Nov
15
2014

Wandering Traveler

Square Root, an ambitious new restaurant

Square Root, an ambitious new restaurant

8 Best Meals in New Orleans in 2014

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Rooftop pool at the centrally-located Omni Royal Hotel

Rooftop pool at centrally-located Omni Royal

Back in my beloved New Orleans. During my annual visits, I am able to catch up on my many newcomers since the prior visit. I returned to spots like Sylvain and Café Adelaide, ordered sandwiches for my flight home from St. James Cheese Company, and in coffee, and went daily to my favorite Spitfire Coffee near the ideally-located Omni Royal Hotel, where I returned for another stay. When I moved to the mellow Maison Dupuy Hotel, I was delighted to find a fantastic new coffee newcomer — also a vintage barware and bike shop — just around the corner, Arrow Cafe, serving Four Barrel Coffee from SF to make me feel right at home.

Last issue, I covered the best of new bars and cocktails this year in Nola, and here are my top New Orleans meals this year from both newcomers and repeat favorites:

Liquid nitrogen preparation at Square Root:

Liquid nitrogen preparation at Square Root:

Tasting Menu Extraordinaire: Square Root

Artful foie gras course

Artful foie gras course

Square Root is easily the most exciting New Orleans’ newcomer on the dining side — and the same holds true for its upstairs bar/lounge and cocktails. The historic building boasts a balcony and a wrap-around upstairs bar from which bartenders turn out impeccable cocktails, dishes and bites akin to the creative quality I love at their parent restaurant, Root. Downstairs is a 16-seat bar surrounding a live kitchen where executive chef Phillip Lopez and team turn out sophisticated, international dishes (sometimes with molecular touches) right in front of you. It’s a 12-15 course dinner ($150 per person) and changes constantly so each experience is unique.

Shaved white truffles over eggs

Shaved white truffles over eggs

What I appreciate most, besides occasional “wow” moments — when New Orleans flavors and classic dishes are reinterpreted with a Mexican, Asian, global slant — is Lopez’ vision to bring something to Nola that isn’t already here, attempting to be on par with visionary tasting menus found all over NYC, Chicago, LA or SF. There is much possibility and artistry here and I can’t wait to see how Square Root unfolds.

Square Root: mole and cornbread

Square Root: mole and cornbread

Square Root's intimate dining room is up & close & personal with the cooking of their multi-course meal

Square Root’s intimate dining room is up close & personal with the kitchen

Oh, Those Beignets: SoBou

Beignets

Duck Confit Debris & Foie Gras Beignets

Since the week it opened, I’ve been drawn to SoBou for lovely Abigail Gullo’s cocktails, but the food keeps up, maybe even more than in its initial opening days.

Summer was showcased in one of my favorite regional specialties: Creole tomatoes. Akin to amazing heirloom tomatoes at home in Northern California, these juicy red, yellow and green tomatoes ($13) come from Covey Rise Farms ($13), piled high with spicy legumes (black eyed peas, etc.), grilled summer corn and arugula in sugarcane vinegar made into caviar-like pearls. But all bets are off with decadent sweet potato beignets ($12) drizzled in foie gras fondue, filled with duck confit debris and accented by chicory coffee ganache. Sigh.

Out of the Way Surprise: Treo

The best part of Treo may be its clean but funky design & warm service

The best part of Treo may be its clean but funky design & warm service

On a sweltering, hot day, I went well out of my way to try newcomer Treo in Mid City because the menu called to me. Cocktails were intriguing but some came in surprisingly miniscule portions (half the size of a typical cocktail), especially at $10-11 each — and flavors weren’t always realized either though I loved the ingredient combination, as with Phet Nit Nawy (translates to “a little bit spicy” in Thai) mixing Genepy des Alpes liqueur, Ransom dry herbal vermouth, tarragon syrup and Thai chilies. But the Southeast Asian influence is not much seen (and thus needed) in these parts.

Treo's gumbo

Treo’s gumbo

Food was the highlight, particularly on the “pie” front. Crawfish empanadas ($8), a Spanish twist on classic crawfish pie, were a delight, while Nola’s legendary Hubig’s was the inspiration behind a fried blueberry pie ($8) accented by crème anglaise and fresh blueberries.

Even Better 1 Year In: Peche

Surprisingly excellent fish stick

Surprisingly excellent fish sticks

Since I first visited Peche right when it opened last year, chef/owners Ryan Prewitt, Donald Link and Stephan Stryjewski have been garnering a heavy dose of accolades, including being named Best New Restaurant in the US at the 2014 James Beard Awards. While all that feels a bit exaggerated for the large, deafeningly noisy space, returning this year, it was clear in terms of food, Peche has come into its own.

Whole fish

Whole fish: Louisiana speckled trout

Over rounds of seafood, it’s a pleasure, whether ridiculously good fish sticks ($11), oozing, warm shrimp fontina croquettes ($10) or grilled corn on the cob ($5) smothered in Alabama white sauce (hell, yes!) It works best as a shared plates kind of place, particularly with whole fish specials like grilled Louisiana speckled trout ($36) with pancetta and celery or smothered catfish ($16).

Creole tomatoes at their peak in summer at SoBou

Creole tomatoes at their peak in summer at SoBou

Brunch Perfection: Ralph’s On The Park

Brandy Milk Punch

Brandy Milk Punch

Facing massive City Park in Mid City, Ralph’s On the Park is one of my favorite classic New Orleans brunches, a ritual I partake in every year (for over 7 years) at different places around the city. Though Ralph’s doesn’t have live jazz and I prefer jazz brunch when I can get it, their food is among the best brunches I’ve had in Nola — and a deal at $28 for a 3-course brunch.

Ralph's on the Park

Ralph’s on the Park

While sipping a classic Brandy Milk Punch ($8 – brandy, milk, simple syrup, nutmeg, vanilla extract) — also a key part of my Nola brunch tradition (along with a Cafe Brulot) — I start with pickled beet salad ($6.50) accented by baby arugula, red onion and creamy feta with an unusual touch of orange blossom vinegar. Fried smoked oysters ($11) are excellent in Buffalo Trace tomato jam and white remoulade sauce, while chicken & waffles ($15) are given a twist with the chicken wrapped in country ham, all in red eye gravy. Their turtle soup finished with sherry ($8) is the best I’ve ever had after trying many versions over the years.

Elegant Comfort: Herbsaint

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Crab in watermelon gazpacho

While I might prefer other Donald Link restaurants (namely the aforementioned Peche; Cochon is wildly popular, but after a few visits over the years, I enjoy but find it overrated), the older Herbsaint turns out a number of lovely dishes, thanks to Link and Chef de Cuisine Rebcca Wilcomb. While pricey sparkling cocktails like the Herbsaint Champagne ($13) are disappointing, the wine list offers plenty of acidic, Old World whites to accompany seafood.

Herbsaint's massive, delicious, slow-cooked lamb neck

Massive slow-cooked lamb neck

Jumbo lump crab ($14) is lively in watermelon gazpacho dotted with lime-jalapeno aioli. Louisiana shrimp and fish ceviche ($12) is perked up with cucumbers and pepitas. I love tender rabbit fricassee ($14) over garganelli pasta, decadent with bacon and pumpkin, the clincher being a rich Madeira sauce.

One of the dining rooms at SoBou

One of the dining rooms at SoBou

Not-Your-Average-Nola-Dive-Bar: St. Lawrence

St. Lawrence' burger

St. Lawrence’ burger

Dive-y but not dingy, St. Lawrence is a welcome addition to the Quarter. It’s open all day and night, offering affordable comfort food made with quality ingredients and the best damn boozy slushies in a neighborhood famous for bastardizing the category. Just try their bracing, delicious Pimm’s Cup slushies and try not to be converted.

Sip a slushie on a hot day alongside a platter of heartwarming fried chicken ($15) mashed potatoes and braised collard greens or an 8 oz. Creekstone Angus beef burger ($12) on a Kaiser bun with white cheddar ($1).

Drinks & Southern Goodness: Kingfish

Kingfish's fried green tomatoes & Hoppin' John

Kingfish’s fried green tomatoes & Hoppin’ John

Kingfish is all about bartender legend Chris McMillian and his few-but-utterly-perfect classics, included the best Suissesse ($12) — a classic, creamy absinthe cocktail, here made with Herbsaint, orgeat and cream — you’ll ever have.

But it’s also about fun food, my recent favorite being a top notch version of Hoppin’ John salad ($9) accompanied by a fried green tomato with remoulade sauce. On the entree front, shrimp gaufre ($22) is Nola-style BBQ shrimp atop a cornmeal waffle pirogue on sweet potato puree.

The courtyard of Nola's Maison Dupuy hotel, one of a few places I've stayed in the French Quarter - this hotel is a quiet respite in the Quarter with a pool in the coutryard

The courtyard of Nola’s Maison Dupuy hotel, one of a number of places I’ve stayed in the French Quarter – this hotel is a quiet respite in the Quarter with a pool in the courtryard

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Nov
01
2014

Wandering Traveler

Square Root

Square Root’s Private Dancer

Best Cocktails in New Orleans 2014

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

The new Barrel Proof

The new Barrel Proof

Back in my beloved New Orleans. Newcomers are minimal enough in a given year that I can catch up on them on my annual visits. Restaurants open at a steadier clip (though not at all like the pace at home), while new cocktail bars are few. Alongside the likes of Treo (better for food than cocktails) and Barrel Proof (a very cool, expansive space, ideal for groups of friends and boasting a good whisk(e)y selection, though mediocre cocktails), I visited bars that opened between late 2013 and 2014 and returned to a number of favorites, like Sylvain, Kingfish, SoBou, Bar Tonique and classic greats like Napoleon House and French 75.

Here are my top New Orleans cocktails this year from both newcomers and favorites:

Square Root

Square Root's upstairs lounge

Square Root’s upstairs lounge

Square Root is easily the most exciting newcomer to New Orleans on the dining side — and the same holds true for its upstairs bar/lounge. The lovely space in a historic building boasts a balcony and a wrap-around bar from which bartenders turn out impeccable cocktails, dishes and bites akin to the creative quality I love at their parent restaurant, Root.

Two initial delights? Zwack to the Future (love that name), a mix of funky-beautiful Smith & Cross rum and Hungarian Zwack herbal liqueur with Cherry Heering (a cocktail by NYC guest bartender John Henderson) and house cocktail, Private Dancer, a light, refreshing-savory mix of blanco tequila, Cocchi Americano, lime, hibiscus and pink peppercorn.

Cane & Table

Cane & Table

CellarDoor

CellarDoor

CellarDoor

Romantic and ethereal, the multi-roomed CellarDoor, tucked down a CBD (Central Business District) street in an 1800’s brick building, would be my other strong recommend of the newcomers. It feels oh-so-New-Orleans with its historic, candlelit, chandelier-draped look, yet it stays current with playful, Asian-influenced food, like curried plantain chips in Malaysian satay sauce ($5) or ginger shrimp heads ($7) doused in scallions, miso crème fraiche and wasabi roe.

Since 1797, the great Napoleon House

Since 1797, the great Napoleon House

There’s a strong wine list of Rieslings, Txakolina from Basque region, wines from Rioja, Spain, and Jura, France, and the fantastic Movia Rebula from Slovenia ($75 bottle). Cocktails stick to the straightforward classics, like an Old Fashioned ($9) with hand cut ice, while house concoctions might by the likes of Summer Sling ($11), a bracing combination of Rittenhouse Rye, Smith & Cross Jamaican rum, Licor 43, Herbsaint (an anisette similar to absinthe), hopped grapefruit bitters and lemon.

St. Lawrence

St. Lawrence's Pimms Cup Slushie

St. Lawrence’s Pimms Cup Slushie

Dive-y but not dingy, St. Lawrence is a welcome addition to the Quarter. It’s open all day and night, offering affordable comfort food made with quality ingredients and the best damn boozy slushies in a neighborhood famous for bastardizing the category. Just try their bracing, delicious Pimm’s Cup slushies and try not to be converted. Or there’s straightforward, refreshing drinks like Beet Belief ($8), a blend of Junipero gin, lemon, beet syrup and sparkling wine (I wish there was more earthy beet taste).

Sip a slushie on a hot day alongside a platter of heartwarming fried chicken ($15) mashed potatoes and braised collard greens or an 8 oz. Creekstone Angus beef burger ($12) on a Kaiser bun with white cheddar ($1).

Always a must-stop when in Nola: Loa

Always a must-stop when in Nola: Loa

Loa

Loa

At Loa, a mix of Diplomatico rum, tangerine, grains of paradise, rosemary

I can’t be in Nola without returning to Loa, which I first wrote about in 2012, for Alan Walters creative cocktails, among the best — and certainly the most visionary — in the city.

This year I savored the gorgeous, extreme bitter of Amaro Dell’Erborista mingling in a wine glass with watermelon, citrus and Stappj bitter soda. I was fascinated by Walters use of grains in a Toasted Wild Birdseed Old Fashioned ($12), where he toasts millet, quinoa and other grains, infused in Evan Williams Single Barrel Bourbon and accented by xocolatl mole bitters. The Twice Worn Kilt ($12) is an earthy, booze-forward combination of Smooth Ambler Old Scout bourbon, saffron, sage, Bitter Queens Marie Laveau tobacco bitters (from my hometown of SF) with a smoky Scotch rinse. Loa is a not-to-miss cocktail destination in New Orleans.

Bellocq

Bellocq

Bellocq’s Improved Jefferson Bamboo

Another spot I return to each time I’m in Nola, Bellocq is a haven for all things Cobbler, with many variations on a classic Cobbler cocktail, including a nutty, refreshing Sherry Cobbler ($8.95). But they go well beyond. This year I was delighted by Tomato, Tomato ($9.95), showing off their house tomato lemongrass shrub, vibrant and lively with a splash of Champagne. Another standout was an Improved Jefferson Bamboo ($14.99), showing off my beloved Madeira with bitter Italian Montanaro bianco vermouth.

Cane & Table

Cane & Table's Boss Colada

Cane & Table’s Boss Colada

Back at Cane & Table again, I like it better as it passes the year mark with strong bartenders and an Old World vibe.

One their most popular drinks is the Boss Colada ($12), a long, tropical mix of pineapple, lime and Baska Snaps, a bitters Swedish malort. But I particularly enjoy a rosy, pink Eastern Cottonwood ($12), essentially a Madeira punch punctuated by herbal, citrus notes from Curacao and Yellow Chartreuse. They do right by Madeira here with another off-menu standout (when I asked for more Madeira) made with a Bual Madeira, funky-beautiful Smith & Cross rum and house falernum (and almond, ginger, clove syrup).

Ever-inspiring architecture

Ever-inspiring architecture

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Written by in: Wandering Traveler | Tags:
Feb
01
2014

Wandering Traveler

The actual color (and inspiring magic) of a New Orleans sky on a sunny, pristine day

The actual color (and inspiring magic) of a New Orleans sky on a sunny, pristine day

NEW ORLEANS: The Inventive & the Classic

Article & Photos by Virginia Miller

The back of the always-haunting Saint Louis Cathedral (circa 1794)

The back of the always-haunting Saint Louis Cathedral (circa 1794)

In one of the greatest (though far from the largest or diverse) food cities on earth, New Orleans is great first and foremost because of its truly one-of-a-kind spirit and verve. It’s sensual magic envelops me every visit, haunting me when I’m away. This translates to its cuisine – truly unique, historically formed from an array of cultures that give Nola its character, coalescing into unmatched cuisines of Creole and Cajun. In keeping with the rest of the country, there’s a renaissance of mid-range, urban-chic, smart restaurants alongside the eternal classics in a city that reveres the past while celebrating like no other.

This visit, I was disappointed in the more casual French Quarter offering, Restaurant Stanley, from Stella! Chef Scott Boswell, though scenically situated on Jackson Square. Even Korean barbeque beef Poor (Po) Boy ($15.50) was oddly bland, tasting as if little actual Asian influence (or heart) went into it, but rather as if a generic chain restaurant attempted it.

Common sight & sound: top notch street musicians

Common sight & sound: top notch street musicians

Another letdown, particularly after the long cab ride out to the Black Pearl neighborhood, was Dante’s Kitchen. Though in a charming cottage on a sleepy, residential block across the street from long-beloved Brigsten’s, dishes were hit and miss, while ambitious-sounding cocktails ($9.50), like The Nose Knows (Steinhager gin, Genepi, Velvet Falernum, lemon, Chamomile tea) or Monocle (roasted peanut bourbon, Carpano Antica, Apfel liqueur, ginger liqueur, cane vinegar, flamed lemon peel), sadly ended up tasting as muddled and confused as they sounded (or in the case of the Monocle, lacked any peanut taste whatsoever). Similarly, a classic Italian panzanella salad ($9) was rather lifeless compared to countless versions I’ve had at home, around the US and Italy, while shrimp and grits ($10) or a boudin rouge sausage ($12) with peach mustard likewise paled in comparison to versions I’ve had throughout the South.

This visit, highlights were plenty, however. Here they are (and here are the standouts in drink):

ROOT, CBD (Central Business District)

ROOT

ROOT vegetable salad

Root is one of New Orleans’ great restaurants, though only open since the end of 2011. Executive Chef/Proprietor Phillip L. Lopez best marries  the fresh invention I’m used to at home and the vegetable-forward, Scandinavian wave of recent years with the regional cuisine of Louisiana. His dishes are imaginative and of fine dining quality, comparable with some of the great restaurants in major cities.

Bright interior

Bright interior

Traditional, seaweed-based Welsh laverbread can be topped with juniper cured duck prosciutto ($9), mojama (filleted salt-cured tuna), and other unusual selections from their house charcuterie ($10 each) program. Partnered with pickled yellow tomatoes, pickled kumquat mostarda, corn, pepper chow chow and pumpkin mustard in a little squeeze tube, it’s an interactive delight. Another playful turn on the ever-ubiquitous deviled eggs is Louisiana pickled shrimp ($16) served in an egg-holder platter with pockets of whipped truffled salt cod-egg yolk mousse, remoulade, lemon pickles, charred artichokes and shrimp-stuffed deviled eggs in each egg holder.

Carrot cake

Carrot cake reinterpreted

ROOT vegetable salad ($12) is a prime example of Chef Lopez’ savvy cooking sensibilities. Heirloom carrots and charred fennel sit over vegetable ash and smoked rutabaga purees for earthiness, brightened by pickled celery root and lemon verbena thyme vinaigrette. I felt right back in SF with this one. “Fish & Chips” ($13) iss a Nola-meets-UK mash-up of brown cornflake-battered black cod accompanied by traditional malt vinegar and Cornish salt given proper London flair from baby pepper and corn piccalilli (an Indian pickle relish), sauce gribiche (mayo, egg, mustard, oil-based) and black garlic sauce.

Shrimp & Deviled Eggs

Shrimp & Deviled Eggs

The creative fun continues with a bergamot-coriander “scented” lobster dog ($15) in a honey brioche bun, perky with celery root slaw, charred cucumber relish and smoked peach mustard. Desserts are likewise brilliant and internationally-influenced. African amarula carrot cake ($10) turns carrot cake on its head with African spices, sitting next to carrot coriander ice cream, accented by black sesame praline, charred carrot marshmallow, celeriac crema and carrot “crunchies”. It may be my favorite carrot cake reinterpretation of all time and a blessedly savory dessert.

Unique charcuterie platter

Unique charcuterie platter

Likewise, Indian Falooda ($10) makes traditional vermicelli noodles out of blueberry, layered with lemon thyme sorbet and sweet basil seeds, all doused in geranium milk.

Innovation wouldn’t matter if it didn’t taste wonderful. At Root it does, making it the kind of restaurant that is both cosmopolitan and authentically local. I can hardly wait to visit their tasting menu only, 16-seat Square Root, opening this year.

KILLER PO BOYS in back bar at Erin Rose, French Quarter

Killer Po Boys

Killer Po Boys

In the back of beloved dive bar, Erin Rose, cash only, all-day Killer Po Boys popped up over a year ago. It’s definitely hipster po boys but among the countless, legendary, traditional po boy joints around New Orleans, I love seeing something this playful and funky in the mix. Not to mention boozy. Among a number of daily offerings, it might be coriander lime Gulf shrimp po boys, taking a tip from bahn mi and loaded with marinated radish, carrot, cucumber and cilantro. Another it might a “Dark & Stormy” pork belly po boy ($9.17), glazed in rum ginger, zippy with lime slaw and garlic aioli. Don’t forget Jameson grilled cheese ($6.42)  on Wildflower whole grain bread.

GALATOIRE’S, French Quarter

Cafe Brulot tableside

Cafe Brulot tableside

Since my first visit to New Orleans, I spend each visit plugging away at various greats in regional categories: I always check off another couple legendary po boy joints around the city, and I always enjoy one classic, jazz brunch, complete with Cafe Brulot: bracing, black coffee, brandy and orange liqueur usually marked by cinnamon sticks and an orange spiked with cloves. A bowl of the drink is typically flamed tableside, sometimes directly on the table, other times on a cart.

Charmingly retaining the jacket-required stance since its opening days in 1905, Galatoire’s is about as good as it gets in terms of classic New Orleans brunch. Though they don’t offer the roving jazz trios I love at Arnaud’s and Commander’s Palace, our wonderful waiter, Scott (tradition is, you ask for the same waiter on every return visit), flamed a bowl of Cafe Brulot tableside and attended to us with warm care.

Traditional shrimp remoulade

Shrimp remoulade

Whether traditional crabmeat sardou ($26) or sweet potato cheesecake ($8), it’s pricey and old school, and the food won’t exactly wow… but it’s Old World elegance done right and rarely found in the US anymore and thus worth an occasional splurge.

COQUETTE, Irish Channel

Cocktails at Coquette

Cocktails at Coquette

One of my all-time favorite restaurants in Nola, Coquette is “the whole package”: heartwarming service, in a historic building, serving fine cocktails and contemporary New Orleans cuisine interpreted by Chef/Owner Michael Stoltzfus and Pastry Chef Zak Miller, sourcing mostly from farms and fisherman in Louisiana and Mississippi.

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Tuna, cantaloupe, country ham, popcorn

The food is freshly inventive, of a quality that would make a statement in larger food cities, meaning it is forward thinking while very much expressing its region. For example, cubes of raw yellowfin tuna, cantaloupe and country ham ($13) get texture and playfulness from a smattering of popcorn.

Coquette crab-Virginia Miller

Softshell crab ($28) sweet corn, bacon, greens, cherry tomatoes

Similarly tongue-in-cheek, piles of Louisiana crabmeat ($13) over a stone slab are drizzled in remoulade sauce, accented by sweet corn and boiled eggs with potato chips draped over the spread. An entree might be a flaky Hog snapper ($30) surrounded by chanterelles, roasted okra, sweet corn and a creamy dose of buttermilk sauce.

Chocolate pudding

Chocolate pudding w/ andouille caramel

Miller’s desserts are a happy mix of savory-sweet or refreshing, keeping pace with the savory menu, as in the case of compressed watermelon sprinkled with basil and icy lime granite, dramatic with pop rocks, or a silky rectangle of chocolate pudding partnered with sea salt ice cream in andouille (yes, sausage) caramel sauce ($10).

On the cocktail front ($8-11), I sampled four, all well made and gratifying without being complicated or fussy. They do lovely things with mezcal, while their St. James Sour is a beauty of Legendre Herbsaint, lemon, egg white and bitters perfected by root beer extract – a sort of root beer absinthe sour. Fantastic.

ATCHAFALAYA, Irish Channel

Crab

Fried green tomatoes topped with crab & remoulade sauce ($14)

Tucked off a residential street in the Irish Channel, Atchafalaya is an unexpected delight. Executive Chef Christopher Lynch sources from local farms, ranches and fisheries, crafting New Orleans cuisine with a fresh eye.

Atchafalaya

Atchafalaya

In the summer, the trendy combo of compressed watermelon and burrata cheese in their watermelon “Caprese” Salad ($14) is given added “oomph” with slices of Prosciutto di Parma, smoked almonds and a drizzle of sweet saba.

Free form crab ravioli ($17) is a pleasure of a pasta sheet wrapped around crab, shiitake mushrooms and spinach, heavily doused in mascarpone citrus buerre blanc (a butter-rich sauce).

Their shrimp & grits ($26) with giant, head-on Gulf shrimp, andouille sausage and smoked tomatoes, is the kind of soulful shrimp & grits dish that makes it hard to love most versions outside of the South. With a Middle Eastern touch, Two Run Farms lamb meatballs ($31) get a dose of Southern soul over fluffy Israeli couscous drizzled in cucumber raita and a seasonally-changing chutney.

PECHE, CBD (Central Business District)

Seafood spread

Seafood spread

Beloved New Orleans Chef Donald Link (of Herbsaint and Cochon, to name a few) opened Peche in 2013, a priority during my 2013 visit.

The spacious seafood “temple” (a casual, comfortable sprawl) did not disappoint. Daily changing whole fish, oysters, and raw bar offerings, like a crudo-like cut of tuna in tomato water, fennel, corn, parsley, chili flakes ($9), can be light and delicate (meaning, you may need to order a few small plates to fill up), but flavors are bright, fresh and in the Southern tradition, comforting. A seafood salad ($8) of raw mahi mahi and shrimp is perked up with mint and avocado, while Gulf crab claws ($12) benefit from whispers of Thai food with a chili and mint, plus pickled cioppolini onions. Finish with a tart Key lime pie ($8) in buttermilk whipped cream.

DOMENICA, CBD (Central Business District)

Kale salad

Kale salad

Spacious and elegant, a longtime favorite Nola chef, John Besh’s Domenica is not exactly revolutionary in its modern Italian cuisine with a touch of Southern flair. But it always churns out a gratifying lunch or dinner, doing the genre proud.

Wood-fired Bolzano Pizze ($13) is a hearty-yet-elegant white pizza laden with tender, roasted pork shoulder, fennel, bacon and sweet onions. Squid ink tagliolini topped with blue crab ($18/large $26) is silky with a touch of umami flavor, while fried Tuscan kale in lemon and Parmigiano reggiano ($7) may be ubiquitous, but makes the healthy delicious.

MARIZA, Bywater

Spacious Mariza

Spacious Mariza

In a spacious brick building in a sleepy corner of the Bywater district, Mariza (from the owners of beloved Iris in the Quarter) is not exactly on par with the countless great modern Italian, Neapolitan pizza-influenced spots around the country that have been trending continuously for over a decade. In fact, as a crudo fanatic, I found red snapper crudo ($12) graced with heirloom cucumber and mint rather lackluster. Similarly, green tagliatelle pasta dotted with guanciale, red onion, olives, pickled peppers ($8/14) somehow lacked verve.

Mariza pizza

Mariza pizza

Cocktails in general also disappointed (like an imprecise mix of gin, Lillet Blanc, Meyer lemon, orange bitters and Grand Marnier in Right Side of the Tracks) except in the case of the simplest, an Italian Kiss ($9). A simple blend of sweet and dry vermouth (in this case, Contratto Vermouth Bianco & Rosso) on the rocks, refreshing and clean, was lovely.

On the food side, a straightforward, gratifying pizza of sweet-savory red sauce and fresh mozzarella ($10) marked by fennel and arugula likewise was the strong point, best paired with the Italian Kiss.

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Feb
01
2014

Imbiber

Perfection: Chris McMillian's Absinthe Suiessesse

Perfection: Chris McMillian’s Absinthe Suissesse

Best Cocktails in NEW ORLEANS 2013

Article & Photos by Virginia Miller

Ramos Gin Fizz

Ramos Gin Fizz

Back for Tales of the Cocktail in my beloved city of New Orleans, my last visit yielded these standout drinks at some new and some not-so-new spots (the latest on food and dining in Nola here).

KINGFISH, French Quarter

Wherever bartender Chris McMillian tends, I would go. As the consummate, lifelong bartender who showed me back in a 2008 visit to Nola what a true bartender is, I couldn’t miss drinks at his new home of Kingfish, conveniently located in the French Quarter.

Just try McMillian’s perfect Ramos Gin Fizz on a sultry Nola day. As he foams up egg white over the back of a spoon in a tall glass, served cool with absinthe, creme de menthe, orgeat, cream, you know you’re being served by one of the greats… and that the classics often pale made by the hands of others. Case in point: his Absinthe Suissesse is equally mesmerizing and thirst-quenching.

LOA, CBD (Central Business District)

Loa's enchanting Absinthe Suissesse

Loa’s Absinthe Suissesse

As I wrote about in 2012, Loa remains the truly inventive cocktail menu of New Orleans thanks to Bar Manager Alan Walter. Another two returns this years was no exception. The swank, mellow bar of the International House is the kind of place where New Orleans’ classics like an Absinthe Suissesse ($11) are given a unique turn using coconut milk instead of cream, mixed with Dolin Dry Vermouth and Kubler absinthe, topped with an anise pod.

Additional kudos for fascinating creations like Pearly Gates ($12), decadently mixing 20 year old Grappa Stravecchio, Rothman & Winter Orchard pear liqueur, a lush-bracing golden raisin-Pinot Grigio vinegar and sparkling lemon radler (traditional German lemon soda-beer concoction); or a bright watermelon reduction intermingling with my beloved Redbreast Irish whiskey, gorgeous Crispin Rose Liqueur and herbaceous Elisir M.P. Roux in a Drawing Room cocktail ($13).

BELLOCQ, CBD (Central Business District)

Bellocq

Bellocq’s genepy/creme de cacao/gin cocktail

Of all the newer-wave of cocktail bars in staunchly-classic-cocktail-driven New Orleans, Bellocq is possibly my favorite. In my estimation standing far above its sister bars, Cure and Cane & Table (see below).

As a cobbler-based bar, it doesn’t copy bars done better elsewhere in the country, sharing a distant kinship with the cobblers and juleps at London steakhouse Hawksmoor. Bellocq’s luxurious velvet couches and corners still call to me on a hot Nola night. The bartenders know their stuff, while the unique focus on icy cobblers, sometimes served in frosty silver mugs akin to a Julep cup, might be nutty with Maidera or herbaceous-sweet with yellow Chartreuse.

They also serve a range of cocktails outside the cobbler. This summer, I was smitten with a preview of a new drink soon to launch on their menu, a subtly complex blend of Genepy, Marie Brizard Creme de Cacao and Hayman’s Old Tom Gin.

COQUETTE, Irish Channel

Cocktails at Coquette

Cocktails at Coquette

One of my all-time favorite restaurants in Nola, Coquette is the “whole package”: heartwarming service, in a historic building, serving fine cocktails and fantastic, contemporary New Orleans cuisine (read more about the food here). Cocktails ($8-11) keep pace. I sampled four, all well made and gratifying without being complicated or fussy. They do lovely things with mezcal, while their St. James Sour is a beauty of Legendre Herbsaint, lemon, egg white and bitters perfected by root beer extract – a sort of root beer absinthe sour.

CANE & TABLE, French Quarter

Cane & Table

Cane & Table

Cane & Table just opened this summer within days of my trip to Nola. From the team behind Cure and Bellocq, it’s a restaurant and rum-heavy bar some have dubbed Tiki in theme. There’s nothing Tiki about C&T other than that they serve tropical drinks. The feel is more Colonial-era rum trading with a Caribbean-influenced food menu, which launched after I visited.

As with Cure, which, after multiple visits over the years, I’ve found overrated in the scheme of great US cocktail bars (though original for Nola when it debuted), Cane & Table’s drinks did not overwhelm. But given the right ingredients, it’s the Nola bar for an elevated rum focus. Improved Bombo ($10) is an example of the right mix: the subtle funk of Smith & Cross Navy Strength Rum, smooth Plantation 5 year rum, Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao, Bittermans Tiki Bitters and fresh nutmeg coalesce into a pleasing whole. The only-in-New-Orleans back patio seals the deal, even if I can’t help but recall rum bar greats like Smuggler’s Cove or La Descarga‘s back room when sipping a C&T cocktail.

21st AMENDMENT, French Quarter

21st Amendment

21st Amendment shows classic films over the bar

Though feeling more like a mediocre bar riding (late) on the speakeasy, Prohibition-era bar trend than actually truly knowing (much less perfecting) the genre, the one promising moment at newer 21st Amendment in the touristy depths of the Quarter was a drink called Anybody Wanna Peanut? Though sounding “iffy” as a mix of peanut-infused Maker’s Mark bourbon, honey syrup and Xcolate Mole Bitters, what made it fascinating was the peanut-y texture of the bourbon. Even though the drink wasn’t entirely balanced, it wins strong points for truly tasting of peanuts as other peanut-infused drinks often lack the flavor at all. They turned a tricky consistency into a rich, nutty sip worth perfecting – and creating more drinks from.

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Aug
01
2013

On the Town

The hazy, sultry heat of New Orleans in July fogged up my camera lens

The hazy, sultry heat of New Orleans in July fogged up my camera lens

Another Year, Another Tales:
2013 TALES of the COCKTAIL in New Orleans

Article & Photos by Virginia Miller

Absolut Magic:

Absolut Magic in the air set to Annie Bea’s sultry vocals Miss Beahave’s Copper Club, an intimate lounge at the Absolut party

Another year, another Tales. Tales of the Cocktail was another mad frenzy of a week in oppressive heat (though not as bad as in past years), drinking while getting educated on drink with thousands of people around New Orleans. Any reason to return to my beloved New Orleans (which I’ve written about extensively) is a worthy one.

Best moments this year included time spent in local’s homes, eating home-cooked food (which in New Orleans is real treat, let me tell you) and talking long hours over good drink. Tales remains the single best event in which to connect with key folk of the cocktail/spirits world all in one place and to sample new spirits and products.

While the Tales parties have gotten too big (in some cases, too big to even get into – lines were so long I skipped more than one major event I had a ticket to), some spirits brands ensure the time is worthwhile with countless smaller, more manageable events around the the city. In one case, I was driven to a historic house for Cognac and cigars (cheers, D’usse!), another time I walked to a beer garden with absinthe root beer floats, and, yes, beer (thanks, Becherovka/Pernod!)

Tales Miss Beehave's 4- Virginia Miller

Transported to another time in the orange-haze of Miss Beahave’s Copper Club

Tales Miss Beehave's - Virginia Miller

Grand piano & sultry jazz tunes at Miss Beahave’s Copper Club

Tales Miss Beehave's 3- Virginia Miller

At Miss Beehave’s sipping Absolut Elyx Blush: Fino sherry, Lillet Rose, orange bitters

While there are too many key moments to list, the week’s highlights are best hinted at via photos, the most magical moments being in the intimate jazz room set to the transporting, sultry vocals of London’s Annie Bea at the Absolut party, the one major party that exceeded expectations, with bartenders from around the globe serving drinks (Dale DeGroff, Toby Cecchini, Audrey Saunders, Nick Strangeway, Chris McMillian, etc.) in 16 wildly different themed rooms inside legendary Nola restaurant, Arnaud’s.

Tales Spirited Awards dinner

Tales Spirited Awards dinner

Note the list of Tales Spirited Awards winners below, a Gatsby-themed gala I attended Saturday during Tales. The awards remain New York and London-centric year after year, with the occasional nod to the rest of the cocktail world but not always a pulse on what’s currently “best” around the globe. Still, it’s a pleasure to see hard-working bars, bartenders and industry folk nominated and win, even if many are not included who should be.

Stay tuned for more on New Orleans‘ restaurants and cocktail bars in upcoming newsletters, and also in this newsletter for spirits newcomer standouts during this year’s Tales.

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David Wondrich gives a drink history lesson in the back garden of Dead Rabbit pop-up

Tales Dead Rabbit Pop-up - Virginia Miller

Dead Rabbit pop-up bar (complete with piano as in NY’s Dead Rabbit) at Nola’s brand new Cane & Table bar

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Absolut Elyx dinner with skagen (North sea prawns, dill, lemon mayo), Kraftor (Swedish crayfish in a broth of beer, salt, dill, flowers), herring, gravad lax

Idyllic Absolut Elyx dinner housed in atmospheric Bevelo Gas & Electric Lights space with rounds of skagen (North sea prawns, dill, lemon mayo on toasts), Kraftor (Swedish crayfish in a broth of beer, salt, dill, flowers), herring, gravlax, generous pours of Absolut Elyx, dessert cocktails from Naren Young

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Dave Arnold (NY’s Booker & Dax) serves molecular Absolut Elyx shots at Absolut party

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Creepy, clincal fun in the”My Blue Heaven” room (with Dave Arnold) at Absolut party

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

D'usse Cognac, cocktails, bites and Cognac-soaked cigars at the historic Edgar Degas house - back patio set up for cigar smoking

D’usse Cognac, cocktails, bites and Cognac-soaked cigars inside and in the back yard (pictured) of the historic Edgar Degas house

2013 TALES SPIRITED AWARD WINNERS

Nick Strangeway's "office", 16 Winchester Walk at Absolut party - private appointments/tastings only

One-on-one tasting appointments with Nick Strangeway (London) in his “office”, 16 Winchester Walk, at Absolut party

Best Cocktail Writing PublicationDifford’s Guide (London)

Best New Cocktail/Bartending BookDrink by Tony Conigliaro

Best American Brand Ambassador – Todd Richman (Sidney Frank)

Best International Brand Ambassador – Jacob Briars (Bacardi)

Best American Bartender – Charles Joly, The Aviary (Chicago)

World’s Best Cocktail Menu – The Dead Rabbit (New York)

Best Cocktail Writing – AuthorGary Regan

Best Bar Mentor – Julie Reiner, The Clover Club (Brooklyn)

Helen David Lifetime Achievement Award – Salvatore Calabrese

Pernod Ricard event at the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum was a relaxing afternoon respite, using the vintage soda fountain-like atmosphere to serve up Pernod ice cream floats, test tube cocktails, boozy candy and other treats. Ivy Mix with Pernod Absinthe ice cream floats at the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum

Pernod Absinthe/Abita root beer/ice cream floats at the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum

Best American Cocktail Bar – The Clover Club (Brooklyn)

World’s Best Drinks Selection – Canon Whiskey & Bitters Emporium (Seattle)

World’s Best Hotel Bar – The NoMad Hotel (New York)

World’s Best Cocktail Bar – Drink (Boston)

Best Restaurant Bar – Saxon + Parole (New York)

Best High Volume Cocktail Bar – Clover Club (Brooklyn)

World’s Best New Cocktail Bar – The Dead Rabbit (New York)

Best New ProductFords Gin

International Bartender of the Year – Jack McGarry, The Dead Rabbit (Brooklyn)

Joyous brass bands, whole roasted pigs and fund-raising for the local community schools in Washington Square Park at Pig 'n Punch, thrown annually by SF's The Bon Vivants

Joyous brass band, whole roasted pigs and fund-raising for the local community schools in Washington Square Park at Pig ‘n Punch, thrown annually by SF’s The Bon Vivants

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Oct
15
2012

Wandering Traveler

Garden fresh herbaceousness at Loa Bar in the International House

A Fresh Breeze: Nola COCKTAILS

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

The Quarter after a sultry afternoon thunderstorm

Exploring New Orleans restaurants extensively in recent years, as far as I’m concerned, the city offers some of the best cuisine in the world. When it comes to cocktails, as with food, Nola is blessedly averse to trends and unusually respectful of history, so even through dark ages of cocktails (1960’s-90’s), New Orleans’ cocktail classics like the Sazerac, Ramos gin fizz, and Vieux Carre continued to flow. But even a couple years ago, there was little in New Orleans reflecting the cocktail renaissance that NY and SF have long known and that is sweeping cities across the US the last few years. Swizzle Stick Bar has been open since 2003, but though I love the decor, I’ve not had a standout drink there. In 2009, Cure opened and despite being all the rage, counted in numerous “best bars” lists, I didn’t find Cure exciting compared to many craft cocktail bars globally. Instead, I’d trek to Bar UnCommon for the bartender that changed the way I drink, Chris McMillian, Bar Tonique for laid back quality, or classic Quarter escape, Arnaud’s French 75 Bar.

Impromptu brass bands on the streets – a common Nola sight

What a difference a couple years make. Though there are still only a handful of craft cocktail havens alongside stalwarts of an era gone by, there’s a fresh breeze blowing through New Orleans’ restaurants and bars. Interesting to note, a number of New York bartenders have migrated to the Crescent City, infusing NY craft into Nola’s rich cocktail heritage, as a Times Picayune article noted while I was in Nola in July.

Two of the most interesting, unexpected menus this visit were from New Orleanians who took over bars in both the hotels I stayed at: International House, which despite small rooms is a peaceful-chic respite from French Quarter mayhem, only a couple short blocks from the Quarter, and the old world elegance of Windsor Court with its recent $22 million restoration. My suite at Windsor Court offered views and a deck overlooking the city, roomy living room, bedroom, and vanity room… a graceful, quiet space for rejuvenation in the midst of summer heat and Tales of the Cocktail madness.

LOA BAR at INTERNATIONAL HOUSE, CBD (Central Business District)

Sipping a Sazerac variation surrounded by Alan Walter’s humorous, ’70’s-style wall-hangings

Off the candlelit, sexy lobby of the International House, where I stayed during my recent visit, is Loa Bar. Bar Manager Alan Walter came from Iris, mastering herbaceous cocktails alongside Sharon Floyd. Besides being a musician and blessedly well-versed on one of my great loves, classic country music, Walter and bartender Brian Adee crafted a range of cocktails ($10-13) that could read “overwrought” noting sometimes over five seemingly dissonant ingredients. But each drink tried was a surprise, layered in flavor, different from any other bar menu in town.

First, Green Door ($13): vivacious, herbal notes of Green Chartreuse mixed with fresh pressed apple, mint, lemon and basil and SAGE liqueur had me hooked. Served in a curvaceous silver bowl, the aromatics filled my nose, even from a distance. When I sipped the soft green elixir, it was like bathing in a green garden… almost healthy, bright, eye-opening. I craved it again the moment I left the bar.

Adee’s Southshore

Adee spent countless hours tweaking 20 different versions of a Sazerac (New Orleans’ official city cocktail), which he seeks to perfect, joking, “There was little else to do in Kansas, where I moved from.” He made me a boozy version of a Sazerac with VSOP Cognac (the original Sazerac base), white whiskey, Rittenhouse rye whiskey, and a Kubler absinthe rinse, as well as one of his recipes, a Southshore, that is equal parts kaffir lime-infused cachaca, Campari, Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, lemon, agave nectar, salt-cured kumquat muddled in agave, topped with soda. Refreshing, lightly bitter and not overdone as it might sound.

There’s many intriguing paths to take on Loa’s menu, I wish I could have journeyed down more. Blueberry aquavit with celery and lemongrass, perchance? Or a tribute to country’s greatest couple, Johnny and June: Beefeater gin, Johnnie Walker Black, plum, cardamom and flamed orange. Or Yellow Chartreuse, Jasmine liqueur, tangelos, bell pepper and Peychaud’s Bitters? Each fascinating. As long as this crew is mixing behind the bar, I’ll be back.

COCKTAIL BAR at WINDSOR COURT, CBD

Hooked on a Carrot Fizz

Spending half my week at the stately Windsor Court, I’d sipped a dram upstairs in the old school Polo Lounge in years past with its strong Scotch selection. Relaunching the blandly named Cocktail Bar in the lobby this year as part of Windsor Court’s renovation, the hotel appointed young, talented Christine Jeanine Nielsen (who came from Loa Bar at International House) to helm the bar, working closely with the hotel’s Executive Chef Kristin Butterworth to craft culinary drinks. Like Loa, her menu was an unexpected surprise.

In keeping with the soda fountain revival happening in my own city and around the nation, Nielsen uses lactart, acid phosphate and other fountain techniques in a number of drinks. Inspired by “what she likes to eat,” vegetables sing in her cocktails. I fell for the soda fountain-like Carrot Fizz ($10), frothy with soda and egg white, it’s Karotte brandy, fresh ginger and carrots, lemon and sugar completing this refreshing sipper with ginger bite. Beet & Co. ($9) is a mix of BarSol pisco, pressed beet juice, agave, lemon and Angostura bitters. Soft with egg white and purple-red, it’s a vibrant drink with plenty of lemon tart though I wish I could taste more beet earthiness as I have in favorite beet cocktails of years past.

Aperol Spritz ‘n Squared

Freezing Aperol, prosecco, mint and watermelon into a giant ice cube, Nielsen tops the Aperol Spritz ‘n Squared ($8) with prosecco and mint as the cube slowly dissolves, infusing the aperitif with bitter,  herbal notes amidst the bubbly. Delta Dawg ($12) is ideal for fall with Pierre Ferrand 1840 Original Formula Cognac intermingling with Thai cayenne spiced Steen’s cane syrup. The syrup is a local favorite, given a real kick from the cayenne infusion, though it could be too sweet if not for the wise addition of acid phosphate infusing it with sparkling life.

For dessert? The boozy Exotic Shake ($14): El Dorado 5 year rum, house vanilla ice cream, fresh pineapple juice, house pineapple syrup, lactart for fizzy bite, clove tincture, topped with spiced Benedictine whipped cream. It’s a decadent pleasure. As with Loa, I appreciated the use of craft spirit brands like Hangar One, Aviation Gin, North Shore, Nolet’s Gin, and the unforeseen cocktail oasis in a hotel lobby.

BELLOCQ in the Hotel Modern, CBD

A range of cobblers at Bellocq

Opened in December 2011, Bellocq is Nola’s hot new cocktail “it” bar and with good reason. Filling a niche not overdone, with a faint whisper of kinship with the cobblers and juleps at London steakhouse Hawksmoor, Bellocq is roomy, chic with velvet couches and chairs, comfortable sections arranged to encourage intimate conversation. Bartenders are expertly trained on the cobbler, a cocktail style dating back to at least the 1830’s of a base spirit, sugar, fresh fruit and then radically new elements of ice and a straw. Reminiscent of a Julep in the use of crushed ice and sometimes frosty silver cups akin to a Julep cup, cobblers are ideal in hot weather, with which Nola is well-acquainted.

View from my Windsor Court suite

A classic sherry cobbler leads a menu ($8.95-$14.95 per cocktail) created by Kirk Estopinal, Matthew Kohnke and Neal Bodenheimer, but there are cobblers utilizing a range of spirits, like yellow Chartreuse with jalapeño, citrus and hellfire bitters, for one. While Bonal (the lightly bitter, refreshing French aperitif akin to Lillet) is a worthy choice accompanied by grapefruit zest, my favorite is a Bual Madeira with orange and lemon, those fantastic Madeira properties (nutty, dry, rich) shining here.

Despite how intriguing they sounded, punches didn’t compete with cobblers. Though I appreciate the classic process of clarified milk in the Mary Rocket Punch, the mix of Cognac, lemon and Peychaud Bitters was so subtle it lacked impact. There’s a handful of classic cocktails outside of cobblers, an extensive fortified wines menu, even beer and a shot options. Though off the beaten path in CBD, it’s worth a trek for cocktail lovers seeking something different.

SoBOU, French Quarter

Cynar, Del Maguey Vida mezcal, Cinzano

Opened in July from the legendary Commander’s Palace Family of Restaurants, SoBou (which I reviewed last issue for food and beers on tap at tables) could claim cocktails as its strongest selling point with Bar Chef Abigail Gullo (formerly of Swizzle Stick and Fort Defiance in New York) helming a solid team of bartenders.

Being conveniently located in the French Quarter (South of Bourbon Street is what they’re going for in the name) in a casual, multi-roomed space, I found myself at SoBou more than once in a week. There’s light refreshers and tall, on the rocks cocktails (think bucks, fizzes, flips), like Faubourg Tall Boy (Earl Grey-infused gin, creme de cassis, lemon and sparkling wine), but highlights were off menu. One gracious bartender made me a classically inspired, three ingredient winner of Cynar, Del Maguey Vida mezcal and Cinzano, when I asked for something either bitter or with mezcal. Meaty is the best descriptor for this combo – and that is entirely a compliment.

MAUREPAS FOODS, Bywater

Cocktails at Maurepas Foods

Maurepas Foods is my favorite new Crescent City restaurant (see last issue), aided by the fact that it also boasts strong cocktail offerings from Minneapolis transplant Brad Smith. The menu is seasonal, simple, straightforward but still interesting.

A Bywater Daiquiri is the shining neighborhood star, a vivacious, not-too-sweet combination of rum, mango, banana, lime, and piloncillo (unrefined whole cane sugar), it’s tart, refreshing. A hint of smoke adds sultriness to the Chameleon, bright with limoncello, cucumber and grapefruit, while naming points go to the Mofo Cosmo, which is a pour of Old Grand-Dad bourbon. In general, they perk up classic profiles, like gin, Chartreuse and lime in the Merriweather, with seasonal fruits like rhubarb.

SYLVAIN, French Quarter

Sylvain cocktail spread

Though it can get packed on weekends, my weeknight excursion to Sylvain was mellow and welcoming in the historic Quarter restaurant (near Jackson Square on dreamy Chartres Street), making it a new Quarter favorite for a proper cocktail and a bite.

Built in 1796, the space evokes a Colonial tavern serving gastropub fare like Champagne and fries, braised beef cheeks, pulled pork sandwiches, and shaved brussels sprouts. Drinks are simple (commonly three ingredients), skillfully-prepared – and good fun to boot. Mordecai’s Paloma ($10) uses mezcal instead of the Paloma’s traditional tequila base, grapefruit juice perked up with Chef Alex’s hot sauce, while beer cocktails like Table Tennis ($9) mixes Pimm’s No. 1 with Hitachino White Ale and a little citrus.

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Oct
01
2012

Wandering Traveler

The ever inspiring architecture of the French Quarter

LATEST in NEW ORLEANS DINING

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Criollo's shrimp

Returning to my beloved New Orleans, a city I’ve explored extensively via a path laden with jazz, Dixieland, Zydeco, Ramos Gin Fizzes, Sazeracs, Cajun and Creole food, there were ever more finds, both new and classic. The sweltering humid heat of July during Tales of the Cocktail is not ideal weather to fill up on po boys and boudin, but I managed, and in so doing, savored more of the soul of this most soulful of places.

More of Cochon's rabbit & dumplings, please

Though I returned to modern day favorites like Cochon (rabbit and dumplings, boudin and fried alligator, thank you) or ordered appetizers and drinks at the bar at brand new Criollo in the Hotel Monteleone, following are restaurants I’d add to my already long, Nola neighborhood lists – and only one real disappointment.

 

Best New Restaurant: Maurepas Foods

Maurepas' bright yet rustic interior

Visiting six new hot openings this trip, Maurepas Foods, open since the beginning of the year, was easily the best. I approached the restaurant in the midst of a warm, sultry downpour of summer rain in the mellow, ruggedly hip Bywater neighborhood. Maurepas offers high value (everything is $3-17) in gourmet, quality food prepared with care – of the caliber I’m used to at home in SF. It’s also more playful and forward-thinking than higher priced restaurants around town. Salvaged chandeliers, reclaimed woods, the rustic look of a former printing house, all fit in the neighborhood, while the space is colorful, bright with windows, peaceful during late afternoon. Cocktails shine, artisan but affordable – more on that next issue when I cover the latest in Nola cocktails.

Maurepas popular goat tacos

Chef-owner Michael Doyle (formerly of Uptown’s Dante’s Kitchen), keeps the food as funky and fun as the artwork lining the walls with his already beloved goat tacos ($8) accompanied by pickled green tomatoes and cilantro harissa on housemade tortillas. I get good goat tacos at home in Cali. and these are winners. A special of the day, lightly fried soft shell crab, feels nearly decadent in creamy curry, while Summer is glorified in peaches and peppers ($8) tossed in lemon balm with mint and coriander. A green onion sausage ($8) from Mid-City deli favorite Terranova is grilled, served alongside arancini (fried Italian rice balls) and figs with black pepper mustard.

I left Maurepas aglow from the hospitable service, confident I’d eaten at what is not just the Crescent City’s best new restaurant, but one of Nola’s best overall, downhome as it is refreshingly current.

Best Po Boy: Parkway Bakery & Tavern

Welcoming Garden District sandwich shop, The Grocery

Like any great regional dish, few agree on who makes it best. Which is why, when it comes to po boy sandwiches in New Orleans, I have to a try a few each visit, checking off the long list of those commonly deemed “best” (past favorites include Domilise’s). This trip, I learned from a local while riding the St. Charles streetcar that longtime Parasol’s owners had moved nearby to Tracey’s Irish Restaurant due to a rent hike, the local said. I rerouted there for a hearty (if a bit dry, despite being “dressed”) beef po boy. Nearby, I also visited the adorable Grocery (not to be confused with legendary Central Grocery in the Quarter) known for their “pressed po boys”, or basically panini. Though I loved the friendly sandwich shop, I couldn’t help but wish for a real Cubano when trying their Cuban sandwich.

Still dreaming of Surf & Turf po boys at Parkway

But the top po boy thus far – of any of my New Orleans visits – may be obvious: I finally made it to Mid-City’s Parkway Bakery & Tavern. A classic since 1911, po boys have been served here since 1929. Lines are long (and slow) with plenty of menu items. But it’s the Parkway Surf & Turf ($8.10/11.30), slow cooked roast beef and fried shrimp in gravy, that’s a game changer. A local tipped me off to this one, rightly affirming there’s no reason to choose beef or shrimp po boys when you can have both. Adding remoulade and horseradish from the condiments table, I avoided the dryness that seems to plague many a beloved po boy. I could not stop sighing in ecstatic glee with each meaty, shrimp-y bite.

Goin' to church on Sunday: brunch at Redemption

Church Brunch: Redemption

Restored church space

Setting outshines the food, at least at Sunday brunch, but sweet service and friendly locals who chatted with me as I dined solo with a book, a bourbon milk punch and chicory coffee, made my meal at the new Redemption in Mid-City a rewarding excursion via streetcar.

The striking, converted church setting is certainly the main attraction. High ceilings, wood rafters, and a stained glass glow imparted a lasting impression, although alligator sausage on waffles ($9 starter) could be amazing if perfected. Pricier dinner entrees ($22-$33) run the seafood to steak gamut with New Orleans influence.

Classic Ice Cream Parlor: Angelo Brocato

Old school Sicilian ice cream

If you’re hitting up Parkway Tavern or Redemption in Mid-City, classic ice cream parlor, Angelo Brocato, is not a far trek from either.

Though I find flavors more interesting at La Divinia Gelateria, Creole Creamery or Sucre, I love Angelo Brocato’s history as a family-run, Sicilian sweets outpost since 1906. Refreshing mint ice cream soothes on an oppressive Summer day.

 

Best New French Quarter Watering Hole: SoBou

Individual beer taps on tables

Even if the name SoBou (refering to South of Bourbon Street) feels forced, this newcomer (opened in July just a couple weeks before I twice visited) from New Orleans’ restaurant legends (Commander’s Palace Family of Restaurants) shows promise of succeeding on numerous fronts. Though the place can get obnoxiously loud, it’s multi-roomed, casual, festive, whether at individual or communal tables. A friendly bar staff, run by bar chef Abigail Gullo from NYC, beer taps actually at individual tables in the front room (dangerous!), and a menu from executive chef/partner Tory McPhail and Juan Carols Gonzalez are all reasons to go.

Cajun queso & cracklins'

I’ll highlight cocktails next issue, but on the food front, playfulness reigns with blessedly local touches, like a Cajun queso ($5), essentially a pimento cheese fondue with pork cracklins’ to dip, and crispy oyster tacos ($7), a delight of fried oysters, compressed pineapple ceviche, mirliton (aka chayote or pear squash, the poster child of Southern vegetables), and Cajun ghost pepper caviar. The best bite of all?  Butternut duck “debris” beignets in chicory coffee ganache with foie gras fondue. Ridiculous.

My initial take is SoBou works best as a bar hangout (cocktails or beer) with crowd-pleasing bites and with its convenient locale and all day hours it’s just what the Quarter needed.

Sustainable Louisiana Seafood: Borgne

Borgne's duck "poppers"

Obviously all of John Besh’s restaurants can’t be August… nor would I want them to be. The great New Orleans’ chefs latest is Borgne, with Executive Chef Brian Landry in the kitchen. It’s a bustling, almost cafeteria-like ode to Louisiana seafood, sustainable whenever possible. While the place feels short of greatness and a couple dishes disappointed, it’s a fine lunch outpost for a beer or a solid cocktail and the likes of three deviled blue crabs ($20), hollowed out and stuffed with their own meat, or skewered duck (misleadingly called poppers – $9), wrapped in jalapeno and bacon.

After-Hours Hangout: Delachaise

Delachaise's inviting front patio

For late night goose fat fries ($6) with satay peanut sauce for dipping, smoked salmon johnny cakes ($13), and flank steak bruschetta ($10), alongside a bar-length chalkboard marked with an array of beer, wine and spirits (Campari-based aperitifs are a good way to go here, like a Negroni or Americano), Delachaise, with its magical, white light-draped front patio, is a couple steps above a dive and an ideal nighttime hangout with friends in the Garden District.

Business District Coffee Break: Merchant

At Restaurant R'evolution: sophisticated amuse bouche presentation

Though I must be honest and say dry, bland crepes were a letdown, the clean, white design of 2011 newcomer Merchant in the CBD (Central Business District) makes for an inviting breakfast hangout. Serving Illy coffee, the space feels half chic Rome cafe, half Bay Area, as the design was, in fact, inspired by Apple in Silicon Valley.

Though Illy would be far from the most respected bean choice where I come from (more classic Italian chain than modern day coffee haven), what makes Merchant special as a coffee stop is that there’s nothing else around like it. Third Wave coffee hasn’t really hit New Orleans and though there is something strong to be said for a New Orleans iced coffee laced with chicory even from chains like PJs and Community Coffee, there’s a massive gap when it comes to sources for hardcore coffee aficionados. At least Merchant is trying to narrow the gap on the Italian side with a custom-build XP1 espresso machine and appropriately robust coffee.

Fine Dining Disappointment: Restaurant R’evolution

What could have been exciting, felt like a disjointed mess of shrimp & grits

The greatest disappointment this visit was one of the city’s biggest new openings in a restored French Quarter mansion with multiple rooms and an attentive team of servers, the fine dining Restaurant R’evolution. I feel obliged to mention it as the big name Chicago chef attached to it, Rick Tramanto of Tru, alongside New Orleans’ Chef John Folse, will draw foodies. Despite its gorgeous rooms and convenient Quarter location, it fell far short of expectations. Dining out at over ten meals a week for years both in my hometown, one of the world’s greatest food cities, and around the globe, I know mediocre. Mediocre becomes far worse if it costs over $100 per person and dishes sound so promising. Granted, I dined here as it was just under two months old so one could argue that it’s still finding itself, but I dine at brand new restaurants constantly and when there’s not one standout dish on any visit, there’s something wrong.

Another dish that looked/read better than it tasted: Quail Triptych

I find a place coalesces in service and voice over time but a strong menu tends to show its promise from the beginning, even with kinks to work out. At R’evolution, there’s artfully displayed, if chaotic, round of flavorless, $16 tomatoes in a lovely olive oil ice cream, followed by an East-meets-West  shrimp and grits ($29). I’m well used to this kind of “fusion” cuisine in my Asian-dominant city and am a shrimp and grits fanatic, particularly in the South (I tend to have the best in Charleston), but this dish looked and tasted disjointed, even bland, despite chiles and ginger in the mix.

Even a brilliant concept of a trio of quail ($32), one Southern-fried, one boudin-stuffed and overly salty, one absinthe-glazed, though I could not taste even a hint of absinthe… was a real letdown. Each and every dish, outside of a couple solid desserts, was far from competitive with great fine dining restaurants around the country. Two friends and I left, $300 later, deflated. I arrived with the highest expectations for any new New Orleans opening on my agenda this visit, but left without even one dish leaving an impression.

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Written by in: Wandering Traveler | Tags:
Aug
15
2012

On the Town

Japanese whisky haven in a Warehouse District loft with Suntory

Highlights of 2012 TALES of the COCKTAIL

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Ryan Fitzgerald and team accepts for Beretta, which wins Best Cocktail Bar in America at Tales' Barroom Brawl

It was another humid, sweltering year at Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, the world’s biggest cocktail event, drawing thousands of global attendees for a relentless week of tastings, seminars and parties in the great queen of the South. Any reason to be in Nola is a good one and with the city overrun with some of the world’s best bartenders, brand ambassadors, writers and distillers, it was, as usual, one long party.

Being Tales’ 10th anniversary, the parties were particularly big this year, though for me none came close to the magic of William Grant & Sons’ party in a Garden District mansion at Tales two years ago. I found myself craving such an event in the midst of cacophonous, overcrowded blowouts, urging me to slip away with like-minded folk for conversation in quieter settings. Nevertheless, the week held numerous highlights:

1. SF REPRESENTED

Enrique Sanchez of Jasper's joyfully mixes cocktails as part of the Beretta SF team

Though Tales’ awards continue to be Europe and New York-centric (evidenced by the London-dominant wins at the Spirited Awards), this year SF made a dent, only hinting at our long-established cocktail culture that has set trends rather than been a recent comer to the nationwide renaissance of the last few years.

At Thursday night’s Bar Room Brawl, bars from six US cities represented with bar teams serving special menus as brass bands (and beyond) rocked on. The winner of Best Cocktail Bar in America? Our own Beretta. Ryan Fitzgerald, Jennifer Colliau, Enrique Sanchez, and a hard-working crew of SF bartenders ecstatically accepted a giant trophy, doing us proud.

Roasting a whole pig at The Bon Vivants' Pig & Punch BBQ fundraiser

The Bon Vivants (Scott Baird, Josh Harris, Alex Straus) deservedly won The John Lermeyer Award for Good Behavior at Tales’ Spirited Awards. It was a joy watching them win the first award of the night for their humanitarian work, which gives a good name to bartenders everywhere. Besides painting over 30 New Orleans KIPP Charter School classrooms with a team of volunteers, they threw their 3rd annual Pig & Punch fundraiser for the schools Saturday in Washington Square Park. With delicious barbecue (whole hog, y’all), Don Julio and George Dickel punches, and a crowd of over 800 people, they raised over $21k (they started this merely three years ago raising $1600). Impressive growth and a shining example of how to have fun and give back at the same time.

The stage set as a pub for the Spirited Awards

With two of the four nominees for Spirited Awards‘ Best Restaurant Bar being from SF (the other was the wonderful Bar Agricole), it was a delight to see the ever-talented Erik Adkins win for The Slanted Door, with equally impressive work behind Heaven’s Dog. I wish for more US bars to be awarded – and for nominees to be more current as Tales seems to often nominate places that were great or established years ago. Though I adore London and have been to all the nominated London bars, I can’t help but notice the US isn’t represented in London Cocktail Week, for example, so why wouldn’t we reserve at least a bigger section of the platform to acknowledge the fantastic bars nationwide?

2. JAPANESE WHISKY HAVEN

Single barrel Japanese whisky vials for mixing or poured on the rocks

A hearty thank you to Suntory and the fabulous Neyah White and Gardner Dunn (Suntory Brand Ambassadors) for what was THE highlight of Tales: an intimate, invite-only tasting room in a Warehouse District loft. Down a candlelit hall was a white room punctuated by glowing bar, decorative kimono on loan from a Paris museum, and mini-tables lined with vials of single barrel whiskies from the Suntory line for us to mix and pour over hand-cut ice. Making the experience even more memorable, Michael Mina corporate chefs, Lincoln Carson and Gary Lamorte, flew out from SF and Vegas respectively to cook four exceptional bites. I’m still dreaming of a 76 degree sous vide egg strained through a siphon, creamy and whipped, over vanilla brioche studded with bacon. Togarashi Fiddle Faddle popcorn was an addictive snack, and a cool banana mochi over golden raisin puree elicited a long, slow sigh of delight.

Togarashi Fiddle Faddle

Alongside the space’s Zen peace and camaraderie with other whisky aficionados, the afternoon was landmark due to a bar of everything from Hakushu 25 year, Yamazaki 1984, Hibiki 30 year, and other extremely rare, unavailable in the US Japanese whiskies. The privilege was not lost on me, and while I would be hard pressed to chose a favorite, Yamazaki ’84 lingered on my palate long after I returned to the blinding heat outside.

3. FIRST TASTES OF UNRELEASED SPIRITS

Meeting with distillers, brand ambassadors and previewing unreleased spirits are key reasons I go to Tales, even if there wasn’t an overwhelming offering of the new this year. On the first day of Tales, I spent time with WhistlePig master distiller Dave Pickerell, who you may know as Maker’s Mark master distiller for 14 years. As Pickerell told me himself, I was the very first to try his upcoming October release, TripleOne. TripleOne is WhistlePig rye but at 111 proof (vs. 100), aged 11 years (vs. 10), and at $111 per 750 ml. bottle. The bracing TripleOne doesn’t boast quite as long a finish as the flagship rye, but it’s even more complex, surprisingly akin to applejack or Calvados at first sip, opening up into spicy rye body with citrus and chocolate notes. American whiskey fans, watch for this one. You’re going to want it.

4. AMARO/AMARI 

Agostino Perrone of London's Connaught bar serves amari

You say amaros, I saw amari (plural for amaro). The bottom line is amaro (Italian for “bitter”), the wide range of herbal liqueurs commonly sipped as after-dinner digestifs in Italy, has been hot the past few years and only continues to get hotter. Though there are still countless amari not yet imported from Europe, big names like Fernet and Cynar have ushered bitter liqueurs into the mainstream. Amari popped up all over Tales, most notably in the Fortified and Aromatized Wines Tasting Room highlighting port, sherry, etc… and some of the US’ best vermouths like SF’s Sutton Cellars and Imbue in Portland. The highlight of the tasting was Neil Kopplin pouring Imbue’s debut of brand new Petal & Thorn, a gorgeously bitter gentian liqueur using homegrown beets for color, alongside cinnamon and menthol.

Sipping amari with Spirit of Italy

On the Italian front, The Spirit of Italy (TSOI) threw a two morning brunch hosted by Francesco Lafranconi, featuring seven producers: Amaro Lucano, Luxardo, Moccia, Nardini, Pallini, Toschi and Varnelli. Lafranconi’s cocktails stole the show, like addictive:

Amaro Lucano-Bourbon Milk Punch
1 ¼ oz Amaro Lucano
¾ oz Bourbon Whiskey
4 oz Milk Punch Mix*
Method: shake ingredients with ice then strain into a tumbler.
Garnish: orange peel and sprinkle of nutmeg.

*Milk Punch Mix (keep refrigerated):
2 oz milk
2 oz half & half
5 drops of vanilla extract
½ oz rock candy syrup

Zabov NOLA Coffee

1 oz Zabov Liqueur
½ oz Cream-style Sherry
½ oz Chocolate Liqueur
2 oz Chicory Coffee Blend
2 tbsp. Zabov-flavored whipped cream*
Method: shake ingredients with ice then strain into a glass coffee mug.
Garnish: zested lemon peel and sprinkle of cinnamon sugar.

Zabov in a Nola Coffee

*Zabov-flavored whipped cream:
12 oz heavy cream
4 oz Zabov.
In a pint-size whipping cream syphon combine the ingredients, charge and keep refrigerated.

Zabov is essentially zabaglione (the Italian dessert of whipped egg yolks, sugar, sweet wine) in a bottle – a little sweet on its own but fascinating in texture and in the coffee cocktail. On the other end of the spectrum, Varnelli’s expensive ($52), uber-bitter Amaro Sibilla is a complex delight, unfolding with chestnuts, coffee, honey, and intense bitter notes – not for the novice amaro drinker.

6. INDIE SPIRITS ROCK

Evanston, Illinois' FEW at Indie Spirits That Rock

Kudos to Dave Schmier for Indie Spirits That Rock, a version of his Indy Spirits Expo, which I’ve been to every year in SF. Crowds thronged around small, independent spirits – they need a bigger tasting room next year. I was “tattooed” with an artful, temporary St. George Breaking & Entering Bourbon tat (which everyone thought was real) and even discovered a few new spirits I had not tasted before.

Smooth Ambler Gin at Indie Spirits

Standouts included West Virginia’s Smooth Ambler Spirits‘ (I’d had their Old Scout bourbon before) fascinating Barrel-Aged Gin, aromatic with orange marmalade, bitter subtleties, pine, cinnamon, and their Very Old Scout bourbon, earthy with oak, nuts, toast and butter. Few Spirits (from Evanston, IL) also offered an intriguing rye and bourbon, the former spicy, sweet, bracing, the latter smooth but not lacking in character. I look forward to revisiting each of these.

7. HANGING in FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA’s NOLA HOME

Inside Francis Ford Coppola's French Quarter home

Besides Suntory’s sacred den of Japanese whisky, the other haven from Tales madness and New Orleans’ Summer heat was Francis Ford Coppola’s French Quarter home. By invite only, we were merely given an address, entering a candlelit walkway into a classic New Orleans courtyard and hundred years’ old home with exposed brick walls, fireplaces, grand piano and jazz duo serenading us as we sipped Krug and Inglenook Wine. I stopped in more than once, grateful for a peaceful gathering on comfy couches where I ran into friends from New York to Ireland.

8. HOUSE SPIRITS’ MORNING COFFEE BAR

Courtyard at Coppola's home

Thanks to Portland’s House Spirits for the brilliant idea of a coffee bar – with booze, of course –  every morning at an art gallery across the street from the Tales’ home base of the Hotel Monteleone.

Iced Stumptown Coffee perked us up on those slugglishly hot, post-party mornings. And if one must add House Spirits’ coffee liqueur or aquavit to the coffee, so be it.

A memorable Spirited Dinner on 4/26 celebrating Sindey Frank Importing Co.'s 40th anniversary at Dickie Brennan's Steakhouse with drinks by (L-R): Sean Kenyon (Denver), Sean Hoard (NYC), Ivy Mix (NYC), Todd Richman (NYC), chef de cuisine Alfred Singleton

2012 TALES of the COCKTAIL
Spirited Award Winners

The John Lermeyer Award for Good Behavior:
The Bon Vivants 

American Bartender of the Year:
Eric Alperin
Charles Joly
Jeffrey Morganthaler
Joaquin Simo

Best American Brand Ambassador:
Erick Castro
Elayne Duke
Jamie Gordon
Jim Ryan

Best American Cocktail Bar:
Anvil Bar & Refuge – Houston, Texas
Clover Club – Brooklyn, New York
Columbia Room – Washington, District of Columbia
The Varnish – Los Angeles, California

Best Bar Mentor:
Bridget Albert
Wayne Collins
Francesco Lafranconi
Steve Olson

Best High Volume Cocktail Bar:
Beretta – San Francisco, California
Clover Club – Brooklyn, New York
Eastern Standard – Boston, Massachusetts
La Descarga – Los Angeles, California

Best Cocktail Writing, Non-Book:
BarLifeUK
Liquor.com
ShakeStir.com
Time Out NY

Best Cocktail Writing:
Gary Regan
Robert Simonson
David Wondrich
Naren Young

Best International Brand Ambassador:
Jacob Briars
Ian Burrell
Claire Smith
Angus Winchester

Best New Cocktail/Bartending Book:
The American Cocktail by the Editors of Imbibe
Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-all
Gaz Regan’s Annual Manual for Bartenders 2011
PDT Cocktail Book

Best New Product:
Chairman’s Reserve Spiced Rum
Cognac Pierre Ferrand 1840 Formula
Lillet Rose
Perlini System

Best Restaurant Bar:
Bar Agricole – San Francisco, California
Rivera – Los Angeles, California
Saxon + Parole – New York, New York
Slanted Door – San Francisco, California

International Bartender of the Year:
Zdenek Kastanek
Alex Kratena
Sam Ross
Dushan Zaric

World’s Best Cocktail Bar:
69 Colebrooke Row – London, United Kingdom
Black Pearl – Melbourne, Australia
The Connaught Bar – London, United Kingdom
The Varnish – Los Angeles, California

World’s Best Cocktail Menu:
Black Pearl – Melbourne, Australia
Callooh Callay – London, United Kingdom
Clover Club – Brooklyn, New York
Mayahuel – Manhattan, New York

World’s Best Drinks Selection:
Artesian Bar at The Langham – London, United Kingdom
Death & Co. – Manhattan, New York
Eau de Vie – Sydney, Australia
Salvatore Calabrese at The Playboy – London, United Kingdom

World’s Best Hotel Bar:
Artesian Bar at The Langham – London, United Kingdom
Clive’s Classic Lounge – Victoria, British Columbia
Clyde Common – Portland, Oregon
The Zetter Townhouse – London, United Kingdom

World’s Best New Cocktail Bar
: 
Aviary – Chicago, Illinois
Candelaria – Paris, France
Canon – Seattle, Washington
The Zetter Townhouse – London, United Kingdom

Helen David Lifetime Achievement Award:
Gaz Regan 

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