Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Lilette - New Orleans

Before starting the journey northward to Jackson, it was time for one last meal in New Orleans. With literally hundreds of restaurants to choose from, one might wonder how I decided on Lilette. Well, there are several compelling reasons to choose Lilette. A fine reason is a Beard award nominated chef in the form of John Harris. Another is the birdie conclusion from Blackened Out. More obvious is the rather enticing lunch menu complete with kobe burgers, duck confit, and expertly grilled fish. However, the truth is much more humble than all the previous explanations. The reason I picked Lilette is because, while scrolling through the available reservations on Open Table, I recognized the name. With that tidbit out the way, here’s what Lilette had to offer for an October lunch.

As with so many fine meals, lunch at Lilette began with a plate oysters on the half shell.


However, the usual, fat Gulf oysters were nowhere to be seen on this tray. In their place were three kumamoto and three beausoleil oysters.
I’ve extolled the virtue of the Kumamoto oyster many times before and as expected, these bivalves were buttery with just a touch of brininess.

The beausoleil oysters were a different story. Slightly larger than the Kumamotos, the beausoleil had a more upfront salinity than their Northwestern relatives.

The lunch menu at Lilette may be chock full of enticing options, but one that rose above the rest was the sizzling shrimp with lemon oregano vinaigrette.

True to the name, this quartet of what looked to be U-8 shrimp arrived at the table spitting and sputtering.

Like the shrimp, this appetizer was full of larger than life flavors. Each bite carried a wave of lemon and oregano that was followed by the delightful salinity of well-cooked shrimp. Taking the time to peel and devein shrimp but leave the head on may be a tedious task, but with this dish, it was well worth the effort.

Changing gears from the light flavors of oysters and lemon soaked shrimp, it was time to delve into the world of braised veal cheeks and gnocchi.
Rounding out the components of this plate was a smattering of mushrooms and rosemary; it all made for a heavy, meaty dish.
I say meaty, but to be honest there wasn’t much meat to be found on this plate. What nuggets of veal cheek I did encounter were achingly tender and delightful, but they were far from the dominant portion of the dish.

What did dominate the dish were a small mountain of gnocchi and a pool of rosemary cream. Contrary to what I was expecting, the rosemary didn’t overpower the rest of the dish.
The gnocchi is what overpowered the other components. It’s hard to explain but this gnocchi had an odd texture, closer to mashed potatoes than most gnocchi I’ve encountered. Eventually the gnocchi seemingly began to dissolve and turn the plate into a starch, gray puddle.
Not the way I would have wanted my lunch entrée to end, but at least the beginning had promise.

Pallid puddles aside, I’m not scratching Lilette off my list of go-to Nola restaurants, quite the contrary. There was not a single instance of grating service that Blackened Out experienced and I’ll be more than happy to pay Lilette a second or even a third visit if only for more shrimp. In the future, I will just be a bit wary of the gnocchi. Thankfully there are plenty of other enticing dishes to try.

Lilette Address & Information

3637 Magazine St. New Orleans, LA 70115 // 504.895.1636 // Lilette Website // Lilette Menu // Lilette Reservations

Lilette on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

La Boulangerie - New Orleans

Whenever I make the slow drive down Magazine Street towards River Bend, I’ll often find myself lost in the sea of passing buildings. Being New Orleans, every building seems to be in a state of what some would call disrepair; I prefer to think of them as buildings with character. Regardless of your opinion, there’s one building that’s hard to miss on Magazine Street. Cloaked in a brilliant blue with gold and white accents, La Boulangerie has been hailed as New Orleans’ own little slice of Paris, complete with quality pastries and vaguely snobbish attitudes.

Although I’ve stopped at La Boulangerie on many prior visits, most recently my 2011 king cake run, this time it was for breakfast. Naturally the hardest decision one must make at any bakery is deciding what to order and La Boulangerie is no exception. Between the varieties of croissants, Danishes, and other butter and flour creations, there didn’t seem to be a wrong answer.

I decided to go for the dual threat and ordered a chocolate almond croissant. Armed with a pastry-laden plate and a cup of steeping tea, it was time to inspect my purchase.

Maybe it’s a misconception, but I expect croissants to be relatively light. This croissant was quite the opposite. Heavy for its size, I imagined there was more to this pastry than met the eye.
Topped with sliced almonds and a healthy dose of confectioner’s sugar, I imagined that would be the extent of the almonds in this almond croissant.

A quick cut with a knife revealed the truth. This croissant was stuffed to the gills with frangipan and two seams of chocolate. It was a delightful juxtaposition; a light, flaky, and buttery pastry filled with rich chocolate and a double dose of almond.

Wonderful as it was, it was simply too much. These are the sort of problems I have at La Boulangerie. Their products are simply too good, too rich, and too filling, but I can hardly resist them; it’s a fantastic predicament to be in.

La Boulangerie Address & Information

4600 Magazine St, New Orleans, Louisiana 70115 // 504.269.3777

La Boulangerie on Urbanspoon

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Le Foret - New Orleans

I love the pomp and circumstance of fine dining. There are few things more enjoyable than donning your Sunday best and sitting down to an evening of well-crafted cuisine. Throwing caution thrown to the wind with a tasting menu including four courses of foie gras and two with caviar? Bring it on. A table lit by candlelight, covered in pristine white linens, and manned by a wait staff that seems to be near clairvoyant, why not? If the kitchen is headed by a certified Master Chef like Jimmy Corwell, it’s all the better. Combine those expectations with a handsome review by Blackened Out and I was ready to step into Le Foret and enjoy some of the best that New Orleans had to offer.

To start, while it may be a subject I don’t particularly enjoy dwelling upon, it’s hard to forget the ambiance at Le Foret. Some might call it intimate. I would simply call it dark. Looking in through the windows on Common Street, if it hadn’t been the one or two occupied table, I would have thought the restaurant was closed. Once seated, even with acclimated eyes, reading the menu became the primary challenge.

After finding a way to read the menu, it was a matter of either choosing dishes from the standard sections or the five-course tasting menu. Normally this wouldn't be up for discussion. I've come to think of a testing menu as a chance for the chef to show his skill and creativity. For some reason, this time was different. Even though the tasting menu had an enticing dish with butter poached lobster, I decided a few options from the “something to start”, “something in between”, and “entrees” sections were the superior choices.

One major downside to the lighting situation at Le Foret was the poor quality of the pictures. I’ve still included the pictures but with the warning that there was some adjustment to the exposure compensation. With that out of the way, the first dish on the table was a small amuse bouche of tomato bisque and sweet cookies with rabbit pate.

The cookies, true to their description, were sweet, crispy, and delicate. Easy to miss, the rabbit pate was small in quantity but rich and meaty. As for the tomato bisque, it was thick and condensed tomato goodness.

Working on the idea of one dish per section, the choice from “something to start” was the eternal classic, gulf oysters – Rockefeller Style.

Consisting of five of the gulf’s finest with spinach and celery fondue and a pernod glacage gratinee, these oysters were just cooked and featured a pleasant, but not overpowering anise flavor.

Intrigued by the name, I picked Le Foret Champignons as the “something in between” representative.

Instead of a simple plate of confit mushrooms, pickled onions, pate de foie gras, sultanas, hazlenuts, and watercress, this dish took a whimsical approach.

A trio of shitake topped, foie gras pate stuffed pastries formed the mushroom forest with the watercress, sultantas, hazlenuts, and pickled onions making up the forest floor.

Aesthetics aside, the highlight of this dish was the textural contrast of crispy pastry and smooth, rich pate. While the mushrooms did provide an extra touch of velvety meatiness, this plate was truly all about the pate.

Call it gluttony or call it being a glutton for punishment, I needed more confit. This time the confit came in the form of a spiced duck confit pasta terrine. Sitting beneath a Moulard duck breast and joined by sous vide radish and baby beets, crookneck squash, duck cracklings, and buttered duck jus, this entrée was billed as a duck tour de force.
Cooked medium rare, this duck breast had a salty and crispy, almost burn skin.

Beneath the skin was a duck that was very chewy with small, medium-rare center. As for the rest of the dish, the buttered duck jus was as rich as expected while the other components, the pasta terrine, radish and baby beets, cracklings, and squash seemed to do little more than simply round out the dish.

Although the duck had been an underwhelming end to the meal, I can’t help but feel that the whole Le Foret experience was a bit anticlimactic. Let me explain; there was nothing wrong with the amuse bouche or the oysters Rockefeller; they were perfectly suitable, above average dishes. The Le Foret Champignons, again a very nice dish and a delightful play on words, was nothing exceptional. If there was a true downside to the meal, it was undoubtedly the duck breast. Once again, this was a passable dish but hardly class leading. Concerning service, while I respect Blackened Out’s opinions, in my experience, Le Foret provided nothing equal to or striving towards three star levels. This was a pleasant dinner but sadly not the standard setting meal that I was expecting. Le Foret may be one of the few outlets in New Orleans striving towards world class excellence but I believe there are better meals to be had in the city.

Le Foret Address & Information

129 Camp Street, New Orleans, LA 70130 // 504.553.6738 // Le Foret Website // Le Foret Menu // Le Foret Reservations

Le Foret on Urbanspoon

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Crabby Jack's - New Orleans

It had been far too long since I last set foot in New Orleans. In fact, the last time was during the ice storm last February. The roads may have been perilous, my windshield may have had a solid sheet of ice on the edges, but I was determined to return to Jackson with king cakes and I did. Fortunately, the weather in October was much more accommodating. The lingering heat of the summer had finally moved on and it was that glorious time of year where you can stand outside and not turn into a wrinkly, sweating mess. Aside from enjoying the weather, I had made an early break from Jackson to ensure I’d hit New Orleans in time for lunch, but not just any lunch; after months, maybe years of procrastinating, I was finally heading to Jefferson Highway for a taste of Crabby Jack’s.

I say months and years because I’ve been relying on the recommendations of a few Jackson and New Orleans residents for my past po-boy pursuits, namely Nola Maven and the good people at Blackened Out. I’ve been slowly making the rounds of some more well-known po-boy vendors but the suggestion of Crabby Jack’s would always gnaw at the back of my mind. Well, enough was enough. With an empty stomach and a camera in hand, I was determined to see if Crabby Jack’s was worth the wait and effort.

As with most po-boy restaurants, I had to make a decision. Do I try some of my favorites, my litmus tests or do I strike out and sample a house specialty? This time, the later won out as the roast beef po-boy and oyster po-boys went unordered. What did appear was a duck po-boy.
The first of three for lunch, I had barely undone the tape when the full-bodied aroma of well-cooked duck hit me.
There it was, a po-boy overflowing with moist, thinly sliced duck.
From the first bite, I kicked myself for not eating here sooner. Each mouthful was brimming with silky duck, the briny snap of pickles, and gravy with just a touch of pepper.
It was a staggering amount of duck for $9, and it was so rich and succulent that I was initially convinced I had been given pork by accident.

This would hardly be a po-boy outing without a little bit of fried food, luckily a helping of fried shrimp on Leidenheimer bread filled that void.
At first glance, it was echoes of Parkway Bakery. The shrimp were on the smallish side but plentiful enough to overflow from the loaf with the slightest touch.
Quantity aside, the quality of these shrimp was equally impressive. Each shrimp tail carried a satisfying crunch with a salty crust and an ever so slightly briny meat.
Topped with a few shots of hot sauce, this shrimp po-boy became a loaf of fried seafood bliss.

Never one to be easily satisfied, I decided to overindulge and round out my trio of po-boys with a little bit of cochon de lait.
Since I started writing this blog, I’ve had my fair share of excellent and flat out terrible pork. I’m afraid that this po-boy puts damn near everything else to shame.
Between the soggy slices of po-boy bread lay a small mountain of ethereal pork. Silky and unctuous with a slight spice of a rub; there was no real smokiness, just the vinegary crunch of pickles to help cut through the pure pork flavor, fat, and sweetness.
It’s not often that you encounter a dish that makes you reevaluate your take on food, but hyperbole aside, it’s hard to imagine a higher pinnacle for the humble suckling pig.

Conquered by a trio of po-boys, I could only ponder why I had procrastinated so much in coming to Crabby Jack’s. In retrospect, what was really unfair about the whole venture was the shrimp po-boy. It’s a perfectly fine sandwich, certainly above average, but it didn’t stand a chance in comparing to the cochon de lait and duck po-boys.
Later while wandering through the rest of New Orleans, I was told all the excellent po-boys I had missed on the Crabby Jack’s menu. Undoubtedly, Crabby Jack’s deserves multiple visits. It’s a shame that so many visitors to New Orleans will never make it here, but true po-boy fans will hire a taxi, rent a car, or walk to get these po-boys. They truly are that spectacular.

Crabby Jack's on Urbanspoon

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Gu's Bistro - Atlanta

Even though I had just enjoyed a bit of fine Sichuan cuisine while I was in Boston, when Jennifer suggested trying a relatively new Sichuan restaurant in Atlanta, I was all for it. Situated just north of 285 in the former Chonq Qing Hot Pot location, Gu’s Bistro has been open since early 2011 and in that time, Yiquan Gu and his restaurant have garnered a fair amount of favorable reviews: Gene Lee with the AJC and The Blissful Glutton weighed in with their opinions while Food Near Snellville took part in a massive 27 person meal. Always eager to try something new with favorable reviews and the potential for spiciness, Jennifer and I made the trek down Buford Highway for a late lunch.

Once seated, it was time to face the eternal question of where to start. Fortunate or unfortunate, Gu’s Bisto does not make that an easy take. The appetizer section alone has more than 20 choices with several items, specifically the ha ha green jelly, causing even more confusion.

After several minutes of patience by our waiter, we placed an order for appetizers and soon the first dish arrived, crispy beef jerky with chili sauce. Who can turn down the idea of dried beef in a spicy sauce?

While the components, beef and chili oil, were familiar, the extra shredded texture was new.


Shredded finely and dried fried until crunchy, this beef was oily with a lingering heat and nuttiness. Eaten plain or over rice, it was hard to stop grabbing another pinch of beef.

Nigh impossible to resist, it was inevitable that an order of Dan Dan noodles would make it to the table.


With big, thick, and chewy egg noodles, this was an interesting take on one of my favorite noodle dishes.
When mixed, the sparse amount of meat quickly disappeared, but the manageably spicy sauce soon dominated. There wasn’t an overwhelming sensation of ma la to this bowl, just pleasant noodles with enough heat to keep things interesting.

Since the two of us can never get enough dumplings, an order of Chengdu wontons was the next item from the Szechuan Style Dim Sum section of the menu.


Somewhere beneath that greenery is a healthy dose of wontons, broth, and chili oil.


Big flowing wings with a small ball of pork in the middle, these were classic, succulent wontons. Accompanying the wontons was a sauce laced with plenty of chili oil, a satisfying touch of heat to accompany the pork and dough.

Knowing that two orders of dumplings is always better than one, the Zhong style dumplings were next to arrive.


Simply folded and featuring likely the same filling as the Chengdu wontons, these dumplings had a sweet sauce that was lightly balanced with a smattering of chili oil. I didn’t taste the same bitterness as Zyman did in her encounter, but the Zhong style dumplings were a fine choice either way.

Whenever a menu uses a system to denote spiciness, I can’t help but see it as a challenge. In the case of Gu’s Bistro, they use a system of one to four chilis to mark the spice level. With four being the highest, it was interesting that there were only three four chili dishes on the entire Chinese menu. Since I was still skeptical about the ha ha green jelly and wasn’t in the mood to pick at pork feet, the sautéed chicken with chili peppers was the only logical choice.


Topped with dried chilies, teeming with sliced, fresh chilies, and swimming in a pool of chili oil red sauce, I thought I might have gotten in over my head with this chicken.
With the first bite, a definitive heat began building at the corners of my mouth but the full burning onslaught never really came. Instead, this was a plate of incredibly juicy, well-cooked chicken that was utterly delicious. Sure it was a little spicy, but it wasn’t overwhelming and the sweetness of the chicken had plenty of opportunity to shine through.

Looking to a Sichuan favorite, an order of ma po tofu began winding down the meal.
Silky tofu in a vinegary sauce, there was the unmistakable dusty, citrus flavor and crunch of ground Sichuan peppercorns.

Finishing up, cumin lamb was the last plate on the table.


There was no shortage of tender lamb on this plate and each piece was teeming with the dusty flavor of cumin and a well-rounded heat. Texture wise, this lamb was fork tender and a little fatty but in a good way.

Normally, this would have been the end of my review of Gu’s Bistro, but I was so far behind on writing that I actually had the opportunity to visit again. This time, we had Aaron in tow, so a few different dishes made an appearance.

Besides a few repeat appearances by the Chengdu wontons and Dan Dan noodles, the appetizer that truly stuck out was the Ha Ha Green Jelly.

Even after reassuring our waiter that we liked spicy food, he was hesitant to bring this dish to our table.

I’m still not quite sure how to describe the odd green jelly that was on the bottom of the bowl, but the rest was a goldmine of ma la and chilies. To put it mildly, I was infatuated with the chili mix and questioned the waiter why this wasn’t used on the Dan Dan noodles. The answer was something about different chilies for that dish, but I was too busy enjoying the jelly topping to really pay much attention.

Dialing down the chili level to a simple 2 chili rating, we tried an order of the ma la beef with tofu.
Topped with peanuts, plenty of ground Sichuan peppercorns, and sliced scallions, Gu’s Bistro again proved that they don’t skimp on the protein.

As tender as the cumin lamb before, this beef was almost as silky and fork tender as the tofu.

This dish was a beautiful combination of beef, tofu, chili oil, and Sichuan peppercorns, hard to stop eating and excellent over rice.

The last dish was Aaron’s choice and something a little different, deboned tea smoked duck with scallions and ginger.

True to its name, this dish was full of scallions and ginger not to mention a bounty of sliced bell peppers and smoky duck. Yes, the duck was a little on the dry side, but the jasmine smoke flavor provided a smoky backdrop to every bite.

Even though these two meals barely scratched the surface of Gu’s copious menu, nearly every dish made me wish I could visit Gu’s Bistro more often. However, I suppose that’s the least important part of this review. I imagine the main question is how does it stack up to the other Atlanta bastion of Sichuan cuisine, the infamous Peter Chang’s? As is the case with so many comparisons, each restaurant has its own strengths and weaknesses. For sheer heat and ma la numbing, Gu’s Bistro couldn’t touch my first few times at Peter Chang’s, especially comparing Peter Chang’s Three Pepper Chicken to Gu’s sautéed chicken with chili peppers. If forced to choose between the two, I simply can’t. Isn’t it enough that Atlanta has two excellent Sichuan restaurants? It just helps that Gu’s is a little closer to Buckhead.

Gu’s Bistro Address & Information

5750-A Buford Hwy, Doraville, GA 30340 // 770.451.8118 // Gu’s Bistro Website // Gu’s Bistro Menu

Gu's Bistro on Urbanspoon