Thursday, June 18, 2009

New Orleans and Restaurant August

I am busting at the seams to tell you that I have a new favorite restaurant but first there is always a back story:

So much has been written about the city of New Orleans that I can offer no new pearls of wisdom. It is a city of immense contrast, perhaps the greatest on our planet. Wealth and poverty are illustrated on every corner. Young and old, party goers and families, homeless and affluent all patrol the same streets. And while New Orleans is known for its decadence and high crime rate, the mix seems mostly harmonious, even if a touch uncomfortable. My first venture into the city was some 24 years ago as a young soldier. As with most 18 year olds, I was immediately swept up into the all night street parties and mild debauchery. As the years have progressed, I have traveled back to this city many times for various reasons and while I no longer participate in the all night events, I am very reminiscent of them. It should go without saying that one of my earliest impressions of the city was its unparalleled commitment to great cuisine.

To know the food, you have to know the city. Settled by the French, briefly owned by the Spanish then returned to the French, the city’s culture and architecture reflects both unique styles. This eclectic stew continued to be flavored as Creole French (folks of French descent born in the Americas) and immigrants fleeing Haitian civil war poured in during the early part of the 19th century. The uniqueness that is today’s New Orleans was born of these events and the food is like no other anywhere in the world. Perhaps that makes the cuisine the most American cuisine in the US. Fresh local ingredients in simple French preparations and spices reminiscent of both Caribbean and Spanish heritages. I love the food in this city and many other “foodies” I know will tell you it is their favorite place to eat, period.

New Orleans has produced one famous Chef after another. The most notable is, of course, Emeril Lagasse. A young upstart from New England, he settled in New Orleans and was given a shot as head chef at one of the most prestigious haunts in the city, Commander’s Palace. He then skyrocketed to success with the launch of the Food Network. A few years back, Lisa and I had the opportunity to eat at Commander’s Palace (Emeril had long since moved on) and the meal was quite memorable. Specifically, I will always remember their bread pudding dessert. It defined sweet and decadent yumminess. On this trip, there was a different well known chef I was interested in. Chef John Besh has been seen in print and on TV and was runner up to be “The Next Iron Chef” a few years ago. He has been recognized by every food award possible and perhaps a few new ones should be invented for him. His New Orleans jewel is simply called “August”. Voted best of the best in so many categories for so many reasons, this is a must stop for any trip to New Orleans. Make no mistake, this will set you back a few bills (my meal and tip was $167 for one guy) but as you will rarely hear me say, this was worth every nickel. I did not scrimp on my order either. Every entrĂ©e looked so fabulous and unique, I just couldn’t bring myself to choose one thing. I ended up with the tasting menu and the wine pairings. Unfortunately, I have no acumen for fine wines other than I can gently understand the flavors being presented to me. I appreciate good wine but I am no expert.

Before the 1st of 5 courses even came out, I was brought a truffled zabayon served in an eggshell topped with caviar. Zabayon is a custard made with white wine and in this case, infused with truffle oil. The aroma was earthy, heady. Rich and silky, I could have eaten a dozen of these. Course 1 was a crispy sweetbread and heart of palm salad.

Lightly fried till just crispy, this was not even remotely heavy. The richness of the sweetbread morsels (sweetbreads are the thymus gland of veal) was present but not over the top and mixed with a few greens and the sweet pickled hearts of palm, the blend was spectacular. The mark of a great chef is finding those ingredients that are rarely if ever paired and blending them into something special. This was just a taste of the memorable courses that were about to be set before me. The next dish was topped with beautiful squash blossoms that were crisp and tender. Beneath I found a small bit of calamari that was stuffed with an aged chorizo.

Again, marvelous and over the top. Course 3 was roulade of roasted rabbit with an herbed dumpling (they used a fancier word but it was a dumpling).

Number four was a Waygu beef shortrib with artichokes and for dessert a nougatine with chocolate and salted toffee ice cream.

Every course was more sensual than the previous and I cannot pinpoint one thing that I would have preferred differently. August is not an everyday place to eat. Not to say that I couldn’t enjoy the food daily, but with the cost, it is a real treat. While many of my posts bypass fine dining in lieu of more accessible meals, if you visit New Orleans without stopping for at least an appetizer, you are missing a terrific gastronomic opportunity.

Leaving the crescent city is always bitter sweet since I love heading home but there is no other food city I enjoy visiting more. Fortunately, New Orleans is a mere hour away from Tampa by plane and I always seem to end up back there for one reason or another. I have many great food recommendations in this city if you are paying a visit and don’t forget to check for the latest hotspots.

On my official top 5 restaurant list (that I keep mentally), August has edged Providence, Rhode Island’s Al Forno for the #1 spot (Al Forno enjoyed a 2 year run). Now I have to figure out which one to fall off the list.

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