My friend Alex over at Eater New Orleans put together a great map of places to grab a bite to follow all that chugging.
Tara and I have this tradition—not going to count the years—that each takes the other out to a celebratory meal for their birthday. We usually do dinners, but she decided for this birthday she wanted a long, leisurely lunch with a couple of drinks. Naturally. We settled on Chef Susan Spicer’s Bayona, initially considering a NOLA Goes Pink meal but changed our mind when we realized a) they didn’t serve it for lunch, b) it was only two courses, and c) the dishes are built for health and nutrition. Not that there’s anything wrong with any of those things, but we were looking for something a bit different. Besides, in her words: “Who says you can’t have healthy boobs by eating ducks and butter?”
We stuck with Bayona and realized when we got there that their Saturday lunch is a light lunch made up of three small-plate courses. We remedied this by ordering an extra three plates to share for Our Invisible Friend. (Let’s call her “Jacque.”) Our server was impressed by this improvisation: “Nice. She eats. A real woman.”
Naturally we took advantage of Bayona’s cocktail menu and wine list. (I’m not going to bore you with a list of all we drank.) But since the meal was a celebration, we started with sparkling wine. 2010 Domaine de la Manarine Cotes du Rhone. Lady’s choice.
The rosiest rosé I’ve ever seen.
The cream of garlic soup is one of the mainstays on the Bayona menu. Creamy and rich but mostly garlicky. So if you’re a garlic lover or a lover of “cream of” soups, definitely get a cup.
The Bayona Salad is their house salad. Nothing particularly exciting, just proof that a simple bowl of mixed greens, good cheese (Parmigiana Reggiano or Great Hill Blue), and vinaigrette can be all you need.
One conspicuous absence from the menu was sadly the veal sweetbreads. They’re Chef Spicer’s signature, usually available appetizer-size and entrée-size. On the bright side, now I have an excuse to go back. I did try the fried rabbit liver salad, which came with beets both red and yellow, arugula, and balsamic vinaigrette. Tara and I were musing over the fact that most people who don’t like certain ingredients (beets, brussel sprouts, etc) have just never had them properly prepared.
An aside on Chef Spicer: She was at the restaurant, and we admire how she’s the kind of chef who genuinely seems to love being in her kitchen. Many chefs of her caliber and success tend to end up enjoying their celebrity with TV and other public appearances. (There is nothing wrong with this.) But she was also at Mondo when we dined there last month. When she does enter her dining room, it always seems to be in an inconspicuous “I’m checking to see that service is going well.” There’s no grand entrance or look-at-me, tell-me-how-awesome-my-food-is fanfare. Anyway, it’s awesome that her passion for cooking overrides the perks and benefits of being a successful chef. She is a very cool lady.
Smoked salmon, like actual meaty smoky salmon, not the lox you buy in a deli, potato pancakes, horseradish sour cream, and choucroute made an appearance also.
A skewer of swordfish and scallop on a bed of lentils and a drizzle of pesto was really good. It’s the kind of dish where I like all ingredients involved, so I’m inherently biased. It’s nice to see lentils not cooked into mush. One of the two chunks of swordfish was a bit dry, but that’s usually a risk in cooking the fish. The other was cooked perfectly, as was the scallop, seared on the outside and medium rare inside.
For obvious reasons, I’m particular with pasta but I did enjoy the fettucine with shrimp, andouille, roast tomato and garlic cream sauce. That combination of ingredients is obviously not a traditional Italian one, but the al dente of the pasta and the homemade andouille showed a mastery of Italian technique with the same use of local ingredients that Italians pride themselves on.
And the main reason Tara and I chose lunch at Bayona: Smoked duck and peanut-cashew butter with hot pepper jelly.
The dish is a play on childhood favorite peanut butter and jelly with our favorite protein mixed in. It’s usually served as a sandwich but was baked into a puff pastry this time. Very rich. Full of protein. It was garnished with celery leaves, a clever reminder of another grade school memory: Celery sticks dipped in peanut butter. I wouldn’t have minded a little acid, but if you’re going to be decadent, why not? We had one each, figuring sharing might be a problem.
For dessert we had chocolate profiteroles, pear slices, caramel ice cream, and butter crunch toffee. This was just a great mix of different levels of sweetness and textures. The photo looks a hot mess – my fault – but I promise the dish looked and tasted delicious in reality.
430 Dauphine St.
New Orleans LA 70112
Lunch: Wednesday – Saturday
Dinner: Monday – Saturday
Anyone familiar with me knows I don’t believe in “diet” or “healthy” versions of food… unless you find they actually taste better to you than the original. (Not even “as good as” but better!) Fortunately for me, I love spicy food. So if you’re going to indulge in junk food or fast food, check if your favorite guilty pleasure has a spicy version.
Ounce for ounce, the spicy alternate always has fewer calories and less sodium, carbohydrates, and fat. (Let’s face it: Salt, sugar, and butter/lard are easy ways to add flavor. Spice is a guilt-free way.) This leaves more room for protein and fiber. As an added bonus, all that capsaicin may curb your appetite or at least compel you to eat slower. The foods still might not be healthy, but at least you’ll eat them in a healthier way.
Just as an example, here’s some nutritional info from probably my favorite guilty pleasure.
|Mild Chicken Thigh||Spicy Chicken Thigh|
I think you can tell a lot about a restaurant by their bread. (Is it fresh? Warm? Baked in-house?) Mr. John’s serves garlic bread, the rare kind that’s more garlicky than buttery. These two ingredients go well with steak and are often applied too generously… but not here. This restraint set the tone for my meal.
Garlic and butter are the usual accompaniments to snails, but I had an appetizer that put the escargot with mushrooms, shallots, brandy, and (red) wine. The menu said they were served “in a puff pastry,” but the actual dish had four times the amount of escargot sitting next to the puff pastry as well. Entrée size appetizer. I’ve eaten snails many times in the ubiquitous French style and also with black beans in Chinese dim sum. Now that I’ve tried it in another preparation (and in such generous quantity) I think I understand the taste of the snail itself and I’m not sure it’s my favorite protein. That being said, the dish was very good. There was no effort to conceal the true flavor the snail, just to accompany it.
As for the main course, Mr. John’s signature is the New York Strip, but I ordered the Ribeye because it’s my favorite cut and I’m on a casual quest to find the best one in New Orleans. Salt. Coarse ground black pepper. Diced parsley. Butter, sizzling the first few minutes of the meal. Despite how hot the serving plate was, the steak was perfectly medium rare (unlike some competitors I won’t name). No sauce. Unapologetically rich. I had my ‘08 Caposaldo Chianti to help me along the way.
I almost went with the universal creamed spinach but had heard good things about the broccoli au gratin—five large florets baked under a heap of cheddar, the bits on the rim browned and crispy. Any kid who used to play with their food and submerge their broccoli trees in a lava eruption of cheese sauce would like this. It was more of a fat than a vegetable, but again wine is for cutting through that.
I forced myself to complete the meal with dessert, and I wasn’t expecting a grand finish. But both the waiters independently pushed the tiramisu, and this was one of the best ones I’ve had outside of Italy. The emphasis was correctly on the mascarpone (not cream cheese) rather than the espresso (not regular coffee) soaked ladyfingers. Yet the dish was not heavy. Don’t get me wrong, the serving was the size of a Rubik’s Cube, but an actual spoonful was surprisingly light. You could taste the cocoa, dusted on top into the shape of a fleur de lis, and also the liquor.
All in all a great meal and better than competitors at similar price. Some restaurants overcompensate for lackluster taste with huge portions, but quality and quantity are both served up at Mr. John’s.
2111 St. Charles Avenue
New Orleans, LA 70130
Dinner Tuesday – Saturday
Lunch on Friday