Sunday, September 12, 2010

Croquer: Palace Kitchen

I grew silent in the back seat suddenly, rivulets of electric orange and lilac light fading behind cut-outs of woolen clouds and the hard edge of the black pines. Crisp wet wind forced its way through the open car window, rifling my combed hair. The Northwest preened itself and I paused to breathe in the twilight, embracing its glory again for the first time in years. Turning my eyes forward again I resumed the usual post-aiport banter with the front seat, my gracious Seattle hosts, rockstar chef couple Nicole Burrows (chef at Collins Pub, formerly of Carmelita) and Jon Pipenbrink (Oddfellows), who not only were putting me up while I was in town for the IFBC, they were also about to spoil me rotten every second I wasn't at the conference.
Starting now.
"So what do you want to eat first?"
It was a chilly Thursday night in Seattle, and the suggestion of a cozy booth at Tom Douglas' Palace Kitchen fit the bill for drinks and a late bite.
Travel is always primer for a cocktail, and I was overdue. I selected the delectable sounding Prosser Punch, a frothy concoction of Maker's Mark, sage, earl grey tea, and apricot puree made with fresh fruit from Tom Douglas' own Prosser Farm. Gorgeous late summer in a glass!
The most tempting dishes came from the small plates section, so naturally we selected several to share. First to arrive was the buttermilk fried soft shell crab with sweet corn salad, arugula, and sour cream dressing. Possibly my favorite of the night, the delicate buttermilk shell was a heavenly vehicle for the warm and succulent crab, so delicious swathed in the cream dressing and a squeeze of lemon.
This photo does not do our next dish -the grilled pacific octopus- justice. Expertly blackened so that the meaty center remained tender, the octopus, with shaved summer squash, chermoula, and tomato was consumed almost immediately in a flurry of dexterous forks.
Simple yet refined, the smooth goat cheese and lavender fondue hit the spot between dishes, with grilled Dahlia Bakery bread and crisp green apples.
Palace's "B.L.T." came composed on a plate, tomato braised pork belly stacked beside a smear of aioli, bacony toast, heirloom tomatoes, and a crown of arugula. Not the most exciting of the batch, but the juicy pork belly still hit the spot.
Last was a plate of thin-sliced smoked kobe beef brisket, with tasty little gruyere potato fritters, smoked tomato and pickled carrot. A novel presentation of brisket, I think we all wished it were stuffed inside a warm roll, as it would make an ideal sandwich. We also wished for several more fritters!
Dessert? Uh, yeah.
I let Nicole and Jon pick the desserts, and certainly was not disappointed. The milk chocolate crème caramel was silky malty perfection, completely winning me with the cocoa krispy crisp, a nod to childhood decadence.
Finally, the basic blackberry cassis cobbler with vanilla ice cream (which admittedly I would have passed on) was exactly what (I didn't know) I wanted. Bursting with juicy Northwest berries, flaky warm pastry and fresh melty vanilla bean ice cream, the cobbler encapsulated the priceless bounty of Washington and reaffirmed just how excited I was to be there for the weekend.

2030 5th Avenue
Seattle, WA 98121-2505
(206) 448-2001
Palace Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Voyager Bien: A Crescent City Farewell

99 degrees and 99% humidity. Just another August morning in the Big Easy.
My belly was full from Jazz Brunch and I had but a few hours left to run around town and check the remaining tasks off my list.
I was enthusiastic to swill my first authentic NOLA street daiquiri, although, to be honest, it may also be my last (nothing should come with a free Sex on the Beach test tube shot on the side)!
So long Monteleone Hotel and Carousel Bar, I'll miss you.
Café Beignet, you're officially on my list.
I noticed our pace slow around 3 o'clock when the sun proved unavoidable. We sought solace in the Royal House Oyster Bar, its marble corner bar and promise of a cold cocktail a welcoming respite. While the julep wasn't quite the afternoon delight I had hoped for, it was still refreshing, and the bartender was sweet to send us back outside with a full tall plastic tumbler of ice water.
Since Central Grocery is closed on Sundays, Rouses Market at the corner of Royal and St. Peter fulfilled my take-home grocery needs (like Camellia red beans!).
Several glasses of water later I was still having trouble cooling off. The Organic Banana in the French Market came to my rescue, a splendid real fruit alternative to the other street daiquiris and worth every penny ($6) for a frosty fresh pineapple, coconut and rum cooler.
A stop at Laura's Candies is a must, my favorite praline maker in the Quarter. I gobbled a pink champagne truffle as my rum pralines were wrapped up for the trip home.
Most exciting of all, I finally got my afternoon hang at Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop Bar, my first glimpse of NOLA's history last October and the watering hole I've been dying to visit ever since that moment. Housed in a former -you guessed it- blacksmith shop on Bourbon Street circa 1772, Lafitte's is one of the oldest standing buildings in the French Quarter, and a step into the eerily cool interior is all it takes to feel its history. There are more spirits than what's behind the bar there, and as I drank my bourbon I would be lying if I didn't say I felt more folks 'round that table than Michael and myself!
A wedding party crashing Lafitte's for a photo opp
After a stop in Skully'z Recordz, to-go cocktail in hand (love it), it was time for a snack before the airport so we ducked into the Quarter Master market where the counter in the back, cheekily dubbed the Nelly Deli, had one muffaletta left, and it had our name on it.
A summer storm was brewing, and the town grew a little quiet, which comes as little surprise. Inside the cab, our good natured driver was giving us the scoop on which celebs were moving in and out of NOLA, as we headed out of the Quarter and onto the interstate, from Brangelina and Sandra Bullock's new homes to Nick Cage losing his haunted LaLaurie Mansion in his financial troubles. Rain began to patter the windshield and he paused his storytelling, silent for a moment. "It's hurricane season," he said pensively. But as quickly as the rain had begun, it ceased and a beam of sunlight pierced the clouds, illuminating an outlying field near the airport. The driver was back to his story about Jon Goodman, bright Cajun drawl finally declaring "but I guess that's neither here nor there for you Hollywood folks." I laughed, thinking about how much more impressed I was with the strength of this city than any of these celeb expats, and wished him well before stepping back out into the sweetly suffocating Southern heat.

Daiquiri Paradise Island
911 Decatur St. New Orleans, LA; 504.523.3257

Café Beignet
334 Royal St. New Orleans, LA; 504.525.2611

Royal House Oyster Bar
441 Royal St. New Orleans, LA; 504.528.2601

Rouses Market
701 Royal St. New Orleans, LA‎; 504.523.1353‎

The Organic Banana
1100 North Peters St. New Orleans, LA‎; 504.587.7903‎

Laura's Candies
331 Chartres St. New Orleans, LA; 504.525.3880

Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop Bar
941 Bourbon St. New Orleans, LA; 504.522.9377

Skully'z Recordz
907 Bourbon St. New Orleans, LA; 504.592.4666

QuarterMaster & Nelly Deli
1100 Bourbon St. New Orleans, LA; 504.529.1416

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Croquer: Commander's Palace

I shook the hangover from my half-mast eyes. No! I scolded myself, today is too important! I straightened my bow tie and breathed deeply. Our scheduled Jazz Brunch at Commander's Palace would not be optional.
I'd been looking forward to it since last October. Besides, I'd had the reservation for weeks, and I couldn't let the Commander down!
A bustling carnival of Haute Creole joie de vivre, I felt like Annie being welcomed into the Warbucks mansion, a staff of thousands smiling welcome as we were lead up stairs and through countless dining rooms to the Garden Room, a glass-walled space nestled among the ancient oaks.
As "Chef Tory's Jazz Brunch," what would it be without, well, the music?
Service is like clockwork at Commander's Palace. Very fine-tuned, meticulous, gracious clockwork. The brunch formalities were explained in detail by our server, his greased-back hair catching the morning light. "Coffee.. and Bloody Mary" is all Michael and I could manage at this stage, delving back into the menu, chock full of mix-and-match 3 course brunch options, all, we were told needing to be ordered up-front.
The Commander’s Palace Bloody Mary arrived looking a little skimpy, but then our server appeared with “ice block” vodka (a vodka bottle frozen into a hunk of solid ice), finishing the drink table-side. The spicy okra-topped bloody was just what the doctor ordered.
Michael chose the Turtle Soup for his first course, a Commander’s classic also finished table-side with a splash of Sherry. Succulent turtle meat brightens the silky decadent soup.
I couldn't resist the description of the Eggs Sardou² - Crab boiled hen’s egg, roasted artichokes, spinach & Pastis cream and Cajun caviar hollandaise with champagne... as I'm sure you understand. The egg sat atop an artichoke crown dressed in piquant hollandaise, all secondary however to the winsome spinach and pastis cream. The light anise nuance was a revelation, and something I've craved every day since.

Michael ordered the Eggs Couchon De Lait for his main, smoky braised pork with poached hen eggs, buttermilk biscuits, melted leeks & mushrooms and tawny port hollandaise. A quintessential NOLA breakfast, and probably the best cochon sampled so far.
The first bite of my dish was something I don't think I'll ever, ever forget. Fireworks, people. Behold the Chicory Duck & Sweet Potato Griddle Cakes - "Forever braised" duck with bourbon soaked Granny Smith apples, house made honey butter, and vanilla cane syrup. The fragile duck meat was textbook —no, scratch that— biblical perfection - pink, smoky and sweet with such glorious depth. The griddle cakes had an immaculate crispness, each layer sandwiching duck and bourbon apples. I could only eat about a third of the plate, but it was the most sublime dish I've tasted in many, many moons.
I wouldn't order dessert after a breakfast like this, but since we ordered all 3 courses at the beginning (and all are included in the brunch price tag) we had it coming. As you may have noticed by now, I tend to order house specialties always, so the Creole Bread Pudding Soufflé (“The Queen of Creole Desserts") is naturally what I got. Michael was treating this as an early birthday present apparently, and I blushed when dessert came out with a candle and a singing staff+jazz band, a paper hat appearing atop my head. Once the humiliation subsided, I could pay attention to the Whiskey Cream Sauce being poured over the air-light soufflé, breaking its surface and drizzling across the massive gable. Again, I could only manage a few bites, but boy were they luxurious! I would pour this whiskey sauce on anything, and the fluffy/sticky soufflé couldn't have been more expertly cooked.
Michael had the Sticky Peach & Pecan Up-Side-Down Cake, a more forgiving portion of warm peach and ginger spiced coffee cake with grilled pineapple compote and Grand mariner caramel. I couldn't tell you how this was, I'm not sure that my taste buds were working anymore.
I like that cocktails are celebrated at the breakfast table at Commander's Palace, and Co-Proprietors Ti Adelaide Martin and Lally Brennan, sometimes known as "The Cocktail Chicks," openly share their passion for good drinks in The Land of Cocktails, the bar adjacent to the Commander's kitchen, and on their blog and cocktail book of the same name.
As we stared silently at our desserts, Ti stopped by our table to introduce herself and see how we had enjoyed our meal. She could see we needed another drink however, and consulted on our choices. She was gracious, outgoing and lovely, a cherry on top of a perfect experience. What's more, our drinks arrived "on Ti," a very kind gesture following our chat.
Again, always going for classic, I couldn't pass up a proper Southern Milk Punch, made with Bourbon and finished with nutmeg. Michael was more wise and accepted Ti's suggestion of the crisp and (keyword:) light Basil & Blue - Muddled fresh blueberries & basil, Hendrick's Gin and St. Germain.
While we sipped our cocktails (and let our desserts get cold), the jazz band led some of the brunch guests on a promenade through the dining room, followed by a more somber, soulful blues standard in which a woman sitting at a table near the window just... began singing. There was a bewildered hush at first, the room trying to figure out where that sweet forlorn voice was coming from. But the awkward silence turned to enraptured audience, necks craning to catch a glimpse. A pillar obstructed my view, but I didn't mind because the voice was familiar, one I knew well. The early afternoon sun was rendered into lace-like twilight by the trees outside, a magical twinkling through the oak's branches. And in that moment I was once again in my youth listening to my dearly departed grandmother singing sweetly in her kitchen, preparing a Sunday breakfast.

1403 Washington Ave. New Orleans, LA; 504.899.8221
Commander's Palace Restaurant on Urbanspoon