Friday, September 30, 2011

Getting Old. Such a Pain.

I can never remember any more what the word eleemosynary means. I used to know that word. I even used to use that word, back when I was in college.

It seems unimportant, but it's frustrating not being able to remember things I used to know.

Monday, September 12, 2011


3312 Esplanade Avenue
New Orleans, Louisiana

Sometimes it's a curse: I live in a city, San Antonio, that is home to a fantastic array of exquisite food, and I am at home in a city, my native New Orleans, that is the Navel of the Culinary Universe. It's no wonder I'm a reluctant, yet willing, part of the obesity epidemic that's currently all the rage on 24-hour news channels that really need to fill the time. (You may have noticed that the Missing Or Murdered Pretty White Girl Channel, f/k/a Headline News, never mentions fat people unless they're suspected of committing the Murder of the Season.)

Other times, it's a blessing.

Tonight I felt the urge to treat myself to something really special, and Lola's seemed likely to feed that need. Oh, did it! Located in a funky part of the funky Mid-City district, this restaurant was a sort of uber-funky mix of Paris in the 1920s, San Francisco in the 1960s, Mexico City in the 1980s and New Orleans in the ... well, just New Orleans; no need to narrow it down further. It's not a large place; the dining room is the front part of a converted shotgun house; the kitchen is beyond. One neighbour is a 90-year-old Italian supermarket, the other is a private residence. 

We were seated immediately, and immediately took up the waiter's suggestion of house-made white Sangria, a sweetish concoction of wine and chunked fruit. It had a slightly fizzy quality to it, and we liked it enough to go through two bottles before dinner arrived. We had one order of paella, which takes about half an hour to prepare, so to fill the time we asked for an order of garlic shrimp. That arrived bubbling hot in a small iron pan, enough shrimp to keep the four of us busy, and enough garlic to keep away all the vampires in New Orleans for the rest of our visit. Not wanting to let a drop go to waste, we asked for another round of the excellent hot bread served here, which comes with a garlic aioli spread. (We thought it was garlic butter, but the waiter explained that it is a vegan concoction.)

In time our main meals arrived. First there was the seafood paella, teeming with mussels, shrimp, fish and other seafoods mixed in a plate of saffron arborio rice and vegetables, seasoned with red pepper. I had the seafood fideua, the same dish made with capellini instead of rice. It was both beautiful and delicious, definitely worth the wait: enough seafood so that there's some in every little forkful, the pasta just slightly al dente, the bright yellow of saffron, served with the mussels standing on end around a garnish of red pepper and parsley. 

We also had a dish of spinach linguine with chicken in a pesto sauce. It, too, was brightly flavoured, with artichoke quarters, tomato and olives in a pesto sauce over perfect pasta. The monochromatic look of the dish seemed less interesting to me than the other plates, but that didn't detract at all from the flavour.

Finally, we had a dish called pisto, a panoply of vegetables stuffed into a portabella mushroom. The black beans and rice that came with it were unadorned and uninteresting, but the rest of the dish was a fabulous, and fabulously complex, mix of tastes and textures. I always appreciate it when a chef takes things I don't much care for — in this case, eggplant and squash — mixes them with things I do like, and makes them enjoyable. This Castilian dish was certainly that.

I had looked forward to trying one of the house's desserts, but after all this food I just wasn't able. That, I guess, is just one more reason to try this place again. Maybe next time I'm in New Orleans.
Lola's on Urbanspoon

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Exotic, Thoroughly Orleanian, But Disappointing

Bennachin Restaurant
1212 Royal Street
New Orleans, Louisiana

This African restaurant has been on my New Orleans restaurant wish-list for months, so when the opportunity to try it came up, I jumped at it. It's a very, very small place on Royal between Governor Nicholls and Barracks Streets. There was only one open table large enough for four people. Most were tables for two, with one for six in the window.

The service was prompt at first, though later, after the tables all filled, the one server on duty was harried. Still, she got everyone served, correctly and as fast as things came out of the kitchen, though there was the distraction of the front door knob falling off, so that every time someone closed the door, someone from the kitchen had to come with a knife to open it. Eventually they put a sign on the door asking people not to close it, and the people seated closest made it their special mission to enforce that injunction. Lucky, weren't we, that the air outside was unseasonably cool, and the bug population of New Orleans appeared to have taken the weekend off. (Those facts, of themselves, makes me view the entire world in an uncharacteristically optimistic light, and may have influenced my reviews of this and other New Orleans restaurants.)

Looking around the restaurant didn't give me any sense of Africa. Other than a cheesy page torn from some child's book, a map showing the major cities in Africa, and a similar assembly of photographs of some of those cities' most touristy location, there was nothing to evoke the continent, and certainly nothing to evoke the two regions where the cuisine on offer originates, the Bight of Benin and Senegambia. The pretense that all Africa is a cultural unit may be comforting to descendants of slaves, and probably to young, white New-Age One-World types, but it has no basis in reality. It is a post-modern conceit, based on ignorance and given full play in this restaurant.

But that's neither here nor there where the food is concerned. While it may be fatuous to pretend that a tourist from Luanda or Lilongwe will be right at home here, the pairing of cuisines from Cameroon and the Gambia is no more incongruous that offering both Thai and Chinese in the same restaurant, a pairing that is less exotic only because it is more familiar to Americans, who, for the most part, are likely as not to see all those peoples and foods as Basically The Same, whether lumped together as Asians or as Africans. My own experience of Africa is not extensive, but it's enough to know that people widely separated geographically will have significant differences, and people who are widely separated politically will have significant differences, and people who are widely separated both geographically and politically will have vast differences. So will their cuisines.

For our dining experience, we started with drinks of ginger. Not ginger ale; just ginger water. It is still-water with minced ginger, served cold. The flavour is powerfully strong, requiring that you sip it slowly. It's not at all sweet, and the taste seems to vary in palatability as you drink it, but it is a generally pleasant taste. 

I can't quite say the same for the food. We had three dishes at our table. First was the dish for which the restaurant was named, bennachin, which I know from other sources as Jollof Rice, a delicious mixture of meat, rice and vegetables. This version was powerfully seasoned in a way that jolted at the first taste, then grew more tolerable with each successive bite. The quality of the meat (beef, in this incarnation; no pun intended) was reasonably good and the dish was satisfying in both quality and quantity. It was served with an unfortunate spinach sauté that tasted like canned spinach with some oil and onion in it. I found it inedible.

Next was ndole, a dish combining beef, spinach and peanuts in a sauce of garlic and ginger. It was tasty, and I thought it would have been good did it not seem to use beef that was well past its sell-by date. It tasted spoiled to me, though the person who ordered it thought it good, and had no ill effects later on. It was served with fried plantains, and coconut rice that was good but had no discernible coconut flavour to it.

Finally, there was shipa shipa, shrimp and rice covered in a tomato sauce seasoned with celery and onions. I found the sauce boring, except for the unpleasantly strong taste of celery. The shrimp and the rice were both unremarkable. Again, the person who ordered it thought it was good, but he did have ill effects later on. I don't know if this is a case of cause-and-effect, or simply a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy; you decide.

The prices were not extraordinarily high per se. Had the food lived up to its potential, they would have been extrememly reasonable. But this, it seems to me, is a case of a restaurant pricing foods as though they were something really special, then serving up mediocrity at those same prices. Just because the cuisine is exotic, perhaps unique in the area, doesn't mean we should pay premium prices, if it just ain't good. And I don't think the food at Bennachin is all that good.
Bennachin Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Friday, September 9, 2011

Worth Searching Out

Dog House Grille
2200 East Second Street
Gulf Shores, Alabama
(off Highway 59, just south of the Intracoastal Waterway bridge)

In my entire life — and I've been 49 for more years than most people — I don't believe I have ever sought out a hot-dog place. I mean, I like hot dogs, but they're not my idea of a meal, really. Not like a burger, or a good plate of enchiladas, or pasta. So when I go out to eat, the idea of actually seeking out a hot-dog place on purpose has just never happened.

Today, though, I had to contend with this damned notion of democracy and majority rule, and hot dogs won. (I diplomatically abstained, having caused the entire discussion by reading aloud, a few days ago, some of the review comments made on the Dog House Grille's page on Urbanspoon.) So off we went.

No, that's not Laura.
At first sight, it wasn't inspiring. Set in a strip center on a secondary thoroughfare, a few doors down from another place that I vaguely recalled had received good marks, for what that's worth, the Dog House Grille looks to be your standard Early 21st-Century American strip-center eatery. Step inside, and you are immediately reminded of every sandwich shop you've ever been to. I can think of two non-chain places back home that, I'm sure, were laid out by the same architect (if architecture has anything to do with it). Walk to the counter and place your order with the reportedly attractive (or, to quote the review, "smokin' hot") young lady, and wait to be enlightened.

In addition to a wide selection of hot dogs and other sausage-shaped meats, the Dog House offers burgers and other sandwiches, and a full breakfast menu. (O! that I had known that this morning, when I settled for the local disorganized Hardee's franchise restaurant!) But we were there for the dogs, and dogs we had.

The Yeilding (sic) Frito Dog is a weiner with chili, onions, peppers, jack cheese and Fritos. Surprising, how good such simple things can taste. The chili was the flavour-maker, but the cheese, soft and sticky, was what really shone in the mix. The New York Dog is inadequately described on the menu as "mustard, grilled onions and sauerkraut," which simply doesn't do justice to it. The onions were not just grilled, they were caramelized in a way that most Cordon Bleu chefs hope to master. They were superb. The kraut was moist and tasty and completely unobtrusive — you know how sauerkraut can just jump up and shout and stomp its little feet and throw a tantrum; this kraut didn't do any of those things, it just laid itself back and surrendered itself for your enjoyment.

My choice was the Chicago Dog, a frankfurter topped with mustard, relish, big chunks of tomato, diced onion, a little celery salt that I could have done without, and hot peppers, served up in a soft bun with a pickle spear. Yes, this was worth driving a little ways to find. It was so much more than a mere hot dog, it was a meal. 

Customers' pleasures at the Dog House Grille don't end with the main courses; the side dishes are fries, sweet-potato fries, and onion rings. We tried them all. The fries were good, but had more salt on them than I care for. The onion rings were sweet and crunchy and coated with a delicious batter. But the stand-out of the offerings was the sweet potato fries, crinkle-cut and lightly salted, which may be the best I've ever had. At least, I can't remember better ones. 

And all of this came to around six bucks a person. I'd call that a deal.
Dog House Grille on Urbanspoon

The Gulf Shores Trip

Click here to see the on-line photo album.
Can any trip be more perfect than this latest trip to the Gulf Coast? Well, okay, you're right: the latest trip is always the best. But this one was particularly enjoyable.

We arrived in Opelousas, Louisana, on Friday, September 2, as Tropical Storm Lee wandered around offshore, unable to decide where it wanted to go. Growing up in Louisiana gives you a sense of what weather to fear, and this little tropical storm didn't quite rise to that level, despite the breathless hyperbole of the Weather Channel's presenters. We spent a pleasant evening with our friends, the Nepveaux, including a delicious seafood dinner at the Steamboat Warehouse, up the road in Washington. By the time we went to bed, the wind was picking up and the rain was starting to come down pretty steadily.

In the morning, the rain was pouring down and the wind was blustering, but it still wasn't enough to deter us. Although we had to creep down the freeway at 30 miles an hour for a good while — and occasionally even much slower than that — by the time we crossed the Atchafalaya Basin, the wipers were off. This storm was relatively disorganized, meaning that it had narrow bands of bad weather widely separated by areas of calm.

We picked up Nancy and Jeff at the airport in New Orleans, and after a stop for lunch at the Bulldog, we headed off to Alabama. That drive, which would normally take about three hours, took five, including a slightly scary stretch (negotiated at less than 20 miles an hour) along the Mississippi coast. But all we faced was heavy rain; the winds were strong but not dangerous, and there was no flooding on the roads. When we arrived at our condo, the parking lot was under about four inches of water, but we even managed to avoid having to deal with that. We got rained on a little while we unloaded the car under the portico. Big deal. Then I found the one parking spot that would allow me to get out of the car without stepping in the water. I felt lucky.

about 25' high
We spent the next day and a half sitting in our condo, mostly, watching the waves outside. Most of the time they were only around four to six feet, high enough to excite us City Folk, but not really anything to get worked up about; but occasionally, when the wind would pick up, some got much higher, though it's hard to tell how high from the shore, without a ship on hand for them to break against. All I had to go by was that I was on the second floor, 12 or 15 feet above sea level, and I'm about 6' tall. Some were higher than that. Bands of heavy rain and high winds continued to pass over us, including one that took one of the deck chairs from our balcony, never to be seen again. During the calm periods, we got out for walks on the beach and a trip to a local seafood restaurant for dinner.

Pensacola Historic District

NAS Museum
Pensacola Light
Once the storm passed, we had gorgeous, gorgeous weather for the rest of the trip: warm enough to get out on the beach, but cool enough to really enjoy it. First thing we did was drive down the shore to see Pensacola, Florida: their little historical district and the Naval Air Station's museum and lighthouse. From the top of the lighthouse, I could see Fort Pickens, across the bay, where I'd first met my friend Brian Kirby several years ago — we were both renting bicycles to ride out to the fort — and down the beach to the high-rise condos and hotels in Gulf Shores, 20-some-odd miles away. It's a fairly rare treat to have air that clear when I'm up in a tall tower.

Win, Place and Show

Another day-trip took us to Fort Morgan, one of the old defenses of Mobile Bay

Dauphin Island has an interesting little aquarium focusing on estuarial life

Bellingrath Gardens, which was once a private estate, is a famous botanical experience, created by the owner of the local Coca-Cola Bottling Company back in the 1930s
We also went into Mobile, where we saw the USS Alabama

and other military vehicles, like this B-52

Mobile has some charming older parts
After our week in Alabama, we spent a few days in New Orleans

Mostly in the French Quarter

Statue of Joan of Arc in Decatur Street

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Not Just In It For the Beer

The Bulldog
5135 Canal Boulevard
New Orleans, Louisiana

An unplanned stop for a late lunch in New Orleans landed us at this nice mid-city pub. While the big draw of this place for the locals is the huge selection of draft beers (and don't think we didn't appreciate that bit of luck), the food was pretty good, too.

We tried the pulled-pork sandwich. It was well made but covered with a too-sweet barbecue sauce. The meat was served in large chunks on an ordinary hamburger bun.

We also had an excellent grilled chicken sandwich, a moist, marinated and butterflied breast on the same dressed hamburger bun.

Our other choice was the Philly cheese steak wrap. It was mostly meat, with enough unidentifiable cheese to give it cohesion, and some tasty sautéed onions and peppers. It was served with a side of beef juice, but the nature of the wrap's construction made it a choice between eating it dry (too dry) or having it fall apart as you try to dip it. Considering how messy it turned out to be to eat, I might as well have poured the juice over it.

The culinary stars of the show were the sweet potato fries. They were cut to a nice size, between Wendy's and a steak fry, and fried to perfection: crispy along the edges but soft inside.

The prices were reasonable, but unremarkable. The service, both at the kitchen and the bar, was typical New Orleans surly. Being an Orleanian by birth and, to some extent, upbringing, I can say that it is this common up-yours attitude that makes me proud to call myself a native Texan, Born in Exile.
The Bulldog (Mid-City) on Urbanspoon

A Port In A Storm

The Shrimp Basket
301 Gulf Shores Parkway
Gulf Shores, Alabama

We blew into town with Tropical Storm Lee, and after portaging our stuff into our condo, went off in search of dinner. It being The Coast, we wanted seafood, and this is the place we chose. It's one of 11 locations this local chain has along this stretch of coastline.

It was pretty late in the evening, which might explain why the place was filthy. The table had been bused, but the floor was littered with napkins and bits of food. The dining room wasn't particularly large; certainly not large enough for the number of tables and chairs stuffed into it. The management may have taken this into consideration in their hiring policies, as the employees were, without exception, lithe young women who would look as much at home in bathing suits on the nearby beach as in a grease-pit seafood house. Management may or may not have standards of physical appearance, but certainly it has standards of competence, and these young women knew their jobs and did them with easy competence and gracious hospitality. They were quick to accomodate a request for something not on the menu; and they did a good job sliding unobtrusively behind the chairs of some of the restaurant's grotesquely fat patrons. This place seems quite popular among those who have to buy two seats on a Southwest Airlines jet.

There's also an outdoor dining area, but even if there were not a tropical storm passing through town, I don't think it'd be the place to dine. Laying aside the shredded awning (which appeared to have been shredded during some previous big wind event) the proximity of the busiest street in town suggests that it's no place for people without earbuds to enjoy themselves.

The food was just the tiniest bit above average for this sort of restaurant. The seafood is available grilled or steamed, but clearly it's all about the fried food. At our table we had a grilled chicken platter, billed as two chicken breasts but consisting of surprisingly greasy chicken tenders; a fried clam po-boy, which was good; and mahi tacos, which were also good; the chicken platter and the tacos were both served with small, tasty, garlicky hushpuppies. I had the fried oyster po-boy, which was nicely dressed and loaded with oysters that were coated in a tasty batter and fried just right. I had a side order of new potatoes, which were also well-cooked, although coated in what seemed to be a cheap flavoured butter substitute (which may have been the same stuff that made the chicken seem greasy).
Shrimp Basket on Urbanspoon