If, as they say, the definition of insanity is repeating the same action and expecting a different result, then I’m the Mad Hatter and I throw the same tea party every year.
I begin every New Year by kicking carbs and hitting the gym so I can look my best in order to compete with teenagers for beads during Carnival. My health kick is motivated purely by vanity and immaturity. By the Thursday before Mardi Gras, when Muses lines up on Jefferson Avenue just 10 feet from my house, I’ve either met my goal and I’m ready to party, or I haven’t met my goal and I’m ready to give up and just score beads with brute force. Either way, that’s the night I hit the house party buffet that runs the length of the Uptown parade route. On the menu: dark gumbos, fried chicken galore, all manner of King Cakes, beaucoup wine and muchas tacky daiquiris sipped from Styrofoam cups. By the time I start Mardi Gras morning with pickled-vegetable-and-vodka-heavy-Bloody Marys from Mimi’s in the Marigny and a slice of stewed apple and goat cheese King Cake (my fave!) from the Cake Cafe my blood will be moving like sludge through my veins.
Ash Wednesday ushers in a clean phase. In all honestly, thusly poisoned, I look forward to this annual cleanup almost as much as I enjoy the “Poison Fest” that necessitates it. Judging by the crowds gravitating toward light and fresh fare, I have plenty of company.
The line was out the door on a recent chilly morning at Carmo where the newly reformed were sipping Acerola cherry and cupuaça juices and munching fermented Burmese Tea Leaf salads (with dried beans, peas and seeds, cabbage, chilies, shrimp and peanuts) and Rico “sandwiches” (grilled plantains topped with smoked pork, salsa fresca and a zesty sauce).
I love the Market Vegetable salad at Coquette so much that I could turn my back on the friend chicken if it were offered at every house party I attend. This utterly beautiful, highly textured salad is a feast for all senses and it makes the very best of fresh, seasonal produce that’s jumbled together in shaved raw and pickled incarnations and married with citrus vinaigrette, cashew purée and crumbled black olive praline that provides a crunch as satisfying as fried chicken skin – and it’s exponentially easier to live with as it requires no rationalizations. Pastry chef Zack Miller’s mixed board of sweet and savory pastries is another matter altogether. That must be rationalized with an extra helping of salad and washed down with a satsuma soda.
With roasted walnuts, Granny Smith apples, sultanas, celery, red onion and red seedless grapes tossed in a Greek yogurt dressing and served over mesclun greens with a pepper jelly vinaigrette, Wayfare’s Chicken Waldorf salad looked delicious, but it was off limits. But a quick switcheroo from the on-menu coleslaw dressing to a red wine and blood orange infused olive oil vinaigrette made the Giardiniera Pork salad work for me! With spicy pulled pork, hard-boiled eggs and pickled vegetables, this is probably the most unusual and wholly satisfying salad I’ve encountered on my newfound – and short-lived, here comes Jazz Fest! – quest to live a life of virtue.
Emeril’s Lunch Crunch Menu offers three courses in 30 minutes or less for $22.50 – a bargain for fresh, inventive food from a restaurant celebrating its 25th anniversary this month! The menu recently included a choice of gumbo or soup of the day and one of two salads; a petite hot Chorizo Po-boy; Bucatini pasta with grilled shrimp, chanterelles, tasso, corn, fresh basil, and ricotta salata; or a zesty okra and tomato stew topped with rainbow trout. Desserts ranged from sinful vanilla bean crème brûlée and chocolate peanut butter mousse cake to a relatively virtuous trio of fresh fruit sorbets.
Cake Cafe, 2440 Chartres St., 943-0010, NolaCakes.com
Carmo, 527 Julia St., 875-4132, CafeCarmo.com
Coquette, 2800 Magazine St., 265-0421, CoquetteNola.com
Emeril’s, 800 Tchoupitoulas St., 528-9393, Emerils.com
Mimi’s in the Marigny, 2601 Royal St., 872-9868, MimisInTheMarigny.net
Wayfare, 4510 Ferret St., 309-0069, WayfareNola.com