Tuesday, July 30, 2013

He Hasn’t a Clue

Recently a New York Times travel writer and blogger—who shall remain nameless to spare him further embarrassment—made a road trip beginning in Louisiana and ending in North Dakota. And he had the audacity to write that he “could not find a memorable meal in Louisiana.”
Where did he go? Well, he went to Baton Rouge. OK, that’s the state capitol. He went to Shreveport. I’ve never been there so have no comment. He went to Natchitoches. Well, Natchitoches is known for its meat pies, which I consider to be miniature versions of Cornish Pasties. He went to Mamou. Mamou? The only reason to visit Mamou is to go to Fred’s Lounge on a Saturday morning to listen to Cajun music, suck on long-necks, and watch the locals drag tourists out onto the dance floor. Which explains why we have never gone to Fred’s Lounge on a Saturday morning.
I understand passing on New Orleans. Much has been written about New Orleans over the years. But how do you visit Louisiana without coming to Lafayette? Lafayette, the city that won Southern Living magazine’s competition in 2012 to be named “Tastiest Town in the South.” Lafayette, the city where—according to a local restaurant owner—the residents eat out more often than in New Orleans. Lafayette, a city so discriminating that the famous Donald Links, owner of at least five highly regarded restaurants in New Orleans, saw his Cochon Lafayette close after just over a year in business. Lafayette, where your dining choices range from plate lunch houses, poor boy shops, burger bars, to white tablecloth dining. Lafayette, where you can find really great barbecue, authentic Mexican food, and about ten miles east, truly fine pizza along with both traditional Cajun cooking and Cajun cooking taken to new culinary levels. (The only thing we haven’t found in Lafayette is really good Chinese food.) So Chuck and I share Acadiana’s ire over this snub.
And city diners love nothing better than when a local boy returns home (from New Orleans), opens a well-praised restaurant, and is twice nominated for the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef in the South Award. “New Orleans-trained Lafayette native, Justin Girouard has teamed up with his wife Margaret to open a new staple in the Lafayette restaurant scene. Located downtown…, (t)he French Press serves breakfast and lunch Tuesday through Sunday in a casual family friendly atmosphere. Also, dinner on Friday and Saturday nights allows Chef Girouard to showcase some his artistic and more technical abilities…” (thefrenchpresslafayette.com).
“Girouard began his culinary career as a dish washer at Stella! in New Orleans, eventually working his way up to sous chef, and finally returning to his home town of Lafayette to open a knock-out gem of a restaurant” (thespoonfeeds.com).
“The moniker, The French Press, was designed as a nod to their sophisticated French style dining and the buildings former existence as a printing press…. The French Press is an entanglement of new and old…. The building…employs perfect juxtaposition; it maintains its antique floors and walls from the Printing Press, while boasting modern interior designs of concrete and steel…” (Shanna Perkins at lafayette.exposedtv.com).
“The old Tribune print shop downtown was being renovated and the couple fell in love with both the old building and its rustic ambiance and the large open spaces… They restored the interior, including painting the original pressed tin ceiling and sealing the ink-stained concrete floor that still bears the footprints of the printers who once published on the spot…one wall exists in its naked beauty, stains and cracks exposed, giving the restaurant an almost French Quarter appeal” (Chere Coen at countryroadsmagazine.com).

We last dined at French Press in the Spring of 2011 and had breakfast on two different visits. And we wanted to return to see if their breakfasts were as good as remembered. On these previous visits, we ordered the Acadian Breakfast Sandwich (bacon, egg, cheese and boudin on Texas toast), the Sweet Baby Breesus (buttermilk biscuit sliders with bacon, fried boudin balls, and Steen's cane syrup), the Cajun Benedict (toasted French bread, boudin, and eggs topped with chicken and andouille gumbo), and the Grits And Grillades. We loved them all. So what do we do? Reorder a favorite or try something new? We went with the new.
For Chuck it was French Press’ take on the classic Chicken and Waffles and their version should be deemed a classic itself. First, the chicken was one of the moistest pieces of chicken ever—which is hard to achieve with a boneless breast like this.
I asked our server Jonathon if the chicken had been brined, and after consultation with the kitchen, he came back and reported that, rather than brining, they had marinated the chicken with buttermilk (the enzymes and acids tenderize the chicken).

But they didn’t stop with the buttermilk marinade. The crispy skin had been glazed with LeBlanc’s cane jelly—a Louisiana product that was totally new to me—that gave the chicken a slightly sweet taste and that produced little “burnt sugar” bits on the skin. “From the cure-all elixir Hadacol to the first new sugarcane product in more than 200 years, the LeBlanc family has been churning out one-of-a-kind products in Louisiana since 1945. In recent years, Roland LeBlanc has poured his time and efforts into developing sugarcane jelly…. His final product, LeBlanc’s Cane Jelly…is the first new sugarcane product since 1794…. LeBlanc’s process for turning juice from sugarcane into jelly is not one of the common kitchen experiments gone awry stories. His product is the result of three years of hard work and determination” (ldaf.state.la). I so have to find some of this before we leave Louisiana!

The waffle portion of his meal had been topped with sharp cheddar which made a good foil to the sweet chicken. And the waffle came with a pitcher of warm Steen’s Cane Syrup for drizzling.
I chose the French toast which—in the tradition of pain perdu (lost bread)—was made with thick slices of French bread. Sandwiched between two slices of bread was a cream cheese and banana spread. And instead of syrup, the French toast was covered with a tart strawberry and blueberry champagne compote.
But, if I am eating a sweet breakfast, there has to be something salty on the side. How about a side of praline bacon? As Adam Richman (Man v. Food on the Travel Channel) would say “Oh my goodness. Oh my goodness.” Danno at nolacuisine.com wrote: “I don’t think there is anything quite as sinful as Praline Bacon. In fact, it is so sinful it could have only been created in New Orleans, and in fact it was, at Elizabeth’s Restaurant in 1998. The flavor marriage of pralines and good smoky bacon is so wrong that it just has to be right…”
The recipe Danno provides calls for thick cut bacon, Steen’s Cane Syrup, brown sugar, and toasted pecans. I don’t know how closely the French Press follows this specific recipe, but their version was magnificent. Think bacon candy.

So I say to that—I am presuming here—self-important New York Times travel writer and blogger, “Come to ‘The Tastiest Town in the South’ and start your day with a 5.0 Addie breakfast at the French Press.”
To review the role of Adler, Kitty Humbug, and the Addie rating system, read the November 14, 2011 blog.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

"If Not, We Will Build It"

“What kind of bike do you have?” was the question posed to me.

“I don’t have one,” I answered.
“Are you looking to buy one?” he continued.

“No. I’m just enjoying the sights,” was my response.
My answers were puzzling to the questioner. After all, here we were in Lafayette’s (LA) Recycled Cycles, and, understandably, he assumed that I, like him, was here on bicycle business.

And on this weekday morning, there were several people who were there not just to take photos and block progress through the narrow spaces among new, used, and ready-for-repairs bicycles.
One customer wanted to have air pumped in his bike tire, and as William Atkinson, the owner, began pumping, it was easy to understand why the customer did not do this at home. As the tire became inflated, it made creaking sounds, and William was reluctant to try to inflate this aging tire any further.
Between answering phone calls, William informed another customer that his bike was on the schedule for repairs that afternoon and would be ready late in the day.
Another customer left with her three-wheeler repaired to her satisfaction.

One of William’s assistants entered during the course of these interactions and began organizing the displays of bikes on the sidewalk.
And all this was taking place in the first fifteen minutes that the shop was open.

William did not have time to chat about the number of cyclists in Lafayette or the attraction of biking in general, but he did answer one question about the ages of the bikes in the window.

“The one on the right (below) is post-War, and
the one on the left (below) is 1936,” he answered quickly, his voice growing less audible as he headed to the back of the shop to begin repairing other bicycles.
I took a few last photos and then left.

This was not a planned visit. The display window had caught my eye on the way to breakfast, so I was able to indulge my curiosity after breakfast.
I was not aware the shop’s repertoire until reading the team’s web page:
“Recycled Cycles of Acadiana is Lafayette's premiere bike shop! We specialize in new, used, and custom bikes as well as full restoration work. We have the bike of your dreams. If not, we will build it!
“Just need some repairs? Our mechanics can help you with any bicycle issues you may have. We do repair on all bicycle types and sizes. From top-end to klunkers, no matter what you broke we can fix it! We also offer our work racks to anyone when not in use, so you can come in and Do It Yourself.

“Into old antique bikes? We have one of the nicest bicycle museums in the south. Come in and have a look around.”
Unfortunately, I was not able to meet Zach, who is there mostly on Saturdays. From his bio on the web page, he sounded like an interesting fellow:
“Rode a 2-wheel bike at 2 years old! …Zach knows what's up when it comes to picking out that perfect bike! He can run the 40 in 2 seconds flat! Always trying to save people from burning buildings. Best bike builder of the century! (and maybe next)” (recycledcycleslafayette.com).
I left with thoughts of returning on a Saturday and with memories of the many bicycle rides in the countryside of northern Illinois.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Original Plan…

was to make our road trip to New Roads, LA, on a Sunday and, after our tour of this historic city, have lunch at a highly regarded—although a bit staid—restaurant overlooking False River. But that was before I read the article in Louisiana Kitchen & Culture that Chuck referenced Wednesday and noticed an insert box describing a relatively new restaurant opened by four graduates of the Louisiana Culinary Institute whose food is described as being “executed with youthful fun and flair.” That, and the accompanying photo, was enough to spark our interest. One problem. This restaurant is closed on Sunday. Time for another new plan.

And so when Chuck was talking with his new friend on New Road’s main street (see our previous entry) and his friend said, “If you want really good seafood, you should go to…”, Chuck was able to say in unison with him: “Hot Tails.”

“In New Roads, the action—culinary and otherwise—is by the waterside. And fair enough. The banks of False River…provide lovely water views and, with all the recreational boating that the huge oxbow lake attracts, plenty to look at, too. So…it's easy to overlook New Roads' other dining options, purely as a result of their non-waterside settings. Such is the case with Hot Tails Louisiana Crawfish House…on New Roads' rather less scenic Hospital Road. But don't let the location hold you back, because the setting here is cheerful, the beer selection extensive, and the dishes terrific.
“That Hot Tails is all about seafood should be obvious from the moment you pull into the carpark. For a start there's the huge crawfish on the sign, and the twin crawfish-emblazoned, chrome jambalaya cooking paddles that have been fashioned into door handles…” (countryroadsmagazine.com).
(Ed. Note: You’ve never had jambalaya until you have had it from a huge iron pot set over an open flame and stirred with large paddles. Especially when served at one of Louisiana’s many festivals.)

Located in an old drive-through convenience store, I would describe the restaurant as “Cajun Funkadelic.” At the foot of the entry steps sits a hand-made child-size metal truck. The sign over the door reads “Hardcore South Louisiana Cuisine.”

“Inside, the nets, paddles, cypress knees, fifties-era road signs, farm implements, taxidermy and folk art everywhere do a good job of creating a boisterously casual environment and providing plenty to look at while you wait for your dinner to arrive…” (countryroadsmagazine.com).

But this is no ordinary seafood shack. It is one run by serious culinary artists. “It's not all boiled crabs and fried frogs' legs… Fancier fare shows up on Hot Tails' daily specials board, on which the owners show off their Culinary Institute credentials in dishes like seared trout with andouille cream sauce, served over mushroom rice pilaf with steamed vegetables, or fried shrimp over goat's cheese grits and served with pepper jelly. Behind the huge bar, which runs almost the length of the restaurant, ten beers on tap plus scores more bottled varieties offered plenty of ways to medicate any spice burns; wine pours were generous, and the bar offers a range of spirits and cocktails, too” (countryroadsmagazine.com).

It is a restaurant so serious that “Executive Chef Cody Carroll…assisted by his wife, Samantha, wowed judges with his Louisiana Speckled Trout Perdu dish to capture the 2013 King of Louisiana Seafood title…. Carroll’s dish features Louisiana speckled trout served with an étouffée of red swamp crawfish, whipped Creole potato salad, sweet corn and blue crab calas, Tabasco sabayon, and house-pickled banana peppers. The dish is finished with charred green onion and sassafras dust. The Trout Perdu is ‘a takeoff on pain perdu,’ he explained….’ I used an egg, a little sugar and heavy cream to make a wet batter and pan-fried it, like French toast.’…”
“As seafood king, Carroll will act as ambassador and spokesman for the Louisiana seafood industry at events throughout the year. He also will represent Louisiana in the 10th annual Great American Seafood Cook-Off on Aug. 3 in New Orleans (Cheramie Sonnier at theadvocate.com).

The winning dish and the more creative specials were not on the lunch menu. I suspect that one has to come for dinner to sample most of Hot Tails’ more creative items. At lunch, the menu relies on such staples as poor boys, fried seafood boxes (or, as referred to at Hot Tails, “boxx”), salads, and hamburgers. And of course, this being Cajun Louisiana, there was a plate lunch. The day of our visit it was meatloaf with garlic mashed and green beans for the low price of $7.50.
You place your order at the register located at the end of the bar and are given a number to place in a stand at your table.
As we waited for our food to arrive, I shamelessly studied the food being eaten at adjoining tables. Next to us were a man and woman with what I am assuming was their young son. The latter was eating the Fried Catfish Boxx. The man and woman were eating shrimp poor boys—she the half and he the whole.

OMG, are the portions big! While the son ate all of his catfish, he left most of his fries. Both the man and woman finally waved the white flag and finished by eating the shrimp out of their sandwiches and leaving some of the roll. And neither made a dent in their fries.

And then there was the woman seated across from us who, when served her half-pound hamburger, immediately requested a “to go” box and immediately placed half of her sandwich into said box.
So we were not a bit surprised by the size of our order of onion rings. This would have fed a family of eight were they sensible eaters. But we’re talking about us and we managed to eat nearly sixty percent of the order.
As we were eating, I kept telling myself to stop (as I did with the chips and salsa at La Pagua [in Lafayette]) lest I not be able to eat my main meal. But these were terrific rings and so I kept eating. They were super crunchy and the batter seemed to contain a good measure of hot sauce. And the accompanying “spillway remoulade” also packed a good degree of spice.

Our entrees arrived just in time to serve as a momentary distraction from the onion rings. (But I do admit to snacking on the rings throughout the entire meal.)
For Chuck it was the Fried Shrimp Boxx that came with fries and two jalapeno cornbread hushpuppies or, as they call them here, “shut up dawgs.” These were some of the better hushpuppies I have eaten. They were studded with minced jalapenos and had a slight sweet taste. And they were made even better when dipped into the “spillway remoulade.”

Ordering shrimp is a departure for Chuck. Usually he would order either the fried catfish or fried crawfish tails. But I think that I have convinced him that no one—except for the Chinese—can cook a shrimp as well or better than the Cajuns. His boxx contained nine very large butterflied shrimp. We don’t often see butterflied shrimp in Louisiana but doing so provides more surface area for the seasoned coating.
I went with the Fried Oyster Boxx that contained a dozen plump oysters that were simultaneously sweet and briny. The coating appeared to be the same as on Chuck’s shrimp and had more corn meal/corn starch than we usually see. This made for a thicker, but crunchier, crust.

Both of our boxx (How do you spell the plural of boxx?) came with a gargantuan portion of thick-cut fries that were dusted with Creole/Cajun seasoning. Normally I don’t care for fries this thick, but Hot Tails managed to produce fries that were crisp while being soft and steamy inside. All of my fries returned home with me (along with a good-sized portion of onion rings) and now reside in our freezer awaiting the right time to reheat them.

One of the wonders of retirement is being master of your own schedule. A restaurant isn’t open on Sunday? That’s OK. We’ll go on Tuesday. But whenever you go, be prepared for 5.0 Addie eats.
To review the role of Adler, Kitty Humbug, and the Addie rating system, read the November 14, 2011 blog.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

False River and New Roads

“Step off the beaten path, and re-enter the world of 19th century Creole Louisiana in New Roads, Louisiana, where relaxation is the rule and history and tradition are abundant.”

This statement confirmed the suggestion of a very helpful consultant at the Commission when I asked: “What are some areas around Lafayette that you would recommend for a day trip that would include history and good food?”

Her answer: “One of the places I would recommend is New Roads.”

Armed with her suggestion, the July/August copy of Louisiana Kitchen and Culture, and information expanding on today’s opening quotation from newroads.net, we set off for New Roads.

Heading thirty-five miles east of Lafayette on I-10, followed by another thirty miles or so north on highways 3000, 76, 77, 78, and 1, passing green open spaces and
buildings serving as local bulletin boards,
brought us to one of the oldest communities in the Mississippi Valley.
Le Poste de Pointe Coupée (“The Pointe Coupee Post”) was founded in the 1720s by settlers from France. The post was located upstream from the point crossed by the explorers, immediately above but not circled by False River. The name was linked to the area along the Mississippi northeast of what is now New Roads.
About 1776, a Chemin Neuf, or "New Road", was built connecting the Mississippi River with False River. The post at False River became known as New Roads.

At one point while I was photographing the downtown area, a car pulled up in front of the bank where I was standing. The gentleman emerged and began walking toward the bank. Noticing that I was looking across the street with my camera poised, he asked, “I can move my car (the dark one in the photo below) if you would like.”
I thanked him for his concern, but assured him that that would not be necessary.

That offer and the fifteen-minute conversation that followed was another example of Cajun hospitality. After learning where we hailed from, he proudly touched on the “must see” sights of his hometown.

He urged us to take time to see the interior of St. Mary of False River Catholic Church.
(We were not able to see the stained glass windows in this 1907 Gothic-style church, because there was a funeral service in progress.)
On the subject of other places to see, our “stranger-turned-guide” strongly urged us to have lunch in town. He suggested Morel’s on the waterfront or
Ma Mama’s just down the street. But he said the best place for lunch was (see tomorrow’s entry).
We talked about our impressions of our travels through Cajun Country and the people we’ve met. Just before we parted, my “stranger-turned-friend” recommended heading out of town and “just before the railroad tracks, turn right and take the road along the eastern side of the lake.”

Before taking that drive, I took a few minutes to appreciate the many similar encounters with the people in the parishes surrounding Lafayette. The friendliest and most welcoming people we have met in our five years of traveling.

Before continuing our drive, we walked through this small park with benches to view this well-worn mural.
So as we headed out of town, we passed Kutz by Kurt
and wondered if that was Kurt in the window playing the guitar.
Raymond’s Friendly Family Pharmacy appeared welcoming
as did the murals on one exterior wall of the pharmacy.
The 1902 Romanesque Revival architectural style of the Pointe Coupee Parish Courthouse stood as a strong anchor of the community.

Interestingly, False River is actually an oxbow lake that was once the main channel of the Mississippi River in this area. It was cut off from the "mighty Mississippi" in about 1722 when seasonal flooding cut a shorter channel to the east.
False River is nearly 0.5 miles wide and 22 miles long, encompassing approximately 3,000 acres (louisianatravel.com/reasons-to-love-new-roads).
As we passed the homes on the eastern shore, we could easily see the attraction of the lake.

So, we learned that history and tradition are abundant in New Roads, but how about the food.