Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Yuki Izakaya - New Orleans

For the past few months I’ve been nurturing, what can be kindly referred to as, a serious interest in exploring Japanese cuisine. What exactly does that mean? Well aside from the almost weekly visits to my favorite, local sushi bars, there’s been a bit more exploration at home. It all started out so simply, with a little bit of dashi. Following the always sound advice of Alton Brown, I was soon in possession of nearly two quarts of superb miso soup, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. What followed were first cracks at homemade shabu shabu, sukiyaki, katsudon and even homemade roux for Japanese curry.

Of course this revitalized obsession wasn’t limited to home exploits and a few California rolls for lunch. Okonomiyaki, takoyaki, onigiri, any standout from the average sushi menu, I couldn’t get enough of them. It even turned into a game of how many different ways could I get Sam to join me in another round of natto based treats (For anyone that has read Bourdain’s second book ACook’s Tour, natto is far from universally appealing). Naturally this new found appreciation for the relatively more eccentric Japanese cuisine led to a revitalized interest in the Izakaya. I say revitalized because I’ve been enjoying the food at Shoya Izakaya in Atlanta for a few years now, but it’s reached the point that when I’m on the road, the first thing I search for is a local izakaya. Being in the south, I’m disappointed more often than not, but there was a beacon of hope the last time I was planned a trip to New Orleans.

After schlepping through the dying embers of the quarter fest and making it to Frenchmen Street, I saw a white sign with kanji script and the word YUKI beneath. Stepping inside, I secured a table in the small dining section and, with beer in hand, took in my surroundings.
Asahi black, not quite as dark as a stout but a fast favorite.

In between watching a Godzilla movie that was projected on the far wall and listening to the offbeat but captivating band, I decided to delve headfirst into the Yuki Izakaya menu. As with so many Japanese meals, this one began with a little tofu.
Agedashi tofu has quickly become a personal litmus test and Yuki’s version passed with flying colors. Well fried and not at all greasy, this tofu did have a rougher texture than I was expecting, but still satisfying.
A sweet sauce and green onions rounded out the bowl as each bite of tofu was punctuated by the sweetness of a dashi based sauce and bright green onions.
With the takoyaki and chicken skin kushiyaki unavailable, the next place to turn was to the chicken yakitori.
Deeply glazed and grilled dark meat chicken with a side of ground sansho pepper, it’s the next best thing to chicken skin kushiyaki.
That’s not quite true. While this chicken may have been a bit juicy, it was also salty, very salty and overcooked. At least the sansho pepper added a pleasant lip tingling sensation.

From salty yakitori, the next dish out of the Yuki Izakaya was a sweet eel.
I rarely encounter eel in such large portions and for good reason; this was almost too much eel to handle.
Juicy and tender, char grilled crispiness on the edge with a creamy interior; the only thing that kept this eel grounded was a seemingly endless amount of tiny bones.

Next was a severely underrated cut of beef, tongue.
Usually I’ll see beef tongue braised or roasted to the point where it will fall to pieces at the slightest breeze. This tongue was different, thick slices had been seasoned heavily with salt and grilled. What resulted was a fatty and chewy piece of muscle that was also brimming with delectable beef flavor. I would have preferred either thinner slices or a slower cooking time but, even with the chewiness, this beef tongue was superb.

When in doubt, you should look to an order of fried chicken or in this case karaage.
Flavored with salt, ginger, and green onion, coated in starch and fried to a crisp, even with a taste of raw cornstarch here and there, this was fine fried chicken.
The dipping sauces, chili garlic sauce and what tasted like lemon juice, seemed like an odd combination but it worked well with this chicken.

Since the meal began with a relatively healthy dose of fried tofu why not end with decidedly unhealthy French fries and mayo?
A disappointing end to the meal at Yuki Izakaya, these were little more than Ore Ida crinkle cut fries. Granted they were crispy and well fried and the dusting of sichimi togarashi was a nice touch.
Maybe Ore Ida fries wouldn’t get such a bad rap if they were this well cooked and came with a side of wasabi mayo. That little bit of nasal clearing mayo made these French fries pretty decent.

It’s hard to compare Yuki Izakaya to other Izakayas in the southeast. Stacked up to the gleaming space of Shoya Izakaya in Atlanta and its expansive menu, Yuki Izakaya doesn’t even come close. But that really seems to be missing the point. Yuki Izakaya truly is a place for drinks first and food second and when that atmosphere of Japanese B movies, local bands, and porno wallpaper in the bathroom come together on Frenchmen Street, Yuki makes perfect sense. So while I may miss the fluttering katsuobushi of an okonomiyaki, Yuki still serves up quality snack food and plenty of tasty sake, beer, and shoju, more than enough to warrant a walk to and from Canal.

Yuki Izakaya Address & Information
Yuki Izakaya on Urbanspoon

Sunday, June 24, 2012

NOLA Restaurant - New Orleans

As with GW Fins the night before, I decided to once again wander down memory lane and revisit another New Orleans stalwart for lunch. This time the vague recollection came from NOLA, the most casual of Emeril Lagasse’s trio of New Orleans restaurants.

It’s hard to know where to begin with Emeril and his restaurants. Although I never really enjoyed Emeril Live, his much more low key show, The Essence of Emeril, and his cookbook, Louisiana Real and Rustic, have been some of my favorites, particularly when exploring cooking in college. Today it’s a shame to see that one of the original Food Network faces has been largely marginalized, but I suppose things have to change.

While dwelling on memories of Emeril, I couldn’t help think about the last time I ate at NOLA. Recalling little more than a good time with family and a taste of scotch, I thought that I could treat this lunch as a clean slate. The short walk through the quarter over, it was time to see if Emeril’s NOLA was worth a repeat visit.

Although there was a variety of intriguing entrees, to me, it all came down to two appetizers, the first of which was Miss Hay’s stuffed chicken wing.
Nearly the size of a turkey drumette, these chicken wings were massive but still had a perfectly crisp skin and a deep dark seasoning.
Looking inside the wing was like taking a peek inside a Vietnamese egg roll and the ingredients list only reaffirmed it. Lemon grass, pork, shrimp, black mushrooms, egg white, cilantro, and bean thread noodles contributed to a dish that almost embodies modern New Orleans. The flavors of Vietnam have been instilled inside a humble chicken wing and the result is superb.

If the chicken wings had shown the Vietnamese influence on New Orleans then the New Orleans style crab cake was a look at the Cajun side of the city.
Perched on a bed of spicy corn relish and crystal butter sauce, this crab cake needed a strong flavor to stand up to the potency of the accompaniments.
Dense, dark, and spicy, this crab cake had a rustic flavor that was well complimented by the vinegary heat of the crystal butter sauce.
Although this crab cake was lacking any real lump crab meat, the heavily seasoned binder worked with the corn relish and butter sauce to make a stick to your ribs crab cake that had me wishing it was 40 degrees and raining outside.

Did this quick lunch at NOLA revive my fond memories of past dinners? That’s hard to say. I’d love to try Emeril’s other New Orleans outposts just to see how NOLA compares, but between the two dishes, it was clear to me, which was the winner. If I needed a reason to come back to NOLA, it would be for the chicken wings. Apparently the chicken wings are quite the popular plate at NOLA, so popular that it was their star dish at their French Quarter Fest booth. Festivals aside, while I feel there are better meals to be had in the city, it’s hard to deny that NOLA was a fine lunch.

Nola Restaurant Address & Information
NOLA Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

GW Fins - New Orleans

After a collage of drinks at the Carousel Bar, it was time to retreat to the hotel before dinner. A quick shower and a fresh change of clothes later, I was on my way to GW Fins. Situated on Bienville Street and a short walk from my hotel, GW Fins bills itself as a prime seafood house and after a double dose of roast beef po-boys for lunch, I needed something a little lighter for dinner. Fresh fish seemed like the perfect solution and that’s how I decided on GW Fins.

Even though it’s been nearly a decade since I last stepped into GW Fins, it doesn’t seem like much has changed. The décor was largely the same and the restaurant seemed full to capacity. After a short wait, I was at my table, and I then had a chance to look through the menu and see what sort of seafood mid-April in New Orleans had to offer.

As you might expect, this meal began with a seafood appetizer and it was one of GW Fins’ most popular, the lobster dumplings.
Folded in a thin wrapper and served with fennel, tomato concasse, and lobster butter, this creamy lobster filling was almost sinful.
I was little worried that the creaminess of the butter sauce would overwhelm the filling but each bite was well balanced and full to the brim with a double dose of lobster flavor.

In stark contrast to the delicate flavors of the lobster dumplings, the seafood gumbo featured a dark roux front and center.
From the inky depth of the roux to the brininess of the seafood, this gumbo was simply overflowing with potent flavors.
Although I could taste the crab in the gumbo, I had a hard time finding any evidence of the meat. There was a smattering of sausage and a few slightly overdone oysters, but still a fine gumbo. If there was a problem with this cup, it was the season. As much as I enjoyed the dark roux, April is no time of year for this sort of dish. Maybe I’ll get the chance to revisit this gumbo in December when cooler weather will let me appreciate it more.

Moving to the entrée, when I first looked at the menu, my eyes immediately fell to the Scalibut. Essentially a lobster glutton’s dream, the Scalibut is lobster risotto with Maine lobster, sugar snap peas and lobster butter. Sadly, it was sold out for the night. I decided to console myself with the other entrée with lobster butter, the sautéed American Red Snapper.
Boasting a golden brown skin and served on top of shrimp étouffee, Louisiana jasmine rice, and lobster butter, this red snapper had great promise.
Starting with the jambalaya, this was Creole richness. Each forkful was brimming with well-cooked shrimp and a silky, buttery sauce.
Interestingly, when taken separately the components of this dish fell flat. The jambalaya was too rich to really enjoy and the snapper, despite its rich hues, was fairly insipid and a bit overcooked.
However, when the elements of this dish were allowed to harmonize, it was almost magical. The redfish was almost a blank canvas for the flavors of the jambalaya and what had been an underwhelming catch was suddenly a vibrant piece of tender white fish.

If GW Fins set out to bill themselves as a prime seafood house, they succeeded. Even though I barely scratched the surface of the menu, each dish was well-crafted and exceedingly rich. Like many meals at prime steak houses, this dinner at GW Fins was more about enjoying top quality cuts than anything resembling moderation. As I left Bienville Street, full of seafood and wine, I realized that my plans of a light, seafood dinner had been cast aside, but dinner at GW Fins was worth the pain.

GW Fins Address & Information
GW Fins on Urbanspoon

Monday, June 18, 2012

Hansen's Sno-Bliz vs Plum Street Snowballs - New Orleans

When the pleasant breezes of spring disappear, the sticky and practically stagnant heat of summer descends upon the south. It seems that no city, with the possible exception of Houston, experiences this seasonal change more than the northern capital of the Caribbean, New Orleans. Even in early April, the thermostat was nearing the 90s, which meant a quarter fest weekend full of seasonal fabrics and ice cold cocktails and beer. However, there are more kid friendly ways to beat the heat in New Orleans and one of the best is the snowball.

To some, snowballs rank right up there with po-boys and beignets as must try attractions of the city. I’m specifically referring to the ideal day trip to New Orleans from the Serious Eats cookbook. In their whirlwind itinerary, the staff at Serious Eats decides that not one but two snowballs are necessary for the perfect day in Nola. The first name, Hansen’s Sno-Bliz, I know quite well, but I was unfamiliar with the second, Plum Street Snowballs. Curious to see why the writers at Serious Eats decided to include both vendors, I did a little comparison over a long weekend in Nola.

First up was Hansen’s Sno-Bliz and even though I’m a latecomer to the party, I’ve done my best to proselytize the good word about Hansen’s shaved ice.
My weapon of choice for combating the heat that Friday was a Satsuma and cream of nectar snowball. True to its name, the Satsuma in this snowball was tart but nicely balanced with the cream of nectar. Supposedly all the syrups at Hansen’s are homemade and with these intense flavors it showed, but the real star was the shaved ice. I’ve never had such finely shaved ice in a snowball/snowcone and through a combination of syrup application and ice texture; every bite was full of syrup flavor. Amazingly there wasn’t a pool of syrup at the bottom of my cup; the ice had sucked up every drop.

The next day after poking around the Farmer’s market and a po-boy or two, I drove to Plum Street to take a look at what Plum Street Snoballs had to offer. Owned and operated by Claude and Donna Black since 1975, Plum Street Snoballs has one immediately noticeable distinguishing factor, the Chinese food pails.
According to an SFA interview, Plum Street also makes their syrups so I decided to try their products with a root beer snowball.
Right off the bat, there was a significant departure from Hansen’s feather light ice. This ice was chunkier and the syrup quickly pooled at the bottom of the pail.
Flavor wise, the root beer didn’t disappoint as an earthy tartness quickly developed into a fully sweet tail.
Sadly, this snowball ended with a cup full of syrup and a little slush. I was initially surprised when I was handed a food pail wrapped in a plastic bag, but with so much residual syrup, I was glad to escape with relatively clean hands.

Between the two snowball outlets, it’s hard to go wrong. Going on flavors and potentially novelty, I can understand why Serious Eats would list both Hansen’s and Plum Street in their ideal Nola trip. There isn’t a bad choice to be made. But when it comes down to brass tacks, there’s no question in my mind, Hansen’s is the superior snowball. Chalk it up to the flavors or to the sublime texture of the ice, but a Hansen’s snowball is one of the few reasons I look forward to warmer weather.

Hansen’s Sno-Bliz Address & Information
Hansen's Sno-Bliz Shop on Urbanspoon

Plum Street Snoballs Address & Information
William's Plum St Snowball on Urbanspoon

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Parasol's vs Tracey's, A Comparison - New Orleans

It’s June 2012, and we’re coming up on two years since that monumental shift in the world of New Orleans po-boys. Hyperbolic description aside, there was a small uproar when the Carreras were forced out of Parasol’s to be replaced by new tenants from Clearwater, Florida. Thankfully, the Parasol’s roast beef po-boy survived and was reborn in the kitchen of Tracey’s, a bar just down the block from Parasol’s.

Back in January of 2011, I stopped by Tracey’s on an icy day was relieved to find nothing much had changed. The roast beef po-boys were still as messy and delicious as ever, but in the following months, I had a nagging feeling that the new Parasol’s tenants, Johnny and Thea Hogan, were getting the raw deal. They could have been blissfully unaware of the animosity facing them when they moved in, and who knows, they might make a good poboy? My curiosity about the new owners grew even more with a favorable report from Blackened Out. Eventually, I had had enough; I was in New Orleans for a long weekend, I had an open Saturday morning, and it seemed like the perfect time to compare the two roast beef titans.

Walking up the steps to the Parasol’s dining room, I expected time to be standing still. Inside, things were much the same, but there was a different air to Parasol’s. The bar was now fully segregated from the dining room and getting a drink required using “the famous cocktail window”. Aesthetic differences noted, ordering from the kitchen window was a familiar feeling and one roast beef po-boy ordered, it was now a waiting game.

Minutes later my order was ready and a regular, dressed roast beef poboy arrived at my table.
Even without the tomatoes, this roast beef poboy was still dressed to the nines.
Taking a bite from this poboy revealed a pronounced beef flavor with a subtle pepperiness and an herby tail.
As much as I welcomed the well-rounded beefy flavor, I was disappointed in the dryness of the beef and the lack of sufficient gravy to mask it.
However, these shortfalls were partly remedied by liberal application of salt, pepper, and hot sauce.

Finishing up po-boy number one, there was no question in my mind that this was an above average po-boy and while it may not rule the roost in Nola, it would dominate what Jackson has to offer me at home.  Interestingly, while I was finishing up, I overheard a person, who I could only assume was the owner, talking up the po-boys and smoked sausage at Parasol’s to some visitors from Seattle. She was quick to point out that the old Parasol’s or Tracey’s boils their beef while all of their beef is roasted. While she may have a point about Tracey’s methods, I think that is an instance where the ends justify the means.

Not wasting any time, I made my way down the block to see how the Tracey’s roast beef would stack up in comparison to the current Parasol’s offering.
At first glance, something seemed off about this Tracey’s po-boy. I don’t think the bread was different, but it seemed like things were more subdued, a little too neat.
Thankfully, with the first bite, things were back to normal as the fillings flowed out in a river of beef gravy and mayonnaise.
Although there was plenty of beef flavor in this po-boy, there is little doubt in my mind that the meat is secondary to the stellar combination of Tracey’s gravy and mayo. Each bite of gravy, beef, and mayo is made all the better with the briny punctuation of a pickle slice.

Two po-boys down, the clouds began to lift and a conclusion seemed to appear. Parasols, the new incarnation owned by the Hogans, utilize a more refined and balanced approach to the roast beef po-boy.  The result is a peppery, herby roast beef that only seems to lack to proper amount of gravy to counter the unfortunate subtle dryness of the beef.  On the other hand, Tracey’s has a much more unorthodox method of attack. Boiling the beef, and then roasting the beef in gravy made from the broth and kitchen bouquet seems like a recipe for disaster but the results are superb. It’s a messy, beefy, and simply wonderful po-boy that truly is not for the weak of heart. Frankly, you can’t go truly wrong with either, but, in the end, I have to give the nod to Tracey’s.

Parasol’s Address & Information
Parasol's Bar & Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Tracey’s Address & Information
Tracey's Restaurant & Bar on Urbanspoon

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Green Goddess - New Orleans

After an unsuccessful attempt to find the classical stage, stumbling through the Friday crowds at Quarter Fest, and a refreshing cocktail at Sylvain, it was time to consider dinner. Normally that would mean thumbing through the openings on Open Table, but I had a particular restaurant in mind, The Green Goddess. Like so many other Nola restaurants, I had first heard about this hole in the wall on Exchange Place from Peter and Rene at Blackened Out, and like so many other restaurants, The Green Goddess had been shuffled to the backburner for some unimportant reason. However, as with Casamento’s, this trip to New Orleans was about tying up loose ends and I wasn’t going to let an hour wait for a table stop me.

Like the midday sun on a hot summer day, time seemed to stand still, but through aimless meandering and loitering around the French Quarter, I made it back to the hostess stand just in time for my table to be ready. Seated and taking my time to contemplate the menu, a beverage was in order. Cue the daily truth.
For that day, the daily truth was the Green Goddess’ take on a hurricane. Bold, fruity, and sweet, there was little doubt this drink also packed a potent punch.

Despite the temptation of char siu Korean pork belly, I took the high road with an order of the “Cornucopia on da Bayou” tasting menu. As with so many meals in New Orleans, the cornucopia began with oysters.
Grainy pictures aside, the oysters arrived in the form of oysters Delacroix, poached in a horseradish sauce and served on top of grilled ciabatta.
Accompanying the plump, perfectly poached oysters was butter-braised Romaine lettuce and Nueske’s bacon. Always a favorite, the Nueske’s bacon added a smoky layer to the already rich flavors of the horseradish cream sauce. Even though the crispiness of the grilled ciabatta quickly fell to the cream sauce, this was still an exceptional oyster dish.

The next dish had an amusing twist to the name, shrimp “wearing a grass skirt”
A trio of gulf shrimp had been roasted, wrapped in a skirt of shredded phyllo, and served with New Orleans barbeque shrimp sauce and a pineapple & coconut slaw.
Arguably the best dish of the night, these shrimp looked fantastic and from the first bite, it was all shrimp and spice.
Meaty and briny, these shrimp were complimented by the smoky barbecue sauce while the grass skirts provided a pleasant crunch and an extra dose of spices.

Course number three arrived with its own quotation marks. “Freaky” tabouli with smoked wheat is a play on the name of the grain, freekeh.
In this tabouli, bulgar wheat is loaded with herbs, tiny currants, crunchy pistachios, olives, olive oil, finished with a homemade ajvar and, finally, layered on slabs of roasted acorn squash.
Far and away the healthiest dish in the tasting menu, there were plenty of bold flavors in this tabouli.
While I especially enjoyed the olives, I was far too captivated with the flavors of the previous course. On its own, this toubli would be a star, but following the shrimp with a grass skirt was a hard charge.

For the last savory course, it was a return to seafood with andouille-crusted gulf fish.
Locally made by chef Greg Sonnier, there is little doubt that the andouille dominates this dish.
From the first bite, it was well cooked fish that was brimming with andouille flavor and smokiness. In fact, the fish was almost too smoky, but even teetering on the edge, it worked beautifully.
While the amount of fish was little more than a tease, there were plenty of rapini greens and potato gratin to go around.  The rapini was a nice contrast to the forward flavors of the andouille and fish, but I was surprised at the tartness of the foie gras vinagrette.

Before the fifth and final course could arrive, I had to make a choice between golden beet “ravioli” and Armagnac-soaked mission figs. Nearing my limit, I went with the lighter choice, the “ravioli”.
With no pasta harmed in the making of this ravioli, it was up to truffled chevre, pomegranate molasses, Sardinian saba, and avocado oil to help the beets. As you might expect this dessert was chock full of tart flavors from the chevre, pomegranate molasses, and saba. As for the avocado oil, it seemed lost in the sea of other bolds flavors and left little more than a slick on the plate. This ravioli, while satisfying, was certainly a departure from your typical dessert but it’s one that I had quickly come to expect from The Green Goddess kitchen.

It may be a catch-all term, but the term international really does seem to best describe the food that I enjoyed at The Green Goddess. In fact the description on The Green Goddess homepage really does seem to summarize my meal: “We are as comfortable with showcasing Louisiana seafood, sausages, and local produce as we are bringing in exotic ingredients that reference New Orleans’ historic role as one of the greatest port cities in the world, where anything can be found.” The flavors and ingredients from the Cornucopia of da Bayou tasting menu truly did seem to travel the world, and with each course, it was a chance to see how my palate would be challenged and rewarded. Even with their affinity for quotation marks, I wouldn’t hesitate to revisit the menu at The Green Goddess especially with the Korean pork belly calling my name.

The Green Goddess Address & Information
The Green Goddess on Urbanspoon