Sunday, March 17, 2013

A Foodie Honeymoon: Friday Appetizers at Lüke

The smell of polyeurethane wafted past us as we walked through the entrance of Lüke.  What a gorgeous place.  Tin ceilings, parquet floors, heavily varnished wood, vintage lighting...  A beautiful bar lined the far right wall, and we made our beeline.

Luke in New Orleans, LA

Another couple was sitting at the bar being helped by the bartender, who told us he'd be with us in a minute.  We read through the beers on tap while we waited, and I couldn't help but eavesdrop when I heard the words "elderflower liqueur" escape the bartender's lips as he described a cocktail that the couple was thinking of ordering. But my distraction by the beers with Lüke's name on them overpowered my ears.  I would never make a good least not if it involved restaurants, beer, wine, cocktails, or liquors of any sort.  And as we all know from Mr. Bond, spying inevitably involves such things.  Good thing I didn't pursue that childhood dream with any earnest.

Minutes later, true to his word, Steve (as the bartender introduced himself) was pouring us Lüke's homebrew and talking oysters.  Lüke was, as I knew from my Besh menu research, a restaurant designed after the old brasseries of New Orleans' in times past.  Oysters was just a natural on the menu.  And, boy, did you see oysters when you walked up to the bar! Mounds of them, piled behind the glass, waiting to be sliced open and plattered by the cooks, a tasty accoutrement to the amber with the gorgeous head that Chef Reiton was sipping from his pint glass.

"I've never actually had a raw oyster," he confessed to Steve.

I think Steve almost dropped his bar towel.

I also think that Steve's second career will be in food education because, quite eloquently, he began to relay the types of oysters that Lüke served, their technical names and the names that I remember: freshwater oysters from the waters of the lake of Louisiana--Lake Pontchartrain, and the saltwater oysters, with their briny flavor of the sea off the southern coast.

"Do you want to try them?" he offered.  "You can compare the two."

I didn't respond.  I was hoping that I would be that kid in the back of the class who, if I didn't draw attention to myself, would become invisible.  I'd had raw oysters before (for you faithful readers, you may remember my reference to eating them in Illinois at a friend's house--not to be a good experience just from the state alone...), and it wasn't an experience I wanted to repeat--foodie or not.

But that is where my new darling husband was different.  "Okay," he said.  And my heart swelled with pride.  So brave.

Steve brought the first oyster, a freshwater specimen.  "Do I chew it?" Chef Reiton asked.

"It's up to you," Steve explained.  "Some people just swallow them off the shell.  I like to chew them so I can taste them."  I wanted to gag.  I watched the love of my life with complete awe as he loosened the oyster from the shell with his little fork, then lifting the shell to his lips, tilted it like a soup spoon and poured its contents into his mouth, chewing slowly and reflectively before swallowing.

I found myself holding my breathe--for what, I am not sure.  For him to throw up? For me to throw up?

"Wow. That wasn't bad.  Not at all what I expected it to taste like."

And that's where the foodie in me got a little jealous, damn it.  I was missing out on an experience! I didn't know what a freshwater oyster tasted like, and now I kind-of wanted to...

Next came the saltwater oyster.  "These are my favorite," Steve said, placing the plate in front of my husband.  "I like the briny water you get with the oyster.  It tastes like the ocean."

Chef Reiton picked up the next oyster.  I couldn't help but observe just how raw the shell and oyster looked in his hand.  He sipped the contents from its shell--and I saw a flicker of "eww" cross his face.  He politely chewed and swallowed and wiped his mouth.  "Interesting," he said, and there was a pause.  "I think I like the freshwater better."

"Everyone has their own personal taste when it comes to oysters," Steve said.  "It's just one of those things."

We sipped our beers and intermittently talked with Steve as he waited on the other couple.  I was relaxed but excited but sad.  Our honeymoon for foodies was almost to a close.  We had just one more Besh restaurant left.  If I could help it, I would drag it out as long as I possibly could.

I looked down at my coaster on the bar.  "Can I have this?" I asked Steve.  It would be a memoir of what almost wasn't.

Steve smiled and tossed me another one.  "Here, take two.  And email us when your blog is ready."

With a nod, a thank you, and a smile we were out the door, wending our way one final time through the sultry streets of New Orleans to our final destination: August.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A Foodie Honeymoon: Thursday Dinner at La Provence

The drive to La Provence from downtown New Orleans perfectly suited my love for suspense.  For--what? more than two years?--I had been dreaming of eating at this Besh restaurant nestled on an idyllic little farm where a majority of the food served at the restaurant is grown.  I could tell from reading My New Orleans that La Provence was Besh's baby, and my desire to eat at the restaurant only grew all the more as we entered onto the very long but very beautiful Lake Pontchartrain Causeway for our 45-minute drive to dinner that Thursday evening.

To tell you how badly we wanted to dine at this little restaurant, we actually rented a car just to drive to it.  Extreme? Maybe.  But for us, this honeymoon was about love--love of each other and our happy, obsessive love of food, and come hell or high water, we would see our goal through.

After a half hour ride across the causeway and some sauntering through a tiny town or two, we blew past the tiniest little house on the righthand side of the road with a gravel parking lot and a non-chalant sign that bore a crest and the words "La Provence."

"That's it..." I spoke to the window, and Chef Reiton slammed on the brakes.  We wheeled into the parking lot, just in time to see a trio of piglets wrestling in a fenced-in yard.

Despite the fact that I was wearing 3.5-inch heels, I trekked across the gravel to get a closer look at what would eventually be someone's dinner, laughing as they head-butted each other and tumbled in the mud.  So cute.  And so yummy.  I remembered lunch at Borgne with a smile.

Across the way stood the chicken coop, the beautiful birds sauntering outside, casting wary golden eyes at this stranger in a red dress as they strutted and pecked their way across the yard.  Across a lawn was a kitchen garden, glowing green in the coming twilight.  It was so beautiful that it reminded me I was hungry; we picked our way across the gravel and headed into the restaurant.

As aforementioned, La Provence is a tiny little house that has been converted into a restaurant.  I immediately fell in love with the wide plank wood floors, the giant fireplace in the middle of the dining room, and the low ceiling and lighting that added a natural atmospheric warmth to the place. It made me  want to just sit and eat slowly for the rest of the night, staring at the roaring fire...  Unfortunately, being the dog days of August, there was no fire in the fireplace.  I instead was left to imagine what it would be like coming here at Christmastime...

Within moments our waitress approached the table.  Her name was Cassandra (spelled the right way, we discovered), and she was delightful.  Just like all the other servers we had had thus far, she was completely down-to-earth, very professional and very knowledgeable about the food she was about to serve.  She brought us a basket of toasts and the chicken liver paté we had had at Besh Steak, went over the menu with us, answered any questions we had, then took our wine orders while we sat and tried to decide what to order.

(Now, readers--I have to be honest about something here: due to an iPhone mishap, I've lost our notes and pictures.  And due to the fact that Besh's menus are largely seasonal, I can't even cheat and go look at the menu to remember what I had.  So this next part is going to be a little sketchy.  I sincerely apologize.)

The market menu (Besh's version of a prix fixe menu) intrigued me, so I decided to go with it: included in the meal were a green salad, roasted pork neck, and a little cherry cake for dessert.  I had never heard of pork neck, let alone knew that you could eat it.  Sounds like something to try.  Chef Reiton opted for the duck, something he had never had before.

The restaurant was quite empty, seeing it was a Thursday night, and the manager of the restaurant was walking from table to table, checking in to see how everyone was doing.  Soon she came round to our table, and she asked how we were enjoying our honeymoon in New Orleans.  She paid attention to the reservation information, too! I thought, and soon we were telling our honeymoon tale once again.  She introduced herself as Carrie Kelley, and continued to give some Besh advice of her own: go to Lüke.

"But--it's closed," we said.  "We had to cancel our reservation because of the remodeling."

"No, but it is opening tomorrow for lunch! You must go!"

My heart sank at the missed chance.  "We're having lunch at August," I said.  "And then heading to the airport straight from there."

"Wait," she said.  "I'm going to make a phone call."

Carrie Kelley disappeared into the tiny reception area, and moments later our food arrived at the table.  Oh, glorious food.  If only my brain could accurately remember all the beautiful details of what then sat before us.  But it doesn't.  All I can remember is that the pork neck was served rolled up with herbs and then sliced--a presentation that surprised me but then made sense when I thought about the cut of meat that I was eating.  And its texture and taste was an interesting cross between pork roast and bacon.  Definitely different from any pork I had ever eaten--and not necessarily something that I would order again.  (There are other cuts of pork that I just like better.)

Chef Reiton's duck was gorgeous, roasted to a deep, dark mahogany brown.  Crispy skin, meat that melted in your mouth, and a taste that was deep--nothing like the oily horror stories I had been told of.

A few minutes into the meal, Carrie Kelley was back.  "Okay," she said.  "Lüke is opening up at 11  tomorrow morning.  What time is your August reservation?"

"Noon," I said.

"Okay, here's what you do. Go to Lüke at 11.  Have some oysters and a beer, then walk to August for your lunch.  It's only a few blocks away from Lüke.  That way you can hit them both.  And you've got to try Lüke.  And August.  They are both just amazing."

I loved it.  It seemed that everyone was on our mission with us.  We were going to get to hit them all as we had hoped!

As the remains of our meal were cleared and we sat sipping our wine and digesting, we both remarked with sadness that tomorrow was our last day.  What a trip this had been! It wasn't a trip of happy moments; it had been happiness in one freakin' awesome continuation.

And we were getting a bonus! We were going to get to all the restaurants as we had hoped in the beginning! What a fantastic surprise that was. A little aperitif at Lüke and then a luncheon at August.

Were we saving the best for last? I wasn't sure.  Tonight's experience satisfied every longing that I had dreamt La Provence could fulfill.  The atmosphere, the service, the wine, the food (even if it wasn't my favorite pork dish).

I guessed there was only one way to find out...

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