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

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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 is 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

Peche Seafood Grill

So two good friends of mine are in town and were looking for a good “last night in town” dinner. One is a former resident of New Orleans, so the pressure was on… especially when we sat down to dinner and they said “Order for us.” Luckily for me, we were at Donald Link’s Peche. Honestly over the course of several visits, I’ve always been impressed with both their service and how delicious their food is. Chef Ryan Prewitt continues to serve some of the best seafood in town. The daily menu emphasizes the freshness of the seafood and his practical and light approach to cooking it. Yes, you can get seafood here in New Orleans that’s not deep-fried.

It’s absurd to me that I’ve never written about this place, so here we go:

We kicked things off with a dozen oysters on the half shell from Hopedale, Louisiana. (Yes, Peche will tell you exactly where their oysters are from. The night’s other oyster option was from Dauphin Island, Alabama.) Cocktail sauce, mignonette sauce, crackers. Classic.

photo 1We also ordered smoked tuna dip, which one of my friends loved so much that we did a second round of it. I always recommend their crudo of the day—In this case, it was tuna with LA navel orange and pecans, vinaigrette, and black pepper. That disappeared quite quickly.

Added to that some royal red shrimp, grilled with garlic and butter. If you’ve never had royal reds before, you have to try them. They have a great color, a natural saltiness. and a delicate texture. And last but not least, some beautiful stone crab claws, steamed with Meyer lemon butter.

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For our main course, we split their signature grilled whole redfish with salsa verde, a dish that’s won countless (and deserved) accolades. Of course we needed sides, so we got some of the best brabant potatoes in town, fried brussel sprouts with chili vinegar, and white beans stewed with bacon. Washed the meal down with a few pitchers of Southern Pecan and called it a night? Nope.

photo 3We wrapped up our meal with pastry chef Rhonda Ruckman’s key lime pie with buttermilk chantilly. Peche’s desserts, like sister restaurants Herbsaint and Cochon, are always refreshingly simple. This was no exception: Bright and satisfying.

Peche Seafood Grill

800 Magazine Street

New Orleans, LA 70130

504-522-1744

Monday – Thursday: 11am – 10pm

Friday – Saturday: 11am – 11pm

Sunday: Closed

Galatoire’s Reveillon!

Reveillon is one of New Orleans’s oldest Christmas traditions. Decided to spend it at Galatoire’s this year. Here’s the course-by-course rundown!

Escargot Yvonne: Escargot (i.e. snails) cooked with the usual garlic and butter to a nice soft but pleasantly chewy texture. Artichoke hearts and white button mushrooms to add some volume. And in a nice touch, some sliced grape tomatoes to brighten the dish with both color and acid.

Country Lentil Soup: A surprisingly light soup that really hit the spot. There was duck meat in it. Supposedly there was foie gras in it also, but I didn’t taste or see any.

Fried Oyster Clemeanceau: Another French Quarter classic. There was a piece of shell in my dish, but the cooked-till-they-melt peas, Brabant Potatoes, and of course, more mushrooms more than made up for it.

Sampled all three desserts: Custard Cup needs to either be less like scrambled eggs or sweeter to emphasize that it’s a dessert. Bread Pudding was too dry and chewy, but the caramel sauce was perfect. Lemon Tart was the winner – No criticisms with it at all.
In summary, Galatoire’s continues to be a quarter establishment. The plates are coated in butter when you finish eating them, but that’s just classic French. Also had cocktails throughout the meal: Bourbon Milk Punch with the first course, Poinsetta with the soup, and French 75 with the oysters. Decided to skip the Café Brulot for dessert.

Reveillon menu is available until December 24. Gents, Gal’s requires a jacket at dinner service and all day on Sunday.

Galatoire’s Restaurant

209 Bourbon Street

New Orleans, LA 70130

(504) 525-2021

Sunday: 12 p.m – 10 p.m.

Tuesday – Saturday: 11:30 a.m. – 10 p.m.

Vermilion

If you ever find yourself on in Old Town, Alexandria, make sure to stop by this King Street townhouse for a meal. The dishes are plated carefully but not pretentiously. The service is soft-spoken but friendly. And executive chef William Morris is crafting some great dishes that are creative but also satisfying.

My meal at Vermilion started with an amuse bouche of salmon tartare. Already off to a good start. A server brought warm, fresh bread to the table. Solid menu selection. Let’s start with the appetizers, which were generously sized:

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Even prettier in reality

Let’s start with the Charred Octopus. It came with garlic confit purée, shisho, la ratte potato, and a ham broth that, had I a spoon, I would’ve eaten like a soup. The octopus was wonderfully cooked, meaty and satisfying and not the least bit chewy. The garlic and shiso balanced out the char. A really nice preparation of a protein that, in the continental states, is usually limited to sushi.

The Beet & Apple Salad with ricotta was simple as it read but beautifully prepared. Roasted Path Valley beets, honey crisp apples, some thinly sliced shallots… Perfect transition between summer and fall.

Up next, Shrimp & Grits, something I rarely order outside the Deep South, but this genuinely surprised me with how good it was. Shrimp roasted, head-on, creamy grits, chorizo from Spain, roasted red peppers. Familiar, American textures with Mediterranean flavors.

Veal Sweetbreads tend to be a staple at fine dining restaurants. Served fried, as per usual, but rather than drenched in sauce, these came on top of Path Valley carrot purée with braised baby carrots and a veal jus spiced with coriander. The sweetness of the carrots and the spicy in the broth brought out the sweetbreads’ flavor in a nice and refreshing way.

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Photo courtesy of Jewelyn Cosgrove

Entrée-time: Berkshire Pork, cooked to a nice medium. Hakurei turnips and sorghum to round out the savory and sweet flavors inherent to pork. Squash (I’m assuming also from Path Valley) pureed to contrast with crispy potato cakes. One tiny, easily correctible nuance in this: The pork was less seasoned than the other components, so they overwhelmed it a bit. But like I said, easily correctible.

I’m going to preface this dish by saying it’s made up of ingredients I love, so I will try to remain objective: Fields of Athenry Lamb, cooked medium rare. Panissa – Fried cubes of chick pea flour. Eggplant pureed with black garlic. Caramelized artichokes. Grilled green onions. Pomegranate seeds. I was a bit hesitant because of all the textures and intense flavors, but this came together beautifully. I felt like I was eating far, far away…. The Mediterranean, the southern part of it. This was a stark contrast to the delicate pork dish.

For dessert, the Goat Cheese Cheesecake was dense and satisfying. Bruleed figs, candied pistachio, and pistachio ice cream lent some sweetness and meaty, nutty flavor to go with all the cream. The Blackberry Crumb Cake had a similar setup: Apricots, candied almonds, and a sweet corn ice cream that I would happily consume by the pint. Strong finish to a stunning meal.

I tried a lot of purées, but I finished them all so I’m definitely not complaining. The proteins were all excellent, but it’s also nice to see that the vegetables were incredibly fresh and also cooked expertly. (A lesser restaurant would get proteins right but overcook or undercook vegetables.) Local ingredients. Superb dining experience. I know where I’m taking my parents next time we’re back in Old Town.

Vermilion Restaurant
1120 King St.
Alexandria, VA 22314
(703) 684-9669
Dinner: 5:30pm-10pm 
Lunch Monday, Wednesday-Friday: 11am-3pm 
Brunch Saturday and Sunday: 11am-2:30pm

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