Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Dreamland--part two.

Pigeons take to tables for beignet crumbs and powdered sugar residue
at Cafe Du Monde in the French Quarter.

The West Bank on the far side of the Mississippi River from downtown New Orleans looks haunted at night. The aerial view from the Huey P. Long bridge is reminiscent of the photos of Gregory Crewdson--luminescent flashes of a world that can never entirely go to sleep. It looks industrial, commercial and in the insolence of daylight it must certainly be a plain sight--if it exists at all.

In our feverish discussions of how and where to cram in a modest eight meals a day on my first visit Brooke insisted that the Vietnamese community in the West Bank made food as essential to the New Orleans experience as a po' boy at Domilise's.

On the second night of my stay we crossed the bridge and descended into that dreamland, to Nine Roses, a roomy Vietnamese place with a stiff facade and copious parking lot suggestive of an unclaimed mattress emporium. When making those preliminary assessments of non-western eateries thinking gets counter-intuitive. Does it look like the kind of place you could buy a coffee table? That's a good thing. Drops ceilings, filmy laminated menus? An abandoned tricycle in the corner by an open coloring book? Yes? You're in the right spot.

The first sight you catch upon entering Nine Roses is a stately aquarium whose blue lamp seems to be responsible for lighting the entire dining room, and whose sole inhabitant, a blood-colored tropical fish glides through his home space in a sleepy almost emblematic motion. So much of what Nine Roses does is familiar fare. We ate spring rolls, pho and a plate of chili-singed calamari with brown rice. There is an inspirational kind of achievement in places like Nine Roses--the modesty with which balance of flavor, coordination of spices and striking sensory impact work. We ate and talked about our families and the places we'd been over the years, taking in each plate with subconscious warmth. Some food draws attention to its own magnificence, it thinks it's art. It's cook thinks he's an artist. Great food however is subliminal. And its magnificence leaves the poetic mark in afterthought. Nine Roses makes food in the mold of the latter.

Across the Huey P. Long in Uptown again we spent a bit of time ostensibly walking off the Vietnamese feast we'd just eaten. Magazine Street is home to a good number of inviting windows and open doors--bars, bistros, pizzerias, ice cream parlors. The night air is pink and violet with their lights. One such place, Coquette, is the home of a plate Brooke claims as the definitive sweet in New Orleans. Over a cocktail at the bar we discovered that their lauded chocolate pot de creme and beignets was no longer a selection on the standard menu and could only be had as part of a six course prix fixe menu. A sympathetic bartender disappeared into the kitchen and in short order returned to inform us that an exception was being made. With some drink chatter and a comforting lag since our last gorge it was there. A demure pile of pastry pillows dusted with sugar and a demitasse of custard.

What can anyone know or say definitively about a place as vast and inscrutable as New Orleans let alone after a mere three days of poking around? Probably not much, relatively speaking. The beignets and pot de creme at Coquette may or may not be the great confection of New Orleans, but it lives all the same as the great confection in my substantial memory. The custard was ghostly bodied, reminding me of the whimsical aphorisms that play out in the paintings of Rene Magritte, a cloud of curvaceous chocolate floating in mid-air. Something to laugh at as much as luxuriate over. The beignets, in contrast to the powdered sugar interred fritters at the famous Cafe du Monde, were as mystical as the custard--the crisp exterior protecting a humid, creamy interior that seems to finish baking only the moment it reached the tongue. For a city whose indelibly inchoate sensibility plays out inch upon delirious inch in architecture, sound, color, personalities and attitudes this plate of puffed dough and pudding got it about as succinctly right as I can imagine: An impossible little world disappearing as it achieves its fraught perfection.

Sharing some fresh air and a second round of dessert at Sucre on Magazine Street

A few doorsteps away on Magazine we managed to meet with the temptation of macarons and gelato at Sucre, beloved of Oprah and Paula. Already drunk and pooped on countless plates of amazing grub, did the only dignified thing we could, we gave in.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Baby please...

Failure anticipates the soul that believes in any gaping space that might--even might, cleave between tasting and remembering. I know that sounds forcefully Faulknerian (and keeping with consonance: fake). But I can't help it. It's Valentine's Day and I'm in the wrong part of the country to be properly enjoying it. Here in 36 degree Pittsburgh, PA it's raining cold aluminum foil and grievances.

Last week we had Brooke's Mom and Dad over for dinner. One of the myriad of amuse bouches and odd bites I quixotically planned but could not bring to the table was a chicken liver mousse. The livers soaked in milk for a few days before I finally stowed them away in the freezer between the marijuana butter and John's amazing chili. Sometimes the best laid plans are just over-planned.

This morning I woke up with a jones to do something for love day--even if beset by great distance from that love. It was time to make myself ridiculously happy--not that way...

Chicken liver is one of the most commonly disserviced bits of offal in today's kitchen. Even in this age of fetishistic bits and parts cooking chicken livers are still kinda viewed as Jewish grandma food. I'm sold. Soaking in milk overnight alleviates much of that brusque iron flavor, and pushes the silken texture even further. One is reticent to eroticize the cleansing organ of a bird, but reduced to mere adjectives, let's face it, it's kinda hard not to.

This dish captures the lonesomeness of Valentine's Day with good humor and bad funk. It is deeply satisfying, even if it leaves your breath and stamina in a state of such revolting muskiness and drowziness that any ill-advised hormonal charges to shoehorn bad love into this amorous day will be dutifully thwarted.

Put simply, you start your day with a plate of chicken livers and you ain't screwing anyone! And I'm not.

Enjoy this ostracizingly vulgar delicacy over a rerun of Law and Order, with a loyal dog who would never judge you anyhow. As I did.

Spaghetti Pepperoni with Sauteed Chicken Livers in White Balsamic Cream
(Feeds one sad sack)

1/2 lb. chicken livers, cleaned, soaked in milk at least 2 hours, preferably overnight
1 scant handful of wheat flour
1 tsp. tomato paste
1/4 tsp. minced garlic
2 tbsp. heavy cream
1 tsp. white balsamic vinegar
1/4 tsp. cracked black pepper
1 bunch pepper-dyed pasta
Fresh basil for garnish

Begin by boiling the pasta in heavily salted water.

In a saute pan add drained, flour-dredged livers and garlic with a generous splash of olive oil. As the livers brown add tomato paste, stirring to break up livers and push aromatic reach of the tomato and garlic.

Once the livers cook mostly through (filaments of blood will appear on their surfaces) and the rendered juices have tightened in unison with the tomato paste add vinegar and a splash of pasta water. Bring to a gentle boil, then add cream. Reduce the heat and allow the cream sauce to reduce to spoon-coating thickness.

Toss well-drained pasta in saute and add torn basil leaves to finish.

Play that Lauryn Hill tune. Again.