Margarita Mix-Off Finalists!

I moonlight as the cocktail writer for Where Y’at Magazine.

Tonight I judged the Cazadores/Cointreau Margarita Mix-Off.

We had over 130 applicants.Congrats to our finalists: Al Martin of Red Fish Grill, Kenny Thompson of Grand Isle, and Matthew Steinvorth of Sazerac Bar!

See y’all at Fulton Alley for the Finals…

mixofffinalists

Square Root

SPOILER ALERT: Square Root’s entire opening menu revealed, dissected.

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Sixteen seats. Open kitchen. Square plate settings. Chef Philip Lopez and GM Maximilian Ortiz’s Square Root is a beautiful space inside what was once a bakery for the Irish and Italian catholic communities and was most recently a furniture store. Their first restaurant, “Root,” opened in 2011, and yes, sometimes the sequel is better than the original. The restaurant clearly takes its inspiration from the late El Bulli but at a mere fraction of the price.

Upstairs houses “Root Squared,” a bar that serves small plates and functions as an excellent waiting/pre-game area as well as a lounge for once you finish your dinner.

You have to give a credit card to hold your reservation, but the charge includes tax and tip. Beverage service is separate (with no gratuity included). Your beverage service is a pairing menu of wines, fine wines, cocktails, non-alcoholic beverages, or “mixed drinks,” which means a combo of wines and cocktails. Should you choose either wine tasting option, you end up drinking (in total) the equivalent of a bottle of wine. I settled on the mix pairing because I enjoy both wines and cocktails.

Seating is done four times a night in staggered waves. If you’re anyone but the first seating, you get to see several meals in progress. The open kitchen brings every dish to life in front of you. So you get to see a taste of things to come (the future), other diners enjoying courses you’ve already had (the past), and your own meal (the present). As an alum of an open kitchen, I am so impressed because the chef and his team are literally cooking in the middle of a circle, um, SQUARE, of diners.

I don’t usually recommend going to a restaurant the first night. Having worked service industry in several capacities, I know how many things can go wrong at the beginning. I even told a cook at one point, “I can slow down if you want to serve me and the other two [diners seated at the same time as me] all together.”

His response: “We need the practice.”

Practice makes perfect, and it’s showing this team has practiced a lot.

Guess what this is. I'll tell you later.

Guess what this is. I’ll tell you later.

The menu was ~16 courses with a variable number of pairings. (Also, all the plates and bowls are different for each course. They must have at least 50 different sets to accommodate future dishes.) Sit down and get comfortable. This recap will take a while.

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The meal starts off with an unapologetic blast of flavor.  Lobster Mousse atop a “Lobster Chicarron” (like an elevated Asian prawn cracker) topped with tarragon caviar. Way more salt and flavor than I’d expect for a first dish. Definitely not a mild amuse bouche. A surprising amount of flavors, textures, and temperatures kick in motion a meal that will continue to provide those and more surprises. Pairing: Summer Shandy.

Nduja Spread on flatbread cracker is up next. Clearly a throwback to Root’s housemade sausage program. Pumpkin seeds garnish it.

The next dish is a play on “Southern Fried Chicken,” inspired by Chef Kelly English, a southern picnic, and Tennessee? Lots of great flavor and texture but I was not impressed with the surprisingly hard cracker(?) on which everything else balanced.

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Oysters, Charred Bone Marrow Tartare, blood orange mignonette, buttermilk horseradish “ice.” Beautiful sight and blend of flavors and textures. Yes, I tasted the seaweed underneath the shell. Pairing: An exceptionally smooth Sake I can’t pronounce but that star sommelier Liz Dowty can.

Soup of Seared Potato, Potato Crisp, Truffle-Pickled Peaches, Smoked Caviar, and Vermouth Gelee in a creamy but light broth. This is also the first course to include a utensil! One note: More liquid would make it easier to spoon the solid components. Pairing: Carpano Bianco Vermouth. (The savory/sweet contrast is brilliant.)

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Petrified Leafy Greens, toasted coriander lime spuma, pea puree, compressed cucumber, pickled seeds. A vegetarian dish? Now we’re somewhere in the east. The spuma calls to mind yogurt, and the cucumber and coriander do the rest.

PAUSE: Palate Cleanser CocktailGin, hibiscus, coriander, pink peppercorn. Stop reading. Stretch. We still have a ways to go.

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Tendon Two Ways: Pickled and Chicharron. Tabouleh. Radish gelee. Calabaza squash oil. Togarashi. Showing off how a protein can be insanely different based on prep. More international flavor blending. Pairing: Greek wine that especially complimented the oil.

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“Faux Gras.” Umebashi? Strawberries made into an amazing (dipping-dots-like) dish. A thin marble rye crouton for texture. And yes, there is a bit of actual foie gras in it. Is anything more French than foie gras and cognac? Pairing: Dessert wine from the cognac region of France, with nice thornbush/almond notes. This cold dish and cold drink bring a rush of energy.

How they infuse their broth

How they infuse their mushroom stock

Duck Breast seared in black pepper and allspice. Duck Tortellini with fennel fronds in the pasta dough. Mushroom stock and dashi infused with aromatics laboratory-style. Japan! (All things I love, by the way.) A fork, knife, and spoon. Multiple utensils! Pairing: Lambrusco

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PAUSE. Intermezzo of Compressed Granny Apples and Passion Fruit Granita, microgreens, and a hint of lemon juice and zest.

Now we’re in the Mediterranean. Honey-poached Sablefish. Dates. Sunchoke. Roast chutney. More honey to finish. Pairing: Suave of Gargano-Trebbiano.

A dish inspired by Chef Lopez’s mother: Chilaquiles with sous-vide Lobster finished in butter, citrus and coriander. Lobster Mole. The meat was a tad chewy so perhaps a lean lobster, but every other component on the plate was fantastic. “When I was growing up, we couldn’t afford lobster,” he says with a smile. Pairing: Grüner Veltliner.

Roasted Pheasant Roulade, medium rare. Johnny Rock Cake. (Dehydrated) Corn Kernels? Shaved truffle. A corn velouté to finish. A bird-and-corn inspired dish. I hope next time they serve Cornish hen to complete the wordplay. Pairing: Chenin Blanc with sweet corn notes. Of course.

Wagyu Beef covered in miso and seared. Bone marrow emulsion. Iced-blanched squash. Hazelnut. Balsamic vinegar drizzle. Made for the meat lover. Served on dishes made out of burnt wood, in a Japanese method. And the wood came from Root. Back to Japan! Pairing: Green Flash West Coast IPA.

PAUSE: Now that those courses are done, the silverware is replaced with gold spoons for the desserts. Chef Lopez is a rare type who can do pastry as well.

Granny Smith Apple Sorbet. More Granny Smith apples dehydrated, powdered, and baked into meringue. On a bed of puffy grains. Tarragon. In a weird/good way, this reminded me of Apple Jacks cereal from childhood. Pairing: Basque Region Cider.

That egg picture up top? Did you guess what it was? I used to spherify ACE juice into an  “yolk,” place it in the middle of banana yogurt, sprinkle raw sugar around, brûlée the sugar, and call it a “fried egg” dessert. I thought I was clever…

Chef Lopez has upped the ante by serving an “Incredible, Edible Egg,” laid no doubt by the golden goose that gave those dessert spoons the Midas Touch. These are brought out in six-pack egg cartons. The egg is then placed atop candied almonds. Inside the egg is a cold, caramel-like toasted-egg-yolk curd. The shell is cracked in front of you, and it’s made of invert sugar (to withstand NOLA’s humidity). The “shell” is edible. The only remotely minor flaw is the one other component on top. Not sure what it was, but it was sticky and chewy and definitely not for anyone with sensitive teeth or dentures. Pairing: Valdez Amontillado Sherry.

BOOM.

BOOM.

Some people might balk at the price ($150 per person) but for 12-16 courses, that is a steal. A diner who’s never worked in a restaurant might think ingredients make a meal expensive. (For the record, the ingredients alone would be worth the price tag.) But it’s the time and effort that a kitchen puts into dishes that make them expensive. Every dish could have its ingredients chopped in half (size wise or variety wise) and still be delicious. If you have the money to spend on a long, leisurely dinner, this is a steal.

The excellent service is a bonus. The staff was running on adrenaline yet pleasant, making small talk with customers and learning their names. More importantly, should you have any dining restrictions, the staff will accommodate them.

Randomly the soundtrack is just as eclectic as the menu, and even the upstairs bathroom is engineered to impress. You literally cannot run out of toilet paper. If you go, you’ll see what I mean.

I was hesitant and skeptical. Square Root is an experience and, nitpicking aside, the most impressive opening I’ve ever seen a restaurant do. Easily one of the top five best fine dining meals I’ve had in New Orleans. Thanks for reading ‘til the end.

Square Root

1800 Magazine Street

New Orleans, LA 70130

504-309-7800

Tuesday – Saturday: 6:15pm to 8:45pm

BY RESERVATION ONLY

La Petite Grocery

Blue Crab Beignets, photo courtesy of Blake Killian, instagram @blakemakes

Blue Crab Beignets, photo courtesy of Blake Killian, instagram @blakemakes

So the other night I made a long overdue return to La Petite Grocery. LPG is helmed by Chef Justin Devillier, who worked in a other New Orleans kitchens before ascending the ranks of LPG and, after Hurricane Katrina, purchasing ownership of the restaurant with his wife and general manager, Mia. Although the menu changes seasonally, Chef Devillier’s talent for flavorful, technique-savvy yet non-fussy cuisine is consistent. Here’s a recap of my dinner:

Blue Crab Beignets, like most of his dishes, reflect Chef Devillier’s love of seafood and attention to detail. They’re served with a pleasant malt vinegar aioli (read: actual whisked aioli, not just mayonnaise with garlic chopped into it) and are pretty addictive.

Steak Tartare is prepared in the classic French style with the addition of ghost pepper bowfin caviar on top and crème fraiche on the side, a nice touch which allows the diner to control the spicy and creamy by simply pushing them away with knife and fork. For the record, I finished everything. Also, ghost pepper caviar seems a bit trendy these days. In less capable hands, it overpowers every other flavor in a dish, aka a mess. This is the correct way to use it.

The restaurant often serves an assortment of chilled seafood from the gulf with a mainstay side item of pickled quail eggs. (Try those, they’re great.) But one special of this particular evening was a Crudo of Wild Striped Bass dressed with celery, pickle brine, and fresh dill. I could probably eat an entire bass prepared this way. Simple. Delicious. Not fussy.

The pasta special was Lobster Roe Fettuccine, meaning the roe had been kneaded into the pasta itself—LPG handmakes all of its pasta in-house. This not only tasted good –How could it not?– but looked especially nice, topped with Florida bottarga, red Russian cabbage, and a garnish of beautiful, little onion flowers.

I had one entrée, which was recommended. And I’m glad it was recommended because I’d never have ordered it otherwise. Chicken Breast. Unless it’s a restaurant’s specialty, I almost never order chicken in restaurants. Safe. Boring. Something I could cook at home. This menu item is a winter dish that’s lasted into spring because it’s spectacular. The breast is roasted to juicy, fork-tender perfection. No one needs to sous-vide anything. The skin is crispy with the fat practically rendered off. I love fried chicken as much of the next person, but this is an argument in favor of roasting being a debatably superior and certainly more difficult technique. Also there was fluffy, airy cornbread dressing which tasted (bear with me) like the best corndog you’ve ever had. And fried sage and tasso jus finish off the dish. I’ve never seen a more elegant plate of poultry and stuffing. I’m done now.

Dessert was Cane Cream Puffs with candied peanuts and chocolate syrup. Simple, not too sweet. Basically a really good sundae and a nice way to finish a great meal. LPG has a nice wine list also –I sipped on an easy Vietti Barbera D’Asti through dinner– and makes killer Manhattans.

If I haven’t convinced you, Chef Devillier is a repeat nominee for the James Beard award for Best Chef South. I expect great things in the future. Wish him luck this year, and go try the place. You can thank me later.

La Petite Grocery

4238 Magazine Street

New Orleans, LA 70115

504-891-3377

Lunch: Tuesday-Saturday 11:30-2:30
Dinner: Sunday-Thursday 5:30-9:30
Friday-Saturday 5:30 – 10:30
Sunday Brunch 10:30-2:30

Milkfish

I’m going to open this review by admitting that it’s difficult for me to be objective in it. Being Filipino-American, I spent a great deal of my childhood wondering why there existed no successful Filipino restaurant in the DC metro area, where I grew up amidst a thriving Filipino-American community. The past few years have seen an influx of Filipino restaurants in New York, California and other parts of the country. There exist plenty of excellent Filipino restaurants in the Philippines —obviously— and it’s hard to picture a major city that doesn’t have Chinese, Japanese, Thai, and Vietnamese food. So why has Filipino food taking so long to catch on in a country that has so much history and maintains such close, amicable political ties with the Philippines? The Philippines is the most westernized (Americanized?) country in Asia and utilizes American English as a second language, but our food hasn’t been big in the food scene. Until now.

I’m not going to answer the riddle of “Why aren’t there more Filipino restaurants?” That could be its own post. But I just wanted to say that, having grown up with the cooking of my family, I’m a pretty hard sell when it comes to Filipino food. If I can make it better and for cheaper, I probably won’t be impressed with a restaurant.

That being said, I’m so proud of Chef Cristina Quackenbush and her team for what they’ve done with Milkfish, taking it from a pop-up that’s travelled across the city to its new home in MidCity. Chef Cristina (no H… a very Filipino spelling of the name) has spent two years recreating and finessing her menu, and the hard work is showing. Dishes have gotten more beautifully plated. Vegetarian (perhaps vegan?) options have been added to a menu accurately reflecting a country’s love of pork and seafood.

Chef Cristina also devoted time and effort to fundraising for Typhoon Haiyan victims with both proceeds from her pop-up and from a Christmas gala last year with other local chefs. Money, I must add, that a more selfish person would have put toward opening her restaurant. Having patronized Milkfish in all its incarnations, I can bring you a full review of their current menu. Let’s start with the small plates:

Lumpia is the Filipino equivalent of an egg roll. Filipino cuisine has many influences—Malaysia, China, The USA, Spain… You can also find some influence from other countries like India (e.g. curry) but I’d say those are the four primary sources. The “Lumpia” at Milkfish comes in “regular” form, in the shape and size you’d expect and also in “Shanghai,” named after an obvious influence, which is meat-heavy and a little smaller than a pinky finger.

Lechon Kawali is pork belly that’s cut into cubes and deep-fried until crispy. Not for those watching their cholesterol but a great treat, especially with beer.

Kinilaw is the equivalent of ceviche, but think of coconut milk, green mango, and fresh chili. Island flavors. Extremely refreshing, it will make you think you’re on a beach. It always makes me want a rum cocktail.

Sinigang is another signature Filipino dish. It’s a tamarind broth soup that can contain pretty much any protein—in this case pork—and always comes with some form of cruciferous greens—in this case bok choy and spinach. If you like Tom Yum, it’s that kind of sour flavor but without being (as) spicy.

Bagoong Fried Rice. Bagoong is fermented shrimp paste and, to me, the signature flavor of southeast Asia. No other cuisines really use it outside of the region. I happen to LOVE it since I grew up Filipino-American, but it has a very potent smell. The deep umami taste would probably convince other people to like it. The rice is fried in bagoong and has pork, garlic, egg, and green mango. I could eat a whole pot of this.

Spam Fried Rice. Any island involved with the United States has a love affair with Spam—I think American soldiers brought it over maybe? Also, it’s an import, so it’s obviously a delicacy. (Like the way we used to think of Nutella as being exotic and European until it became a grocery staple.) So just like Hawaii has Musubi, the Philippines has Spam Fried Rice. Onion, garlic, more egg. A great dish – as long as you like Spam – that reminds me of Filipino breakfast.

Veggie Fried Rice. I’m not going to explain this one.

Pulutan Sampler. A mix of lumpia and kawali with the addition of grilled chicken and crispy pig tail.

And for the Entrees, which almost all come with coconut rice or garlic fried rice:

Pork Rib Adobo which could only be improved by more sauce

Pork Rib Adobo which could only be improved by more sauce

Adobo. This is the Philippines’ signature dish. Like every Indian family has a unique curry recipe, every Filipino family has their adobo recipe. It always involves vinegar, garlic, black pepper, and soy sauce. It’s incredibly balanced, which is why I think everyone loves it. It’s available with chicken or pork (its two most famous proteins), but in the Philippines you can find endless versions involving everything from squid to lamb. Chef Cristina stews pork ribs until their meat is fork-tender. If you want to eat adobo the way my family does, order a combo of Chicken and Pork together.

Kare-Kare is my favorite. Oxtails stewed in peanut butter with eggplant, bok choy, and green beans. Think of it like a curry but without spices. It’s a wonderful dish that’s usually served with bagoong on the side, but chef incorporates it right into the dish. Beefy, hearty, and satisfying. If you want to be a difficult customer, order the “Andrew Special,” which is Kare-Kare served OVER Bagoong Fried Rice. Two birds. One stone.

Sisig is a dish born on American bases, when someone got creative with the leftover pig heads and concocted a sizzling mess of pork face, chicken liver, garlic, and calamansi (a tropical citrus similar to lime). It comes with a sunny-side up egg, that in truth I’ve always received with an accidentally solid yolk at Milkfish, but I’m not complaining. It goes very well with cold beer, and in Filipino lore, it’s supposed to be a hangover cure.

Bistek (“beefsteak”) is a beef dish that’s sautéed with onions and soy sauce. It comes with a side of tomato salad, which a lot of Filipino families use to supplement meat or fried fish dishes. Easy to like.

Diniguan, nicknamed “chocolate meat” for its color, is a pork stew made with pig’s blood and no chocolate. Chef makes one of the best versions of this dish I’ve had, but it’s not really my thing. (That’s just a personal opinion.) Lots of Filipinos love it, so it’s something for the adventurous diner.

Long noodles for long life

Long noodles for long life

Pancit is like Filipino chow mein, thin noodles with vegetables and your choice of meat or shrimp. Pancit Malabon is similar but with pork belly, seafood, and much thicker rice noodles. A Filipino superstition is eating this on your birthday for long life, so I ate it during Milkfish’s soft opening and wished them the same luck.

Pinakbet is pork and shrimp sautéed with bagoong and veggies. This dish doesn’t get as much love in most Filipino restaurants or kitchens, but I’d say it sums up the country nicely in terms of signature ingredients.

Tosilog is a portmanteau of tocino (cured Filipino bacon), sinangag (garlic fried rice), and itlog (egg). Filipinos refer to lots of breakfast dishes as ___silog. The Tocino, a sweetened pork, is cured in house, and this is a fantastic “breakfast for dinner” or Sunday Brunch suggestion.

Delicious milkfish

Delicious Milkfish

Milkfish, or “Bangus” as we call it in Filipino, is the namesake of the restaurant and the Philippines’ national fish. It’s easily the most popular fish in the country. (There’s a whole chain of restaurants in the Philippines named “Bangus.”) Chef Cristina changes the preparation of this regularly, but I most recently had it in Ginataang Bangus, which means braised in coconut milk with slices of red cabbage and coconut rice. It’s fantastic, and the fish is sought for its visibly fatty belly. Definitely worth a try if you’re a seafood lover.

Humble but perfect Turon

Humble but perfect Turon

I admit I don’t know the dessert menu by heart, but Turon is plantains and jackfruit wrapped in lumpia wrappers and deep-fried. It’s not too sweet, thankfully. Maybe someday she’ll serve it over coconut ice cream, like a Filipino Bananas Foster.

Well, that’s all I have for you. I hope you go give Milkfish a try. I was worried I wouldn’t like the finished restaurant and nitpick everything to death and have to write a half-hearted post, but the team has done an amazing job. Things weren’t always so pretty—I’ve had overcooked pork belly and oily pancit in the pop-up past, but it looks like they’ve worked out all the kinks. I had the pleasure of dining with my friend Nina and her son Dan. As three Filipino-Americas of different generations, we were all satisfied… impressed even.

Milkfish is BYOB until they get their liquor license, but you should definitely take advantage of their freshly squeezed tropical juices. Bring some Batavia Arrack if you have it lying around.

Milkfish
125 N. Carrolton Avenue
New Orleans, LA 70119
504-267-4199
Thursday – Tuesday: 11am – 11pm
Wednesday: Closed

Haters gon’ hate.

I wrote #whyIhateNOLA for my friends. But more people than I expected read my little April Fools’ joke. I appreciate the outpouring of support and hatred from both locals and visitors. Thank you for all the feedback. It’s been a week since publication, so I decided to round up some of the most memorable commentary made on here, Facebook, and Twitter. Enjoy.

• i liken new orleans to an old comfy couch… once you sit down, you wont wanna get up…

• wtf? fasting growing city in the nation? this man must be frequenting the all night bars and smoking good weed.

• I’d introduce you to my niece but you would probably hate her too.

• If hate could be bottled it would be bottled in NOLA!

• F*** you ya little piece of c*** licking, ass**** sucking, c** juggling down your throat p****!!

• I’m confused. But it’s clever.

• Hate your title and refuse to read

• I couldn’t read it. The headline offended me.

• You’re a Nola cutie

• Now I can understand your life there, in the sub-tropics

• do you know what it means… to hate new orleans?

• Typical NOLA masochist.

• Self-loather…

• When he dies, he will be reincarnated @ least 4 times in…

• I hate he has a Tulane degree and hate was the best pun he could come up with to be witty. I hate that this dumb ass article will be popular.

• Proud of what? What does New Orleans has that is so much better then California?

• “it is better to live here in sackcloth and ashes than to own the whole state of Ohio.” ― Lafcadio Hearn

• And don’t forget to read the comments left afterwards.

The author and the streetcar

Why I Hate New Orleans: a transplant essay

I hated New Orleans from the first moment I set foot in it. I hate Tulane for giving me a scholarship. I hate the Newcomb girls for being so ugly and overdressed all the time. I hate the all-night bar in the basement of the school’s university center. I hate that friends who stayed active in Greek life remained friends with ones who never joined it. I hate not attending a party school, and, more importantly, not living in a party city. I hate that my mom convinced me to visit and that my dad also fell in love with the city once he visited. I hate that my baby brother went to school next door after he visited during spring break.

I hate that I moved here over ten years ago, tried to leave, and came crawling back. I hate that it took me this long to write a “transplant” essay like the insightful ones I’ve seen in the New York Times and in Esquire Magazine.

I hate the weather (except the occasional hurricanes). I hate endless summer and tropical afternoon showers that make for good naps. I hate coming back… every, single, time after EVERY, SINGLE, STORM. I hate that Katrina didn’t Sodom & Gomorrah this place off the map. More than anything, I hate the evacuee puppy my family adopted right after the storm whom I brought back to her home when I moved back to NOLA.

I hate that this is the most well-organized city in the United States and the least well-organized city in the Caribbean. I hate that this city gave birth to jazz. I hate all the books, photos, poems, and art inspired by here. I hate that there are no shitty clubs like in Los Angeles. I hate the music scene and bars that have live bands with no cover.

I hate working in the CBD of the fastest growing city in the nation. I hate that my boss likes to go out in the French Quarter on work nights and then power through the morning afterwards. I hate my coworkers. I hate that some of my former coworkers are some of my best friends. I hate all the bars, free concerts, and restaurants walking distance from my office. I hate that every hour is happy hour.

I hate both the historical buildings and the new green housing developments. I hate the mismatched homes and their gardens, intentional or not. I hate the architecture everywhere.

I hate that all my closest friends live here, visit as often as possible, or are scheming to find ways to move back. I hate friends who work in the service industry and that all their regular customers become de facto friends. I hate that everyone is so friendly here; the residents are the worst, and even the tourists want to learn what “Where y’at?” means.

I hate “Who Dat.” I hate that I moved here ready to root for a losing team. I hate that the Saints got surprisingly good, and I hate that they restored this city’s faith after a hard time. I hate that they party with their fans and still set a good example for kids. I hate that the Saints won the Super Bowl. (I hate the iconic Beyoncé Blackout Bowl too.) I hate that there’s a WHO DAT NATION now. I hate all the players and all their charity work.

I hate “The Hollywood of the South” and the tax incentive filmmakers get here. I hate that we’re a city that location casting can’t replicate in another city. I hate that celebrities walk in and out of my life and are just regular people here. I hate that locals don’t bother them. I hate that I worked for Treme and got to meet some of the coolest cast and crew around. I really hate that I got to meet chefs David Chang, Art Smith, and Hugh Acheson—They also hate it here, I’m sure. I hate that Top Chef decided to have a season here.

I hate that bars close later than 2AM. I hate drinking on patios and balconies by candlelight. I hate the unpretentious bartenders who have worked in prominent bars elsewhere yet still sling drinks at dive bars. I hate that some bars stay open during hurricanes because everyone needs shelter from the storm.

I hate that every time you turn around there’s a holiday, a parade, a festival, or just random musicians playing in the street. I hate the St. Charles Streetcar. I hate wearing locally designed and produced t-shirts that reflect all these cultural aspects.

Mostly I hate the food. I hate how affordable fine dining is here. I hate the mom’n’pop poboy shops. I loathe Popeyes. I hate all gulf seafood. I hate that the cuisine here is the only true, regional cuisine that the USA has. I hate that “eating locally” isn’t a trend here—It’s just the way we’ve always done it. I hate that we have more signature dishes than every other American city and state. I hate that here, pop-ups and food trucks become brick-and-mortar restaurants. I hate that chefs are humble and ask “Was it good?” I hate them because they’re the ones who serve things ranging from great to near perfection. I hate the blend of Caribbean, African, Spanish, French, Creole, Cajun, and southern recipes.

I hate the way this city welcomes all immigrants. I hate the Vietnamese, Irish, Italians, and everyone else who’s brought their food here and merged it with local ingredients. I hate Catholicism, voodoo lore, and hedonism. I hate that you can move from neighborhood to neighborhood and no one judges how you look or how you dress. I hate the gays and the way they thrive here. I hate that straight people are so accepting of them here. I hate that people like to wear costumes and that – on Halloween – if you’re not in costume, you’re the “freak.”

I hate Mardi Gras. Obviously.

I hate that I will probably die here with a smile on my face.

Feel free to comment with why you hate New Orleans, or hit me up on Twitter at @ndrewmarin. #whyIhateNOLA 

Featured on Freshly Pressed

MoPho

The chef and staff of MoPho, the Southeast Asian restaurant by way of Southern Louisiana, have run the gauntlet this past week. Chef Michael Gulotta, his managing partners Jeff Gulotta and Jeffrey Bybee, and their team have been doing hundreds of covers daily since the restaurant opened on Saturday, January 11. Badass. The pace has not slowed down.

But everyone’s grateful. Clearly business is good.

Gulotta’s restaurant serves the Vietnamese classics everyone in New Orleans expects: Pho, spring rolls, bánh mì (labeled as po’boys on the menu). He’s creative with the ingredients. Beef cheeks in your pho? Check. Head cheese in your pho? Sure. His imagination shows in the “specials” in the center of the menu, bigger plates closer to his fine dining background. Regardless of dish, Gulotta’s love for local Louisiana ingredients is on every plate.

“Do you want that coursed out or whenever ready?” is a common question here. Menu items are picturesque in one of two ways: A) The classic Asian way of carbs topped with expertly sliced protein. B) The delicate, elegant constructions that somehow look effortless. Gulotta spent the last several years as the chef of Restaurant August, and he brought his perfectionism to this new place.

By the way, this is not a formal restaurant. You’ll get a sharper knife for your ribs or small spoons for your coffee or dessert, but otherwise the utensils and condiments are self-serve, right at the table. Paper towel rolls within arm’s reach. Casual fine dining at its best.
As for the staff, the chef and his crew look like war vets right now. It’s easy to imagine perhaps someone has thrown their hands up, given up, and walked out. If you can’t stand the heat… etc. Every time the door opens at least three heads turn to greet the customer, estimate how many in the party, and assess the impact this will have on service.

So here’s my take on this place, as an outsider and new fan:

DAY 1: My understanding is that lunch service was packed. I did not make it to dinner on opening night because I, like others, was reeling from the Saints playoff game and didn’t want my first experience of this restaurant to be in a drunken stupor.

DAY 2: I make it to MoPho for lunch. Like a sign from God, “1pm” is both the time of my arrival and a cocktail on the menu. It’s made of rum and chicory and egg cream, extremely reminiscent of a Vietnamese iced coffee and just as easy to drink. For lunch I settle on a simple bowl of rice and LA Blue Crab braised in fermented black bean sauce. The smell brings me back to southeast Asia. The taste confirms it. The crab is nicely cooked, lumpy and flaky. It’s sweet inside the pungent black bean sauce, highlighted with fish sauce and fresh herbs. My mother would love this. My grandmother would too. Anyone who appreciates the authentic flavors of southeast Asian seafood would. This simple bowl tells me this isn’t a restaurant whitewashing Asian cuisine. I’ve spent a good part of my life living and traveling in Southeast Asia, and MoPho reminds me of innovative, nontraditional restaurants there. No flavor compromise. Asia. Right here. With local ingredients. I am floored.

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I know it’s blurry. I was excited.

DAY 6: After waiting over 45 minutes for a table, I’m back for dinner with friends: The GM of a CBD restaurant, the sommelier of a French Quarter fine dining establishment, the bartender of a garden district wine bar, and a former Bourbon Street bartender. The somm has brought wine ($10 corkage fee), and we sip through the cocktail menu while strategically attacking the food menu. The Vermillion is a mix of papaya and sparkling wine, as pretty to look at and as gentle on the palate as its name suggests. The Tamarind Sour, a rye/tamarind/honey concoction, by contrast is happily not as sour as its name suggests. The Dragon Lady is made up of dragon fruit, tequila, jalapeno, and lemongrass—It pleasantly doesn’t have the fire its name would suggest. Same goes for the Viper: vodka, sorel, ginger, and galangal. It took my bartender friend’s knowledge of liquors and my knowledge of Asian flora to decode all the ingredients, but all the cocktails are good. Don’t let the names intimidate you.

We start off with the chicken wings in lemongrass and ginger. Wings sound like a strange thing to compliment, but these are outstanding. The lemongrass and ginger have such fresh, clean flavors that it’s easy to forget the wings are deep-fried. The crispy skin gives way to a salty, sweet, strangely refreshing taste. I could eat these all day.

The spring rolls, available in shrimp sausage or pork shoulder, are what you would expect. Fermented pepper in the peanut sauce is a nice touch.

P&J Oysters are a hit too. Despite coming fried and atop housemade mayo and pickled blue cheese, they are surprisingly light (not as light as the wings) and some radish brightens their flavor and lends texture. These oysters stand out as a preparation not even remotely Asian, but they’re local and delicious nonetheless.

The Lamb Neck and Beet Green Curry is nuanced and comforting. We try to figure out what’s in the roti that makes it different. (It’s got creole cream cheese in it.) The meat is fork-tender, and the curry is full of flavor but balanced enough that people who may dislike the polarizing tastes of lamb and of curry would probably still enjoy this dish.

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Photo courtesy of Chef Michael Gulotta

Pork Trotter in Crab Broth is likewise expertly cooked, a wise nod to the Asian habit of combining pork and seafood (e.g. every dumpling ever). The crab salad, Meyer lemon, and mint lighten an otherwise spicy dish that would be a mess in less capable hands.

The gulf fish, in this case a Red Snapper, comes whole and head-on, exactly as you’d see in Asia. It’s on a bed of culantro and doused with red navel orange and soy sauce. Like the spring rolls, this is classic southeast Asian fare. It comes with a welcome bowl of rice. Nothing particularly creative but still a classic executed well.

And the clams. Man, the clams. They’re from Cedar Key, braised in pepper jelly. Housemade lamb lardo, basil, and crispy shallots decorate them. Vietnamese fried bread (“beignets”) flavored with annatto in long, thin strips is ready for dipping into the broth. The barrage of other flavors doesn’t impede the clams’ sweet flavor and delicate texture. They’re decidedly our table’s favorite dish of the meal.

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Photo courtesy of Chef Michael Gulotta

We’re too full to contemplate more than one dessert, so we share a Condensed Milk Cake with chicory coffee ice cream and meringues. Like a Tres Leches, it hits the spot. It’s a nice combination of not only flavors but textures and temperatures. (Is it obvious from this and that first cocktail, that both the chef and I have a passion for Vietnamese Iced Coffee?) If you know Chef Kelly Fields, I’d bet she’s proud of what Mike’s done here.

DAY 8: A sign about not parking in Burger King’s lot has been posted on the restaurant’s front door. Apparently BK is towing offending cars, so make sure not to park on their concrete.

I’m here right when the doors open, and, for the first time, catch a glimpse of Chef Mike in his new place. He’s on the phone but, upon finishing the call, walks over to say hi. We do a little catching up. How are things? How’s the family? Some industry talk about covers (over 1000 the first three days). A “thanks for coming” and a sincere appreciation that, yes, I do like the food. I make a joke about “Happy One Week Anniversary.” The conversation is breathless and brief. He has to get back to the kitchen.

The best chefs don’t just know they’re talented; they want to prove it every time.

In 15 minutes, the place goes from empty to full. Every seat and stool taken.

Mike is surprisingly calm, like he’s stopped attempting to control the chaos and has made his peace with it. Accepted it. This approach has clearly trickled down to his staff. The bartenders talk about the two beers that have been 86ed and how last night left them without any lemons prepped. They are working to repair their bar from last night’s service.

This day I attack a Hot Sausage Bánh Mì and a Beef Pho. Both excellent. I understand why they call the bánh mì a “po’boy.” It’s because it’s larger than any regular bánh mì would be. The pho is what you expect but with great options for meat: Oxtail, cheek, tendon, flank, red pepper braised tripe, rib-eye. I settle on an oxtail/tendon/tripe combo. I do taste my friend’s vegetarian pho (tofu, mushroom, shallot, mustard greens). It’s surprisingly satisfying.

I can’t pronounce the battered shrimp, but we order them anyway. They remind me of tempura but salty with fish sauce and sweet with finely sliced pickled mango. I want rice.

MoPho’s chocolate pudding comes in a wide, relatively shallow dish. On top of it are caramelized bananas, sesame sorbet, and a chocolate-sesame tuile. Nice and rich but mercifully not too sweet.

DAY 9: My friends must think I’m insane, but I’m a completist when it comes to two things: Video game sub-missions — Yes, I need every heart in Zelda — and menus for bars and restaurants that I like.

I’m here with a new friend today. We pour Vietnamese Iced Coffee (of course) and select items to share. The Blue Crab Salad is delicate and looks kinda like something you’d see at August. The shaved Vietnamese sausage on it is a genius way to deal with an ingredient that has lots of flavor but a slightly annoying texture. A puree of acorn squash and ginger rounds out the dish really nicely.

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Vietnamese coffee almost ready to pour

We order Grilled Jumbo Shrimp on Vermicelli. The server forgets to add the fried egg to the order, but the sizable shrimp and spiced pork pate (perhaps with a hint of fermented shrimp paste?) deliver more than enough flavor. The noodles aren’t actually vermicelli. They’re the wider, flatter rice noodles. They’re also about 10 seconds overcooked, but that doesn’t stop us from finishing them and the grilled, wild green onion.

Grilled short ribs from Two Run Farms, seasoned with lime and black pepper, are fork-tender. Even the cartilage around the bones isn’t a challenge. The beef is cut into long strips. Pure Asia. No slouching cube of boneless short rib like some restaurants. The rapini alongside is good, roasted in cast iron. We wish there more of it. Something crispy garnishes the plate (puffed rice?) and adds a nice, subtle texture.

519d77fe780611e3a12b0e196947e596_8Photo courtesy of Chef Michael Gulotta

Dessert is black rice pudding balls, the offspring of congee and arancini. They look pretty on their rectangular plate, but a bowl would be more effective since they are round, roll, and aren’t glued down to the plate with some kind of syrup. But they’re good. The plating isn’t ideal, but the dessert is drizzled in honey and comes with candied orange and a Satsuma/Meyer-Lemon Sorbet.

As we leave, I hear a manager say “It’s like Navy Seal Hell Week.”

The bartender takes a break from 86ing more beers and wines. With half a smile, he notes that this is the “slowest lunch service so far.” The place is still packed. It’s just past 1pm, and the line at the door is only eight people deep right now.

DAY 10: Flying solo at dinner. The hostess asks if I mind the end of the bar. Not at all. The bartenders are a graceful tornado: Mixing drinks, serving drinks, explaining the menu. The brunette with the big hair and nice smile… She takes my order.

Jeff Gulotta and Jeffrey Bybee bring a pho bowl and a rice bowl to the couple next to me. It’s not theirs. The Jeffs ask if the order is mine. I tell them I’d gladly eat it and pay for it. But it isn’t mine. They swiftly retreat into the kitchen.

My order for Pork Belly over vermicelli arrives. Grilled greens and delicate pork skins on the side. The egg is not forgotten. A pork spring roll sneaks into my bowl. Fine by me. The noodles still aren’t vermicelli, but they’re cooked perfectly this time. Paper-thin candied orange sweetens, freshens, and seals the deal.

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Photo courtesy of Chef Michael Gulotta

One of my pet peeves is when all of a restaurant’s dishes taste the same. Not the case here. This dish is listed right under my original crab bowl, but the flavor profile is wholly different. It’s the perfect Asian-American breakfast: Bacon, egg, rice, fruit. Redefined.

As I walk away I hear the brunette bartender sigh and 86 the Chardonnay. People are still waiting at the door. The staff is still powering through but looking to the horizon. The restaurant is closed tomorrow, and they’re determined to finish strong.

DAY 11: The staff of MoPho rests.

Last Thoughts:
Strongest opening I’ve seen a restaurant do. It’s rare to have this many customers and still execute this well. I will be back.

MoPho

514 City Park Avenue

New Orleans, LA 70119

504-482-6845

Wednesday – Sunday: 11am – 10pm

Tuesday: Closed