Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Eating Well in the Big Easy…Local Style

Usually, McKenzie and I are happily connected at the hip, traveling and working together.  But I took the past two weeks to visit with family and friends, ending with five days in New Orleans to spend time with my Dad and explore the city’s rich food culture.

Registered Dietitian warning and disclaimer here:  Rich might be a grand understatement.  When Emeril declared, “Pork fat rules!” New Orleans took him literally.  You’re hard-pressed to find a dish in New Orleans absent from bacon, lardon, guanciale, cracklins, lard, fat back, ham hock or some other form of the little piggy. 

But that didn’t stop me from enjoying every bite.  See 5 Tips for Traveling & Eating Well, below.

My self-appointed mission during my stay in the Big Easy—expand beyond the beignets and café au lait to explore New Orleans restaurants committed to supporting local farmers, fisherman and producers.  I didn’t have to look far, beginning with the restaurant named for NOLA’s favorite animal—the pig. 

Cochon, co-owned by chefs Donald Link and Steven Stryjewski, serves a modern Cajun menu featuring locally source ingredients and humanely-raised meats.  This year, Stryjewski won James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef South If the Louisiana cochon with turnips, cabbage  and cracklins I relished for lunch is any indication, it’s a well-deserved title. 

Owned by the same chefs as Cochon, Herbsaintlocated on St. Charles Street, wins in my book as one of New Orleans’ top restaurants.   Entering the romantic, dimly-lit dining room immediately felt like the perfect antidote to a day of exploring the raucous French Quarter, and the playful French- and Italian-inspired, but distinctively Southern menu did not disappoint. 

Herbsaint nuances the idea of eating local by highlighting the beauty of the ingredients--a mizuna salad with fried black-eyed peas; Louisiana jumbo lump crabmeat over a chilled pumpkin puree; plump Louisiana shrimp tossed with tasso and okra over a crispy grit cake; and a wicked version of pasta carbonara made from housemade spaghetti tossed with guanciale and topped with a panko-breaded and fried poached farm-fresh egg.  I repeat:  Wicked. 

And to top it off, the best dessert I have ever tasted.  Really.  Just listen to this:  Warm chocolate pudding cake served with salted caramel sauce and cashew ice cream, and topped with cocoa nib caramel corn.  It sounds—and tastes—like poetry.  I did share—reluctantly. 

Boucherie, located in the quaint Carollton community, serves creative Southern cuisine.  On a glorious sunny day, after a long walk along Magazine Street, I fell for a lunch of not-so-ordinary corn pudding, paired with a NOLA IPA.  Crispy-crusted savory cornbread filled with fresh corn pudding smothered with okra and drizzled with buttermilk—De-li-cious. 

Celebrity chef and philanthropist John Besh has created a farm-to-table restaurant empire in New Orleans, with a bevy of restaurants and chefs who support and showcase the bounty of Louisiana farms and waters.  After dining at both Dominica and Restaurant August, I posit he and his restaurants live up to the hype.

Dominica, located in the Roosevelt Hotel in the Central Business District, features the rustic, Italian-inspired creations of Chef Alon Shaya, the roasted goat shakshuka notwithstanding.  Settled into the corner of the warm, slightly-swanky dining room, we oohed and ahhed over the chewy, blistered wild mushroom pizza topped with bacon and a farm-fresh egg.  We loved every minute—and every bite.

Where dining at Dominica could be a regular, weekly occasion for locals, Restaurant August doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a place for celebrations and special occasions.  When you enter the historic, mahogany-paneled dining room with its soaring ceilings, it feels special—luxurious. At Restaurant August, we settled in for a three-hour dinner that reads like a seasonal foods playbook—an heirloom beet salad with crabmeat, local bacon and quail eggs; beautiful, meaty local shrimp on merliton; and poussin with a ragu of white beans and wild mushrooms.  The poussin—or young chicken—had been poached and then dipped in a whiskey-spiked batter and fried, with the result being a delicately crispy, tender, airy, unbelievably-light crust surrounding succulent meat.  Really, really, really good.  And yes, we shared dessert—a chocolate napoleon with salted toffee ice cream.   

Lastly, a tour of New Orleans food isn’t complete without a visit to the iconic blue and white Garden District institution, Commander’s Palace Operated by the legendary Brennan Family, Commander’s Palace Chef Tory McPhail elevates old guard New Orleans cuisine by sourcing almost all ingredients within 100 miles and reinterpreting the old classics with a fresh spin.  We had saved the grande dame of New Orleans fine dining for last, and by the time we got to the last day...we were tired of eating.  So instead, we sat in the garden and enjoyed an afternoon drink.  Dad sipped a Sazarac, the traditional Nawlins cocktail made from rye whiskey, and I had a Bellini, made with local beaches soaked in liquor for months and then pureed and topped with sparkling wine. 

It was a very good ending to a very good—and very delicious—week.  I was ready to go home and eat some vegetables—without the pork fat.   
5 Tips for Traveling & Eating Well

McKenzie and I are both big believers in exploring a region through its food.  Be it fish tacos or grit cakes, we’re always game to experience the local cuisine.  We have a few quick tips for eating well on the road.     

1.      Be adventurous When you’re traveling, try something new!  Don’t waste a meal on something you can eat at home.  Try the roasted goat shakshuka or the alligator fritters.  Turtle soup?  Of course.  That’s not on the menu in many (any?) Los Angeles or Bellingham restaurants.   

2.      Share We are Registered Dietitians, after all.  While we love to eat, we exercise portion control.  Our rule of thumb—order one appetizer and one entrée or four small plate items per two people.  It’s always enough food.  And the more people you have at the table, the more food you get to taste!

3.      Don’t skip meals Skipping meals always backfires.  You think you’re “saving up” for a great dinner, and then you way overeat—usually beginning with the bread basket—because you’re famished.  Try to snack your way through the day, searching out unique food finds for breakfast and lunch.  Never had a Satsuma?  Have one for a snack.   

4.      Stop when you’re full Listen to your hunger cues.  Hopefully, you’ve taken our advice and snacked throughout the day and are now sharing a wonderful dinner with your friends.  Eat slowly, reminisce about your day, relish in the food you’re sharing with those you love.  Pay attention to when you begin to feel full.  Your body will thank you!  And even better, you’ll feel like eating breakfast the next morning.

5.      Walk. A lot We love to explore a city or region on foot.  Whether it’s pounding the concrete in New York City, walking the boardwalk in Monterey or exploring the trails around Seattle, walking is the best way to see and experience a place.  Even more, it’s good for your heart, your body—and your soul.

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