Thursday, May 26, 2011

New Orleans Trip - Day 2

After fully expecting to wake up on Day 2 of our trip sensing that I would need to stay close to a restroom for most of the day, you can imagine my surprise when I arose feeling just fine, a sign I took from the foodie gods to mean that I was free to continue my overindulgent ways. At least this time, we had the decency to skip breakfast in favor of brunch at Begue's in the Royal Sonesta Hotel on Bourbon St. Legend has it that the whole concept of Sunday brunch originated at Madame Begue's restaurant (which was located at the corner of Decatur and Madison in the French Quarter, now home to Tujagues Restaurant since 1914) sometime in the late 19th Century and the Royal Sonesta has co-opted the "Begue's Champagne Sunday Brunch" for its own use. Joining us on our visit were my cousin Ryan, his lovely wife Kristin, and their newborn baby Channing, who politely sat in his carrier while we proceeded to stuff our faces.

All of the food stations were set up in an entry room adjacent to the main dining room and, collectively, they represented quite a bounty. There was a hot carving station with a whole red snapper and a deep-fried turkey, a raw bar with oysters, shrimp, and crayfish (fortunately, my cousin was able to give me a quick tutorial on the right way to disassemble a crayfish, quite a bit different from how I had mangled them at Dickie Brennan's earlier), omelet station, shrimp and grits station, small hors d'oeuvres (such as mini quiches), smoked fish, standard breakfast items (such as bacon, eggs, sausages, etc.), a waffle station (with optional bananas foster topping), dessert table, fruit trays, and a bakery table. I think I made about 7 trips altogether and I couldn't begin to tell you what exactly I ate during this time (my memory no doubt clouded by the bottomless Domaine Chandon sparkling wine that was being continually poured). I do recall a mini baked Alaska being a standout, plus the Waffle Bananas Foster still makes me salivate at the thought of it. After a leisurely 2-hour brunch, we rolled on out of the hotel, making plans to return someday to check out Rick Tramonto's new restaurant venture (Restaurant R'Evolution) when it opens there later this year.

After all that gastrointestinal damage, it was time for some walking, and walk we did through the old French Market and flea market complex on Decatur St., stopping to sample (and then subsequently purchase several boxes for gifts) Aunt Sally's Pralines, a sinful concoction of sugar, milkfat, and pecans. Fortunately for me, Mrs. Hackknife clandestinely bought an extra 6-pack for our own home consumption (that's why I married that gal). From here, it was a pretty short walk to the corner of Chartres and Toulouse Streets, where we stopped in at the historic Chartres House Cafe to enjoy a Southern Comfort mint julep on the 2nd floor balcony overlooking the French Quarter, per the Facebook recommendation of my Ohio cousin, Kristen, a well-traveled free spirit with much experience in matters of leisure (good call, kiddo). Allegedly, Tennessee Williams used to imbibe in the bar (as I'm sure he did in most of the French Quarter watering holes that are still around from his era).

By this time, we still had about 4 hours until our dinner reservation at Commander's Palace, so we decided that a snack might be in order to tide us over (after all, it had been a whole 3 1/2 hours since brunch). My suggestion to Mrs. Hackknife was Clover Grill, a tiny diner situated at the corner of Bourbon and Dumaine Streets since 1939 (motto: "We love to fry and it shows!"). I have fond memories of visiting here on my only other trip to New Orleans with some buddies in 1997, where I had a late night burger cooked under a hubcap (yes, a hubcap). When we arrived, the air was heavy with grease (which seemed to cover everything inside with a nice brown sheen), the kitchen area was minuscule, the menu was short (pretty much omelets, pancakes, and burgers), and the hubcaps were still being used on the grill (see Photo #1 above). I'm quite certain that if a health inspector had ever visited and NOT awarded a passing grade via the sawbuck method that the city is well-known for, they would no doubt fail, but you can't argue with the results: the place may be less than sanitary, but the burgers are about the best damn things you've ever had. While sitting at the bar in blissful, beefy utopia, Mrs. Hackknife and I pondered the merits of the hubcap. Does it allow the top part of the meat to be steamed? Are there drippings of ancient fat from the inside of the hubcap adding flavor (sort of like how sherry is made in a solera - am I eating part of Tennessee Williams's burger from 1950)? It may remain one of the culinary world's great mysteries; however, at only $5.49, you should be booking your plane tickets now.

Feeling sated and sleepy, we again retired to the hotel for a pre-dinner rest break (this is a routine I can find myself getting used to). After freshening up, we hopped on the St. Charles St. trolley and headed over to the day's main event, dinner at Commander's Palace, home of the city's (and possibly the country's) most-renowned French-Creole cuisine. The restaurant complex (which first opened in 1880 and has been serving fine food ever since) was badly damaged in Hurricane Katrina, but was extensively renovated and looks rather stately with its blue-and-white awnings (see Photo #2 above), fitting right in to the historic Garden District (the cemetery across the street notwithstanding). As a venue, the vibe certainly wasn't as uppity as August; for example, we were seated not in the main dining room, but in a outbuilding next door that could only be accessed via the kitchen and then the courtyard. The outbuilding was constructed right around two old trees, whose trunks were now surrounded by glass like some kind of open-topped terrarium in the middle of the room (I suppose they could have torn them down, but what fun would that have been?). Somehow, I can't really imagine live trees in the middle of, say, Per Se's dining room. Anyway, the trees did not provide enough of a distraction for us to miss the marquis attraction on the appetizer list: Foie Gras Du Monde, the house's interpretation of Cafe Du Monde's beignets and coffee, consisting of 3 bourbon and fig beignets, topped with a lobe of foie gras, pecans, and powdered sugar, accompanied by a flute glass of foie gras-infused cafe au lait with chickory coffee foam (see Photo #3 above). With its combination of sweet and savory, the dish straddled the line between hors d'oeuvre and dessert, but no matter - it was an incredible way to start the meal and was clearly designed to kill off the clientele as quickly as possible ("We're going to Hell for this, aren't we?", I muttered to Mrs. Hackknife as the last heavenly bite disappeared from the plate). Where does one go from here? Why, the famous house turtle soup, spiked with sherry and optionally served with a little sherry on the side. The soup was delicious, with much more of a tomato flavor than I expected, making me think that I might actually be able to make a reasonable facsimile someday in the Commissary (if I could only get my hands on some turtle meat...). Next came our main courses, a nut-encrusted black drum filet in a white cream and corn sauce for me and soft shell crab with barbecued tomato and avocado for the missus, both of which were excellent. Last, but not least, we limped across the finish line with our unfinished desserts, creole bread pudding souffle for Mrs. Hackknife and a praline parfait for yours truly (truth be told, I had wanted the famous Bananas Foster, prepared tableside, but it had to be ordered for 2 and my wife had already secured her souffle - maybe next time). Although we were stuffed to the gills, it was one of the more memorable meals we've ever had. By the time we returned to the hotel, however, I was beginning to feel the effects of my extended refreshment junket over the past 2 days (I blame my insistence on chugging the remainder of my $20 glass of pinot noir on principle after our large Commander's Palace meal for pushing me over the brink). Could I last one more day?

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