Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Sanity Scene--New Orleans, Louisiana (Part 2 of 4)

My first post of the NOLA food scene, I focused on the touristy restaurants.  
For this one, I decided to list all of the MUST TRY restaurants that are local secrets.  Some have recently become tourist hot spots, but they all have kept their local flare.  

Restaurants like Cafe du Monde did not make this list because their 
tourist attractiveness was overwhelming, but don't think you should skip those wonderful beignets.  


Butcher (Cochon-affiliated)
Cochon Butcher on Urbanspoon

With several sister restaurants receiving the best reviews, I figured Butcher would be both affordable for my budget and tasty.  The latter definitely held true, but the prices a little on the higher side for a lighter lunch.  Anyway, after a stroll through the central business district, I arrived at Cochon.  Just around the corner was Butcher, their cheaper, less stiff, and more deli-style restaurant.  After waiting in a pretty long line, I decided on the Head Cheese with chow-chow and mustard as well as the Pork Belly sandwich.  This was only my second or third time trying head cheese, and I have enjoyed it every time.  To make it, the pigs head/face is boiled until all of the fat from the cheeks starts to liquify.  They then pull off the little meat on the face and form it into a loaf by using the fat to help everything congeal together.  Surprisingly, this dish tastes more like a strong deli meat than innards.  It was served some of the best pickles I have ever eaten.  They had a sweet, yet vinegary flavor to them and perfect crunch.  Honestly, I think it would make a great sandwich if they ever wanted to try it.  My sandwich, the pork belly, was simple.  White bread, mint, cucumber, and a special thousand-island-like dressing accompanied a nice thick slice of pork belly.  The bread was lightly toasted to give a crunch and also to hold up to the juicy pork belly.  The dressing was on the sweeter side and after adding some of those sweet pickles, I felt more of a sweet-savory concept emerging.  The mint adds a nice bold flavor that some people dislike.  I thought this was one of the best sandwiches I ever ate... then I tried Milk Bar in Uptown and realized I could only rate Butcher a 4.5-miles.

Avenue Pub
Avenue Pub on Urbanspoon

When it came to local bars or pubs, I relied on the people I met in New Orleans to either direct me towards or accompany me.  One of the bars I ended up frequenting several times was Avenue Pub.  They offered both a great beer selection, including all of the local breweries, as well as one of the best whiskey/scotch selections I have ever seen.  They even had at least a dozen rye whiskeys, something you would never seen in Chicago.  Anyway, after drinking a few sazeracs and tasting some of their rye whiskey selection, my friend and I decided to grab a bite to eat.  We decided to give their food a try, rather than searching for a late night option.  Here, we ordered the Dump Truck Fries and one of their specials--it was like a mushroom-truffle crostini (sorry I forgot the name).  Dump Truck comes into play with the dish consisting of fries covered in a garlic cheddar béchamel sauce, roasted pork, port wine au jus, and caramelized onions.  That béchamel was addicting... the garlic was very prominent (not smart if on a date), and the roasted pork was pull apart tender.  I swear, you could cover anything in the béchamel and I would consider eating it.  The crostini was also delicious.  Unfortunately, the mushroom, truffle, cheese mixture was too juicy and the bread failed to hold up its end of the bargain.  Messy to eat, also not smart if on a date.  The food was awesome, a little pricey, and had a few flaws.  The bar is without question 5-mile worthy, but the negative factors with the food had me drop it to just 4-miles.  Stick with the drink and you won't be disappointed!

Jacque Imo's Cafe
Jacques-Imo's Café on Urbanspoon

Every time I asked one of my friends or a local which is the one restaurant I cannot leave New Orleans before trying, they all said Jacque Imo's.  Unfortunately, this restaurant is located in Uptown, which can be nearly a 15-minute drive away from the French Quarter area.  Luckily, one of my friends is a resident in NOLA and she was willing to make that drive.  Upon arriving, you can tell how special the restaurant is by the quirky signs, crazy decorations, and enormously long wait if you forgot to make reservations.  People are willing to wait over an hour, just like I did for their incredible food.  My friend and I decided on ordering several dishes so I had a chance to try their menu.  We started with their free jalapeño corn bread and followed it by two appetizers--the fried green tomatoes and their famous shrimp and alligator sausage cheesecake.  For my entree, I ordered the blackened red fish and she stuck with the blackened lamb sirloin.  I didn't realize that each entree also came with a spinach salad and a fried oyster as well as two sides... I stuck with the corn maque choux and the smothered cabbage.  The entire meal was perfect.  The cornbread was served with a small ladle of butter and wasn't too spicy, the salad was fresh and that oyster was lightly breaded but still kept its natural oyster flavor, and my meal... WOW.  The blacked redfish was a huge fish filet covered in a crab-chili hollandaise sauce.  It wasn't too spicy, but was very rich.  I never imagined having a creamy sauce on fish, but now I crave those strong cajun seasonings they used.  

The following night, I found myself back at Jacque Imo's.  And after a few Abita's and sazeracs, I found myself downing more of their cornbread and ordering their daily special, Godzilla Meets Fried Green Tomatoes.  This monstrosity was a deep fried soft shell crab that was stuffed with more crab meat, breading, and spices.  It was displayed standing up on top of their fried green tomato appetizer with shrimp.  This dish was the most memorable one I had while in New Orleans.  The freshness of the seafood was still present despite the having the seafood deep fried.  The shrimp remoulade's creamy nature offset some of that oil.  I highly recommend this dish especially with an Abita Amber.  If this restaurant doesn't deserve a 5-mile rating, none should.  It is that good.

The Milk Bar
Milk Bar on Urbanspoon

On our off day, one of my buddies and I decided to start drinking early and grab some lunch.  From the name of the restaurant, you might be expecting more of a breakfast place or a cereal bar.  But, it is quite the opposite.  A little bit of a drive away from the downtown proper, the Milk Bar is home to some interesting sandwich combination and some of the best bread I have ever eaten.  My buddy suggested two of his favorite sandwiches, so we decided to split both (half sandwiches shown).  First was the Clooney's Choice.  It was made with marinated chicken, avocado, tomato, roasted red peppers, red onion, mozzarella cheese, cilantro, and a lemon mayo.  All of that was stuffed into their homemade ciabatta loaf and cooked in their oven until piping hot.  The second sandwich was called Shrimply the Best.  It had a generous serving of sautéed shrimp, pesto, roma tomatoes, red onions, mozzarella cheese, and a lemon mayo.  Once again, that gourmet bread made the sandwich.  My first impression was absolutely perfect.  The sandwich size is enough to fill someone up without needing a bag of chips.  The bread is out of this world.  It has a unbelievable crisp to the outside with a soft center still.  And, somehow, it holds the heat better than any other bread I have ever tried.  I swear, I burnt my tongue on even the last bite of both sandwiches... nearly 15 minutes after we started eating.  The restaurant is full of locals, especially workers from nearby Touro hospital.  Without question, this is THE BEST SANDWICH I have ever eaten and I would walk forever to have it.

Domenica on Urbanspoon

With all of the Besh restaurants in the upper price ranges, it was nice to stumble across Domenica.  All of my friends and all of the residents talked highly about Domenica and for some reason, I associated great pizza with a not so upscale restaurant.  After arriving at Domenica in shorts and a t-shirt, I decided to order my pizzas for take out because of how nicely dressed everyone else was and how beautiful the restaurant looked.  For my first pizza, I choose the Gorgonzola pizza.  This pie was topped with gorgonzola cheese, apples, speck, and pecans.  Right off the bat, I was excited about the wood-burning oven because it gave the pizza crust a deep, burnt flavor that instantly brought back memories of my time spent in Italy.  The gorgonzola was very strong, but the sweetness of the apples and pecans cut mellowed it out.  I did wish for more pecans, but still a wonderful pizza and an amazing cost. 

Since I had a long night, I splurged and ordered a second pizza as well.  This pie was called the Bolzano, which was a pizza made with roasted pork shoulder, fennel, bacon, and sweet onions.  Definitely, another solid choice at Domenica.  The pork shoulder had a strong smokey flavor, which added to that burnt flavor from the crust and also the bacon.  For some, I think the smokiness may have been overwhelming, especially without any cheese to switch up the taste.  The fennel was almost non-existend... very disappointing and the onions a little oily.  I loved the meat on this pizza so I could overlook all the lacking details.  One reason why this restaurant succeeds is their HAPPY HOUR SPECIAL.  They offer 1/2 prices pizzas and drinks for 2 hours each day, including weekends.  It is unbelievable... those wood-burning oven pizzas for $6, how could anyone beat that?  For that reason and the amazing topping combinations Domenica offers, I can easily rate them at 4.5 miles.  It would have been higher, but the slight flaws on the pizza kept me from giving them perfection.

Willie Mae's Scotch House
Willie Mae's Scotch House on Urbanspoon

I think every time I watch some deep fried food special or best fried chicken special on the Food Network, Willie Mae's Scotch House tops the list.  So obviously, I would make this one of my stops.  After taking a $8 cab ride out of the downtown proper, my friend and I arrived at Willie Mae's.  The restaurant itself looks like a house converted restaurant, but when you walk inside, you find a busy dining room with waiters and waitresses filling orders.  Their menu is extensive, but there is essentially only one item everyone should order... the Fried Chicken.  We decided to get a variety of items, including "America's Best Fried Chicken" with a side of red beans and rice, fried catfish with mac n cheese and peas, and of course, a couple corn muffins.  And, WOW, was I surprised with everything.  First of all, the fried chicken was out of this world.  It comes with 3 pieces of chicken (white or dark meat)... you don't get to choose unless you want to pay extra.  It is honestly a random process.  The skin was different.  It wasn't heavily battered like you usually find, but was more of a thin batter that is cooked till dark golden brown.  The chicken was moist and seasoned just enough to still let that chicken flavor shine.  The red beans and rice were standard, stewed for several hours before serving and with plenty of that ham hock flavoring.  The fish was also dynamite.  A huge filet was lightly dusted in cornmeal before being fried.  Another perfect crust with a good amount of peppery flavoring dominating the filet.  It came with mac n cheese that reminds you of home... just simple cheddars, none of that fancy cheese.  

Finally, the cornbread... think moist, sweet, gritty muffin.  These are constantly being baked, so sometimes you have to wait a few minutes for the newest batch to finish.  Add a little butter, and enjoy!  The food is so great I would literally walk more than 5-miles for this meal again.  I would even consider the 16-hour drive for some of their fried chicken.

Borgne on Urbanspoon

For one of my last meals in NOLA, a few of the residents and I headed to another John Besh restaurant.  Borgne's concept is coastal Louisiana cuisine meaning fresh seafood with that New Orleans spin.  The restaurant's atmosphere is very laid back and artsy.  The columns are made with oyster shells and a huge 20+ person bar is one of the key features flanking the restaurant.  Now for the best part... the food.  My friends and I ordered a dozen oysters on the half shell and the duck poppers.  These poppers were unique--duck, jalapeños, and bacon... how can you go wrong?  The oysters were as fresh as can be (wouldn't expect anything less) and was served with the typical accompaniments of saltine crackers, horseradish, and cocktail sauce.

It was hard to choose a main entree with so many good options.  I stuck with the black drum a la plancha, while one of my friends ordered the stuffed crab risotto special and the other, the fish in a bag. The black drum was one of the best fish entree I have EVER eaten.  It was cooked with a brown butter sauce and topped with pecans and huge lumps of jumbo crab.  I couldn't believe the richness in the meal and how well the fish filet held up.  The pecans added the needed textural contrast and an earthiness to the fish.  I also tried a bite of the risotto which held plenty of crab flavor to it.  The presentation was beautiful, but nothing compared to the presentation of the fish in a bag.  They tear open the bag table-side so you can witness the steam exit.  Portions are on the smaller side, but quality and taste makes it worth it.  Without question one of the best seafood meals I have ever eaten and for that reason, 4.5 miles is an easy choice for rating. (Not perfect because of the mediocre service for such a nice restaurant)


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