Tuesday, May 31, 2011

New Orleans Installment Three: The Culinary Easy

I have deep respect for a particular vegetarian friend. I worry not a bit about securing options for dining with her when the opportunity arises…the friendship is worth the effort. But I concluded when I moved to New Orleans in late 1993 that this town…this tropical, delightfully smarmy Third World-esque haven was no place for a tee-totaling vegetarian. In other words, New Orleans and I would get along just fine.
Having not set foot back in New Orleans in fifteen years saw me missing lots of things about the Easy. It’s a city of texture, sound, shape and taste that’s quite frankly unrivaled. Sure there are cities that roll-up said mélange in equally memorable ways but none, at least for me; do so with the same taste bud emphasis on which the Crescent City delivers—in spades. Emeril's ... I used to go to the Tchoupitoulas Street restaurant before he got so famous that the noise and frenetic movement of staff made it a no-go. And back then, said particular street, even in the daytime, wasn't one that you tarried on.
I used to look for clients to entertain when I lived here so that I could eat on my expense account. The highbrow is rightfully high…and expensive. But the lowbrow is such an equally facile deliverable that once I discovered my go-to standard Big Easy fast food, (a cup of gumbo and a shrimp or oyster Po Boy…dressed) I wondered why the hell anyone here would ever go to a McDonald's or Wendy’s…ever. And till you get out in the Jefferson Parish burbs, the typical homogenized lineup of national chains is for the most part, comfortingly absent.  
Galatoire's, Brennan’s, Commander’s Palace, NOLA, Emeril’s…I mean really. The bar for average is so darned high in New Orleans that it’s hard to make a bad dining decision—as long as you stay out of the absurd tourist traps on Bourbon Street.
 Galatoire's being the Bourbon Street exception of course. As my friend George Frazier, IV…who decamped Gotham and his job at Esquire to attend law school at Tulane and never left aptly stated, “we don’t talk about Bourbon Street in polite company.” Frazier IV by the way, is the little fella with the perfect Brooks Brothers collar roll in my previous post. He gave me permission to shoot a few pictures that line a hallway in his home.
 Surprise…I also photographed his Belgian loafers, the oldest pair I've ever seen…his mother-in-law bought them for him over forty-five years ago. Ok, I’m digressing, this is my food post. I’ll do one on things sartorial and Frazier later. Here’s one of the greatest things about culinary New Orleans; once you make your way through all of their nationally renowned restaurants there’s at least another year’s worth of equally, if not more satiating places to discover.
So here’s my journey…the four day meanderings of a redneck gourmand. I arrived from Charlotte early enough Wednesday evening to join my small client group of eight for dinner at Muriels, on the back corner of Jackson Square. I’d never been there before and while it isn’t tops on my list, it was a fine place to begin my tastebudian reorientation. Turtle soup and a pecan crusted piece of fish was great but as I shared with one of my clients, a local, my New Orleans food-itch was barely, just barely scratched by that meal.
Thursday evening was the culinary highlight of my visit. The New Orleans Cooking Experience is indeed--an experience. It’s housed in a lovely old; I’ll coin this one…two acre Plantation-ette on Bayou Road. Yep, two acres. 
Thankfully the property was just purchased by an artist foundation in New York and they are beginning to renovate and transform it into a residential retreat for artists…kind of a Yaddo for visual artists. The other good news is that the cooking school will remain.
My client takes her team there about every six months or so and nothing against the other local chefs who rotate through the program, she only goes when Frank Brigtsen is cooking and teaching. 
And after spending an evening with him I can see why. He’s a kind soul—manifesting it immediately in ways that can’t be faked for ten people who've paid to semi-circle and needle you with questions. 
His stories and anecdotes aren’t some contrived pile of gumbo ya-ya bullshit delivered with an exaggerated New Orleans Irish Channel play to the tourist accent. He’s thoughtful and thorough in explaining technically what he’s doing as well as supplying just enough history, back-story and lore to make a tale loving guy like me, sit up and literally, take notes. Tale loving. I said tale loving. Shut up.
It’s all about drinking wine and learning and tasting. You do no work. This isn’t some cook it yourself pseudo-sous chef boondoggle. You sit, you sip, you query and then you eat. I’d go back in a heartbeat and I’d go to Frank’s restaurant just as fast.
Friday morning sees me at Café Du Monde early...real early before the crowds thicken and my breakfast meeting begins. Beignets will kill you. But damn, what a way to go.
My breakfast meeting concludes and my personal agenda manifests. New Orleans thankfully, remains a great literary town and the evidence I needed to assure myself of it was the survival post Katrina, of most of my favorite bookstores. More on that later when I do my Literary New Orleans post. But after walking through the Quarter and dropping serious coin in used bookstores, I needed lunch. Nothing against Acme Oyster House but to me, it’s a tourist trap with a line of people craving admission. And I don’t do lines. (I NEVER did THAT kind of line…ever…I understand the price has come down somewhat but that stuff was always too expensive and unappealing to me) Felix’s is right across the street on Iberville and it has always been my go-to joint for a dozen oysters and something cool to wash ‘em down with. 
On this my return visit, I moderated my intake with a half dozen oysters and an oyster po-boy. Nice.
And I couldn’t return to New Orleans without going to Mandina’s on Canal Street in Mid-City. To most folks, it’s average. To me, the Turtle Soup and Trout Almandine are the only things ADG on the menu and Friday early evening saw my Mandina’s itch on the scratch list.
Saturday early lunch…Mr. B’s on Royal Street. Mostly because it was my go-to destination for entertaining clients and it’s also really, really good.
Saturday evening offered me a delightful alternative to my French Quarter, fried, sautéed Cajun/Creole cravings. It also reminded me of something I’d quickly learned within a few weeks of moving to New Orleans. There’s another New Orleans that unless you live there or have personal friends who do, you’ll likely never discover. The small and somewhat secreted watering holes and eateries in Uptown and the Garden District are somewhat deliberately, I think, off the beaten path. New Orleanians are gracious people and are very welcoming. I met more people and was invited to more homes and events within a month of living in New Orleans than my entire first year in Washington D.C. But the locals selfishly covet a few safe harbors of their own. Places where you know people when you walk in. And more importantly, can rest assured that there won’t be an ersatz who dat? drunken gaggle of tacky-ass bead wearing drunks from Poughkeepsie sitting next to you. Oops...sorry Poughkeepsie, I meant Cahoes.
Gautreau’s would be that place. George Frazier, IV and his lovely bride suggested Gautreau’s for our dinner visit and it was a great choice. So I cabbed it over to casa Frazier and after a glass of wine, we ambled over. I loved meeting the Fraziers and my Creole culinary time-out manifested in a superb duck entrée. I was also reminded of another New Orleans custom…long dinners. Here’s evidence from a Frazier, IV email…“I really enjoyed our talk -- over seven hours…” Yep, I’m chatty.
Ok, let me close this rambling drivel and get to work. I got a lot to do work-wise and it’s a good thing. The food/bar tab on the good ole American Express bill this month is gonna be a zinger.

Onward. Satiated.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

New Orleans Installment Two: Channeling Tommy Hitchcock

“Flo said...
You're down there in voodooland, Max. The spirits are restless. Tommy Hitchcock's spirit is directing you over to St. Charles Ave, my contacts say your ultimate hat is settin just inside the doorway of Meyer The Hatter, hurry up, thank me later.”
I was a half-step ahead of you Flo. Rounding the corner, I wondered if Meyer was still in existence. The good news is that they are.
The bad news is that my coconut straw-holy grail Hitchcock will probably remain a figment at best. Meyer had great hats…panamas…porkpies with non-ghetto brims…scores of really nice toppers…but the Hitchcockian mongrelized gambler porkpietian thang that Flo knows I covet, ain’t in the Easy.
But these were. Just around the corner from Meyer. And I put ‘em on lay-a-way.
I head back to Old Town Alexandria in a few hours and I don’t think I've ever been as content as I am right now. I decamped New Orleans over fifteen years ago and this; my first return visit has been great. I was in London for almost triple the amount of time about fifteen months ago and I think I blogged one story about that visit. New Orleans, in all of its arrogantly shabby granularity has me loaded with a dozen stories—at least.
The highlights are too many to mention in one story. Musings culinary, literary, sounds, shapes and textures are knocking around my noggin; on deck for sharing with you. But for now, I’ll say that the absolute highlight was having dinner with the fella pictured above. How many people do you know, who at six years old, sported the perfect Brooks Brothers button down collar roll. Custom made for him of course, at the Brethren Mother Church on Madison Avenue. Any six year old kid who had his own charge privileges at Billingsley’s Stork Club, not surprisingly then, would swath in bespoke Brooks OCBDs. He’s a bit older now and has a lovely wife who is the quintessential Southern Steel Magnolia. We all supped at a gem of a place in Uptown…I’ll share a story about it later.

Onward. To dat airport.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

This is your captain speaking...

...Couldn't have been a better day for the Maxminimus Corporate Crew to jet into the Concord Regional Airport...aka...NASCAR private aviation. Clear skies and scant air traffic all the way down to Charlotte so it was easy for an ADD pilot like me to get us there without a hitch.
Flying is easy. It's the taking off and landing that sometimes manifests trouble. 
My Concord Regional approach was a no-brainer.
I had a blast in Charlotte right out of college and I have great memories of fun and frolic. But my back to back meetings downtown allowed for very little playtime. Last night was my small free-time window and of all the things I could have done, I asked my best childhood buddy to take me to the Sundries. Providence Road Sundries. Chilli Cheesburgers at my favorite old honky tonk haunt. And I loved the fact that it hasn't changed much in 26 years.
My buddy DCA...sharp as ever...post burger game of pool.
And a parting gift from DCA. Carolina Beach Music...The Classic Years. Written by a fratty brother of ours. More on this erudite review of the top 100 beach tunes later.

Onward. Tonight. To New Orleans.


Sunday, May 22, 2011

Color Me Gone

I assume that you too, are still here. I've decided that since the Lord didn't fetch me, I'll hit the road this week...for the entire week. I'll begin in Charlotte and end in New Orleans. I've lived in both cities having started a Pharma career in Charlotte and interestingly, walked away from it in New Orleans. I've not set foot back in the Big Easy since I left and I'm gonna hang out there next weekend and catch up. Charlotte will be a blur...back to back stuff till lunchtime on Wednesday and then off to the Crescent. You'll probably hear little out of me this week.
But my weekend, even with the impending rapture upon us, was busy. I wore the Quoddys to LFG's soccer game and nobody laughed at the baby aspirin coloured soles.
And the Snow Leopards won 5-1. Finally.
It's not my LFG weekend and I barely got to talk to her at soccer. So I drove an hour and a half round trip to her dance class so that I could hug her neck for five minutes. Two weeks without my young'un is tough. And the five minutes was worth every minute of the trip.
So I'll catch you later.
Onward. Towards revenue generation.


Friday, May 20, 2011

Quoddy Venetians

Horween unlined Chromexcel leather.
Camp soles. Kinda the love child…
…of L.L. Bean and a sleeker, minimalist suitor.
Which begs the question…
…what’s anything minimalist doing at my house?
A paucity of bells and whistles…
…even after I darkened ‘em up a bit.
Onward. Friday night. Having found a fetching photo of LFG. Polo logoed avec hat.


Thursday, May 19, 2011

“They were all impressed with your Halston dress and the people that you knew at Elaine’s"

 R.I.P. Elaine’s…P.J. Clarke’s woulda been a better victim.
“Elaine’s, one of the most iconic restaurants in New York, is closing its doors on May 26th. The restaurant – which has served a wide variety of celebrities and writers, including Kurt Vonnegut, Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, and Gay Talese – simply couldn’t survive once its owner Elaine Kaufman died last December.”
A buddy of mine emailed me this article about the shuttering of another Gotham destination whose staying power pooped out…Elaine’s. My response was that Elaine’s without Elaine wasn't Elaine’s. Therefore I wasn't surprised. And of course every article I've read waxes nostalgic about the place but lands on the same conclusion. Here’s an excerpt from my email reply…
Subject: Re: Elaine's to Close Next Week - FishbowlNY
“Yep. Elaine's without Elaine. Not surprising. New York is gone...at least the Gotham that I WANT to imagine. London is closing in fast. P. J. Clarke's is nothing more than a TGI Fridays...limping along on some attenuated hardscrabble literary/journalist/show biz clientele memory. Their bouncer wears fingerless, ventilated driving gloves. And he smacks people. I've been present for the smacking but wasn't the smackee. Ditto the Algonquin.”
Then this from my buddy “…a few years ago, after the Big Renovation, walked over to Clarke’s, saw a Studio 54-like line consisting of  Studio 54-style hopefuls in, uh, contemporary attire – then heard the…music…that was spilling through the door onto the sidewalk.  Haven’t bothered to try since.  Now I understand it’s franchising, or at least has a satellite or two.  Clarke’s, RIP.   Smoky, greasy, dark, big urinal (I read they at least kept those) Clarke’s.  There the food was very, very, very secondary, often barely edible, I thought, while to me Elaine’s chow was always underrated. Or, its flaws overstated…”
Funny about the P. J. Clarke’s urinals. Sinatra said “you could stand Abe Beame in one and still have room.” 
And my buddy is spot-on about Clarke’s. You ain't gonna find the modern day complements to actor Richard Harris applying his restorative vodka shots or columnist and Nixon enemy George Frazier having a cheeseburger there. Interestingly, places like Clarke’s were at one time, destinations that reflected a segment of the Gotham strata.  
Frazier, in his epic 1960 Esquire treatise…The Art of Wearing Clothes…correlates P.J. Clarke’s with a sartorially stylish bunch.
“…for nowadays even the smallest town has a men's shop that carries the same suits and haberdashery that are on sale at, say Madison Avenue and Forty-fifth Street in New York. New Bedford, Massachusetts, for example, has Marty Sullivan's, a store so attuned to the fickleness of fashion that it has its buyers and designers spend part of their Manhattan visitations in such bars-and-grills as P. J. Clarke's, which attracts an extremely creatively-dressed Ivy League clientele.”
Oops…just realized something. What was I thinking? P. J. Clarke’s still reflects a slice of the Gotham strata. It’s just a different one. Look, I’m no anthropologist or intellectual or sociologist or whatever. So it’s not like I’m capturing a demo-socio-anthropological phenomenon here…quite the opposite actually. This was a breakthrough for me...not for y'all. I’m slow. So when the obvious lands late, we bring out the neuronal hazmat trucks. Shut up.
I remember Richard Merkin telling me that part of his motivation for decamping Gotham was its slow but obvious and steady slide towards homogeneity. Something about hookers being the proverbial Canaries in the Gotham Coal Mine. One day they were gone. These surrogate markers indexed to the inevitable beige sameness that one like Merkin, whose eyes had viewed Gotham for sixty-five years, might see earlier and more sensitively than others.
The one-offs in my hometown…the independents, the local characters and businesses of my youth save a few, have gone the way of Elaine’s. I took the photo above when I was home last month. This is Evans street—the source of all my childhood clothes and toys and also the sweet-spot for my Trad sartorial orientation. I’m standing in front of the haberdashery where I worked part time during my formative years. It opened there and remained so from 1927 till the about 1990. Everything’s now closed and the national chains are out near the Interstate.
The I-20 spur in Florence, South Carolina has a retail and entertainment strip manned by the likes of Applebee’s, Red Lobster, Target, Staples, Best Buy and a Borders. And so does Gotham and London and every other urban destination I find myself visiting.  Beige consistency…homogeneity…dead canaries everywhere. All in the same sequence…maybe the Red Lobster before Applebee’s now and again but every supporting actor in the sameness ensemble present and accounted for. Butcept Florence has no Duane Reads…which is probably what’ll take Elaine’s place.
Onward. Smelling something funny in the coal mine. Funny indeed. ADG, II