Mary Ann left early in the week for Los Angeles. That's where our grown-up son Jude lives with his family. If MA could have it her way, she would visit our mutual grandchildren every day for a whole day of play. But that's how most grandmas and grandpas feel about the next generation.
She left the radio show in good hands, lining up guests for my radio show, for which I am very thankful. It's tough leaving for her with the radio show, where she co-hosts every day. The carefully-chosen guest hosts keep everything balanced. The best substitute host goes by the name of Ali Queen of Oysters. She and her husband invented a rig that allows cooks (home cook or amateur) to roast oysters on a ceramic shell. The rack aims the heat to the oysters, which are resting on the ceramic pockets. When they're roasting with butter, parmesan cheese, garlic and all the other ingredients it makes for good grilled oysters. This is crucial, because grilled oysters have become among the best-liked dishes in New Orleans.
While having lunch and dinner a few times with Ali and me, MA was intrigued by Ali's perspective on the restaurant scene and other culinary matters. She thought Ali would be a great guest host on The Food Show. Next thing I knew--a few months later--Ali was a regular on our show as a host. When she is on the air with me, it makes for an enhanced program.
Mary's Ann’s other big event on the West Coast was the Rose Parade, in Pasadena. She says that she's always wanted to see the Rose Parade--the oldest such big deal in America. Seems that there's more to the Rose Bowl than just football. The Rose Bowl‘s big, flashy, and popular parade is said to be in a league with the Macy's parade on Thanksgiving Day, and perhaps even Mardi Gras parades. I'll let MA tell all about it when she returns.
Meanwhile, back here in New Orleans, MA has set up things for me to do during the time she is in Los Angeles. Luckily, in restaurant world. One of these is practically a thrill. A wonderful thing has developed in the New Orleans Central Business District. Laurel Oak opened as a serious new dining venue, the kind of restaurant with exactly the kind of dining news that people who read this newsletter like to find.
Laurel Oak is open essentially every day at the corner of Gravier and Camp Streets, a place with a lot of historic architecture, ready to serve every day in a new hotel on this corner. That address has drawn numerous occupants over the years. A long time ago, I lived a half-block from here, and sometimes wish I still did.
We were invited to a special tasting at Laurel Oak, and because of a cold rain, it was a great relief when we arrived. The general manager of the place was extremely welcoming. He and the chefs and the bartender and all the other servers had the answers to all the questions I asked them. Not just good answers, but detailed positions and good reasons why they're operating the way they do.
So, here goes. Laurel Oak is connected to a restaurant group out of Denver. Regular readers know that I have a disdain for chain restaurants and for brand-new restaurants. I also have made it known that restaurants of a certain caliber without white tablecloths ought to have them. And that ear-splitting sound levels in the dining rooms are taboo. Or ought to be. But I enjoyed this place so much for some reason these things did not matter.
The name "Laurel Oak" refers to the name of an unusual oak variety that grows near the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Based on what I've seen in this single visit, the restaurant's output was almost as if they had asked me for advice before they opened the restaurant. I will apologize for this pretentiousness, but let's take a closer look.
The lunch menu we had was actually the dinner menu, because it hasn't really opened for lunch yet, but will do so shortly. A great example was two sets of appetizer shrimp. One was served cold, with a bed of chilled shrimp with crisp vegetables, and cutely peppered with with fried and seasoned oyster crackers. It seemed to me that they were creating two remoulades--the old one with a red sauce, and the lighter, more popular white, saucy style. The other shrimp we tried used much bigger shrimp, heads and tails on to make a version of barbecue shrimp. It reminded me of the way Emeril does it, with the sauce made of reduced shrimp stock. This is terrific, and serves as either as an appetizer or an entree equally well.
The next course was generically named by the chef-Wes Rabalais-who had just hovered into view with Houma origins by way of Brennan's. This regional twist was incorporated into the gumbo, which was served with potato salad and substituted poblanos for green bell peppers. A thought that hovered in my mind above the gumbo was this: The word "roux" refers to the reddish color that comes into view when a thick, chunky Cajun gumbo veers in the bowl. And, indeed, the Laurel Oak gumbo was thick, dark, and vaguely red. And the flavors were emphatic, balanced, and sophisticated as gumbos can be.
This was followed by crispy fried P&J oysters, and what more need be said of that? Except that they were enormous and served over a satsuma marmalade with dollops of aioli. Mary Leigh was dazzled by the plating of this chef. She ordered a fried green tomato sandwich which came with Cajun Fries. These were actually really fresh-cut, and options are plenty: Cajun, Salt & Pepper, and Duck Fat. The main part of the menu offered a hanger beef steak, whose texture after being marinated is near the top of the tenderness scale, roasted redfish, and a brick chicken, as well as a Yukon Gold gnocchi. We got a meaty duck breast, dark and crusty on the outside and red in most of the center, and no bones to be worried about.
Also on the table was a Daily Gulf Fish which was served atop a pile of farro and green tomato courtbouillon and Covey Rise legumes. This was outstanding.
Desserts were no less impressive: a blue corn cake made with blue corn flour topped with a cherry compote and mascarpone cream. And beignets, which couldn't be just beignets with a chef this skilled. These were exceptionally good beignets, exceptionally plated.
Then it was on to the Food Show, which had a full schedule today, and Ali in the guest co-host chair again. On top of all that is to say nothing about the commercials I record for Dorignac's Food Market. But I got it all done with contentment that only a meal like that brings. I can’t wait to return for another meal at Laurel Oak.
535 Gravier St. New Orleans