Old Cuisine, New Place

Written by Mary Ann Fitzmorris July 20, 2020 20:27 in Dining Diary

As restrictions tighten in COVID world, in this household we are moving back to take-out. Our most recent big meal taken out of a restaurant was indeed a big meal, from Saj, a glamorous new Mediterranean-style place on Magazine, coincidentally next to another glamour spot serving global cuisine - Saffron Nola.

Saj is a good-looking place. Usually this type of food is offered in casual and understated environments, but this place aims big in both food and atmosphere. It was too bad we did it take-out style. I can’t wait to return here to have the full experience.

We got the Mezze, a choice of four appetizers. Choose from hummus, beetroot tahini, baba ganuj, labna, muhamara, bandora, eggplant or olive tapenade. We chose hummus, of course, which was pretty straightforward hummus. Not especially noteworthy in any way. I prefer to have olive oil drizzled, or maybe an olive or two, or roasted garlic, of which there was one or two cloves. There was a vibrant pink one - this of beetroot tahini. We liked this one better. There was considerably more flavor to it, with a little chopped parsley and roasted pine nuts on top. The third choice was olive tapenade, which was so dark the container seems empty if the top is on. This was very good dark olive tapenade with the requisite anchovies and capers. Oily dark deliciousness. Our fourth choice was the Bandora, a mixture of stewed tomatoes, garlic, fresh herbs and bell peppers. This had that fresh Mediterranean flavor, tart and acidic, with a hint of sweetness.

And we got Kufta, Lebanese meatballs with a delicious tomato sauce and melted cheese on top. The strong presence of the fresh parsley added an extra dimension of flavor to this. The red sauce was incredibly rich, with just the slightest undertone of cinnamon. It was perfect. With this we got the Saffron Rice. There is something indescribably delicious about the way people in the Middle East cook rice. It is always perfect, and Basmati rice is simply the best.

The star of this group was definitely the Baked Feta, drizzled with honey, fresh thyme and pine nuts. We ate this with the bread, called Saj, from which the restaurant is named. It is a particular Middle Eastern bread which is cooked on a dome and heated from the bottom. It is just unleavened bread, and everything in the restaurant is meant to be eaten with this bread. It is the centerpiece of the restaurant, and rightly so. This is simply divine.

Tom has often said that it is a pity that ethnic food, now called global cuisine, is usually presented in America in a humble way. There must be an upscale version of all these cuisines, he has always said. For Mediterranean, it is Saj.

Like most people, we’ve also been doing a lot more staying in. Last week I took one of the countless bags of dried beans from our pantry shelf and made butter beans. I knew from the get-go they would not be as good as K-Paul’s . I was hoping they might be as good as the ones at Pontchartrain PoBoys. But mostly I just hoped they would be soft.

And I made some perfect rice to go with this. And then I found myself thinking about Greg Piccolo. A few months back he was our Ask The Chef  and he mentioned that for his entire career he made fried chicken the way his mom did. And that people always asked him about it. I was surprised to hear that there was not much crust to it. Simple. 

He told us to rinse chicken and put salt, pepper and flour into a paper bag and shake it until the chicken is coated. Drop it into a pot of peanut oil - he was very specific - at 375. He assured us this was the trick. As a fried chicken fiend, I am always looking for that very best way to do it. Thick or thin crust, there is nothing not to love about fried chicken.

When I went to the store to get chicken for this project, I saw a sale on breasts with bone in. I thought there were six in the package, but when I opened the package there were only three. Three absolutely massive chicken breasts , each the size of a whole normal-sized chicken. It would take forever to cook this thing.

I mixed basic salt and pepper in with flour and shook it in the bag, exactly as instructed, dropping it in the peanut oil, exactly as instructed. As expected, the outer layer of skin was crispy and golden brown, dark brown in parts, but the inside was raw. I finished it in the oven, and it came out great. I can see why Greg Piccolo swears by his mom’s recipe. 

The fried chicken and butter beans made a great lunch. Maybe they wouldn’t have impressed Paul Prudhomme, but they impressed Tom enough that he ate a lot of them. And Gerard Crozier would have been happy that his perfect rice can be made perfect by anyone. It was not gourmet, but it was good, and isn’t  that what matters?