried foods, your choices here are somewhat limited to raw oysters, gumbo, oyster stew, grilled cheese, and spaghetti and meatballs (remember that Joe Casamento was of Italian origin).

But all of Casamento’s fried foods are coated with corn flour making them safe for those on a gluten-free diet. Your choices, in addition to the oyster loaf, are shrimp, catfish, trout, and soft shell crab (in season) loafs which come in full or half sizes. And the same range of fish and seafood are offered, in small and large sizes, as dinners that come with fries.

It didn’t take long for us to make our decision. We would share both the Seafood Platter with oysters (for me), shrimp, crab claws, catfish (we could have chosen trout), and French fries. And if this wasn’t enough, we’d add a small appetizer order of fried calamari (above).

Your seafood/fish comes with lemon wedges—period. No tartar sauce. If you want cocktail sauce you construct your own using the horseradish, catsup, and hot sauce on the table. While I did experiment with my “own make” cocktail sauce, I quickly learned that all this marvelous fish/seafood needed was a quick squirt of lemon.

The use of corn flour gives the fish/sea-food a light and thin coating with just a bit of additional crunch. The four or five pieces of catfish(we ate so fast that I didn’t keep an accurate count) were sweet, flaky, and juicy (large pieces on the left in the photo above). Just what you want. The large portion of shrimp (just to the right of the catfish) was equally good. The calamari—both rings and tentacles—were fried just to the point of being done and there was nary a chewy piece on the plate. And under the thin coating, the crab claws (left, mixed with the french fries) tasted of sweet crab meat.

And then there are the oysters (left, pieces below the lemon wedge). Magnifi-cent. All you need to know is that Chuck is not an oyster eater (other than the char-grilled oysters we ate at LA Seafood in Duson, LA) and that I was anticipating having the entire portion of oysters to myself. Will I never learn? How many times will I do this to myself? Wanting him to at least taste part of one, I divided an oyster and gave him the smaller less plump half. He took a bite and exclaimed “Talk about tasting the sea!” Yep, I had to share by giving Chuck the smaller end of each oyster.

You can find a lot of great oysters in Southern Louisiana, but none better than at Casamento’s, and this New Orleans legend is truly a 5.0 Addie stop.

To review the role of Adler, Kitty Humbug, and the Addie rating system, read the November 14, 2011 blog.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

An Afternoon in the Sun

Invariably, every time we're having beignets and cafe au lait at Cafe du Monde, we make the comment: "We'll have to come back here and just people watch."

A recent visit provided just that opportunity. The line was long, so it made more sense to sit on a bench and watch the line heading for beignets rather than stand in it.

With the passing of one of the many mule-drawn carriages, the pace of life seemed to slow a bit and we seemed to step back in time.

It was a warm, sunny afternoon--the kind of summer afternoon on which one could easily doze off while slouched on a bench in the shade as the sounds of the crowd melted into a moderate buzz.

As I began to doze off, the sounds of the activity around Jackson Square presented different associations. There was a brief association with life in an ancient marketplace, but the reason for the toga-clad visitor in the area of the French Market was unclear.

The earlier glimpse of the mule may account for the cartoon-like animals appearing in my thoughts, but the barking of dogs did not match the vision of a monkey in my mind.

But it was the barking that led me to associate the sound with the Super Mario Dog game that I had found on the internet. Good Ol' Mario. He always seemed to be having fun no matter what the situation he found himself in.

My thoughts were becoming more cloudy as the sun broke through the shade of the tree's branches.

The Blues Brothers club, House of Blues, was a short distance from the Square, but how they were associated with the Banana Brothers was unclear, beyond the imagined sibling relationship of the Bananas.

Then my thoughts drifted back to the 60's--but only for a brief period. I heard music, but it was not music of that era.

I can't imagine how many times a trumpet player has played or has been asked to play "When the Saints Go Marchin' In." But when I heard that song being played, I knew I was back in New Orleans.

But only for a short time.

In my dream-like state, I imagined I was in Nashville in the Grand Ol' Opry or was it in Cajun Country with some zydeco music being played.

But a strange note must have been struck, because my mind put me into a "B" movie with a giant who was invading the Quarter.

But no need to worry.

A rainbow appeared; the danger passed.

Everything was going to be OK. I could just relax in the afternoon sun.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

I Arrived in New Orleans…

with a list of over fifteen new—to us—restaurants to try along with a shorter list of oldies and goodies. So far, our search for the new has had mixed results, but today we try again with The Company Burger.

“It's…a burger with a biography. (Adam) Biderman, a New Orleans native, originally developed it at Atlanta's wildly popular Holeman & Finch Public House, where two dozen burgers are prepared at 10 p.m. each night, and diners in the know jockey for access to the limited supply. When Biderman moved back home he began planning a restaurant to do this burger full time.

”The Company Burger opened in August, joining Freret Street's fast-growing restaurant row. It's an attractive spot, with a wide-open kitchen and a tight, usually crowded, collection of tables and communal dining bars. The staffers are nice as can be, though the restaurant's format is so rigid some diners may still feel put off. The kitchen doesn't stock lettuce or tomato and your cheese choices are American or nothing” (by Ian McNultybestofneworleans.com).

Everything about the space screams “industrial chic” from the large stainless ventilation hood over the grill

to the minimalist tables and chairs

to the use of hygienic-looking white tiles (think White Castle).

This is another one of those order at the counter, find a seat, and wait for your name to be called casual restaurants that we have found in many of the non-Quarter restaurants.

This process went something like:
“Could I have your name?”
“Ozzie.”
“Could I have the first letter of your last name?”
“In case there is more than one Ozzie?”
“Yes.”
“S.”(I usually get a laugh or comment with the name "Ozzie." Not even a smile today. Just the facts.)

We arrived after 1:00 p.m. and found the restaurant almost full. Fortunately, we did find seating at one of the few empty tables.

The menu is short, but interesting. The only options are: The Company Burger—two patties with house bread and butter pickles, American cheese, and red onions; The Single—same as the first but with only one patty; the Lamb Burger with feta, house basil mayonnaise, red onions, and chili mint glaze; the Turkey Burger with tomato jam, green goddess dressing, and arugula; The Cornhog—a hand-dipped Iverstine Farms pork belly corndog; The Company Link Cochon Butcher-smoked beef hot dog with sweet relish, and chopped onions; and a grilled cheese.

“…(T)he item that will raise the most eyebrows is the ‘Cornhog’—a corndog that swaps the traditional frank for unctuous pork belly encased in the middle. The locally sourced pork is cooked sous-vide*, and then dipped in corn batter before frying. Before having one, alert your cardiologist” (Jay Forman at myneworleans.com). And, this being a Friday in Lent in Catholic Louisiana, a special sandwich of fried calamari was offered.

The only two burger additions are a fried egg (When did this trend start?) and bacon. Available sides are fries, tater tots, pimento cheese (a Southern favorite), with melba toast, sweet potato fries, and onion rings.

Each table is set with a roll of brown paper towels (probably made from recycled paper) and large squeeze bottles of catsup and yellow hot dog mustard. But The Company Burger goes one step further. At the back of the restaurant is the “mayonnaise bar” that offered creole mustard, house-made pickled jalapeno peppers, and five flavors of mayo—plain, ancho chile, basil, garlic and herb, and “special sauce.” This latter was similar to Utah Fry Sauce, a mixture of catsup and mayo.

While the fried calamari sandwich sounded intriguing, I ordered The Single with bacon and a side of onion rings. Chuck went for the two patty The Company Burger with a side of fries.

First, let me say that these were truly fine—although just short of exceptional—hamburgers. With the first bite, a blast of beefy bodaciousness bursts into your mouth. The juices flood your hand and pool on the serving plate. “The Company Burger strips the classic American cheeseburger down to the core. Biderman uses Harris Ranch hormone- and antibiotic-free beef for his patties, grinding the chuck and brisket in house each day. His buns are baked on the Northshore using his own recipe then toasted on the griddle. ‘Toasted bread is one of my tenets for burgers.’

“The burgers hit all the right notes. The buns have the right amount of “give” and the griddling buys you time to tackle them before the juices soak through. These aren’t fancy burgers; American cheese melted just so, house-made bread-and-butter-chips and red onion keep them simple. Biderman recommends the namesake ‘Company Burger’—essentially a burger with double patties—and so do I. Fried eggs and bacon are offered as add-ons, but I think the burgers are best as they are or with any of the house-made herbed mayonnaises. But, as Adam says, a burger is a personal thing. ‘Burgers are kind of like barbecue. Everyone has their own opinion’” (Jay Forman at myneworleans.com).

The sides were equally good. The fries—house-cut and twice-fried—were dusted with kosher salt. And the onion rings. Oh, what onion rings. As said by The Hungry Heretic: “Their onion rings can convert even the most hard core dieter into a fried food lover. After taking one bite of these sweet crunchy red onions I decided to never have a white onion-onion ring again. Whoever thought of using red onions is a straight up genius.”

Only one thing keeps The Company Burger from receiving the maximum 5.0 Addies and that was the lack of a charred and crunchy burger exterior. Still, we didn’t think any hamburger in New Orleans could compete with Port of Call, but we found one with this 4.5 Addie burger.

I believe the trophy represents First Place in the “Porkpourri” category at the 2011 Hogs for the Cause, New Orleans’ Barbecue Competition for the entry: a corned pork tongue slider served on a homemade rye bun with mustard slaw and Swiss cheese. In the recent 2012 competition, The Company Burger placed first in the Porkpourri category and placed first in the Grand Champion category.

* “Sous vide, or low temperature cooking, is a process of cooking food at a very tightly controlled temperature, normally the temperature the food will be served at. This is a departure from traditional cooking methods that use high heat to cook the food, which must be removed at the moment it reached the desired temperature” (cookingsousvide.com). (Bravo's Top Chef contestants do this all the time.)

To review the role of Adler, Kitty Humbug, and the Addie rating system, read the November 14, 2011 blog.