In the Spring of 2013, the MagoGuide Team traveled on Amtrak to New Orleans to meet some good friends, see the city and its surrounds, and eat some of the local cuisine. This journal entry provides a blow-by-blow description of “MagoGuide vs. Saveur in the Big Easy”
Day 1: Tonight Lucullus dines with Amtrak
“Just the right amount of cow poop,” Fulvia declared savoring the Chateau Lafon Rochet 1989 we had carried from Whitefish Montana through Chicago and into the dining car of Amtrak’s City of New Orleans.
“I’ll make that a classic Saint-Estephe nose followed by a nicely balanced combination of terroir and fruit,” I said, scrawling illegible tasting notes doubly encrypted by America’s deteriorating rail infrastructure and my execrable handwriting.
“Whatever,” she replied, simultaneously debugging the MagoGuide search function on her tablet and refilling my glass without missing a single one of Steve Goodman’s not-so-gentle beats.
“Game on, Fulvia. If we are going to review Crescent City cuisine, we have to bring it,” I declared above the din of babes whose mothers had evidently not gotten Steve’s memo concerning rocking them to sleep via the rhythm of the rails.
“So this being March, I will be forced to endure basketball trash talk leavened with impenetrable bracketology disquisitions while eating frog food?”
“But of course mon Tit Pette,” I enthused. “We are going old school on this migration: no aircraft, no bucket list, no molecular gastronomy, no west coast swing, no…”
“Hoops aren’t old school?” I asked with a note of rising panic in my voice.
“Not since they stopped wearing those cute little shorts that made the stupid game worth watching.”
“Those went out with afros.”
“My point exactly. That baggy crap they wear today turns all those hot guys into sexless behemoths, which is incredibly discriminatory given that cheerleaders these days dress like dime store hookers.”
It took a second bottle of Lafon Rochet to claw the good ship Mago off the lee shore that threatened both my upcoming bender in La Nouvelle-Orleans and subsequent recovery on the Red Neck Riviera bolstered by raw oysters and the Round of 64. Although unsung at the time, I fully expect this feat of Bordeaux-inspired prestidigitation to earn me the Croix de la Gastronomie when next I find myself on French soil. As the train lurched through the Mississippi darkness rolling down to the sea (the detritus of an all-too-recent derailleur demonstrating just how threadbare Steve’s magic carpets made of steel have become thanks to the current clutch of do-less morons occupying Capital Hill), I assured my multitasking cher amio that this sojourn in New Orleans would be nothing like our first trip there.
“You mean back in school when we went to Mardi Gras and slept between the graves in a cemetery and I woke up to find you alternating between throwing up on an 18th century tomb stone and being frisked by the police?” Fulvia inquired sweetly.
“Right, and it won’t be anything like the second time either.”
“Ah, you would be referring to the time we became gastro groupies for every celebrity chef in town, spending a small fortune on that fussy post-modern eye candy that passes for food in their pretentious gourmet temples when all I wanted was a decent bowl of gumbo?” she purred as the 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc blend worked its magic.
“Absolutely.” I leaned in as I played my trump card. “Lucullus has secured the requisite local knowledge that will allow us to eat and review both classic urban Creole fare and authentic rural Cajun cooking while avoiding both tourist traps and modern pretenders. Along the way we are going to hit dive bars and snarf down street food.”
“Well, since you put it that way, I suppose you can watch a little basketball after I go to sleep and you have written up your notes for the reviews.”
“Sit bonum tempora volvunt” I declared to the empty and oscillating dining car, having outlasted even the offspring of pullman porters and engineers on our southbound odyssey (rest easy good bard Goodman, your train is back despite all that lousy track).
Day 2: Fickle Fortuna
Flush with the previous night’s victory, Lucullus detrained into the Louisiana springtime weather sharp set and with the claretometer bouncing on zero. We were soon greeted by our dear friends and garden gurus, Primus Pilus and her consort Optio. After obligatory Montana bear hugs all ‘round, Primus Pilus detailed Optio and me to baggage duty while she regaled Fulvia with the plans for the next five days in and around New Orleans.
“Well, there’s good news and there’s not so good news,” Optio informed me as we manhandled five months worth of luggage into the bed of his mobile apartment that masquerades as a Ford F-150. Now Lucullus is the type of imperator who would prefer never to hear bad news, so I asked for the good stuff first fully intending not to get around to the rest.
“Gonzaga is number one in the last AP poll of the regular season!” trumpeted Optio, standing proudly in a sweatshirt emblazoned with his alma mater’s name and colors.
“Congratulations, dude. You know, Georgetown (one of my almost maters) is probably going to be the number two seed in another region, which means that there could be an all Jesuit final,” I said slipping effortlessly into bracket speak, all thought of the bad news banished to some nether region of my cerebrum.
“Are they having a great year or what?” Optio was clearly relishing a little guy talk following his five-hour drive with Primus Pilus from the Florida panhandle.
“And then there’s that pope thing.”
“Icing on the cake, brother, icing on the cake.” Optio agreed.
Then we muffed a fist bump right there in front of all the denizens of the combined Amtrak and Greyhound station just as our spousal units showed up intent on breaking up our budding bromance with the tidings of woe that I had been avoiding so successfully.
“Look at this,” Fulvia intoned with barely concealed relish brandishing a magazine recently delivered to her by Primus Pilus. “Lucullus has been scooped.”
I had no choice but to peruse the proffered food porn glossy. Yes indeedy, I was now in possession of Saveur Special Issue: New Orleans (no. 155, April 2013). You would think that by now Lucullus would know just how fast you can go from Fortuna’s favorite to yesterday’s dog vomit, but that ain’t the way hubris works now is it? And on top of everything else, the evil foodies had published my retro slant right out from underneath me. Saveur could have done their big spread on (please adopt faux Food Network overdub when reading the rest of this sentence) the new generation of NOLA chefs adding light, modernist twists to the classic recipes of “America’s most interesting city”; or focused on the burgeoning Vietnamese culinary scene along with that of other non-traditional ethnic communities emerging in the Mississippi delta; or concocted a verbal puff pastry devoted to following Emeril Lagasse and John Besh around town to find out “where the chefs go to eat.” But no, the whole issue is devoted to old school places that included the exact restaurants chosen for MagoGuide by Primus Pilus.
Yet the real turd in the wine krater was the fact that I despise Saveur, which bills itself as “the definitive culinary and culinary-travel magazine of its generation.” All its flavors are “authentic,” all its recipes are “food we love.” It is the kind of magazine that posts a video on its website showing pretentious foodies instructing viewers on how to pronounce its pompous name. So, for instance, we learn from the editor-in-chief that he pronounces the name differently depending on whether he is in France or the US when it “rhymes with cat fur,” but that pronouncing it like “savior is weird, but also kind of wonderful”.
Fortunately, Fulvia relieved me of the magazine as I stood vapor-locked with indignation and began to read its gushy prose aloud in an impromptu display of tough love:
“…my very first taste of its cuisine left me forever in its thrall. That’s what a grand meal can do: capture not only your palate but also your heart. New Orleans is a city full of those experiences; anyone who’s ever eaten there knows what it means to miss it.”
“That,” she announced to Team Mago and an assortment of locals and passengers trying to stave off ennui by watching my rather public meltdown, “is how Betsy Andrews, Executive Editor of Cat Fur Magazine describes the food in this town. Do you think you can do better Lucullus?”
“That’s not the point,” I responded petulantly. “They have already published their definitive reviews by authentic local food critics about restaurants they love backed up with pages of culinary erotica. How can MagoGuide possibly compete with that?”
“What would Mago do?” Fulvia shot back striding resolutely toward the F-150 in the wake of Primus Pilus. “Stop whining, man-up, and eat your way back into contention!”
And so we did.
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Our first restaurant was actually missing from the evil Cat Fur issue, which is not to say that Lucullus was heading into culina incognita. Primus Pilus had chosen Cochon as our introduction to Big Easy cuisine for its undiluted Cajun flavor profile and its reverence for the pig, sacred mascot of the goddess Addephagia. While Saveur could hide behind their criteria of classic old-time establishments as a reason why post-Katrina Cochon did not make the cut, I suspect the real reason lies in the fact that this restaurant has long been the darling of better and more entertaining culinary-travel media. From the Times (both New York and, more importantly, Picayune), to Bon Appetit (identical pronunciation in both the US and France), to Travel and Leisure (rhymes with seizure), Cochon is consistently ranked one of the top restaurants in the country.
Fortified with merlot and nibbles at the Warehouse District time-share generously provided by our wonderful guides as Team Mago’s NOLA base of operations, we advanced on Cochon in classic triplex acies formation. Primus Pilus walked point, interrogating locals on points of gastronomic geography and treating red lights as mere suggestions—parting traffic like Moses leading his people to the nearest manna stand. Next came Lucullus and Fulvia, juggling electronics and cameras, while our doughty Optio brought up the rear.
Fulvia was not about to let me grow complacent simply because our direct competitor had been sidestepped for the evening. As Primus Pilus bore down relentlessly on 930 Tchoupitoulas Street, my spousal unit interrupted her photography just long enough to whip out her tablet, call up a video, and hand me the slate.
“Oh my, Lucullus,” she informed me in her best Travel Network acolyte imitation, “Anthony Bourdain did a recent episode of Layover featuring Cochon.”
Now should our avid reader (singular intended) be expecting another trash-the-competition rant, that individual is going to be disappointed. Other than the facts that he has 1) a higher net worth, 2) a far more interesting backstory, and 3) hair, I actually like Bourdain. I can even forgive the fact that he spends the bulk of his life on airplanes snarkily amassing the largest carbon footprint on the planet and getting paid for it (a guy’s gotta earn, right Tony?). More importantly, unlike Saveur, there was room for Bourdain and me in this here town.
While Primus Pilus chivied the hostess for a table that had the best light for photography, I took the opportunity to explain Mago and Tony’s unspoken division of labor to Fulvia.
“Look at how Bourdain actually spends his time, Domina. It turns out that he and David Link are best buddies. Now if we go to Cochon’s website, we find that Link’s title is executive chef and chief executive officer. What strikes you about that title?” I asked my straight gal.
“Four of the five descriptors are business as opposed to culinary terms?”
“Got it in one, cher. Now look at what Bourdain and Link actually do. They pal around New Orleans drinking and eating to the point where you wonder when Link has time to cook in any one of his four award winning restaurants. Well, he really doesn’t because when he is not helping Tony and his enormous entourage burnish both their brands, he has to take care of the business end of his empire (e.g., the extensive space devoted to cookbooks, clothing, and ingredients on Cochon’s website). And when Bourdain actually does get around to eating at Cochon, no mortal is ever going to have anything approaching a similar experience because us plebeians can’t drag a film crew into a restaurant owned by our Chef BFF du jour, who is going to make damn sure that Tony gets the best meal of his life, up to and including actually going into the kitchen of his restaurant and supervising every dish that goes to Bourdain’s table, redoing any item that is not a Platonic ideal.”
“And you’re not a wannabe because?” asked Fulvia segueing neatly from Doctor Who’s companion to ego deflating femme fatale.
“Because I don’t wannabe a wannabe,” I rejoined unable to resist the dangling bait even after 32 years of bliss. “Bourdain is a rock star. He is the draw. He is bigger than the food, bigger than the city, bigger than…
“Infinitely so and precisely my point, if I may be so bold. MagoGuide is the Everyman of eating. Bourdain’s audience is composed largely of couch potatoes living vicariously. Ours is, well is going to be,” I improvised, adroitly maneuvering around a nasty little truth interlude, “made up of travelers who will actually go to eat at a place we review knowing what to expect of a restaurant when it serves a meal to anonymous red necks from Montucky. You can watch that entire episode and never learn who is in charge of your food tonight.”
“And who is that?” Optio asked.
“Uh,” I reached for the tablet and frantically interrogated Cochon’s website. “Ah, one Ben Hammond, the Chef de Cuisine. He worked his way up from tournant, just like Mago did.”
“What is a tournant?” queried Optio in recompense for catching me out during my peroration, thereby providing me with a rare opportunity to show off unscripted in front of Fulvia.
“The utility infielder of the kitchen, the tournant works whatever station in the line is in trouble at any given time, or when the regular line cook is absent. I think it is the hardest position in a big kitchen and a good tournant is worth his weight in white truffles. From tournant, Chef Hammond rose to sous-chef and then chef de cuisine. As customers, we are extremely lucky that Chef Hammond has been here seven years and is probably at the top of his game. It could well be only a matter of time before he wins a big time award, finds some financial backing, opens his own restaurant, and exits the kitchen for executive chefdom. And here is something else Bourdain neglected to tell his sedentary fan base: it may be David Link’s and Stephen Stryjewski’s restaurant, but the dishes we are going to eat tonight were developed by Ben Hammond.”
By this point, Primus Pilus had whipped the wait staff into shape, colonized a well-lit table, and deputized me to choose the wine batting order. I pulled my head out of digital space and shoved it into analogue reality. All descriptions of Cochon’s interior seem to include the word “postindustrial,” which evidently means a lot of exposed brick, blond wood, and recessed lighting. It is a pleasant enough room, modern and minimalist in all its essentials except for the noise level. Even when the space was a nineteenth century warehouse, I doubt it ever got so strepitous. This seems to be a trait common to restaurants sited in renovated storage structures (for example,
Girl and the Goat in Chicago). Perhaps I went to one too many Hot Tuna concerts in my misspent youth and my hearing has never fully recovered, but I found that I could not carry on an unforced conversation with my tablemates, and that detracted from the food, which was a shame.
The small plates and sides were, predictably, the stars of the show. The wood-fired oyster roast was a tour de force of Cajun respect and restraint. Until this trip, I was a purest who believed that a perfect oyster must be eaten raw with nothing more than a squeeze of lemon. This opinion was based on a respectable sample size of Gulf oysters across four states in which baked, steamed, and grilled oysters were inevitably over-cooked and/or junked up with everything from bacon to parmesan. Cochon’s oysters shattered that illusion right from the start. Wonderful plump and succulent oysters were sauced with a minimal concoction of anchovy butter, garlic, and chili flakes; then roasted just long enough to turn them into flavor bladders that erupted across the palate with waves of briny umami heat.Next in line was fried boudin with pickled peppers. These turned out to be Cajun arancine with a ground mustard dipping sauce. The combination of the mustard and the andouillette -like porkitude contrasted splendidly with the crunchy acidity and heat of the peppers.
The line’s fryolatermeister went from strength to strength rolling out perfectly fried chicken livers served with a pepper jelly that put the Cajun stamp on the dish, making it exceptional. Then came fried shrimp heads with roasted chili dipping sauce composed of layered barbeque flavors. I had no complaints with this arrangement until Primus Pilus instructed me to dunk the crustacean noggins in the residue of the oyster roast juices that lay waiting in otherwise empty shells, which she had preemptively banned our waiter from removing. I never touched the roasted chili sauce again while I hoovered the remaining shrimp heads, removing every available molecule of bivalve elixir in the process.
The next float in the pig candy parade was cabbage-braised pork cheeks with radish, cucumbers, and field peas. The crunchy slices of watermelon radish and cucumbers provoked a wonderful contrast with the unctuous swinage that inundated the cabbage and peas. I found that the dish profited from additional heat supplied by the multiple brands of hot sauce deployed on every table in Cochon.
The boucherie plate was quite uneven and the weakest offering of the entire meal. Given the close proximity and fame of Cochon Butcher, which supplies the main restaurant with all of its cured meats, this was inexplicable. It was the charcuterie, however, that comprised the lack luster portion of the plate. The scrapple-like fried loaf (another strong performance from the fryolater operator) and the rillettes were quite good and saved the entire dish from mediocre oblivion.
Another disappointment was self-inflicted. Having drained half a case of claret on Amtrak, I wanted something from Burgundy, but I foolishly did not take into account the robust flavors and multiple levels of heat prevalent in so many of Cochon’s offerings. Consequently, the Mercurey Domaine Faveley 2010 was perfectly potable until it paired with the food. Verdict: pigs 1, pinot noir 0. Chastened by Primus Pilus brandishing her vitis from across the table, I took no chances and summoned a 2009 Kenneth Volk Erut Vineyard Zinfandel recruited from Lime Kiln Valley. Decanted during the intermezzo di miale, the zin got a good look at the defense, a perfect touch pass from the sommelier, and hit a three from downtown Baton Rouge. Primus Pilus bestowed a nod of satisfaction upon me, but I got a caution from Fulvia on hoops analogies.
The mains, although a slight come down from the ‘tizers and sides, were all strong second seeds (sorry Domina). The ham hock was obviously bespoke smoked, earning Cochon Butcher a slice of redemption for the boring charcuterie, and paired wonderfully with that most porcine friendly of all veggies, roasted Brussels sprouts. Finally, the starch in the form of spaetzle in a mustard cream sauce put an Alsatian “in your face Cat Food foodie purists” accent on the dish.
The Cinderella of the degustation tournament (of the whole trip really) was rabbit and dumplings. Not a dish that comes to mind when you think Cajun cuisine but obvious in retrospect. You have to shoot the damn rabbits to keep them out of the garden after all, and you do not always have a superannuated yard bird to go with repurposed stale bread. Chef Hammond made the traditional approach seem mundane and mushy. Young rabbit takes to this dish far better than mature chicken. There was not a hint of heat in this dish, but I did not miss it, although maybe it could have used some white pepper. The slightly sweet gravy was a tour de force of blond rue and superb stock (rabbit maybe, I was so enraptured that I forgot to ask) that tied the meat together with the expertly selected and cooked root vegetables.
The dumplings themselves served as a redneck palate cleanser for the best entre of the evening, the restaurant’s signature Louisiana cochon with turnips, cabbage, pickled turnips and cracklins. This dish touched all the bases of terrestrial Cajun cooking: pig candy infused root veggies with some nice heat, a mid-palate spike of acidity, and swiney crunchitude. This chorus was the launching pad for a pulled pork apotheosis in which shoulder meat cooked low and slow was assembled into a patty and then pan fried in lard, imparting a couple millimeters of deep brown delicious crust around meltingly soft cochon confection. I’m just sayin’ that it was an order of magnitude tastier than that Arnold on Green Acres.
Good as the signature dish was, however, it did not manage to violate Chef Art Smith’s rule that sides are invariably the best thing on a menu (for the full explanation of this stubborn culinary constant see the
Mago 2012 Winter Tour. Chef Hammond’s shrimp and eggplant dressing was the exceptional side that proved the rule on this particular evening. It was just superb. The shrimp were still tender and sweet, while the dressing, redolent of every Cajun spice in the rack, had that almost-too-much cayenne burn that makes Fulvia smile and want to get up and dance. When deployed alongside the Louisiana cochon, the result was a Red Neck Riviera surf and turf the sum of which was even tastier than its parts.
Although we read the dessert menu, any more intake was an impossibility by this point (foreshadowing alert: this was but a frisson of things to come in genuine, unreconstructed Cajun country). When, not if, Lucullus returns to plunder Chef Link’s restaurant empire, he may well order dessert first in the form of pineapple upside-down cornmeal cake with coconut-lime sorbet and dulce de leche (paired with Pierre Ferand Reserve Cognac) or chocolate peanut butter pie with candied spicy peanuts (accompanied by Fonseca Porto Bin 27). After that he will fill in the corners hobbit-style with as many sides as he can tamp down his gullet.
Day 3: Imperatorem Impingit
Somehow Primus Pilus got us back to the time-share, but the next thing I remember was Optio’s sartorial admonishment to change into a clean blue t-shirt for breakfast.
“Dude, you’re from Idaho, I’m from Montana. We both buy our clothes on line from Cabela’s (the catalogue is reserved for the outhouse) and wear them until they rot off our bodies. What’s the deal?” I asked, amazed that I could assemble so many coherent thoughts before caffeine ingestion. [Note to avid reader, if you are concerned about coffee continuity between this journal entry and
Easter in Western Sicily, the answer is that I got a new cardiologist, neeeener, neeeener, neeeener!]
“The deal is that blue shows off powdered sugar to best effect,” Optio replied with the twinkling eyes of a man whose stomach refused dessert the night before.
“Café du Monde beckons?”
“Oh you betcha red rider.”
Café du Monde
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And so Team Mago found itself seated before Mount Beignets with several feet of new powder on the slopes. Optio had nailed the couture color scheme. My dark blue Carhartt soon sported swirls and curls of the fluffy white stuff, and a brisk on shore breeze insured that I snorted about a half a pound of it as well. The tankards of chicory coffee au lait completed our major food group triumvirate for the morning: sugar, fat, and caffeine—the most important meal of the day.
We spent the next three hours working off our buzz in kitchen stores, book emporia, and antique gun merchants. Primus Pilus and Fulvia passed the role of Mother Purse back and forth as Optio and I strove to tempt each other into a ruinously expensive purchase. He almost succeeded with a stove built by underwear gnomes in France and my efforts concerning a Revolutionary War flintlock musket bounced on the rim and headed into the basket, but Primus Pilus poked it back out with her vine staff.
“I triple dog dare you to call goal tending,” whispered Fulvia.
“Domina, I want to die in your arms, not in a bloody heap on Bourbon Street,” I replied at a volume not quite sotto voce enough.
“What were you saying Lucullus?” Primus Pilus inquired.
“I said let’s eat. I have developed a serious jones for a muffuletta.”
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The counterman at the Central Grocery had obviously seen so many men of a certain age covered in powdered sugar, coming down off a wicked sucrose and caffeine jag and whimpering desperately for some pork product methadone, that I was just another point of sale. His callous attitude barely dented my epiphany, however, because this was the first time during my various brushes with the Crescent City when I had actually made it to muffuletta Mecca before they ran out of said sangweech. For this reason, I heretofore had held a rather low opinion of this specialty invented by Sicilian immigrants to New Orleans, having had to settle for ersatz imitations made worse by having just missed out on the real thing.
Being a stone Pavlovian for any type of ethnic grinder, I have even sought to by-pass New Orleans and go straight to the alleged source on Trinacria itself. However, the Sicilian word muffulettu simply means a circular sesame seed-covered loaf of bread. When I tried to explain its NOLA derivative to my Sicilian friends, I only got curious looks. Evidently a muffulettu, as the Sicilians call it, is not served bursting with pig candy but stuffed with vegetables (lettuce, tomatoes, and grilled veggies) dressed simply with emerald green olive oil and salt. However, immigrants who had never had access to so much protein in their lives often pumped up many old country recipes with meat, and this could be the reason for the muffuletta’s evolution.
As we inhaled several specimens seated at linear tables in the rear of their self-proclaimed culinary womb, Fulvia successfully distracted me from joining Primus Pilus and Optio in pounding brewskies by encouraging the only behavior that I enjoy more than getting hammered at lunchtime, extemporaneous culinary hermeneutics.
“I am skeptical of both frequently mentioned origins of the word muffuletta,” I declared to no one in particular as I spiked mine with red pepper flakes and dried oregano. “The first is from Italian muffoletta or little muff, which derives from the French word moufle. This is pretty thin, since the muffuletta loaf bears little resemblance to an article of clothing I have never seen worn in Sicily, and the French, despite serious contributions to Sicilian cuisine during their occupation of the island, have been unpopular since the Sicilian Vespers of 1282 when the locals stabbed anything with a French accent in a massacre that lasted six weeks.”
“The second dodgy etymological path traces from the Italian muffa, or mold as in moldy bread, which is thought to be of Germanic origin. Now, while my schoolboy German sucks, I do know that the German word for mold, as in shape, is Form, which is indeed very similar to the Italian forma. However, the German word for mold, as in mildew, is Schimmel, which shares no similarity with muffa. With respect to the muffuletta then, I think that linguistics must give way to food and religion.”
At this point, I could swear that one of the locals seated near us turned to his companions and remarked “Yes, just shut up and eat your sandwich for God’s sake.” His friends certainly grinned as if he had pulled off a decent bon mot—and it is true that I tend to get loud when I am being especially pompous—so I slammed the brakes on my pretentious drivel just in time to witness Primus Pilus skewer the smirking muffuletta for lunch bunch with a look that would have turned the tables on a gorgon.
“How fascinating, Lucullus. You were saying?” she asked in a motherly northern Florida drawl.
“Maybe at a little lower volume?” Fulvia added.
“Well there is a very similar culinary term,” I continued humbly and softly. “The Hebrew word mofletta, which is a crêpe usually eaten warm and spread with butter, honey, syrup, or jam. While most sources deliberately disambiguate mofletta from muffuletta, I believe that they have a great deal in common. The mofletta entered Jewish cuisine from North Africa and is traditionally eaten during the Mimouna celebration, the day after Passover. Mimouna, however, is an appropriated pagan holiday. It probably began as a fertility festival in honor of Ba’al Gad the Phoenician god of good fortune worshipped in North Africa by the Carthaginians, who came originally from Phoenicia. Recent DNA studies have shown that Jews came to North Africa at the same time as part of Phoenician trading colonies. Now, the Carthaginians controlled western Sicily for centuries and they brought their religion and cuisine to the island. We do not know when Jewish merchants reached Sicily, but they were certainly there well before the birth of Christ. Thus, I contend that it stretches the imagination far less to postulate that a word of Semitic origin for a type of bread is much closer akin to muffuletta than mold or muffs.”
More evidence could be found in the dwindling comestible between my fingers that glistened with olive oil. While it is certainly true that much of the muffuletta’s flavor profile derives from the delicious brand of olive relish sold at the Central Grocery, the difference between a good and a remarkable muffuletta owes just as much to the bread—another feature of the “original” article.
“You were a good boy not to drink any beer for lunch,” Fulvia told me as we left the store, demonstrating her mastery of intermediate positive reinforcement as taught to all wives in Spousal Unit Behavior Modification 101.
“I was thinking that my exemplary abstemious behavior leaves room for us to expand our review to Cochon Butcher’s muffuletta before dinner, thereby affording them the opportunity to redeem their reputation after last night,” I replied in the manner of husbands and dogs throughout the ages. “You know, the gold standard muffuletta versus the brash, celebrity chef-backed newcomer that was just awarded Best Muffuletta in 2012?”
“Actually, I was thinking that you could use a nice long session in the gym before you go head to head with Saveur at Commander’s Palace.”
So while Primus Pilus and Optio snoozed contentedly ten stories above us, Fulvia and I strove to eradicate the damage done to date and prepare for the next caloric onslaught. To keep my mind off the torture I was enduring on an elliptical trainer, I fantasized about forcing the Saveur staff to cook, taste, and review Apicius‘ recipe for pig’s womb, cracklings, udder, tenderloin, tails, and feet (Book VII, Chapter I). The more I thought about it, however, the more I wanted Chef Hammond to put that dish on the menu at Cochon. What would be an appropriate Cajun substitute for the extinct fennel-like silphium, I wondered as my body released its endorphin shock troops, who eventually triumphed against the rear guard of white crystalline xanthine alkaloids and their disaccharide allies. I emerged from my ordeal showered and ready to beard the cat fur foodies in their den.
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Although it dates to 1880, the current incarnation of Commander’s Palace—as the Savior (rhymes with egotistical behavior) food ‘zine related in great detail—was the result of a feud within the patrician restaurateur Brennan family, whose fractious empire spans New Orleans with outposts in several other cities. It is no exaggeration to call Commander’s Palace world famous. Voted the best in the Crescent City for 18 consecutive years by Zagat, it perennially earns similar accolades from the likes of Gayot, Southern Living, and The Wine Spectator (we’ll get back to that one in particular, precious, oh yes we will).
We caught a trolley out to “the Garden District grande dame” as Cat Fur styles the trellised white and aqua Victorian chef incubator that has produced Paul Prudhomme, Emeril Lagasse, and Tory McPhail. While Primus Pilus explained patiently to her stoned-to-the-bone bench companion that the sun was actually setting as opposed to rising, Fulvia passed me her iPad with a sardonic grin. Unsurprisingly, Commander’s Palace has a “recognition” page that lists all the awards mentioned above and many more. However, front and center on the home page, unwilling to wait its turn lest its “authentic” opinion be diluted by the less “definitive” members of its generation, SAVEUR MAGAZINE (sic) declares: “This family run institution captures the glories of New Orleans dining.”
“You know, if it wasn’t so obvious that I am in a snit about a legitimate culinary periodical conducting a timely, artistic, and knowledgeable tour de force of the classic purveyors of a uniquely American cuisine in contrast to my pathetic amateur pretentions, I would say that the fix was in from the get-go at Commander’s Palace,” I growled.
“I like it when you’re all riled up,” Fulvia enthused.
“Strength and honor, Lucullus,” Primus Pilus said rising from her bench and brandishing her vine staff in the form of a rolled up copy of Saveur Special Issue Number 155 at the disappearing sun. “You will note that the large red ball is definitely sinking toward the western horizon,” she informed her semi-conscious interlocutor.
“Sun’s just comin’ up,” he mumbled.
“Gotta love the Big Easy,” Optio enthused as we decamped. “What if he’s right and the rest of us are wrong?”
“Then I do not think Commander’s Palace will honor our dinner reservations, but I’m sure there is an all-night diner close by where we could get some onion rings,” Fulvia rejoined, failing to disguise the hopeful tone to her voice.
But Primus Pilus had us accurately aligned with the planet’s rotation, and we were soon met by a phalanx of wait staff drawn up in serried ranks behind the maître de/hostess combo that greeted us a few feet inside the grande dame’s door. I guess that the end of the Space Shuttle program at NASA has led some laid off engineers to offer their services to the Brennan family, because this was our first taste of the triple staffing redundancy we were to encounter throughout our meal. In general, the swarm of servers and attendants made the cavernous interior warren of the restaurant feel crowded and gave me the willies.
Lolis Eric Elie, a New Orleans native who wrote the main article of the Saveur issue, put a slightly different spin on service at Commander’s Palace: “Your meal will be served ‘gang style’ in a well-choreographed routine wherein a group of waiters float to your table, set down the plates in unison, and retreat before you can pick up a fork.” It seemed to me more like a drive-by serving that involved way too many people invading my dining bubble to little effect—other than to send a jolt of adrenaline through my system just when I wanted to relax and eat in an already over-populated space. Suffice to say that we should have been able to purchase a bit more discretion for the kind of money we were paying (e.g., Southern Living has proclaimed Commander’s Palace the best splurge in the city). Then again, I have been prone to demophobia ever since I was almost killed by a stampede of mothers at a fourth grade song flute festival in Nashville Tennessee; so it could have just been me.
The appetizers were a genuine mixed bag. The Oyster and Absinthe Dome struck me as stingy. There were four wonderful poached oysters swimming in a lot of nice rich sauce cut expertly with an absinthe kick topped by a completely superfluous puff pastry lid. It seemed to me that the kitchen was stretching the oysters with all that starch. They should have served more of those killer oysters with the proper amount of sauce in a simple presentation.
The Spicy Shrimp Rémoulade was also unbalanced for no reason I could discern. The wild white shrimp were treated with the respect they deserve and expertly boiled (although you could figure out how to do that with a couple tries at home for far less than the cost of a meal at Commander’s Palace). The remoulade was a tour de force of spicy Creole cooking, but then those fantastic shrimp and excellent sauce were squandered over marinated hearts of palm (there is quite enough cholesterol in this cuisine without adding basically tasteless filler, thank you very much) and Creole tomatoes, which were the pale pink cardboard one would expect to find in March given a misapplication of the restaurant’s admirable ninety mile dirt-to-table rule. Whatever those ersatz xitomatl were, they could not have been the genuine articles—unless prematurely tortured from the earth in some vile greenhouse environment—as honored in Louisiana Revised Statute 170.11, because Creole tomatoes are never ready before June—the month of their eponymous festival.
With respect to the Shrimp and Tasso Henican, I found myself completely in agreement with Mr. Elie, who wrote that “the ham-stuffed shrimp and pickled okra arranged in a pattern resembling a fleur-de-lis, the city’s symbol, atop a sauce flavored with pepper jelly…wasn’t a traditional dish, but with its regional ingredients and references, it was New Orleans through and through.”
“So you agree with Saveur?” Fulvia asked in mock surprise.
“I agree with their assessment of this dish, but I also take umbrage at the fact that their readers will come here expecting something they will most likely not be served. Let’s compare the picture you just took of Shrimp and Tasso Henican with the cover of their magazine. Note that theirs looks very much like a fleur-de-lis and that yours does too, if you squint hard enough with your face about four inches directly above the plate. Your presentation is a hastily assembled mound of shrimp piled atop three okra halves that sort of triangulate the plate. It is, to be extremely charitable, minimally garnished and the light green sauce creates only the slightest contrast with the white plate background. Now look at Cat Fur’s take. This presentation has been worked on by one or more cooks for the amount of time it will take them to assemble ten of the same dishes tonight, and then turned over to a professional photographer. Notice how the shrimp are not piled up on top of the okra but deployed artfully in the interstices created by them, giving the viewer a much better impression of a fleur-de-lis. Note also the height achieved by arranging far more red garnish in the direct center of the plate. Finally, the sauce is a visibly more vibrant green than what we were just served. I suspect, but of course could never prove, that Mr. Mr. Elie’s version tasted better than ours, as good as it was. With MagoGuide the hop paloi at least know what to expect for their hard earned ducats. This, I submit is not the case with high-end food fetish media.”
“I think I know a little culinary critic who needs a side order of grapes to snap at,” Fulvia admonished.
Before I could toss off a witty rejoinder, the wait herd was back upon us, this time with soups and salads. In a directory of New Orleans restaurants following Mr. Elie’s main article, an anonymous Saveur hack disingenuously postulates, “you never know what style of gumbo could be in the pot at Commander’s Palace.” That turned out to be a bad thing for Team Mago, because if we had known we would not have ordered it.
“It needs more chunky stuff,” Optio declared pithily. And he was right. Someone had gone to the trouble of making an excellent dark roux and then disrespected it with mediocre stock, minimal additional ingredients, and far too little heat. Not much glory captured in that bowl. This disaster was embellished by a mediocre romaine salad that even the house-made bacon could not help.
Then I tasted the turtle soup and a heavenly choir drowned out the jostling horde of wait persons. It had a deep, rich gamey flavor that lingered sensuously on the taste buds. The sherry added at table by a seasoned non-commissioned officer in the regiment of servers camped out nearby was certainly not an affectation, elevating an already delicious potage.
The culinary roller coaster headed back down with the entrées. The Black Skillet Seared Hake came with a light dish of grilled eggplant (they must have been talking about the weight of the plate, because nothing in this restaurant was light), those awful Creole tomatoes, roasted garlic, ripped basil (which I guess means torn as opposed to chopped), picholine olives, crispy capers, baby greens, and lemon-red chili butter. The fish was perfectly cooked, but if the red chili part of the butter was meant to impart heat, it didn’t.
The downhill run accelerated with brown butter roasted sea scallops, braised winter barley, Louisiana popcorn rice risotto with hand foraged mushrooms, crisp sweet potato, and smoked Creole tomato butter. Those pesky Creole tomatoes were back but this time in a very decent sauce. In fact, the barely, risotto, etc. were the best accompaniment for any of the mains. But the scallops, while expertly cooked, were huge and almost tasteless. Memo to the Brennan family: put whoever foraged the mushrooms in charge of seafood triage as well.
The food bottomed out with the Pecan Crusted Black Drum, trumpeted on the menu as a “Commander’s Palace classic with crushed summer corn, spiced pecans, petite herbs, and Prosecco poached Louisiana blue crab.” It was an unmitigated disaster. The delicate flesh of this Gulf treasure came out mushy from overcooking, and then the crab sauce was neglected under the heat lamp until it turned into glue. Finally, forget the ninety-mile dirt-to-table radius and tell me where in this hemisphere you can find summer corn in March. Bottom line: we should have ignored the entrees, doubled down on ‘tizers and ordered every side on the menu.
The dessert course actually did manage to capture a fair amount of glory. The smartest thing I did was to pre-order the bread pudding soufflé, which truly lived up to its billing as “The Queen of Creole Desserts.” A sublime take on a usually stodgy way to dispose of old bread via an unimaginative dessert, this apotheosis was devoured greedily by all four of us. The whisky cream sauce was so good that Primus Pilus almost removed one of my digits with her spoon as we contested the last few drops. The strawberry shortcake would have been a fantastic dessert if it had not been pitted against the bread pudding soufflé. The Chantilly cream and the cake were both decadent, while the strawberries had incredible flavor for early March. The syrup on the strawberries was a little heavy and sticky, however.
The reader’s patience concerning the foreshadowed wine tirade will now be rewarded. The Commander’s Palace website informs its gullible readership that the restaurant was one of only 75 establishments on the planet to receive the prestigious 2012 Wine Spectator Grand Award. Well, MagoGuide thinks that the entire staff of The Wine Spectator should be decimated, a grisly punishment in which one out of every ten employees is chosen by lot and then bludgeoned to death by their colleagues employing bottles of MD 2020 as the blunt instruments of choice. Over the course of my besotted existence, I have been served wine out of Riddell decanters by dandified snobs at Michelin three stars and from repurposed plastic bottles covered in duct tape wielded by Sicilian car mechanics, but I have never been treated as shabbily as I was at Commander’s Palace.
I spent a nontrivial portion of my only life delving into the herniating wine tome chock full of $200 and up wines with very few mid-range choices, until I thought that I might as well take advantage of all the award-winning wine expertise jostling around our table. I decided that I wanted to drink Chablis and since I lack the net worth required for what Commander’s Palace charges for a grand cru, I sought advice concerning the merely exorbitant premier crus on offer. I started with a deputy assistant sommelier and accepted one of her two suggestions prior to the arrival of our appetizers. Those dishes showed up along with an assistant sommelier, who informed me that they were out of that particular bottle, so I went with suggestion number two. During the intermezzo THE SOMMELIER showed up to tell me that our second choice was also absent from their award-winning cellar. I sought her advice and took it concerning a third Chablis, and she promptly vanished until mid-way through the entrees when she stormed over with a non-premier cru that we had never discussed and which was not chilled or even cellar temperature but freakin’ warm.
The Ubermmelier then opened and poured the wine with such speed and brutality that even Primus Pilus was momentarily cowed. When she damned the bottle with faint but polite praise, the evil wine witch condescendingly informed her that it would get better once it was chilled. Well no shit, and by that point most of the bottle would be gone and we would be finishing our desserts. Although we were offered another shot at the cellar lottery, I could not see the point at that stage in the meal so we drank the gradually cooling petite Chablis more in anger than in sorrow.
In summary, the wine side of the house at Commander’s Palace totally sucks: 1) it is overstaffed with unprofessional somms who are probably devoting the bulk of their attention to their regular high-roller customers known in the trade as Big Whales or Deep Oceans, 2) inventory is obviously a mess, ever hear of a device called a computer? 3) wine is viewed as a profit multiplier rather than an integral part of the dining experience, and 4) The Wine Spectator is complicit in perpetuating this oenological abomination.
On the trolley back to castrum tempus, I read Mr. Elie’s take on the Brennan’s bastion of haute Creole cooking: “Like Louis Armstrong, Commander’s and the rest of these restaurants have stubbornly defined their own standards, and the standards of New Orleans. They’ve got integrity that, if you allow it to, proves irresistible.”
“What did you think of our dining experience, Domina?” I asked far too innocently.
Fulvia has a sound she reserves for restaurants that she considers a waste of hard earned money and painfully shed calories. It falls near the middle of the spectrum defined by a snort at one end and loud flatulent raspberry at the other. She now uncorked one of her best efforts, instantly rescuing Primus Pilus from a bad case l’esprit de l’escalie brought on by our recent encounter with the sommelier from hell.
Day 4: We Who Are About To Dine Salute You
My teammates were unwilling to do back-to-back Creole degustation, as well as rather fatigued by my constant whining about Saveur’s radically tilted playing field. So we headed out to Cajun country for the day. Primus Pilus had scheduled our route march to take us through three plantations, two restaurants, Avery Island (home of Tabasco sauce), and the LeJeune’s bakery. I knew that I needed to train like a marathoner for what I was going to do to my waistline, so I got up early, that is to say when Fulvia normally arises, and followed my spousal unit in a fog down to the gym where I eschewed breakfast for 90 minutes of pure hell sans my usual endorphin rush (my natural opiates evidently keep bankers hours). Thus, I was sharp set when we pulled up at the Yellow Bowl in Jeanerette just before 2 PM.
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“Hungry?” Optio queried, noticing the look of salivating anticipation spread across my starvation ravished visage.
“Dude, my idea of an amuse bouche right now is an entire moose’s ass, hair, hide, and all.”
“Why thank you for that lovely pre-prandial thought, Lucullus,” quipped Primus Pilus pausing ever so slightly at the door and triggering a clumsy rush on my part to open it for her. Behind me, Optio caught the door with a perfectly timed courtly flourish for Fulvia.
Once inside, the contrast with Commander’s Palace could not have been starker. We had the large non-descript interior virtually to ourselves. The one waitress was temporally closer to her high school graduation that I was to my 50th birthday. There wasn’t a Creole tomato or wine list this side of the next parish, but best of all we were deep in Acadian terroir near the height of crawfish season at what Primus Pilus accurately described as “an unassuming lovely little restaurant with wonderful food in a town off the beaten path.”
“From the ridiculous to the sublime,” purred Fulvia, instinctively recognizing an establishment tuned precisely to her rifle shot palette.
“Don’t bother with the buffet,” Primus Pilus pre-empted as I staggered toward a groaning steam table, driven squiffy by the aromas emanating from its hotel pans.
Once seated, we ordered libations to support our efforts to parse through the enormous menu. I asked for a glass of red wine and inside of four minutes I was presented with a very generous pour of extremely potable vino locale. It reminded me of the Nero D’Avola Fulvia and I buy at communal cantinas in Sicily, round and fruity with high alcohol content and perfect with the local fare. And no sommelier hierarchy, excuses, or attitude (I know, I know, I just have to let it go).
All three of my dining companions ordered crawfish po’boys, but our waitress informed them that the kitchen had run out of po’boy loafs. Optio was the first to break the stunned silence.
“But we’ve come three thousands miles just for your po’boys,” he wailed plaintively.
I ordered another glass of wine to take the edge off of my colleagues’ disappointment, but Primus Pilus snatched those po’boys right out of the jaws of defeat.
“Do you have baguettes from the LeJeune’s bakery?” she inquired of the young lady in the tone of a stern but affectionate grandmother straight out of a Eudora Welty short story.
“Yes ma’am,” came the genetically triggered response accompanied by a respectful thickening of her Cajun accent.
“Wonderful. Now could you please ask the chef if he would be kind enough to prepare three crawfish po’boys using a half baguette each?”
The request was dutifully relayed to the kitchen and our waitress returned, exhibiting no small amount of trepidation toward the forthcoming exchange with mater familias.
“He says that he can surely make them that way ma’am (this word delivered across at least six syllables), but he is afraid that ya’ll won’t take to them cuz they’ll look like we’re bein’ stingy with the crawfish.”
Team Mago laughed so hard that the young lady broke down and joined in. Then Primus Pilus sent her back to the kitchen with a message of absolution for all involved. Soon thereafter the supersized po’boys arrived stuffed to bursting with crawfish fried a’ minute.
Lucullus, however, had made the command decision to eat himself into oblivion. Given a .95 probability that I was going to get some of Fulvia’s po’boy (oblivious husbands’ alert: certainty and sharing constitute a toxic mix when spousal units and food are involved), I ordered the deceptively named crawfish plate. It took more than one plate to deploy an amount of food that could, just barely, have fit into the bed of Optio’s F-150.
I started with a crawfish étouffée that was wonderful, dense, and rich—served with just the right amount of perfectly cooked rice. The crawfish gratin, however, made the étouffée seem like spa cuisine. It was a small vat of decadent cheesy magma studded with generous hunks of crawfish. There followed a mountain of fried crawfish accompanied by a fiery dipping sauce. A lake of crawfish gumbo was a bit soupy, betraying a rather hasty rue, but it had amazing cayenne-enhanced flavor. Throughout this astacological orgy, I never once reached for the hot sauce. Each dish imparted a signature Cajun burn, enticing me to quaff several more generous glasses of that sturdy table wine. The only disappointment was the fried crawfish balls. I could not find any visual or olfactory evidence of crawfish in the stale breading, which had obviously been fried up much earlier than the rest of my “plate.”
Fulvia, as forecast, bestowed half of her enormous po’boy on me and I washed it down with another small bayou of Louisiana locale. It was a great sandwich loaded with more of those tasty fried crawfish tails and a spicy mayonnaise. Surprisingly, the fries were mediocre, again they seemed to have spent more time than the other dishes under heat lights, and also needed salt.
I waddled out to the F-150 and hoisted my stomach into the back seat where I lapsed into a coma until we reached LeJeune’s bakery. Primus Pilus and Fulvia decamped to purchase baked goods and photograph the vintage structure known far and wide for the red light suspended outside in a cage that is turned on whenever there is fresh bread for sale.
My companions insisted that I interrupt my back seat snooze fest for a quick tour of the Tabasco bottling plant and troll through the gift store at Avery Island. It was there that I had my conducted my very first Tabasco vertical. The McIlhenny family produces a small batch riserva, which is aged up to eight years. I discovered that Tabasco improves with age much like wine, developing a depth of flavor and a decidedly rounder mouth feel than the more recently bottled variety. The heat itself also undergoes a subtle transformation, finishing longer and stronger than in the fires of its youth. The luggage gendarmerie intervened and ruled even a 5-ounce purchase (exclusive of the bottle weight!) prohibitive considering the tonnage we were going to drag through five countries and across the Atlantic twice. However, I did make sure that the Family Reserve is available on the web, since my friends have been known to complain that it is notoriously difficult to find stocking stuffers for Lucullus.
Optio proceeded to win the asphalt crown on the leg into Lafayette. This is a coveted award given only to someone who saves an entire legion from death in heavy traffic. Deserted by all three of his slumbering teammates, Optio battled the deadly combination of Morpheus and crazed Cajuns hurtling along bumper-to-bumper at seventy-five miles per hour. His objective was Prejean’s, a Cajun tavern sporting tacky décor, live Zydeco, and fantastic food.
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Our excessive prandium, however, had taken its toll. For the first time in recorded culinary history, the entire starting lineup of Team Mago fell victim to a gastronomic countermeasure regime wherein the stomach jams signals to the brain originating from the taste buds with dire warnings of systemic overload. Optio was the first to rally. After several vodka tonics administered for purely neurological purposes to compensate for the harrowing experience with hungry locals driving hell bent for leather toward their evening meal, he suggested we share a few appetizers.
Loving every bite but dreading every swallow, we worked our way cautiously through the following:
Carenco Kicking Shrimp: Perfectly fried fresh shrimp tossed in a spicy sauce and served on a bed of cabbage slaw. This dish was voted best in show by the table, except of course by me.
Shrimp Sassafras: My fave was jumbo shrimp stuffed with pepperjack cheese and grilled Tasso ham, wrapped with applewood-smoked bacon, breaded, fried and set in Cardinale cream sauce. Other than the fact that this baby packed more cholesterol than a Scotch Egg, what is not to like about fried shrimp and two kinds of pig candy along with cheese and a rich, cayenne-spiked cream sauce? The Cardinale sauce had a bright yellow tint that looked quite attractive on the plate (presentation is too high flown a word to employ within spitting distance of a 12 foot stuffed gator).
Crabcake Cardinale: Same sauce as above but the extra large, expertly pan-seared crabcake was at least 195 proof, containing just enough breading to barely hold it together. One of the best crab cakes I have ever tasted, far outstripping anything from Maryland that has ever hit my tongue.
Popcorn Crawfish with Sherry wine sauce: Not as good as the same dish at the Yellow Bowl but still very serviceable, although the sherry wine sauce was unremarkable compared to the Carenco and Cardinale variants.
The only real clunker of the evening was the house red wine, which had distinct notes of communion wine. It seemed that after an all too short respite in Jeanerette, the wine gremlins had zeroed in on me again.
“My stomach just hit critical mass,” I informed my equally stuffed companions. “Short of a truly Lucullan option, I am afraid we must retire ignominiously from this house of Cajun delights. ”
“What is a Lucullan option?” asked Optio, my well lubricated straight man.
“How do you say vomitorium in Acadian French?” I replied in all seriousness.
“Don’t you think you’re taking this Roman thing a bit too far?” warned Fulvia, who had made the ultimate sacrifice of abstaining from all forms of ethanol throughout the day.
“But Domina, my dignitas demands that I uphold the MagoGuide motto, which I am just about to make up.”
“Well, go ahead, but no more pig Latin.”
“Fulvia, my dear, I always strive to employ the best classical Latin that Google Translate can provide,” I retorted, heaving my bloated intestines into the proverbial trap.
“I was alluding to the speaker, not the language.”
At this point Optio borrowed the pen I had been using to take notes, hastily scrawled a large number ten on his Cardinale-spattered napkin, and then displayed it ostentatiously to the nearby tables.
“OK,” Fulvia said, “Optio has dutifully bought you enough time to figure out a motto. Let’s have it.”
“Wretched Excess Uber Alles, and note that I have used not one but two Teutonic tongues.”
“If that is the case,” Primus Pilus intoned as she beckoned our waitress, “we have no recourse but to order carry out.”
“It is an honor and privilege to serve with you, Centurion,” I responded humbly.
We took dirty rice, coconut cream pie, and bread pudding back to the time-share for breakfast. The noble Fulvia conveyed this precious cargo, along with the human ballast, back to the Crescent City safely and efficiently. Optio rested on his laurels in the back seat along with Primus Pilus, who helped your humble scribe work the GPS so that Fulvia could concentrate on avoiding gnarly interactions with the locals cruising home on booze-induced autopilot at close to the speed of light.
Domina saved her best automagic trick for the last. The entrance to the parking garage at the time-share was obviously installed by a company that also owns several body shops in the greater southern Louisiana area. One must execute a 90-degree turn across traffic on Magazine Street into an aperture barely wide enough for a standard mid-sized sedan, to say nothing of a double cab F-150. Fulvia nailed it while disdaining even a nodding acquaintance with the pick-up’s breaking system (there may have been bladder issues involved). The performance so stunned the chief parking attendant that he strode up to Fulvia as she climbed out of the rig like a B-17 pilot returning from a mission over Schweinfurt and humbly asked to shake her hand. That ceremony concluded, we tested the elevator’s weight limit in real-time and adjourned for the evening.
Day 5: Synapses and Sazeracs
Next morning, following another close encounter with the instruments of passion in the fitness center, it seemed only prudent to undo any beneficial effects as soon as possible. We repaired to Primus Pilus and Optio’s suite to partake of the Prejean’s plunder from the night before. The dirty rice was the best I have ever had from a restaurant; very spicy and perfectly cooked with good texture even when microwaved the morning after. The heavy cream in the coconut cream pie had a consistency closer to butter, a stunning reaffirmation of my newly minted motto. The crust was only so-so, and this was mainly due to sitting overnight in a refrigerator, but this shortcoming passed virtually unnoticed due to the intensely extracted coconut flavor that permeated every molecule of the pie. The bread pudding simply could not compete with the Commander’s Palace soufflé that had saved the Creole grande dame’s reputation (in MagoGuide’s humble opinion), but it had decadent, heavy richness when reheated in the microwave with a bit of cream (a very nice touch thanks to Primus Pilus).
We walked off breakfast in the warehouse district, popping into galleries and spending far too little time in a jewel box of a Civil War museum called the Confederate Memorial Hall located at 929 Camp Street. We did tarry long enough, however, to rekindle Optio’s desire to purchase an antique firearm. I was caught up in his contact high, wondering audibly what effect grapeshot would have on our yard deer back in ol’ Montuckey. We were deep in the throes of NRA ecstasy, trying to puzzle out the internal mechanism of a conjoined shotgun/revolver, when Primus Pilus rapped her vitis on a nearby reliquary containing a lock of P.G.T. Beauregard’s hair and announced “Gentlemen, Galatoire’s awaits.”
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Recalled to duty by stomachs now accustomed to regular overfeeding, we hastily assembled on the street in our triplex acies formation and stormed, what Mr. Elie styled “the bastion of the leisurely Friday lunch” in his review for Saveur (pronounced sabor, in Spain). But there was more than MagoGuide’s auctoritas involved in this particular expedition; my family honor was also at stake.
In his (I am forced to admit) well-written tour de horizon of old school New Orleans eateries, Mr. Elie describes their culinary genre as the kind of place that your grandfather would take you to eat. Well, my maternal grandfather actually did go to Galatoire’s in the 1960s. By all accounts it was not pretty. Granddaddy was the head mechanic for Caterpillar in Amarillo Texas, and definitely not a member of the diner demographic associated with a restaurant that, according to Mr. Elie, “has always aspired to Gaulic standards of fine dining.” He did like his liquor, however, and proceeded to get trashed while complaining loudly to all and sundry concerning the indignity associated with being forced to don (quoting Mr. Elie again) “one of the notoriously ill-fitting jackets the restaurant kept to clothe underdressed gentlemen.” Things got worse when he demanded ketchup for his oysters Rockefeller and reputedly came within a gnat’s ass of fisticuffs with the arrival of the bill. “Goddamn meal cost more than a new D-8,” were his words repeated many times over the years.
Recounting this bit of family lore to my teammates, I found it necessary to confess a begrudged debt of gratitude to Mr. Elie.
“According to Saveur (pronounced sapore in Italy), my grandsire was in very good company. Evidently Galatoire’s has dissed the likes of Mick Jagger, Gerald Ford, and Charles deGaulle. The latter, I suspect, decided to force the dollar off the gold standard as revenge for the l’addition énorme.
Primus Pilus had prepared the battlespace far better than my grandsire, of course. We dined mid-week so as not to compete with the locals for a table, and we took advantage of Galatoire’s concessions to modernity involving a relaxed dress code and reservations for lunch. Upon arrival she demanded and received a table in the lovely old part of the restaurant (as opposed to its modern, much maligned extension).
Things got off to a good start. So good, in fact, that I once again found myself in close accord with Mr. Elie, who I was beginning to differentiate from the rest of the effete snobs at Saveur.
“But my favorite oyster dish, oysters en brochette—skewered with bacon, lightly battered, and deep fried—I discovered at Galatoire’s….”
While I cannot in all truth say that these oysters bested the roasted ones at Cochon’s, they were certainly the best Creole approach I sampled on our trip. I would also urge even the most finicky Cat Fur aficionado not to let the accompanying half piece of toasted brioche escape. Drenched in the accompanying sauce that is 95% butter, it tastes like French toast, rich, salty, and sweet with side notes of oyster and pig, a very decadent touch much appreciated at the time by Lucullus.
Mr. Elie also waxed rhapsodic concerning another dish we shared: “The signature pommes soufflees, potatoes twice fried so that they plump like zeppelins, are as crisp and golden as ever, the béarnaise sauce just as creamy and fragrant with tarragon.” And I am sure that his were exactly as he described. Mr. Elie, however, probably showed up at Galatoire’s with his photographer Todd Coleman in tow and the restaurant fully alerted to the Saveur’s definitive culinary presence. Fulvia provided some confirming evidence for my suspicions by accessing Galatoire’s website as we paused between appies and mains. Sure enough, the majority of the site’s pages have a link to Saveur (pronounced Geschmack in Germany) Issue Number 132, wherein Galatoire’s is reviewed as one of “25 Greatest Meals Ever” by Shane Mitchell nearly three years prior to Mr. Elie’s article. Indeed, both Elie and Mitchell employ the term “zeppelins” to describe the pommes soufflees (hmmmmm).
The MagoGuide insurgents got the same dish after a rather lengthy dalliance under a heat lamp, leaving the tuber dirigibles a bit flaccid and the accompanying sauce béarnaise over-congealed. This sorry state of affairs continued with the creamed spinach, which tasted good but was old, cold, and almost gluey in texture. And yet spuds turned out to be the alpha and omega of the meal. The potatoes Brabant were far and away the best dish of the meal. They arrived nicely diced, perfectly roasted, piping hot, and redolent of garlic and butter—another confirmation of Chef Smith’s axiom, as if one were needed.
I certainly could muster no outrage over the crabmeat maison. What’s not to like about a huge mound o’ crab slathered in a house-made mayonnaise studded with tiny capers? Stuffed eggplant with crab dressing was almost as decadent as the crabmeat maison. The eggplant was almost eclipsed by its stuffing, and I found an application of Tabasco was required to overcome its inherent heaviness.
The red fish meuniére amandine was a disappointment. The fish was a bit on the mushy side and the classic brown butter sauce that sported rather too many slivered almonds really did not do anything for it. I was beginning to reach the rather counter-intuitive conclusion that Creole cooking was not a very good platform for either the black or red varieties of drum, since both Commander’s Palace and Galatoire’s struck out with this delicate flaky-fleshed fish, whereas more robust Cajun preparations are these ichthyoids’ claim to fame.
Optio and I were tired of seafood and wanted some meat. We both settled on veal chops. We were presented with perfectly cooked, thick rib chops of real veal. The meat did need additional salt from the shaker, however. I ordered the mushroom bordelaise as an accompaniment, which turned out to be a very good choice. Optio, distracted by an extended contretemps (see below), forgot to order a sauce, but I passed him my remaining béarnaise, whose viscous texture saw much better service with the veal.
Things did not go so well over in vino bianco land. Primus Pilus, Optio, and Fulvia all thought that the house white by the glass was excellent and decided to order a bottle. When it arrived, they to a person declared that, while good, it was not the same wine that they had just finished a glass of. I wondered whether is was a temperature difference, but Primus Pilus insisted that I try it and, while the bottle was less chilled than the glasses had been, it did seem to me that it was indeed a different wine.
Primus Pilus and Optio had not recovered fully from the oenological drubbing we had taken at Commander’s Palace, and they held their ground tenaciously against the waiter’s increasingly flustered assurances that the wine in the bottle was the wine they had been served in the glass. Our server was pretty clearly a Galatoire’s icon, who was just having an off day. You actually get to choose your waiter upon entry, but as we did not have a regular server, Primus Pilus had politely asked the maître de to assign us one. It was to this maître de that Fulvia now turned to save both us and our waiter from further dispute. He arrived at our table in a huff and did not really bother to hear us out, declaring very loudly “I don’t care what wine came in the glasses, this is the house wine that you ordered.” He then decamped, leaving us unwilling to torture our waiter further. Jerk.
Needless to say, we did not feel like lingering over dessert. I decided that there must be some kind of genetic antipathy between my family and wait staff at haute Creole restaurants. After all, Primus Pilus and Optio had eaten at both Commander’s Palace and Galatoire’s many times and never received anything like such treatment. As we sauntered back to the time-share, Fulvia interrupted my fantasy wherein President deGaulle and my granddaddy teamed up to beat monsieur connard into a jelly. Calling my attention to Galatoire’s website, she pointed to the digital fingerprints of Saveur’s partner in crime. Once again, The Wine Spectator was complicit, bestowing the awkward sounding Best of Award of Excellence (a mere 876 restaurants qualify world-wide) upon surly and slip shod service.
Telephone: (504) 324-8000
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Rostra rating: 4
A few hours communing with Morpheus restored our affection for New Orleans (if not for two of its culinary grandes dames), and we set out in search of wine, oysters, and dive bars. We found vino at the Wine Institute of New Orleans (W.I.N.O). This gem, located kinetically at 610 Tchoupitoulas St. and digitally at
http://www.winoschool.com, sports 120 wines for tasting in a state-of-the-art serving system that dispenses by the ounce, half glass, and full glass. On top of that, you can order nibbles to go with your wine. On top of that, based admittedly on a single visit, the place is a babe magnet. Lucullus found himself in dirty old man land as soon as he entered the door. More nymphs and wine choices than a komastic binge at Dionysius and Ariadne’s place was excellent recompense for our recent bollicking at the hands of The League of Evil Sommeliers. For some reason, however, Fulvia chose not to photograph any of the young ladies (sigh).
The libido police quickly shunted me from “in your dreams” gawking to wine purchase mode. We were at WINO to secure libations for the next leg of our migration on Florida’s Emerald Coast. I had determined to test the mettle of the proprietors by focusing on four types of wine that are not always well represented in the U.S., even in large cities: cahors, primitivo, cava, and semillion.
There was only one sales guy available and I would not have blamed him if he had eschewed the oldest and ugliest customer in the store for the waves of pulchritude crashing against the Enomatic dispensers. Perhaps it was because he had just returned from vacation, or the fact that Primus Pilus maintained bounding overwatch while he oscillated between Lucullus and chic central, but the young man politely listened to the types of food I intended to cook, my wine preferences, and suggested one excellent and one very good cahors (it needed a couple more years in the bottle but he told me that), a superb primitivo, a seriously VFM cava, and a well-rounded semillion. He then packed up our two cases and promised to deliver them by 11 AM the next day to the time-share. In fact the owner, Bryan Burkey (a Certified Wine Educator who Primus Pilus had met in Paris), personally delivered them at 10:30 AM.
Mago tip for the benighted readers of The Wine Spectator: cancel your subscription and use the funds you save to subsidize the purchase of cheap off-season tickets to NOLA, where you can learn far more about wine and have a much more pleasant experience at W.I.N.O.
Felix’s Oyster House
Telephone: (504) 522-4440
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Rostra rating: 4
We found oysters at Felix’s, which is just across Iberville St. from its direct competitor Acme Oyster House. The difference between the two is that when the line is around the block for Acme, there is at most a brief wait at Felix’s. After I had demolished my first dozen raw oysters, I asked our shucker about this phenomenon. “Those folks are all tourists,” he said dismissively. “Locals eat here because we don’t do any of that Food Network shit.” Fulvia dutifully confirmed that Acme is indeed all over the Food Network, has a (very professional) website, and four other locations.
Another reason for the disparity in lines might be the rough patch that Felix’s went through recently involving Chapter 11, and far more damaging in New Orleans, the loss of their liquor license. When we were there in early March 2013, however, the beer was flowing, the service was friendly, and the oysters were outstanding. In addition to a much shorter wait, you do not have to put up with Acme’s velvet rope lines, assholic bouncers, and much higher prices. Felix was definitely MagoGuide’s kind of place.
All of the oyster preps were very good, but the grilled oysters lost out to Cochon’s roasted version by a distance that can only be measured on a quantum scale. In fact, my recurring food fantasy since that evening has been a head-to-head competition so that I can reassess my opinion on the matter over the course of several hours and many, many beers. Felix’s grilled oysters were brought to us sizzling in their shells on metal plates. These flavor IEDs delivered layers of umami, smoke, butter, and garlic that just did not quit. Fulvia stopped me at my third dozen, knowing full well that I was out of control and would soon have joined so many other revelers puking their guts out on Bourbon Street.
This intervention turned out to be not only a good thing for Lucullus, but for the entire MagoGuide cohort, since Primus Pilus proceeded to lead us on a Sazerac hunt as we filed out of Felix’s. We ambled down Bourbon Street, where Optio and I caught some beads for our ladies, and ended up at Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop (941 Bourbon St. 504-593-9761) where Primus Pilus had been introduced to the famous antebellum cocktail. Optio related that his first close encounter with the libation had left him numb from the waist down, yet he was clearly eager to come to grips with his old adversary once more. Then the bartender told us that they were unfortunately out of rye whisky, a key ingredient. Given the close temporal proximity to the Yellow Bowl’s absence of po’boy loaves, I wondered aloud if the apocalypse was upon us.
“Lets have a couple drinks and wait for the Rapture,” I suggested.
“How would we know? We are in a New Orleans dive bar. Nobody here is going to heaven any time soon,” Fulvia countered. “Lets accost the locals until one of them gives up a bar where they have all the ingredients for a Sazerac.”
Primus Pilus soon had a female NOLA specimen buttonholed on the street and, sure enough, we found ourselves ensconced in a nicely appointed drinkery with a friendly bartender who deftly produced three Sazeracs and presented me with a local microbrew that was on tap. My semi-sensible behavior was based on the following decision logic: 1) when two veteran legionaries tell you that a certain cocktail is very powerful you had best listen, 2) Fulvia had been the soul of discretion throughout this extended debauch and she deserved a night on the town, and 3) we were due to check out and drive to the Florida panhandle the next day and I could end up the default driver.
It turned out to be one of my better decisions. Since I did not participate, I cannot really describe the effect, nor understand it in a purely chemical sense. It is true that a Sazerac is made with absinthe, which has alleged hallucinatory powers, but the glasses are merely rinsed with absinthe as much for aroma as taste. The drink is basically a twist on an Old Fashioned made with rye whisky and Peychaud’s Bitters. The result, however, is not the typical alcoholic meltdown delivered by martinis or tequila shots. As I watched fascinated, three quarters of Team Mago proceeded to get brain high and body drunk.
“It’s like your legs decide that they don’t need to listen to your head, and your head doesn’t really care anyway,” was Fulvia’s summary (delivered at least 48 hours later).
After last call, followed by a last, last call, I herded three very affable cats back to the time-share. Optio wished us an avuncular good night and then reiterated what a great time he had had via cell phone about 3 minutes later as I was maneuvering Domina into bed and out of the majority of her clothes. Overall, the evening stood as a ringing endorsement of the Louisiana Legislature’s June 23, 2008 proclamation naming the Sazerac as New Orleans’ official cocktail.
Day 6: Exitus Omnes
Fulvia did not wake at 6 AM and fire up her laptop for a couple hours of work before the rest of us joined her. In fact she pulled off a very decent corpse imitation while I rummaged through my clothes looking for my ringing cell phone at around 9 AM. It was Optio, reminding me that we had agreed to meet thirty minutes prior for breakfast at Mother’s.
“Right, give me ten, I’ll knock on your door?”
“Do you know if the rooms have a defibrillator?”
“See you in ten.”
As I dressed, I reminded Fulvia that checkout was at 11.
“Then I better throw up now so I can have us packed by the time you get back from breakfast.”
“I can pack Domina, just get some more sleep,” I said trying to figure out how my underwear worked, but she was already in the bathroom sacrificing to Dionysius at the porcelain alter.
I spent the interval packing my clothes and electronics, then following her return to bed, conducted minimal ablutions and hurried off to meet Primus Pilus and Optio for our last meal in NOLA. As the least hung-over member of Team Mago, I was very impressed that both my friends were ambulatory and able to ingest any form of sustenance. We walked over to Mother’s Restaurant on 401 Poydras and confronted a non-trivial line.
Telephone: (504) 523-9656
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Rostra rating: 2
Optio declared that we probably did not have time to eat breakfast and make our check out time.
“Let’s hit a Crystal,” I said, never one to pass up the opportunity to break my fast on sliders and fries.
Primus Pilus brought all such defeatist talk to an abrupt end by declaring that the line was moving at a pace that would leave us plenty of time to eat and make our check out deadline. She was right as usual, but we should have gone to Crystal anyway. It turns out the Mother’s does not in fact serve anything close to “the world’s best baked ham”, although the “black ham” or end pieces are decent and far better than the other type of cut served there. Another disappointment was the “debris” billed as “the roast beef that falls into the gravy while baking in the oven.” Our debris came in bowls that contained rather stringy filaments of beef and a lot of liquid that bore very little resemblance to gravy. The coffee was good, however, and that was probably what we needed the most. The best looking thing I saw come out of the kitchen was a crawfish Étouffée omelet that I would return to try the next time I find myself hung-over before noon in NOLA (if Crystal was really busy that is).
Upon my return, I found that Fulvia had rallied enough to get her half of the baggage packed and we headed downstairs where her parking attendant fan club lined up to wish her bon voyage. Ahead of us lay more oysters, the Emerald coast of the Florida panhandle, and the round of 64. Little did we know that both Gonzaga and Georgetown were soon to suffer ignominious defeats at the hands of lesser teams; or that the Saveur abomination would pursue me across the Atlantic, taunting me with its prominent display in the library of the Crystal Serenity as I sought a diversion from pounding out this very article. But those trials were in the future. We left New Orleans hung-over and bilious but with our heads held high knowing that we had not sacrificed our principles to foodie media mendacity: venimus, comedimus, vere narraturi sumus.
A NOLA Dust-Up Glossary
Noms de spoon: In order to shelter our dear friends from any acts of vengeance by the foodie snob media outlets excoriated in this journal entry, I have issued them pseudonyms. I chose allonyms for my wife and me less for reasons of altruism than as a humorous tie-in to the MagoScrolls.
Primus Pilus: a senior centurion of a Roman legion, a cross between a modern command sergeant major and a “full bull” colonel. The name primus pilus denoted his position in the first file (pilus) of the first century of the first cohort (primus) of a legion.
Fulvia: Fulvia Flacca Bambula (83 BC – 40 BC) was one of a handful of women to seize and wield power in Roman times. After her first husband Publius Clodius Pulcher got clipped on the Apian way, she took charge of his criminal gangs, a practice now common in Italian organized crime. She became de facto consul of the Roman Republic in 42 BC and launched the Perusine War against the future emperor Augustus. Fulvia was nobody’s sweetheart. When her third husband Mark Antony presented her with the severed head of their political enemy Cicero, she pulled out his tongue and jabbed it repeatedly with her hairpin in revenge for his hostile oratory. She was the first non-mythological woman to appear on Roman coins.
Lucullus: Lucius Licinius Lucullus (118 BC – 56 BC) was a general and famous gastronome during the late Roman Republic. According to Plutarch, one day Lucullus’ steward, upon learning that Lucullus had not invited any guests to dinner, laid out a simple meal. Lucullus reprimanded him saying, “What, did not you know, then, that today Lucullus dines with Lucullus?” Lucullus’ contributions to fine dining, include introducing sweet cherries and the apricots to Roman cuisine, developing fish farming technology, and building fattening coops for thrushes so that those nice crunchable little birdses were available year round. So famous did Lucullus become for his banqueting that the word lucullan now means lavish, luxurious, and gourmet.
Classical Allusions: while most of the non-English linguistic forays in this piece can either be easily puzzled out from context or ignored, I employ a few word and phrases of Latin or Greek origin that could profit from definition.
Apicius: a collection of Roman recipes, probably compiled in the late 4th or early 5th century AD. In antiquity the name Apicius was associated with excessively refined love of food, from the habits of an early bearer of the name, Marcus Gavius Apicius, a Roman gourmet who lived sometime in the 1st century AD. According to Seneca, Apicius spent 100 million sestertii (roughly $150 million) on food and entertainment. When he found that he had only 10 million sestertii (roughly $15 million) left he took poison rather than compromise his gastronomic integrity.
Triplex acies: during deployment in the Republican era, Roman legions were commonly arranged in triplex acies or in three ranks, with the hastate (the youngest troops) in the first rank nearest the enemy, the principes (those legionaries in their prime) in the second rank, and the triarii (veterans) in the third and final rank as barrier troops.
Silphium: A plant prized in antiquity for its culinary and medicinal qualities. The valuable product was the plant’s resin. Silphium was used widely by most ancient Mediterranean cultures. The Romans considered it worth its weight in silver. It was probably a variety of giant fennel. In cooking, silphium was employed as a spice and a preservative. Medicinal uses for silphium included contraception (it may have been an abortifacient). It was also used to treat cough, sore throat, fever, indigestion, aches and pains, and warts. Demand for silphium led to its extinction by the 1st century AD; the Emperor Nero ate the last stalk.