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The Big Sleazy

Hungry in New Orleans

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I'm writing to you from New Orleans, a city whose charms have never seemed to reveal themselves to me. No matter how much time I spend here and how optimistic I try to be, the city seems to boil down to zombie tourists of both genders staggering down Bourbon Street in beads and feather boas while 10 different versions of "Proud Mary" blare out of the bars. It's kind of what happens when decadence becomes as commercial as religion.

Likewise, the food has never rocked me. I've done the big-name places several times -- I refuse to this trip -- and they almost always leave me yawning and impoverished.

Like Bourbon Street, the fascination with "blackening" meat and fish, which began at K-Paul Prudhomme's restaurant, totally eludes me. All I get from blackened food is acid indigestion. It's the worst example of the way this city's cuisine, though conceptually attractive, too often tastes of ashes, bitter herbs and way too much garlic and onions.

I confess I did go to the Acme Oyster House on Iberville Street. This restaurant, in business since 1910, consistently wins all the local competitions for best oysters, po-boys and fried seafood. Yeah, my "Peace Maker," a fat sandwich stuffed with fried oysters and shrimp laced with Tabasco-infused mayo was really good for seafood served stone-cold ($7.99). The gumbo, which is overpriced everywhere in this city, cost $5.99 for a tiny serving that had virtually no shrimp or crab in it.

Rose D'Agostino and I dined in the Quarter with my friends Jim and Marsha Bultman, who own a restaurant in Indiana. We went to Irene's on Chartres, popular with locals as well as tourists. It has an attractive menu of Cajun and Continental dishes. I didn't care at all for Rose's starter of oysters baked in their shells with Romano cheese, pancetta, roasted red peppers and onions ($7.50). Why not just have a damn pizza with a few dried oysters on top? Give me oysters raw, lightly breaded and fried or not at all.

I much preferred Jim's simple tomato slices with basil and mozzarella and my own leek-potato soup with shrimp. Marsha's salad was a snoozer.

Entrees were decent. A veal marsala was well done as were the fish dishes -- pan sautéed and drenched in beurre blanc with roasted red peppers and then sent further over the cholesterol threshold with shrimp garnish. My lamb chops, alas, needed to be trimmed of extra fat, but that would have left little to eat. They were tough and bland.

Twelve of us went to an uptown restaurant, far from the Quarter, called Jacques-Imo's. My friend Laura Tuley and her boyfriend, Chris, recommended it as a place popular with locals and comparatively free of Hurricane-drenched Christians in halter tops on pagan holiday. I was immediately suspicious when I saw the restaurant's sign and menu claim of "Real Nawlins Food."

But the place was pretty good. Oh, it has the usual gimmicky items like something called "shrimp and alligator sausage cheesecake," which most of our table ordered as an appetizer. It's a fluffy quiche, basically, and there's nothing conspicuous about the alligator, which prompted an interesting discussion about the way we like certain meats disguised if they are going to be palatable. We want their "animal-ness" hidden.

Laura said, for example, that she can't eat little quails because their "birdness" is too evident. I mentioned that I like the flavor of frog legs but was stunned out of my appetite in a Vermont restaurant a few years ago when I was presented an enormous plate of countless legs arranged in a sunburst pattern, looking like some kind of hideous Aztec sacrifice performed amid lily pads. "Too much frogness," I said. Several people mentioned that they still have difficulty eating a fish whose head is intact, its eyes glazed into an admonitory stare. "Too much fish-eye-ness," someone said. "Too much American-ness," a French person muttered.

The issue was up because I have a similar problem with rabbit, which I adore. Generally, though, I want the "rabbitness" of the animal to be a bit disguised. Yes, I like its slight gamy edge and its light oiliness. But I don't want to see, naked and unsauced, the little leg to which the padded paw was so recently attached and thumping the earth. They do this in some places, you know -- leave the paw intact, to assure you that you aren't eating, say, a cat.

There are several rabbit dishes at Jacques-Imo's, including one that scatters it over an oyster-tasso pasta. But, having discoursed about not wanting to see the rabbit's pawness, I chose the murderously named "smothered rabbit." I asked the server how they smothered it and she said they used an ordinary paper bag but hit the bunny with a hammer if it struggled too long. Ar ar ar. "Actually," she said, "the meat is pulled. There's no bone at all. You'd hardly know you were eating rabbit."

No kidding. The dish ($15.95) was a big plate of nubbins of unidentifiable meat -- rabbit that looked like little Tater Tots. I am 90-percent sure it was frozen meat. Fortunately, it was rendered quite tasty by a sauce of jalapeño-spiked hollandaise mingled with pan juices. Undoubtedly the presentation in part is meant to accommodate the squeamish. The experience caused me to revise myself. I'll take the paw if the alternative is rabbit knuckles.

Seafood, even the blackened stuff, is the best choice here, as it is nearly everywhere in New Orleans, though Laura dotes on Jacques-Imo's fried chicken, which tasted over-breaded to me. I liked the grilled mahi mahi in a pistachio sauce with asparagus and shrimp, and I was impressed with Londoner Nick Hobbs' enormous fried seafood platter. "It's good," he said, shoving the plate down the table for group sampling, "but I much prefer the way the French do it."

"There's so much we Europeans don't understand about you Americans," Enrique Pardo said. Suddenly I wanted to put on beads, display my penis and sing "Proud Mary."

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