Sunday, August 26, 2012

A Foodie Honeymoon: Tuesday Dinner at Besh Steak

When I found out that Besh Steak was inside Harrah's Casino, I was a little startled.  No offense, but I always associate casinos with the word "cheap," no matter how fancy and glitzy and flashy they make things seem.  But, there she stood as we pushed through the casino entrance, just past the security station, waiting quietly and with poise amidst the flashing lights and stoic faces.

Besh Steak in New Orleans, LA

We were greeted by a very sweet hostess who led us past the bar, through an archway, and into the main dining room.  Blue Dog's eyes followed us as we went.  After passing tables and booths moderately filled with guests, we were directed to a booth nestled in a little curtained alcove.  So romantic! I happily slid into my seat.  We were given menus and a wine list, and the hostess slipped away.

Momentarily, our waitress approached the table.  She was a little thing, gentle and appearing to be a bit shy.  She introduced herself as Margaret, took our wine orders of a cabernet and a malbec, and she, too slipped away.  I remembered our experiences with Vanessa and Corey, and then Billie, and I wondered how this evening's relationship would develop.

At this point I excused myself to wash up after our rather warm walk and traipsed myself through the casino to what I thought was the closest bathroom.  I took a good look around as I walked.  Within my two minute walk (I got lost), I passed what must have been hundreds of people, seated at slot machines or crowded around game tables, none of them smiling, none of them even aware of me--dressed in a bright red dress--as I passed within inches of them.  What a way to spend your money, I thought.  I wonder how much they are spending for the hope of enjoying that ever elusive win?

I'd rather spend my money knowing that I'm going to enjoy something--namely, food.

When I returned from the restroom, Chef Reiton informed me that he and Margaret had had a chat while I was gone.  She had seen from our reservation that we were on our honeymoon, and he had told her of our honeymoon plan.  Besh's employees seemed to appreciate our little plan--I'm assuming because they agreed with how awesome he is.  I was glad to know it; I wanted it to be known that we appreciated him so.  I sat and soaked in the warmth I was feeling from my husband, my own enjoyment of our honeymoon thus far, and the wine I was sipping.  I reached across the table for Chef Reiton's hand and took a look at the items that had been placed on the table.

chicken liver pate at Besh Steak in New Orleans, LA

"Chicken liver paté and crostini," Chef Reiton explained.

Huh.  I'd never eaten chicken livers before.  Never really wanted to, either.  But here it was.  I took my knife and scooped up a little bit, then shmeared it on a crostini.  It looked like pink peanut butter.  I took a bite and chewed slowly, noting the contrast of textures: the crispy crunch of the crostini and the buttery smoothness of the paté.

"It's good, isn't it?" Chef Reiton projected, as he scooped up another blob.

I had to agree.  The paté definitely had a deep, dark flavor to it, but it was so gentle that you didn't mind.  And it's texture was so pleasing, smooth but full--it added a little contrast to the coarse crispness of the toasts.

As we were analyzing our virgin paté experience, a gentleman walked up to the table.  It was the general manager that we had seen eating his lunch that afternoon at Borgne.  He introduced himself as William and congratulated us on our marriage--and thus began another relationship for the evening.  We talked with William about our wonderful experiences so far, of which restaurants we had left to go to, of what brought him to New Orleans.  He was delightful.

"Hey," Chef Reiton interjected at one point.  "What is a Sazerac? We keep seeing them on menus."

Being a cocktail junkie (which my darling husband shamelessly encourages), I listened intently as William described the process of making the New Orleans cocktail:
   1) rinse an old-fashioned glass with absinthe
   2) pour in a couple ounces of rye whiskey
   3) squeeze a twist of lemon peel over the glass
   4) drop the lemon twist into the whiskey
   5) sip and enjoy

"It's a drink that is pretty much just straight whiskey, but if you like them, most people love them,"  he said.  Hmmm...I was intrigued.  William told us to enjoy ourselves and thanked us for coming, then headed off to the next table.

A moment later, Margaret appeared, ready to take our orders.  She had definitely warmed up to us.  She was starting to bubble.  Chef Reiton had decided on the smoked and roasted prime rib which came with fingerling potatoes and summer vegetables.  I wanted to expand my seafood experience further, so I opted for the surf 'n' turf, two beef tournedos served atop a bed of grits and topped with lump crabmeat in a béarnaise.

Off Margaret went with our orders, only to return a few minutes later with warm sourdough bread, butter--and two flutes of sparkling rosé.  "Congratulations!" she said with her darling smile.  I couldn't believe it.  Two nights in a row! What an amazing organization it was appearing that John Besh had built.  Talk about feeling like royalty! We thanked her repeatedly, then reached for our bubbly and reminisced of the past 24 hours with absolute glee.  What an experience to be having with someone who loves what you love--and who appreciates your loving it with your whole being.

Before we knew it, our food was ready and placed piping hot before us.  First, Chef Reiton's prime rib

smoked prime rib at Besh Steak in New Orleans, LA

and then my surf 'n' turf.

surf 'n' turf at Besh Steak in New Orleans, LA

There was a moment of silence.  I think the next words spoken were: "Oh    my     god."  Chef Reiton's prime rib was the size of the plate.  And my dish was gorgeous.  Simply GORGEOUS.  Knives and forks were picked up in slow motion.  We looked at each other and smiled.  And then we began to eat.

Now, I am a country girl, but one from the Northeast--so grits were not regular fare at my house.  In fact, they were a fare I had never tasted before in my life.  I knew what it was, basically, and that people ate them at breakfast--and that was as far as my knowledge went.  To find them on my dinner plate with steak and crab was exciting.  I was going to try them for the first time in an unusual way.

My first bite held a wonderful combination of a very faint sweetness from the grits and crab and a sour bite from the balsamic glaze that lightly dressed the tournedos.  The béarnaise, an ever delicious way to dress up a bit of beef tenderloin, provided a creamy butteriness that cut the vinegar's tartness.  As for my other garnishes, I unfortunately never found out what the purple leaves were on top, nor the bright green drizzle.  If I find out, I'll let you know.

The smoked prime rib was quite different for Chef Reiton.  He knew that the meat was smoked, but he declared the flavor to be more pronounced than he expected, and therefore, in his head, completely changed the meal.  It didn't seem like prime rib anymore; it was something else.  "It's good," he said.  "It's just not prime rib."  I tasted it and agreed.  Delicious, but different.

We continued our meal slowly, taking moments to rest and digest, talk and sigh.  Eventually Chef Reiton finished his meal; my meal--almost.  All except for one of the tournedos.  I just couldn't do it, as much as my mouth wanted it.  We settled back and sighed, and told Margaret how delicious everything was when she returned to our table.

"I'm so glad you enjoyed it," she said with a twinkle in her eye.  And as she backed away with our plates, William walked up from behind and placed a platter--and I mean a platter--of desserts right smack in the middle of the table.

desserts at Besh Steak in New Orleans, LA

At first I thought it was one of those trays of fake desserts that you pick your favorite one from.  But, no.  It was all real, and all for us.

"We want you to try our desserts," William said with a smile, and Margaret explained what each one was: molten chocolate cake with blackberries; homemade vanilla ice cream with homemade peanut brittle; white chocolate cake with berries; dark chocolate truffles; and warm bread pudding with caramel and pecan pralines.

"Just when I thought I couldn't eat anymore!" Chef Reiton said.

"I'll just have a bite of each..." I rationalized.

Ha ha haa! "A bite of each!" (You should have seen the platter when we were done.)

When we were moments into our dessert exploration, William one more time appeared at the table, this time with a Sazerac in hand.  "You have to try a Sazerac while you are here," he said and placed a glass on the table.

a Sazerac at Besh Steak in New Orleans, LA

"Thank you so much for celebrating with us," he said as he shook our hands.  "And have a wonderful rest of your honeymoon."  And with that he walked away.

I turned to Chef Reiton and shook my head.  "I cannot believe this treatment!" I said.  "It's just unbelievable. And it's everywhere we go!"  And then I took a sip of the Sazerac.  Ahhhhh.  Warmth and the scent of licorice and lemon.  De-licious.

Our leisurely evening of dining was drawing to a close.  I was so happy, I didn't want to move.

"So what's next?" Margaret asked as we paid our bill.

The answer? American Sector, Besh's nod to retro American comfort food.  That is: amped up comfort food.

As full as I was, I found myself thinking: I can't wait.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

A Foodie Honeymoon: Tuesday Lunch at Borgne

Okay, I will be frank: of all the Besh restaurants that we were going to be visiting, Borgne (pronounced "born") was the one I was nervous about.  I eat some seafood, but I am certainly not one of those people who are, like, "Hey! Let's go out for SEAFOOD!" Eww.  No.  If I happen to order seafood at a restaurant--great.  But there are very, very rare moments when I will actually look to do so.


Because most seafood just sucks.  It smells.  It's slimy.  It tastes like I'm sucking out of a tide pool.  With seafood, I always have a difficult time not imagining (vividly) what I am eating, and that strikes a squeamy type of fear into my gut.  Kind-of like with eating an animal's organs.  No, okay, that's way worse.  But anyway.  It's just not how I want to treat my taste buds, spend my money, or impact my psyche.

I kept telling myself as we walked to Borgne that this, of all places, was the place for me to eat something that I was afraid of.  If I didn't try something here, I'd be selling myself short.  I determined to do so and took a big breath as we entered into the restaurant.

Borgne in New Orleans, LA

The decor was quite cool, modern without a hint of boat or dock paraphernalia, and the atmosphere was pretty casual.  Huge chalkboards displayed whimsical artwork of Lake Borgne and jazz players.   The building columns were wrapped with wire mesh and filled with oyster shells.

Here was a seafood restaurant that made eating seafood seem like it was the coolest and most natural thing in the world to do, and if I didn't do it, I was seriously missing out.

But I was still nervous.  And then up walked Billie.

Billie was one of those waitresses that as soon as you met her, you were relieved.  She knew everything.  She knew the beers.  She knew the food.  She knew what was in the food and where it came from and what it tasted like.  When she discovered that she was waiting on two foodies on their honeymoon, she really started to warm up.

To start, Chef Reiton ordered the local Abita IPA, and I went for Abita's farmhouse ale.  I was so excited to hear that they had one! And when it came to the table, I got even more excited.

At this point I went to check out the bathroom (beautiful), and when I returned, Chef Reiton was discussing an appetizer with Billie: broiled Louisiana oysters on the half shell with spicy garlic butter, bread crumbs, and a bit of Parmesan.  I gulped.  My only oyster experience had been 1) at a friend's home in ILLINOIS, 2) raw, and 3) disgusting.  But again--here we were in seafood country at a restaurant that is renowned for its cooking of seafood...AND these oysters were cooked.  Hmmm. We looked at each other and said, "Let's do it."  

We decided to wait to order the entrees until we knew if we liked the oysters, so in the meantime, Billie brought us a bottle of water, a paper bag of warm fennel bread, and a dish of softened butter.

We munched and drank and talked and took pictures.  And then Billie appeared again--this time with a bowl of gazpacho.  "I want you to try this," she said, and placed a brilliantly hued soup in front of me.

I had never had a cold soup before, and this one was created with yellow tomatoes.  I believe there may have been a bit of yellow pepper in it as well; but what I loved the most was the flavor added by the watermelon chunks at the bottom of the bowl.  What a deliciously light way to get the stomach ready for what was to come:

(My picture isn't very good and in no way does the flavor of this dish any justice.)

I have to admit, my first bite was timid, but within the five seconds of my first few chews, my fear was gone.  Roasting had taken the slime that I was afraid of and eliminated it.  What was left was a delicate softness that slowly melted into nothingness as I chewed.  Being Gulf freshwater oysters, there was not a hint of brine, thank God.  The butter and pepper added some depth, and the breadcrumbs added some body.  I found myself actually enjoying them.

I glanced at Chef Reiton.  He looked to be enjoying them, too.  "I can't believe I'm eating oysters," I said.  "These don't taste anything like what I had before."  

He nodded.  "They are good."  As we were each going for the last one, we suddenly remembered: we hadn't taken a picture! Imagine missing out on our experience!

When Billie returned to clear our shells, we exclaimed at how surprised we were at the flavor, the texture, the complete absence of our preconceived notions of what these oysters would be. She smiled and nodded.  "So what do you think you'll have for your main course?"

Chef Reiton decided to go for an Abita Andygator Helles Dopplebock and another oyster dish with the oyster spaghetti.  Billie told us that it was Besh's favorite dish on the menu.  I was sold on the Tuesday lunch special: cochon de leche (pork braised in milk), served over garlic mashed potatoes and roasted veggies; Billie was very excited about that choice.

Because we love to cook, which is truly a scientific art form, Chef Reiton and I analyze everything that we are served.  We try to pick out the combination of flavors used in what we are eating and strive to educate ourselves when we aren't sure what something is.  

The oyster spaghetti was spaghetti tossed with steamed oysters in your typical butter/oyster juice/wine sauce, but here, cream was added, coating the pasta and oysters and settling into a delicious little pool in the bottom of the bowl.  Scattered on top were shavings of parmesan, purple basil, and--little green things???

We weren't sure what they were.  They had a very bright, green taste, almost like a bean, but yet they looked a bit like seaweed.  Upon consulting with Billie we learned we were half correct on both analyses.  What we were eating were sea beans, an aquatic plant of the succulent family that grows in salt marshes and on beaches (see Wikipedia:  They were delicious and added a brightness to what could have been a heavy dish.

My dish was so not a summer dish, but I could not believe how happy I was as I ate it.  Piled on top of a bed of roasted eggplant, mushrooms, carrots, and white cubes that I didn't know were the smoothest garlic mashed potatoes I had ever eaten, lightly interlaced with herbs and olive oil.  Spooned over the potatoes was pork that had braised in milk until it completely fell apart, the juices and milk marrying into a gravy that surrounded tender shreds of meat, mild in flavor and almost sweet.  Chives and baby beet greens were scattered on top.  

Our forks kept intersecting as we reached for tastes of the other's dish.  "I can't place the flavors of my pork," I mumbled between mouthfuls.  "I feel like it's maybe nutmeg? Or pumpkin pie spice? Something that's in baked goods, and it's reminiscent of something sweet." Chef Reiton agreed, but we just couldn't put our finger on it.

Billie once again came to our aid.  Her eyes brightened when she heard the word "nutmeg" come out of my mouth; you could tell she was enjoying having someone who was appreciating the food for what it was.  "There is nutmeg in there," she said. "And the other spice is clove."

"Clove!" Chef Reiton and I both exclaimed together as I banged on the table.  "I couldn't get it!" I told Billie.  "I knew something in baking, but I could not place it.  Everything is just so perfectly balanced and hinted at.  It all compliments each other so well!"  Ohhh, the art of proportions--that's something that I need work on.  I'm slowly learning that I need to back off on things.  Just because I like it doesn't mean to put a shitload of it in my food.

"And what are these?" I asked, poking a white rectangular cube.  "Is that turnip?"

"It's fennel," Billie answered. 

"Fennel!" I like to repeat things when I am surprised.  I'd never had roasted fennel because I couldn't imagine it, but roasting completely changes the flavor; it loses that licorice-y taste.  So yummy.  I am now going to roast myself some fennel for Thanksgiving.

When we could eat no more, Billie came to clear our plates.  "Dessert?" she asked, and we groaned.  "How about coffee," she suggested, and so we conceded.  I don't think either of us wanted to leave just yet.  

A few minutes later a delightful little coffee set-up was placed on the table.  As we prepared our coffees and continued to talk about our meal, Billie reappeared and placed two tiny glasses on the table.  "It's honeyed rum," she said.  "It's absolutely delicious."

Chef Reiton looked at it and turned green.  "I don't know if I can drink that," he said.  (One very bad rum experience long, long ago...)

"It's really mild and mellow," Billie said.  "It doesn't taste anything like what you'd expect."

I eagerly grabbed my glass.  I'll drink anything, but you all already knew that.  A tilt of the tiny glass sent a thrill down my throat.  "Dear God, that is so delicious," I said, wide-eyed.  Chef Reiton looked at me dubiously.

"Just try it," I said.  "It really doesn't taste like rum.  It doesn't even taste like alcohol.  It's amazing!"

I don't think I've ever seen anyone take a tinier sip, but within two minutes, it was gone.  Delicious, we both concurred.  Unbelievably so.

And, so, our first seafood experience and second Besh excursion was wrapping up.  We sat in complete content for a few minutes before thanking Billie profusely and wandering towards the front door.  There we were met by the manager, who got an earful of how great our Besh experiences had been so far. When he found out our trip goal and that we were going to Besh Steak that evening, he said, "The general manager for Besh Steak is right over there eating lunch.  Go introduce yourselves!"

We quickly declined, wanting the man to eat his lunch in peace.  So the manager asked for our names and said he would pass them on.  We thanked him and headed out into the New Orleans summer heat.  As we walked down the sidewalk, sighing with pleasure and looking forward to a swim back at the hotel, I couldn't help but feel a happy premonition of the evening to come.

Friday, August 24, 2012

A Foodie Honeymoon: Monday Dinner at Domenica

It's strange how anticipation of an event can be a complete killer to an experience because it doesn't live up to what you want it to be.

OR it can be a total laugh because the experience completely blows away even your wildest hopes.

Such was the start of our John Besh honeymoon.  Domenica, his Italian restaurant, was our first stop.  After unloading at the hotel and taking a brief siesta, we walked to this gorgeous restaurant for happy hour (a restaurant who's decor was as fantastically un-Italian as you could get):

Domenica in New Orleans, LA

Happy hour at Domenica means 1/2 price pizzas, beer, wine by the glass, and well cocktails.  Considering we were going to get pizza and beer anyway, it was quite a deal for such a great place.  But there is something about getting restaurant food for a deal that always makes me feel a little--oh, I don't know--like I'm being cheap.  Which I am.  But I always have a twinge-y feeling that the waitstaff will be disappointed in my cheapness and therefore treat me less.

Well.  Let me introduce you to Vanessa and Corey.  If you have the same qualms as I do, they will make you feel right at home and laugh your qualms to scorn.

The first item set on the table was a bottle of water.  Vanessa introduced herself as Corey, who she was training, and the evening got off to the perfect start with a good laugh.  We introduced ourselves as well--something that I like to do--then Vanessa then took our drink order: I ordered a local IPA, and Chef Reiton ordered a blonde (beer, that is.  Domenica isn't that kind of place...). 

When Vanessa and Corey returned with our beers and a chunk of hot Italian bread with a bottle of pepper-infused olive oil, we chit chatted about what brought us to New Orleans.  Of course our honeymoon came up, and they both responded with congratulatory smiles and remarks.  We told them that we were honeymooning to eat at all of Besh's restaurants, and they asked if we'd eaten at August, yet.  We told them that Domenica was our first and that August would be our last.  And according to them, apparently that was the best way to do it.

In between bites of gorgeously chewy, bubbly bread, we perused the menu; everything sounded so good. Chef Reiton decided that he would go with the Calabrese: spicy salami, tomato, mozzarella, capers, and olives.  I was a little shocked--he hates olives.  But this was what we came to Besh and New Orleans to do: eat foods put in front of us whether we were scared of them or not.  I chose to go with the  Bolzano, a mix of pulled pork shoulder, fennel, bacon, and sweet onion.  

Corey and Vanessa affirmed our food choices as we ordered, then dashed off to the kitchen.  As we waited for our food we snapped some pictures

and talked excitedly of being together, being married, being foodies.

And then Vanessa and Corey showed up.

Not with the pizza but with flutes of sparkling wine.

"Congratulations!" they both said and set the glasses before us.  "It's your honeymoon! We had to do something.

What a wonderfully surprising treat! We thanked them profusely, then toasted each other, and took another picture.

Soon our pizzas came, way larger than I expected and absolutely gorgeous.  The Calabrese was fantastic: salty from the olives and capers, with a good pucker from their pickling.  The spiciness of the salami bit back, too, but the whole seemingly chaotic mess was sweetened by the tomatoes and  smoothed out in the mellowness of the mozzarella.  It was perfect.  A full tongue experience.

pizza at Domenica in New Orleans, LA

My Bolzano was also very, very good.  It was a much more subtle dish.  The pulled pork was not spicy, and the bacon was not overly salty or smoky.  The meats' flavors were kept simple, given depth and sweetness by the roasted fennel and the sweet onion.  The combination was--comforting.  And it was real food.  I found a bone chip in a chunk of pork, for crying out loud.  Why??? Because THEY ACTUALLY SMOKE AND ROAST THEIR OWN MEAT.  Ohhhhh, foodie heaven.

pizza at Domenica in New Orleans, LA

I giggled as we snapped away at our food, glancing around to see if anyone was frowning upon our unclassy behavior.  "I don't care," I muttered as Chef Reiton framed the shot.  "We came here to eat, and there is no way I'm blogging without pictures."

When we couldn't eat anymore, Corey and Vanessa insisted that we have dessert.  We both paused, and they suggested we share--then left us with the dessert menu and the words "Banana Zuppa Inglese" ringing in our ears.  We read the description: "moist banana cake, butterscotch mousse, and peanut brittle."  One glance across the table said the same thing: we're on our HONEYMOON.  And when Corey came back, we simply said, "Let's do it."

A few minutes later, we were presented with this (you can see Chef Reiton couldn't wait):

Banana Zuppa Inglese at Domenica in New Orleans, LA

Our first notice was of the vessel: a canning jar! So rustic. So simple. So screaming "HOMEMADE!!!"  

And then I noticed something even more unusual: I liked the brittle, and I HATE peanuts.

I was very quickly starting to understand this about a first class restaurant (which I have frequented very, VERY rarely in my 37 years): here, delight is in everything, because everything everything is made from scratch from quality ingredients.  No half assing.  No skimping.  No cheating.  Make it the real way and make it good, and you will have customers like Chef Reiton and I making obscene noises at your dinner table.

A final discovery with our dessert was this: it is truly a delightful experience to dive downward with your spoon and resurface with an array of ingredients that look to be completely distinguishable but meld in your mouth to become one utterly unified flavor unlike anything you had tasted before.  Creative flavor genius at work. 

Shortly after demolishing our B.Z.I., Corey and Vanessa came to check on us and give us the bill--and a plate of fudge cookies.  They congratulated us again--and we thanked them again: two of the most delightful people who had ever waited on us.

As Chef Reiton signed the check and we pushed the last plate away, we turned to each other, brushed the crumbs off our fronts, and laughed.  We were stuffed.  We were happy.  We had leftover pizza. 

We had started the journey.

A Honeymoon of Foodies

I think I've been unconsciously stalling writing this next series of posts because I'm afraid that my writing won't even come close to relaying how amazing the experience of our honeymoon was.  And it truly was that: AMAZING.

Let me use this little preface to tell you what we did.

You know that I have listed to the right one of the cookbooks that must be owned as John Besh's My New Orleans (and seriously, you must purchase it if you don't own it already).  It is a cookbook that is both an autobiography and a collection of recipes.  It needs to be read for its story first and then cooked from, because the personal and cultural history given of the foods you are about to cook will make you fall in love with your creation.  You will understand Besh's philosophy of cooking, and you will find yourself actually respecting the food you are about to eat.

Because of this cookbook and its divine recipes developed by a remarkable all-American guy, Chef Reiton and I nixed the thoughts of honeymooning on the beaches of St. Thomas and instead embraced an idea that suddenly popped into my head as deliciously un-honeymoon, seductive, and lavish: we decided to hop a short flight to New Orleans--the city where he professed his love, a city I had never seen, and the beloved city of our dear John Besh and his restaurants.  And our trip had a goal--albeit a very un-honeymoonish one: we would eat with relish and delight at every single one of John Besh's restaurants.

And so, with a bit of planning, we headed off to New Orleans, based ourselves at the Hotel Provincial (darling place, great staff, and fantastic location), and got ready to eat like we'd never attempted before.

Read on for a play-by-play of our John Besh Experience...
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