These days, I drive up and down Magazine Street so often that my old Civic probably doesn’t need me to steer. I know all the options for breakfast, lunch and dinner. A flash of pink paper in a window, and I pull over to investigate the chance of new chow. Rumors of a reopening (“Liuzza’s has food again,” “Lots of activity at Brocato’s,”) and I scurry out to Mid-City. Over the last two months, I’ve logged more hours at French Quarter tables than I have in the last two years.
This city sometimes gives me claustrophobia. More and more, however, I’m venturing outside of Orleans Parish – to Metairie and to Kenner – to try restaurants that I’ve heard mentioned for years and places that just opened their doors. Folks living around these restaurants, of course, have always known how good they have it.
Spanish food is all the rage across the U.S. The cuisine’s lighter preparations and focus on fresh ingredients suit a country where butter is a bad word and groceries such as Whole Foods raised the standards for produce. It’s also one of the world’s most delicious cuisines. Chef Xavier Laurentino has been cooking his native cuisine in Metairie long before the foodie fashionistas declared Spain the new France.
The patatas bravas, literally “brave potatoes,” are one of Laurentino’s classic tapas – those little snacks that Spaniards scarf down as they hop from one bar to another. At Laurentino’s, the potatoes are crisply fried cubes under a thick layer of garlicy aioli. On another tapa, Chef Laurentino heaps a chunky salsa of bell peppers and red onions on top of chilled green-lipped mussels – which have a trace of sweetness from the vegetables and aged vinegar. The gazpacho, thickened with a little pureed bread, is pale orange. Instead of the vinegary wallop of some versions, this gazpacho is made with delicate aged balsamic vinegar so that the tomatoes shine brightly.
Massive pans, some as big as satellite dishes, hang from the wall. They’re the cooking vessels for Laurentino’s signature paella. Diners who don’t need enough leftovers to fill a freezer can order individual portions of the plump, al dente firm rice, which soaks up the heady saffron infused broth. Perfectly cooked chicken, vegetables and a fisherman’s entire daily catch of seafood are buried in the rice. Prized bits of burnt rice, called “socarrat” in Spanish, cling to the bottom of the paella pan.
Chef Laurentino cooks outstanding Spanish food, but with his personality he could make gruel sound appealing. When I ate there, he bounded out of the kitchen to praise the menu, explain the regional origin of each dish and offer a history lesson on how, in the Middle Ages, pasta became a regular part of the Barcelona diet.
He also told us about a major renovation planned for the restaurant. By the time you read this, Laurentino’s should have a patio, a much-expanded menu and a few more polished wood beams attached to the ceiling. The dark, candle-lit room will hopefully remain. It’s a soothing contrast from the difficult to find strip mall that houses Laurentino’s. Now that I’ve tasted Laurentino’s food, I’ll be sure to remember the path back to his restaurant.
Thai food has also become popular across the country. In New Orleans, the Chauvin family can take some credit for spreading the word about this cuisine. They’ve owned four restaurants throughout the area, but La Thai in Old Metairie is currently their only open restaurant.
La Thai’s has all the Thai dishes that a few years ago seemed exotic, but now are common enough that many Americans crave them. The mushroom and shrimp soup, full of top quality crustaceans, had a fiery red hue, but the flavor was a balance of lemongrass, galangal and kaffir lime leaves with a tickle of heat and a lingering citrus taste. The chicken Panang curry had a mellow spiciness and crisp, fresh vegetables, which sets the dish apart from many other tired renditions. The shrimp and scallops special, in a basil sauce with a whisper of honey sweetness, also stood out for its pristine produce and seafood. La Thai brings a fine dining concern with ingredients to Thai food.
La Thai is worth recommending alone for the excellent versions of classic Thai dishes. The Chauvins, however, also sprinkle the menu with intriguing dishes that fuse Thai and Asian tastes with French and Louisianaian ingredients and flavors.
A fried oysters appetizer, for example, was dusted with black and white sesame seeds and topped with a squiggle of a sweet, ruby red sauce. The oysters rested on a bed of wasabi infused leeks. The flavors were East, West and Southern Louisianian.
Fusion dishes sometimes taste like food cooked by a committee that couldn’t reach a consensus. La Thai’s fried oysters with wasabi leeks shows why it’s worth taking a chance on a multinational mash-up: the dish knocks the flavors out of their usual context and makes you reconsider how they can be used. It was one of the most exciting – and delicious – things that I’ve recently tasted.
Calas Bistro and Wine Cellar in Kenner takes its name from a dish that’s quintessentially New Orleanian but these days more exotic than either paella or pad Thai: the cala. The rice fritters were once as ubiquitous as beignets, and women would stroll the streets of the French Quarter advertising their calas with the shout “Belle cala! Tout chaud!”
Traditionally a sweet treat, here they are also served as a savory appetizer. I liked the shrimp calas least. The crab cake-like texture was too moist. The jambalaya and the red beans and rice calas, both incorporating the flavors of other rice dishes, were much better. Eating the jambalaya calas was like nibbling at a full plate of jambalaya, with each bite tasting like a different part of the main dish. The red beans and rice calas had a satisfyingly earthy taste from the beans.
Calas Bistro also offers an inspired take on dessert calas. The sweet, little fried fritters had a texture somewhere between a hush puppy and rice pudding. A pool of intense orange flavored sauce added a bracing citrus note. Dolled up beignets already grace some of the finest tables in New Orleans. This new restaurant makes it clear that calas are ready for equally elegant treatment.
A few of the other dishes I tasted at Calas Bistro, however, made me think that the kitchen was still finding its footing. The Malibu rum shrimp, which sounded liked something cribbed from an Applebee’s menu, turned out to be a fine entrée of superb, sautéed Gulf shrimp coated in shaved coconut with a sauce that had a nice punch of rum. The grilled tournedos of prime beef, however, were a little dry the night I tried them and the Rockefeller butter on top wasn’t as exciting as I’d hoped. The seafood platter was also a mix of both disappointment and delight. Chef Jeffrey Wagner spent seven years cooking under Frank Brigtsen, who consulted on the menu at Calas Bistro and cooks a famous non-fried seafood platter at Brigsten’s in the Riverbend. The seafood platter at Calas showed a lot of creative promise, but doesn’t yet live up to its potential. A crab cake was solid, the grilled Gulf fish was a little dry, and the barbeque shrimp spring roll memorable mainly for the high quality of the seafood.
Calas Bistro has an original menu, a comfortable room filled with horse racing memorabilia (the owners used to run the Fair Grounds Race Course) and a staff that’s eager to please. If the kitchen works out its kinks and cooks with more care, Calas Bistro might become another destination, like Laurentino’s and La Thai, for diners seeking a culinary kick.
4410 Transcontinental Metairie
933 Metairie Road, Metairie
Calas Bistro and Wine Cellar
910A W. Esplanade,
COOL WEATHER; ROASTED DUCK
By DALE CURRY
I must confess that I have never hunted, nor am I from a family of hunters. How much that hurts my reputation as a devoted south Louisianian, I don’t know, but I hope that my love of eating wild game makes up for it. Unfortunately, I’m in that minority of city dwellers who pray for a generous hunter to have mercy and share his limit, especially if it’s of the fowl variety. To be more specific, ducks – mallards or teal, doesn’t matter which.
Come Thanksgiving, it’s that time of the year when a large segment of the state’s male population, young and old, have but one thing in mind – life in the duck blinds. I’ve even known some who don’t come home for Thanksgiving dinner. Instead, they leave their warm beds before dawn, fumble through mosquito and alligator-infested terrain, sit for hours without mumbling a word and hope for the handful of ducks that the law allows.
Ah, but the glory of the kill, the male fraternity and the communion with nature make it more than worthwhile. For most, the rapture doesn’t end in the blind. The hunters are cooks, too and each has his own recipe. Competition runs high on how to prepare duck, with secret ingredients ranging from turnips to fruit, and the style of cooking, from iron pots on top of the stove to roasting in the oven.
“It’s a cultural thing that I grew up with and I’m delighted to pass on to my children,” says John Besh, chef-owner of Restaurant August and Besh’s Steakhouse at Harrah’s Casino. Busy as he is, he still finds time for his life-long passion for hunting. “I grew up hunting from a very early age, probably about eight or nine years old, and I still hunt today, as often as I can.”
Already, the father of four sons is taking his 10-year-old along to Honey Island Swamp, just minutes from their home in Slidell, where Besh is a native son.
“Part of it is understanding food and nature, where food comes from, and a respect for animals and food,” Besh says. It’s a philosophy he uses in everyday life at the restaurant, where he uses all parts of the animal and wastes none.
Although the chef legally can’t serve his catch to the public, he entertains friends at private parties with roasted duck and quail. His favorite way to serve small ducks, such as teal and wood duck, is fast and easy. After plucking them, he seasons them with herbs and spices, rubs them with butter and roasts them in a 450- to 500-degree oven for seven to eight minutes until they’re brown on the outside and medium-done inside. Then he glazes them with a mixture of one part mayhaw or muscadine preserves, one part chicken stock and one-half part rice wine vinegar. For larger ducks such as mallards, he marinates the breasts and sears them in a pan, rare to medium rare … like cooking a steak.
Asked about the risk of salmonella in poultry that is short of the doneness point, he said that only the fittest survive the long trek from the north. “There’s little chance these birds are sick,” he says.
Barring weather problems, duck season looks good this year due to an excellent nesting season in Canada and the northern U.S., according to Robert Helm, waterfowl program manager for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
From the I-10 south, Louisiana’s coastal marshes should be filled with ducks for hunters, who are allowed to shoot six per day in the west zone from Nov. 11-Dec. 3 and again Dec. 16-Jan. 21. In the east zone, the season is open Nov. 18-Dec. 3 and Dec. 16-Jan. 28. With Thanksgiving in dead center, there could be a few empty seats at holiday dinners. On the other hand, many a Thanksgiving meal will be blessed with a well-seasoned pot of fresh Louisiana ducks.
In addition there is a Sept. 15-30 teal only season with a bag limit of four, plus a youth waterfowl weekend in the west zone Nov. 4-5 and in the east zone Nov. 11-12. Mark your calendars to have a hunter friend over for dinner.
Helm relishes a pot of duck gumbo, and he loves to roast ducks by browning them thoroughly in bacon fat and slow-roasting them, breast side down in the oven.
“They have to be very tender,” he points out. During about two hours of cooking, the ducks are soaking up the flavors of sliced onion, bell peppers, celery, apples and oranges that he spreads over them as well as the red wine that he pours into the pot.
Long or quick cooking times take the best advantage of duck because, like certain cuts of beef, anything in between can deliver a tough result.
The experience of duck hunting is much more than just killing ducks. “It’s the whole package,” says Shawn Killeen, a New Orleans boat builder who began hunting at his father’s side at age four.
“We’re into the hunt, going out looking and finding the ducks, having built our own blind and putting out decoys that you carved yourself out of a cypress root. It’s going out with your buddies, cooking, drinking red wine.”
At 46, Killeen takes his 11-year-old son, training him to respect nature, cleaning up shells when finished and taking care of the marsh. In general, he says, “keeping the class to it and not just killing ducks.” Killeen uses double-barrel side-by-side shotguns, nothing automatic, shooting over the blind, and black and yellow lab retrievers. “We do it the old way,” he says.
Once home, Killeen gives ducks to friends and cooks some himself, but the most satisfying meals come from his brother-in-law, chef Greg Sonnier, who loves to cook Killeen’s ducks and geese for their families.
“I’ll tell you what. He can cook,” Killeen said. Sonnier’s Gabrielle restaurant was closed by Katrina. Sonnier is not a hunter himself, but slow-roasted duck has long been a favorite on his menus. His technique is seasoning a whole duck, stuffing it with chopped onions and rosemary, and roasting it in a slow oven for long time. He then de-bones the duck, deglazes the pan with sherry, light soy sauce and orange juice, to make a sauce.
The most common ways to prepare the local ducks, including teals, mallards and wood ducks, are in gumbos, and roasted slowly in black iron pots. Gumbos generally are dark and rich, made similar to a chicken gumbo. Because wild ducks are leaner and tougher than domestic, longer cooking is required. To use in a pot roast, ducks are cleaned, seasoned well, browned in oil or bacon fat, and simmered for two hours – sometimes more – in a small amount of water or wine. Wines of choice are red – such as burgundy – or sherry. Some cooks cover the ducks with slices of bacon and most stuff them with onions, celery and/or fruit. Turnips are sometimes used, either to disguise or enhance the taste. Mushrooms are a favorite addition. Because mallards are larger ducks, they’re usually cut into pieces and can be mixed with other smaller ducks when feeding a crowd. Remember, two days in the blind can produce only 12 ducks, so mixing them up is quite acceptable.
Like me, you may not have access to wild ducks just any old time you want them. The alternative is domestic duck, which is readily available, frozen at grocery stores. As a matter of fact, for a couple, or small family, domestic duck is a great idea for Thanksgiving. The 6-pound duck will serve two to four people, and traditional holiday side dishes balance well with duck. You can’t lose with sweet potatoes and wild rice to complement the following French version of whole roasted duck. But first, a true blue recipe for Louisiana wild duck:
ROASTED WILD DUCKS
6 to 8 small whole ducks – such as teal – or 2 to 3 large ducks – such as mallards – cut into pieces (these can be mixed)
Salt, pepper and cayenne pepper
2 large onions, one cut into chunks and the other sliced, divided
3 stalks celery, sliced, divided
4 garlic pods, cut in half, divided
1/2 cup bacon grease or vegetable oil
1 bell pepper, sliced
1 large apple, peeled, cored and sliced
1 large orange, peeled, cored and sliced
1 cup red wine – such as burgundy or merlot
1 cup sliced mushrooms: white, oyster, shiitake or Portobello
1/2 cup sliced green onion tops
Minced flat-leaf parsley for garnish
Rinse ducks well, making sure they are free of pinfeathers. Sprinkle well with seasonings and place onion chunks, 1 stalk of sliced celery and two garlic pods in cavities. In a large heavy Dutch oven or black iron pot, heat the grease or oil and brown ducks on all sides until they’re well browned.
Place ducks breast side down and cover with sliced onion, bell pepper, remaining celery and garlic, apples and oranges. Add the wine. Cover pot and place in a 350-degree oven. Cook until they’re very tender, about 1 1⁄2 to 2 hours. If more liquid is required and juices are drying up, add more wine, water or chicken stock. Towards the end of cooking, turn the ducks over to breast side up, and add the mushrooms and green onion tops. Cook, uncovered – about 20 more minutes – basting occasionally. The liquid in the pot can be used as is, or more gravy can be made, by thickening it with a paste of flour and water and adding water to create the desired consistency. When serving, sprinkle with minced parsley. Serve with rice and baked sweet potatoes on the side.
1 domestic duck – fresh or frozen – about 6 pounds
Salt and pepper
1 large onion, sliced
3 cloves garlic, sliced
2 stalks celery, sliced
2 bay leaves
1 small carrot, scraped and sliced
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 cup chicken or duck stock
Thaw duck if necessary. Remove excess fat, rinse well and pat dry. Prick duck skin all over with a fork, trying not to pierce meat. Season all over with salt and pepper. Place half the onion, garlic, celery, bay leaf and carrot in cavity of duck. Sprinkle with thyme leaves. Place duck breast side down on a rack in a large baking pan and scatter the remaining vegetables and bay leaf all around the pan. Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for about one hour. Turn duck breast side up. If more than a half-cup of grease has collected, pour some off. Baste with drippings and bake for another hour, or until juices run clear and legs are easy to move. If duck is not browned enough, raise temperature to 400 degrees in the last 20 to 30 minutes of cooking. This will help to make the skin crispy.
Transfer duck to a platter, remove vegetables from cavity and keep duck warm, but do not cover or the skin might steam and lose its crispiness.
Pour as much grease as possible out of the pan and place pan on a burner on the stove. Over medium-high heat, add the wine and stock. Deglaze the pan, scraping bits from the bottom, and reduce liquid slightly to make a sauce. In a cup, mix one heaping tablespoon flour with some of the liquid, and stir until smooth. Add to sauce and cook until thickened. Taste and add salt and pepper, if needed. Strain sauce into a serving bowl. To serve, cut duck into serving pieces and serve with sauce.
Notes: If you buy a frozen duck, a package of orange sauce may come with it. This can be offered as an alternative to the brown sauce. Just heat and serve in a bowl. If you want to cook the giblets of the duck, simmer with a little onion and celery in water until tender and cut them up to add to wild rice or gravy. Use sparingly because too much of this can deliver a stronger flavor than you might want.
BY LORIN GAUDIN
The Reign of Spain Stays Mainly on the Plate – This month the Omni Royal Orleans begins offering food and wine from the region of Spain. Tapas throughout the day and into the early evening along with “a relatively late dinner,” that includes special selections of wine, cheeses and foods including those made from the famous black-footed pigs of Spain – Iberico chorizo (sausage), Salchichon (sausage) and Lomo Embuchado (cured pork loin).
Best Burger – On a hot tip from a group of Sacred Heart sophomores (my niece Hilary among them) who actually eschew the scary-skinny look and eat (thank you), I tried the burger and fries from Sweet Things on Veterans Boulevard. Grumpy patrons at the counter aside, the cheeseburger combo meal with fries and a drink for $5 is delicious, meaty, salty and satisfying.
Pick your Zotz – Yes, the Oak Street location jumps, but in the Marigny, Zotz’ newest store offers blissful quiet and the same yummy selection of baked goods and other noshes, along with their gi-normous tea menu, wireless access and more. Shhhh, it’s our secret.
So Cheesy – Delachaise’s “Cheese Please” menu, pictured below, is stacked with over 20 cheese selections, good ones at that. Order several (2 for $10, 3 for $14, or 4 for $17) from a list resembling a sushi menu, complete with hilarious and smart symbols that indicate country of origin, milk used, texture, taste and more. There’s a cheesy key to demystify it all and we have superstar Chef Chris Debarr to thank.
Buy The Book – Joe Simmer’s Creole Slow Cookin’ created by Richard Stewart (Gumbo Shop) and Michael Ledet (designer of Louie the Buoy) with great anecdotes and delicious recipes like Osso Boudreaux, a Creole version of the Italian classic; no, not the Zephyr’s mascot.