A New Orleans Love Affair: The Food

I’ve written extensively about my love for New Orleans (stemming from my original hatred of it), and last week Randi and I headed down with our significant others for an actual vacation (my first non-work trip to the big easy!). There’s lots to tell, but let’s start with the main focus of the trip: the food.

We arrived on Thursday, and the first thing we did was walk over to Cochon, conveniently a few blocks from The Westin. If you like pork, bacon, and/or flavorful, delicious food, this place is for you. If you’re a vegetarian, maybe not so much. But this may have been the best meal we had during the four-day trip. We had to resist the temptation to come back over the next few days. Matt went crazy over the Louisiana Cochon, which they describe as a pork hockey puck. I had the oyster and bacon sandwich and almost died of happiness. Also, we sat directly next to Gina Gershon, and she looked gorgeous. We may have eavesdropped on her conversation. Note: this was not the most exciting celebrity we encountered in New Orleans. On Saturday, Matt SPOKE to Sylvester Stallone. And by spoke, I mean Stallone told him to move and Matt laughed in his face. But a story for another time. Here’s my inconspicuous, paparazzi shot of Gershon:

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The next day, after a breakfast of coffee and beignets at Cafe Du Monde, we had lunch at Johnny’s Po’ Boys. I loved it here because it’s just a no frills, original Po’ Boy shop that’s been around for 60 years. Plus I did a campaign with them for work about a million years ago so I feel a connection to this sweet little hidden shop in the French Quarter.

Dinner Friday night was at August, John Besh’s upscale restaurant. John Besh is a famous New Orleans chef, so I felt like I should experience one of his meals. The food was good, but the atmosphere was way too stuffy for this fun loving, anything-goes kind of city. We all agreed that we preferred the down and dirty, good food without the song and dance restaurants New Orleans is so famous for. Also, they lost our reservation and weren’t very kind about it, so that was annoying. This would be our only slightly disappointing food experience of the entire trip.

Saturday – obviously back to Cafe Du Monde for coffee and beignets. They are SO incredibly delicious every single time.The line is always going to be crazy, but I can’t stress enough how worth it the wait is. Just trust me. Or look:

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We also had a lovely walk from our hotel along the Mississippi River to the cafe each morning. A snapshot from our room with a view:

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Lunch that day was at Willie Mae’s Scotch House, a cab ride away or a long walk from the French Quarter, but again well worth it. You wait outside to go into this plain looking dining room with it’s own historical memorabilia on the walls, and proceed to eat the best fried chicken you’ve ever had in your entire life, no matter where you’re from.

Saturday night was the Krewe du Vieux parade, the official start to Mardi Gras (that story in an upcoming post), but after the parade died down and we’d had enough of the French Quarter we took a cab to the Bywater to check out Matt’s friend’s restaurant, Pizza Delicious. And people, it lives up to it’s name. What started as a telephone-order-only restaurant that had just a takeout window and ran out of pizza every night has expanded to a modern full service pizzeria where you can watch everything that happens in the kitchen as you order your food. The pizzas are amazing, as are the salads, garlic knots and likely everything else on the menu. Locals will tell you it’s the only NY style pizza in Louisiana. If you find yourself at Pizza Delicious, say hi to one of the owners, Greg, and tell him Amy and Matt sent you.

Sunday, our last full day in New Orleans and our last breakfast at Cafe Du Monde, we ate lunch at Parkway because everyone told us they had the best Po’ Boys in New Orleans. When you go, eat the roast beef and/or the shrimp. Randi and I split both, and even though we both liked the shrimp better, it’s worth it to try the roast beef po’ boy that made them famous.

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Our last meal in New Orleans was at Sylvain. It’s hard to eat in this city on a Sunday because so many restaurants are closed, but luckily we were able to get a table at Sylvain around 9:30. It was lovely eating in their beautiful outdoor area (especially since it was January,) but we were so full from that afternoon’s po’ boy excursion that Randi and I couldn’t even eat our entrees – the slow cooked pork sandwiches that looked oh so delicious. We did eat plenty of appetizers that we loved, mostly the beef belly and the brussels sprouts. The service here was excellent and we drank some fantastic wine. I’d like to go back here when I have more of an appetite.

There were so many other restaurants we wanted to try, but four days in New Orleans just isn’t enough. And even more days if you include my previous trips to the city. Guess we’ll just have to go back!

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Drink It In: Argentina’s Wine Country

Argentina was amazing, but the absolute highlight of the trip was wine country. We had four days there, and signed up for two full-day wine tours, one of the Lujan de Cuyo region and one of the Uco Valley region. Both were beautiful, especially since we visited during their fall, which meant the harvest was over but the vineyards had turned into glorious fall colors. We also lucked out because the week before we arrived there had been a rare snowfall in the Andes which stand tall above the wineries. The snowcapped mountains atop the vast fields of reds, oranges and violets made for a very rare and picturesque landscape for us to enjoy all the wine.

Another key factor in making this portion of the trip so incredible was the company we used to book the wine tours. Ampora Wine Tours does a phenomenal job of hand picking wineries in each region that are very different from each other, from the massive ones who export all over the world to the smaller, family owned wineries. When you’re visiting 4-5 wineries a day, they tend to all blend together (no pun intended) – but with Ampora, we can recall each winery vividly and have really great memories that stand out from each one. To give you a taste (again, no pun) of our favorite wineries, I’ve compiled a list below. These are the must-visits if you’re heading to Mendoza:

Pulenta Estate, Lujan de Cuyo

This winery, owned by two dudes who love fast cars, had one of the best views in the Lujan de Cuyo region. The woman who gave us the tour was our favorite on-site guide by far, and we had an excellent wine and cheese pairing here. More importantly, Pulenta Estate had my absolute favorite wine. They don’t sell it in the US so I bought a bottle on site and somehow got it back to the states in one piece. The wine, a cabernet malbec blend, has a ton of different aromas and flavors, especially as you smell the wine and enjoy the aftertaste. I couldn’t quite determine one flavor that stood out most, so our guide pointed it out – green peppers. In a wine! Sounds weird, but it’s actually amazing, and like no other wine I’ve ever tasted. That bottle will be saved for a very special occasion.

Ruca Malen, Lujan de Cuyo

I can sum up what I loved about this place in two words: food and scenery. And when I told the folks at Ruca Malen I was lactose intolerant they created a very special menu just for me. Five decadent courses served outdoors in front of red and orange fields, snowcapped mountains in the background, with glass after glass of delicious wine made from the fields in front of us. This, my friends, is what vacation should be.

Gimenez Rilii, Uco Valley

This was a small, family owned winery. Aside from having the best empanadas in the world, we felt right at home here. We tasted the wine right from the barrel, and really got a feel for the entire winemaking process when there aren’t any fancy distillers to electronically control the maceration and fermentation stages. Gimenez Rilii’s wine is made almost by hand. There was also a really cute dog hanging out here.

O’Fournier, Uco Valley 

If there’s one thing I learned at O’Fournier, it’s that money actually can buy happiness! I’m kidding. Kind of. No really, I’m kidding. You already know that this is one of my top five places in the whole world, so there’s not much more I can say about it except, the olive oil bread, the views, the sweet but respect-commanding man who owns the winery, the wine itself, the views again, and the steak. And the olive oil bread.

Another key thing about Ampora is their selection of tour guides and commitment to keeping the groups small. We were told the most they’ll ever bring on a tour is 5-6 people, but since we were there outside of peak summer season, Matt and I actually had an entire private tour. The guides were amazing, and had such an incredible knowledge of the wine region, had grown up in the surrounding areas, and it became apparent that they had quite literally dedicated their lives to learning about and teaching others about great wine.

I had a really hard time coming home after this part of the trip.

 

 

Yes, I took this last photo myself. Color popping effects courtesy of instagram.

An Overlooked Argentinian Delicacy

We expected to eat a lot of really delicious steak in Argentina. And we absolutely did. But with all the hype about Argentinian steak, there is one really incredible dish that just doesn’t get enough attention. So after always playing second fiddle to steak, I dedicate this post to the often overlooked Argentinian delicacy: The Empanada.

On our second day in Buenos Aires, as we were wandering around downtown and intentionally getting lost in the city, we stopped into a restaurant on Puerto Madero that came highly recommended (though I wish I could say we stumbled upon it accidentally. But really, there are reasons people recommend places and guidebooks write about them. It’s ok to be unoriginal). At Cabana Las Lilas that afternoon, we sat down at a table in this massive establishment that overlooked the brownish waters of the Rio de la Plata (still pretty though!) and ordered. I wasn’t super hungry, so I went with the veal empanada appetizer as my meal. I’m not sure what I can say about these empanadas other than – they were among the top things I’ve eaten in my life. Biting into that super flaky bread and tasting the warm juicy meat inside was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. I savored every single bite of those empanadas, and was even generous enough to share one with Matt. He was super jealous because his pork tasted like cardboard after comparing it to my empanadas. And so began one of the greatest love stories of our time.

I had my second “this is the most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten in my life” experience on that last day in wine country when the amazing people at the Giminez Riili winery served us empanadas while we were tasting wine. I was informed that the crust had butter in it, and as a lactose intolerant person I’m supposed to avoid foods like these, but after one small bite, there was no way I was going to be able to control myself and not eat the rest of that empanada. Matt went crazy over these guys, too. My vocabulary is too limited to find an accurate word to describe how strongly I felt about them. We had a lovely time at this winery and sampled amazing wines and looked out at the beautiful scenery in front of us, but eating these glorious meat pockets was the hands down best experience we had there. Tied with the Cabana Las Lilas empanadas, they were quite possibly one of the best things we ate during the entire trip.

So, yes, Argentinian steak is delicious and all, but when I think back to the cuisine of that country, my salivary glands long for the empanadas. Until we meet again.

Maine: The Lobster

Even though the weather was horrible and rainy for the bulk of our trip, there was one thing we were able to enjoy = the lobster.  I now totally understand why people travel from all over the world just to try authentic, fresh Maine lobster – it not only lived up to the hype, but exceeded our expectations by far.

Lobster #1 = The Lobster Shack, Portland

This was our first legitimate Maine lobster experience.  It was a bit of a drive from our hotel in Portland, but holy hell was it worth it.  The restaurant is nothing fancy on the inside, and the menu consists of “lobster, crab, scallops and lobster rolls,” which made ordering quite easy.  The cool thing about this place was the view – the restaurant is perched above a gorgeous rock cliff and you can look out at the water while eating.  I climbed around on the rocks before Matt almost killed me because he just wanted to eat his damn lobster already.  But you know how I feel about rock formations next to water. I must climb and play!

When we finally went inside the restaurant and sat down with our whole lobsters on the red, cafeteria style tray, we took our first bites and looked at each other with wide eyes.  It must’ve been the combination of how fresh the meat was, the taste of the saltwater that reminded us just how recently this guy was crawling around in the ocean, and the fact that this first bite lived up to every expectation we ever had. Thoroughly enjoying ourselves, we pretty much blacked out for the rest of the meal.

 

Lobster #2 = The Lobster Pound, Ogunquit (Round One)

Our visit to the highly recommended Lobster Pound in Ogunquit would determine our culinary activities for the remainder of our stay in Maine.  Upon arrival, we were directed to a huge tank of lobsters, where a young boy who could NOT be more excited about lobsters herds them around the tank and allows you to pick which one you’ll be eating for your upcoming meal.  We dubbed him “The Lobster Nerd.”  We were really excited about lobsters too, so he really took a liking to us.  He even let me hold our lobster before throwing it into the steamer where it would later become our dinner.  There was something really upsetting yet strangely satisfying about this.  Matt and I each chose a 1.5 pound lobster, both enormous.  We asked what the biggest lobster the nerd had ever seen was, to which he answered, a little over four pounds.  He suggested that the next night, we split a four pound lobster.  And it was decided.

Lobster #3 = Lobster Rolls at The Lobster Shack, Ogunquit

On our last day in Maine, we didn’t want to spoil our appetite for what we knew was to come later, but we still hadn’t tried the highly recommended lobster rolls at the Lobster Shack in Ogunquit.  Despite my best attempts to convince him otherwise, Matt made us share this very delicious lobster roll for lunch.  He was right in restricting us.  Read on.

 

Lobster #4 = The Grand Finale – The Lobster Pound, Ogunquit

We had been preparing for this moment for the 24 hours leading up to it.  When we arrived back at the pound and walked out to the lobster tank, the “Lobster Nerd” had anticipated our arrival. His face lit up when we walked outside, and he rushed to the back of the tank to give us the ginormous lobster he had pre-chosen for us. The crustacean we were looking at was an absolute beast.  When our monster was placed on the scale, he weighed in at five pounds.  The Lobster Nerd told us this was one of the biggest lobsters he had seen all season, and we knew it was meant to be.   We approved him, and about twenty minutes later, he was served to us, and we devoured what was our last, most grandeoise, Maine lobster.  The size of his claw against my hand says it all.