I've had New Orleans on the cerebrum lately, and not just because the Katrina disaster remains an open sore on the American body politic. I picked up this recently published comic novel Tremble and Ennui by New Orleanian Edgar Nicaud the other day, and had great fun following its ne'er-do-well misfits around the Big Easy as they get themselves into all sorts of trouble.
The protagonists do their best to remain unemployed, imbibe countless martinis, and dodge any and all bills, checks and invoices presented to them. My favorite part of the yarn deals with the world-famous Chef Intesti, a scoundrel perhaps based on some fry-pan potentate like Food Network publicity-hog Emeril Lagasse.
If you're worried about spoilers, skip a few lines, for Nicaud's Great Gourmet Gasbag inadvertently poisons himself when he's humiliated into creating a fab new dish on his own, minus the aid of culinary students in his employ. His new dish? Raw poultry! Intesti recovers from botulism, only to be stabbed in the heart by the hirsute ape-man he's imprisoned as his dishwasher.
This little roman, so amusing in that A Confederacy of Dunces vein, caused me to reflect on my too few and too brief visits to New Orleans, where I enjoyed some of the most memorable meals I've ever had. No raw chicken, fortunately. Instead, it was gumbo in the French Quarter and crawfish étouffée at some shack-like filling-station/eatery outside town. I recall that étouffée like it was yesterday, though it was really several years ago. Got me to hankerin' after some Crescent City cuisine, rarer here in Sand Land than a PV soccer mom sans bolt-ons. Can I get a witness, brethren?
That's why I'm happier than a raccoon in molasses that A Taste of N'Awlins opened two months ago, just up the road from New Times' offices. I've often bemoaned the lack of lunch options in our not-yet-thriving downtown, and here is a superior one, open only three hours for the midday meal, mainly because -- surprise, surprise -- downtown after rush hour is mostly a dead zone. Hopefully, this review will help change things, or at the least keep the doors open while the light-rail construction on Washington Street is doing its damnedest to dissuade potential patrons from walking on ATON's side of the road.
Owner-chef John Rapoport ain't from N'Awlins, but the erstwhile legal beagle from Manhattan has put in enough time over in The City That Care Forgot, and is a talented enough cook, to pull off such standards as jambalaya, the muffuletta, red beans and rice, blackened catfish, gumbo, étouffée, et al. He's even got a rack of Zapp's kettle-cooked potato chips for sale, which, according to the one New Orleans native I know in town, is a sign the man means bidness. As for the muffuletta, an Italian cold-cut sammy on a big round bun that has a distinctive, garlicky crushed "olive salad" as a relish, it just seemed like a regular ol' sandwich to me. Yet it was at least good enough for that same former N'Awlins res to abscond with half my muff without even so much as a "See ya later." Sheesh! The following day she vouched for it being close enough to the original, though it needed more olive oil.
Then there's the fried oyster po' boy, a.k.a. oyster loaf or la mediatrice (the peacemaker), which according to some sources, acquired its handle 'cause alkies on a bender in the French Quarter would bring it home to their wives hoping to placate their anger with a sammy of hot, fried oysters and buttered bread. Rapoport crafts his with homemade tartar sauce and shredded cabbage. I worship oysters both raw and fried like this, with a crunchy exterior and a gooey brininess inside. My method of worship? Near-smothering myself with the breaded bivalves as I shove my mug into the gaping maw of French bread.
The blackened catfish -- seems catfish is easier to get than Louisiana Chef Paul Prudhomme's preferred redfish these days -- is off the charts taste-wise, black from a cast iron pan and coated in a blend of spices like oregano, white pepper and tons of cayenne. You get that dusty-spice feeling in the back of your throat as you down this piscatory delight. I dug every morsel, though I felt like a friggin' character in Frank Herbert's Dune trilogy, what with those whole planets of spice, and all.
One quibble: I would have preferred the oysters and the catfish as plates, rather than sammys, which is how the catfish is served, as well. Rapoport claims he'll fix them any way you want. Just wish I'd known that from jump. The Thibodeaux brisket sammy is another in this category. These slow-cooked slabs of cow breast are tender, savory and sweet, and would do better without all that French bread covering them.
Rapoport's shrimp and crawfish étouffée? Not as engrossing as my Crescent City memory, perhaps because that étouffée was all crawfish. Still, Rapoport's was decent, with a piquant orangish roux, and I finished it off tout de suite. The étouffée was one of ATON's "bayou bowls du jour," and came over rice, with a side of bread.
New Orleans natives'll probably run a fine-toothed comb through Rappy's jambalaya, dirty rice, and red beans and rice, but I'd run buck nekkid down Bourbon Street for a serving of each. The spicy dirty rice with bits of sausage, and the gravy-laden red beans and rice with thick slices of andouille, especially.
No bread pudding when I visited. (Drat!) So I had to make do with a more healthful option, the "politically correct salad," called a "wop" salad down in Loosiana, even by the Eye-ties there, so don't go siccin' the Knights of Columbus on my hide. Basically, it's just a solid Italian-style salad with pickled carrots, tomatoes, and cauliflower, as well as lettuce, anchovies, giardiniera peppers and Romano cheese, in a vinaigrette. If this is what wops eat, sign me up for the club, pallie!
Two things, Rappy: stay open later and have some dessert on the menu, please! Some beignets, bread pudding, or somethin'. I know you're not making money at night, yet. But like Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams, if you build it, they will come. At least I will. I gar-on-tee.
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