Monday, November 7, 2011

Smoky cocktails, house cured charcuterie, and bacon bitters: Snackbar, Oxford, MS

Don't let the miles of farmland on all sides or the quaint town square fool you, Oxford, Mississippi is a little gem of a food town. Oxford takes its cuisine seriously, after all, it is the home of the Southern Foodways Alliance, an organization that researches, documents and celebrates southern culture through food. Because of this, it is odd that I have not spent much time writing about the gastronomic riches in my own backyard. There are plenty of culinary experiences, from the simple BBQ at Handy Andy's to the soul food at Ajax Diner, for which which much has already been penned; I cannot add anything unique. However, recently my passion for one establishment has reached a crescendo that I cannot ignore. I am in love with Snackbar.

One of John Currence's four brilliant concepts, the french brasserie is wrapped in warm wood walls, hung with deer heads, creating a cozy lodge-like feel, yet the funky, hip lighting lends an urban, almost European atmosphere. No matter the season, there is a feng shui about Snackbar that beckons me. This used to be a point of contention with my partner, who only just recently came under the same spell, thanks to a magical fall cocktail called the Antigua. Smooth Don Julio anejo tequila, an aged liquor, is mixed with a house-made, slightly sweet, chipotle infused, agave syrup, a splash of soda, and finished with a caramelized slice of orange, making a drink that can only be described as "smoke-in-a-glass". Drinking the Antigua, you cannot help but think of falling leaves, Fair Isle wool sweaters, and wood burning fires. Another favorite off the seasonal cocktail menu is the Panacea. Made up of Bernheim Original Kentucky Wheat Bourbon, Averna, which is a sweet and bitter Sicilian herbal liqueur, Heering Cherry Liqueur, and a Galliano Rinse, this is a great choice for those who enjoy a good Old Fashioned.

Pickle Plate
The drinks alone are worth the trip to Snackbar, however the food is equally memorable. Locals extol their truffle parmesan frites, an addictive, exquisite french fry served aside a hangar steak or as a side dish. Regardless of how they are served, I promise you will not forgive the last one at the bottom of the parchment-lined cylinder for being the last one. Their raw bar is fresh and their charcuterie includes greats like duck leg pâté and pâté de foie de poulet (chicken liver, mushroom pâté). While classic dishes stay on the menu, many of their dishes are seasonal including a past favorite, the fried mac and cheese small plate. On a recent trip, I reminisced to the waitress about an inventive pickle plate about which I still fantasized, and after a quick check with the chefs, she returned to the table with a whipped-up version that will tide me over until the original returns. Prior to my original plate, I thought of pickles as cucumbers, drowned in dill or bread and butter brines, found in the grocery store aisle. I had no inkling of the complexity of spices, let alone the diversity of vegetables that can be pickled. Our mini version included a curried cauliflower, a lemony shrimp, crisp, thin haricot vert, a briny egg, crunchy okra, tangy black-eyed peas, and even cinnamon and clove spiced mango.

Boudin Balls
Off the charcuterie menu, we ordered boudin balls, a cajun pork and rice sausage, rolled and deep fried, harkening to Currence's roots in New Orleans. Although paired with a grainy mustard and greens, the perfectly crisp outside and creamy sausage and rice mixture on the inside, needed no accompaniment. Snackbar's burger has been praised in many southern magazines as a favorite, and while not out-of-the-ordinary, the compilation of local and house made accoutrements certainly make it a winner. White Oak pastures beef is topped with sister restaurant's Big Bad Breakfast bacon, house-made cheddar, house tomato jam, creole mustard, onions, and greens, and then sandwiched in a airy brioche bun.

The hearty and yet delicate risotto was made with healthy portions of fresh lump crab meat, sweet corn, red bell peppers, shallot, and thyme. And to further indulge the creamy factor, the pasta was finished with a lush mascarpone cheese. The redfish courtboullion, served as a special, included a perfectly cooked, flaky filet, topped with a tomato based sauce reminiscent of a sweet caponata.

On a recent return trip to satisfy an Antigua craving, Brian served us at the bar, where we tried a new fish special, the corvina. Billed as similar to a sea bass, this firm, yet mild white fish was served atop a pumpkin seed puree with roasted baby eggplants; it hit all of the rich notes of fall, yet remained light.

Redfish Courtbuillion
The cocktails are the creative inventions of the superb bar tending staff, often egged on by owner John Currence. He once told me, jokingly, that seeing the creativity and shear volume spawned by a contest amongst the bar staff to develop the most unique bitters, he feared where it might eventually lead. Fortunately bacon bitters, a mainstay on the cocktail list, was clearly a winning result. Currence's dynamic leadership style has undoubtedly allowed Vishwesh Bhatt, Chef at Snackbar and member of the City Grocery Restaurant group for over ten years, to exercise his talent, masterfully coupling classic country french flavors with southern comfort food.

Perhaps one of the other reasons I have restrained from writing about local eateries, is that Snackbar, located a half mile north of the square, still seems like a well kept secret from the throngs of college students, football fans and tourists who patronize the well established haunts. While I hate to jeopardize the neighborhood pub aura, I can no longer keep quiet about my love affair with Snackbar.

Snackbar on Urbanspoon

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Honky Tonks, Duck Fat, and Cheesy Chicken Pie - Nashville, TN

Unlike most New Englanders who grew up in the late '70s, I loved country music as a child.  While my friends were rocking out to Rick Springfield, I wore out Johnny Cash tapes on my cassette player and sat riveted, nightly with my parents as they watched the country music TV station.  We lived frugally, my parents had a date night every Saturday, sans kids, and my Dad loved the motto "children were to be seen and not heard", so you can imagine my elation when I found out that my folks were taking me, an eight year old, to a Johnny Cash concert at the Cohasset Music Circus. This also happened to be fourth grade, my lost year.  Inexplicably, most afternoons in the second half of fourth grade, I would fall sound asleep at my desk after lunch.  I tried hard to avoid this embarrassing fate as I not only shared a desk with the fourth grade heart throb, Billy Lincoln, but being the bookworm that I was, I devastatingly snoozed right through reading period where Mrs. Henderson was reading us the the enthralling story of James and the Giant Peach.  This went on for six months, including countless trips to the nurse and even a few school counseling sessions with my folks to determine if there was foul play at home.  Near bursting with excitement on an early summer night, I dressed up to attend my first-ever concert, alone with my parents, to hear my idol, Johnny Cash.  Unfortunately I only made it three songs deep before falling sound asleep in the 3rd row.  I was devastated and ashamed, and although it was only a few weeks later that we learned the pharmacist had mixed up my fluoride pills with an elderly person's blood pressure medication, causing me to pass-out daily, I still carry regret that I missed most of that concert.

Perhaps this history explains the tingling excitement I get at the prospect of visiting Nashville, a mere four hours from my current residence.  Recently I set out early on a Friday afternoon to meet two of my country music-loving girlfriends in the music city for a weekend of honky tonks and food. Country music blasting out of my open sun roof, I sang along loudly, and off-key, with great gusto "I am not here for a long time, I am here for a good time....", only interrupted occasionally by my need to stop and take in the back road views. Autumn in the upper south is stunning; the air is void of all humidity after a long summer's grip, and it settles into a comfortable 78 degrees for weeks on end, the fall foliage lights the undulating hillsides breaking up the vast plains of cotton, which hold their own unique beauty. Row after row of plants are covered in huge orbs of stark white cotton; it seems unreal that a textile can actually grow directly from nature in such purity. The sun nears the horizon as I roll into Nashville, fittingly in time for cocktail hour at the Capitol Grill Oak Bar located on the lower level of the historic and elegant Hermitage Hotel, where we were staying. The pub is cozy, and old-school refined, a perfect place to imbibe great wine, catch-up on gossip, and plot our upcoming adventures.  Little did we know that there was a time when three women would not have been allowed, as the bar was a gentleman's club, rumored to have been accessed by wealthy politicians via a tunnel that connected the capitol to the bar's famed men's room, which in recent years has been named the "best bathroom in America".  Strangely I can vouch for this title, as I was offered a tour when walking past to the ladies room, by a kindly older gentleman, happy to show off the glamorous art deco interior.

Hungry and buzzing with first-night-of-vacation energy, we set off by cab to Tayst, a restaurant known for its fresh local food and dedication to sustainability. What began as a pursuit to find the best tasting, local food, the chefs at Tayst are now deeply entrenched in the values of the green movement. They compost, they purvey green products for the restaurant such as beeswax candles and cleaning products, all in an effort to ensure that the entire dining experience respects the earth and the bounty it has provided.  Lest you fear tree-hugging, tofu laden dishes, rest assured that the menu is playful and creatively modern while steeped in the classics.  In fact the only reference to tofu on the entire menu was the  ravioli appetizer, consisting of paper thin slices of turnip, filled with tofu walnut ricotta, laced with sage brown butter, lemon balm and mint.  If that is hippie, bring on the patchouli.  

The foie gras was stylistically gorgeous. A thin round slice of apple was cored and filled with seared foie gras, which when eaten together provided superb juxtaposition; the crisp, sweet apple contrasted the rich, silky foie gras beautifully. The only downside was that I had to share it with my girlfriends.

Fortunately the third starter was a surprise stunner, at least for me as I have a slight aversion to the texture of spaghetti squash. As is often the case here in the south, if you take an unremarkable vegetable, mix it with eggs and fry it, it becomes something otherworldly. The hush puppie-sized spaghetti squash fritters were crisp on the outside, soft on the inside and completely worthy of the highly coveted "best app" title.

Next the watermelon salad was colorful, served with fried lardon and caramelized onions. Creamy and bursting with flavor, the squash soup was clearly not made from pallid grocery store squash.

The savory goat cheesecake was beautifully displayed next to a summer squash salad and a heap of sweet grilled cherry tomatoes. When eaten together, the cheesecake offered a sinfully rich depth to the bright salads.

Our waiter oozed southern charm, delighting my L.A. girlfriends with his chivalry. He warned us that the chicken dish, complete with a chicken cheese pie, was outrageous. Being a yankee, I expected a pot-pie of some sort, but in keeping with southern tradition instead it was a flaky, fried pie, filled with a cheesy chicken concoction; this is the type of meal you can envision begging your grandmother to make with holiday leftovers. The pie was served with a succulent roasted chicken and a flavorful corn salsa.

The trout dish caught our attention as it was served atop a bolognese. The vibrant pink fish was buttery and surprisingly well paired with the tomato meat sauce, then ringed with a basil emulsion.

Lastly, the special was a rich, meaty sturgeon served over a broth piled high with wax beans, sweet turnips and arugula. The sous chef visited with us and shared his enthusiasm for the fresh sturgeon, a surprise his fish monger had delivered that day.

We ended our meal with the flour less chocolate cake, and candied fruit, which paired amazingly well with our zinfandel, however I think anything including the local Tennessee moonshine would have gone well with that creamy slice of heaven. Smitten by the food and the service, we reluctantly took leave of Tayst to head to Second Street and Broadway for a tourist's Nashville music experience.

Robert's Western World, an ole Nashville establishment known for its great bands, walls lined with boots for sale, and cold Pabst Blue Ribbon, seemed like the logical next step.  We nabbed a table and had barely wiped the condensation off our PBRs when we were dragged out to dance by a rodeo belt wearing cowboy, complete with a hat, embroidered shirt and boots.  Apparently he learned more than roping on the ranch as this guy knew his way around a dance floor, leading us through dips and spins that would make those on Dancing with the Stars envious.  The crowd was diverse; it was a place where we made friends quickly. Time flew by, as it does when feeling completely ebullient, and in the wee hours of the morning, we left the neon behind for our hotel, almost hungry enough from dancing for the fried bologna sandwiches they were grilling up at the back of the bar.

In the morning we hit Puckett's Grocery for a southern version of eggs benedict - poached eggs over a biscuit, topped with creamy pork gravy. Now if that did did not soak up our previous night's adventures, nothing would. After lazing around the hotel we readied ourselves for afternoon snacks and a little shopping. As we walked the few blocks from the hotel to Broadway we noticed a few folks dressed up in bloodied costumes, but seeing as Nashville has a diverse blend of art and tradition, we didn't think much of it until a bit later, while comfortably seated at Merchants eating tater tots fried in duck fat, washed down with local Yazoo beer, we saw hundreds of zombies walking past the large picture windows. Apparently we were in town just in time for the annual zombie walk.

We spent time in Germantown, Hillsboro Village and Music Row and barely scratched the surface of what Nashville has to offer; there is much more to the city than the country scene.  Perhaps because of our deep love of music or because I am still making up for my lost Johnny Cash concert, we thoroughly enjoyed the tourist tour of the city.  I am reminded of Jason Alean's hit Crazy Town, "Its a crazy town full of neon dreams, everybody plays, everybody sings, Hollywood with a touch of twang..."  We did not once hear even a mediocre band; the talent was staggering, the musicians were accessible, and southern culture and chivalry reign strong.

From the old world elegance of the Hermitage to the green movement at Tayst, and of course the bars of downtown, where the music starts at ten in the morning and for all I know it doesn't stop, I found one of those rare places where my night actually exceeded my preconceived expectations. Since returning to Oxford, I have found an excuse to wear my boots every day and continue to crank up the country music, channeling a little Nashville spirit into my daily life.

As for my lost fourth grade year, we never sued the pharmacy, but, I now have a built-in excuse for anything I cannot recall learning - algebra...must have missed that in the 4th grade.

Tayst on Urbanspoon

Monday, August 29, 2011

Parlor Market, Jackson, MS

New Orleans in a glass...does it not sound like the perfect way to begin one's weekend? In my case, the night was Friday, the place was Parlor Market in Jackson, Mississippi and the drink was a Vieux Carré. Rye whiskey, cognac, sweet vermouth, benedictine, and bitters swirled in a glass, reminiscent of the classic, New Orleans sazerac, coupled with a dark, candle-lit atmosphere, a deserted downtown city, an early weekend electricity in the air, and I felt excitedly like a character in a Raymond Chandler novel. Fortunately, no shots were fired, or damsels found in distress, just a romantic meal to awaken the senses.

On our way to the coast from Oxford, we decide to break-up our trip in Jackson, and were thrilled to learn that our friends were playing downtown at 119 Underground. This cozy basement blues club and restaurant, is keeping Mississippi blues alive and adding entertainment to an otherwise sleepy urban downtown. After popping in for a quick visit, which included a huge treat, a tour of the building's dreamy loft apartment and businesses, we left for a late reservation at Parlor Market. Jackson is one of those cities that evacuates at night for the suburbs. Fortunately, places like 119 Underground and Parlor Market are revitalizing city life in this historic district.

From the moment we entered Parlor Market, the service was warm and attentive. The vibe was hip and yet classic. The menu offered a number of raw bar options and appetizers. I rarely turn down an opportunity to eat foie gras and the description made it clear that tonight would be no exception. Served atop a french bread style brioche, the foie gras was served with a kudzu jelly and a red-eye gravy, with a fried sunny-side-up quail egg. As one would expect, the foie gras was silken and rich. I often experience the purist syndrome with foie gras, in that I want to simply eat it plain to relish the buttery depth of the liver, but after trying that, I moved on to feast on the pudding-like texture of the brioche, encapsulated by the crispy french-toast exterior. When dipped in the sweet kudzu jelly, made from the fruit of the infamous locally invasive vine, and the rich coffee flavored red-eye gravy, I felt I had discovered the love child of an affair between France and Mississippi.

In addition to the foie gras, we ordered the southern cheese plate, which included a salty blue cheese, a truffle cheese,  a cinnamon and vanilla gouda and an aged, buttery cheese for which our server didn't know the name (it reminded me of a piave vecchio). Served with locally made jalepeno honey, tiger melon, small seedless muscadine grapes, blueberries, incredibly fresh roasted candied pecans, and sliced brioche, I felt like I had gone to tapas heaven.

For my main course, I could not resist the venison special, seared with a dry rub atop a butternut squash puree, drizzled with a truffle gravy, alongside a mushroom and foie gras bread pudding with fig preserves and a haricot vert and sun choke stir fry. Please believe me when I tell you that I could have cut the venison with a fork! The loin was flavorful and tender, almost delicate, and completely unrelated to any of the game venison I have cooked on my grill. The bread pudding should be illegal, it was moist, deep in flavor, and completely satisfying on the tongue. The bright and crispy haricot vert, juxtaposed the fullness of the meal as did the treat of the sun chokes, one of those delightful root vegetables that just never quite make it to my home table.

Mark opted for the burger and as you might expect, it was a work of art worthy of the finest european pub.  In keeping with their bread of choice trend, the burger was served on buttered, toasted brioche with butter lettuce, heirloom tomato, and horseradish pecan cheddar. It was accompanied by sweet potato pomme frites in their own miniature fryer basket -- fried to perfection.

While the famed strawberry cake tempted us, the shear richness of our meal prevented us from indulging further, leaving us with a reason to return. While it is easy to patronize our local suburban venues, there is something sexy and historic about driving into the city for a night of great gastronomy and music. Put on your heels, crank the music, and head downtown for a night worthy of writing home.

Parlor Market on Urbanspoon

Monday, May 16, 2011

Eat Southern....Cabo San Lucas, the "south" of the Mexican Baja peninsula

Infinity Pool at Playa Grande

Mole, margaritas, fresh shrimp, caesar salad and carbonara...admittedly that seems like a strange list of favorites from a trip to Mexico, but as Mark keeps reminding me, Cabo is barely Mexico. Sitting at the southern end of the Baja peninsula, this desert seaside town provides a nice blend of Mexican culture, with a tourist friendly ease. The restaurants all accept American currency, and yet you can still find a local Mexican woman making authentic masa tortillas in an open kitchen. My high school best friend, Kristin and I met in this resort town with the goals of relaxing poolside by day, and experiencing the culture via food and drink by night. Along the way we enjoyed the traditional cuisine and took some risks, discovering Italian with a Mexican twist.

We stayed at the Playa Grande, a beautiful resort on the beach with five pools, luxurious spa, and great service, save the checking in and out process which you would have thought was a first for them. During the day we enjoyed delicious fish tacos and ceviche, poolside. It could have been the sun and the salt air, or the adrenalin from frequently spotting whales swimming along the beach, but these simple dishes were outrageously delicious. I was reminded that very few simple ingredients: fish, lettuce, tomatoes and lime, often taste better than loading on layers of flavor. Cheese and sour cream, so often used in American Mexican food, were rarely used here.

Banana Wrapped Sea Bass
Our first night we dined at Mi Casa restaurant in downtown Cabo San Lucas, which was walking distance from our resort. We entered the restaurant through a traditional storefront, were led through a hallway that opened onto a lush, colorful courtyard, stepped up almost amphitheater style, with three levels of dining. Giddy about seeing each other after 2 years and excited about the dining experiences that lay ahead, we wasted no time in diving in with La Mixta de la Huerta, a simple salad made from local organic greens, zucchini, red onions, red pepper, corn, crispy fried tortilla strips, cotija cheese and a pineapple-cilantro-jalapeno vinaigrette. The vegetables were crisp and fresh. For a second starter, we chose the Ceviche capengo campechano which included shrimp, baby octopus, fish, and scallops. Surprisingly the ceviche was sweet, tossed lightly with tomatoes, and full of the natural flavor of the fish. The ceviche was not acidic, considering this cooking technique uses acids, typically citrus, to "cook" the fish instead of heat. Alongside a margarita and Don Julio tequila both on the rocks, we found ourselves happy, relaxed, and thus easy targets for the spunky mariachi band. Note to others: you may say "no thank you" to these roving free-lance bands, when they inevitably arrive at your table, in all restaurants, otherwise they will not leave until you tip them.

El Mole Poblano
While the chili-spiced sea bass cooked in a banana leaf served with fresh vegetables and rice, was perfectly pleasing, the El mole poblano, stole the show. Deliciously tender, fall-off-the-bone chicken, reminiscent of southern bbq, was smothered in a complex mole sauce, boasting over 35 ingredients. This meal causes me to contradict my earlier mentioned simplicity rule, forcing me to create a new rule: if you cannot keep your ingredients simple, go extreme! The mole sauce which hinted of chocolate and chili, proved to be the best meal of the vacation. We could not resist an order of fresh masa tortillas made at an open kitchen right in the heart of the courtyard, with a serving of fresh guacamole. These masa tortillas, made by an adorable local woman, have ruined store bought flour tortillas for me, for life. The corn flavor, combined with a slightly mealy texture, juxtaposed the fresh creamy guacamole that teased me, knowing I would not be able to replicate them back home.

Masa Tortillas
For dessert we could not pass up the Tarte de peras en damiana, a pear tart with local goat cheese and liquor, which did not disappoint. The crust was flaky, the cheese was creamy, and it was not overly sweetened, allowing all the flavors to present themselves.

Veering away from the traditional, we tried Doc wine bar and Italian restaurant, which proved to be another favorite. Situated next door to Mi Casa, it is a small cozy restaurant, reminiscent of Italy, with an open kitchen and extensive wine menu. The chefs hail from Italy, so the dishes are based on classics, but there is certainly a Mexican influence on the flavors. We both adored our main courses. Their signature dish called Doc, consisted of guanciale (spaghetti), cream, thyme,  habanera chile and sweet corn. The guanciale was creamy and luscious, yet unlike a typical Italian cream-type dish, it was fiery, flavored by the Mexican chiles. The second dish was equally spicy, the penne arrabiatta included tomato, garlic, parsley and a lot of hot red chili pepper. The red sauce was again redolent of the Italian dishes with which we grew up in the northeast, except for the intense kick of heat. Both Kristin and I enjoy spicy food, therefore these dishes appealed to our nature, but they are not for the faint of tongue. In fact, we garnered major points with the wait staff and owner when they saw we could not only handle the heat, but enjoy it.

On Monday night we discovered our planned restaurant was closed so we ventured to the more touristy marina area. Here we discovered a great little gem of a restaurant, Los Deseos, that while it served great food, to me will be remembered for the service. It was here that we discovered a brilliant perk, shared by many of the outdoor restaurants - ponchos on the back of your chair. Inevitably the 90 degree heat of the day, drops after dark, in true desert fashion. Seeing me shivering in my strappy sundress, our waiter arrived to drape a poncho over me, feeling very romantically, international. Another silly pleasure was a personal purse stand upon arrival at your table. This accoutrement was small, yet completely memorable.

Kristin showing off the poncho and purse stand
On our final night we ventured over to Medano beach, a short cab ride from our resort, boasting a beautiful, swimmable beach (the beach at the resort is off limits for swimming due to dangerous riptides) and a popular, casual, palapa (grass hut) restaurant, cheekily called "The Office". The outdoor tables sit directly in the sand almost down to the water's edge, making for a perfect evening cocktail destination. Along with our now standard margaritas, we dined on grilled shrimp scampi. These were served fresh off the grill, hinting of smoke and smothered in a garlic, butter sauce. The meat was sweet and tender; light fare that made a delicious start to the night.

From The Office, we walked across the street to an upscale sister establishment called Edith's. Edith's may be the most romantically set restaurant, I have ever enjoyed. Set in a verdant courtyard, lit with small white lights and candles, one cannot help but be intoxicated by the exotic vibe. We began with a caesar salad made tableside. To my delight, the entertaining chef broke open a soft boiled egg, and drizzled the runny yoke into the dressing, which may be the secret ingredient as this salad proved to be incredibly creamy and rich, exceeding all previous caesar salad experiences.

Shrimp Scampi
Our main course was a surf and turf for two with lobster, lamb and beef filet wrapped in bacon. The local lobster was tender and rich. The lamb chops were cooked rare, seasoned well, and had a perfect balance of lamb flavor without being too gamey. These chops were so good, I did not think twice about gnawing on the bones, enjoying every last ounce. The filet was wonderful, and felt a bit more natural and flavorful than your typical pristine American filet.

Surf and Turf
After five days of a vacation routine consisting of big decisions like whether to hang on our room balcony with a view of the marina, or go to the the infinity pool at the Ridge, with a swim up bar, or relax at the ocean view pool, or to get an hour and a half massage on the beach, it was hard to leave my close friend Kristin and all of this luxury behind. We parted ways, safe in knowing we had ideas for our next trip, and vowing to attempt our own version of a mole sauce back home, some rainy day, when 35 ingredients doesn't sound daunting. My money is on Kristin.

View of the Marina from our balcony

Sunday, March 13, 2011

NOLA Revisited - Bon Temps

Choctaw Parade
I have a love affair with New Orleans.  I adore the architecture, the music wafting out of clubs where big names play, the art, the grit that lends a raw feel to the city, the humidity that inevitably makes my hair huge and my skin feel young, and of course the food.  Armed with a new local dinner recommendation from our friend Scott Barretta, I was feeling the pre-Mardi Gras electricity the minute we landed in the city on Friday afternoon.  After a short rejuvenation at the pool, Mark and I headed out to pick up his sister at her hotel in the French Quarter.  To date, I had not visited during parade season and thus made a rookie mistake; I alloted 15 minutes to get to dinner across town. Now, granted,  I am ridiculously spoiled living in the small town of Oxford, Mississippi where going across town means a 5 minute drive, except on football weekends, but what I was not accounting for was the instantaneous mob of cops, who can swarm in on your red light at any time, and throw up metal barriers directly in front of your car in order to enable a parade to cross by. For those of you who can learn from my mistakes, parade schedules and even smart phone apps, can help you avoid such beautiful, wacky, but delaying events. Fortunately, we were only shortly detained that first night making it to the restaurant 5 minutes late with a lesson well learned.
Parmesan amuse-bouche

Boucherie is located uptown, in a little neighborhood house, not far from Jaques-imo's, another local favorite that unfortunately is not so local anymore. We were seated in an elegant yet cozy back room, that might have been a family's dining room at one point.  Immediately, we were welcomed with an aesthetically beautiful amuse-bouche of puffed, fried parmesan cheese atop a cilantro pesto served in an asian style spoon.  There is something wonderful about receiving a bite-sized appetizer as a gift from the chef, to set the tone for the evening.  About this time, I noticed a chalk board listing a special appetizer described as a salted torchon of foie gras on a bed of micro greens with a kumquat chutney, served with homemade ginger snaps. While that beautiful description had me salivating, the dish somehow managed to even exceed my very excited expectations. The foie gras was rich and creamy with just the right level of salt to liven it. The micro greens were young and tender, and truly micro, which as a gardener who struggles to simply thin seedlings, I have huge respect for being strong enough to pick something that young. The kicker was the kumquat jelly/salsa/chutney, tender quartered kumquats, cooked down into what I would describe as a sweet salsa. Served cold along side the dish, the slight chew to the fruit added a sweet and tangy contrast to the lush, salty foie gras torchon.
Salted foie gras torchon

We also ordered boudin balls, a cajun specialty of white pork sausage, usually including heart and liver meat, mixed into a ball with rice, battered and then deep fried. Boucherie's were served crispy brown on the outside, piping hot and moist inside, with a perfect rice-to-meat ratio, made even better when dipped in the side of garlic aoli.

For the main course, I chose the duck breast served with roasted turnips and wilted arugula. The duck breast was tender, but the best part was the skin-on leg, which was crispy and flavorful. My new favorite vegetable this winter is turnip which I cook roasted in a honey butter glaze. Because of my infatuation with turnips, I was drawn to this dish and they did not disappoint. Sweet and melt-in-your-mouth tender, for me the turnips made the dish.

Boudin balls
Mark and Jane ordered the ribs, which were perfect. Fall off the bone tender, loaded with meat, trimmed to perfection, and dry rubbed with a spice that simply added to the flavor of the pork -- they felt like a refined version of your favorite gas station rib, which in Mississippi is a compliment. The ribs were served over a healthy portion of crisp celeriac slaw, which was light and provided a great celery flavored twist to the classic. Finally, the dish was topped with a pile of crispy fried shallots, an elegant and subtle take on the old school fried onions that top green bean casseroles.
Duck breast

We could not leave the restaurant without trying one of their unusual desserts. While I was curious about the Krispy Kreme bread pudding, it sounded a little sickly sweet; instead we opted to share a Thai chili chocolate chess pie. I am here to tell you this dessert was designed for me! The heat of the chili cut through the rich chocolate flavor and left a slight feeling of heat in your mouth after the lushness receded. Admittedly, I am not a pie person, because I think pie crusts taste dull and are just the conduit to the goodness inside. This crust was an exception. It was slightly sweet, flaky and full of flavor.

After dinner, we popped into a club to hear renowned bluesman Benny Turner, brother of Freddie King, tear it up for an intimate crowd. Hip, smooth, and smiling the entire time, it would be impossible to feel down in his presence. As we left the club, I marveled at the beauty of New Orleans; it was a balmy February night, the doors to the club were wide open tempting passers by to drop in for a few songs, there was no cover charge, and musicians were playing with heart to small crowds. It struck me that this antithesis of the 15,000 seat arena where you need binoculars to see the performers, is what music is all about.
Thai chili chess pie

A visit to New Orleans would not be complete without a good breakfast. For the most part, we try to avoid the French Quarter with all of its crowds, and therefore headed to Satsuma in the Bywater. At this local alternative, hippie coffee shop, I had my fix of Chicory coffee alongside a croissant egg sandwich. Mellow flavors of avocado and swiss cheese, punctuated by the cilantro, and oozing egg yolk, were balanced by the sweet onions and buttery, chewy croissant. Mark's eggs benedict, were served with caramelized onions and crystal hollandaise sauce atop a jalepeno biscuit. For a coffee shop with a kitchen the size of a postage stamp, these dishes could go up against any French Quarter establishment. Save your money, and hours in line at Cafe Du Monde and head to the Bywater.

Benny Turner
While New Orleans certainly has a desperate side to it, there is something magical that makes this city unlike any other I have visited. Everything is in excess: the food, the drink, the brilliantly gaudy parades, even the funerals are celebrations, and yet what is truly a marvel, is that it is all served without guilt. Perhaps it is my puritan New England roots, but I find this exaltation of exuberance truly refreshing.

Eggs Benedict

Satsuma Café on Urbanspoon

Boucherie on Urbanspoon