Monday, March 31, 2008

Restaurant Bathrooms and Parenting

I was having lunch with my family in a very nice restaurant on the North Shore of Lake Pontchartrain the other day. The dining room was packed and everyone was dressed in their Easter finest.

Halfway through the appetizer course, my six-year old son came walking out of the bathroom fastening his belt and zipping up his pants.

Typically, walking through a formal restaurant’s dining room with one’s pants unzipped would be written off as a slight breach of etiquette and chalked up to a first grader’s eagerness to leave the restroom and return to the table, but for one minor detail— he hates to wear underwear.

The not-wearing-underwear dilemma has caused a few problems in his six short years— a trip to the principal’s office in kindergarten after bragging to the third graders that he was “going commando,” and a few notes from his teacher— but to date, no breach of decorum has been quite as severe as walking through the La Provence dining room letting it all hang out.

And when I say “all,” I mean ALL. He flashed a good portion of the dining room. He returned to the table and continued to eat as if nothing unusual or out of the ordinary had occurred.

Welcome to my world.

In my short, yet eventful, parenting career, The Easter Flashing Incident is second only to The Mexican Restaurant Fiasco in terms of noteworthiness and impact.

During my son’s terrible twos (which seemed to last all the way into his frightful fours), we were dining in a local Mexican restaurant. On this particular evening he was feeling fearless and independent and asked if he could go to the bathroom on his own. The restaurant was safe and the bathroom was not located near an exit, so the proud father in me replied, “Why that’s a big step, son. Of course you can go to the bathroom on your own.” His mother frowned but, on this occasion, dad’s rule won the day.

After several minutes my son hadn’t returned. My wife began to worry but I assured her that everything was fine. After several more minutes she told me to go check on him, but I told her to hold firm, this was a big step for him. After several more minutes I gave in and excused myself to go find out what had happened.

The restroom was located on the far side of the restaurant adjacent to the main dining room. While walking I noticed people seated in booths and tables staring at me and chuckling. As I got closer to the restroom people were looking at me and laughing out loud. I wondered what could have happened in the five short minutes my son had been in the restroom to incite this reaction. As I drew even closer to the bathroom I could hear his voice. I let out a sigh of relief. He was O.K.

As I turned the corner, I saw my son, his reddened face peeking out of the bathroom door, his pants to his knees, screaming loudly into the dining room, “Will somebody wipe me?”

My brief relief turned to shock.

Understandably, the answer to his request— which had been shouted over and over and over and over, for the last three minutes— had been “NO.” Each petition for assistance had elicited more laughter and anxiousness from the restaurant’s customers. I did the dirty work and the two of us snuck out of the side door.

Today’s lesson: If you have a son, escort him to the bathroom until he graduates from high school.

Keep me in your prayers. I need all of the help I can get.

Crab Claws Geautreaux

2 TBL olive oil
1 1/2 Tbl garlic, minced
1 tsp kosher salt

1/4 cup white wine
1/2 cup chicken broth
1 cup Wishbone Italian Dressing

2lbs fresh blue-crab fingers
1 tsp Creole Seasoning
1/2 tsp fresh ground black pepper

1/4 cup unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
2 Tbl fresh parsley, chopped

Place the olive oil in a very large, heavy duty sauté pan over low-medium heat. Place the garlic and salt in the heated oil and cook for 2-3 minutes, stir constantly to prevent burning. Add the white wine, chicken broth and Italian dressing and bring it to a simmer. Add the crab claws and cook 4-5 minutes more, just until the crab is hot.

Add the butter and parsley and gently stir until the butter is completely incorporated. Serve immediately.

Yield: 8-10 servings

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Spring Break 2008 Part II

I just finished the second half of a spring break sandwich that started in the South Louisiana swamps of Cajun country and ended in the French Quarter of New Orleans.

My wife, son, daughter, and I had fun during the first leg of the vacation, but the trip to New Orleans might be my best visit to the city in 46 years.

The cottage at The Soniat House provided the perfect home base to make quick jaunts into the city with the kids in tow. The weather was perfect and we were able to keep the French doors that led into the private courtyard open during the entire visit. It was certainly a departure from the hot and stifling summer’s we have spent walking and dining below sea level in the French Quarter.

The Soniat House is perfect. It feels like New Orleans ought to feel. No other hotel in the city provides as much authenticity and service while, at the same time, exceeding their guest’s expectations at every turn. And it’s all done in a very low-key and understated manner. I can only think of one other hotel in the country that I have enjoyed more than The Soniat House.

The culinary leg of this New Orleans weekend can be split into three chapters:

Chapter One: The Cajun Master— During the previous weekend we spent three days in Cajun country, but never once ate anything that came close to the dinner we enjoyed at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen on our first night in New Orleans.

Paul Prudhomme is the master of rich and complex stocks, and as all cooks know, ground zero for superior cooking is in the quality of the stock. No one makes better stocks, period. The sauces and soups that are served from the K-Paul’s kitchens are unmatched in their depth of flavor.

Make no mistake; Paul Prudhomme is still the master. He might not be as visible as he was in the early 1980s, but he is still the man.

Chapter Two: Oyster Heaven— For the last several years I have answered the what-would-your-last meal-be question with the answer, “My grandmother’s leg of lamb.” I haven’t changed that answer, but I have modified the meal after this weekend. I would still request my grandmother’s leg of lamb, but I would have Drago’s charbroiled oysters as a last-meal appetizer.

For 20 years friends and acquaintances have urged me to visit Drago’s in Metairie. It has been on my culinary to-do list for a long time, but I never found myself in the suburbs during recent visits.

One year ago Drago’s opened at the Hilton Riverside. We stopped by the restaurant after an Audubon Aquarium of the Americas and adjoining IMAX Theatre visit. I ordered a dozen charbroiled oysters. They were devoured in a matter of minutes. I ordered another half dozen and soon they, too, were gone. I ordered another half dozen and could have kept going if my kids hadn’t gotten bored watching me make a pig out of myself.

Drago’s invented the charbroiled oyster and they do it better than anyone. The oysters are placed on the grill, doused with pepper and garlic-spiked butter, then topped with a mixture of parmesan and romano cheese, and doused with the butter again. The flames of the grill rise up and surround the oysters every time the butter is applied. The shells become charred and the oysters, smoky. Simple. Flavorful. Excellent.

Charbroiled oysters from Drago’s are my favorite seafood dish. Period. End of discussion.

Chapter Three: North Shore Authenticity— Last year Chef John Besh bought his former mentor’s— Chris Kerageorgiou— North Shore mainstay, La Provence. It was the perfect place to spend Easter lunch. Windsor Court Grill Room veteran chef, Rene Bajeaux is manning the stoves and overseeing the kitchen garden and hog and chicken-raising operation out back.

Besh is the leader of the locally grown movement in Louisiana and, along with Restaurant August, La Provence is reaping the results. It takes a lot of time and effort to forge relationships with local farmers and ranchers. It takes even more time and effort to raise hogs and chickens on your own. Luckily for us, La Provence believes in making that extra effort.

If you don’t have the time and resources to travel to France at the moment, don’t worry. Head down Highway 190 in Lacombe, Louisiana the next time you’re within 90 miles of the area and you’ll get to experience the flavors and ambiance without the jetlag.

We drove home with renewed spirits and full stomachs, dreaming of charbroiled oysters and spring lamb. A few miles across the state line, I noticed my wife thumbing through her pocket calendar. I can’t be sure, but I’ll bet she was beginning to schedule our next Louisiana culinary adventure. I can only hope.

Grilled Leg of Lamb with Raspberry Mint Sauce

1/2 cup Roasted Garlic Puree
1/4 cup Olive Oil
1 Tbl Fresh Rosemary, chopped
1/4 cup Fresh Mint, chopped
2 Tbl Sherry Vinegar

1 Boneless Leg of Lamb, 3- 31/2 pounds, butterflied

1 Tbl Black Pepper, freshly ground
2 Tbl Kosher Salt

Place the garlic, oil, rosemary, mint and vinegar in a mixing bowl. Blend together using a wire whisk.

Trim any excess fat and sinew from the lamb. Lay the lamb on a flat surface, and spread half of the garlic mixture over one the surface. Roll the lamb tightly into a cylinder. Tie the lamb with butcher’s twine so that it maintains the cylinder shape. Rub the outside of the lamb with the remaining garlic mixture, and sprinkle the surface with the salt and pepper. Allow the lamb to sit at room temperature 30-40 minutes before grilling.

Prepare the grill. Sear the lamb for 15-20 minutes over medium direct heat, turning every 3-4 minutes. Once the lamb has browned on all sides, continue cooking over medium indirect heat until the lamb has reached desired doneness, approximately one hour and fifteen minutes for medium rare. Remove the lamb from the grill and let rest 15 minutes before carving. Cut away the twine. Using a carving knife, cut lamb against the grain into 1/4-inch thick slices.

Serve with Raspberry Mint Sauce.

Raspberry Mint Sauce

3 Tbl Olive oil
2 Tbl Shallot, minced
1 cup Raspberries
1/ 2 cup Sugar
1 cup Red wine
1 1/ 2 cups Veal demi glace
3 Tbl Cold Unsalted Butter, cut into small cubes
1/2 tsp Kosher Salt
1 Tbl fresh Mint, chopped

In a saucepan over medium heat, combine raspberries, sugar, and red wine and simmer until most of the liquid is gone. Purée mixture and pass through a fine mesh strainer.

Return the strained mixture to a small sauce pot and add the demi glace. Bring the mixture to a simmer. Add the butter cubes while whisking briskly. Stir until all of the butter is incorporated. Remove the sauce from the heat and add salt and mint. Store in a warm place until needed.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Spring Break 2008

The conversation went something like this: “Billy and his parents are going snow skiing during spring break,” said my son.

“Susie’s family is going to the beach,” said my daughter. “Where are we going, again?”

“To Breaux Bridge, Louisiana,” I replied.

So began Spring Break 2008, the year my family chose to split from the pack and try something different.

“Not only Breaux Bridge,” I continued, “but we’re going to St. Martinsville, New Iberia, Butte LaRose, and Avery Island, too.”

“Avery Island! Do they have beaches there?” said my daughter.

“No honey, that’s where they make Tabasco sauce.” She looked at me as if I had just offered to take her to see the World’s Largest Ball of Twine.

I called my friend Liz, a native of New Iberia, my friend, Bill a well-traveled food lover, and my friend John, a New Orleans chef who has spent thousands of hours and hundreds of meals in Cajun country. Armed with the information they gave me, I packed my wife, son, and daughter in the family truckster and headed south.

This was to be the first leg of a sandwiched spring break trip that would begin in Cajun country with crawfish, alligators, and Zydeco two-stepping; and end in New Orleans with the aquarium, the zoo, beignets, and Easter service at St. Louis Cathedral.

Going against everything in my typical vacation-planning nature, we had no itinerary, no plan, and no mission, just hotel reservations in Lafayette.

First stop: an airboat ride through the swamp. As a kid, I watched the television show Gentle Ben that starred Ron Howard’s little brother and the guy who played McLeod. It was about a boy and his pet bear in the Florida Everglades. My friends liked they bear. I liked the dad’s airboat.

I always wanted to ride in an airboat. My children had never heard of one. They loved it. We saw alligators and cypress trees, and old Cajun men fishing, and cypress trees, and egrets, and more cypress trees. It was a blast.

That evening we ate at Randol’s restaurant in Lafayette. I was looking for a Zydeco dance hall. Going against everything in my restaurant-hopping nature, at least on this occasion, food would be secondary to music. Randol’s fit the bill perfectly; the food was forgettable— save the wonderfully rich and spicy crawfish bisque made with a roux darker than the Atchafalaya swamp at midnight— the service was poor, but the music was exceptional.

My six-year old son became a dancing machine. Who knew? We couldn’t keep him off of the dance floor. When his mother tired of dancing, he dragged his reluctant 10-year old sister out onto the floor. When she became unwilling, he begged me. The band was great. I danced with my wife, I danced with my daughter, and I awkwardly walked around the dance floor with my son.

I have never been a fan of Zydeco music. That changed forever one Saturday night in Lafayette Louisiana in a dance hall with my wife and two children.

When polling the aforementioned Cajun country experts, they all had several enthusiastic restaurant recommendations. The one restaurant they all had in common was Café Des Amis in Breaux Bridge.

Café Des Ami’s website listed a Zydeco breakfast. Armed with a new appreciation of Zydeco music, and a passion for breakfast, we made a Sunday morning reservation. Unfortunately the Zydeco breakfast at Café Des Amis is only held on Saturday mornings.

The breakfast started with Oreille de Couchon, which is basically a huge beignet in the shape of a pig’s ear. It was good but not as good as beignets shaped like beignets. The kids loved it. We also ate Couche Couche, a Cajun cereal made from corn meal with milk and syrup, but the highlight of the meal was Eggs Begnaud which consisted of a split, open-faced biscuit topped with crawfish au gratin and two fried eggs. This dish, alone, was worth the trip.

The trip ended with a tour of the Tabasco factory and lunch at Victor’s Cafeteria in New Iberia, home of a mighty fine stuffed pepper and some of the best fried shrimp my kids have ever eaten.

Next Week: Dispatches from the Crescent City

Tasso and Smoked Cheddar Cheesecake


2 cup Japanese breadcrumbs
1 cup parmesan cheese
1 Tbl Fresh thyme
1 Tbl parsley
1 /2 cup melted butter
1 tsp. black pepper

Preheat oven to 275

Combine all ingredients.

Press into a 9-10 inch spring-form pan, covering the bottom completely and bringing the crust 1 1 /2 inches up the sides. Bake crust five minutes and allow to cool.


1 Tbl butter
1 1 /2 cup tasso, diced
1 /2 cup onion, minced
1 TBSP garlic, minced

1 /2 pound cream cheese, softened.
1 /2 pound smoked cheddar cheese, finely grated
3 eggs + 2 yolks
1 /4 cup sour cream
1 /2 tsp salt
1 tsp creole seasoning
1 /4 tsp black pepper
1 /4 tsp cayenne pepper
1 Tbl Worcestershire Sauce
1 /2 cup chopped green onions
2 Tbl finely chopped red bell peppers

In a medium sized sauté pan, melt butter and cook tasso, onions and garlic for 3-4 minutes. Allow to cool.

While tasso mixture is cooling, beat the cheeses together until soft in a mixing bowl. Add eggs, one at a time allowing them to incorporate. Add remaining ingredients, and cooled tasso mixture.

Pour filling into par-baked crust and bake45-60 minutes.

Let cheesecake cool completely before cutting. Dip a clean knife into hot water to cut, wiping knife clean, and re-dipping into water after every slice.

Can be made two days in advance. Remove from refrigerator 1-2 hours before serving.

Serves: 10-12

Monday, March 10, 2008

48-Hour Food Journal

I recently travelled to New York for a business meeting. I ate way too much. The following is my 48-hour food journal


8:20 p.m.: Checked into the Soniat House hotel in the French Quarter the evening before an early-morning flight to New York. I now have a new favorite hotel in New Orleans— great courtyard, great rooms, high ceilings, and a balcony overlooking Chartres St.

8:30 p.m.: Dinner at Stella restaurant across the street from the Soniat House. I have been trying to eat here for several years. Possibly the best gnocchi and risotto dishes I have eaten this decade. Subtle. The restaurant’s cuisine is probably classified as new American or continental fine dining, but a strong Japanese influence runs through most of the menu. The Pan-Roasted Pacific Walu with Hot Buttered Popcorn Crust, Louisiana Crawfish and Local Corn Maque Choux were a highlight.


7:35 a.m.: JetBlue flight to JFK uneventful. Satellite TV in every seat, I love this airline.

11:35 a.m.: Landed at JFK, took a cab straight to my 1 p.m. business meeting at Landmarc restaurant in the Time Warner building. Surprised to learn that the person I flew to New York to meet— and the Editor-in -Chief of the magazine— is originally from Natchez. This might be the first business meal where I was more concerned about the conversation than the food. I had ham and gruyere on grilled country bread— good but not memorable.

6:25 p.m.: Hors d’ oeuvres on the top floor of the Hearst Building with more magazine types. Great view and excellent food from expatriated Carolinians, Matt and Ted Lee, of The Lee Brothers Cookbook and Peanut Catalogue fame. Even 46 floors in the air, it tastes like home.

11:30 p.m.: Post-theatre dinner at Blue Ribbon in SoHo. This, too, has been on my need-to-visit list for a few years. There’s a great raw bar here, but I opted for the Hanger Steak with wild mushrooms because I never get to eat that cut of beef back home. Hanger steak is extremely flavorful. It’s often called “butcher steak” because it’s the cut that the old-line butchers saved for themselves.

1:30 a.m.: Slept hard at the Gramercy Park Hotel, Ian Schrager’s newest concept hotel. The lobby smells like a wood-burning fireplace 24 hours a day. The wife loves it. I have a new favorite hotel in New York.


9:45 a.m.: Breakfast at Balthazar in SoHo. I made a promise to myself that on this trip I was only going to eat in restaurants in which I hadn’t visited. I broke that promise on the first morning in the city. I usually eat at Balthazar for late-night, post-theatre meals. A lot of the city’s chefs hang out there after their shifts are over. Breakfast in this place is great. The bustle feels more like “New York” than any other place I visit in town. The Scrambled Eggs in Puff Pastry with Wild Mushrooms and Asparagus are almost worth the three-hour flight, alone.

1:30 p.m.: Lunch at The Modern. Check another one off of the To-Do List. Danny Meyer is the most talented restaurateur in the country. I have eaten at all of his restaurants except this one. The Modern is located on the first floor of the Museum of Modern Art and the food’s presentation is as artful as the works hanging in the galleries above. The Chilled Maine Lobster Salad with Soy Sprouts and Button Mushrooms in a Lobster Vinaigrette was a highlight, as was the Chorizo-Crusted Chatham Cod with White Coco Bean Puree and Harissa Oil. Long live Mr. Meyer.

10:45 p.m.: Post-theatre dinner at Nobu 57 with my agent and other assorted New Yorkers. Nobu Matsuhisa is the ninja master of sushi. The original New York restaurant, Nobu, is a tough ticket, but Nobu 57 is an easily made reservation, and the food is just as good. Again, I broke my vow of not visiting a restaurant I had previously visited. What can I say? I’m a creature of habit, and a lover of great food. Nobu is tops. The Yellowtail Sashimi with Jalapeño is a signature dish and not to be missed. The miso-glazed fish craze started here. The surprise hit of the dinner— though slightly out of place on a Japanese menu— were the crab and ceviche miniature tacos.

1:30 a.m.: Called the front desk and requested a 5 a.m. wake-up call. Slept hard with a full belly and a renewed soul. Bring on the diet.

Black Eyed Pea Cakes with Roasted Red Pepper Aioli

1 Tbl bacon grease, or canola oil
1 /4 cup red pepper, finely diced
1 /4 cup red onion, finely diced
1 /2 cup green onion, thinly sliced
1 /2 tsp garlic, minced
2 tsp. cumin
1 /4 tsp creole seasoning
1 /2 tsp salt.

3 cups black-eyed peas, cooked
3 /4 cup Japanese bread crumbs
2 eggs

1 /4 cup olive oil

1 /4 cup Sour Cream
1 /4 cup roasted red peppers, Small diced

Melt the bacon grease over medium heat and cook onions, red pepper, garlic and seasonings for four to five minutes. Remove from the heat.

Place two cups of black-eyed peas with eggs into a food processor, and puree until smooth.

Remove from processor and place processed peas in a mixing bowl. n a separate bowl. Add vegetables, bread crumbs and remaining cup of whole peas, stirring gently. Firmly form the mixture into one-ounce cakes and refrigerate for one hour.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

In a large nonstick sauté pan, heat one to two tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat. Gently place the cakes into hot pan, and brown on both sides. Add more oil as needed.

Once all cakes are brown, place on a lightly oiled baking sheet, and bake 10 minutes.
Top each black-eyed pea cake with a small dollop of sour cream and a few pieces of diced roasted peppers.

Yield 20