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Diary For Thurs., 1/17/2019: The Puzzle Of Picnic Provisions & Whiskey. From the Brennans of Commander’s and associates.

Mary Ann’s persuasions to make me go to new restaurants and revisit long-existing ones has on several occasions brought up this new eatery, smack in the middle of the Uptown Beat-Up Streets District. Tonight Mary Leigh called to make the same suggestion, and that was enough to get me there.

We already knew that this is a cooperative endeavor from Ti Martin, the daughter of the late genius Ella Brennan and one of the owners of Commander’s Palace. Her partners include Tory McPhail, the executive chef at Commander’s, and Darryl Reginelli, owner of the chain of pizzerias that bear his name. We also know, from reading five panels on the wall, the concept behind of this new restaurant. “Share. Without sharing, any meal—whether it be a picnic or elaborate tasting menu—is less memorable.” I thought about that for a few seconds, and decided that a napkin, fork or readable menu–the lacks of which make a meal come to a bothersome halt–add much more to a meal than whether one shares or not.

I mentioned this to ML, who has surpassed me in terms of brain power. “I think this place is for younger people than you,” she said, probably correctly. I would find this to be true in tomorrow’s Dining Diary, which will cover a visit to Meril.

With ML present, I have the younger person’s viewpoint covered. But she wasn’t any more wild about the place. The interior design looks like a movie set on the interface of a beach and a grassy park, an effect created by the picnic tables. (They also have more conventional tables and chairs, in case you imaginarily burn as easily as I do).

The menu is puzzling. The soups we’ve encountered (a potato bisque and a tomato bisque) were good–but who brings soup to a picnic. After that, the attention is more or less focused on chicken. If the only sign outside said that this is no more than a chicken restaurant, it would seem eminently accurate. The marginal statement that this is “heritage naked chicken” adds nothing useful to the process of deciding which of the chicken dishes should be ordered, shared or not. On the other hand, Duroc pork does indeed carry a pedigree, which turns up as barbecue pork ribs, which I would nominate the best dish on the menu.

Waiting for ML to show up, and to investigate the “Whiskey” part of the mission, I order an Old Fashioned. The very generous cocktail is in honor of my long-gone father’s favorite drink. To keep the alcohol from going straight to my head, I order a cheese board with three kinds of cheese, made with cow’s milk, goat’s, and sheep’s. Each costs $7. Do the math. Not the best deal in town. We had the pimiento cheese dip, melted atop the stove and fired up with peppers. This is an homage to MA, who loves the stuff.

Chicken sandwich at Picnic.

ML goes for the picnic salad, which seems to include almost everything on the menu. I settled on the grilled chicken sandwich on a tall hamburger bun. Like all such things, it is impossible to eat without its falling apart. I fight this matter by cutting the sandwich in half. It’s fresh and good, but everyday.

And that’s where I get stuck. The Picnic menu is like something you’d find on a local chain restaurant in Des Moines. (I have been to Des Moines a few times, so I know wherof I speak.) A glaring absence is the lack of much seafood. A little shrimp here, a little smoked fish there. The flavors of New Orleans are hardly visible. Which to my born-on-Mardi Gras sensitivities is a negative.

On a related note. . . Two matters of concern to the restaurant industry these days are 1) The increasing percentage of people who get take-out and food delivery instead of dine-in eats, and B) The growth of mix-and-match, shared dishes in lieu of the entrees for everybody ethos, thereby bringing the ambitiousness of the kitchen and reducing the service staff.

All this adds up to a puzzle as to who Picnic is addressed. Okay, younger diners. But what else? An historical aspect comes to mind. Since they opened Mr. B’s in the late 1970s, the Brennans for the most part have tried to make their new restaurants less and less formal. Sometimes that worked–Mr. B’s and Red Fish Grill being the best examples. But there were some sad failures–notably Foodies, far ahead of its time as a gourmet-to-go operation from the Brennans.

On the other hand, the new Brennan’s on Royal Street, although not in the same category as Picnic–has been very successful as a dressy restaurant–with a very hip menu. I can’t help but wonder what the Commander’s side of the Brennan family would create if they went after the more ambitious style.

I have an answer for this. Meril has been an enormous hit for Emeril Lagasse since it opened a year or so ago. Emeril made himself into the huge success he is by following what he learned from the Commander’s Palace arm of the Brennans. Meanwhile, even the name of Meril (it’s his own name, with the initial “E” dropped) is a little joke on its informal style. Meril’s is clearly designed for the tastes and trends of younger diners–the Gen-Xer’s and the Millennials among them. There’s a lot of bar space with full food service. The whole place is usually full. The reason for this is that the basics of first-class food and service embraced at Emeril’s and Delmonico’s are in full force at Meril, but in a much more informal way. I can’t help but wonder what the talents of Ti, Tory, and Darryl would have built if they had opened something more ambitious, even one that aimed for the young, no-rules customers.

Squid-ink pasta with crabmeat at Meril.

And so we move to Meril. I reviewed it shortly after it opened and found a very satisfied eatery. I’d be lying if I said I loved the sound level (high) dark lighting (such that one can’t read the menu; the Millennials have flashlights in their smart phones, so this is no problem), rather high salt and pepper levels in their recipes (one doesn’t notice this much until after age 68). But the menu has enough going on that none of that is a problem.

My new data began with Nero d’Avola, a big Sicilian red wine. I had a lot of seafood coming, but the flavors blend with the wine despite the unconventional pairing. Here come some grilled oysters of large size. Later I have fried oysters with tomato-bacon jam, mirlitons, and white remoulade. Can’t decide which oyster version is better. Now crawfish etouffee soup–an odd name, but the point and the reality are delivered. Black fettuccine shows up next, with some crabmeat and a few other ingredients. This is served in a size that is neither an appetizer nor an entree. It’s a Millennial dish-to-share. Yet so far (and the rest of the way) all of this is unique and delectable.

My table at Meril is less than fancy. It’s a counter that spans the main dining room, with open kitchen. Near my position is an apparatus that makes cotton candy, used in some desserts and other uses (but none for Mardi Gras parade vendors).

I shoot the breeze with a couple of the chefs, who want to know why I haven’t been in lately. I don’t have a good excuse. The radio station is an easy two-block away. I love almost all the food I’ve had at Meril. It’s a real restaurant by any measure. Nothing contrived about it.

Picnic Provisions & Whiskey. Uptown: 741 State St. 504- 266-2810.
Meril. Warehouse District & Center City: 424 Girod St. 504-526-3745.

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Whiskey Cake

This recipe came to me from the makers of Knob Creek Bourbon whiskey, a small-batch bourbon that’s good enough that you might be tempted to have a shot while making the cake (go ahead, but have it over ice cubes, with perhaps a little water–nothing more). The recipe is inspired by a cake made in the Greensboro, Georgia home of the grandmother of Luann Landon, who wrote a book about the dishes served there. It’s called “Dinner At Miss Lady’s,” and it’s published by Algonquin.

  • 1 1/12 cups flour
  • 1 lb. pecans, chopped
  • 1/2 lb. golden raisins, chopped coarsely
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 stick butter
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 Tbs. Steen’s cane syrup
  • 3 eggs, separated
  • 1 1/2 tsp. freshly-grated nutmeg
  • 1/2 cup bourbon
  • Pinch cream of tartar

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

1. Measure the flour after sifting once, then sift again. Mix 1/2 cup of the flour with the raisins and pecans.

2. In a medium bowl, sift the remaining flour and baking powder together.

3. Soak the nutmeg in the bourbon for ten minutes.

4. In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar with an electric mixer. Add the egg yolks one at a time, beating until the mixture is smooth and the color changes to a bright yellow.

5. Stir the nutmeg into the bourbon. Add about half the bourbon to the egg mixture, then half a cup of flour, then the rest of the bourbon, and finish with the flour. Beat the batter for about a minute between each addition, scraping down the side of the bowl with a rubber spatula as you go.

6. Fold in the flour with the pecans and the raisins with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon.

7. With clean beaters in a clean bowl, beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar until peaks form. Fold this into the batter with the rubber spatula, stopping when only fine streaks can be noted.

8. Grease two loaf pans with butter and pour in the batter. Bake in a preheated 325-degree oven for an hour and 10 minutes, lowering the heat to 275 after 45 minutes.

9. Cool the cake in the pans on a rack for 30 minutes. Removing the cake is not easy, so be careful. The cake tastes better and slices much easier if you chill it first.

Makes about 12-15 big slices, which are great served with egg nog.

AlmanacSquare January 22, 2019

Days Until. . .

Mardi Gras: March 5.
Chefs’ Charity for Children: Jan. 28.
Got Gumbo Competition: Feb. 7.
Valentine’s Day: Feb. 14. <

Great Restaurateurs In History

Archie Casbarian was born in Egypt today in 1936. After a career that spanned much of the world and the top of the hotel business in New Orleans, in 1978 he bought Arnaud’s and restored it into the brilliant restaurant it is today. Archie died in 2010, but his restaurant was so strong that after four years it’s as fine as it ever was in its long history.

Food Inventions

Today in 1959, Coors began selling its beer in aluminum cans. At the time, and for about twenty years more, Coors was only available in a few western states. That self-imposed rarity gave it a panache of excellence that it didn’t deserve. When, after hearing about it for years, you finally had your first can of Coors, the sleek, light aluminum can enhanced the experience. Or it could have been that Coors was the first beer to achieve what many consumers seem to want: beer that tastes like nearly nothing.

Today’s Flavor

Today is National Gratin Vegetables Day. A couple of weeks ago I jumped the gun on this celebration of small casseroles of various vegetables by making a cauliflower gratin. The cauliflower was surrounded by a matrix of cheese-laced bechamel with a crusty topping of more cheese, baked until the former became rich and lava-like and the latter was crusty and lightly browned. I have a recipe for this later in the newsletter.

It is widely reported on the Web that today is also National Blonde Brownie Day. They’re also known as “blondies,” and are another manifestation of white chocolate, that scourge on the chocolate-loving population

Gourmet Gazetteer

Birdseye, Indiana is in the southern tip of the state, almost directly on the Grits Line, in rolling woods and farming country, about sixty-three miles west of Louisville, Kentucky. The population is about 500. You can stop for a quick lunch at the Birdseye Dairy Barn.

Annals Of Food Media

Odd coincidence: two famous television cooks were born on this date. It’s the birthday (1934, London) of Graham Kerr, who in the 1960s had a television cooking show called The Galloping Gourmet. (The name came from a book he did with Australian winemaker Len Evans, in which the pair ate their way around the world in about a month.) Kerr made cooking cool, and inspired many men to take it up as a hobby.

The Frugal Gourmet, Jeff Smith, was born today in 1939. The bearded, bowtie-wearing, slender chef wrote many cookbooks and was a fixture on television talk shows, in addition to hosting his own long-running cooking program. He appeared live on my radio show twice. His career ended abruptly after he was charged with sexual assault by several of his past and present assistants. He died in 2004.

Drinking In The Sky

Today in 1970, the first regularly-scheduled flight of the Boeing 747 took off from New York City on a six-and-a-half-hour flight to London, on PanAm World Airlines. The original design of the 747 had a lounge on the second level. A friend who traveled to France often in those days said that he spent most of the flight time standing at the 747’s bar. Anything would be better than coach, I guess.

Edible Dictionary

larb, Thai, n.–A warm-and-cool salad found widely on Thai and other Southeast Asian menus. Its origins are in Laos, but few restaurant serve that cuisine. In Thai restaurants around New Orleans, larb is almost always made with beef, although it can authentically be made with pork, duck, chicken or (rarely) fish. The meat part of the dish is on the spicy side, with chili peppers used in the cooking. Mint, basil, and other herbs are involved, as are crunchy greens and vegetables, all served as raw salad ingredients. It’s a good appetizer for two to four people, or an entree for one.

The Old Kitchen Sage Sez:

If you need to grate a cheese that’s so soft that it sticks to the grater (mozzarella and Fontina come to mind), rub the inside and the outside of the grating surface with butter before you start.

Deft Dining Rule #509:

The only au gratin dish worth ordering in a steakhouse is potatoes au gratin. And even that is really just an excuse to eat more cheese.

The Saints

It is the feast day of several saints named Vincent. The one that interests us is St. Vincent of Saragossa, Spain. He is a patron saint of grape growers, and those who make everything from wine to vinegar from those grapes. So it’s the feast day of both Vincent Riccobonos (the one who owns the Peppermill, and the one who owns Mattina Bella), Vincent Catalanotto of the two Vincent’s Italian restaurants, Vincent Manguno, the chef at Porter and Luke, and I’m sure many more.

Food Namesakes

Sir Francis Bacon, the English philosopher and writer who has been claimed to be the “real” Shakespeare, was born today in 1561. . . The creamy-voiced soul singer Sam Cooke started cooking today in 1931. . . Chris Lemmon, actor son of Jack Lemmon, was squeezed out today in 1954. . . Illinois Congressman Melissa Bean emerged from the pod today in 1962. . . The Apple Macintosh computer, which made the mouse and the graphical user interface popular, was introduced in commercials during the Super Bowl today in 1984.

Words To Eat By

“A squid, as you know of course, has ten testicles.”–Graham Kerr, the Galloping Gourmet, born today in 1934. Since he was on live television, everybody heard and remembered this slip of the tongue.