Friday, May 24, 2013

Best Vacation Bites - Eating Good in New Orleans

This wasn't my first trip to the great city of New Orleans. Since my bestie moved there for law school back in '07 I have visited for Spring Break and Mardi Gras. In January of this year I served as a chaperone on a school trip where we rehabbed storm-damaged houses. Over the course of those three trips I did some seriously "New Orleans" things. I ate beignets at Cafe du Monde, watched street performers in Jackson Square, got gussied up with my girls for the Zulu Ball, I even caught beads from floats and second lined with the best of them at Mardi Gras parades. How could this, my fourth trip get any better than that?

The answer can best be described in some of our Twitter/Instagram hashtags from the trip:

  • #turndownforwhat
  • #mystikal
  • #baddecisions (forget you saw that one)

From the moment we got through security and headed straight to the Silver Diner for mimosas, I knew I was in for quite a weekend. I won't reveal the details because what happens in NOLA stays there, but I will say I'm glad I got to do NOLA the Bourbon Street way before I was old enough for it to be embarrassing. Among the Abitas, Hurricanes, Daiquiris and Hand Grendades, I did some mighty fine eating. My travelling crew (love you all!) were great sports, passing around my iPhone camera so we could get pics of everyone's decadent choices - and they were decadent. Something about NOLA makes you throw your diet and common sense out the window and eat whatever you want with no inhibitions. I ordered more than one item on numerous occasions and felt zero guilt.

So here are my best vacation bites for my four days in NOLA 2013:

Day 1: Domenica Restaurant - This posh Italian restaurant, from New Orleans celebrity chef and food God, John Besh, is located in the Roosevelt Hotel on Baronne Street, right outside the Quarter. As you all know from my last post, I had zero intention of enjoying this level of cuisine - I wanted deep fried seafoood with a side of carbs - but I am so glad I was forced to change my mind.

Domenica is a dark, sexy restaurant with a deep menu of refined pizzas, pastas, and paninis. It may technically be a "hotel restaurant" but it is worthy of its own trip. At our table of 11 I got to see and taste many of the pizzas. My faves - the simple and bold Proscuitto pizza, accented with pepper arugula and fresh mozzerella and surprisingly, the potato salad that was served with the paninis. I ordered the hefty Bolzano (my order), topped with roasted pork shoulder, crispy bacon and sweet fennel and onions. The food was satisfying, the service was solid, and the 1/2 price happy hour meant we were there for a very very long time.
My favorite - the prosciutto pizza
Duck pizza with sweet potato, mascarpone, and porchini mushrooms

Chicken panini with a super complex and crunch potato salad

Appetizers - crab, oysters, alligator - oh my!
Day 2: Royal House Oyster Bar - For some much needed fuel early Saturday afternoon, a friend who lives in the Quarter took us all to Royal House. It had everything we could want: Interesting (and strong) cocktails, a menu chocked full of traditional New Orleans fare like po'boys, gumbo and jambalaya, a friendly and accommodating waitstaff (our party grew and grew), and a beautiful, airy upper floor that made it feel like we were eating outside.

If Royal House was in DC, I'd be a regular. The menu has everything you could want, including super fresh seafood and interesting light options (not that I tried any of those). The sauces I tasted - on the crab claws and crawfish ravioli - were well seasoned with a kick that wasn't overwhelming. I ordered skewered oyster beignets, a cup of gumbo and the shrimp po'boy. I could have done without the stale bread and boring mayo on the po'boy, but the gumbo was spicy and flavorful, if a bit watery for my taste.
The only thing I ever wanted...

Day 3: The Ruby Slipper - Sunday's brunch was a family affair, with my bestie's husband and perfect son joining us, so the semi-private room at the Ruby Slipper was the perfect choice. Like so many New Orleans establishments, the Ruby Slipper has a Katrina history and comeback tale, inspiring its "no place like home" name and "purposefully re-purposed" look, as our dining space was unquestionably a former bank vault. It's location on Burgundy Street (that's bur-GUN-dy) in the Marigny was a welcome chance to escape the Quarter and see this colorful, hipster-boho hood.

The menu options had us all salivating over our double mimosas (yay!) so there was no surprise when we ended up with some really stellar picks on our table.  The shrimp and grits (which I somehow didn't order) was one of the best things I've ever tasted. They had a hint of sweetness and acidity that perfectly complimented the super creamy grits and the burst of flavor that came from biting into the shrimp. I also tasted the Croque Madame, which was as delicious as expected - decadent with just a bit of crunch on the corners. I ordered the fried green tomatoes for appetizer and then went with the Costa Rican breakfast, because sometimes this African girl just needs some fried plantains. The dish was yummy but light and gone in about 2 minutes flat. Luckily I also had an order of French toast to fill in the gaps. I'm not a huge sweet breakfast fan, but these were respectable - made with large slices of baguette and  lots of cinnamon.

Shrimp & Grits - da bomb!

Croque Madame

Fried Green Tomatoes

Costa Rican Breakfast - gone in 60 seconds!

French Toast

Day 4:Our last day sucked as we were all exhausted and heading back to reality. In a fit of confusion we chose the Gordon Beirsch next to our hotel for a quick meal before we headed to the airport. A fateful mistake. We spent two hours at the restaurant, during which we were made to feel like our presence was an irritation and that the pace and quality of service was totally normal. Uh, not!

So in lieu of sharing the deets of that painful meal, let's go back to day 3 (aka the day that never ended): Around 5pm we made our way to Lucy's Retired Surfer Bar & Restaurant down on Tchoupitoulas for their weekly "Sunday Funday" and crawfish boil. This place was absolutely perfect. Our party never quite had a table that was big enough so we all just stood around, sometimes in the street. At one point, a copped pulled up out front, but it was our friend who was there to see us not scold us. Mimosas were only $3. And to top it all off, this place had the biggest, meatiest, best seasoned crawfish I've ever tasted. I don't know if that's just par-for-the-course in the Gulf States, but I was shocked by the baby lobsters I was served - and for the price of a burger in DC. Yeah - it was amazing.

Thanks for reading about my gluttony in New Orleans! Please leave a comment and tell me what you love to eat in NOLA!

I'll leave you with a few of my other favorite moments from the weekend...

Beer, lights, music.
DOUBLE mimosas!

Cafe du Monde beignets... I couldn't resist.. 

The mermaid likes mimosas too!

What can beat a late night street hot dog?!!

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Coming Soon... #NOLA Love!

I'm headed to the NoLA tomorrow and everyone who's been to New Orleans knows there are only two things to do there: eat and drink! So I WILL eat, and drink, and I will also WRITE. Stay tuned for a run down of my journey, some great pics, and maybe even a tale or two of the French Quarter action!

In the meantime, here are a few pics of what I intend to mange!

Photo from
 Shrimp po'boy from Mother's...

Beignets and Cafe au lait from Cafe Du Monde

Crawfish! Yarm! Maybe from Deanie's

Brunch Buffet at Court of Two Sisters - I don't know what's going to be on my plate but it will certain include GRITS! 

'nuff said...

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Best Vacation Bites - Montreal

This June I took my good friends up on the chance to visit the beautiful city of Montreal. The guys were planning to attend the Montreal Grand Prix so my girlfriend and I were eager to hit the streets, pretend not to be tourists, and see what Montreal had to offer.

Now for those of you who haven't been to Montreal, it is usually referred to as the Paris of North America - largely for it's francophone population and Parisian influence. I would largely agree with that generalization, but emphasize that Montreal is definitely an AMERICAN city. Yes, everyone speaks Francais, but they also speak PERFECT English, drive around in Fords, and wear American Apparel. While parts of the city, like Old Montreal felt distinctly Parisian, student filled areas like Rue St. Denis near UQAM's campus felt distinctly more like Baltimore.
Our amazing home in Montreal!
Right off the bat, I realized that our plan to blend in as locals was shot to hell. Every morning we started strong, stepping out of our beautiful flat onto the bustling Rue Sherbrooke in our trendy-casual threads and bright colored Toms without hesitation. After careful planning, courteusy of the wi-fi connection in our rented rooms, we knew which way to go - NO LOOKING LOST FOR US! 

But, the minute we walked into a shop and responded to the first bonjour, the jig was up. No matter how hard we tried to say bohn-jur! or allo! like a local, we were pegged for English speaking tourists. Surprisingly, this wasn't such a bad thing. Unlike it snooty France (I've never been) the fact that we didn't speak French was not the end of the world and people didn't even assume we were from the U.S.! In one trendy shop a very cool girl asked, "So you are from Toronto, yeah?" - a question that we assumed meant 1) Toronto is a cool city and 2) We're cool too!

Each of my three full days in Montreal was wonderful. With no real obligations we spent the day doing the kinds of things that for me equal a dream holiday - wandering, shopping, people watching, sitting in parks, and of course eating. Like most cities worth visiting,  Montreal's cuisine not just about one signature style or flavor profile - it's about the wide variety of tastes brought over by its numerous immigrant communities. While founded by the French, and largely influenced by it's British/Canadian history, Montreal is home to large numbers of immigrants from all over Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa.

CHINATOWN (Photo courtesy of Dan Proudfoot)

One of the best places to see this wealth of cultural cuisine is Montreal's small Chinatown, equipped with authentic Chinese gates and all of the tchotchke shops and yummy restaurants your heart could desire. It also has a great location - walking distance for us and close to Old Montreal and the Place des Arts - home to regular festivals and concerts (and to the Francofolies Festival while we were there). While in Chinatown, we visited Restaurant Beijing, a street stand for Dragon Beard Candy, and Patisserie Harmonie for Chinese pastries to enjoy the next day (Pork Buns for breakfast - Yum!). 
While "Restaurant Beijing" was no different from the American style Chinese restaurants in DC, it was fun to see the specials posted in French as well as Chinese and English. In an attempt to be somewhat adventurous in our order (no poulet orange, si vous plait!) we learned that chow mein are crispy pan fried noodles and "Beijing style" means with a white sauce and chocked full of every kind of seafood imaginable. While maybe not what we expected, it was still good and ridiculously filling as always. As for the candy, if you every get the chance to have Dragonbeard candy - go for it! It has the texture of a super light shredded weight and an ridiculously sweet nutty flavor. Messy and delicious.

I think my two favorite food moments while in Montreal were surprisingly courteously of chain restaurants (gasp!). The moment we discovered Au Pain Dore, with its window full of fresh French pastries and bread, I knew we'd be back before I trip was through (I returned two more times). Among the variety of choices of chocolate and fruit filled confections, I wanted nothing but the simple and crunchy palmiers. Also known as "elephant ears", these treats are so crunchy, one can only image the amount of butter in them. I ate mine as slow as I could, and immediately yearned for more. My other favorite moment was standing in the street on Rue St. Denis, the four of us sharing a decadent BBQ pork Poutine from Frite Alors. Frite Alors is the kind of place I would kill for in DC - a simple burger and fries spot, but with poutine to die for. Who knew that cheese curd and gravy could make life so wonderful!
Poutine - mon dieu!
So I think it goes without saying that I really liked Montreal! It's a beautiful city, not too far away that feels like a vacation, but not culture shock invoking enough to scare the faint-of-heart. It has great food, cool people, and everyone's friendly and willing to help. I highly recommend it and I'm looking forward to my next trip! Here are a few other places I loved:

Photo from of
1. Jean Talon Market - the best place to spend a Sunday afternoon. Sample fruits, cheese, and charcuterie, stay for lunch and enjoy the people, smells and sunshine!

2. St-Viateur Bagels - a must for anyone visiting Montreal, this bagel shop sells what I think are now my all-time favorite bagels. They're thin so it's like having a scooped out bagel - all toasted-crunchy outside and less of the doughy filling. Get a sandwich and side salad and you have a meal you won't forget.

Photo from

3. Le Saint-Elisabeth - order a couple beers and enjoy the sights and sounds in the prettiest terrace/beer garden I've ever seen. You can even bring in your own food (poutine, duh!)

Friday, February 17, 2012

An enchanted evening, in six courses at...

For Valentine's Day I received one of the best gifts a girl could ask for... six courses of the decadent, fanciful cuisine of Belgium chef Bart Vandaele at Capitol Hill eatery Belga Cafe. Over the course of two and a half hours I tasted new things, encountered some favorites in surprising ways and did enough "mmming" and "ahhing" to make our closely seating neighbors more than a little uncomfortable. 

Valentine's Day dining is meant to be special, and the restaurant industry takes full advantage of the night to offer special meals and make a pretty penny. Belga's price-fix menu was one of the more expensive options for the night, but I think the 79.95 per person was a fair price to pay for what was offered. 

The menu was split into four sections - the temptations, the inter-courses, the event and the finale. Diners received two items for both the temptations and inter-courses, then chose one of three options for the event and finished with a sweet finale. Wine pairings were available for each section, but at 39.69 per person, we opted out for obvious reasons. A single glass of Malbec and regular refills of DC's finest tap water complemented my meal just perfectly.

The Meal
(All photos courtesy of Roderick Carey)
The Temptations - Foie gras push ups and Purple parsley potatoes
 Up first was the foie gras push-up - an adult push pop layers of foie gras, fig and speculoos, a gingerbread cookie flavored spread popular in Europe. Foie gras, a duck liver paste has a very strong and almost bitter flavor which the chef  nicely balanced with the sweetness of the other ingredients, but because of the vertical layering eating it was a challenge.  I found myself wanting something to spread it all and the basket of hot rye bread was luckily up to the task. 

 Next was the Purple parsley potatoes - simple, creamy and garnished with salmon roe. I couldn't resist biting into the bright orange eggs individually to get a good taste of their saltiness.

Inter-course 1 - Cupid's Asparagus Arrows
One of the biggest surprises of the meal came during in the 1st inter-course. Among the many elements of this beautiful plate - greens, avocado, oysters, hollandaise - sat what looked like a ball of cheese covered in a crispy coating. To my surprise it was a perfectly runny, bright yellow egg yolk, sprinkled with crumbled proscuitto. Now HOW did they do that?
Inter-course 2 - "Oh so sweet" lacquered lobster
 The second part of the inter-course was a simple but intense bowl of soup. The dish was initially served as hunks of lobster tail and sweet basil in a shallow bowl garnished with tomatoes and cream. The waiter then poured a piping hot broth over the mixture that released a vibrant aroma that made me smile. I was impressed with the liberal serving of lobster - some serious bang for our many bucks.

The Event for me  - Voluptuous pheasant breast and its tender legs
 My choice for the event was the "voluptuous" pheasant, and what a beauty she was. I chose it because I'd never had it before and I can report that this small game bird does not taste like chicken, but it does kinda taste like turkey. In fact my whole plate - white and dark meat pheasant, dollops of pureed potatoes, roasted vegetables and brown gravy - tasted like a perfect Thanksgiving dinner. The sophistication of the winter truffles and braised endive were not lost on me, but I loved that the dish had an overall homey feel.

The Event for him - Luscious loins of veal

 My date went with the veal - a meat I sometimes pretend to dislike for moral reasons, when in actuality I really don't care. My past experience with veal - slathered with ragu and parmesan in school cafeterias or pounded and fried did not do this protein justice. These "luscious loins" can only be described as ultra tender filet mignon - beautifully complimented by the intense flavors of almond, beets and bitter greens.

Finale - Belgian chocolate 

For the finale, my date and I couldn't help but channel Anthony Bourdain to make fun of the Dali-esque painting that arrived on our table. "Was the chef tripping on some really good acid?" "Has the 90s returned to haunt us?" Jokes aside, the main elements of the plate were beautiful. The creamy flour-less chocolate cake was near perfect - just missing a bit of crunch; the red berry sorbet was rich, with a vibrant flavor to match the color;  the butterfly cookie- the corniness of its shape aside - melted on the tongue. As for the many other elements on the plate - crushed pistachio, royal icing, fresh fruit - I could have done without them, if just for aesthetic reasons. I would've preferred my meal to end with a bit of understatement.

Final Thoughts

This Valentine's Day was truly a night to remember. Receiving the gift of this experience made me feel truly loved and understood by my partner and for that I thank him...again and again.

Throughout these six courses I never found myself disappointed. I enjoyed each dish not only for their flavor, but for the skill and artistry it took to create them. That being said, my favorite part of the meal was the course that I think hid its complexity best - the event. In both of our choices, the dishes - while complex and very advanced - felt simple and somehow familiar. I don't know why, but the idea of eating a better version of something you know is powerful, even in a meal that is purposefully forward thinking.

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