Thursday, March 19, 2009

Nawlins Callin'.





I arrived in The Big Easy a few days after Mardi Gras. Throngs of fratty stragglers sipped hurricanes from bright bong-like plastic containers on Canal Street, and emerald green and gold beads were ground into piles of iridescent sand throughout the French Quarter. But just a few blocks away from the chaos, adorable Creole cottages and oak trees lined quiet streets. Outside the tourist-ridden depths of the Quarter, I did not come across a neighborhood lacking charm, and I ate well.

Sarah’s sister Callie, who works at the farmer’s market, introduced me to a flourishing local-foods community. The New Orleans Food and Farm Network encourages farming within the city limits and hosts community meals in city neighborhoods. In Katrina’s wake, pockets of green have sprouted throughout the city as one means of rebuilding community. The restaurant scene, unsurprisingly in a city known for its unique regional cuisine, is fabulous. On my first night I went to Mandina’s, a 75-year-old locals place in center city, near the hostel. I liked the old-school vibe of the place--casual but with bow-tied waiters, framed posters from jazz fest on the walls—and the etouffee was solid, very comforting, with a lot of celery and garlic. Crawfish are such a great ingredient, super-tender and succulent, with a unique clean flavor, lacking the ocean’s briny bite. My lunch the next day, though, was a real standout.

Cochon has got to be one of the best restaurants in New Orleans. With a James Beard award and a lot of high-end press under its belt, the restaurant was busy on a weekday at two in the afternoon despite its proximity to Emeril’s. The d├ęcor is warm and cozy, with terra cotta, mustard and chocolate walls, a pretty panoramic photo of a farm on one wall, and an open kitchen where four cooks looked remarkably relaxed while they worked. Like Charleston’s Hominy Grill, Cochon’s focus is on regional food using seasonal ingredients—the chefs are frequently spotted at the farmer’s market, and whole pigs are brought in from local farms and used for andouille and head cheese. If I was going to be adventurous, this was the place to do it, so I ordered fried alligator and a pig patty.
The alligator, cut into General-Gau-like chunks and breaded, was coated in a chipotle aioli with surprising kick and garnished with a green chiffonade that I soon discovered was mint. I must admit that I only ate a fraction of the gator. Though the chipotle and mint were really interesting together, the texture was chewy and tough, and when I picked the meat out of the breading it had very little intrinsic flavor. The Louisiana cochon with turnips, cabbage, and cracklins, though, was full of piggy flavor. Shredded cabbage sat in a shallow pool of salty broth, layered with a pork patty, cubed turnip, and big ole’ cracklins on top. What a perfect winter meal. (I could only finish a third of this course.) Because it sounded so amazing, I ordered dessert, too. The gateaux au chocolate (a misnomer, really), with honey, cream cheese mousse and pears, was a thing of beauty. Sour cream cheese, rich dark chocolate, sweet honey, and floral pear…it was, in my opinion, a perfect dessert.

The farmers market bustled at nine the next morning. Strawberries were abundant and cheap, newly in season. Piles of Paleolithic-looking crawfish were piled by tin scales. I ordered tacos, one with blackened fish and one with fried oyster. They were delicious—the oyster garnished with balsamic-drizzled baby spinach, the fish with red cabbage and dill remoulade, a bottle of Sriracha handy. The two pints of strawberries I bought did not last through the afternoon.

The next morning, before heading off to Austin, I sliced open the black sapote I’d bought at the stand in South Florida. It really did look like chocolate pudding and I ate it with a spoon, the other hostel travelers eyeing me warily. When I closed my eyes, though, the flavor was more of a one-note sweetness with maybe a hint of raisin or molasses. Perhaps I didn’t wait long enough for it to ripen…

Next up: Austin, Santa Fe, Arizona, Los Angeles, and more!

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