Monday, July 27, 2009

Some More Places to Eat and Explore in New Orleans and a Morning with Robert Hess at Tales of the Cocktail 2009, Plus a Plantation Odyssey

This is part two of our trip to New Orleans to take part in Tales of the Cocktail 2009. Here are some photos that chronicle our last days in the French Quarter and beyond the city limits. [Click on each to enlarge.]

Saturday, July 11, 2009

After a filling and supremely satisfying dinner at Cochon the night before (If you love everything porcine, run to Cochon. We tried the pig ears and had to stop eating them for fear we’d have no room left for our main dishes.), we bid good night to Barbara, Jon, and JoAnn, and told them we would meet them in the late morning for a streetcar ride to Commander’s Palace, an old, lovely restaurant in the Garden District. Getting to the restaurant was easy, but with a Heat Index at 105ºF, the Northerners in the group would be fading fast and needed sustenance of a New Orleans nature. The interior of Commander’s Palace boasts some delightful details, such as embroidered Toile wallpaper in the foyer, and birds perched on tree limbs on the hand-painted, patterned, walls. As soon as we five sat at our well-appointed table, no sooner did we have Bloody Marys, Milk Punch, and Champagne in our eager grips. We were fêted with smiles, salads, and succulent appetizers; traditional Southern, and particularly Creole, fare; and a Dixie–Jazz Trio that kept Barbara and JoAnn wiggling and shimmying in their seats (we all wiggled, actually). We can’t believe we all ate dessert after such a rich and luscious dish of Pecan Roasted Gulf Fish (a sauté of summer corn, grilled asparagus, mushrooms, and local legumes with cracked crab and champagne butter), but we managed to do just that, and with some cognac and another round to boot.

Taking a streetcar to Commander’s Palace. Steve sips on a Bloody Mary. Playing for the table. The rich and luscious Roasted Gulf Fish. JoAnn strikes a pose in Steve’s hat.

So we decided to walk off brunch a little, waddling down the block to where some of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was filmed. After deciding how we would redesign the gardens and veranda, we walked around the block, back to Commander’s Palace. Our goal: Lafayette Cemetery across the street. As we entered the hallowed ground, we split up into two groups and ambled aimlessly from row to row of family tombs. Alas, we could not stay for the heat was too much, and we feared that we would become the next tenants of this gloomy, sea of the forgotten.

The Benjamin Button House. The gang enters Lafayette Cemetery. An Angel watches over the departed.

That night, we decided to dine somewhere new, then see the good people at the Mixoloseum House before saying good-bye to Tales of the Cocktail 2009. If you’ve never been to the French Quarter on a Saturday Night, it can be trying. Let’s just say that racism and homophobia are alive and well, and sadly are being kept alive by the young. Sad, indeed.

But we digress. Our goal was to find a decent dinner: simple food served with soul-stirring cocktails. And the place we found exceeded our expectations. We had dined at Restaurant August, the exquisite John Besh mecca, the other night; why not try another of his kitchens. Lüke proved to please on so many levels: the Manhattan that Steve sipped, the Absinthe Suisse for mint-loving Paul. And cheeseburgers. The damned thing was so big (we sat right next to the kitchen, so were able to see the men and women searing steaks and patties behind glass), we decided to split it. But the nice folks at Lüke threw in an extra order of their crisp, hot fries just the same. After that and a Omega-3 rich salad, all we could do was get back to the hotel and call it a night.

Absinthe Suisse
(from Lüke Restaurant, New Orleans)

2 ounces Pernod Absinthe
1 ounce white crème de menthe
1/4 ounce orange flower water
1 egg white
1 ounce cream

As with all egg drinks, shake for about a minute, vigorously, without ice. The add ice, and shake vigorously again for another minute. Strain into a chilled glass.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Robert Hess loves the Old Fashioned.

Gosh, it was hard getting up Sunday morning. We were bone tired and a little frustrated by the lack of decent Wifi running through the ethosphere in the Monteleone. But we had to get our tired old asses into some seats in the ballroom at the Hyatt where Robert Hess, cocktail author and proponent of a perfect Old Fashioned, would be giving a talk on the history of just that drink. The Old Fashioned is one of our favorites. Simple, with a little sweetness and ice mitigating the sting of your favorite rye or bourbon (or Canadian whisky, for that matter, as he would later point out). By now we all know that a “Cock tail, then is stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters,” from the first known printed definition in the “The Balance and Columbian Repository, Tuesday, May 13th, 1806.” Robert Hess, after starting his seminar with this tidbit, then expounded on the murky history of one of the world’s greatest concoctions, focusing on the “right” way to make one.

Old Fashioned
(adapted by Robert Hess)

Add to a glass:
1/2 ounces simple syrup (originally, Robert used 1 sugar cube muddled in 1 teaspoon water)
dash Angostura Bitters

Half fill glass with ice and stir. Express oils of one large piece orange peel into glass. Add peel to glass.

2 ounces bourbon whiskey

Top with ice. Stir. Garnish with maraschino cherry.

And by maraschino cherry, Robert does not mean the radioactive red ones we find in fruitcakes, but marasche cherries, such as those delightful Luxardo ones we keep telling people to get if they don’t want to make their own. (P.S., You don’t have to refrigerate them.)

One of the most important things to remember is to make sure you include a straw in the drink and that you have made the drink as quickly and efficiently as possible. The customer can stir his or her drink to dilute it more if the first sip is too strong. It’s a natural reaction, and if a stirrer isn’t present, well, a finger just won’t do.

The Old Fashioned loves Robert Hess.

Robert is a proponent of understanding the foundation of the drink you are serving. When he began his autodidactic immersion into the world of cocktailiana, he would make the same drink over and over, every night, for one week until he understood its principles from every angle. His quest for the perfect Old Fashioned has taught him if you understand the foundations of the cocktail, then you can add your own precisions, or personal touches, to either riff on the classic, or perhaps come up with a new creation.

We ran into our friend Danny Ronen, who delighted the audience the other day at the seminar “Responsible Beverage Program Consulting,” and decided to get a traditional New Orleans lunch of gumbo, Catfish Po-boys, and Creole Spinach Salad with fried oysters at Deanie’s. After cursing the heat and downing some soft drinks, we left the restaurant and said or good-byes, looking forward to our last night in New Orleans and a quiet evening after, what would turn out to be, a full two hours of packing up the unworn clothes and the generous swag. We vowed this year only to take that which we thought we could really use (or something novel), but the minute Steve walked through the parted velvet curtains to the Speakeasy Swag Room, his shopping gene went into overdrive and his hands couldn’t stop tossing little bottles, and chocolate olives, and fans, and measuring cups, and muddlers, and whatever else was in there, into the three tote bags he had scored. Well, packing proved a little tiring, so we walked slowly to the Central Business District where the nice staff at Tommy’s New Orleans were just fine about making us dinner ten minutes before the kitchen closed. We opted for a new dish on the menu, the tenderly paneed veal with capers and crab meat, in a light creamy sauce. Perfection. We finished our evening sipping whiskey by the Monteleone rooftop pool, reflecting on the old and new friends we made, and looking forward to our drive out to Madewood Plantation the next day.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Staying in one city, especially one neighborhood, for a week can be dizzyingly claustrophobic. Se we called Enterprise (the best car rental place, hands down) and rented a gloriously air-conditioned Dodge Charger, and headed up the Mississippi to Madewood Plantation. But before we got there, we drove slowly past refinery after refinery, searching desperately for quaintness. We stopped in Lutcher for a simple meal at Aunt Ellie’s, but not until we had caught glimpse after glimpse of poverty in the tiny towns bookended by some nicer homes, sometimes within a tenth of a mile from each other. This was our first road trip outside New Orleans, and we were fascinated like kids on their first day of kindergarten. We had so much to learn about the lives of Louisianans.

Poverty in Kenner, Louisiana. Stopping at Aunt Ellie’s in Lutcher for a simple meal.

And learn we did once we pulled into the long rhombus of a driveway that led to Madewood Plantation in Napoleonville. Our overnight stay in the Master Bedroom included a wine and cheese reception in one of the parlors (Paul had the gall to ask for bourbon, and our lovely hostess, Christine, ran off and got us some generous tumblers full of one our favorite spirits), a dinner in the gloriously appointed dining room, and breakfast and a house tour for the morning. We shared the house with the Briggs family from outside Richmond, Virginia, and after exchanging stories at supper and after-dinner coffees, we parted for the evening. While all the Briggses were tucked in their beds, we had full run of Madewood and proceeded to take photos in every room of the house. We knew we would learn about the history and furnishings tomorrow, so we delighted in just taking some fun and experimental shots, using the light available to us at that hour in the evening.

A black locust and sago palm at Madewood Plantation. Steve overlooking the front lawn. Madewood at sunset. Paul in one of the well-appointed rooms.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Well, we were late for dinner the night before, and also ran into breakfast full of apologies (breakfast was at 8:30, and sometimes that proves a little too early for weary travelers). The breakfast revelation was cheese grits. Creamy, with just the right amount of cheddar tang, this Southern tradition had everyone smiling.

The tour provided by the friendly and sharp Angie proved perfect: it was already a million degrees, and one hour was satisfying and plentiful for us to learn that the wash bowl and stand in our Master Bedroom was Napoleonic and was used in battle by a commander who apparently was hooked on cleanliness. The stand all came apart and was reassembled wherever the troops bivouacked. The history just dripped from every wall and rose from all the little creaks in the floor. If you ever get a chance to explore outside NOLA, do come here.

Steve sipping his morning coffee on the veranda. A dining room at Madewood Plantation. A Napoleonic wash stand in the master bedroom.

Also take a tour of Laura Plantation in Vacherie, which is not too far from Madewood, and was on our way back to the airport. This plantation was designed and run in the Creole style, and the history under this roof reads like a soap opera: murder, mayhem, fire, strong women, and shifty men. Our young tour guide, Stephen, provided much colorful commentary as he guided us from room to room, and through all the different species of banana trees in the garden.

Oak Alley Plantation. Laura Plantation, in the Creole style. Slaves house at Laura Plantation.

After our tour, we ate some lunch at B & C Seafood Cajun Restaurant, right next door, and sat down to our final Louisiana meal of fried oyster and catfish sandwiches, with normal-sized sides of onion rings and potato salad. Inexpensive, filling, fresh, and local. But by then, we were looking forward to making our own meals back in Brooklyn.

Upon arriving home, we unpacked all the bottles we brought back with us, making sure their were no casualties (only one little nip of Van Gogh Double Espresso Vodka lost its head . . . at least it made the shipping box smell heavenly). We opening the refrigerator door and witnessed some devastation: so very little of anything we wanted to nibble on. We’d have to motor to Fairway the next day and buy some local fresh vegetables, fruit, and, to recharge our batteries, steaks for the grill.

Mixing last year’s and this year’s swag nips from Tales of the Cocktail.

If we have any advice to offer those who are new to Tales of the Cocktail, if you have never been to NOLA or Louisiana, take the time to step outside of the French Quarter, rent a car from Enterprise (it’s cheap and they’ll come pick you up at your hotel), and drive up the Mississippi to see history most of us have only read about or seen on the screen.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

New Orleans Photos Highlight Tales of the Cocktail 2009

{ This article was first published on July 16, 2009, as a part of the 2009 Tales of the Cocktail Blog. }

This year we decided to come to New Orleans a little early to enjoy the city before the Big Bang of Tales of the Cocktail 2009. Here are a few photos that capture our whereabouts a few days before and a few days into Tales. [Click on each to enlarge.]

Monday, July 6, 2009

Alan Walter makes terrific drinks at Iris, a restaurant in the French Quarter that boasts seasonal and sensational food. The Evangeline cocktail, redolent with the heady scent of purple basil, was not only visually stunning, it tasted like magic with flavors of galangal, lemongrass, and peach. Thanks, Alan, for taking the time to chat with us, and to Ryan, one of our waiters who just happened to be cooking up some amazing delights for us last year at Cochon. Ah, serendipity.

The Evangeline, created by Alan Walter, at Iris.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

After familiarizing ourselves with the French Quarter once again, we decided to stop in at Central Grocery, famous for inventing the muffuletta sandwich: Sicilian bread surrounding luscious layers of provolone, emmentaler, capicola, mortadella, and salami. But what sets this sandwich apart is the olive salad that is spread generously atop all the meats and cheeses. The Central Grocery muffuletta is crazy delicious and gigantic. We actually split a half sandwich and were satisfied for the rest of the afternoon. So bring an appetite and sit at the back counter and check out all the shelves lined with local hot sauces, pickled veggies, and other esoteric canned and bottled local grub.

Steve loves Muffuletta, at Central Grocery.

The ladies and gentlemen who blog for Tales of the Cocktail were fêted this year at the gorgeously appointed M.S. Rau Antiques, hosted by the affably delightful Martin Miller, founder of the eponymous gin. We sipped gin drink after gin drink (Sam Ross’s Palin’s Christmas Punch pleased the palette prodigiously, but the name made us wince just a bit . . . well, actually quite a bit), chatted with the wizardly developer David Bromige, and got a table-side demonstration of a cocktail shaker in the guise of an airplane [see photo below]. Next time you are in town, browse all the cocktailiana, drool, and hope that someday you win the lottery so you can be the proud owner of that shiny shaker.

Jim Cottrell says this airplane cocktail shaker can be yours for $32,000, at M.S. Rau Antiques. Thanks for the Blogger Reception, Martin Miller.

Many of the bloggers at Tales this year have started a group called CSOWG (Cocktail & Spirits Online Writers Group) and for several days preceding Tales, they gathered in a room in the French Quarter for a series of conferences called Drink.Write 2009. We attended the photography session and learned from speakers Jamie Boudreau (Spirits and Cocktails), Darcy S. O’Neil (Art of Drink), and Rick Stutz (Kaiser Penguin) about the ins and outs of taking pretty pictures of cocktails. All of the speakers have different approaches, and that is a good thing. Check out their sites and see how each of them has a distinct eye. Later that night, many of us let down our hair at the Mixoloseum (the CSOWG) House and sang and drank the night away. Thank you Gabriel and Joana Szaszko for inviting us to this party, complete with libation goddess Lynette Marrero and bartender Michael Martensen shaking and stirring our souls.

Gabriel Szaszko and Blair Reynolds sing for their sips, at the Mixoloseum House. Joana Szaszko and Paul sing “Summer Loving.” Lynette Marrero and Michael Martensen light up the party.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

A seminar titled “Responsible Beverage Program Consulting” sounded interesting to us, and we were happy to see our friend writer and creative cocktailian Danny Ronen on the panel with fellow mixologists Francesco Lafranconi, Kathy Casey (author of the new book Sips and Apps), and Jacques Bezuidenhout. All four had great chemistry and shared with us their concise and extremely helpful tips for consulting and developing cocktails and cocktail programs for bars of various sizes, agendas, and clientele. If you think your ginger-infused, hickory-smoked, small-batched cocktail with a garnish flown in from the Isle of Great Distance is going to cut it at every bar you consult for, well maybe you should have sat down and listened to them at this seminar. If you ever get a chance to talk with any of them, do bend their ears. You will learn a great deal.


Danny Ronen shows us a little respect at “Responsible Beverage Program Consulting,” with Francesco LaFranconi and Kathy Casey (Jacques Bezuidenhout not pictured).

We got some support this year from Paul’s cousins JoAnn and Barbara, and Barbara’s husband Jon, who flew down from New York to cheer us on at our Spirited Lunch with Bourbon House and Piedmont Distillers. And what better way to celebrate being all together in New Orleans than a visit to the exquisite Restaurant August, John Besh’s beauty of a dining room and bar. After a round of Sazeracs, we feasted on perfection, dish after dish of creative cuisine that satisfied all of our appetites. Chef Besh came out to say hello to us, and we were pleased as milk punch to see this dashing Merlin of the kitchen in the flesh, if but only for a few minute.

Steve and Paul’s cousin Barbara savor the fare at Restaurant August.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

What began as a morning fraught with nerves as we awaited our lemons and basil for some cocktails we developed for our Spirited Lunch with Piedmont Distillers and Bourbon House turned out to be quite a success, at least in our sleep-deprived eyes. A roomful of eager diners got to taste some traditional Southern food (mixed with a few surprises) paired with our cocktails. We even got to speak with the talented and gregarious Eric Asher of WIST AM 690 on his show broadcast live from Bourbon House. The moment our segment ended, we breathed a sigh of relief and thanked the exceptional kitchen and front-of-house staff for providing us with first-class top-notch support. Chef Darin Nesbit and event coordinator Wesley Noble, our hats off to you!

The bill of fare and the Second Course for “From Down-Home to Downtown: A Lunch Celebrating the Evolution of Southern Traditions,” at Bourbon House. Piedmont Distillers’ Sarah LeRoy and Joe Michalek, with Paul and Steve.

We love Cochon so much (we are huge fans of everything pig, including fried pig ears we got to try the other night), that we decided to give its upstairs private-party dining room Calcasieu a try. The two bar chefs, Eben Klemm and Eben Freeman came up with some tantalizing cocktails, including Earth, which used beet juice, and a Cornbread Old-Fashion, which tasted exactly as it sounds. Chef Warren Stephens’s Roasted Duck Breast with Duck Boudin and Figs was exceptional. We learned a lot about local culture and flavors from some of our table companions, who kept us in stitches throughout the evening.

Steve enjoys a Cornbread Old-Fashion, at Calcasieu’s Spirited Dinner.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Norman Bonchick, CEO of Van Gogh Imports, sat down with us in the Vieux Carré Room and told us a little bit about the new flavored vodkas his company was showcasing at Tales this year. We tried the Double Espresso Vodka and the sips brought instant smiles to our faces. Talk about coffee with a kick! Thanks, Norman, for providing some much needed nourishment for our tired and hungry souls.

A Van Gogh Vodka Breakfast, and a view from the Vieux Carré Room.

Tasting Rooms can be a lot of fun from a taster’s point of view. Getting the room ready and shaking up the cocktails can be a little nerve-wracking. But we thoroughly enjoyed working with director of marketing Sarah LeRoy and founder and president Joe Michalek of Piedmont Distillers to create four new cocktails for their Catdaddy and Midnight Moon moonshines. For an hour and a half, we muddled, shook, and poured our libations for the crowds and were pleased by the smiles we received. Thanks to our new friend Matt from Cochon who helped with the bartending and to Piedmont’s head of sales Joe Flock for sharing with us Piedmont’s new product, Lightning Lemonade.

Paul and Steve prep for Piedmont Distillers’ Tasting Room. Thank you, Lu Brow, for the succulent and spicy Catdaddy cherries.

After we said our good-byes to the nice folks from Piedmont Distillers, we took a light lunch at Green Goddess restaurant just around the corner from the Monteleone and sat in the drizzly rain. We felt cooled and comforted by the pitter-patter, looking forward to a day of rest. Stay tuned for a streetcar ride to Commander’s Palace and Robert Hess’s seminar limning the history of the Old Fashioned.

“After the Rain”

The view outside The Green Goddess restaurant after a busy two days and a little rain shower.