Thursday, May 19, 2011

New Orleans Trip - Day 1

A while ago, Mrs. Hackknife was asked to moderate a session at an actuarial conference in New Orleans. The timing of this event (mid-May) couldn't have been better for us - it had been almost 8 months since we had taken a trip without the progeny, during which time we traveled with them to Los Angeles, Disney World, and Ireland, the latter having been only about a month prior to the conference. It was high time we skipped town for a little extended weekend r&r just the two of us and what better place to go than the Big Easy, well known (among other things) for its distinctive cuisine and easygoing attitude towards, well, excessive consumption of many things, but mostly food. Having thoroughly researched my quarry and practiced austerity in eating behavior since my visit last Wed. to Abiquiu Cafe, we arrived in New Orleans early on a warm, sunny Saturday morning ready to chow down.

With our hotel conveniently perched on the edge of the French Quarter, we proceeded to our first culinary destination just before noon: a celebrated po' boy emporium called Johnny's located smack dab in the middle of the Quarter on St. Louis St., open in the same cozy location since 1950. For the uninitiated, a po' boy sandwich is basically a sliced baguette containing any number of items, including fried shrimp, fried oysters, roast beef, ham, or just about anything else you can think to put on a sandwich as evidenced by the shockingly large number of choices on the menu over the counter (see Photo #1). The filling we chose wasn't even on the menu since it was one of the daily specials: boudin blanc, a white sausage containing pork fat, rice (at least the Cajun variety has this), and possibly pork heart/liver, something I'd sampled only once before (at Publican in Chicago a few years ago). I also asked for it to be "dressed" as they call it, which includes lettuce, tomato, mayo. The boudin po' boy also came with some pickles and a side cup of seafood gumbo. Both the sandwich and the gumbo were excellent, the tangy pickles providing a nice counterpart to the savory boudin, which was almost like a loose spread on the baguette. By the time we had finished up, the line for orders was out the door. Grateful for having arrived early, we made our way around the corner and up Decatur St. to Crescent City Brewery for a quick drink before continuing our our foodapalooza. Mrs. Hackknife tried the hoppy Red Stallion, while I quaffed a Spring Bock, one of the house seasonal brews. Both beers were relatively mediocre, mostly in keeping with the city's notoriety for having mostly bad beer (for example, across the street from Crescent City was a mall housed in the former Jax Brewery, regarded to be "pretty much be the worst beer in America" as described by our carriage tour guide on the next day, owing to their use of Mississippi River water in the brew).

After that refreshment, we continued up Decatur St. to one of the premier tourist traps in town, Cafe Du Monde, serving beignets (basically small funnel cakes with thicker dough covered in powdered sugar) and chicory coffee (and not much else) since 1862. You could partake in this fine experience by either getting waiter service at an outdoor table (all of which were occupied) or by standing in the lengthy line at the to-go window (or the really adventurous among you could simply walk into any souvenir shop within a 10-mile radius and purchase the ubiquitous Cafe Du Monde coffee canister and beignet mix box, making them at home yourself). We opted for the to-go line and lucked into an empty table while we were waiting. Given the daily volume of customers, it was no surprise that the place wasn't exactly pristine, in fact, if a powdered sugar factory were to ever explode, I suspect the aftermath would look something like this. We ordered a plate of 3 beignets (only $2.50, not a bad deal all things considered) and a coffee for Mrs. Hackknife, with ice water included gratis. The beignets weren't bad, although I limited myself to just one so as not to overindulge.

Leaving the bevy of visitors behind, we made our way through the French Quarter to another famous local haunt, that is,Pat O'Brien's bar on St. Peter St. to get an obligatory hurricane, which is basically a mixture of rum and the proprietary Hurricane powder mix (this mix can also be found at local gift shops, often times right next to the Cafe Du Monde stuff). It had been about 10 years since I'd drunk a hurricane and I'd forgotten how sweet and deceptively potent they were (one was enough to relieve any pain that I might have been experiencing). Adequately anesthetized and hungry for oysters, Mrs. Hackknife and I rounded the corner to find a long line waiting to get into the Acme Oyster House. Fortunately for us, Dickie Brennan's Seafood is right next door and had more than enough empty stools at the raw bar to accommodate our growing girths, plus a nice view out the window onto Iberville St. of the large Acme queue. Photo #2 above shows you what we ordered: the Plateaux de Fruits de Mer, including shucked Texas oysters (as the chalkboard over the bar told us) topped with local Cajun caviar, some mussels in a kick-ass saffron/curry sauce, fresh jumbo shrimp, marinated crab fingers, crayfish, and some sort of seafood-potato salad. Given that we still had dinner reservations at 8 that evening, we exercised a modicum of restraint and limited ourselves to only "Le Petit" size of this platter (which still ended up being plenty big enough).

By this time, we needed to retreat back to the safety of our hotel room for digestive purposes. After a little rest and a quick jaunt through the nearby Harrah's casino (Mrs. Hackknife made a nifty $25 at the low-stakes blackjack table to help offset our mounting food bill), we wandered over to Tchoupitoulas St. for this evening's ultimate dining experience, Restaurant August, Chef John Besh's flagship establishment. We first became aware of Chef Besh's culinary talents on the initial season of Top Chef Masters and I made a mental note to visit one of his restaurants should I ever find myself in New Orleans. The eatery itself is located in a beautifully-restored historic building and really exudes Old World Southern charm (that is, the part without the large mosquitoes, poisonous snakes, and, well, slavery). The hostess seated us not in the main dining room, but in a very unique two-story wine room with low, romantic lighting that had just a few tables close together (foreshadowing alert: this will be an important detail in a minute). Our first course, an amuse bouche, was comprised of a fish custard mixed with truffle sabayon, placed in an empty eggshell and topped with a garlic crouton. It was delicious and seemed very unique, however, I discovered not long after our meal that this plate was a riff on a classic Escoffier appetizer from turn-of-the-century Paris (and also very similar to an hors d'oeuvre currently being served at Grant Achatz's new restaurant, Next). This was followed by a salad of organic greens mixed with Point Reyes blue cheese and pumpkin seed oil vinaigrette, with the whole thing topped by a large sheet of pumpkin seed brittle - the salad was very good and I like the brittle, although it was spiced a little aggressively, in my opinion. I ate my salad while Mrs. Hackknife enjoyed a bowl of warm shrimp bisque with little dumplings in the broth.

At this point, the relative tranquility of our meal was (unbeknownst to us) about to evaporate. While waiting for our second appetizer (yes, we couldn't help ourselves), a plate of fried oysters served with cherry tomatoes, bacon, and blue cheese, a couple was seated at the table immediately next to us in the corner of the wine room. As they sat down, I noticed the attractive woman, thinking to myself that she was approximately our age and had a vague resemblance to Catherine Zeta-Jones, but didn't really pay much attention beyond that. A few minutes passed before I glanced at her date and realized that he looked just like Kirk Douglas - then it hit me like a ton of bricks: that isn't Kirk Douglas, it's MICHAEL DOUGLAS and that's his wife CATHERINE ZETA-JONES sitting right the $^%&^% next to us! Now, in my life, I've had very few close encounters with celebrities, and these two were, by far, the most famous people I'd ever seen in person, let alone in close proximity (Mrs. Hackknife could have reached over and swatted Messr. Douglas in the back of the head if she were so inclined - knowing that he's just been through cancer treatment, this was not recommended). As you might imagine, their presence pretty much overshadowed the rest of our meal, which, admittedly, was still very good. The oyster appetizer was fine (the Douglases also ordered this - at least we know they have good taste in food), my roasted duck with creamy polenta and candied quince (see Photo #3 above, with Michael Douglas out of view slightly to the left of the frame) was for some strange reason tough to cut, but tender to eat, and Mrs. Hackknife's softshell crab with veal stock custard and marcona almonds tasty, if not a bit overbreaded. By the time we reached the dessert course, the happy movie stars had already departed into the warm night and we were able to finish out the meal no longer fearing spontaneous combustion from too much excitement. With pulses slowing, I nibbled on Chef Besh's version of hummingbird pie (vanilla cake with pineapple and sweet syrup) and Mrs. Hackknife tore into a strawberry panna cotta, followed by mignardises of little pralines, bittersweet chocolate, and passionfruit chews.

I dread to think about how many calories we had ultimately consumed in just the first day of our 3-day visit, but there was still much more to come. Stay tuned....

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