Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Dish: New Orleans Food

So this technically is not a specific dish or food, but it's my blog so I am breaking my own rules. After a recent excursion down to New Orleans for a weekend of fun, I had the rare opportunity to try a number of different famous Cajun dishes and restaurants. Since this is the only part of the trip I can really talk about (and remember), I will try to go through as much of it as possible. Our first stop was an old place called Mother's. The restaurant is a famous old New Orleans institution, where there are no pretensions or fancy food, just good home cooking. It's the type of place, like Katz's, that when you walk in you feel like you are going to get some old world home cooking like you grew up with. While there I got to try two famous dishes that just bleed New Orleans - Debris and a Catfish Po Boy. For those of you that aren't familiar, debris is the pieces of Roast Beef that falls off into the drippings while roasting. It is incredibly tender, juicy and tastes succulent whether topping a sandwich or with a side of grits. The catfish po boy sounds like a simple concept, but near perfect execution is tough. Delicately grilled with cajun seasoning and on a fresh french roll with dressing, creole mustard, tartar sauce, lettuce and pickles, it was both delicate, filling and savory all at the same time.

Our trip later that day was a little out of the way from Bourbon street, but apparently well known - Jacquesimos Cafe. The table shared braised beef cheeks, some kind of alligator crawfish cheescake, and fried calamari. The beef cheeks were somewhat lacking in flavor, and the fried calamari was, well, fried calamari. Honestly, I don't think fried calamari really gets me all that excited anymore now that every single restaurant in the world seems to have it on the menu. The savory cheescake, however, was delicious and almost eye opening because you just couldn't quite place what the ingredients were, but knew it was amazing with every bite. Ironically, the best part of the appetizers was probably the corn bread muffins topped with fresh parsley and garlic. They were so good we kept asking for more, and a certain someone actually stole a bunch in a napkin for later. My main course was Cajun BBQ Shrimp with mashed sweet potatoes and smothered cabbage. The sides were tasty, and the bbq sauce was a great mix of spicy and sweet, but the shrimp themselves were a little over cooked and despite at first liking it, the heads being on eventually just led to frustration.

After that eating extravaganza, and the drinking that occurred after, we had to get something to help the hangovers the next morning. Luckily, we found a Po Boy place that had something called a Mufelatta. Basically it is the biggest sandwich you will ever see on a great french bread with salami, ham, cheese and a briney, tongue tingling, olive salad all pressed down and heated until every bite explodes in your mouth with flavor. Not only did I finish the entire plate and all the olive salad that had fallen out, but I kept thinking about it the rest of the day wanting another. Luckily, beignets from Cafe Du Monde were able to distract me from eating way too much. Honestly, beignets are not my thing, but I can see why they are famous for their flavor and texture at Cafe Du Monde.

To top off the eating adventure in New Orleans we went to an old place called Mulates. Very much a family style restaurant, we feasted on everything and anything they could fry up for us. We had fried alligator, fried crawfish, fried catfish, fried oysters, fried clams, french fries, and fried crab cakes. Basically the only things we had that weren't fried were frogs legs, grilled alligator and some jambalaya. The grilled alligator actually convinced me that it was better fried, because grilled it comes off a little too chewy and gamey. All in all, I was happy to get more gator, and happy to finally have some crawfish so that I could claim that I ate pretty much everything New Orleans is known for in a single weekend.

After this trip, I don't know if I will need to eat for quite a while. Luckily, I doubt that is really true.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Beer of the Week: Brahma

With the chilly winter weather upon us, I thought it would be nice to talk about a beer that just makes me think of summer, partying and beautiful women. Brahma is one of the most popular beers from Brazil, and whether due to its unique bottle shape and lack of label, or simply its refreshing flavor, many that see it want more after just a few sips. Brahma is a pale lager that has a slight caramel flavor, although it probably is hard to distinguish from the flavor of a Corona (but don't add any limes). It is easy sipping, and according to the company it embodies the creative spirit known as "Ginga". How it does this exactly, I have no idea. Perhaps drink enough and you come up with creative things the bottle shape reminds you of? Most importantly, if you are going to drink Brahma make sure it is ice cold. And when I mean ice cold, I mean your hands should feel frozen after hold the bottle for only a few sips.

Number of Beers Drank in one Sitting: 4
Pair With Food: Chips & Salsa

Brazilian Curves

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Joe's Shanghai

After a long hiatus due to a busy new job, lack of internet, and pretty much any excuse I can think of that will not let me admit to general laziness I have decide to get this rolling again. Sadly, over the last 6 months I have eaten in numerous places I would love to write about, but the details are now to few and far between to write coherently. Luckily, I had the pleasure of some fantastic Chinese food on Christmas Eve at Joe's Shanghai that inspired me to return to writing.

My friend swears by Joe's Shanghai, and as any New Yorker knows, everyone has their "best" Chinese restaurant in Chinatown. Plus, any New Yorker knows that to Jewish people, Chinese food is a close second when it comes to a religious experience. After Joe's Shanghai's surprisingly fresh, delicious, and well portioned food I found myself questioning if it should still be second on the religious experience scale.

Our party of seven had to wait an hour outside on Christmas Eve, but my understanding was that this was standard. Upon being seated, before we could even open the menu the waiter asked us if we wanted soup dumplings (the house specialty). Never having experienced such a treat, but a lover of all things dumpling, I hesitantly asked my friend how many orders should we get. He is quite the dumpling connoisseur, so confidently he said 1 crab and 1 pork. As two other people stared at our noisy group (tables are shared, unless your group is 9 or 10 people), we excitedly debated the number of dishes we needed, and how to evenly balance them between vegetable, meat, and if fish should even be an option. The order ended up like this:

Cold Noodles with Sesame Sauce
Double Cooked Pork
Sesame Chicken
Beef with Broccoli
Vegetable Lo-Mien
Sauteed Spinach with Garlic

To top this all off, we of course had to get multiple rounds of Tsingtao, which I imagine is the official Jewish drink of Christmas. No sooner had we placed our order than the soup dumplings had arrived. To attempt to describe these moist flavorful nuggets of steamed goodness probably won't do them justice. Although the crab flavor was not that distinct, the meat was well flavored, cooked perfectly, and a delightful mouthful. The dough of the dumpling was steamed, a little chewy, but by no means the thick, flavorless shell that too many restaurants serve. The highlight of the dish is of course the soup that is within the dumpling. The broth is exquisite, with a strong, but not overpowering lemon flavor. Amazingly the rest of the dumpling is infused with this flavor, but still manages to hit your tongue with all the other tastes that the full dumpling provides. I could probably eat a bowl of just the broth, and may have to see if this is on the menu next time.

After the amazing first course, and the arguing over who got the 8th dumpling, the cold noodles with sesame sauce were an extreme disappointment. The noodles were a bit overcooked, and the sauce was watery and tasteless. Perhaps some people like spaghetti noodles and a very liquidy sesame sauce, but me, I like thinner noodles, and a sauce that sticks to the noodles with a distinct flavor and even a slight hint of spice. The best, in my mind, are a balance between a little spicy, a little sweet, and plenty savory. With this disappointment firmly behind me, we prepared for the main courses, which came out seemingly all at once. The double cooked pork was excellent, in a nice brown sauce, and featuring tender crispy pork with a mix of your standard veggies. The nice surprise was the still crispy cabbage. This is such an underused vegetable in cooking, and it adds a distinct flavor and texture that made a good dish great.

The beef with broccoli was tasty, and the meat of higher quality than I expected. I must admit, however, I'm not a big fan of this dish in general, so thank god for the spicy red pepper sauce on the table to give this a little bit of a kick. The same must be said for the vegetable lo-mien. I don't know how vegetarians do it, but I would get pretty bored eating this dish without chunks of meat on a regular basis. There was nothing I could point to that made the dish bad, and in fact it was distinct for not being greasy at all compared to your average lo-mien dishes. Honestly though, would you waste prime stomach space during a hearty meal on this dish? I think not.

Despite everything else that came before it, the two highlights of the main meal (dumplings not included) were the water spinach with garlic, and the sesame chicken. I know, sesame chicken is not exactly fine dining, but when made right it really stands out. The chicken was all white meat, no fat, and was fried until crispy with a batter that actually accentuated the flavor of the chicken instead of muting it. On the side was fresh green blanched broccoli, still with a slight snap to it. One of my biggest pet peeves is Chinese food where the meat is dumped on top of broccoli, and it is a clear after thought, usually over cooked or greasy. Topping off the chicken and broccoli was a deliciously sweet and tangy sauce that was both instantly recognizable as sesame chicken sauce, while being surprising at every bite. Perhaps it was that the sauce was gooey, without being overwhelmingly full of corn starch, and hit the right balance between sweet and salty that it caught my attention. Whatever the reason, it goes down as the best sesame chicken I have ever had, and I wish we had 2 orders instead of one. The other great dish was actually a side dish. As mentioned in the past, I love a side order of spinach, and the water spinach with garlic was perfectly cooked, bright green and fresh, and flavored with salt and garlic. All in all, I could have just eaten the spinach and the chicken and been happy all night.

Despite all the food that had been consumed, a debate ensued about what we should have for dessert. After a number of minutes of crazy ideas, we decided the best dessert was another order of pork soup dumplings. The smiles and giggles of glee that everyone expressed as they showed up at our table meant we had made the right decision. We also clearly made the right decision to go to Joe's Shanghai on Christmas. I know I will be making more trips to Chinatown soon, and well before the next Jews night out.

Take a trip to dumpling heaven.