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It’s the end of my New Orleans trip, but not before one final blow-out meal. For our last night, a small group of us snagged reservations for John Besh’s restaurant August. You might have seen Besh on Top Chef, where he’s been on TC Masters as well as guest judging on the most recent season of all-stars. Both chef and restaurant have won a slew of awards, so I was excited to end with an haute cuisine version of Louisiana food. The restaurant space is lovely: in a nineteenth-century downtown building, the main dining room has high ceilings, dark wood fittings, and gorgeous beaux-arts chandeliers. We were seated in a smaller room, which was equally elegant but with slightly challenging acoustics.

Given that this was our last hurrah in New Orleans, we opted for the six-course dégustation menu. I never usually have tasting menus in fancy restaurants but I was easily persuaded to push the boat out this time. However, none of us wanted to drink as much as the wine pairing would demand, so we asked the sommelier to help us find a white that would provide a reasonable background to all the dishes. She was wonderful, just what you want from a fine dining experience. She opened bottles and told us not to worry if we didn’t like them. In the end, we found a wine we all approved, although you can tell I’m not the group’s expert in this area, as I have no idea what it actually was. Let’s be honest, they could have opened a bottle of Bulgarian country white and I’d have been just as happy. Read the rest of this entry »

My colleagues who read this blog are beginning to wonder if I am actually at the conference I’m supposed to be attending. I promise I am going to panels in between meals, some of them even at 8am…but yesterday was too beautiful to work through lunch and my New Orleanian friend L kindly agreed to take me for a traditional crawfish boil. The crawfish boil is a warm childhood memory for L, from fishing for the critters with special nets to cooking them up in a stock flavoured with spices, whole garlic heads, and sometimes corn and potatoes too.

We went to Frankie and Johnny’s, another low key local hangout, this time further uptown, near the Garden District. The vibe is somewhere between a diner and a dive bar, with extremely friendly waitstaff who were enthusiastic advocates for the eating of crawfish. We kept it simple with 2lbs of crustaceans – which is to say an enormous pan, easily enough for two. L taught me the basics of crawfish eating, which is to say twist off the head (sucking the juices optional), then pinch the tail and pull off the shell. They’re funny looking buggers but delicious in their peppery garlicy broth.

We added another local specialty: artichoke stuffed with garlicky breadcrumbs. This was not a meal for those uncomfortable eating with their hands. Mr Lemur, who freaks out eating anything messier than a pizza without silverware, would not have approved.

After the crawfish, we clearly hadn’t consumed enough fat and sugar for the day, so L took me to another local spot, Tee-Eva’s, for dessert. Tee-Eva’s is a tiny storefront on Magazine St, with a shaved ice-making machine in front for the local treat called a snowball and a tiny kitchen in back, in which we could see one of the staff stirring a giant pan of caramel for the pralines. It’s the epitome of a local institution, complete with in-joke posters of the staff and postcards sent by loyal customers. We ordered a snowball, which is is a summer cooler in New Orleans consisting of shaved ice, sugar-water, flavoured syrup and an optional topping of condensed milk. (Optional, but really the correct choice. Why would you say no to condensed milk?) However, apparently you have to know to ask for it, as it wasn’t offered. This, apparently, is an extra that demands local knowledge.

The snowball was tooth-achingly sweet but also rather yummy. We also had a praline, but that wasn’t terribly photogenic. After all that sugar, we went for a walk in the beautiful Garden District to recover. And then I went back to the conference. Honest.

Hard as you may find it to believe after the shrimp po’boy, the fried eggplant and the beignets, but I actually went to dinner last night too. I know, I feel mildly ill just thinking about the amount of butter I’ve consumed in the last 48 hours. New Orleans has taught me that I need to prepare better for travel, perhaps by fasting for a week or three. Anthony Bourdain has an elaborate technique for extending the stomach with water prior to high-impact meals, so you are both empty enough to eat a lot and physically prepared for the avalanche of food that’s coming your way. I haven’t been doing that and it’s starting to show.

All of which is to say that I wasn’t quite as ready to appreciate Cochon‘s high-end take on Cajun and country Southern food as I would have liked. I’ve been looking forward to visiting this restaurant for a while, having read really exciting words on the menu like ‘crispy pig’s ear’ and ‘pickled watermelon’. Cochon is unapologetically meaty, focusing on home-cured meats and sausages, long braised pork shoulder, ribs and hocks, and beef brisket. I think the vegetarians in the group subsisted on salad, although I actually looked rather enviously on their plates of beautiful fresh greens, committed as I was to ingesting as much animal fat as possible in a 24 hour period.

I started with deep fried rabbit liver, served on toast with hot pepper jelly. The jelly is a New Orleans standard, and gave a snappy, peppery-sweet edge to the dish. I had no idea rabbits had such substantial livers (have they been drinking as much as everyone else here?) but they were soft and creamy, contrasting beautifully with the crispy breading and sweet jelly. This dish was a major win, as were the homemade zucchini pickles with mint.

For an entrée, I had the Louisiana cochon, which is pork shoulder, slow braised and then formed into patties and — guess what? — fried! It’s like a crab-cake made out of pulled pork. It’s then served with pickled turnips, cabbage, and giant slabs of pork crackling. Seriously, can you understand why I feel the heart failure creeping up on me? Once again, it was sublime and I ate about half of it.

Here’s the ham hock that my friend had. More wonderful pork swimming in butter, this time with greens and (I think) black beans. It was deeply smoky and also very good.

I don’t think I need to tell you that we didn’t make it to dessert.

Another day, another barrel of pork fat. We started the day with a drive through some historic New Orleans neighbourhoods, starting from the French Quarter, then passing by the beautiful old houses of Esplanade Avenue, taking a turn around the funky Faubourg Marigny, and then to Mid City for an early lunch. My friend and native New Orleanian JD recommended Liuzza’s, a bar-cafe by the race track that doesn’t look anything special but is packed out by noon with hungry locals.

The waitress apologised for the increased price of shrimp, a reminder if we needed one of the situation in the gulf. But raised prices aside, the shrimp were still front and centre in the menu, with the house special a New Orleans style barbeque shrimp po’boy. But hey, why limit yourself to an enormous sandwich? So we started with a modest appetizer of fried eggplant…

Ha! You knew I was kidding, right? This was insanely decadent: eggplant and cheese, breaded, deep fried, and sprinkled with more cheese. It was soooo good. We followed it up with the house special po’boy, which is not the usual fried shrimp or fish, but shrimp cooked in a peppery sauce which soaks into the soft French bread. You eat it with a knife and fork, as the bread is completely saturated with the sauce. I ate about two thirds of it, which I thought was quite good going.

Yup, I’m on a work trip to New Orleans, and aiming to devote a decent part of my down time to the culinary and architectural pleasures of the city. I’ve never been here before, although I’ve always wanted to visit, and I’m lucky enough to be here with several friends who either come from New Orleans or know the place well. I arrived last night, which is to say on Ash Wednesday, the day after Mardi Gras. Not the best timing, and the city is still covered in beads and cleanup crews. But truth be told, I’m a bit scared of heaving crowds and girls gone wild madness, so maybe it’s better I arrive into a slightly calmer city…

I was exhausted after a long and rather turbulent flight, but happily my friends picked me up from the airport and whisked me to Herbsaint, a bistro on Charles Street that focuses on upscale versions of New Orleans and Southern classics. The vibe is relaxed and the mixology is impressive. Our table of cocktail afficionados oohed and aahed over the sazerac and the ginger mint julep, though I was not quite up to joining in. I ordered a bunch of small plates because so many dishes looked good and I was still feeling dopey and indecisive from the journey. (Who am I kidding, I do this all the time…) I started with the gumbo, which was a dark and complex thing of beauty. My New Orleanian friend asked if I’d ever had gumbo before. I realised that while I had many times eaten something that was labelled gumbo on a menu, I had in fact never eaten gumbo before. The depth of a thick, dark roux is something I’ve heard cooks discuss before, but I never really appreciated it until now. It is astonishingly flavourful. This gumbo was chicken and andouille sausage, but I don’t think it really mattered what meats were added. It was all about the roux.

I went on to have shrimp and grits, a dish that’s common across the south, but was especially good at Herbsaint. The shrimp are of course all locally caught and the flavour of ultrafresh seafood is central to what is otherwise a very rich plate of food. The grits are decadently soft and creamy: probably about 80% butter holding the grits together. This was listed as a small plate on the menu but I actually couldn’t finish it because it was so incredibly rich. It was also really delicious.

I also had a special of spicy frogs’ legs served with pickled fennel and carrot, and some kind of peppery sautéed green. The frog legs themselves were delectable – big and meaty but with a delicacy of flavour and texture that suggested they were very fresh indeed. The home pickled vegetables provided a much needed bite of astringency, especially the fennel. I couldn’t quite figure out the greens: the menu called them bok choy, but they were much thinner than any bok choy I’ve ever had. They looked and tasted more like young mustard greens. Whatever they were, they had picked up a smoky quality from their cooking that felt like a more charcoaly version of Chinese wok hei. It was really really good. (They don’t really show up in the picture, as they’re hidden under the frogs’ legs.)

For dessert we ordered a banana brown butter pie with salty caramel sauce that has been on the menu for ten years. It was so popular at our table that it was more or less gone before I had the opportunity to photograph it. I suppose the lack of photographic evidence is the ultimate sign of deliciousness.

This morning I was up bright and early for beignets and chicory coffee at Cafe du Monde. (Tip: come at 7:30am to avoid the Disney-style queues of tourists.) I can’t describe how good the beignets are. Seriously. I’m coming back every morning and I don’t care if I do gain ten pounds in four days.

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