February 14, 2015

Still haven't gotten around to writing that Portland food post yet, but I might as well write about NOLA while it's on my mind (i.e. I'm writing Yelp reviews). Warning, this is a very long post... as we did a lot of eating on this trip.

This trip was mostly conference and a bit of leisure. Either way, I wasn't really flying solo and free-wheeling around on my own whims. Still, we hit a lot of places on my bookmark list.

Ultimately, I have to say that in a city that's continuously touted as a foodie mecca... it wasn't one of my favorite places. Yes there are other facets that contributed to that opinion (continuous daily garbage collection, many, many drunken people with me being pregnant and sober, the Saints handily beating the Packers on Sunday night...)

So it's not high on my list of repeat visit destinations for those reasons, but surprisingly also because the food didn't leave me with a lingering wow factor.

Of course it was good, don't get me wrong. There were some very, very, good eats. And now that I look back 3 months later, there were some clear highlights. But those alone aren't likely enough to draw me back anytime soon.

Here we go.

Root Down DIA

The trip started off with an early morning layover in Denver DIA. This was not a problem since it was also a long layover that allowed me time to have a leisurely breakfast at Root Down.

This meant: grapefruit juice, chilled water, yogurt parfait and a toasted croissant. Parfait included Yogurt, Quinoa, Strawberry-Rhubarb Jam & Cornflake Granola. Delicious.

Parfait to start the day!

SoBou

The next thing worth mentioning may also have been my favorite item of the whole trip. And it wasn't really anything that fits the mold of 'classic creole / cajun food'. Are you ready???

Yellowfin Tuna Cone
Three words... Yellowfin Tuna Cone.

Yes, tiny ice cream cones with fish in them were a highlight of my food adventures in New Orleans. Even worth amending to my 'favorite food items of all time' list.

This was at SoBou, located south of Bourbon Street (get it?) and attached to the W Hotel. Little did I know at the time that the delicious mocktails [boo] and Sazeracs being cranked out by the lovely woman behind the bar were being slung by a future 'NOLA bartender of the year' for 2014, Abigail Gullo. Though it was immediately obvious that everyone behind the bar really knew their stuff and took pride in their work.

HH here was truly Happier Hour as it became obvious pretty quickly that New Orleans is probably the second worst place to be sober in. [The first being Las Vegas, because there the drinks there are free]. Here in New Orleans, it's $0.25 martinis at lunchtime... Hey, the pink elephant is their mascot at SoBou for good reason.

And the food was fantastic. And while I wanted to try everything, we settled for the tuna cones, pork belly steam buns (confit pork belly, pickled Napa cabbage, shaved red onions and roasted pumpkin BBQ sauce) and sweet potato beignets (foie gras fondue, duck debris & chicory coffee ganache).
Pork Belly Steam Bun
Sweet Potato Beignets
If I were the kind of person to say things like OMG, this would be the moment.

It was hard not to go back to Sobou immediately at first opportunity, but this was my first day in town and there was so much more to explore I just couldn't justify it. Next time I'm in NOLA, however, this place will be high on my priority list.

Smiling through Sobriety

Carmo

My next noteworthy food exposition was lunch at Carmo. Another place that doesn't really scream traditional New Orleans, as it's a vegan-friendly tropical cafe.

Carmo's focus is on healthy and affordable dishes in a warm, friendly and casual atmosphere. I'd say they nailed it. Sitting in the bright space during a busy lunch with the doors open and fans swinging overhead, it was easy to feel more on vacation than on break from conference proceedings.

Reading through the reviews, my order was easy. The Rico and freshly squeezed-in-house fruit juice.

Fruit Juice
The Rico
Rico: A breadless fork sandwich made of a grilled plantain patty topped with melted cheese, spicy smoked 'n' pulled pork, avocado, salsa fresca and tangy sweet spicy "Rico" sauce. Served with organic greens drizzled with mango vinaigrette. Such an incredible cacophony of flavor this rather large plate was made short work of.

This did not disappoint either. Could easily be my second-favorite thing of the trip... and it was only day two.

Peche Seafood Grill

Lunch at Peche, then later that night... dessert at Peche.

Only wish I could have had a full dinner here too, I'm sure it'd be above and beyond.

We happened across Peche via a pedicab ride to Carmo. It too was not on my bookmark list, but this just goes to show that some places have so many amazing restaurants that they can oftentimes get lost in the shuffle. Also, it proves that you can't really go wrong sometimes.

If I can 'accidentally' end up at a restaurant that recently won two James Beard Foundation Awards (best new restaurant & best chef: south), then I'm probably doing something right - even if that is just taking other people's opinions into consideration from time to time.

So, Peche was actually great enough to warrant two visits as well, though it was 'only' for lunch and desserts.

Lunch  started with curried shrimp and pumpkin soup and ended with Drum. The soup was a heavenly bisque and the fish was served with a savory, bright ginger and tomato sauce. Completing the plate were fried rice clusters. The whole meal was simply amazing.

Dessert was a very difficult decision, with all options looking equally taste-bud-pleasing. And, how thoughtful, the dessert menu includes a suggested aperitif with each item. [Which, once again, I'm missing out on]. The Salted Caramel Cake with buttercream erased all other woes though. And, Will Ferrell was having dinner at the next table, which was pretty neat too.

Peche menus
Curried Shrimp and Pumpkin Soup
The Drum
Salted Caramel Cake

Capdeville

I ran into the unique challenge of trying to make dinner reservations, the day of, on a Thursday night around downtown NOLA for a group of 6 people... or 8 people... or 10. Never-mind, 8.

Or 10, with the final diners arriving towards the end of the meal, eating leftovers and pulling up chairs.

All in all it ended up being a 2-hour meal, and also a little bit of a disappointment.

It seemed too good to be true that Capdeville was both available for a large group last minute, and within walking distance. Being a large-ish group, we sampled our way through many of the appetizers, including Duck and Strawberry Wontons, Crab Dip and two kinds of Poutine.

While the Duck / Strawberry Wontons were unique, my favorite was the Fried Red Beans and Rice. The green onion aioli and reduced hot sauce drizzles really made the dish. Poutine was a bit of a let down. While, yes they were french fries so they got eaten, the toppers didn't really have the flavor enhancement you usually want with poutine.

I moved on to the Tomato Fennel Soup with basil pistou sauce (think pesto, but without the pine nuts). Flavor on the soup was nice, but seemed to remind me more of a sauce than something I wanted to eat a whole bowl of. The pistou / olive oil also didn't really mix in. Good for presentation, not for my preference of texture.

But my entree surprised me most - and unfortunately not in the good way. I selected the Satsuma Salad with Chicken. In theory, sounded amazing... though some of the ingredients were google-worthy: lola rosa (red lettuce), goat cheese, pecans, shallots, satsumas (citrus fruit), fig & port vinaigrette. As you can see in the picture, the lettuce was copious, dark, and rough like kale. The grainy texture made me wonder if it could've stood to be double-washed (a hazard of dark-colored lettuce, I guess).

Goat cheese crumbles and satsuma were both pretty sparse, and the chicken was overcooked and a bit dry. Not really how I wanted to end the meal. (So we went to Peche for dessert - see above). Here's hoping the other dishes are much better.

Duck and Strawberry Wontons
Truffle Parmesan Poutine
Chorizo and Manchego Poutine
Crap Dip and Chip
Fried Red Beans & Rice
Tomato Fennel Soup
Satsuma Salad

Cochon 

I wanted to try Cochon Butcher for lunch, and tried several times during my visit. Unfortunately everyone else in the city - or least the near vicinity - seemed to have the same idea. By the time I got near enough to see the line, I had already thought better of it.

So on the third day we 'settled' for an early Friday lunch at Cochon. Showing up right as they opened at 11am allowed us to be one of the first tables seated, though the place quickly filled up. Our small outdoor table on a temperate day made for a good casual lunch.

Our server wasn't the most enthusiastic, but hey we all have those days. She was still pleasant, but I think wasn't in the mood to explain menu items to some of our more 'inexperienced' diners. Maybe the fact that I was also geeking out over the plethora of pork made everyone else's attitude seem more subdued also. Who knows. But it was Friday, I was at Cochon with nowhere to be, and a world of pork at my fingertips, ripe for ordering.

At the risk of starting to sound like an alcoholic in the desert, once again I bemoaned the fact that I wasn't drinking as I perused the cocktail, beer and cider list before settling for an arnold palmer.

Food-wise, it was clearly unique. To satisfy my pig craving, we started with the boucherie plate. If you're not familiar with the term - as I wasn't - it's a cajun term often applied to a communal butchering. As far as it applies to the plate though, think charcuterie.

Beautifully executed bits of rillette, pate, cured meats and terrine with ground mustard, toasts, house pickled vegetables (including beets!) Good to share a few starting bites, or to make a meal out of for one.

For my entree, I selected the Oyster & Bacon Sandwich. Fried oysters, house-made bacon, toasted bread and mayo. Obviously it was divine. I'd revisit Cochon without hesitation.

Boucherie Plate
Oyster and Bacon Sandwich

Cafe' Dauphine

A quick stop at Cafe' Dauphine, one of the few restaurant options in the Ninth Ward, allowed us to sample one of their signature dishes... Lizardi Rolls (like an egg roll, NOLA style with shellfish and cabbage). Worth a stop if you're in the area.
Lizardi Rolls

Mr. B's Bistro

When you're on vacation, typically there's one night where you have "The Dinner". In my world it's typically planned to be a Friday or Saturday night, at a highly rated restaurant (the selection of which was agonized over many weeks ahead of time). There are always reservations involved, and expectations are high.

Heaping all that pressure on Mr. B's Bistro seemed unfair as we were almost late to our own dinner (they won't seat you until the whole party is available, no matter how bad the parking is or if you accidentally turn down Bourbon street on Friday evening). And my hopes were swayed a bit as we approached the restaurant and were greeted by a vomiting man outside the front door.

But in New Orleans, you don't know if that's food poisoning or just good old-fashioned alcohol excess. So in we went to join the others.

Initial excitement behind us, we were seated in the 'low ceiling' area of the restaurant. Be mindful, individuals of above-average height, that you may want to request a table in the taller space... or just be careful when you stand up.

Standing won't be a concern for several hours at least though, since the pace of dinner at Mr. B's is more on the formal side. As indicated by the old school menu, the name of the restaurant on the plates, and the fact that they will provide and tie a bib for you if you order something that requires hands-on eating. Though I'd describe the overall vibe as casual fine dining.

The Menu
Starters were the Duck Springrolls (duck confit, shiitake mushrooms, spinach and goat cheese; served with ginger-soy dipping sauce) and Garlic Truffle Fries (topped with pecorino romano cheese and porcini oil). And while fries aren't something I routinely order at every restaurant, one of my traveling compats is a fan, and these were probably the best iteration we had in town. And the duck springrolls... no chance those weren't going to be tasty.

Next up, I moved on with the Soups 1-1-1, a sampling of the Gumbo Ya Ya, Seafood Gumbo, and Soup du Jour. The portions were a nice way to experience three more delicious menu items and even ended up being enough to share a bit also... I had a whole meal coming up after all. 
Duck Springrolls
Garlic Truffle Fries

That meal being... Bacon-Wrapped Shrimp & Grits. Not just any bacon, mind you, but pecan smoked bacon. And not just any shrimp was this bacon wrapping, but jumbo gulf shrimp. These savory meat bundles were presented on a bed of creamy stone-ground yellow grits with red-eye gravy (made from pan drippings of sausage, ham, bacon or other pork). Mmmmm, This was what I'd call a quintessential creole dish.

Another must-try was Mr. B's signature Barbequed Shrimp entree. This is one they'll bring with a bib, so get ready to liberate those tasty shrimp from their shells and sop up the accompanying peppery butter sauce with plenty of French bread. Then you can die happy. 

Bacon-Wrapped Shrimp & Grits
Mr. B's BBQ Shrimp
Suddenly, an hour and a half later, it was time for dessert!

Another very difficult decision, as every good dessert menu in this city had been so far. I decided on Bread Pudding... "A Brennan family recipe rich in eggs, cream, and butter, served warm with Irish whiskey sauce" and an espresso on the side. Both were a simply perfect end to an epic meal.

Dessert Menu
Bread Pudding
Espresso

Surrey’s CafĂ© & Juice Bar

Our Air BnB host - and Yelp - both highly recommended Surrey's. And they were both right on.

I was needing something a bit on the lighter side to set down a base for the day, and had the Granola w/ Fresh Fruit, Yogurt and Milk. It was perfect on many levels. Add some fresh-squeezed juice and strong coffee and you have a winner.

If I lived in town this would be on regular rotation as the atmosphere, staff, service, and obviously food, were all spot on.

Granola with Yogurt and Fruit

Tracey's

Can't visit NOLA without trying Boudin Balls. At Tracey's they know what they're doing when it comes to bar food and we weren't disappointed. Be careful if you're hungry, they come out hot! Order at the window and get ready to enjoy. 
Boudin Balls

New Orleans Culinary History Tours

Now, as obsessed with food as I am, this was my first ever food tour.

It was a decent way to spend an afternoon, but personally I'm more accustomed to organizing my own food-related excursions.

We had some "know it all" type people in the group that made the experience a little less than enjoyable for the others (not to mention being pregnant I wasn't drinking, so there's another potential source of annoyance).

Still, I could see this being a very enjoyable experience for some. But if you're inclined to explore on your own you can probably skip it. The food overall was pretty average, and the information shared was good but a little redundant for my taste.

It felt a little like we were 'in the way' at many locations, instead of being treated as guests. And only one of our 6 stops did a restaurant owner / manager acknowledge our group's presence (aside from the gift shop we ended at, that is).

We did hit up some places worthy of note, but I found myself wishing I could spend a bit more time, taste a bit more, and be acknowledged as a customer for the full experience at several stops.

Here's the rundown of our samples:
Gumbo at Antoine's
Jambalaya
Shrimp Remoulade at Remoulade (the 'Casual Side' of Arnaud's)
Portraits in the main dining room at Arnaud's
Beef Brisket with horseradish sauce at Tujague's
Gelato at La Divina Gelateria 
Muffaletta at La Divina Gelateria 
Creole Delicacies Cooking Demo
Red Beans & Rice at Creole Delicacies

Cafe du Monde

Like Voodoo Donuts in Portland, this is high on the radar of anyone paying attending to the 'must try' tourist-food spots in town. Unlike the original VD location however, I actually ended up here.

And when you find yourself at Cafe du Monde, whether it's the result of waiting in line forever, or waking up before the sun while the street cleaning crews are still hard at work (my preferred method to avoid the crowd), what you order is this: Cafe Au Lait & Beignets.

From here, what can I say that hasn't already been said in the 5,000+ previous reviews?

It is what it is. Fried dough with a pile of powdered sugar and coffee with chicory and steamed milk. Also, be ready for potential crowds and sticky surfaces.

I'm glad I went, but you'll have to decide for yourself if that's worth waiting in line or waking up early for.
Early morning interior
Cafe au Lait
Beignets

February 01, 2015




Who is Tap Dancers Specialty Coffee?

Well, they're located in Omaha and have been around for a few years now. They're also 'that coffee place' that you always see at the Omaha Farmer's Market.

Each coffee order is freshly roasted on Thursday. It is then locally delivered on Fridays in Omaha or shipped nationwide. They're a 2015 "Best of Omaha" award winner, and obviously have a strong passion for the work they're doing (enough to blog about it pretty regularly also). They spend their time sampling coffees from different regions throughout the world looking for an exacting flavor profile... one which they're both willing to serve to their friends and drink themselves, as well as sell to customers.

If you're like me though, I had never heard of them before this review opportunity came up. And that's just the reason this whole post is being written. 

Tap Dancers wanted to get their name out to more consumers and educate the world on the quality of their product. I'm just lucky enough to be a coffee lover and food blogger who stumbled on the advertisement. 

Honestly I'd never heard of Tap Dancers before, but since I'm always on the hunt for what coffee types I actually like, I was intrigued by this opportunity.


The gist of the deal was this...
  • TD delivered their 8 coffee varieties to my door on Friday afternoon. And even though they only sell whole beans, they were nice enough to grind them for me once I explained I don't have a good quality coffee grinder... just the crappy old one I use for spices. (bad food blogger...). 
  • I sampled 7 of the coffees - leaving out the decaf - over the course of these two weekend days.
  • My task was to review the products, take some pictures and link back to www.tapdancerscoffee.com. Ultimately... get free coffee to do something fun while I'm snowed in during this winter weather advisory. 
  • And as a bonus, through the end of February TD will throw in a free incredi-brew coffee brewer ($25 value) if anyone reading this post signs up for a coffee subscription.
Delivery options allow you to select a size (6 oz, 12 oz or 5 lbs) and a delivery frequency (single order, bi-weekly or weekly).

Freshly roasted local coffee delivered to your door? That almost sounds too good to be true, right

The coffees arrived fresh on my porch Friday afternoon and had been roasted just the day before on 29 January.
samples galore!
For consistency sake, I decided to brew a little weaker than my usual and more in line with "typical" recommendations... 7g / 0.25 oz (1 scoop) per cup (8 oz) water. All samples were brewed in a Chemex, with fresh filters each time. Like any good food scientist, I tried to hold all the variables constant and yes, even using the same cup for tastings.


I feel like coffee is one of those things that so subjective, it's hard to please everyone. So I'm not giving these coffees ratings for that reason. Tap Dancers, as a whole though? They're an easy 4-star Yelp review in my book.

Now let's talk flavor profiles. Coffee is one of those things that still confounds me a bit. I can tell when I like or don't like something, but have had a hard time identifying the characteristics associated with why.

This is because coffee characteristics can change from year to year and vary from farm to farm even within a small region. My generic profile - I think - is for strong, 'bold', flavors with low acidity, heavy body and minimal aftertaste.

Occasionally I'll douse my coffee with a bit of skim milk or cream (or eggnog, if the season is right). To get the true flavor of these beans, all these tastings were done black.

Since I wasn't drinking full 8 oz. cups of coffee on each of these samples, I ended up combining several blends of the leftovers in the fridge for later... mmm, iced. And I'm looking forward to seeing how that turns out too.

First up, the African origin roasts.


This included...

Kenya Kiambara (medium roast)

Extremely bright, with citrus acidity and a crisp eye opener. It is perfect for those looking for a slight "bite". Balanced, smooth-bodied coffee with a mellow, clean feel without a bitter aftertaste. 

Starting with a sniff test, I really had to work to get an aroma. They're not kidding when they describe this one as mellow. Very smooth drinking, with no aftertaste and minimal affront to the senses.

Kenya Kiambara (dark roast)

Earthy, smoky flavor that hits the sides of your tongue with hints of mocha. A very creamy, smooth and balanced coffee with a warm aftertaste. A true dessert coffee when milk and sugar are added and is perfect for making iced coffee. 

Just based on the description I suspected this one would be my favorite. Stronger smell right off the bat. I was really optimistic as I brewed it up.

It has a stronger mouth-feel and a bit of an aftertaste, but not necessarily a bad one. It actually made me want to drink more. On the third sip I decided it will probably fit nicely into my morning routine but I would have to brew a little stronger to get it to my level of preference. Still, my favorite one.

Ethiopia Queen City (medium roast)

A very complex medium body coffee with notes of apricots and mangoes, and exotic spices of cloves and cinnamon.

The description sounds delicious. Unfortunately my palate isn't sophisticated enough to distinguish all those subtle fruity flavors. The sniff test may have been my favorite.

Another smooth drinking example, that I could probably enjoy several cups of in conjunction with a meal.

Espresso Blend (specialty roast)

A true bold sweet complex espresso blend, without a bitter aftertaste. We've created this by blending out bold Kenya medium with our sweet Beatriz and then added our rich chocolate Andrina for complexity. 

Another very decent cup of coffee. A little smoky and a little more punch - the way I like it.


I don't think I've ever smelled a ground coffee I didn't like... now that I think of it. But these all had really great smells to them. Balanced though, nothing to attack the senses (which could be good or bad, depending on who you ask).


Next up were the Central American coffees. I expected to like these less, but my second favorite of the batch was probably the...

Guatemala Blend (specialty roast)

By using special roast profiles we have created this delightfully yummy blend. Carmelly sweet chocolate with notes of crisp citrus and a hint of nuttiness. 

Again, next time I'll brew stronger, but even though the acidity was a little higher than I thought I liked, the flavors were so bright it was easy to appreciate.

Guatemala Andrina (dark roast)

Medium body with notes of milk chocolate. She has a touch of sweetness and finishes with a pleasant lingering aftertaste. 

A slight acidity. Mild and palpable, but noticeable even in the dark roast.

Guatemala Beatriz (medium roast)

Medium body coffee starts with a crisp lemony tartness and is followed by a mellow peach undernote. Finishes very refreshing.

The last two were kind of on par, in a good way.

In fact, while I expected to have some clear stand-outs and some I didn't like at all, it was surprising to find myself enjoying all of the coffees I sampled and looking forward to working my way through full cups of these in the coming weeks. If nothing else, Tap Dancers has found a new customer in me from this exercise. In fact, I may brew up some more right now.

It is a snow day after all.