Special Places To Dine On A Day When Everything Must Be Perfect
Mother's Day is second in popularity only to birthdays as a reason for dining out. Around forty percent of us will treat our mothers (or our wives) out to dinner on the second Sunday of May.
Every day's a birthday. But there's only one Mother's Day. That makes it the busiest day of the year for restaurants. Fortunately, a large array of restaurants waits to serve the mothers and their families. Many restaurants normally closed on Sundays usually open for Mother's Day. It may be the only Sunday they open all year.
So the answer to "Where do I take my mother on Mother's Day" can start not with "Who's open?" but "Where would Mom like to dine?"
Many people don't know the answer to that one. They come up with all sorts of ideas for Mother's Day, and wind up in a place where Mom feels uncomfortable.
I did it myself one Mother's Day. I brought my mother to Commander's Palace. She liked the food–especially the turtle soup. But she couldn't deal with Commander's service. After a lifetime of serving other people, she found it irritating to have waiters getting everything for her.
Not long after, I took her to Drago's. She loved the much more casual environment, the simple food, the older waitress who took care of us at a leisurely pace. Yes, Commander's is the more impressive restaurant. But Drago's was incomparably more pleasant for her.
So, when you're trying to figure your Mother's Day plans, consider first what your mother really likes, not what you like. Then know that you have nearly the entire range of New Orleans restaurants to choose from.
Now the bad news. If you're still reading this, it probably means you haven't yet scored reservations. But I don't think you're one of those people who call me on the radio the Friday before Mother's Day, saying, "You know, I was kinda thinking that since Mama cooks all the time, maybe it would be nice to take her to a restaurant Sunday." As if this were the first time anyone thought of the idea.
At this point, most of the restaurants you'd most likely think of either are booked up, or have raised their prices so much that you won't want to go there. Many of those who say they have space available don't, really. Restaurants base their reservations on wishful thinking, and will stack people up in the bar. Or, worse, outside in line–it really happens. That will only make your mother unhappy. And when Mom's unhappy, everybody's unhappy.
Beyond that, the quality of dining on Mother's Day in most restaurants takes a big dip. That's because many infrequent diners are in the room. They have a way of showing up late, ordering one course at a time, panic that prices aren't what they remember from twenty years ago, ask for separate checks, and do other things that frequent diners know better than to do.
As a result of all this, the only good reason to dine out on Mother's Day is if you absolutely must. And that may well be the case. You cannot refuse your mother. Then you must grit your teeth, be prepared for less than the best food and service, be ready to pay a higher-than-normal price for a limited menu, and make your reservation three weeks ago.
Now. I shouldn't have to say this, but. . .
Don't Even Think Of Dining Out
On Mother's Day Without A Reservation
Unless the restaurant doesn't accept them. Which should tell you what I think of restaurants that don't take reservations on Mother's Day.
The best idea, I think, is to stay at home and do the cooking and cleaning while Mom takes the day off. Without complaining.
The next-best idea is one proposed by Ella Brennan years ago: that we eliminate Mother's Day and institute Mother's Week. To spread the crush out. (It could happen: Secretary's Day evolved into Administrative Professionals Week.)
But while we're waiting, Mother's Day remains happiest for restaurant owners. (At least the ones who don't overbook.)
NOMenu's Mother's Day Lists
Below are three lists of restaurants we think will serve you best on Mother's Day. They do not include all the places that are open, of which there are hundreds. Nor can I tell you which still have tables available–a datum that changes moment by moment.
The three lists break up the 100 restaurants into three categories, noted with roses. These are not the same as our usual fleur-de-lis ratings–just for how well the restaurants serve on Mother's Day. Within any rose category, the better the restaurant is, the higher on the list it appears.
The food scene this weekend is dominated by the Jazz Festival, where the eats are as good as the music, and in exactly the same way. In the past few years of the Jazz Festival, the food offerings seem to have reached a plateau. A few new vendors appear, but they fade into the familiar array. It’s a long time since anything alarmingly new and different has turned up. But isn’t this what we want from the Festival? It’s certainly true of us Baby Boomers, who were just reaching the age of majority at the time of the first JazzFest in 1970. It’s a ritual, with our strange kind of hippie nostalgia. Enough other things have changed in our lives without the Jazz Festival’s becoming unfamiliar, too.
Here’s our annual list of all the food being served at the Jazz and Heritage Festival at the Fair Grounds. I have annotated it with ratings on a scale from zero to three notes. Here’s what they mean:
Recommended. Try it if the dish appeals to you.
Outstanding. Taste this even if if you wouldn’t ordinarily do so.
Essential. Not to be missed.
These are my own recommendations, based on past years. Your mileage may vary.
Burks and Douglas Food Area I
Red beans and rice, sausage
Vegetarian red beans and rice
Cajun Nights Catering Food Area I
Crabmeat stuffed shrimp
Fried green tomatoes
Catering Unlimited Food Area I
Crescent Catering Food Area I
Cajun duck po-boy
Cajun shrimp & duck pasta
Dimartino’s Food Area I
Roast beef poor boy
Turkey giardiniera poor boy
Fireman Mike’s Kitchen Food Area I
Alligator sauce piquante
Shrimp and grits
Shrimp and okra gumbo
After thirty-one iterations, the French Quarter Festival has nothing to prove. It has entered the company of Mardi Gras and the Jazz Festival in its ability to pull crowds. Last year, well over a half-million people filled both the narrow and broad parts of the Quarter. The recent expansion into Thursday worked well enough: almost as many people show up as on the weekends.
The free festival spreads its attractions evenly, , with musical stages scattered around and playing constantly. Food is sold at small prices from dozens of vendors. All of the best of them are back again, with a few additions and interesting new dishes. Everything is allegedly appetizer size, but three or four items about fills up the average appetite. The best plan is to share things, and to pace yourself.
The Festival organization sets high standards for its vendors. They must be restaurants, and chain restaurants are actively discouraged. French Quarter restaurants get special consideration, for obvious reasons. The food starts at eleven all four days. It goes on until seven in the evening at the Mint and Jackson Square, but continues until nine along the riverfront (seven Sunday). Beverages of all kinds are served in all the food areas.
The food booths only accept cash and Festival tickets. You can use your credit card to buy the tickets.
Here’s a list–provided by the French Quarter Festival and subject to last-minute changes–of all the food being served at the three major areas where the food and music are concentrated. I have annotated it with my recommendations, based on what I’ve found in past years, or the vendor’s track record, if they’re new to the festival.
Recommended. Try it if the dish appeals to you.
Outstanding. Try it even if it doesn’t appeal to you.
Essential. Not to be missed.
Throughout the food vendor areas are stands selling all kinds of beverages, from soft drinks to daiquiris and margaritas, sno-balls to coffee. Maps, schedules for the music, and much more information is at the French Quarter Festival website.
See you there! I will broadcast live from the corner of St. Ann and Chartres from noon to 3 p.m. Thursday, April 10, and Saturday, April 12. Stop by and say hello!
Barbecue shrimp, one of the four or five best dishes in all of New Orleans cooking, is completely misnamed. They’re neither grilled nor smoked, and there’s no barbecue sauce. It was created in the mid-1950s at Pascal’s Manale Restaurant. A regular customer came in and reported that he’d enjoyed a dish in a Chicago restaurant that he though was made with shrimp, butter, and pepper. He asked Pascal Radosta to make it. Radosta took a flyer at it. The customer said that the taste was not the same, but he liked the new dish even better. So was born the signature dish at Manale’s.
The dish is simple: huge whole shrimp in a tremendous amount of butter and black pepper. The essential ingredient is large, heads-on shrimp, since the fat in the shrimp heads makes most of the flavor. Resist the urge to add lots of herbs or garlic. This recipe is largely based on the new recipe created by Chef Gerard Maras in the early 1980s at Mr. B’s. The butter emulsifies into the other liquids, and gives not only a bigger flavor but a nicer-looking dish.
The amount of butter and pepper in my recipe seem fantastic. Be bold. This is not a dish you will eat often–although you will want to.
3 lbs. fresh Gulf shrimp with heads on, 16-20 count to the pound
1 Tbs. lemon juice
2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup dry white wine
2 cloves garlic, chopped
4 Tbs. black pepper (or more!)
1/4 tsp. salt
3 sticks butter, softened
2 tsp. paprika
1 loaf French bread
1. Rinse the shrimp and shake the excess water from them. Put them in a large skillet (or two) over medium heat, and pour the lemon juice, wine, Worcestershire, and garlic over it. Bring the liquids in the pan to a light boil and cook, turning the shrimp over with a spoon every two minutes or so, until all the brown-gray color in the shrimp is gone. Don’t overcook! At the first moment when you think the shrimp might be done, they will be: lower the heat to the minimum.
2. Cover the shrimp with a thin but complete layer of black pepper. You must be bold with this. When you think you have enough pepper in there, you still need a little more. Add the paprika and salt.
3. Cut the butter into tablespoon-size pieces and distribute over the shrimp. With a big spoon, turn the shrimp over. Agitate the pan as the butter melts over the shrimp and emulsifies into the liquid at the bottom of the pan. When no more solid butter is visible. Remove the pan from the burner.
4. Serve the shrimp with lots of the sauce in bowls. Serve with hot French bread for dipping. Also plenty of napkins and perhaps bibs.
Crawfish bisque–one of the greatest dishes in all of Cajun cooking–is not like any other bisque. It’s not creamy or thickened with rice, as in the classic French style, but made with a dark roux. Most of the ingredients, even the crawfish, are made into a rough puree, which further thickens the soup. This may seem like a long, involved recipe, but there are no great challenges in it. What comes out is something unforgettable. Serve it with the crawfish boulettes in the next recipe.
5 lbs. boiled crawfish
1/2 medium onion, cut up
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 rib celery, cut up chopped
1/2 red bell pepper, chopped
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup brandy
1 small lemon, sliced
2/3 cup flour
5 sprigs Italian parsley leaves, chopped
2 green onions, sliced finely
1. Rinse the boiled crawfish with lukewarm water to remove some of the salt, which will otherwise get concentrated later. Peel all of the crawfish and reserve the tail meat and the shells separately. Get some kid to pull off all the claws from the shells. Put all the claws into a heavy plastic bag. Using a meat mallet, bash the claws enough to break most of them.
2. In an eight-quart (or larger) saucepan, sauté the onions, garlic, celery, and bell pepper over medium heat until the vegetables are browned at the edges.
3. Add the crawfish claws, shells and wine, and bring to a boil. When most of the liquid has evaporated, pour the brandy over the shells. If you are comfortable with flaming dishes and have a fire extinguisher nearby, carefully touch a flame to the brandy. Let the flames die out. Otherwise, just let the brandy boil away.
4. Add the lemon and enough water to cover all the shells. Bring it to a boil, then lower to the lowest possible simmer. Simmer for thirty minutes, spooning out the scum from the top of the pot every now and then.
5. Strain the stock into another saucepan and discard the solids. Simmer until reduced to about three quarts. Strain through a fine sieve. (At this point, the stock can be refrigerated for up to three days or frozen for later use.)
6. In a large saucepan over medium-low heat, make a dark roux with the flour and butter, stirring constantly to avoid burning. When the roux is the color of chocolate, stir it into the crawfish stock with a wire whisk until completely blended.
7. Add parsley and green onions. Reserve six large crawfish tails per person. In a food processor, chop the rest of the crawfish tail meat to a near-puree. Add this to the soup and return to a simmer for five minutes. Add salt and hot sauce to taste.
6. Place the whole crawfish tails in soup plates, and ladle the bisque over them. Add crawfish boulettes (optional) to the bisque at the table.
Easter used to keep us at home with family dinners and Easter egg hunts. But n the last twenty years or so it’s become a big day for dining out. Even those who cook at home on Easter are using the day as an occasion for some serious cooking–although it usually remains a buffet well supplied with kidfood. On Easter, with the warm weather finally here, we’re grilling. Or having a crawfish boil, because crawfish have finally begun to get good.
But more people are heading out to their favorite brunch, breakfast and dinner places to celebrate. That change in direction came quickly, so much so that demand for Easter brunch restaurant reservations outstrips the supply. The demand is such that the bad dog of special holiday menus has come out of its usual confines of New Year’s Eve and Mother’s Day. The special holiday menu is special only in that it’s more expensive, and offers fewer choices. This is not pure greed on the part of the restaurants, but a strategy to help the kitchen can get the food out.
If you can find a good Easter brunch, or even a good Easter dinner, it can be very pleasant indeed. The weather tends to be nice, so if you’re in the French Quarter a stroll around is inviting. Even the most ambitious restaurants make themselves friendly to families and their children, so that’s not a problem.
Below is a list of restaurants open for Easter that have a good track record from past holidays. Most–but not all–will be serving a brunch menu (not necessarily a buffet, though) at midday. Most will also be open for dinner. They are listed in order of goodness. Our rating system, for only this survey, awards between one and three Easter eggs to restaurants we think will be good bets for Easter. They are listed in order of goodness.
It’s impossible to determine which of these are fully booked, as I’m sure a few of them are already. Which brings up an important point: You should make reservations now. As in right now.
To find out more about the restaurants and see detailed, rated review of the place, click the link below.
This is an idea inspired by Gautreau’s Sue Zemanick, but different enough from her great works with halibut that she avoids all blame. The detonator is a crusty topping with horseradish and garlic held in a matrix of bread crumbs. While the fish roasts, the thick crust get toasty brown.
4 thick halibut fillets, cut across, about 8-10 oz. each
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
1. Melt the butter and blend it with the other crust ingredients until it almost but not quite sticks together. Divide this into four portions, and cover the top of each grouper fillet with a layer of the crust.
2. Place the encrusted fish fillets in a large skillet or baking pan, lightly oiled with olive oil. Sprinkle lemon juice over all. Bake the fish in a preheated 400- degree oven for 10-12 minutes. (To test the fish for doneness, push a kitchen fork into the center of the biggest fillet. Hold it there for five seconds, then pull it out. Touch the tines of the fork carefully to your lips. If it feels even warm, the fish is done.)
Redfish with a sauce of artichokes, capers, mushrooms, and butter appears on the menus of quite a few New Orleans restaurants. It’s delicious far beyond the promise of its description or even appearance. Trout, redfish, flounder, lemonfish, sheepshead, or striped bass also work for this recipe. So do really big oysters or shrimp.
The dish was invented at Brennan’s, where it still can be had (with fish or veal) under the name Kottwitz. The best practitioners, however, are the Impastato brothers Joe (at Impastato’s in Metairie) and Sal (Sal And Judy’s, in Lacombe). As an option, they will take the idea another step beyond and add crabmeat, shrimp or both. The resulting dish bears the name of the current Saints head coach.
• 4 red snapper, trout, redfish, drum, or sheepshead fillets, 6-8 oz.
• Juice of 1/2 lemon, strained
• 1 cup flour
• 1 Tbs. salt
• 1/4 tsp. white pepper
• 3 eggs, beaten
• 4 Tbs. butter
• 2 fresh artichoke bottoms (or canned)
• 8 artichoke hearts, quartered
• 1/3 cup dry sherry or white wine
• 2 cups sliced white mushrooms
• 2 Tbs. sliced green onions
• 1/4 tsp. chopped garlic
• 1/2 tsp. chopped French shallots
• 1 Tbs. smallest possible capers
• 2 Tbs. freshly-squeezed lemon juice
• 1 1/2 sticks butter
1. If using fresh artichoke bottoms for the sauce, poach until soft in water with a little lemon juice and 1 Tbs. salt. Cut the artichokes into eighths and set aside.
2. Sprinkle the lemon juice over the fish fillets. Stir the salt and pepper into the flour with a fork, and dredge the fillets in the seasoned flour. Shake off the excess flour, dip the fillets in the beaten eggs, and dredge through the flour again. Knock off the excess flour.
2. Heat the 4 Tbs. butter over medium-high heat in a large, heavy skillet and sauté until the fish is cooked–about three minutes per side. Remove the fish and keep warm.
4. To make the sauce, add the white wine to the pan in which you sautéed the fish, and whisk to dissolve the pan juices. Bring to a boil until the wine is reduced by two-thirds. Lower the heat to medium and add all the remaining sauce ingredients except the butter. Cook until the mushrooms no longer break when flexed.
5. Lower the heat to almost off, and add the butter, a tablespoon at a time, agitating the pan until the butter has blended in completely.
6. Place the fish on serving plates and top with the sauce.
This dish looks and sounds much more difficult than it really is, but it is very impressive to serve. The puff pastry can be found (probably frozen) at better food stores. If trout is unavailable, drum, redfish, sheepshead, rainbow trout, or salmon also work well for this dish.
1/2 lb. peeled, deveined medium shrimp (25-30 count)
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. white pepper
1/4 tsp. dry mustard
2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup heavy cream
4 slices lemon
1/2 cup dry white wine
Stems of 1 bunch parsley
1/2 tsp. peppercorns
4 speckled trout fillets, about 6 oz. each
4 sheets puff pastry, 8″ by 8″
1 beaten egg
1. First make the shrimp mousse. Bring a wide, shallow pan of water about an inch deep to a simmer. Add the shrimp and poach just until they turn pink. Remove, drain, and allow to cool to lukewarm.
2. In a food processor, combine eggs, salt, pepper, dry mustard and garlic. Run the processor on and off a few times to chop and blend everything. Add the shrimp and turn the processor on. Add the cream while the machine is running and process into a paste. Add a little water from the poaching pan if necessary to keep it rather light. Don’t overdo it; small lumps are okay.
3. Add the lemon slices, white wine, parsley stems, and peppercorns to the poaching pan, and return to a simmer. Add the trout and poach for six to eight minutes, depending on thickness, until the flesh is opaque. Remove and drain.
4. Cut the trout fillets across and lengthwise into two thin halves. Place one half of the trout over the bottom half of the puff pastry. Spoon about 2 Tbs. shrimp mousse over the trout. Top with the other half of the fish.
5. Brush edges of puff pastry dough with beaten egg, then fold top half over and press in place to form an envelope around the trout. If you really want to get fancy, cut the pastry envelope in the shape of a fish. You can stick the parts of the dough you cut off back onto the fish to create fins. Make scale-like indentations on the side with the tip of a spoon.
6. Place the pastry on a lightly oiled baking sheet. Put it in a preheated 375-degree oven for eight to ten minutes–until the pastry has puffed and has just turned brown. Push the tines of a kitchen fork into the thickest of the fish and hold it there for about five seconds. Carefully touch the tips of the fork to your lips; if it feels quite warm, the fish is done. Serve immediately.
This is good as is, but if you want a sauce, reduced cream with fennel or fresh thyme is delicious.
From Tom Fitzmorris's New Orleans Food cookbook, copyright 2006 Tom Fitzmorris.
An enchilada is a tortilla filled with almost anything, topped with cheese or a sauce. The most familiar enchiladas are filled with chicken, cheese, or beef. But why not do it with seafood? If we can make seafood cannelloni, seems to me that seafood enchiladas are not far behind.
1 Tbs. butter
1 cup chopped green onions
1 cup chopped mushrooms
1 jalapeno pepper, seeds and membranes removed, chopped
1 lb. peeled shrimp
1 lb. white crabmeat
1/2 cup sour cream
1 tsp. granulated garlic
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. Tabasco chilpotle pepper sauce
16 flour tortillas
1. Melt the butter in a skillet. Saute the green onions, mushrooms and jalapeno until the get soft.
2. Add the shrimp. Cook until the shrimp turn pink, then stir in all the other ingredients. Cook over medium-low heat until steam begins to rise, but no longer than that.
3. Spoon 3 oz. of the filling into flour tortillas. If you like, serve with hot Mexican salsa con queso.
From Tom's "New Orleans Food" cookbook, copyright 2006 Tom Fitzmorris