Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Well I'll be dipped...

I am a bit fanatical when it comes to anything Disney. I love the movies, the characters and the theme parks. Disney paraphernalia is dotted all throughout my house. In the kitchen alone you'll find Alice in Wonderland S&P shakers, a "villain-ness" cookie jar featuring Ursula, Maleficent and the Evil Queen from Snow White and several refrigerator magnets, my favorite being the Grim Grinning Ghosts from the Haunted House ride at Disneyland. So, given this personal information, it's easy to understand why a Disney freak like myself would be willing to spend upwards of $15 or more for only eight chocolate-covered pretzels shaped like everyone's favorite mouse.

What I won't do (again), however, is spend that same $15 at a local shop that claims it makes "the best chocolate treats in town" when all they do is take cheap, store-bought items like graham crackers or Oreo Cookies, dip them in chocolate and then charge almost 50 cents per cookie.  I can buy a whole box (eight) of chocolate dipped Oreo's at Walgreens for under $2!

On top of that insult, if you travel only a few blocks away, you'll discover real chocolatiers like Blue Frog or Sucre who both offer original and unique chocolates that are well worth the extra dough!

"Dip me once, shame on you - dip me twice, shame on me!" I won't be dipped again...

Monday, April 25, 2011

MiLa's perfect prix fixe...

A magical, French, eight-letter phrase has enabled this dirt-poor, wannabe local to enjoy some of the finest cuisine New Orleans has to offer. It's a phrase that I listen for, wait for and yearn for on a weekly basis in hopes that, yet again, I can set my taste buds a-flutter at a fraction of the cost.  That phrase, my friends, is prix fixe.

Naturally, there are prix fixe menus around town that still cost an arm and a leg, but every so often you will find one that is so perfect and affordable, a "special" prix fixe menu, you simply can't pass it up. Such was the case with my most recent meal at MiLa Restaurant. For my 82nd cheat (down 79 pounds), I enjoyed a fabulous, three-course lunch for only $20!

My friend Casey joined John and I at the elegant restaurant located on the corner of Baronne and Common Street in the CBD for a leisurely afternoon lunch. The dining room was absolutely gorgeous with deep blues and warm golden yellows and (my favorite) an array of dropped ceiling lights covered in drum shades of varying sizes. It was like being inside a very modern and sleek work of art. We were seated immediately, without reservations, at a table next to a tall, sheer-shaded window looking out onto Baronne Street. Right away, I knew I wanted to start with another lunchtime special offered by MiLa, a $3 vodka martini, a desire echoed by Casey and John.

Prepared to select from the prix fixe menu, John and I placed our order strategically so that together, we could try everything offered...but Casey went her own way and ordered from the regular menu. Before we were able to have a few sips of our cocktails, one of our servers arrived (it seemed we had three) and whisked out a basket of warm, sweet potato rolls and thin, wedges of cornbread served with fresh, sweet cream butter topped with sea salt and a pureed lima bean paste. Everything was declared delicious, even for Casey and John who both claim to dislike sweet potato.

For his first course, John selected the organic green salad with sunflower seeds, crumbled feta cheese and a lemon vinaigrette. About halfway finished, John shook his head in disbelief and said "I think this is the best salad I've ever eaten in my life!"  I chose the Root Vegetable soup which was light and creamy with a dollop of sweet crab in the center and topped with brioche croutons. Before it could be stolen away, I let John wipe up the last drops of my soup with his bread, much to the chagrin of the maitre d' who actually had the nerve to roll his eyes at me when I asked him to put the bowl down. Fortunately, his snooty attitude was the only minus in a lunch chock-full of pluses.

We oohed a bit when Casey got her entree, Fried Rabbit Tenderloin with brussel sprouts and roasted mushrooms. She kindly shared out bites of the crispy coated, juicy rabbit, though after tasting it, I would have been reluctant to let any of it go if I were in her shoes. John made quick work of his dish, a perfectly sauteed flounder fillet with a delicious, buttery lobster sauce and he helped me to finish mine, Braised Veal Cheeks served atop buttermilk spätzle.

Now, in all honesty, this was my first foray into veal cheeks and as well as spätzle, so I wasn't positive about what to expect. As it turns out, the incredibly tender, richly flavored meat fell apart at the lightest touch of my fork and the spätzle, almost the texture of gnocchi, was slipping about in a decadent, dark red sauce that had me smacking my lips.

We finished off our lunch with both of the desserts offered on the prix fixe menu. John had the Vanilla Bean Rice Pudding with rum-soaked raisins and I selected the Frozen Louisiana Yogurt with fresh strawberries and almond streusel (or "crumblies" as I like to call them). Both were light and refreshing, perfect for the season, but the big surprise for me was the pudding. I've never really enjoyed rice pudding, something about the texture always threw me off, but this was really wonderful and creamy. John favored me with glares every time I snuck another spoonful from his bowl, but I couldn't help myself!

I'll be keeping a lookout for the next fantastic deal from MiLa, maybe they'll to an affordable prix fixe for dinner? A poor girl can dream...

*By the way, just to illustrate how "small town" this city can feel at times, I saw one of our cool servers from MiLa the other night while waiting for the streetcar on Canal. He was strolling by in jeans and a t-shirt and it took me a moment to recognize him. I don't think he saw me, but just seeing him made me smile and remember my awesome lunch!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Pleasurable public transportation: It's not an oxymoron, it's the St. Charles Streetcar

I've never been a big fan of public transportation. Some of the most haunting memories of my childhood involve a frantic, sweaty race to the bus stop, a mere three blocks from my house, and helplessly watching the bus pull away from the curb just as I came within inches of the door. I still see the bus driver's face, a bitter, older woman who would yell at us for the slightest wrong and (seemingly) leave stragglers behind on purpose, getting a cheap thrill from making kids cry. Oh and the smell! Unwashed bodies pressed together, armpits in your face, terrible body odor and truly bad breath are also excellent reasons to stay off the bus.

I realize there are a tons of great reasons to use public transportation as well; it's inexpensive, good for the environment, reduces traffic levels, it's relatively safe and you get to be a passenger all the time, avoiding the stress of driving in traffic. But I just could never really enjoy it, if you get my drift. That is, I couldn't until I started using the St. Charles Streetcar.

Ever since our car died, John and I have employed the streetcar to get around and for the first time in my life, I actually revel in this classic and historic form of transport. Yes, you still get the strange odors, press of bodies and times when you miss the dark green streetcar by a hair, but it all washes away in the joy of riding slowly down the Avenue under the gorgeous Oak canopy, listening to the animated conversations of excited tourists pointing out their favorite grand mansion as it passes by.

I don't know about you, but after the federal flood when the streets were eerily silent and everyone was inside their homes, behind locked doors after dark -- one of the sounds I missed the most was the rumble of a passing streetcar. It simply wasn't New Orleans without it. It wasn't until the St. Charles Streetcar started running again that I finally felt like the city was really recovering.

Now, I look forward to taking the streetcar downtown. I'm all smiles waiting at the stop and even if we just miss one, we know another will be along in 15 or 20 minutes. I love sitting by the window, letting the warm air blow back my hair and cause my eyes to water. John always teases me, but I love talking to the people from out of town about New Orleans and when they realize I'm local, they ask all kinds of questions...looking for the best place to dine or have a few cocktails. I love the ambling pace and how the drivers will sometimes stop and chat with other drivers coming in the opposite direction, there is no sense of hurry or any frantic pace they have to set.

Just recently when we attended the French Quarter Festival, John and I got some really great shots of people and scenes inside the streetcar on the way downtown. John has a knack for getting sneaky shots of folk without their knowledge, but I think you can get an idea of how wonderful it is to ride! And what about our car, you ask? I don't even miss it...

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Birthday wishes...

Last week, John's 27th birthday dawned on Thursday, April 14th. I had hesitantly asked him where he would like to dine for our cheat, my treat of course, preparing myself for the words "Taco Bell" to erupt from his lips, but he surprised me. A large, questioning smile spread across his face as he turned to me and asked, "Can we go back to Patois?"

Momentarily stunned, all I could think to say was "Uh, yeah!"

Both of us had become enamored of the excellent cuisine that could be had at this reasonably priced, comfortable, neighborhood establishment and found any reason we could think of to return. John's birthday just happened to be the perfect excuse. It was my 81st cheat and I am down a grand total loss of 78 pounds, having lost one I had gained last week.

Though John's birthday was on Thursday, we had to wait till Friday to dine at Patois for lunch. We arrived fairly early in the lunch hour and were not surprised to see the restaurant on the corner of Webster and Laurel Streets already bustling. We giggled a bit when we were steered to the exact table we occupied on our last visit and made promises to each other that from now on, we would actually request this little two-top near the small, iron-railed staircase when we inevitably dined at Patios again in the future.

Our server filled our wine glasses with ice cold water while we looked over the menu and decided, rather quickly, what we wanted for lunch. We were brought the same, delicious buttery rolls that were still quite warm and again, we waited till our appetizer arrived before eating them. This time, we chose the Moules Frites or steamed mussels and French fries, as we both distinctly remembered drooling over this dish when it arrived at a neighboring table.

The mussels tasted just as good as they looked, perhaps even better, steamed in a rich, garlicky Creole tomato broth that we sopped up with our rolls. We also stealthily scooped out every last, sauce-laden French fry from the bottom of the bowl and considered slurping it up like soup before our entrees arrived.

Though it was one of the most expensive dishes on the menu, I couldn't resist ordering the Almond Crusted Gulf Fish. The thick, white fish fillet arrived in all it's golden-fried glory atop potato galettes and buttered green beans surrounded by the most fabulous tasting lemony, buttery meuniere sauce that the waitress caught me sucking off of my fingertip.

John ordered the Patois Burger dressed with thick slices of smoky bacon, creamy bleu cheese and red onion marmalade. Though it was an excellent hamburger (you know I had a bite), John could only finish half of it, so we boxed the rest to take home. I had no such difficulty with my fish...

Even though John was stuffed, I couldn't leave without ordering dessert. I tried to choose something on the lighter side in order to induce my satiated boyfriend to try a few bites. I opted for the Berry Shortcake that turned out to be what tasted and felt like a split, sugar-topped scone filled with mascarpone cheese and assorted berries that had been steeped in a blood orange reduction. It was fantastic! Although I couldn't finish all of the cake, I scraped off all the berries and cheese while we waited for the check.

Though I thoroughly enjoyed my meal, this particular outing was all about John and I was thrilled to see that he was just as pleased as I was. Happy Birthday, my love!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Completing the timeline...

Ultimate Roast Beef Po-Boy...I must go back and do it justice!
When I started my cheats, I was working for a local website doing something completely opposite to writing, well opposite to creative writing that is until I started blogging about my diet. Since my former employer no longer lists my pieces online, I decided the time had come to fill in the blanks. After all, www.sucktheheads.com wasn't even in existence when I began.

So, if you are interested, you can go back and see my cheats from week one where I gorged myself on an Ultimate Roast Beef Po-Boy from Joe Sepie's in Harahan. Unfortunately, we did not possess the bad ass camera we have today and most of the photos either suck or don't exist. I do apologize for lack of porn.

I really must stress that a lot of things have changed since those blogs were first published. For example, Antonio's on Maple Street is now Singha Thai, J'anita's has moved to the Rendon Inn on Eve Street and Dick & Jenny's have a great new chef with what looks like a wonderful new menu that I am really anxious to try...really!

But, now the whole record is here and you can see how long I've been working on reducing the size of my ass. Will I ever make it to my goal? Who the hell knows, but I've gotta keep on trying. Enjoy!

Monday, April 11, 2011

A feasting fest: French Quarter Festival 2011

So, it was a no-brainer decision for my cheat this week, right? I mean, duh, where the hell else would I be besides French Quarter Festival? Easily one of my favorite festivals of the season, this celebration...this daytime, suntime, springtime elation is all about the Vieux Carre. Everything you can find in this gorgeous historical district is brought out onto the streets (even more than usual), and served up at tents and open stages from the U.S. Mint over on Esplanade to Woldenburg Park next to the cool breezes of the Mississippi River. It's like the Quarter amplified several times for four solid days and get this...this is the best part...it's FREE!

I sound like a pamphlet.

Anyhow, I knew where I was going to eat this week ages ago, so John and I hit the streetcar and rode downtown for my 80th cheat at the 2011 French Quarter Festival. I gained 2 pounds and was feeling pretty guilty about it, but certainly not guilty enough to miss the festival.

John and I were hungry before we left the house, so it didn't take us long to dive right in. In Jackson Square under the bright mid-day sun, clutching our water bottles and bouncing to Connie Jones we spotted a menu we couldn't avoid from Dickie Brennan's Steakhouse. We got one of each, a Prime Beef Debris Po-Boy and Bourbon House's BBQ Shrimp Po-Boy. Both were tasty, but I definitely preferred the juicy debris.

Inhaling the sandwiches, we strolled around the square, checking out the artists come out in droves for the fest. Every inch of wrought-iron fencing surrounding the square was adorned with artwork in a variety of mediums, but most featuring beloved, local icons from shotgun houses to a lone sax player wailing against a street lamp. I got a little distracted by some work by Sarah Jenkins, before John dragged my poor butt away from things I couldn't have and steered me straight.

On the other side of Decatur Street, Gal Holiday was playing as we ambled slowly through the crowds. We stopped at a bench to just take in the refreshing, cool air blowing towards us from across the river and were treated to an impromptu performance as an older black man in a wife-beater t-shirt busted out his rendition of "When a Man Loves a Woman" on a microphone plugged into an old portable amp. He employed a lot of creative license with the lyrics, but he sang with such flair and intensity, it wasn't long before a large ring of festers surrounded us, taking snapshots and dropping dollar bills in his box. Playing "for those who were listening", he writhed around, squished up his eyes and sang his heart out...even when he messed up and started over again, people hung out and cheered him on.

We left as he began "The Dock by the Bay", seeking out some more grub. As we strolled along, I noticed more po-boys, crawfish bread, jambalaya, jerk chicken and crawfish pasta, but I had to stop when I reached Nola Restaurant for Miss Hay's Stuffed Chicken Wings with homemade hoisin. Miss Hay was actually "in the house" as they say, replete with apron dishing out these decadent morsels that completely rocked my world. The chicken was fried perfectly and the extra, crispy skin was filled with sauteed veggies and it all came together so wonderfully with the salty/sweet hoisin....am I breathing heavy? Let's just say I am still slapping myself for not ordering two.

We hit up Plum Street Snowballs, I chose Iced Coffee Cream while John slurped down a Peppermint, turning his mouth and lips a vibrant shade of green. Though pleasingly cool and sweet, I still wanted something a bit more decadent for dessert and that meant heading to the Flour Power Confectionery booth. 

Hey! It's Miss Hay!
After watching them burn the caramel with a blow torch, I couldn't resist getting a Praline Creme Brulee. Thick, caramel custard was ensconced in a crispy, buttery puff pastry tower and sprinkled with Praline chunks and brown sugar. It was the best part of heaven I've ever had the chance to eat from a paper plate and with a plastic fork. I could've picked the whole thing up and shoved it into my mouth, but I thought someone might recognize me and call me out.

Surprisingly full (we didn't eat as much as I planned), we started to head out, walking back towards the streetcar, stopping at Jackson Square so I could buy a poster. Though I enjoy the work of local artist Tami Curtis-Ellis, I have a quirky little connection to Pete Fountain who is the main subject this year.  Remind me to relay that story another time...

Satiated, smiling and burnt (guess who forgot to wear sunscreen?), we rode the streetcar home under the resplendent green oaks as the sun was setting on what was yet another fabulous French Quarter Festival. Oh how I love this town...

Thursday, April 7, 2011

I want to go now!

Unfortunately, I am chained to the desk today. 
Fortunately, I am going to French Quarter Festival tomorrow. 
Unfortunately...I WANT TO GO NOW!!!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Deference to the divine: Immaculate Conception Jesuit Church

I suppose part of the reason my camera ran out of juice in the middle of lunch last week has to do with the Immaculate Conception Jesuit Church that just happens to be right across the street from Domenica.

As John and I were walking up to the restaurant, we couldn't help but snap at least fifty pics of this gorgeous church that has been here since 1851, though technically it was torn down and reconstructed again in 1930. The parishioners are now celebrating its 160th anniversary!

On the left-hand side of the building, there are a pair of huge, bronze doors covered with elaborate geometric designs. On the church's website, it says that these doors weigh 1,500 pounds each! I believe the doors and some features inside the building, like the cast iron pews and altar, are all from the original church that stood here for 71 years before it had to be demolished and reconstructed later.

Though the church was closed, we couldn't help trying to sneak peeks behind this beautiful wrought-iron gate and through the bars, we were able to get a shot of this colorful mural of the Virgin Mary...

Though I am wholly agnostic, perhaps even verging on atheism, it's places like this that make me want to believe...

Friday, April 1, 2011

My very first Besh: Domenica

Besh, Besh, Besh, Besh, Besh ... and more Besh. Everyone wants to talk about John Besh. His restaurants are all over town and so is his face. You see his boyish, mischievous grin plastered on every available advertising venue (though I haven't seen him at a bus stop yet) and every publication in the Greater New Orleans Area, not to mention his recent launch of a national cooking show airing for the first time this Saturday on WYES.

The fact that his persona has saturated the market is the sole reason I haven't done a cheat at any of the Besh restaurants. I mean, the last thing this big, super chef needs right now is a review from a small blogger like myself, right? My purpose in writing down my cheats was not only to record my weight loss (and gain) in the hopes that sharing my embarrassment would goad me to keep losing, but to reveal to all and sundry that there's a plethora of restaurant gems out there in this great city of ours... restaurants and chefs that don't have their own television show.

For example, yesterday on the streetcar I met a couple of tourists who were talking about the dinner they had the night before and pondering where their next food adventure might be. They were rattling off names we've all heard before like Arnaud's Mr. B's and Restaurant August.  But I'm sitting there thinking, it's almost 6 PM, they on their way to the Riverbend, so I opened my big ol' mouth, butted in on their conversation and recommended Boucherie.

They had never heard of it before and kept asking me to repeat the name and talk about the menu. I spelled it out as they typed in into their iPhones - a light of discovery shining in their eyes. I would be surprised if they didn't go.

My tediously long point is that Mr. Besh has enough attention...

So why did I go to Domenica for my 79th cheat (still only down 79 pounds)? I guess my curiosity finally got the better of me and I thought it was time to see what the "Besh Experience" was all about.

We arrived at Domenica, located in The Roosevelt at 123 Baronne Street, late in the lunch hour at almost 2PM. There were hardly any other diners in the humongous restaurant whose decor reminded me of an art gallery with dark walls, tons of track lighting and tall, sheer curtains reaching up to a cavernous ceiling. We were seated immediately and greeted by our most gracious waitress who proffered "help" with menu seeing as John and I are complete rubes.

We did our best to simply focus on the food that quickly flowed out of the kitchen shortly after we placed our order. I started with the Gulf Tuna Crudo. Bright squares of fresh, raw tuna were dressed with lemon, olive oil, thinly sliced jalapeno and radish, plus a sprinkling of hazelnuts. It was so light and refreshing, I think John was a little jealous, but you know I shared.

His small plate choice was the Gnocchi in a creamy, buttery sauce with wild mushrooms and thick pieces of smoked pancetta. We both loved the sauce and scooped up the remnants with torn pieces of ciabatta, but the gnocchi themselves were a little heavy and doughy.

Though we were ready for the next course, unfortunately my camera was not and the battery promptly died after a few shots of the tuna. C'est la vie!

I couldn't help eying John's dish as it came out, even more so than my own. He ordered the Paneed Louisiana Grassfed Veal at my urging - beautifully thin layers of tender veal, pan fried and accented with just a little lemon and arugula. I ordered the Porchetta Panino with provolone, rapini (a kind of broccoli) and garlic mayonnaise. The sandwich was served with house made Parmesan potato chips that were amazingly thin and crispy.

With plenty of room for dessert, we agreed upon the "Banana Zuppa Inglese," since I am a sucker for anything banana and John just likes to make me happy. This Italian version of trifle was served in a chilled, sealed glass canister and opened at our table. After the first bite, I knew I could eat at least two of these all to myself, John could get his own! It was a thick layer of a moist custardy, banana-rich cake topped with butterscotch mouse and broken shards of peanut brittle. John enjoyed it just as much as I did and we fought for the last spoonful, scraping the sides of the jar for any lingering morsels we might have missed.

Despite small portions (we actually were able to eat a few hours later) and steep prices ($90 for lunch!?!), I really enjoyed the food. That is what it comes down to, after all...was the food good? You're damned skippy!