Laissez les Bon Temps Rouler in Chinatown’s Newest Po Boy Paradise

AIt has been a decade since I have experienced the hot decadence that is New Orleans—sad but true. I miss the balmy, never ending evenings; the happenstance of finding an impromptu house party with lawn jazz in the middle of the night where strangers bear cocktails and smiles; the shotgun shacks concealing backyard poets, musicians and revelers; and the wafting smells of food everywhere, aromas that carry a Creole tang or spicy herbaceousness or swamp juiciness that reminds you that home is somewhere very far away. Fortunately for me, I found a little piece of the Big Easy this past weekend in Downtown LA.

The Little Jewel of New Orleans is a deli and market smack dab in the middle of Chinatown. What better place to reside in any big city, than the Chinese neighborhoods, which always display the unsterile, non-pretentious and colorfully, character-casted versions of existence away from the shopping malls and bland suburbias. In Los Angeles, it is the one area where you can still feel a little danger, witness true artists rolling out of their dingy lairs on Saturday mornings looking for 80 cent bao bun breakfasts and revel in the boisterous market scenes where the stank of fish mingles with the gargantuan reishi mushrooms on display at the herb emporiums. There is a constant sense of dashing life and nary a poseur hipster in sight, which is a good thing. Of course, a place purporting to serve authentic New Orleans sandwiches would fit right in with all this funk. All we need now is a parade … I envision royal dragon heads on drag queens and Mardi Gras leis over Chinese silk dresses.

IMG_9465A clean and bright market sells normal neighborhood pantry staples and convenience items alongside hard to find New Orleans standards like beignet mix, coffees, hot sauces and muffuletta olive salad. But it’s the deli, with a smattering of tables on a black and white checkered floor with cases full of banana and whiskey bread puddings that is the true gem. Walk up and order an oyster, shrimp or catfish po boy and you won’t be sorry. The fish is expertly cornmeal fried with just enough breading to cover the tender fish but not too much so as to distract from the texture and taste of the fish. The savory combination of mayo and hot sauce that lubricates the perfectly soft and sopping-friendly bread shipped straight from the Leidenheimber Baking Co. in New Orleans is an addictive and wondrous bath for the crispy pickles and crunchy lettuce. I have been looking all over Los Angeles for a po boy worthy of its moniker and I have finally hit eureka. The muffuletta, which in half form is still the size of a whole sandwich, is an incredible feat of meat, cheese, olives and hot mix that manages to curiously taste like a yummy pepperoni pizza.

As we ate, the cashier kept barking out orders from a microphone at the counter. When he wasn’t barking out orders, the air was filled with lively Cajun music and old school New Orleans jazz. At one point he announced that he had two king cakes behind the counter and the ability to order more per our desires. It took all I could muster not to buy one on the spot.

As if I needed more excuses to go to Chinatown. Now, I have another. I have been looking for a place to call my own in 2015 where I can spend whole days tapping on the typewriter keys while absorbing my kind of local color. I perhaps have found my very own spot.

Foie Floodgates

IMG_9437Last Wednesday the California culinary scene celebrated when a federal judge overturned the statewide ban on foie gras that has been in effect since 2012. The decision to lift the ban wasn’t a judgment about whether the practice of force feeding fowl to fatten their livers before killing them for food is animal cruelty or not. It has to do with state versus federal jurisdiction over food products.

When the ban was lifted the Cute Gardener and I had a conversation on the couch, pause button pressed on whatever we had been doing at the moment as we are prone to do during intense discussions post-dinner in our home, about the level of outrage foie gras has provoked in our society. News of activists outside of French restaurants and deli counters and meat distribution businesses still refusing to sell foie on principle abounded over the past week. Our questions weren’t geared toward the hardcore vegans or vegetarians or the people who already think meat is murder, but to the people who generally eat meat. Why are they so inflamed about the treatment of ducks and geese in the making of foie gras, when they regularly sit down to meals of chicken, turkey or beef? Turkeys have been so overly stuffed that they are too heavy to fly. Chickens are packed into cubicles and given growth hormones. Kobe beef is grazed until veins of marbled fat become so entrenched in their flesh that it is almost impossible to discern pink from red in the meat.

It seems like the true question at hand for those people should be whether or not they eat meat at all? If you eat meat, it seems rather morbid to try and discern what types of killing are better than others? If you eat meat because of its historical precedence in the societal food chain, then it doesn’t seem like you have much room to spout off on either side of the humane treatment of animals debate. Which is why I stay out of it. My diet is not overloaded in meat but I do factor pork, beef, chicken, lamb and turkey protein into my balanced palate on a permanent basis. I try to source sustainable meat whenever possible because I don’t want an assortment of foreign chemicals in my body and won’t go out of my way to expend major amounts of energy procuring meat otherwise.

For the past three years, the Cute Gardener has been enjoying his foie on business trips to New York City. Alas, I have not been so fortunate as the life of an artist and writer does not afford me the luxury to accompany him on those trips. Last night, we stopped into Petrossian after a Moroccan dinner at Tagine looking for a special dessert of vodka and caviar. Instead we found a new special menu of six types of foie gras (and later learned there was a special seared “off menu” item as well). We were one of three couples left in the small, pristine white dining room after nine and as we sliced off bits of foie studded with truffles and enjoyed the pursuant cold, creaminess in our mouths, I couldn’t help but wonder how many restaurants across Los Angeles were currently serving more dishes of foie today than they had ever imagined before the ban. And if that kind of backfiring momentum isn’t the true misfortunate side effect of good intentions that aim to tip our natural balances from one side to another.

P.S. After posting this, one reader sent me this wonderful NPR piece with a look at an alternate foie approach which presents good food for thought.

Karen Hatfield Inspired New Year’s Bread Bath

IMG_9390While most well meaning citizens of the world are busy embarking on New Year’s Resolutions to lose weight, eat better, exercise more and indulge less, the Cute Gardener and I decided to go the masochistic route as the non-conformists we are and celebrate 2015 with a Karen Hatfield-inspired bread bath.

Karen Hatfield is the prettier half of the husband wife team making some of the best food Los Angeles has to offer. Husband Quinn’s Hatfield’s Restaurant provided one of the dinners early on in my relationship with the CG that made me swoon the most. It is where I had an extremely memorable coconut soup, lamb lollipop and earl grey milkshake before jumping on a flight mid-summer to Santa Fe to see one of my best friend’s get married; a multi-course meal that will forever be connected to whimsy and romance in my mind. It is also where the CG and I ducked in post-dinner elsewhere for an unconventional dessert of exquisite agnolotti and popcorn at the bar one eclectic evening. Good times.

Hatfield’s decided to close its doors this past month to much local chagrin but I think it was a smart move. The CG was already talking about how, after being there multiple times, the food was losing its shine. Not because it was no longer good, but because it was no longer new. The couple decided the restaurant had run its course and are now working on a new venture called Odys and Penelope which is garnering much anticipation. Like true artists they allowed a vision to materialize in Hatfield’s, gave it their all, and are now moving on to the next project. Restaurateurs should be so lucky.

Odys and Penelope will be a few doors down from Karen’s pastry chef passion pit The Sycamore Kitchen. Having never been to the trendy bakery/cafe, we decided to spend New Year’s weekend trying out the goods. At eleven a.m. on a Saturday the line to the order counter was twenty people deep and all seats were taken. The twenty minute wait gave us plenty of time to view the salivation-starter baked goods case overflowing with dense, sweet loaf breads of chocolate, lemon and pumpkin, top hat high quiches, shiny iced fennel flower shaped cookies and thick rosemary shortbread triangles. Normally we aren’t seduced by this kind of display but if Karen makes food anywhere near like her husband we knew we would want to try everything. After ordering our lunch, we added a chocolate chip rye cookie, salted caramel pecan babka, onion and chorizo roll and flaky buttercup to go.

IMG_9384Our meal was heavenly. The woman knows how to bake. Even though I am a pork belly whore by nature, I felt the star of my Double BLT was not the tender, flabby, luscious pork stuffed with avocado, perfectly cooked bacon and butter lettuce into the sandwich, but the soft, doughy, white bread that acted as a perfect sponge to the balsamic-tinged mayo that brightened the traditional dish into something meriting praise. The CG’s grilled short rib sandwich was a runny gooey pile of yum on an equally great piece of bread seared up nicely on the outside. If Karen did bread this good, I couldn’t wait to try my sweets.

IMG_9388The chocolate chip rye cookie didn’t last five minutes after arriving home. It was a crunchy mess with melted disks of chocolate on the inside, accentuated by the sweet-detracting acerbic nature of rye—perfect for a grain lover like me. Later that evening, we participated in a Roman-orgy worthy carb fest. Leftover regular and marbled rye from Diamond Bakery and Brent’s (another two favorite bread joints in L.A.) surrounded tomatoes on a platter for use as carriers of the CG’s homemade chicken liver mousse.

IMG_9386The onion chorizo roll was heated so that the fat from the meat mingled with the warm, sweet onions within the crispy bread exterior. We cut the buttercup into fourths so that we could lick the sweet insides of sugary butter prior to popping the rest of the croissant like, crystal sugar coated bliss into our mouths. We sipped champagne along with this gluttony until the main course was through.

IMG_9393Finally, we transitioned to caramel-noted bourbon to accompany the dessert babka—another bread bomb smothered with thick salted caramel that, once cut into, revealed ant farm like trails of glistening cinnamon.

Being two people who are not prone to eat bread on a regular basis, we sure got our fill in one evening for the entire year and it was worth every bite.