New Orleans: Le Petit Grocery

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4238 Magazine St.

As much as I love this city and its food, I feel by the second day that I’m here as though I’ve eaten like a pig for a month — even when I haven’t. So, I look for simple, good and nouvelle French food. In other words, light on the sauces. Well, maybe that’s hoping against hope in New Orleans.

Last year and this, my landlady Jill has been telling me about her favorite neighborhood restaurant, Le Petit Grocery. I finally gave it a try. Unusually, I had a friend in town and for once I had company at dinner. We decided to order only small plates. After an interesting soup of a dark blue crab broth with slices of trumpet mushrooms and fresh peas, we shared a plate of seared scallops on a bed of pureed cauliflower and another of papardelle with smoked pork cheeks in a bolognese sauce that had the distinct flavor of allspice. David and I both agreed that the papardelle easily surpassed the other dishes. Then we finished up with a frisée salad with lardons and a fried egg on top. A very good meal. Not enough on the menu urged me to return tomorrow night. When I come back next year, I’ll be ready to eat here again.

My only complaint about the experience relates to the noise by the bar. We made the mistake of sitting at the window, near the bar. The groups meeting at the bar before proceeding to their tables were loud and distracting. Next time, I’ll sit in the back.

New Orleans: Cochon

dsc00087.jpgCall me jaded, but I don’t take many people’s word about restaurants. Not even Frank Bruni, whose recent compilation of his favorite (I can’t believe he means they’re the best) places to eat in the country, inspires in me one hundred percent confidence. But I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and follow in his footsteps. Tonight, I ate at No. 3, Cochon, the restaurant started by the same man, Donald Link, who’s the chef at Herbsaint. To sum up my reaction to my first meal, it was really good, reasonably price, and completely comfortable.

Committed to not completing any dish I ordered, I choose four courses.

  • The first, fried rabbit livers with pepper jelly toast, was very good, but did not overwhelm me. The toasts and the jelly (flavored with watermelon?) were delectable. The liver would have been better, more flavorful if it hadn’t been fried in batter.
  • For salad, I order grilled beets and pickled pig’s tongue salad. It turned out to be greens, with a few wedges of red beets that I couldn’t tell had been grilled, crumbled goat cheese, with small slices of pickled pig’s tonguer in a basil-garlic remoulade. Individually, each component was great, especially the tongue, but somehow it didn’t meld into ecstasy as I hoped. Still, I enjoyed it very much.
  • For my main course, I ordered the cochon, which turned out to be pulled pork formed into a patty and fried, resting on a bed of sauteed cabbage, sprinkled with finely diced roast turnips, and accompanied by crackling. Great! And the smothered greens were delicious, slightly spicy, and deep.
  • I ate half a slice of Lemon Debargue cake: moist, luscious, with a thin chocolate veneer.

So, this first meal of four courses and two glasses of Pio Cesare’s Dolcetto d’Alba came to $68 before tip. I have to admit I was favorably surprised when I saw the bill.

My neighbors were visiting NOLA from NYC. They had a copy of Frank Bruni’s article with them and ordered exactly what Bruni ate. I envied them the roast oysters. At the table behind me, the sous-chef was celebrating his birthday with family and friends. The servers carried out plate after plate, culminating in a huge platter of suckling roast piglet, boned and sliced.

The choice of this restaurant endears Frank Bruni to me. But I don’t know that I’d rank this as high on my list of favorite New Orleans restaurants as Lilette. Still, it’s pretty damn good.

New Orleans: Johnny’s Po-Boys

dsc00078.jpgI’ve decided I’m not wild about cajun cooking — if po-boys, gumbos, muffalettas, thick sauces, and such can be called that. However, I am wild about the haute cuisine of New Orleans. The city abounds in fantastic French-inflected cooking: Herbsaint, Lilette, Dick & Jenny’s, Le Petit Grocery, and many others. Tonight and tomorrow night, I’m going to Cochon, the restaurant that Frank Bruni of the NYT ranked second on his list of top ten favorite restaurants in the country. I’ll report on those visits and the one I’ve planned to Le Petit Grocery on Friday night.

For the moment, let’s stick to the food of the people. When I first came to NOLA three years ago (in July, 2006, nearly one year after Hurricane Katrina), I set out to find the best po-boys in the city. Of course I did my research. One friend who’d spent time here recommended those at Mother’s. I didn’t at all like what I ate there. Another friend sent me to Domilise’s (5240 Annunciation St), a shack in uptown on an obscure side street one block up off of Tchoupitoulas Street. The authenticity of its dark, dingy interior was reassuring if not appealing. They fried the shrimp right in front of me. The bread wasn’t great, but I recognized a very good po-boy when I ate it.

I also heard about Johnny’s Po-Boys, on St Louis right off of Decatur. Last year when I walked in to buy something to eat, I turned around and walked right out. The line at the cash register was too long and all the tables were filled. Today, I walked in around 2 pm and had to wait only a minute to order a shrimp po-boy. I stood to the side to watch them prepare the food. Lordy, they make substantial food! Hefty muffalettas, grilled catfish drapped over mashed potatoes and smothered in a seafood cream sauce, big scoops of potato salad, Italian sausages on french bread. Five or six people worked behind the counter but even so it was a ten minute wait at least. At last a woman bellowed the number on my ticket. My po-boy to go was ready.

Was it worth it? Yes and no. I think I can live without eating another po-boy, but this one was pretty good. The batter was spicy and crisp. The shrimp tasted like shrimp. Hot sauce on the table. Not too much mayonnaise, plenty of lettuce, tomato and pickle, crunchy but not ideal french bread. After a few bites, I put it down, opened up the sandwich, and ate the shrimp, leaving the bread on the table. Maybe there are other places that make them better. I’ll leave it to others to find them.