Monday, May 31, 2010

A Day in the life of New Orleans: Domilise's and Cochon

New Orleans is right up there on my list of all-time favorite cities because it embodies many of the things I love most in life: food, music, romance and that rough edge that makes it feel exciting. Somehow I tend to find myself there in the summer and therefore I also associate it with a very sultry, thick heat, which for me is an excuse for strappy sundresses and cool cocktails.

This year was no exception. Mark and I traveled 90 miles from Biloxi to NOLA to wrap up our weekend on the coast. Upon landing we walked downtown to build our appetite for what was to be a one-day NOLA extravaganza. Usually we visit for a few days so we immediately felt the pressure of choice. To me, lunch was easy as I have been craving a Domilise's fried oyster po' boy for months. Upon arriving at the unassuming dive, the line was already out the door. Once inside I reveled in the seedy interior, not updated in decades and the 3 stoic "lunch-lady" looking older women behind the counter, wearing hair nets, working the fryer and methodically creating works of art. Every once in a while they yell to the customers to ensure we are taking numbers as we slowly crawl along the counter until it is our turn to order. The process is not obvious and of course I don't remember to take a number until I hear the barked order. Mark scores a table, which is not easy, so I take over the ordering. One small fried oyster po' boy, dressed and one fried shrimp po' boy for Mark, also dressed. I learned on our previous visit that dressed basically means loaded with mayo, lettuce, hot sauce and I am sure a few other things. I try not to look at the huge tub of mayo from which they slather, because I know that what comes out of this cramped kitchen is pure genius. You don't pay when you order, but instead when the order is up. In the meantime they instruct you to get drinks from the bar tender. The phone rings off-the-hook, but no one even attempts to answer it, so you are better off driving by if you worry whether or not they are not open. There could be some major streamlining in their processes, but who am I to make suggestions.

At last our orders are ready and they are pure perfection. Sweet juicy oysters in a crunchy fried batter, balanced by cool lettuce and mayo and the best po' boy bread ever. It is one of those sandwiches made better by pressing down and mushing it all together. It is completely messy and so delicious that my only regret is how fast I end up eating it. Once you bite into it, you really cannot pause for fear of it all falling apart and losing the balance of each bite. They do not skimp on the oysters, either. A small, definitely a misnomer, is $14, but it is entirely worth it. I also scarf my meal down because while you eat you cannot help but notice the line out the door and feel some pressure to let the next group of people nab your table. On this visit another couple, who said they are from NOLA, but whom I suspect relocated from NY at some point, made the bold and savvy decision to request our table before we were done. Of course we asked them to join us while we finished as we had extra chairs and thoroughly enjoyed getting to know them. We now shared the Domilise's bond.

After a brief visit to Bayou Boogaloo festival for music and art, we retired to the rooftop pool for afternoon relaxation. Mark made Dirty Martinis, poolside, with the new Cathead Vodka, from the first "legal" Mississippi distillery. I met the owners at their office/distillery on my way down to the coast and was excited to try their product, which proved to be very smooth.

After relaxing at the pool we cleaned up for dinner at Cochon. Having been to Cochon previously we worried as to whether it was as good as we remembered and were not disappointed. As you would imagine from the name, which means pig in french, the menu is filled with very diverse, carnivore friendly items. The atmosphere is bustling and the tables are tight; it is definitely not the place to have an intimate conversation, but more likely where you make friends with the folks on either side of you, or at least get ideas of what to order when you see their meals arrive.

We started out with paneed pork cheeks with baked peanuts and radish-turnip salad as well as a fried head cheese small plate. Both were out-of-this-world, but the head cheese was by far the winner. We debated about ordering the rabbit livers, which we have had previously and loved and would highly recommend.

For entrees, I ordered the special, a fried soft-shell crab over a green bean, fennel and soy bean salad. I know, it sounds crazy to order crab at a restaurant called Cochon, but after asking the waitress, she recommended it and reminded me that soft-shelled crabs are only available a few weeks each year. Given the situation in the Gulf, with BP employing strategies that involve golf balls and old tires, I felt that I should take advantage of this delicacy while I could. While I was full for a few days afterward from the sheer richness, I did not regret my order for an instant. It was the most juicy soft shelled crab I have ever experienced. It was fried delicately and seemed to be brushed with a chili sauce. The balance of crunchiness to sweet, juicy crab meat was exquisite. Mark, who would never order soft-shelled crab, voiced some regret that he did not also order it as he loved the dish. By no means is that a slight to his choice of the ham hock with sweet potatoes, pickled greens and black eyed pea ham broth. The ham in one word, was sophisticated. It was smoky, tender, falling off the bone and completely not your Christmas Day spiral sliced, pineapple ham.

Following dinner we set out on foot to enjoy the NOLA nightlife and within a block of Cochon, we happened upon a wedding parade. Only in NOLA would one consider walking the streets of a city with all of your wedding guests, led by a police escort and followed by a wedding float. Music was blasting and the guests danced as they processed. I felt tears in my eyes as they passed and thought that this moment was a perfect example of the magic that I so often feel when visiting New Orleans.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Emeril's Gulf Coast Fish House, Gulfport, MS

Vacation to me means great food. Scenic walks, music and other forms of entertainment are important, but ultimately I wrap every great trip around a food tour of the area. Like most fellow foodies, I strive to find that amazing local find, where I can experience flavors entirely unique to the region and feel that I "hunted" out an experience as if it were a contest. My partner Mark excels at this "sport" and I am willing to say that he is largely responsible for many of our amazing meals. This last week during our trip to Biloxi, where we stayed at the beautiful Beau Rivage, Mark took charge once again, but instead of seeking out that elusive local joint, he booked us at one of our favorite celebrity chef establishments, Emeril's Gulf Coast Fish House in Gulfport. While we are not celebrity chef whores, there is something about Emeril's empire that continues to draw us back. Perhaps it is that he grew up just a few miles from both Mark and me. Maybe it is the impeccable service that we always receive. Possibly it is stories about his dedication to his employees, post Katrina. Definitely, it has much to do with the flavors; the dishes are consistently on target with their descriptions, yet always manage to offer a little surprise. This time was no exception. We learned on the shuttle into the casino that this restaurant is slated to close at the end of the month, which may have enhanced the experience as we knew this was our only shot. Being my first trip to the coast, I was struck by the remnants of Katrina still, five years later, not only in the empty foundations along the shore, but also in the eerie quietness of the tourist spots, hurt even further by the BP oil catastrophe. There is no oil on the beaches, but the tourists don't know that.

As we entered Emeril's Gulf Coast Fish House at 8:30 on a Friday night, after seeing David Copperfield's show, we had the place to ourselves. The menu was rather short, which I actually prefer as it makes me feel like the restaurant has taken the time to perfect a small number of dishes. We selected the fried artichoke heart appetizer served with local honey. What I loved about this dish is it was very down-home feeling. This was not one of those appetizers where you need to figure out how to split a shrimp 3 ways in order to share it with your friends. The batter was light; the hearts were crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside. The dipping sauce tasted of honey mustard, which, while it did not disappoint, I was expecting the hearts to be drizzled with straight-up local honey.

I selected the andouille encrusted Red Fish over red potatoes. I upgraded by adding crab meat to the top at my servers suggestion - why not? The Cajun seasoning on the fish was spicy but not too hot. The andouille, scattered over the fish, was crunchy and added a nice texture and salt. In addition to the bed of potatoes, the red fish was served with roasted summer squash, both zucchini and yellow, which were roasted to perfection. The fish itself was meaty and buttery. Again, the serving size was plentiful and the dish was rich enough that I could not finish it, particularly after noshing on the fried artichokes!

Mark ordered the shrimp and grits. He recently experienced this quintessential southern dish at John Currence's James Beard winning, City Grocery Restaurant for the first time and now is on a quest to experience as many culinary interpretations as possible. It did not appear to disappoint judging from the fact that I did not get a bite!

I had a nice Californian Savignon Blanc. It was a pleasant accompaniment, however lacking the
robust flavor that many of my favorite (thanks to Peggy's introduction) New Zealand's posess.

We chit-chatted with our waiter and learned that while the restaurant is slated to close, Emeril is transferring his employees across his restaurant group and Vegas is our waiter's next stop. Sealing the deal for a big tip, our waiter, upon hearing that we were too full for our original dessert intention, brought us a complimentary boxed up bread pudding, on-the-house. While I cannot expound on the virtues of the warm bread pudding, I can tell you that served cold with coffee the next morning in bed, at the Beau Rivage, I may have found religion.

I want to thank my friend Jessica for encouraging me to start a food blog and thank those of you who read through this very first passage. My decision to write came a few days after this dinner, so forgive my lack of recall on the wine label and from now on I promise to insist that Mark share his meal, you know....for the blog's sake!