On my last visit to New Orleans, almost exactly one year ago, my trip was made memorable by a movie shoot that took place in the alley outside my hotel. My fascination with Hollywood meant that I couldn’t tear myself away from watching on the sidelines. When I finally went to my room, I could still see and hear some of the action from my window.
I am in NOLA again for a meeting. What this means to me in simple terms is two lunches, two dinners, and a visit to Cafe du Monde. I am staying in the same hotel as my previous visit. I have no expectations about movie shoots this time around, but high expectations for the food.
Our group gathers in the hotel lobby to head to dinner at August, a restaurant owned by famed New Orleans chef John Besh. I know him from appearances on “Top Chef Masters” as a contestant, and a special guest on the current season of “Top Chef.” As we approach the restaurant some of the street is closed off and there are lights, cameras, and action. An upcoming television show called “Common Law” is being filmed. I am trying to be in professional mode, so while I don’t curb my enthusiasm, I am not my usual crazed self. Which is not to say I ignore the situation entirely. I do a quick Google search to see who’s in the show. There’s no one I am familiar with, so I can calm down and focus on my dinner.
Moments later someone comments that while we were gathered in the hotel lobby, Mark Wahlberg passed right through the center of our group. He is in town shooting a movie. He has also been spotted in the elevator and hotel bar. My professional mode dissipates, as I can’t hide my excitement at the possibility of a major star sighting.
Back to our meal, which is punctuated by a few visits to the window to check on the progress of the television show filming below. It must be noted that I am not the only one who is interested.
We are in a private room with a set menu, two choices for each course. I begin with braised veal cheek ravioli with wild mushrooms, porcini marmalade, and leek froth. The first bite surprises me with its deep flavor- a combination of earthy mushrooms and a delicately sweet marmalade. The leek froth adds interest in both appearance and texture. I am not sure why it’s referred to as froth vs. the more commonly used foam. As far as I can tell, they are one and the same.
The next dish is local organic greens with candied pumpkin seeds and Point Reyes blue cheese. It’s a surprise that the candied pumpkin seeds are actually a brittle: sweet, buttery, and crunchy. I am grateful for the sparing use of the pumpkin seeds. The combination of the sugary crispy treat and the soft blue cheese is terrific. This dish is my favorite of the night, and one that I think I can and hopefully will make at home.
My entree is grilled filet of beef with asparagus, smoked marrow and truffade potatoes, and sauce bordelaise. The beef is perfectly cooked, tender and pink. The sauce and potatoes complement it with fairly strong flavors of smoke and wood. Some people in the group find the flavors too strong and unfamiliar, but for me its a hit. A few people at my table have ordered brick grilled breast of free range chicken on a bed of cipollini. They aren’t enamored of the dish because it doesn’t taste like chicken. Like the meat, it has hints of smoke and wood.
I am disappointed by the dessert, which is Père Roux’s banana rum cake with white chocolate and Creole cream cheese icing. Père Roux is John Besh’ s best friend, and this is a cake he bakes for his own birthday every year. Most of the people at my table find it too sweet. My main issue is that the rum flavor is overpowering. I crave something sweet so I take a few bites, but no more. My displeasure isn’t completely unanimous- others praise the dessert.
During the meal I ask whether Chef Besh is in the house. Knowing that he owns nine restaurants, I am not expecting a yes. I am told that he is at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. New Orleans and the film world intersect again, but this time in the opposite direction. The server tells us that Chef Besh keeps a close watch on the restaurant, whether he is present or not. That’s nice to hear. But of course I am disappointed to have my second strike out of the evening, after unknowingly being inches away from Mark Wahlberg.
Despite a somewhat “bittersweet” ending to my meal I conclude the evening as a fan of August. The portions are sized just right. The presentation is beautiful. And as one of my colleague notes, many of the dishes contain an element of surprise beyond what is conveyed through the menu. I would eagerly return to August, perhaps when I have more freedom to make my own selections.
The next morning three of us take a walk through the beautiful Garden District. We are pointed in the direction of Coliseum Street, which has incredible homes, including one belonging to Sandra Bullock. A Bullock sighting would definitely trump the non-sightings of Besh and Wahlberg. We are admiring the architecture when a woman pulls out of her driveway, stops her car, and asks us where we are from. She spends a good ten minutes chatting with us. She talks about the neighborhood (Sandra Bullock is rarely there) and says she would invite us in to see her home except that she has someplace to be. But we should check it out on the cover of a book by Brian Batt called “Big Easy Style.” She starts to say that he is a Broadway star, but I recognize the name immediately from his role on the series “Mad Men.”
We are overwhelmed by this gregarious woman. The likelihood of a similar encounter occurring in the DC area is slim. We find “Big Easy Style” at the airport and the interior of the home is indeed stunning. An article from New Orleans Magazine, in addition to Batt’s book, gives us a peek inside and tells us a bit about Sally Edrington, the owner who is so welcoming to three strangers on the street. Does this count as a star sighting?
Sally directs us to a nearby place called The Grocery for lunch. The Grocery is a small neighborhood sandwich shop. I have a muffuletta, which is a signature sandwich of New Orleans, characterized by a distinctive pressed bread and olive salad. The lean meats (salami and ham), and melted cheese (provolone and swiss), balance nicely with the saltiness of the homemade olive salad. This is a charming little place, perfect for a quick stop while taking in the Garden District sights.
Our dining excursions also include lunch at Deanie’s Seafood in the French Quarter. I have a shrimp po’ boy and a soup sampler featuring gumbo, crawfish bisque, and crawfish etoufee. The soup portions are way more generous than expected. The gumbo is my favorite of the trio. There’s a rich broth and delicious bits of sausage and seafood.
The po’ boy consists of plenty of lightly fried shrimp on toasted bread with lettuce, tomato, and pickles. I am not blown away by the flavor, but perhaps I’m just too full from the soup. Honestly, I’m just happy to be in New Orleans…eating.
We also have dinner at Mr. B’s Bistro, which is part of the famous Brennan’s restaurant group. My sister has recently returned from New Orleans, and declared the barbeque shrimp at Mr. B’s one of the “best things she’s ever eaten.” She is not alone in this. It’s a signature dish. I barely glance at the menu. I am ready for some head-on shrimp with spicy, buttery, barbeque sauce. The dish comes with a bib. I do not shy away from this. I am certain it is a necessity, which it is. I love the tangy, Creole barbeque sauce, which is even better soaked up with the bread.
Someone in our group orders fried oysters with bacon-horseradish hollandaise sauce. I have never been an oyster fan, but I am assured that if I take a bite I will like it. Revelation- if you coat something (anything) in a high quality batter and add a tasty sauce, it’s really, really good. Other highlights of the meal include garlic truffle french fries, and a fantastic honey-glazed ginger pork chop, which I am fortunate enough to sample.
When I arrive back at BWI Airport, I get in my car and turn the radio to CNN, which is airing “Piers Morgan Tonight.” Piers is in the midst of an interview with… Mark Wahlberg. I sigh, wishing once again that I would have at least caught a glimpse of the star. I have to be content with the fact that New Orleans offers a stellar selection of restaurants, featuring dishes with deliciously distinct and ambitious flavors. They shine pretty brightly in their own right.
August, 301 Tchoupitoulas St., New Orleans, LA
The Grocery, 2854 St. Charles Ave, New Orleans, LA
Deanie’s Seafood, 841 Iberville Street, New Orleans, LA
Mr. B’s Bistro, 201 Royal Street, New Orleans, LA