Thursday, October 19, 2017

Turning 30 in New Orleans

During my last trip to New Orleans, it became clear to me as to why I love this city so much. In New Orleans, eating and drinking in (reasonably responsible) excess is the norm. It's a no-judgment city. You want a dirty martini after a bottle of red wine? Sure! You want 2 orders of bananas foster? Why not? You want a shot of brandy in your milk with breakfast? Let's do it. NoLa reminds me of Vegas in the sense that it can indeed be Sin City - the bars are open 24 hours and they'll serve you anytime you're willing to buy it. But it's much more than that - it's a beautiful merging of cultures. You can see French, Spanish and African influences in the food, architecture, accents and music, which is playing on every other street corner. NoLa indulged my inner glutton for my 30th birthday celebration, and it's now my happy place. I'll be returning for every major birthday, half-birthday, and my friends' and family's major birthdays, too. Really as often as I possibly can.
At Restaurant R'evolution, an old fave!
Planing the restaurant/meal itinerary for my mom and me was an utterly exhilarating challenge - how could we possibly eat everywhere we wanted to?! There are literally not enough hours in the day! If we had an early enough breakfast, we would have time for an early lunch, a late lunch, day drinking, dinner and night time drinking! It's difficult not to fill up on breakfast at Cafe Fleur de Lis, where I enjoyed the best omelette of my entire life - a CRAWFISH ETOUFFEE omelette. Are they trying to ruin all other food for me? The buttery, peppery sauce was studded with pink, tender crawfish, and gooey provolone cheese only enhanced the dish. Pair this with their Sweet Cream Pancakes and wash it down with a Strawberry Mimosa, and you've got a great start to a great day.

If you find yourself in the Garden District for some strolling and shopping, you might want to check out the American Horror Story: Coven house and snap a few pics (optional) but you'll definitely want to dine at Commander's Palace (mandatory). They have 25 cent martinis at lunch during the weekday. Are you kidding me? SIN CITY!!! We opted for a 3-course brunch with the highlight being the Pecan Crusted Fish with corn cream, spiced pecans and prosecco-poached blue crab. It was a life-altering food moment (my first life-altering fish moment was the Brioche-crusted fish at Restaurant August in New Orleans, for those of you taking notes). The sauce was out of this world. This was a no-judgment day for sure, because we were there for the Bananas Foster, but our 3-course brunch came with a dessert included. So we opted for the Praline Parfait (with ice cream, spiced pralines, gooey praline sauce and chantilly cream), and the Caramel Roasted Apple Cobbler (with pecan streusel topping, Creole cream cheese icing and brown butter ice cream) as dessert appetizers while we waited for the main event. Finally, the bananas foster cart wheeled around, and before long, the scent of butter and brown sugar filled the air. Rum and banana liquour was added, and the syrupy sauce topped vanilla ice cream alongside slices of that syrup-poached banana. It's my favorite dessert ever. (Watch Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table on Netflix for a really great documentary about the family that started Commander's Palace, Brennan's and several other restaurants in NoLa).
All teal everything!
Coven house!
Never too early for a cocktail here.
Praline Parfait!
Bananas Foster!
Continue exploring the city and you'll find that you are indeed hungry again and could go for a bite. Willa Jean is a nice change from the rich Creole/Cajun fare, and it's one of Chef John Besh's babies. The prettiest, most picturesque meal we had was the Braised Lamb Pasta with mint pesto, tomatoes, peas and feta, adorned with edible flowers! The lamb was so tender, almost unctuous, and the pop of pea and tang from tomato cut right through the savoriness. I loved the color in this dish. But my favorite morsel from Willa Jean was the Cookies + Milk dessert. Cookie Dough on a beater, studded with chocolate CHUNKS, is served with 3 warm, freshly-baked, chocolate chunk cookies, sprinkled with sea salt. If that isn't enough, there's some vanilla-infused milk for your dunking/gulping pleasure. It's as amazing as it sounds.
Beautiful lamb pasta!
This is what I came for.
If you're getting hungry, please, go make yourself a snack. We're not quite done here.

My mom ate at Brennan's nearly 30 years ago, so we were super stoked to return and find it as fabulous as she remembered. The restaurant is gorgeous - everything is light pink and light green - and they even brought me a birthday treat! But first, order a Watermelon Mimosa to stick with the light pink theme. Then, opt for the Rock Shrimp Risotto with asparagus and truffled parmesan butter (WOW) or the Eggs Cardinal with crispy shrimp boudin (sausage), spinach, lobster sauce and black truffled hollandaise. Seriously, this is decadence at its finest. As Tony Bourdain once described while dining at the famed French Laundry, this dish was like driving a Rolls Royce while wearing fur underwear. Pure extravagance. You should order the Bananas Foster here too, because it was actually created here (and dare I say it's a little better than Commander's?) and if it's your birthday, you'll get a Cotton Candy ice cream sundae with a cherry nectar ice cream and pink whipped cream to boot. So whimsical and tasty!
Cotton Candy birthday delight!
Antoine's is the first (and therefore oldest) family-owned restaurant in the US. My mom and I had always heard of this classic New Orleans dining spot, but we weren't sure if it was still as good as it once was. I'm so pleased to tell you that it is. This place knows how to do a Wedge Salad. They've got a kickass Filet Mignon. And the Pompano Ponchartrain - topped with lump crabmeat and sauteed in butter - is out of this world. We had to save room for one of their old school desserts, and we were just about to order the Cherries Jubilee, when we switched to the Baked Alaska. Pound cake is topped with real vanilla ice cream, and covered with a sweet meringue that's like a marshmallow. It's torched to a beautiful tan hue and more decorative meringue is piped on. We devoured the entire thing. I can't imagine splitting it with more than one other person. It was too good to share!!
Baked Alaska heaven.
If you've made it to the bottom of this post, you can clearly sense my passion for this city - more specifically, the food and drink of this city. (And you'll also notice that I ignored the allotted number of exclamation points for a blog post, which further expresses my enthusiasm for this city). There's just something in the air in New Orleans. You feel right at home, and like the people can't wait for you to come back and visit. It was a very big birthday to celebrate, and it's a very special place to do it in.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Crossroads Chapel Hill

Ah, Chapel Hill. One of the happiest places on Earth - probably tying with NYC and NoLa for my favorite place ever. I spent 4 wondrous years here and look for any reason to go back for a visit. I had the great privilege of returning last week, to The Carolina Inn's restaurant, Crossroads Chapel Hill, for an exclusive preview of their new signature autumn tasting menu. I was delighted to be included in this group of diners, and even more thrilled with the creativity and execution of the menu. From Tiradito of Hamachi (raw fish) to Black Truffle Risotto (pure decadence), all the way to savory Robiola Cheese in a dessert course, this menu was thoroughly cohesive, intentional and well thought-out. Not to mention, overwhelmingly delicious! Executive Chef and 7-time Michelin Star recipient Brandon Sharp has brought this beautiful six-course menu to life. His 7 stars are very much deserved. This was an exceptional meal.

An amuse bouche of Lobster Knuckle with mustard, apple and celery ignited our palates with a jolt. This reminded me of a lobster roll, in bite size form. From the way these sweet and tart flavors played with each other, and the tender lobster meat, I knew we were in for a culinary adventure.
Amuse Bouche - Lobster Knuckle

Our first course echoed the amuse bouche: Tiradito of Hawaiian Hamachi, which is a Peruvian way of eating fish. The hamachi was raw and sliced about half an inch thick. Hamachi is a white fish, texturally like tuna, but richer. Puffed rice was a nice and nutty crunch, with perfectly cut cubes of green tomato and a Fresno Chile Cirtus sauce for heat and brightness. My favorite part about this dish might have been the wine pairing: a pear-cider like wine, that is made like champagne but meant to be consumed as a wine. My palate was wide awake after this course.
Tiradito of Hawaiian Hamachi
I got whiffs of truffle the moment the next course appeared in the room. The overwhelming scent just begged me to dive in to the Black Truffle Risotto, and as my fellow diner and friend John Batchelor remarked, it's like I had a Meg Ryan in "When Harry Met Sally" moment. It was unbelievably rich and one of the best dishes I've ever had. I mean that so sincerely - it deserves a Michelin Star or a  James Beard Award all on its own. The risotto was surrounded by a sweet yellow corn zabaglione (like a thick "juice") which cut through some of the richness. The Stags' Leap Chardonnay was a beautiful match, and the acid helped cut through the full flavors, as well. I would marry this dish if it were legal!
Black Truffle Risotto
Our third dish was presented as Rabbit Loin with Rabbit Ragout, but it's really rabbit three ways: a beautifully cooked rabbit loin, surrounded by mouslin (rabbit sausage - YUM) and a slowly braised leg - the rabbit ragout. Each presentation of the meat was cooked perfectly and the earthy Mole Verde and Charred Orange sauces brought out different flavors in the protein. I loved the salinity of the dried olives, the sharpness of the pickled raisins, and the crunch of the pumpkin seeds. Everything on this plate was well-executed and intentional. I was beginning to see a trend - Chef Brandon is a master of his craft. I would have loved another pour of the Clos del Portal Negre de Negres Spanish wine (60% Grenache). You could really taste the slate soil this wine came from, which matched perfectly with the earthiness of this dish.
Rabbit Loin with Rabbit Ragout
My favorite part of the next dish, grilled Flatiron American Kobi, was the crust of the meat. Or the perfectly cooked medium rare center. No, it was definitely the sweet Cippolini Onions. Wait, I take it all back. I read the words Crispy Bone Marrow and my eyes lit up. It appeared as a fried mozzarella stick, but when you cut into it, the savory, unctuous bone marrow oozed all over the meat. The cauliflower puree benefited from this additional flavor too, and it was a nice contrast from the bright, lemony thyme gremolata. What better to pair with a dish like this than a beautiful California Cab from Stonestreet Estate? Red meat and red wine are a match made in heaven.
Grilled Flatiron American Kobe
I have a tremendous sweet tooth, but I could not get enough of this next pre-dessert course. It was truly satisfying as a complete dessert course, or as a fellow diner remarked, perhaps even a breakfast course! Buckwheat Blinis (like mini pancakes) are stacked high and should be spread with "thousand-layer Caramel Apples" (apples cooked for 16 hours with salt and sugar) and the star of the dish: Boxcarr Creamery Rocket's Robiola Cheese. It reminded me of a Brie-Goat Cheese hybrid, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with black pepper. It was so fun to build your own bite, and the super sweet, floral Moscato D'Asti was the perfect accompaniment. This was my favorite pairing, and the wine would have sufficed as a dessert all on its own.
Buckwheat Blinis with Thousand-Layer Caramel Apples and Robiola Cheese
Not being a chocolate fan, I was relieved when I saw that the last course was a Chocolate Cake. I thought phew, my tummy can take a break and I won't be miserable eating this last course! Unfortunately (or rather, fortunately), this was an incredibly light chocolate cake, studded with figs, so it reminded me of a fig newton in the BEST way possible. The flavors were stunning! The cake was topped with syrupy figs and a buttery Honey-Oaked Gelato, which I would have loved just on its own. The Royal Tokaji Late Harvest was a syrupy dessert wine that went beautifully with this dish. Pairing dessert wines is an art and they nailed it both times. Really, any wine pairing is an art, and they truly thought through every single element of every single course, and paired the right wine consistently.
Chocolate Cake with Fig and Honey Oaked Gelato
You can enjoy Crossroads Chapel Hill's fine dining menu and wine pairings Thursday-Saturday from 5:30-9pm. This expansion from their a la carte menu will further establish the restaurant as a culinary destination in Chapel Hill. It's only $75 for 6 courses, and an additional $65 for the wine pairings (which honestly, makes the dinner that much more enjoyable!) I haven't left a dinner this impressed in a long time. I'm so eager to return.