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

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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

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

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

Guilty pleasure? Go spicy.

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.

Love dat chicken!Photo courtesy of Popeyes

Mild Chicken Thigh Spicy Chicken Thigh
Calories

280

260

Sodium (mg)

640

460

Fat (g)

21

18

Protein (g)

14

14

Carbs (g)

8

7

Fiber (g)

1

1