Sittin’ here in La-La…

And we’re back, after spending almost a full week with family in Louisiana; catching up with everyone was lots of fun and the purpose of the trip, of course, but the balmy weather was what really put smiles on our faces after our 15-degree week here in the northeast. “But what about the food?” you say. Glad you asked…

Our first meal of the trip came shortly after we landed in Kenner. Gil and I had been up since 3:30am (early flights — what can you do?), so we weren’t exactly in the mood for a big production. Good thing there’s Spahr’s, just across the bayou in Lafourche Parish.


Neither Spahr’s nor the bayou, but a shack on scenic Dufrene Ponds behind the restaurant. Kind of takes what little romance there was out of it, huh?

At Spahr’s, seafood’s always on the menu and it’s usually deep-fried, though when crabs or crawfish are in season, boiled is also an option. What I’m saying is, you don’t come here for heart-healthy food. Gil and I split a seafood platter and left very happy and on the verge of passing out. No pics of the food, because a big plate of fried seafood is really only interesting if you’re sitting before it about to dig in.

When we left, my nephew Mason looked for the alligator that sometimes hangs around the restaurant.

Sadly, it was not to be found. Mason was inconsolable, and offered his head to the Catfish God.

The food we eat when we visit my family has turned into a strange mix of traditional Cajun dishes supplemented with Sandra Lee-ish recipes. Yes, friends, we had Velveeta and all manner of processed foods in abundance. But there also were platters of boudin, gallons of gumbo, and more jambalaya than our gathering of 40 or so could handle. Still, the sheer amount of sodium and fat we ate last week really took its toll and we’re on . . . well, not a diet, but a whole foods sort of eating plan again.

On our last day with the folks we went to Smitty’s, another hole-in-the-wall seafood joint that’s known for its oysters. Doused with Tabasco (or Smitty’s surprisingly delicious cocktail sauce), the plump, juicy oysters could be a meal in themselves.

We spent the last night of our trip at the Hotel Monteleone in the French Quarter — a necessary indulgence, because we had a late dinner reservation at Restaurant August with my cousin Wade and his wife Robin and didn’t want to drive the hour back to my parents’ house. I ate at August shortly after it opened; it had a very limited menu then, so I was curious to see how things had changed. I knew it was well-regarded, and John Besh has become a bit of an It Boy in food circles, so I expected great things. And what can I say? It was a terrific meal — no real surprises on the menu, but everything was perfectly done. I had the foie gras three-ways appetizer (I’m helpless in the face of foie), followed by a turtle soup that wasn’t swimming in an ocean of sherry (yay, for the light hand!), and grilled sablefish. The only dish of Gil’s I tried was a smoked (I think) pumpkin soup, which filled me with an insane jealousy the likes of which I only experience when he wins the ordering war in restaurants.

We rolled out of there three hours later, stuffed to the gills, ready for bed, and happy to have only a short waddle back to the hotel.

The next morning, we weren’t hungry in the least, but when you’re staying in the Quarter, you suck it up and have the world’s most perfect breakfast, anyway.

Beignet and café au lait at Café du Monde, for those of you who haven’t had the pleasure.

Update

My parents are going to try to head home today! St. Charles Parish residents got very lucky this time around: The storm surge wasn’t as bad as expected, so there was no flooding. It sounds like the damage to the area was comparable to the damage done by Katrina (and exactly what you’d expect from a hurricane) — quite a few downed power lines (some live), trees, and limbs, and a roof gone missing here and there. They won’t have power for a while and no stores or gas stations will be open, but people are heading back to hook up their generators and rough it, relatively speaking.

Fingers crossed!

In honor of LSU’s appearance in the BCS title game tonight, I’m reposting this entry from a year ago — mostly as an excuse to share these awesome pictures of my brother-in-law, Tommy (with his son in the second picture). He scored tickets to the Sugar Bowl last year and gave us a preview of his game-day attire, but will be watching from home this evening with the rest of us.

Geaux Tigers!

When I started at LSU 20 years ago this fall (gulp), basketball games were an enjoyable enough way to spend an evening. Ricky Blanton was the big draw and rumors hadn’t started yet about the 7-foot crime fighter with the secret identity, so these events were really easy to get into. Football games were another story.

Game day seemed to double the population of Baton Rouge and most of the imports ended up in the stadium parking lot … early. It was a great time to be a starving college student because you could fill up on all kinds of grilled meats, jambalaya, red beans & rice, and even find a beer to wash it down just by wandering around the tailgating area and taking advantage of Tiger fans’ largesse (which leads to large ass). It was clear you didn’t need to attend the university to bleed purple and gold (and I’d argue that many of those who did, don’t).

The football team had a few good years in the mid-80’s, then headed downhill pretty quickly after the 1987 season. I’ll testify to the excitement of the 1988 Auburn game that registered on the seismograph across campus, but by the time he graduated, “Heisman Hodson” wasn’t much more than the butt of a joke. Still, those games were awfully fun. My roommate and I would head down to the stadium, the excitement curing our still-aching heads, and start milling around until the gates opened and we could rush to the student section to stake out our seats. I remember some miserable losses (44-3 against Miami, and anytime the team lost to Alabama…grrrr), but we always stuck it out to the very end to show our support.

I’m happy my Tigers have turned it around in recent years and wish I could be at the Dome tonight to see them play in the Sugar Bowl, but I’ll be cheering from our living room instead. And I’ll be on the lookout for this guy, hoping he doesn’t continue to embarrass Mason by wearing those white shoes:

New Orleans!

“Home of pirates, drunks and whores / New Orleans! / Tacky, overpriced souvenir stores / If you want to go to hell, you should take a trip to the Sodom and Gomorrah on the Mississipp’!”

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But it has its good points, too.

Family togetherness is a beautiful thing, but when Gil and I spend more than four days with my folks, we like to take an evening to ourselves in New Orleans. We’d planned to try Cochon for dinner, but I noticed Bayona was across the street from our hotel, so I made a late reservation as soon as we checked in. It has a reputation as one of the best restaurants in the city, and deservedly so, I’m ecstatic to report.

When we arrived in the city, it was nearing lunchtime, so we figured on getting a quick bite at the Asian-Cajun restaurant in the Quarter, but it had closed sometime in the past year. When we found Crescent City Brewhouse closed for the holidays I made an executive decision to steer us across Jackson Square for lunch at Muriel’s, a lush, lovely, contemporary Creole restaurant; it was much more decadent than we’d planned, given our Bayona reservation for that evening, but ya gotta roll with the punches. I started with the turtle soup with sherry, a rich and warming dish I always order when in New Orleans. I prefer my turtle meat chopped instead of ground as they serve it, but it’s a minor quibble when everything else is done so well. Gil stayed local, too, and ordered the shrimp and goat cheese crepes, which were an airy and delicate start to the meal. Thinking I’d go light with my entrée, I ordered the grilled drum with macque choux (smothered corn), not realizing they’d add heavy cream to the corn. Whatever — it was absolutely perfect. Gil had the chicken fusilli in a garlicky cream sauce. Usually one of us wins the ordering war, but this one was a draw. It’s tough not to lick your plate when faced with such food, but we managed well, if only because of our dinner plans.

Once we’d finished, we did the obligatory Quarter wander to see the sights and work off some of our lunch. It felt good to stretch my legs again after sitting around for several days doing nothing more strenuous than reading, but the sun and rich sauces got to us eventually, and we retired to our courtyard room at the Dauphine Orleans for a nap and more reading before heading out for the evening.

At Bayona, we were treated to fabulous service and one of the best meals I’ve eaten in a long, long time. Chef Susan Spicer describes her menu as a melting pot, rather than fusion — she borrows from many of the world’s great cuisines but makes them sing her song. The restaurant is known for its sweetbreads (something I always try when I see it on a menu), so I ordered the appetizer portion in sherry-mustard butter, while Gil opted for the braised pork belly when he learned the seared tuna he had his eye on had been sold out. No matter, it was phenomenal — and served with a very roasted-tasting potato (and, I think) parnsip cake, a delicious balance of rich and unctuous with a vegetable with backbone that more than held its own. My sweetbreads were everything I’d hoped — lightly crunchy on the outer edges, spongy and moist inside, and anointed with the zesty but not overpowering seasoned butter. We took our time with the appetizers, savoring each bite, dissecting the flavors, all but giving up on conversation other than to say, “Here, try this!” or, “How does she DO it?”

Now, to say that I won the ordering war at Bayona would be an understatement. You know how there’s always one dish that turns every head in a restaurant as it’s brought to the table? That was MY entrée. People were standing at their tables and craning their necks around their companions just to get a view. It didn’t even sound like much on the menu, but turned out to be something special. What was it? Oh, just a two-inch pork chop on the frenched bone, served over a bed of creamy green chili grits and greens, and topped with a crawfish bechamel ever so slightly browned under the broiler. I never, ever order the chop at a restaurant, fearing it’ll be too dry or too ordinary, but this one surpassed my expectations by a mile. Cooked to a perfect medium and juicy as you can imagine, it was an amazing vehicle for the crawfish bechamel, which might’ve overpowered a less impressive cut of meat. The grits were so creamy and such a treat, I sampled only tiny bites at a time to savor the experience throughout the meal. The only downside was the overly-salty greens, but I didn’t really care about skipping my veggie for the evening at that point.

Oh, Gil ordered the pan-fried redfish, which I’ve never developed a taste for, and was probably much less stuffed than I when we left, but I think he really missed out, despite having a few bites of my dish. Dessert has never been my thing, so I ordered the cheese plate and was completely satisfied. Cheese is one of my favorite things in the world, and on any other night, I probably could’ve cleaned the plate, but only managed about half this time. Gil oohed and aaahed over his chocolate crepes and I’m sure they were perfection on a plate, but I couldn’t even look at chocolate at that point, so I can’t give you a first-hand account.

We skipped wine with dinner and had cocktails instead. I was still stuffy from the sinus infection I picked up at Christmas, so I decided on a sazerac (perhaps my favorite cocktail), strictly for medicinal purposes, of course. As with other sazeracs I’ve had in New Orleans, it was overly sweet — a real disappointment, given the drink’s origins. (Incidentally, the best I’ve ever had was at the Pegu Club in NY. Try it sometime when you’re in the area.) Gil stuck with his Hendrick’s gin & tonic and couldn’t have been happier. (They were so fancy, they even served Gil’s drink with a slice of cucumber, instead of lime!)

Loaded to the gills and ever-so-slightly buzzed, we couldn’t even fathom grabbing another drink, so we turned in soon after getting back to the hotel (still around midnight — it was a leisurely dinner), anticipating more ambling the following day. (Sorry for the lack of pictures, but neither Muriel’s nor Bayona was the type of place I’d feel comfortable whipping out a camera, even sans flash.)

When we woke, it was just as sultry as I thought it would be; the forecast was for a high of 70 degrees, which meant crazy humidity and loads of fog after a few relatively cold days. So we headed to Café du Monde for the breakfast of champions — beignets and café au lait.

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Gil’s pretty much mastered the eating of beignets at this point, though he did inhale powdered sugar once. Still, it was a marked improvement over previous visits, and we both walked out of there without the fine coating of powdered sugar on our black clothes you often see.

At this point, we walked over to the river to see what we could in the fog, which wasn’t much. I’ll leave you with photos from our misty day before picking up on the rest of our excursion.

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Across the street from our hotel — a scenic corner.

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In Pirate’s Alley, across from Faulkner House Books.

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Waiting for a fare at Jackson Square.

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The Cabildo and St. Louis Cathedral overlooking Jackson Square.

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The steamboat Natchez, engulfed in fog.

By the time we reached Harrah’s casino and blew through a little money, it had started to pour. The skies were forbidding and the clouds were rushing past, so we decided to cut our visit short and head back toward my parents’ house. By the time we left the city, the rain had stopped and the sun was out again (of course), so we took a spin up River Road to Oak Alley Plantation, which Gil had never visited. My elementary school years were filled with field trips to plantations and I remembered this one as being pretty spectacular, so I thought he’d enjoy the view.

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The Hale Boggs Bridge in St. Charles Parish.

It was a much longer drive than I remembered from my last visit nearly 10 years ago; it took us past beautiful homes and clear-cut sugar cane fields, as well as some of the most depressing landscapes in the area. Just as I was starting to get frustrated with the drive, we came upon Oak Alley. They’ve added a brick-lined walkway between the oaks that give the plantation its name and changed their policy to only allow visitors in the house if they’re on a tour, but otherwise it was just as I remembered. Our tour guide was an affectless young woman named Britney with a booming voice that carried throughout the house; she managed to gloss over the slavery aspect of the plantation except for one deftly-worded sentence at the introduction to the tour. I don’t think any of us were unaware of the engine that drove the plantation, but it would’ve been nice not to have the tour confirm my worst expectations.

The house itself was magnificent in its time, but not as grand as you’d expect. It’s main features are the wraparound porches on the ground and second floors, and the stunning path of 200-year-old oaks marching from the house to the river.

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View from the river side.

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View from the balcony, facing the river.

The trip home seemed much shorter than the one on the way out, even though we stopped off for andouille and tasso to bring back to New Jersey, and Gil had his first (and last) meal at Sonic. He wasn’t happy that I allowed him to eat there, and I think the commercials have lost some of their charm for him.

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So that’s about it. It was a long vacation filled with food, but I’m happy to be back home and back to some kind of normal routine. Thanks for sticking with me through this meta-post!

(As noted in the last post, if you’d like to see the full flickr set of our trip, click here.)

Vacation

Well, I couldn’t keep it up forever. After allowing the waves of work stress to wash over me for the past two months, my body has given in and come down with a Christmas cold. Yay! But I’m determined not to spend another day in my parents’ living room reading and watching TV; we’re going to New Orleans today where we will get energized with cafe au lait, wander around taking many pictures, and finish the evening with a meal at Cochon (just in case we didn’t squeeze in enough pork since Sunday). Posting will be light or nonexistent until we’re back in NJ, but I hope you’re enjoying the extended break (if you took one), and had a wonderful holiday.

Guest post: Avocado trees in Louisiana

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A few days ago as my cousin Wade and I were catching up, he shared his excitement at having one of his three avocado trees finally bear fruit. My bloggy wheels started spinning, and I asked if he’d like to do a guest post here to share the experience with all of you. He thought it was a splendid idea, and even sent along pictures of the gorgeous avocados. Color me jealous.

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It all started about six years ago when my wife Robin and I were thinking about grade school science class. I remember when we used to put three toothpicks in an avocado seed and put it in a jar of water. We’d wait for what seemed like forever, then out popped a little tree. Robin and I decided to try it for ourselves.

The experiment worked, so we decide to throw the tree in the ground and see what happened. One year later, we did the same thing with another avocado seed. A year after that, we repeated the experiment. Not really knowing a lot about the trees (we still don’t), we planted them about three feet apart in a triangle. Slowly but surely (for what reasons – we don’t know), the second tree planted took off. It towered over the older tree. The third tree planted was the unfortunate one; the other two apparently took most of the water and sunlight. To this day, the youngest tree (about four years old now) is only about three feet tall. My best guess is the six-year-old is about 12 feet tall and the five-year-old is about 23 feet tall.

This year, Robin noticed blooms on the middle (the five-year-old) tree — thousands of tiny flowers popped out. Then, all of a sudden, those flowers turned into little balls. We had some rough wind and rain storms and that might have contributed to losing a lot of the little “balls.” Who knows? But slowly, some of the balls grew. Lord have mercy, we were getting avocados! We counted about 15 or so at one point. We found a small, marble-sized one on the ground every now and then, and of course had to try it.

Finally, from thousands of flowers, we had 12 (actually 11 1/2) large avocados. We still have one that is the size of a prune, but it’s high in the tree and doesn’t appear to be growing. We picked some and ate them — MMMMMMMM good. Tastes like avocados! We are looking forward to eating the rest, but can’t bear to pick them yet. I’m sure the stomach will prevail.

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