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