James Westfall Trio, Snug Harbor, New Orleans, b/w general New Orleans music musings

After a late dinner at Stella! on Chartres (yeah, do it, Papa Scott!! Cook that funky tasting menu thang the way you do!), I headed for nearby Frenchmen Street to catch the James Westfall Trio which was playing for free at one of the better jazz venues in the Crescent City, Snug Harbor.  Free means playing for tips, of course, but you don't often find a combo of such quality playing for tips.  But at a place like Snug Harbor you do (or the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park, where they played the previous afternoon, presumably paid a decent sum by the NPS and relieved of the need for a tip kitty though you never know)---and they were excellent.  Westfall on vibraphone was fast, precise, creative---reminded me somehow of McCoy Tyner's piano playing.  He put a lot into his playing and he got excellent support on bass and drums---the bass player in particular played some excellent solos (and I'm no automatic fan of bass solos).  Afterward, I hit the Apple Barrel across the street for a small blues/country/rock/folk combo that was pretty darn good for another playing-the-late-show-for-tips band.  Even one of the two Dylan covers was good.  Then hit the Cafe Negril for a solid reggae band.  I guess I was making up for a week of evenings spent hanging out with quantum types in bars that didn't feature live music.  Actually, Friday night Jamie Vicary (postdoc at Oxford in Samson Abramsky and Bob Coecke's group), Johnny Feng  (postdoc at NRL in Keye Martin's group) and I finally left Keye and friends at the Napoleon bar in the quarter, and went on over to Frenchmens only to find it blacked out and everyone hanging out on the street waiting for the lights to get turned back on.  We waited too, for 45 minutes or so, listening to an excellent trombone/sousaphone/banjo trio sitting in the doorway of a closed cafe playing some pretty traditional-sounding New Orleans stuff quite well, and then left.  Bottom line: if you're in New Orleans, check out the music calendars at:

Livewire WWOZ music calendar,

but if you don't know what else to do head for Frenchmen and see what's going down at Snug Harbor.  Other places to check out include (for jazz) Sweet Lorraine's; and whoever's playing at the Maple Leaf is always worth checking out online to see if you want to go down and hear them.  On Saturday, I decided to eat at Stella rather than spend the evening at the Maple Leaf, but was strongly tempted to go for the blues band that was playing, Jason Ricci and New Blood.

Herbsaint, New Orleans (Restaurant review)

Herbsaint is an excellent restaurant on St. Charles street in the central business district of New Orleans.  I have good memories of eating there a few years ago, and I had dinner there twice this week.  It has a bit more casual and hipper vibe than some of the top foodie meccas here, with white mosaic tile floor with black accents in the bar that looks like it might be original from the 20's, cracks and all, large storefront plate-glass windows, a thick semigloss paint job on the walls and woodwork, off-white with the faintest avocado tinge, some dropped down lighting boxes hung from the ceiling, white tablecloths and comfortable oak chairs with a 20's/30's feel as well.  The place was packed on a Monday night---good sign.  I went with three friends.  We ate in the back room, not quite as nice an atmosphere as the main room, but fine.  My duck gumbo was intensely flavorful and hearty.  Olive oil seared Louisiana shrimp with tomato confit and breaded fried eggplant were delectable.  These were the best shrimp I've had on this trip to New Orleans---flavorful, extremely fresh, touched but not overwhelmed with some spices reminiscent of the New Orleans "barbecue" shrimp (but basically a grilled or sauted preparation, not swimming in the mildly spicy "barbecue" sauce).  The tomato confit was too sharply vinegary for my taste; the eggplant was quite good, though.  We drank a bottle of wine from Chateau de la Liquiere, at Faugeres in the Languedoc, recommended by the waiter over my initial choice of the Chave "Mon Coeur" Cotes du Rhone.  It was a good solid wine, reasonably tannic but not overbearing or rough, and fairly smooth---well flavored, with some golden leafy notes (reminded me of a California oak forest for some reason), but not complex.  My dinner companions raved over it more than I did---perhaps a bit of a sniffle was preventing me from fully appreciating it, or it maybe it was the $55 price tag.  It complemented the food well.  For dessert, I took one of the waiter's top recomendations---the warm banana tart.  It was advice well taken---high-end and homey at the same time, with a delicious, well browned, thick crumbly tart crust, firmish, delicious filling somewhere between pecan pie filling and banana-flavored marzipan, and delectable seared glazed banana slices and mint leaves on top.  This and the shrimp were seriously delicious culinary achivements, the sort of stuff Michelin stars and such are made of.

Too tired to walk far from my hotel, the next night I went back thinking I'd have a small dinner.  I ended up getting the special Italian tasting menu (one each week, for the month of October), for $45.  This one started with a small antipasto of thinly sliced, excellent hard (but not tough!) salame, and some marinated diced eggplant (nice but not as good as the salame).  The Crab Gnudi were superb, gnocchi-like balls of crabmeat held together with ricotta and grilled or seared, served on swirls of delicious, intensely flavored olive oil (and some other delicious sauce that was a pale orange (something citrusy, perhaps?)).    The dish was less delicately flavored than I expected, but superb.  Herbsaint seems to have a style of "high-end heartiness"---perhaps it's a Cajun-food influence: they tend toward big flavors, smokiness, searing along with a little innovation and fusion.  The main course certainly followed that model: baked striped bass with tomatoes, fennel, and basil was served in the paella pan it was baked in, and featured a chunk of firm, flavorful, skin-on bass in a smoky, thick tomato sauce in which big slices of fennel had braised to tenderness.  It was a lot for one person to eat, and if it had a flaw it might have been a bit of excessive smokiness, but was an extremely tasty take on what might be a pan-Mediterranean tradition of cooking fish over wood fires at sea's edge---it called up stories of pine-smoke-scented bouillabaisses on the Riviera, and images of the Ligurian coast.  The server mentioned "a white cake" when I ordered the menu---the menu said Cassata Siciliana, usually a cake of ricotta and candied fruit flavored with liqueur---but it was indeed a square of white cake---high end Sara Lee, basically, with a bit of a caramel syrup and some tasty toasted hazelnuts on the cake.  The cake was velvety and fresh but not too special.  The chocolate salame, however, was excellent.

A Baumard "Cuvee Ancien" (a botrytized sweet wine, presumably a Chenin Blanc from the Loire, as Baumard also produce a Cote du Layon) was a good accompaniment to (and more interesting than) the cake, mellow and sweet but not cloying, and with nice flavor notes of dried orange peel, hints of brown sugar, and botrytis, though not a complex standout.  The main course went perfectly with a very good Commanderie de Peyrassol Rose 2007  from the mountains of Provence, though I suspect my other potential choice, a Barbera from an excellent producer, would also have gone well with it.  The Chateau d'Epire 2006 Savennieres, a firm, slightly steely and minerally Chenin Blanc based wine from the Loire, with a hint of honey and a balanced, smoothness, went perfectly with the crab (though it should have been served a touch colder).

For someone dining alone, the tables in the front window by the bar are a bonus---good seats from which to watch everyone having fun at the bar and in the restaurant, as well as a pleasant view of the outside seating and St. Charles street.

Overall, a very reliable, enjoyable place, well-appreciated by lots of locals, and with a very long and well chosen wine list, much more interesting wines by the glass than many places have, and a menu that is likely to deliver, if not guaranteed constant perfection, hearty, interesting, imaginative food and at least several dishes on each visit that will put you "in the zone."

Herbsaint Bar & Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Restaurant Review: Bacco, New Orleans

Arrived at New Orleans yesterday for the 2nd annual Workshop on Informatic Phenomena at Tulane, organized by Mike Mislove of the Math department and Keye Martin of the Naval Research Lab.  What with a half-hour wait for the Airport shuttle, and a slow ride past the Superdome as the Saints-Jets game was letting out, and some time to decompress and check the jazz listings before going out for dinner, it was around 8 before I was ready to eat, and most of my favorite New Orleans restaurants (Bayona, Herbsaint, Stella!, Lilettte) are closed on Sunday.  Rather than the old standby of oysters and a glass of white wine at the circular bar in the Bourbon hotel, I decided to check out Bacco, on Chartres a few blocks into the French Quarter from Canal, as it had looked promising from the outside on earlier visits, and the menu looked interesting online.  It's run by Ralph Brennan of the famed New Orleans restaurant family (Dickie Brennan's, Mr. B's Bistro, etc.., etc..., etc...).  Although I've enjoyed Mr. B's in particular, this gave me slight pause, as I'd generally expect the ne plus ultra in foodie bliss to be found in a place owned by a lone chef pursuing his or her passion, rather than associated with such a dynasty.  And I've seen Bacco advertised in the New Orleans airport, another question mark.  But I wasn't necessarily looking for the ne plus ultra, I was looking for an enjoyable low key dinner.

Perhaps it was a mistake to mention I was walking over from a hotel, and call from an out-of-state cell phone, for despite my being fairly smartly dressed, and the warm and elegant front rooms with windows on Chartres street appearing far from full, I was put in a less-elegant though OK back room with the trainers and tee-shirt crowd.  An artichoke, oyster, and cream soup was excellent and different from expectations---smooth and buttery, but larded with bits of fresh artichoke and greens.  The New Orleans/Brennans' touch was definitely showing in the richness and smoothness of this dish.  I wouldn't want to eat food this rich every day, but it was a treat.   It went well with a glass of 2006 Maso Canali Pinot Grigio from the Trentino region of Italy---an honest, fresh, grapey, not-overblown glass of wine with some finesse and a restrained fruitiness and perhaps a hint of bitter almond.  Possibly this might have gone better with my next course, and the 2007 Nozzole Chardonnay "Le Bruniche" from Tuscany that I ordered to go with it, or the Chateau St. Jean Chardonnay (usually reliable, if not always exciting, with hints of butteriness, yeastiness, and lemon, and good balance) that was also on offer, would have gone better with the soup.   The ciabatta bread was tasty, not too soft, although very fresh plain butter would have been better than the lightly garlicked butter they served with it.

The Chardonnay turned out to also be a nice example of Italian white winemaking.   A bit racy, maybe even slightly grassy, it, like the Pinot Grigio, avoided the overbearing, high-alcohol impression that's all too common in lower-end Chardonnays with some pretensions, and had a little complexity to boot.  (I didn't boot it, though.)  I had it with a grilled black drum (that's a fish...) on a bed of risotto flecked with wild rice, the whole topped with thinly cut caramelized onions (or something from the onion family, anyway) and balsamic half-grapes.  The grapes were a highlight, little sweet-and-sour flavor packets bursting in the mouth.  The fish was good, done just right, and very mild.  The dish was good overall but not a knockout.  Unfortunately, perhaps because it was getting toward closing time on a Sunday and the kitchen was ready to close, the risotto was definitely underdone (no, I am not one for mushy risotto).  The rice was tasty and large-grained, probably a high-end Louisiana risotto rice, but although edible, a bit too crunchy.  It's possible---but not certain---that with perfectly-cooked rice, the elements of the dish would have melded into something sublime, but in the event, that didn't happen.  Still a tasty dish.  (Incidentally, the waitress' top dish recommendations had been the Maine lobster and gulf shrimp ravioli with champagne butter sauce and caviar, and the Bacco shrimp, so maybe I'll try one of those next time.)

While pondering whether to add unneeded calories by having dessert, I was offered dessert on the house.   I had a chocolate panna cotta, with a raspberry sauce (or was it a coulis?  Is there a difference?) and a bit of chocolate sauce, topped with a large curl of thin dark chocolate.  I've had quite a few panna cottas in Italy, and the flavor and texture can vary quite a bit.  This one was excellent, on the firm side but still light enough, with a slightly granular texture that for me was not a flaw, but added interest.  Good strong chocolate flavor, but restrained enough to be able to taste the creaminess; the chocolate curl on top was high-quality and the raspberry sauce fresh-tasting.  With decaf coffee (black), a perfect end, and a dessert I'd come back for.

The service was friendly, and very efficient.  One of the waitresses topped up my water glass several times when it was nearly full, but that was the only slight misstep and it certainly beat letting it run dry.

Overall, the food blended traditional Italian elements with a bit of New Orleans influence and international trendy touches successfully.  I didn't think it was quite on the level of Bayona, Stella!, or Lilette, but I'd go back, and ask for a table in one of the front rooms or---if one can dine there as well as drink---just eat at the large semicircular bar which, in an open, well-lit but warm room, looked comfortable.  The food balanced tradition and imagination well, the style was a bit different than expected (more Creole-influenced smoothness and unctuousness) but in an enjoyable way; the wines available by the glass were interesting and well-chosen.

Bacco on Urbanspoon

Update: The 310 Chartres street location in the French quarter closed in January 2011; the owner, Ralph Brennan, hopes to reopen Bacco somewhere else in 2011, but I'm not sure if it will happen, or has happened.