Wednesday, August 26, 2009

La Provence - New Orleans

It’s not often that I make the long trip across the Causeway to the North Shore. In fact, I’ve only been one time and that was to go on the Abita Brewery Tour. Now I’m making the substantial drive from the CBD to Lacombe, all in the pursuit of trying out John Besh’s La Provence. Actually the restaurant wasn’t started by Besh, it was started in 1972 by his mentor John Kerageorgiou. With Besh as the owner and Chef Eric Loos at the helm, I had high expectations.

After parking and being seated, I was delighted to see something unique brought to the table.

Instead of the usual dish of butter and French bread, the meal starts with toast points and rabbit liver pâté.

Not only were the toast points buttery and delicious, I’d be hard pressed to find a finer pâté. It was smooth, rich, creamy, with no real irony taste, all important things for a liver pâté, but most importantly, it was completely decadent. I wish every meal started with toast and pâté, the world might be a better place.

What would be a meal without a good cocktail?

Luckily La Provence is known for their cocktails. Pictured is their take on the classic French 75. Not a bad representation, especially considering it’s nothing but gin, champagne and lemon juice. The lavender twig is a nice touch.

I was being terribly indecisive, so I decided that two appetizers were a must. The first up was the escargot au pistou.

This was a different take on escargot, a departure from the usual escargot Bourgogne. Here the snails are served with herbed bread crumbs and pistou, essentially a pesto without the pine nuts, and there was a lot of it. The snails were extremely tender and very well cooked, and while there was loads of garlic in the pistou, I just wasn’t a big fan. I realize that pistou is a very Provencal sauce, but I prefer the more northern Bourgogne.

For a second appetizer, I decided to for Chef Chris’ quail gumbo, because it’s rare to see quail in gumbo.

The presentation for this dish was a real surprise. Instead of the traditional pieces of quail distributed throughout the gumbo, the quail was served whole and stuffed with dirty rice.

When you take a closer look, you can see that’s an exceedingly stuffed quail. Moving on, the gumbo was essentially perfect, with an incredibly rich flavor. The quail wasn’t far behind with well cooked meat that was perfectly complimented by the deep liquid. Even though it was a little tedious to cut up the quail, I didn’t care, it was just so rich and spicy.

Even though we’re still on the edge of bad season for oysters, I couldn’t resist a few charbroiled oysters with café de Paris butter.

Like everything else, these oysters were cooked to perfection. I know I’m sounding repetitive, but when it’s all cooked so well, there’s just not much else to say. Anyway, these oysters and their butter & breadcrumb topping were just fantastic.

Moving on to the entrees, the hits just kept on coming.

This gigantic soft shell crab would have been fantastic on its own, as it was lightly battered and fried to perfection and tasted just a little sweet, but they went ahead and added a risotto. Not only was the risotto expertly cooked, it was swimming with the pungent flavors of olive, and there were chunks of house smoked bacon that just drove everything over the top.

Next was a classic dish, a filet of beef tenderloin.

If you look to the right of the filet, you’ll see half a bone with mushrooms on top. The waitress told me that the heat from the mushrooms melted the marrow and helped make the sauce for the steak. That’s a stroke of genius as every piece of the piece of the tender, amazingly cooked filet had an amazing depth of flavor.

After a quick discussion with the waitress about the lamb and the rabbit, I ordered the slow cooked whole baby lamb for my entrée.

I was actually expecting a whole lamb on a platter, but this dish was more than delicious.

With everything deconstructed, you get a chance to see the two separate cuts of lamb. On the bottom the braised lamb was unctuous, tender, and had an amazing flavor. Originally on top and now to the left, the leg of lamb was a stellar medium rare that was amazing with the pan sauce. Not to forget the supporting cast, the zucchini, cippolini onions, and chanterelle mushrooms were all delicately cooked and provided a great support to the lamb.

To most people that would have been enough, and we would have agreed, but we were easily swayed to try a dessert or two.

First was the house peach ice cream, and as you would expect it was rich, delicious and overflowing with peach flavor. Unfortunately, I was a bit underwhelmed with the presentation. I was expecting more than just a few scoops thrown into a bowl.

Looking to try a very “French” dessert, I immediately chose the cherry clafoutis.

This was right back on form with rich, plump cherries in a well cooked dough. Being served a la mode is always a plus, and the house vanilla ice cream was a delightful compliment.

I suppose the first question I’d ask is was it worth the drive? Yes, I would actually drive from Jackson just to eat at this restaurant. The food is that divine and the wait staff is knowledgeable, helpful, and extremely charming. As much as it sounds like a cliché, La Provence really does seem like a slice of southern France on the north shore. It looks like I’ll be making the drive across the causeway much more often.

La Provence on Urbanspoon

Huntington's Grille - Jackson

After a great cooking class by Louie Bruno, I was well acquainted with the kitchen at the Huntington’s Grille. Knowing that Louie would be in that kitchen, I decided to pay him a visit on Wednesday to see what changes he had made to the menu.

Louie had explained during the cooking class that he was trying to change the menus across all the Jackson Hilton’s restaurants. No matter how you slice it, it’s a daunting task to change the way an entire hotel works. With the Huntington’s Grille, he was trying to convince people that it wasn’t a game restaurant, despite the sign out front with the elk carving.

It was time to see what sort of impact Louie had imparted on the grill. The first appetizer ordered was the quail lettuce wrap.

This was an auspicious beginning to the meal as these little wraps featured perfectly cooked and seasoned quail that was only furthered by the delicious sauce. I’m not sure if this dish is a Chef Tim Sim’s invention or a Louie Bruno creation. Regardless, it’s a far cry from what I used to eat at Huntington’s Grille.

Next was a pure Louie Bruno dish, spring rolls.

Aside from the lovely presentation, you have to notice that these spring rolls are made with turkey. I don’t normally associate turkey with Asian foods, but Louie made it work. Packed with a lot of cilantro flavor, these were excellent spring rolls that were also perfectly fried and complimented by a great dipping sauce.

For another appetizer, I decided that it wouldn’t hurt to try the sizzling garlic gulf coast shrimp.

Like everything else so far, these shrimp were very well cooked. It didn’t hurt that the sauce was overflowing with the flavors of green onion and garlic; however the dish lacked a certain unami I associate with garlic shrimp. Still, the only real detraction from this dish was miniscule amount of Cuban bread. If you serve a dish in rosemary garlic butter, people are going to want to enjoy all the sauce, so the more bread, the better!

Continuing the never-ending cavalcade of appetizers was an order of the blackened scallops.

Again, this was well cooked seafood, and this dish featured a solid dusting of lingering blackening spice.

Last but not least was the crab cake appetizer

It’s nice to have Louie behind a range again as these crab cakes were full of nicely cooked crab meat and a good helping of spiciness. The cream sauce, I could take it or leave it, just give me more crab meat.

While the crab cakes were the last of the appetizers, there was a pleasant treat between courses.

A sorbet between courses is becoming a real rarity, but this mango sorbet served two purposes. Not only was my palate cleansed, it was also a real tasty little dish.

Moving onto the main course, I had taken Louie’s advice and gone for the house specialty: oven roasted redfish.

Served with jumbo lump crabmeat and a citron butter sauce, this seemed like the perfect end to the meal. Unfortunately, the problems started when I was served saffron linguine instead of my requested pepper jack cheese grits.

While waiting on my grits, I preserved and tried the linguine to find it to be al dente and very well seasoned. Maybe I should have gone with the linguine in the first place.

Anyway, back to the redfish. I was disappointed to find it more than a little dry and seeming to be overcooked. Could this be the first real foul up of the evening? Moving on the crab and butter sauce, it was exactly as described. There were large lumps of crabmeat that had a very tasty butter sauce, but still I was disappointed in the fish.

Just before I finished the waiter arrived with a odd ball of grits. Sure they had a very nice pepper jack cheese flavor, but like the redfish, they just seemed a little overdone.

It’s been a number of years since I last set foot in the Huntington’s Grille. It’s not that I was purposely avoiding it, I just never really think to go there. However, this last visit was a real delight, mainly by the great service and personal touch of Louie Bruno. If there’s one thing I learned from this dinner, it’s that I should have just stuck with the appetizers, but overall it was a nice dinner.

Apparently Chef Timothy Sims has done something right or the Huntington’s Grille wouldn’t have won only the second DiRona award in the State, still I can’t wait to see what Louie Bruno can bring to the table.

Huntingtons Grille on Urbanspoon

The Pizza Shack - Jackson

There seems to be a wide variety of pizza options in Jackson. Sure, the coal oven pizza craze hasn’t hit home yet, but we’ve got homegrown options like Sal & Mookies and Soulshine, not to mention Mellow Mushroom and the bevy of typical chain operations. One pizza place that I always seem to forget is Pizza Shack. I’m not sure why, so Sam and I decided to have a quick lunch before hitting the road for Louisville.

I think it was a mistake was trying to make this a quick lunch. The first problem is the extensive menu of specialty pizzas. Ranging from a chicken curry, to cheeseburger to Mexican fiesta, there was so much to choose from. After a few minutes of hemming and hawing, we decided it would be best to share two smalls.

Our second problem was timing. Even though we arrived and ordered before the lunch rush, our pizzas weren’t exactly prompt. However, any aggravation about tardiness went out the window when the pizzas were brought to the table.

First up was the buffalo chicken pizza.

The truth is this pizza tastes just as good as it looks. The numerous pieces of chicken were tender and spicy, just like a buffalo chicken should be. Not only was there plenty of delicious chicken there was a ton of bacon for such a small pizza. The only thing that bothered me was the hot sauce; Sam thought it was Tabasco, I thought Frank’s. A quick questioning of the manager revealed that the Pizza Shack uses Frank’s. I hope that wasn’t meant to be private.

In addition to the buffalo chicken, Sam had insisted we order the pulled pork bbq pizza.

Though I’ve always been skeptical of bbq pizzas, all my fears were assuaged by this pizza. Like the buffalo chicken, this pizza was loaded to the gills with plenty of meat, juicy, tender pork in this case. Not forgetting the bbq sauce, it was a sweet and thick sauce that was a dynamite companion to the pizza and pork.

I was so enamored with my lunch at the Pizza Shack, that I convinced a number of coworkers to order it for lunch the next day. Always a fan of cold pizza, I ordered a large just to ensure there would be leftovers.

After reading another blogger’s review of the carnivore pizza, I couldn’t resist.

There was something disturbing about this pizza. Sure most large pizza are hefty in their own right, but this pizza was actually heavy, and it’s owed to the sheer amount of toppings.

I was finally able to get a taste of a regular pizza and I was delighted to find the tomato sauce to have a nice bit of red pepper. Of course, the main attraction of the carnivore is the metric ton of sausage, ham, pepperoni, beef, and bacon. Kudos to the Pizza Shack for using real, visible pieces of bacon, this is one the few pizzas were you can actually distinguish all the flavors of the various toppings.

Sure, the Pizza Shack isn’t the most glamorous location. It’s true to its name, it really is a shack…of sorts. The ac inside the restaurant really does put up a good fight against the ovens in the back, but it’s an uphill battle. Yes, the wait staff is usually overwhelmed and the pizzas are never exactly prompt, but none of that matters. The wait staff is polite, friendly, and more than eager to help. Most importantly, the pizza is astounding and completely worth the wait.

Pizza Shack on Urbanspoon

Cooking from the Web - Homesick Texan's Chicken Fried Steak

It’s time to chalk up another great find to Twitter. After seeing a list of 50 food related Twitter accounts, I started following the Homesick Texan. Naturally, I started to dig around her site, and I was immediately floored by her recipe for chicken fried steak.

Sure, there’s plenty of chicken fried steak in Mississippi, but there really is something extra in the steaks from Texas. Not planning a trip to Texas any time soon, I decided the best course of action was the make the Homesick Texan’s recipe.

Who wants a plain chicken fried steak? Obviously, you’ll need some sort of starch to compliment the crunchy piece of beef. Using my mother’s vague recipe, I decided to make mashed potatoes.

Here, there are 5-7 russet potatoes that have been peeled and cubed. After getting boiled in salted water, I pulled them off the range when they were easily pierced with a pairing knife.

Now it’s time for my mother’s vagueness to come into play. I added a stick of butter ( minus a tablespoon or so) and then gave it the business with a hand mixer.

Once the mixture reached the right consistency, it was time to add the last ingredient.

Two good spoonfuls of sour cream were added. I guess that’s about ½ cup of sour cream.

In the end, you have a large pot of deliciously smooth potatoes, just waiting for a spoonful of gravy. In addition to the potatoes, I set a full pot of rice to cook in my rice cooker, nothing like diversity in starch.

Moving onto the beef, with her recipe calling for 1 ½ pounds of top round steak, I was praying that my recent bulk order from Flying M Farm had included a couple pieces of that cut.

I was in luck. Unfortunately, a night of defrosting in the freezer left them swimming in a pool of juices.

Still, those are pretty good looking steaks.

The recipe calls for the steaks to be cut into four pieces. Knowing that I wouldn’t get four even pieces, I started to carve the steak into the most even shapes possible.

Not wanting to have a raw steak in the middle, I decided it would be best to cut the steaks in half.

They may not be evenly proportioned but they’ll do the job.

Instead of going for the meat mallet to tenderize and flatten my steaks, I took a page from Alton Brown and broke out my Jaccard.

Sure, anything can say “super meat tenderizer”

But with knives like these, it can back that claim up. The idea of the Jaccard is that it cuts through the tough connective tissue in the steak.

With the flash, you can see just how many times the steak is pierced after a few passes with the Jaccard.

After making sure all my steaks were thoroughly tenderized, I was ready for the next step.

The key behind a good chicken fried steak is a quality crust.

First each steak is given a good coat of flour.

I made sure to flip and get each side covered.

After shaking off the excess flour, the steak went straight into a mixture of 3 eggs and ½ cup of milk.

Again, make sure both sides are coated.

It was right back to the flour after the egg wash.

With my top round steak nicely coated, it was time for the skillet. I made sure the oil was half way up the skillet and nice & hot.

Three to four minutes later, you’ll see the blood pushing through the steaks meaning it’s time to flip these bad boys and cook for another five minutes.

A pretty excellent looking chicken fried steak, don’t you think?

When I had finished frying the rest of the steaks, it was time for the cream gravy. Not wanting to waste any of the pan drippings, I poured out all but 2 tablespoons of grease.

Added to the grease was 2 tablespoons of ap flour.

The idea is to make a good brown roux. If you’re not sure how to make a roux, I’ll give you three important tips. Be patient, keep stirring, and don’t burn the roux.

Now for the cream part of the gravy, I slowly added 1 ½ cups of milk to the pan. Again, it’s important to be vigilant with the stirring and make sure to smooth out any lumps.

Turning it to low, I kept stirring until the gravy was good and thick. After seasoning to taste with salt and pepper, it was good to go. The Homesick Texan actually says to use 1 teaspoon of pepper, but probably used closer to a tablespoon.

After all that work, it was time to enjoy the fruits of my labor.

It’s not the most exciting presentation, but I’ve never been a fan of a tarted up chicken fried steak.

Sure, it’s by no means healthy, but this is a truly delicious meal. Thanks to the Homesick Texan, I now have a go to recipe for stellar chicken fried steak.