Thursday, June 21, 2012

New Orleans

NoLa. Nawlins. New Orleans. Don't matter how it's pronounced, it is an incredible city with a thriving live music scene and some unbelievably good eats. We did a little of everything on this 1 year anniversary trip -  (can you believe it's been a year already?!?). Hurricanes at the oldest bar in the country. A cemetery tour in 88° weather. Three-for-one beers on Bourbon Street. Boiled crawfish. Fried gator. Gumbo. Po-Boys galore. Someone even tried on a tuba. 

For all the craziness that New Orleans offers, there is an air of sophistication and pride in this most unique of cities. Part European and part Caribbean in it's architecture, language, food - it is a wholly American creation. Start off at the Sazerac bar for an old fashioned that Don Draper would swoon for. Drink all night (literally, the bars don't close) and walk on any street with an open container. Stroll among 300 year old Spanish inspired houses and meander into hidden courtyards. Belly up to a counter for a messy Po-Boy sandwich at lunch, then experience the height of fine dining at restaurants rivaling anything to be found north of the Mason-Dixon. 

The long weekend was like an escape to a different country. Live music is spilling out of nearly every restaurant, bar and club. There is nothing even remotely resembling this in Philly. The language is English, but you'll hear French, Spanish and a lot of things in between. We stayed with friends at a timeshare for the first few days, then made our way over to the Renaissance for our last night after they flew home. Below are some of the highlights - there is way too much to fit into just one post. When you go, make a couple reservations for dinner if you can but give yourself time to just wander, try something that smells good, and make friends. Enjoy! 

Dinner at NOLA: 
Our first proper meal in New Orleans, Emeril Lagasse's NOLA restaurant on St. Louis street in the French Quarter. I have a fond place in my heart for Emeril. I first got a passion for food watching The Essence of Emeril after school in my teens. Up until that point, cooking shows were only on PBS. Here was Emeril shouting at you through the TV and getting excited about garlic and rue and spicy sausage. Who was this crazy man? 

He may be plastered all over TV and slinging everything from bar-b-q sauce to kitchen knives, but his restaurants and food are still top of the order. White table cloths, sommelier service, multiple food runners - this is very fine dining. The food coming out of the kitchen is stellar. 

Chicken and sausage gumbo. Is there a more quintessential New Orleans dish? A robustly deep flavored rue based broth. Hunks of spicy sausage. Chicken that tasted like it was roasted for hours till falling off the bone. Oh man. This will make you week in the knees. 

Impossibly good and adorably tiny crab cakes with spicy corn relish (underneath) and crystal-butter sauce (on top). Crystal being the local hot sauce that is good on literally everything. You could put it on ice cream and it would be great. 

A beautifully presented tomato and crab salad.  Drizzled with a basil pesto and tomatoes so ripe you'd swear they were from a roadside stand in south Jersey. 

shrimp and grits

Another 'must have' while in this city. Shrimp and grits is a southern mainstay. Local caught gulf shrimp, grilled green onions, perched atop grits made with smoked cheddar. Just for good measure, add some apple smoked bacon, criminis and red chili-Abita butter sauce. Is that the greatest word in the English language - "butter sauce"?  My god. This is one of the best things I've eaten. Anywhere. Incredible meal, and this was just our first night. 

Gator nuggets:
Can't go to New Orleans without getting me some gator. I didn't have to wrestle this one. Conveniently you can get it for breakfast here. Fried up and served with a spicy aoili type sauce for dipping. A dish of these and strong coffee will help right the ship. 

Creole Tomato Festival:
On recommendations from a brother-in-law of a friend that happens to live here, we spent Sunday morning dodging rain showers and strolling through the Creole Tomato fest, set up in the French market area. Bloody Mary stand at the entrance to the festival? Thank you very much. I needed that. Stuffed tomatoes with garlic, olive oil and cheese. Check. Fried green tomatoes with spicy 'creole' sauce. Check. Tomato basil and mozzarella crepe. Check. Eight year old kids attempting to eat 4 whole tomatoes in 5 mins. Hilarious, and check. 

fried green tomatoes - yumm

tomato eating contest - the red head in the middle didn't get through one but was crowd favorite

tomato basil mozzarella crepe - best of the bunch

Dinner at Acme Oyster House:
This is what I came here for. Boo fries. Grilled oysters. Boiled crawfish. Oh my. Acme Oyster House doesn't take reservations. So if you show up at 9:30 on Saturday be prepared to wait. Got a party of 6? You're going to wait longer while they fill in the 2-tops. On the plus side, you're never far from beers in this town, so at least you can tie one on while you're in line. 

Crawpuppies. Incredible little morsels of cornmeal and crawfish, battered and deep fried to heart clogging perfection. 

fried fish po-boy
A killer fried fish po-boy. The server told us it was swai, which is in the catfish family. Whatever it was, it was tender, flaky, and not the least bit dry. Dressed up with lettuce & tomato and tobasco mayo on the side. Best po-boy I've ever had. Period. 

boo fries
The Boo Fries! How can you not order these with a name like that? Added bonus - they are covered with roast beef gravy and shredded cheese. Poutine with a southern accent. What the hell do the Quebecois know? 

boiled crawfish - heaven in a mesh bag
The star of the show, for me at least. This is literally what I came to New Orleans for - the crawfish. You have to know to ask for it; on the menu it just says 'boiled seafood'. There is remarkably little meat to be had from these things, and it is a hell of a lot of work getting it out. What's hidden inside though is worth a 3 hour flight. Infused throughout with spicy cajun seasoning, it is like a marriage between crab and lobster, but better. You break the tail off, work out the tail meat, then suck out the juices from the head. It's kind of gross, I'll admit. But by the end of dinner everyone at the table was trying them and loving it. I will remember these for years. 

char grilled oysters
The star of the show, for everyone else. Grilled oysters sounds kind of bizarre, and they are. I usually stick to a strict no cooking policy for oysters. Just give me some tobasco and I'm a happy boy. These were simply incredible. I've never had anything quite like them. Served on the half, grill marks on the shell, they are floating in a mix of butter and italian dressing that is like the poor man's truffle oil. The oysters cook up quick and are not the least bit chewy. They are soft and luscious. They even serve bread to soak up the extra juice in the shells. You could probably just do shots of it, it's that good. 

Beignets at Cafe Du Monde: 
No, that's not a pile of Tony Montana's cocaine on top of fried dough. That's powdered sugar. And those are beignets. There is only one place to get them, and that is at Cafe Du Monde. The lines are stupid long during the morning. Every fanny packed tourist will be there waiting patiently like fiends at the low rises in Bal'more. The wait gets shorter in the afternoon. If you're like us, you can go at 3am in the morning to soak up the whiskey sloshing around in your abdomen. Luckily they never close, and these are almost better than a cheese steak at that ungodly hour. Almost. Good tip - order a hot chocolate and use it for dipping, a-la breakfast in Spain. The wifey came up with this trick - another subtle reminder of how much I love her.  

Johnny's Po-Boys:
Johnny's was hyped as the best in New Orleans by our French Quarter tour guide, I thought they were pretty good.  The rest of our crowd thought otherwise. They also had the privilege of eating at Parkway Bakery the morning we got there, so they were a bit jaded. The wifey got the fried shrimp, but thought the fish version at Acme was better. I had to agree with her. Even with a great roll, I just couldn't taste the love in this. Next time we go to Parkway and compare. 

grilled sausage poboy

Johnny's poboys in the French Quarter

Dinner at Coquette: 
I'm only going to share a few pictures and dishes from Coquette here - it was so good that I've got a whole other post in the works for it. I had researched it on Trip Advisor and everyone gave it rave reviews - I wanted our 1st anniversary dinner to be something special. I'm patting myself on the back right now because this was one of the top 5 meals we've ever had. We discussed afterwards and started ranking our meals on the streetcar ride back to the hotel; I think there's a blog post to be had in that discussion.  

Any-who, Coquette is the absolute perfect romantic dinner spot in New Orleans. It's nestled on a quiet corner in the Garden District among the massive front porch wrapped houses that make up this gorgeous neighborhood. The menu is French, with a healthy southern accent, and lots of locally sourced ingredients. Service is impeccable. Wine list is smart and concise. Food was other-worldly good. It's like someone took the best bistro in Paris and dropped it in Louisiana. 

burrata crostini with crispy pig ear
They have a menu posted online, but it's only an example of what they offer. The chef changes it up nearly every day based on what's fresh and in season that day. My appetizer of fresh burrata cheese, roasted tomatoes, fresh greens and deep fried strips of crispy pig ear was insanely good. Is there no part of a pig that doesn't taste good? The burrata is like the best mozzarella you've ever had - not quite solid and not quite liquid, but somewhere congenially in between. The contrast with the uber crispy pork strips is magical. Salty and crunchy meets soft and sweet. 

black drum with spring veggies
A a very local fish, the black drum was tender, flaky and almost succulent. A light pan sear in some butter was all it needed. Dressed up with a beautiful display of veggies that tasted like they were literally picked for my plate. Ribbons of squash, roasted heirloom tomatoes, and colorful squash blossoms make the corners of your mouth perk up. It tastes like summer. This could best anything that Talula's Garden sends out of the kitchen. Superb. 

cheesecake ice cream sandwich over blueberry compote
I didn't know it was possibly to make cheesecake any better. Put it in ice cream sandwich form you say? Brilliant. The cheese cake ice cream on it's own would have been enough to make my eyes roll back in my head. But Coquette uses a graham cracker crust to make a little sandwich, and rest it on a bed of home made blueberry compote. One of the best desserts I've ever had. 

If you're still reading this post, I salute you. It's a lot to, ahem, digest. There was so much good food in just our short 3 day trip that it was tough squeezing it all in. New Orleans has so much to offer a foodie that you can almost get overwhelmed with the choices. Gumbo or etouffee? Po-Boy or muffalata? Crawfish or oysters? You can't really make a bad decision. We are very much looking forward to a return trip and venturing out a little further from the city center. I know there's a lot still to be experienced and tasted. 

-Food Baby

Monday, June 18, 2012

Nina's Trattoria

This is what I was hoping for at Ralph's. Nothing fancy, just honestly prepared Italian dishes, served with some TLC. The marinara tasted like it was simmering on your grandmother's stove for hours. Light and fluffy gnocchi. Rich gorgonzola cream sauce smothering every piece of penne. Tender hanger steak. Flaky tilapia. Gelato that tastes like it just stepped off the boat from Naples.  

Using a $35 groupon, we got a 3 course tasting menu plus free dessert. Our server was super friendly and, like the gelato, right off the boat - Milan to be specific. He even started giving us vacation tips on how to get a cheap villa in Tuscany. It was a warm, breezy summer night and we were treated to an outdoor table, right on 9th street with all the people watching the Italian Market affords. 

We never saw a menu. A few questions about food allergies and Oliver started bringing out the dishes. First off was an appetizer of Carciofi - stemmed artichoke hearts served with a mix of sauteed roasted peppers, onions and plenty of garlic. A dish so simple with such evocative flavors. It tastes like Italy in the summer. 

Next up were meatballs. Not on top of spaghetti, but certainly covered with cheese. Meaty and rich, they could have come out of Carmela Corleone's kitchen. Made with dry aged ground beef and floating on a bed of that luscious marinara. Sprinkle some pecorino romano and fresh parsley on top. Delizioso. You will need bread for the sauce - don't let that go to waste.  

ricotta gnocchi
The ricotta gnocchi was probably my favorite of the night. Light and airy, while at the same time vivid and satisfying. Some more of that marinara, fresh shaved pecorino and some basil for sweetness. There's gnocchi on about half the menus in Philly, and for good reason - everyone loves it. When it's done wrong it's heavy and sits like a rock in your stomach. When it's right, it's near on otherworldly. This isn't the best version I've ever had (Marc Vetri still holds that crown), but certainly a very good contender that might taste better just from the benefit of being in South Philly. 

penne w/ gorgonzola 
Along with the gnocchi, they sent out a plate of penne in their gorgonzola dolce sauce, minus the walnuts that are on the menu version. Intensely rich, you taste all of the cheese and cream. This is not alfredo sauce. You will not be getting free salad and bread sticks, and you will not need it. This was only the second course and my belly was already happy. You might want to think about wearing your eatin' pants. 

Perfectly cooked tilapia was a bit of a surprise from the pasta-centric kitchen. A citrus risotto pattie was even more interesting. Kind of like arancini, but flattened out, it was crispy and delicious, with hints of citrus mixing in with the rice and breading.  

grilled hanger steak 
Last up was a marinated hanger steak, grilled nicely medium. A curiously good roasted cippoline aoili, veggies and some au gratin potatoes will put you to bed. This is a serious entree that can stand on it's own. 

gelato pistachio
The nutella chocolate budino was good but not particularly memorable. The creme fraiche was bright and airy, but overwhelmed by the rich chocolate and hazlenut. The gelato on the other hand, was a revelation. Our server told us they get it from a place across the street. It tasted like it came from Rome. This was better than anything Capogiro is putting out. 

Nina's is not pushing the culinary horizon. They are not doing modern twists on classic dishes. They are making the classic dishes. And making them very well. Buon appetito!

Food Baby Rating: Twins!

Nina's Trattoria
910 South 9th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19147

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Jamaican Jerk Hut

The smell of jerk chicken is intoxicating. Like Toucan Sam, you can literally follow your nose up South Street to the source of the entrancing aroma. The Jamaican Jerk Hut has quietly been serving some of the very best Caribbean food in the city for years now. Several of us in the Sunday Supper Club have been to Jamaica, and we all agreed that one bite of that chicken brought us right back. I could feel the sand in my toes and the sun on my face at that beachside chicken hut in Negril, even as the fierce thunderstorms raged outside and turned the outdoor garden at the Jerk Hut into a small lake. 


A selection of patties - chicken, beef, veggie - essentially a baked empanada, but more similar to an English meat pie. Soft and flaky crust with a rich and complexly tasty filling. Definitely a mix of curry flavors, but hard to nail down the exact spice mix they used. The beef were spicier than the others, but nothing tongue numbing. They saved that for the entrees. 

tropical fruit salsa

The tropical fruit salsa, a sweet and only slightly spicy blend of mango, pineapple, cliantro and scotch bonnet peppers. I only wish I had thought to have this on the table with the spicier entrees. The sweetness would have helped to tame the fire. The chips that they served alongside were kind of a letdown. Nothing more than a bag of tostitos from Superfresh. 


The main event. We ordered a few whole jerk chickens for the table. There was nothing left by the end, maybe some extra sauce, but only because we ran out of cornbread to soak it up with. Incredibly moist, and about 20 layers of flavor in each bite. You can taste the smoke, the peppers, the allspice, the day long marinade, the hours slow roasting on the grill. You can taste Jamaica. The meat simply falls off the bone. Incredible. 


Unbelievably dense and delicious homemade corn bread. It manages to be both crumbly and rich at the same time. Quite a good trick and probably the best I've ever had. For reals. It arrived at just the right time to help cool down the slowing creeping heat from the jerk shrimp skewers. Those things were near on nuclear. 

jerk snapper

The whole roasted snapper, smothered in more jerk sauce.  It comes head on and stuffed with callaloo, so be prepared for that. They are not going to fillet or debone it for you. You need to get up in there and do some work yourself. Surprisingly tender hunks of fish flaked right off the bones. That spicy but addictive jerk taste seeping it's way into every morsel.  

To be sure, the Jerk Hut is not fine dining. You may have to ask for silverware a few times. Water will come in a pitcher, with plastic cups. The interior looks like it's been under construction for years (which it has) and exposed wires pop out of the wall here and there. God only knows how they get L&I to sign off the place - I'm sure a plate of chicken doesn't hurt the cause. 

The staff is pleasant and nice though and willing to accommodate most requests. If it's a nice night out you can sit in the expansive side yard, being entranced by the flashing palm tree and listening to the sounds of your stomach rumble while the kitchen fan wafts the jerk scent in your face. It's BYO, but wine is not going to do it. You'll want beer, and plenty of it. Something Caribbean if you can find it, a Red Stripe preferably. Go with a group, for a bigger sampling of the menu. Or just keep coming back for your fix. 

Food Baby Rating: Triplets!!

Jamaican Jerk Hut
1436 South Street
Philadelphia, PA 19146