NOWFE Vintners Dinner at Restaurant August

First course: Two Run Farms Lamb Tartare, sweet pea chermoula, whipped burrata, spiced lavash. Chef Michael Gulotta jump-started the meal with some really nice, complex Middle Eastern flavors presented in a very clean, fresh way. Fresh peas, oregano, and cilantro really brightened the whole dish. Maybe a hint of plum (or hoisin?) too. There was a vegan at my table and – no joke – she was the first to finish this dish. And she did so proudly.

Pairing: Val de Mer, Crémant de Bourgogne, Brut Nature Rosé, France, NV

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Second course: Pansotti of roasted purple and golden Covey Rise Beets, foie gras crème, beurre blanc, slightest hint of coffee. This was an expert restraint on what, in clumsier hands, would have been an overly heavy pasta dish. The rich flavor of the foie was elevated by giving it an almost airy texture. I had to pause myself and eat slowly because I almost inhaled this dish in a minute or less.

Pairing: Chardonnay, Domaine Charles Audoin, Marsannay-la-Côte, Burgundy, France, 2011

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Third course: Green-garlic-crusted Marrow Bone, crawfish salad, blood orange, picholine olive puree, focaccia. Gotta begin by saying this was maybe the most perfectly chopped bone marrow I’ve ever seen. I know that sounds funny, but I’m not exaggerating. Despite bone marrow being so deliciously fatty, the dish was a great balance: The richness of the marrow, the slight briny flavor of the olive and some capers, the sweetness of crawfish, acid from the blood orange. I could go on and on. The focaccia was provided by Lisa White, the pastry chef of Domenica. It was grilled up and perfect for spreading with the marrow.

Pairing: Pinot Noir, Domaine Charles Audoin, Marsannay, Côtes-de-Nuits, Burgundy France, 2009

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Fourth course: Crepinette of Chappapeela Farms Duckling Breast, popcorn rice boudin of leg, whole green onion, grilled fava beans. A perfectly cooked duck breast, better than most steaks. This was a decent sized dish but deceptively filling. Nice textures, great contrast of flavors. Like pretty much all the ingredients at August, this was sourced locally from a nearby, free-range duck farm. The flavor and texture really shines and is as close to hunted duck as you can get without actually hunting.

Pairing: Grenache/Mourvèdre/Cinsault/Vaccarèse, Féraud-Brunel, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhône Valley, France, 2010

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Dessert course: Local Blueberry “Pavlova,” caramelized coconut, lime and blueberry sorbet. I believe I’ve had an iteration of this dessert by Pastry Chef Kelly Fields before, but I will never tire of eating it. Some meringues, some blueberry gelee. Classic dessert flavors elevated and refined without compromising the integrity and flavor of the ingredients—As with all of Chef Kelly’s desserts.

Pairing: Gros Manseng & Petite Manseng, Domaine du Clos Uroulat, Moelleux, Jurançon-Uroulat, France, 2006

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Better pics of most of the dishes available at Chef Gulotta’s instagram gallery. Wines provided by Martine’s Wines and paired by Sommelier Erin. I have nothing left to say other than that it was incredible. I am humbled and inspired by such culinary talent.

Restaurant August
301 Tchoupitoulas St.
New Orleans, LA 70130
(504) 299-9777
Dinner: 5:30pm-10pm
Lunch Monday-Friday: 11am-2pm

Coquette

Yes, I am aware I owe several restaurants (one in particular) write-ups about meals. But this post was specially requested by a friend I dined with who wants to remember exactly what we ate last night. So here goes:

A good friend of mine is back in New Orleans after a four-year absence and wanted to spend his week here dining at restaurants a college budget didn’t really fit. He dined out every day (often twice), and this meal at Coquette was his clear favorite.

We first sat down and our server asked us if we wanted cocktails. NOLA is famous for its southern hospitality, particularly at nice restaurants. This meal in its totality had some of the best service I’ve had: Friendly, informative, and attentive while simultaneously not over-eager, condescending, nor intrusive.

Bread and our cocktails (the daily special, an Orange and Ginger Punch) came out first. I often say you can tell a lot about a restaurant by its bread… and its butter too I suppose. Something so simple can really set the tone for a meal. The punch was great, the flavor of the vodka muted with the sweetness of the orange and the slightly spicy, almost peppery flavor of the ginger. Were we not headed for a night of beer-drinking after and doing wine pairings with dinner, I would’ve drank several glasses of it.

Punch and Bread

Man cannot live on bread alone. So he invented butter and alcohol.

To start, a salad of Pickled Baby Beets. I have this theory that people who don’t like beets have only had them out of a can. These were delicious, red and golden in color. The burrata (mozzarella’s creamier cousin) and little slices of duck ham added some richness. Fava beans for some protein and green. (Anyone who’s cooked fava beans knows what an ordeal they can be to prepare, and there were quite a few of them on this plate.) The sweetness of some aged (rather than just reduced) balsamic vinegar just enhanced every other component on the plate.

Next, a perfectly cooked filet of Alaskan Halibut, skinless but crispy on the outside and just-cooked on the inside. Crispy-tender English peas, still bright green, around a Carolina Gold “risotto” sitting in a spring onion broth rounded out the dish. Risotto is in quotation marks because it wasn’t traditional risotto rice but a long-grain prepared risotto-style. The friend I dined with expressed slight disappointment that it wasn’t traditional risotto, so I probably should’ve warned him that Carolina Gold on the menu implied a different grain. He finished everything on his plate though, so clearly he wasn’t that disappointed.

Although another restaurant in town is more famous for Cochon De Lait, I think Coquette’s take on the dish is just as good. Maybe even better. Anyway, a well-sized portion of fork-tender pork sits on top of sweet potato puree, surrounded by caramelized brussel sprouts. On a personal note, I didn’t grow up eating brussel sprouts. My parents never cooked them, so I was introduced to them as an adult in fine dining situations. Consequently, I’ve never disliked them. These are among the best. I’ve seen an anti-vegetarian or two gasp at how good these are.

We got an extra entree to split: Softshell Crab. This dish emphasizes Chef Michael Stoltzfus’s Maryland roots. Unlike the majority of softshell crabs in town, this one is not battered like fried chicken. It’s just a deep-fried crab, awesomely light except for the oil it was fried in and the crab’s own fat. Kohlrabi puree and Merguez sausage add some contrast of creaminess and spiciness. More of those wonderful caramelized brussel sprouts add sweet and bitter. Fresh watercress and fried mint (yes, fried mint) freshen up the dish. Fantastic.

Soft-Shell Crab

We dined at a table on the sidewalk, so I didn’t feel bad using my phone’s camera.

Coquette got a new pastry chef last year. Chef Zak Miller, like many other great pastry chefs (in town and elsewhere), takes classic desserts and remixes their flavors and textures playfully… creating dishes that give diners a comforting familiarity and the fun of trying to figure out why adish they’ve never had before reminds them of something else.

Unlike my mother, I am not a donut lover. But the Old Fashioned Donut we each had for dessert was quite good. Maybe it was the portion being not too huge and not too heavy. Maybe it was the sweet bursts of the huckleberries around it, or the crumbles of oatmeal crunch, or the melting scoop of sour cream iced cream on top. I probably wouldn’t have picked this from a dessert menu, so I’m glad it was part of the tasting and I got to try it.

We split an extra entree so why not an extra dessert as well? And “Strawberries & Cream” is classic, but I’ve never had it quite like this. A “strawberry roll-up” (which looked like a fruit roll-up but was more like a paper thin hard candy) piped full of whipped cream, flanked by strawberry sorbet, macerated strawberries, and strawberry foam. That sounds heavier than it was. The only part of the dish remotely heavy was the cream, which obviously had been whipped full of air. Any strawberry lover — I’m assuming these were local Ponchatoula, at the height of their season — would enjoy this celebration of the fruit. The only other components of this dish were a little mint and obviously some sugar.

This was a meal of clean, bright flavors and pleasantly varied textures. Some dishes you may see coming to the table and at first think “Wow, too much going on” but realize all the ingredients come together beautifully once you have a taste. One of the reasons I’m continuously impressed by Coquette is the balance of each dish. Between flavors. Between textures. Between cuisines and styles of cooking. It’s always a balance done gracefully and subtly.

2800 Magazine St.
New Orleans LA 70115
504.265.0421
Lunch: Wednesday – Saturday 11:00-3:00
Dinner: Daily 5:30-10:00
http://www.coquette-nola.com

Bayona

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.

Speaking of ingredients I love…

 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.

Finish strong…

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
504.525.4455
Lunch: Wednesday – Saturday
Dinner: Monday – Saturday
http://www.bayona.com

Mr. John’s Steak House

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

504-679-7697

Dinner Tuesday – Saturday

Lunch on Friday

http://www.mrjohnssteakhouse.com