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.

Ah yes, I remember it well

No pictures (from me, anyway) to commemorate our wonderful dining experience at Tabla last night, but the memory of that meal will stay with me for a long, long time. Gil was less impressed than I and thought he’d had better at Café Matisse, but that’s just because he lost the ordering war: Why would you go for a scallop (that’s one ginormous scallop, btw) when there are more flavorful items on the menu? But hey, that’s just me.

The chef sent around an amuse bouche of cauliflower soup that surprised me on every level. It was brothy rather than creamy, spicy and tangy, and nothing like any cauliflower soup I’d ever had. The naan was pillowy and so fresh steam rose from the bread as we broke it. The sauces served with the naan were green squash- and apple-based and (our favorite) roasted tomato chutney. It was already a meal to savor and we hadn’t even seen our appetizers.

Because I didn’t feel like drinking wine last night, I skipped the foie gras (I know! There’s a first time for everything), and ordered the Fricassee of Oyster, Calamari, Whelks, and Periwinkles (with fava beans, Meyer lemon, mango chutney, and coconut broth). Well! It was my first experience eating fava beans, Meyer lemon, whelks, AND periwinkles and it just blew me away. The broth was rich and spicy, but light with a pleasing sour note at the very end. There was no mention of cilantro on the menu, but I found a strong taste of it in there, so be warned if you don’t like it. Personally, me and cilantro go way back and I gots no beef with it.

My entrée was Smoked & Slow Cooked Scottish Salmon (with French green lentils, fennel, and orange tamarind glaze), served medium rare. The flavors were a little more straightforward than my appetizer, but it was still something I enjoyed taking my time with, exploring the interplay between ingredients. The salmon was topped with ramps, which I’ve been dying to try, and they did not disappoint. I’m pretty sure the chef managed to smoke the ramps before roasting them, so now I have inspiration for the weekend if I’m able to rind ramps at the Union Square Greenmarket tomorrow. The only complaint I have about the dish is the salmon itself was a little bland if eaten alone and had a thick crust on top (from the smoking?). It’s a perfectly fine way to prepare salmon, but not my favorite. Still, the other layers of the dish more than made up for that minor disappointment.

And then it was time for dessert. I like unfussy, very simple desserts. My favorite is probably creme brulée, so you get the idea. Nothing on the Tabla menu fit that bill, so I ordered the cheese plate (which I might have, anyway, being something of a hound for cheese). The goat cheese was delicious if nothing special, but I loved the two cow’s milk cheeses they brought to me — both were creamy and a little melted on the plate. One was funky as hell and the other had a smoky bite to the rind, which I saved for last. I love ending my meals with the best flavor on the plate.

I stuck to one drink the whole evening, a pomegranate gimlet, which was — of course — a work of art. It walked a fine line between sweet and tart and pine-fresh, and really went well with everything I ate, which I was a little worried about going in. Anyway, I can’t say enough great things about this restaurant and I’m really happy my second experience there was just as wonderful as my first. Trying so many new ingredients in one meal was lots of fun for me, and I was so inspired by the flavor combinations that I put Chef Cardoz’s cookbook on my Amazon wish list as soon as I got to work this morning. I predict lots of fish soups and Indian flavors for us this summer!

The humble lentil

I love to cook. Really, I do. But sometimes when I get home from work I just can’t stand the thought of it. Unfortunately, that leaves me with only two choices: Call Luigi’s for a pie (which we did Monday night) or suck it up and cook something anyway (which I did last night). Sucking it up can be as easy as eggs and toast or I can actually produce something from the pantry, albeit something simple.

Enter the lentil. It’s hard to go wrong with lentils. They’re great for you, cook quickly, and pair well with lots of flavors, as they live somewere between tofu and wild rice on the “blank slate” continuum. The Young Ones connotations aside, they make for a perfectly fine meal.

I opted for a really easy preparation last night. While the lentils (green ones, this time) were simmering in about two inches of water, I cooked a few strips of bacon using the easiest method ever: Place bacon slices on a rimmed baking sheet and put into a cold oven. Heat the oven to 425 degrees, and the bacon is ready! (Seriously. No mess, no fuss, no hot grease splatters on your skin.) With the lentils and bacon cooking away, I made another basic vinaigrette — dijon mustard, lemon juice, olive oil, minced shallot, chopped thyme, and salt & pepper — and tossed it with the drained, hot lentils, then mounded them over a little spinach sauteed with olive oil and garlic. Topped with crumbled bacon and blue cheese, it paired nicely with our “honeymoon rosé,” the Roshambo Imoan.

Update: I just had the leftovers for lunch and highly recommend making this a day ahead. The lentils were fine last night, but much tastier after mingling with the vinaigrette, bacon, and cheese overnight.