Commander’s Palace – A Blow-Out Fine Dining Experience

I played fair. I went every small, mom and pop joint I could. I ate sandwiches. I even walked Bourbon Street.

There is no way in hell I was leaving New Orleans without having an honest-to-goodness fine dining experience.

I mean, New Orleans is one of the premiere dining destinations in our country. You can spend 10 dollars a day there and eat very well.

OR

you can  max out the credit cards, plan on eating ramen for the next month at home, and really go to town.

We obviously had to do both.

Commander’s Palace isn’t somewhere that you can wear jeans. Gentlemen wear jackets and black napkins are provided if the ladies have dark dresses. There are at least 3 servers per table, and the moment that your water glass has a sip taken from it it, is refilled. If you get up to use the restroom, the servers standing in the dining room part ways as if they are the red sea and you are Moses. If a mistake is made in service, you know that the staff feels personally responsible and they could not be more apologetic.

It’s warm and friendly but very much a “the customer is always right and thank you SO MUCH for dining here” experience.

Not as much like those places in NYC that ask for your blood type when you make  a reservation.

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Garlic toasts

Every meal starts with these.

You know, New Orleans loves its garlic.

These are exemplary in how familiar they are. You are in an exquisitely beautiful room, with servers all around, yet they want you to feel at home. This is like a better version of what your mom made growing up on spaghetti nights. The toasts are small but there is a whole loaf of them – don’t worry, you won’t go hungry. The tops are crisp and the innards are soft. The garlic is fresh and the herbs are plentiful, but the flavor is not aggressive. It just lets you know that, hey - you aren’t at The Olive Garden.

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Oyster and absinthe dome

Briny Gulf oysters poached with bacon, artichokes, tarragon, Swiss absinthe, and cream under a pastry dome

A unique, shockingly light, oyster stew. The oysters take well to the cream, and their mild flavors really do taste brinier and saltier, but not too fishy. The bacon is very mildly smoky and the tarragon is alight, sweet twist. I don’t takes absinthe, but he cream isn’t at all cloying or heavy, which may be where the absinthe comes in. Dunk the buttery crust into the creamy broth and you are in shellfish heaven. This is mild and elegant – a wonderful starter.

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Turtle soup

The kitchen’ one misstep, though my tablemate loved it. I found it very muddy.

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Roasted foie gras with basil syrup and apple beignets

I love pairing the meaty, buttery foie with light, cinnamon dusted doughnuts! Foie is best with sweet counterparts and pairing it with sweet, yeasty doughnuts is nothing less than whimsical. The accompanying basil syrup taste dlike water when tried alone, but when drizzled over the foie, it adds a light, vegetal note that really brought a whole new facet to the dish. Though  the foie could have been seared a little better and served a little warmer, it’s still a wonderful dish.

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Seared gulf fish with habanero oil and seasonal vegetables

I wish I remember more about the other ingredients in this dish, but it’s hard because the fish is so exemplary. It’s light and flaky, similar to sea bass. Here, it is seared so the flesh is moist but the skin is crispy and salty, almost like a potato chip. The habanero oil is punchy but not overwhelming – it kicks up the sweet flavor of the fish and the earthiness of the roasted tomatoes and thick stalks of asparagus. I don’t know where they get such awesome sweet vegetables in the middle of October, but I’ll take them! This is a genius main dish to order, because when you are eating so much food, you might not have enough room for the wonderful fish stuffed with buttery, rich crabmeat or the venison schnitzel that my dining companion pronounced as “life changing.”

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Apple root beer strudel

Lovely. Buttery pastry encasing sweet, soft apples infused with the aromatic, sweet taste of root beer. Served with soft vanilla ice cream. It’s comfort on a plate.

But let’s not beat around the bush.

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Bananas Foster

If you come here without ordering the tableside bananas foster, you might as well go to Popeye’s and call it a trip to The Big Easy.

Your primary server approaches your table with a rolling cart with various ingredients. Then, in front of your eyes, hem mixes butter, sugar, and bananas in a saucepan. He adds rum and…

Voila! Tableside theatrics that put Benihana to shame!

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The dessert is so tasty. Buttery, sweet, warm, cool. Bananas, ice cream, caramel, rum.

And it’s prepared tableside.

That’s the best part.

That’s the thing about Commander’s Palace – it’s not just the food that makes it famous. Yes, the food is good – the food is GREAT. But it’s more than that. It’s eating in a room with glass walls that look out onto a tropical garden. It’s having your chair taken out for you and being called ma’am. It’s walking up a staircase lined with so many James Beard awards that they are uncountable. It’s having a blow out New Orleans experience.

It’s making me want to go back to NOLA asap

Jacques-Imo’s: Deep Fried Po Boys and More

When I went to New Orleans, I was told two things:

1) Start drinking early

2) Go to Jacques-Imo’s

I’ll be damned if I didn’t follow directions perfectly.

Jacques-Imo’s isn’t on the beaten path. It’s in a dodgier part of town and they don’t take reservations for parties under 5 people – you have to wait for at least an hour. You just show up wearing torn jeans, order a glass of wine or a beer at the dark, crowded bar, and clamor for a seat as people around you inhale plates of crisply fried green tomatoes. If you are lucky, you might see Jacques himself, a true bon vivant. He is a real character, and goes around the bar taking pictures, taking names, and taking shots with the patrons. It is the kind of crazy place that you might see a fraternity, a couple of well-to-do lawyers,  and a rabid foodie.

It’s the kind of place where too much is just enough.

The time you spend waiting goes quickly thanks to strong drinks and the infectious laughter of the place. Also, you are actually quoted the time that you wait – none of that “15 minutes becomes 90 minutes” crap.

By the time you sit down, you should be – if you did it right – tipsy and starving. That’s where this stuff comes in:

DSC_0161 Garlicky corn muffins

Not just any corn muffins. Moist but not mushy with a garlicky-licious explosion of flavor. They are very savory, and moist enough to enjoy sans butter.

That’s obviously due to the intense amount of butter already in these suckers.

They are sweet but not sugary and a really great start to an unconventional meal.

DSC_0163 Shrimp and alligator sausage cheesecake

It sounds gross. It sounds repulsive.

It tastes like angels singing on high.

It’s that miraculous.

It’s a rich, garlicky quiche. The bits of shrimp are sweet and snappy and the alligator sausage just tastes like very seasoned pork sausage. It’s the classic combo of pork and shellfish – salty, sweet, and savory. The cheesecake itself is served with a creamy seafood sauce that isn’t muddy or fishy at all – it’s really just buttery. This is a dish I would never have ordered but I am so glad that I got to try some!

The unpictured interlude of spinach salad with sesame dressing and one perfectly fried, crispy-crusted oyster, is a welcome reminder that no dish can be too healthy if it really wants to call itself Creole.

DSC_0165 Deep fried roast beef po boy

What, you want a closer look at one of the best sandwiches I have ever eaten in my life?

IMG_20131026_205113_001 Yeah, there it is. Soft French bread filled with tender, wonderfully moist(though well done) roast beef, and melty Swiss cheese. It’s all fried to a very soft golden brown then dunked in hearty beef gravy. Let’s not forget the pickle – for some reason the rest of the country hasn’t picked up on how fantastic pickles are. They are all over N’awlins and always to spectacular effect. Here, they are vinegary and bright and TOTALLY cut through the heavy sandwich. This is just so delicious. It’s saucy and melty and cheesy and beefy – like a Big Mac gone Creole. I loved this dish so much that I ate it past the point of comfort.

It was worth it.

That’s the whole thing about Jacques-Imo’s. Everything is just a little too much. A little too noisy. A little too small. A little too out of the way. Certainly too cheap and with far too sweet and friendly service for how busy it is.

But, somehow, it’s all perfect.

Because, for a few days a year, too much is just enough.

Royal House Oyster Bar – The Butter, The Garlic!

I had grand plans to eat at Acme Oyster House.

I was going to order at least 3 different preparations of oysters. I was going to have my photo taken. It was one of my nonnegotiables on our New Orleans sojourn.

Needless to say, we never made it there.

We were too late, too early, too tired, too hungry, or all of the above to wait the line.

PS, lines for restaurants are a thing in New Orleans. They are outside almost every restaurant and everyone just waits pleasantly until they are seated. The open container laws might have something to do with how patiently everyone waits. 

However, being whiny New Yorkers, we all settled for a little oyster house down the street. And we are SO glad that we did!

IMG_20131027_143626_949 Royal House Oyster Bar is located in a typical French Quarter style home on the totally charming Royal Street. Flanked with antique stores and vine-lined iron trellises, the restaurant’s most lovely aspect is its second floor which opens onto a narrow balcony.

The whole time we ate, we heard jazz musicians down in the street playing. Eating whilst listening to jazz waft up from the historic street below? Does it get any better? IMG_20131027_143632_546 The restaurant is very relaxed, with a bar-meets-casual restaurant atmosphere. It is perfect fora  relaxed, boozy lunch, but it would be good for a low-key dinner, too.

IMG_20131027_144314_572 Bloody Mary

This city just loves my favorite cocktail! And this one was almost…almost…as good as my famous 3 Day Bloody Mary. It’s made with olive and pepper infused vodka, so the alcoholic kick is very slight. It’s zesty and very vegetal tasting – You really get that oniony-garlicky-tonatoey-olivey kick. It’s practically healthy! I drank two…and then I napped.

New Orleans involves a lot of napping, post eating. IMG_20131027_145811_783 Redfish beignets

Because our server told us that you can’t go to NOLA and not eat redfish. These are, as a dining companion put it “like General Tso’s chicken meets fish fingers.” By Jove, he is right! Meaty, mild redfish is encased in a thick, beignet batter and served with a sweet, spicy dipping sauce. The finishing touch is…wait for it…powdered sugar. It sounds horrible, I know, but somehow the sweetness negates any muddy taste and makes the clean flavor of the fish shine though. The bit of heat in the sauce keeps it from being too weird or sweet. This is a surefire way to get non-fish eaters to like a seafood dish! IMG_20131027_145817_754 Crab claws in garlic butter sauce

A misnomer. This appetizer should be called crack. Just plain old crack. It’s that addictive. Miniature crab claws, already cracked, swim in a buttery ,creamy, vaguely spicy sauce that is so garlicky that you might smell my breath right through your computer screen. It’s bright with lemon and the crab meat is so insanely sweet that I was gobsmacked. The sauce is just unreal. The server told us the garlic makes it special, but I’m pretty sure that the butter helps too. Wow.

chargrilled oysters Chargrilled oysters with butter, garlic, and Parmesan cheese

Notice a theme here? Garlic and butter are big players in the seafood dishes here, and with good reason. I find gulf oysters to be a little dull tasting and they really benefit from strong seasonings. This topping is perfect. The cheese might sound unconventional to pair with an oyster, but it just creates a nutty, crunchy aspect that enhances the mollusks mild salinity. The garlicky butter sauce is bread dippin’ good. This may be the best dish I had on the entire trip. It’s just so tasty – big and bright flavors in an unexpected combination. oyster po boy Oyster BLT po boy

Awww yeah. Fully dressed. Now THIS is a po boy. Lettuce, tomato, pickles, mayo, bacon, fried oysters, and chipotle remoulade all layered on soft, dense French bread. The sandwich did need some more mayo, but it is a totally satisfying meal. A crunchy crust surrounds the piping hot oysters – soft but not mushy – really fabulous. The bacon is the perfect additional salty crunch and the pickles – what a revelation! Pickles and oysters are just delicious together – the salty, bright flavors work so well together and lighten up a rather heavy sandwich. I am a po boy lover, and though the accompanying fries were mediocre at best, this po boy is a winner.

The whole restaurant is a gold medalist! Royal House was a last minute stop, but it had some of my favorite food of the trip. Those buttery, garlicky oysters. That buttery, garlicky crab. The butter…the garlic! The atmosphere is totally delightful and just what I had imagineed before I visited The Big Easy. It’s all jazz and balcony and seafood and…lovely. Fair prices, efficient service, and really great food.

It’s relaxed NOLA at its best. 

What Not to Eat: New Orleans Edition

I loved the food in New Orleans. Most of it was intensely flavorful, totally diffrent from the food I usually eat, and actually lived up to the high reputation that it has.

Most of it, being the key word.

There were a few iconic N’Awlins eats that I just couldn’t seem to enjoy. These foods weren’t truly awful, they just paled in comparison to the shining stars that are the rest of New Orleans cuisine. I am bummed that I wasted stomach space on these items, and want to save you the same disappointment:

IMG_20131026_111918_517 Hurricane

BLECH! Like cherry flavored cough syrup pumped full of ice and enough alcohol to make you go blind with one sip. Know what’s worse than getting so drunk off one drink you have to take a nap? Getting brain freeze along with it. I love booze and I love sweet drinks but this is a mucus-y  saccharine concoction that makes Robitussin look like a gourmet treat. This was literally horrible and I couldn’t stand it – If you are not a fan of fake cherry flavoring, avoid this at ALL costs!
IMG_20131026_153856_243 Raw gulf oysters

I hate myself for not liking these. I had many preparations of oysters in NOLA and while I found that I love them cooked, raw they don’t do it for me. They have a very muted, bland taste compared to the salty, briny east coast and creamy, buttery West coast oysters that I know and love. They are watery and extremely liquidy, and need massive amounts of horseradish to be anything other than palatable. I feel just dreadful for not loving them and, truth be told, when I make it back to New Orleans, I intend to try them yet again to see if I can grow accustomed to their mild flavors.
IMG_20131027_103823_802 Court of Two Sisters

Form over function. This place has gotten rave reviews for its jazz brunch, and while its spicy turtle soup (like a very zesty Manhattan clam chowder) and King cake (doughnuts gone wild) are delicious, nothing else is memorable. The buffet is filled with New Orleans specialties, but they are not done well. They are made to please the masses, and as such, forgo any sense of seasoning or cooking methods. That’s a danger with buffets, but if you are a Creole joint, I expect to have some really pronounced flavor in most of your dishes. The surroundings are lovely, with expansive, elegant dining rooms and a gorgeous courtyard, and the service is quite good.  They even have jazz musicians on Sunday, which make for a fantastic atmosphere. But for the money, you can do so much better.

Like, for example, the fabulous lunch you will read about tomorrow. Vampires, beware: garlic ahead. 

Court of Two Sisters on Urbanspoon

Mother’s – Debris and Grits in The Big Easy

When you want breakfast in New Orleans, you have a few options. You can go to Cafe du Monde for some world class beignets. You can go down the street for a beer and a hot dog, at any time of day. Or you can go to Mother’s, one of the most delightful down home restaurants I have ever had the pleasure of visiting.

DSCN5404 The line for Mother’s is unrelenting. From the time it opens at 7 AM, you will be on line for at least 20 minutes, usually closer to an hour. It moves quickly from outside to the cafeteria line up inside.
DSCN5405 The walls of the uber-casual (verging on dumpy, but in that “you know you’re in for a good meal” way) space are lined with the rich and famous who have dined here.
DSCN5409 As you approach the counter where you order, you see the food in its steamed dishes – ham, grits, sausage, biscuits, and any other number of really traditional southern dishes. Bring some Lipitor.  DSCN5413 And above all, stay on line. There are always enough tables and it moves so quickly. It’s worth it.  DSCN5414 Bloody Mary

From a machine that usually dispenses fruit punch – what a brilliant idea! Especially when they are this tasty – really tomatoey and bright with a zippy, zesty spice and – thankfully – VERY little salt. It’s actually the flavor of the Bloody Mary, not a salt lick, that comes through. It’s strong enough to put a little pep in your step but not so strong that it will get you blitzed.  DSCN5417 I just love a place that has 3 kinds of hot sauce on the table. FYI, that’s almost everywhere in N’Awlins.  DSCN5420 Grits with debris

Yes, debris means garbage. And yes, I ate it. And it. Was. AWESOME.

You know when you make pot roast and there are all those wonderful bits of meat and crispy fat and charred bits at the bottom of the pan? THAT’S debris. The most savory, salty, meaty, crispy, juicy bits of the beef. Served to you with creamy (if under-seasoned) grits and a wonderfully round, homey tasting gravy. Add some Tabasco and it may just be the best breakfast that you ever ate.

Followed, of course, by a food coma.
DSCN5421 Ham

Mother’s is famous for it. It’s a little “hammy” for me. I prefer thin, salty Virginia ham, while this is thicker and a little more barnyard-y.  DSCN5422 Biscuit

The biscuit to end all biscuits. Steaming hot and soft. The perfect mix between rich and light. Flaky enough to dissolve in your mouth but substantial enough to hold eggs and ham if necessary. Slather it with some of the softest, richest butter I have had outside of Europe. Don’t eat more than one because they expand in your stomach like those little animal sponges the minute that you have a sip of water.

The bloat is worth it. These biscuits are legit.  DSCN5423 The prices are dirt cheap and the food is wonderful. More than that, the atmosphere is really special. Where else can you stand in line with people so overjoyed at eating soon that no one pushes you? Where else does the woman behind the counter call you “hon,” and recommend that you change your order so you get the best the house has to offer? Where else can you sit with some of your favorite people in the world for an  hour and a half without being bothered for anything except another cup of coffee?

Mother’s is a must-visit in N’Awlins. And don’t forget to eat the garbage.

Cafe du Monde’s Sugar Bombed Beignets

I went to New Orleans this weekend.

For the first time.

Yes, my pants are 2 sizes too small today.

And yes, I am totally proud.

Most of that weight was gained at this spot:

DSCN5424 Cafe du Monde. The world’s most famous maker of beignets, serving them up all day every day, 24 hours a day, since 1862. If you come her on Christmas, you will be disappointed by its closure, but any day other than that you are in luck. Just hop on the very fast moving line and inhale the scent of fat and sugar as you get hungrier and hungrier.
DSCN5426 New Orleans has extremely temperate weather, and even in late October, it was warm enough to sit outside in the cavernous, covered dining space. There are also inside tables or you can get your fried goodness to go. As you reach the front of the line, pay attention to the paper-capped servers who will direct you to a tiny table.

There’s only one thing on the menu. Order it.
DSCN5428 Beignets

Not those fluffy, puffy, ethereal bits of air from Disneyland. No, these are beignets on a mission. A mission to weigh you down and stop you in your tracks. They are incredibly dense – not quite heavy, but totally substantial – and are not sweet at all. They are just fried dough, lovely and golden on the outside and almost custardy within. The sweetness comes from the mountain – the avalanche – the Swiss Alps mountain of powdered sugar atop of them. This is where the genius lays – they are not too cloyingly sweet. They are actually perfect!
DSCN5429 Well, not quite perfect. They are really a little dense for my tastes. I prefer that light, whispery, Krispy Kreme style fried dough. But this is a New Orleans tradition and one that can not be missed. it’s delicious, it’s cheap, and it’s no frills dining at tis best. You aren’t rushed out of the door, you can get a phenomenal frozen cafe au lait (Deeply coffee flavored with a thick texture and a light vanilla aftertaste), and you can experience one of N’awlins’ most venerable traditions.

Next up: I eat garbage for breakfast?

Tabasco Taste Test – The Whole Kit and Kaboodle

The highlight of my incredible press trip to Avery Island was undoubtedly the Tabasco tasting with Paul McIlhenny himself. The CEO of the company led us through a taste test of all of Tabasco’s 7 sauces, so we could delineate the exact flavors for ourselves. I took tastes, took notes, and took away the fact that I am a hot sauce lover.

This Sweet and Spicy Tabasco sauce is Tabasco’s mildest pepper sauce, using ingredients like pear and ginger to up the sweet and tangy aspects of the sauce. Mild and thick enough to use straight as a dip, it would be sensational on rice or in a stir fry. It would also be sensational on a pork loin set for the grill. The predominant tastes here were of coconuts, mango, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. This is one of my favorite sauces.

The Buffalo Style sauce is a straightforward wing sauce base. It needs some melted butter and maybe some onion powder, but that is it. This is a very straightforward wing flavor, with smoky notes of tobacco in there, tempering the mild heat level with some pleasant bitterness.

The Green Jalapeno sauce has been a favorite for many years. Known as a milder version of the classic sauce, it has its own attributes that make it special  - namely, how very vegetal it tastes. The sauce is extremely fresh tasting, with notes of celery, green peas, and tomatillos in it. Tangy and fresh, there is some white pepper heat toward the sides of your mouth, but nothing too overt or painful. This would be a fantastic addition to a salad or coleslaw dressing, and would pair well with delicate proteins like citrus.

As a side note, the sauce is more yellow than green, but the Tabasco company chose to market it in a green bottle rather that put any artificial dyes in its product.

The Garlic sauce became the favorite of several of the other Tastemakers for its robust cayenne taste and thick texture. The garlic taste is pronounced enough to temper the heat of the cayenne with its own flavor,  making this perfect for Indian or Thai cuisine, where strong flavors dominate. This would also be dynamite for the grill, where the flavor would mellow and mingle with charred and smoky meat.

Chipotle Sauce has earned itself a huge following in the short time it has been on the shelves. This smokey, back-of-the-throat spicy hot sauce lends itself well to sweet and pronounced flavors. Prunes, figs, lamb, and duck would all be delicious paired with this sauce that is really more savory than it is spicy. It is particularly well geared towards Mexican dishes – duck enchiladas made with this would be incredible.

Original Tabasco sauce. Old faithful. What would morning eggs be without it? To say nothing of freshly shucked oysters, a slice of pizza, or a plate of nachos. This is an American classic. Next to the other flavors, its vinegary qualities are pronounced, showing itself as brighter and spicier than I had originally thought.

Habanero sauce

I believe I have already waxed poetic on this sauce. Next to the other sauces, it seems particularly inclined towards Jamaican food, with its bright, fruity heat that is firecracker hot but fades quickly.

One quick note about Tabasco – the company is very close knit. The company President, Tony, knew the name of every single person we met in the factory and the field. The senior VP, Took Osborn, went out of his way to take us searching for alligators and could not have been more enthusiastic about being part of the company. This wasn’t some put-on for out-of-town visitors. This was the honest-to-goodness excitement of people who believe in their products. And their belief made me a believer, too.

I had an incredible trip to Avery Island. I learned so much, ate so much, and came back with new inspiration to cook and create. Thank you so much to the Tabasco Company and Hunter PR for making this the event of a lifetime. I am now a die-hard Tabasco head.

*Disclaimer: This was a press sponsored trip. I was not required to write a post, and all opinions are my own and, I feel, unbiased.*

Chef Alon Shaya Goes Tabasco Crazy

When I think New Orleans, I don’t often think Italian food.

Correction: I didn’t often think Italian food. Now, it might as well be called New Rome to me, after my experience eating the transcendent Italian food of Chef Alon Shaya, of Domenica.

This James Beard Award nominated chef came to Avery Island to cook for the Tabasco Tastemakers trip, and brought with him some incredible food. He also gave an hour long cooking lesson, where I learned a few very useful tips and techniques. The first thing I learned: I am using too much liquid when I make stock. You probably do the same thing. The liquid should just barely cover the veggies/shells/bones in your pot, so the flavor is incredibly concentrated by the time it is done. The second thing I learned: Tabasco is not just a condiment. It is an ingredient that can be used like other spices, herbs, and flavor enhancers. It changes as it heats and reduces, and can be used in every course from soup to nuts. As part of the trip, Chef Shaya made an entire meal featuring Tabasco sauce and the result was  superb.

Crispy Eggplant and Beet Salad with Whipped Feta, Tabasco Green Jalapeno Pepper Sauce, and Basil

This eggplant was very light and creamy, encased in an impossibly crispy crust. Topped with tangy goat’s cheese and sweet beets, this would have been great on its own, but the pesto really made the dish. Fragrant with garlic and floral with basil, the pesto managed to be nuanced and punchy all at once. There was a slight spice from the pepper sauce, but nothing lingering or burning. This was the first time that i realized that Tabasco can be a background flavor versus a pervasive taste.

Chicken Liver Pate with Grilled Bread and Tabasco Chipotle Onion Jam

The most refined chicken liver pate I have ever tasted.  It takes a lot of technique to make chicken livers taste upscale,and Shaya is up to the challenge. Incredibly light and airy, almost the texture of whipped cream, but with more heft. Just a little offal-y, mostly tasting vaguely meaty with a kick from the sweet and smoky jam. Here, the heat was really non existent – I would never guess that there was a pepper sauce in there. It was all smoke (no mirrors), counteracting the savory pate and the jammy onions.

Handmade Fusilli Pasta with Shrimp, Celery, and Tabasco Pepper Sauce

The piece de resistance of the meal. Shaya actually made this fusilli by hand in front of the Tastemakers that afternoon, deftly rolling the pasta. There is nothing like fresh pasta – chewy, swirly, catching the sauce in every nook and cranny. The sauce was on another level. Tomatoes, onions, the sweet background of fennel, and nuggets of salty shrimp were cooked until tender but still snappy. The celery added a light, herby note that echoed the fennel, and the Tabasco sauce was an inspired touch. It added the front-of-the-tongue heat that is associated with Tabasco sauce, but the vinegar taste mellowed out so it really felt Italian. I couldn’t imagine a better pasta dish anywhere in NYC or in Italy, and this approached the level of pasta at Vetri.

Slow-Roasted Porchetta with Spring Onions, Artichokes, and Tabasco Garlic Pepper Sauce

Again, Shaya impressed with his cooking of all things treif. The pork was robustly flavored, almost wild tasting, like boar. It stood up to the aggressively garlicky sauce and the soft, herbal onions and artichokes. The sauce was rather sweet, playing with the vegetable’s fresh qualities and the inherent taste of the pork.  The interplay between textures was phenomenal – crispy, fatty, tender, toothsome, smooth…each bite was more exciting than the last. And with a portion this big, it really says something that I cleaned my plate.

With my fingers.

Dark Chocolate Torta with Tabasco Sweet and Spicy Ganache and Brandied Cherry Gelato

Fudgy chocolate cake, dense and incredibly dark, melded with lush icing and sweet cherry ice cream. The sweet and spicy Tabasco really was the star here – combined with the cake, it tasted first like mangoes, sweet and light. Then, right at the end, there was a quick burst of heat that burned away the heavy chocolate taste and begged for a cooling bite of ice cream.

The entire meal blew me away. Not just the way that the food tasted, but the progression of flavors, the many textures, the ingenious interplay of Tabasco into classic Italian technique, and the manner of Chef Shaya himself. He brought along a sous chef for the cooking demonstration, and between seeing his gentle, calm presence with her and his sincere humility in teaching the class, he won me over completely. So many talented people, chefs included, are conceited and arrogant, often frustrated in teaching techniques to novices. Chef Shaya could not have been more patient about answering questions. When explaining dishes, he did it with such clarity and conviction that I never doubted that he tried many different versions in efforts to create the perfect dish. Though I haven’t been to New Orleans, when I do get there I am headed straight for Domenica. In the meantime, you can bet that I will be twirling fusilli pasta in a Tabasco-laced sauce.

*Disclaimer: My meal and travel expenses were paid for me. I was not required to write a review, and my opinions are my own and, I feel, unbiased.*

Legnon’s Boucherie, New Iberia

Some tales are best told in pictures, and this is one.

It’s the tale of Legnon’s butcher shop in New Iberia, LA.

Where they sell sandwich bread that is just perfect for sopping up the juices of a spicy boiled crab.

Where the crawfish and andouille sausages are all made in house, daily.

Where the boudin is made with rice, seasonings,

and fresh pork meat and liver.

Where the employees make the sausage in the back room, just before you buy it.

The spicy, salty, porky sausage is soft and succulent. Served with freshly fried pork cracklins, there couldn’t be anything more delicious…

Just don’t try talking on the phone while you order.

Chances are you won’t be able to anyway. Your mouth will be too full of boudin. Don’t miss this sensational butcher shop if you are in Southern Louisiana.

Cafe Des Amis, New Iberia

If you look up where to eat tradition Southern Louisiana fare near Avery Island, chances are that Cafe Des Amis will turn up in your Google search. This restaurant, famous in Breaux Bridge for its home cooking, has just opened up a branch in New Iberia.

The restaurant is small and casual – you get the feeling that you could walk in wearing paint splattered overalls and flip-flop,s and the waitress would still call you “ma’am” and offer to refill your drink several times.

You also get the feeling that you are going to be eating very well.

Chicken and Sausage Gumbo with Rice and Potato Salad

Any place that serves not one, but two types of carbohydrates alongside its spicy stew is a winner in my book. This was my first gumbo and I am an official convert. Reminiscent of the complexity of mole and the comfort of chili, it is really something unto itself. The creamy potato salad, laced with hot Creole mustard, is delicious on the side. Adding a few dashes of Garlic Tabasco really puts this over the top for those who need some extra heat.

Oven Roasted Duck Glazed with Pepper Jelly and served with Sausage Dressing and Corn Maque Choux

Look at that slab of duck. Slow roasted until very tender, with a crispy, crackling skin loaded with sweet and slightly hot glaze. The duck taste is mild, not too gamy or intimidating to those who are shy around such birds. The corn maque choux is forgettable, but the sausage dressing is the stuff my dreams are made of. Moist and salty, with sweet crumbles of pork sausage mingled in the cornbread stuffing. It is porky, bready gluttony at its finest.

Bread Pudding with Rum Sauce

This tastes incredibly like tres leches cake. It is basically the interior of a croissant – warm, airy, buttery – drenched in a sweet, milky sauce that is scented with vanilla and sugar. It is so comforting that it is sort of the Snuggie of desserts…yeah I said that.

What of it?

This is just about the most down home place I have ever been. Nothing new, nothing out there, just really well executed home cooking that, unless you were raised in Louisiana, you would probably never get to try. Just be sure that you order that Snuggie for dessert.

*Disclaimer: My meal and travel expenses were paid for me. I was not required to write a review, and my opinions are my own and, I feel, unbiased.*

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