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.

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