The Ultimate Duck

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Cask & Larder – Orlando, FL

There is nothing quite like a Christmas ham, or should I say, there used to be nothing quite like a Christmas ham until Cask & Larder created their Christmas Miracle, the Duck Ham. Yes, naughty never tasted so nice. Faithfully emulating the pig that inspired it, the duck version, like any good apprentice, surpasses the master. Guess you could say it is the ultimate “Angry Birds” revenge. Served over a bed of nutty faro, the contrast between sweet and savory and earthy is like getting everything your mouth had on its wish list.

Elan – New York, NY

As if it weren’t bad enough that the duck muscled in on pork’s turf with the Duck Ham (above), now the bird is going after the cow. Perhaps this is retribution for the long-running Chick Fil A campaign? Well, whatever the reason, Elan’s duck & foie gras burger puts about 98% of your cow burgers in the city to shame, save the Black Label and the Bash. Admittedly it’s more of a hoity-toity burger, but if hoity-toity tastes like this, who gives a cow’s ass? Also, if you’re really into self loathing or simply find that you’ve been too healthy lately and want to swing the pendulum in the other direction, I highly recommend getting it with the Bearnaise sauce and a fried egg, coz you’re gonna die anyway, might as well do it with a smile on your face, because as the famous Long Island philosopher Billy Joel once said, “Only the Good Die Young!”

Mizuna – Denver, CO

There is an old saying, “Fuck a Duck.” And albeit crass, I finally understand its true meaning, because if ever there were a duck I would consider for such a bestial act, it would probably be this one. Granted it’s also dead so I suppose I’d be committing necrophilia at the same time. Oh my, has this review gone off the rails. I started with Christmas and now I’ve devolved into doubling down on sexual deviance. Well, getting back to it (assuming I haven’t already lost you), this duck, served with with foie gras dirty rice, is a Cajun masterpiece like no other, with the two poultry-born indulgences teaming up to make a buttery counterbalance to the spicy grains. It might just be the best thing a duck has achieved since Daffy.

 

 

 

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The Gumbo Bros.

Columbus Circle New York, NY 10019(347) 719-4579thegumbobros.com

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This is another food-only review courtesy of Madison Eats so definitely don’t take it as a holistic restaurant review, because it’s truthfully only a very narrow sampling. But sometimes you can tell a lot from a first impression, so I wouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Funny you should mention water, because that’s my first gripe. I find their gumbo way too watery. I much prefer it thick and hearty, loaded with chunks upon chunks of spicy goodies. But to be fair, within their soupy shrimp and okra bowl (pictured, although I assure you it looks nothing like that in person) there was still a decent amount of both floating about. Floating being the key word here. For example that scoop of rice you see above, it dispersed into the watery depths like someone firing gunshots in a crowd.

Also, I found the shrimp itself disappointing on two levels. First because it was shrimp instead of crawfish. WTF?! Isn’t that gumbo 101? And second, the shrimp was a touch under cooked and thus slimy. Luckily the impending stomach ache was averted, perhaps due to the ample use of heat, which was very much too my liking and probably the thing that killed off whatever the under cooked shrimp might’ve been carrying.

So let’s chalk it up to a bullet dodged and I’ll chalk up Gumbo Bros. as a pretty weak showing worthy of a deuce.

2 teeth

NOLA

24 Market Sq. Pittsburgh, PA 15222(412) 471-9100nolaonthesquare.com

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No, not the one actually in NOLA. The one in Pittsburgh. And sadly there’s no relation. Emeril has nada to do with this one. That said, strangely enough, this one held its own for a place not exactly born on the Bayou.

Inside, the décor is heavily influenced by that Memphis-meets-garish 80’s style with bright blues and purples mixed with vibrant triangular details that seem to make no sense other than to scream “Rules? We don’t need no stinkin’ rules!” Of which I beg to differ. But cutting them some slack, I get the theme. I mean, after all, it’s not like Mardi Gras is laced with subtleties. But apart from the walls and the dated ambiance, the service is friendly and lightning quick having us, a party of five (without the parental tragedy), in and out in under 30 minutes during the height of the lunchtime rush.

And in those 30 minutes they managed to pack in a few head-turners like the kale salad with chunks of cantaloupe, Cajun sunflower seeds and ricotta salata all dressed in a grilled watermelon vinaigrette.

Or better still, the turkey Cubano, piled high with warm roasted turkey breast, home brined pickles, Jarlsberg, sweet pepper jam and creole mustard. I’m not too sure how Cajun a Cubano is, but I’m pretty damn certain it was fabano. And so were the generously seasoned fries served with it, but be sure to ask for their honey mustard to dip them in. It’s homemade and homazing.

But then NOLA pulled a NO-NO when it came to the highly recommended blackened catfish, a dish I normally love the whiskers out of. But this one lacked the true kick any self-respecting blackened dish should have. And while it might’ve been deemed spicy by local standards, it is a true bottom-feeder amongst dishes by the same name.

All in though, I have to give NOLA props. Not necessarily on its Cajun cuisine per se, but for the little creole influences that yielded dishes way better than I ever expected from Steel City.

3 teeth

Live Bait

14 E 23rd St. New York, NY 10010(212) 353-2400livebaitnyc.com

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Dressed to look like something born on the bayou, Live Bait is actually the originator of the Flatiron’s recent love affair with Southern cooking, marked by followers such as Blue Smoke, Hill Country, Maysville and Bo’s, all just steps away in a variety of directions. And that’s not even counting the failed attempts such as Gravy (RIP) and J. Gumbo’s (RIP).

That said, while Live Bait most certainly earns the rightful claim to first dibs, I much prefer all four of the previously mentioned. All have better food and better decor. But to be fair, Live Bait is also a bit of a breed all its own, because Bo’s and Maysville are both much nicer. And Hill Country and and Blue Smoke are clearly barbecue. So in truth, Live Bait actually manages to fill a culinary void in the hood, which is down and dirty Cajun. Emphasis on the word “dirty” because that’s kind of the theme here, from the rice to the vibe.

Service is somewhat friendly with a hit of New York bite and the bar is well appointed for benders well into the wee hours. In terms of food, depending on what you order and how tired and/or drunk you are, it can hit the spot quite nicely with a bevy of pleasers (most of them fried) like hush puppies, fried pickles, shrimp and grits, collards and catfish. They also have blackened things and even a pulled pork sandwich, but if you’re going that way I’d strongly urge that you check out Blue Smoke or Hill Country instead.

And while Live Bait definitely has its place, depending on your food mood, budget, or blood-alcohol level, there’s also nothing great about it other than the fact that they are nothing like the other Southern options nearby, kind of in a bad way. But for southern bar food-meets-fish-joint fare, it checks the box. Albeit a very hyper-specific, inebriated box.

2 teeth

The Ultimate Oysters Rockefeller

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Nola – New Orleans, LA

Normally I prefer my oysters like my Eddie Murphy, Raw. In fact, “prefer” is putting it mildly. Truth be told I tend to find something inherently very cheap about cooked oyster dishes such as this. Like something you’d expect to find at bas mitzvahs and weddings and other heavily catered events. Done with the sole purpose of covering up the flavor of the mollusk. Assumingly due to one of two reasons:

  1. To hide the fact that it’s not fresh enough to be served raw.
  2. To make it more palatable for an audience who doesn’t truly like oysters.

Well, at least that’s what I used to think, until Emeril showed me the light- along with some bacon. And about a dozen other ingredients. But somehow it was all done in a way so as not to drown the mollusk in a sea of over-preparation. Instead, he still somehow managed to pull the flavor of the oyster through this onslaught of other palate pleasers, rising up like a seventh wave of the attack. I say seventh as a nod to “Dream of the Blue Turtles,” because apparently the seventh wave is love according to Sting, and who am I to argue with Sting, because I truly did love every last complex morsel on the half shell.

J. Gumbo’s

61 W 23rd St. New York, NY 10010(212) 206-8501 •  jgumbos.com

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Finally! Good, quick Cajun in the city. It’s one of my favorite cuisines and it kills me that there’s such a drought of places to get it. I assume it must not be as marketable to the Northern palate, but if we can have Ethiopian restaurants up in this bitch, I think we can do Cajun. Can I get an amen?

So, having fully tipped my hand, you can imagine that I liked it. And while it isn’t flawless, it is WAY better than Indikitch a few steps down the block, which seems to be doing business like gangbusters. But, if you like spicy, and you don’t need to have Indian per se, do like Johnnie Walker and keep walking.

I tried several different dishes, because they let you sample, and the Drunken Chicken won the Battle Royale. Granted the Jambalaya was pretty good as well, but me likey the spicy and it’s a little light on the heat. As was the Etouffée, which was the biggest disappointment of the three. Way too mild to carry the name, which means “choke” as in so hot it causes you to. It also happens to be one of my favorite dishes, so perhaps I’m a bit more critical than most. That said, their hot sauce is pretty impressive, so next time I might just order the Etouffée and get all Emeril on its ass and “kick it up a notch.”

On the value side of things, the portions are generous and come with cornbread, dessert and a drink. The cornbread is passable, but the drink options are unfortunately just the usual suspects courtesy of Coke and Pepsi.

But the biggest miss was the peach cobbler for dessert. Shoulda gone with Dave’s Cookies. The cobbler is soggy and made with canned peaches. Fortunately it’s also made with lots of butter and sugar, so the taste is okay, but consistency is a big uneasy.

Service is friendly and décor is pretty standard with the minor exception of the art on the walls. But none of that matters because what’s truly important is that we got ourselves some bona fide Cajun my friends. I guarantee.

3 teeth

Commander’s Palace

1403 Washington Ave. New Orleans, LA 70130(504) 899-8221commanderspalace.com

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I know this place is the paragon of Cajun cuisine, having birthed both Paul Prudhomme (K. Paul’s) and Emeril Lagasse, icons unto themselves, but that does very little for the meal sitting in front of me in the here and now. And I hate to say it, but there, the here and now sucked up and down.

The moment we set foot inside, our tourist trap meter was pegged. From the clientele to the decor there is absolutely nothing desirable about the inside of this place, including the food. It was the worst meal we had in New Orleans by a wide margin.

With so many phenomenal restaurants in the French Quarter, please don’t waste your time going here. It is the quintessential  emperor, or should I say commander, having no clothes.

2 teeth

NOLA

534 Saint Louis St. New Orleans, LA 70130 • (504) 522-6652 emerilsrestaurants.com/nola-restaurant

 SOS+NOLA

BAM! That was the sound of my skepticism exploding. I mean Emeril Lagasse was obviously a talented chef once upon a time, but now that he’s become as over-exposed as Paris Hilton, the likelihood of him actually having any real influence on what goes on in the kitchen’s of his restaurants seems about as likely as the United States selling Louisiana back to the French for the same 4 cents per acre.

Speaking of great deals, I don’t think I’ve ever had meal this great for so little. I would’ve gladly paid double for the exact same meal. In fact, it was so inexpensive, I felt guilty only leaving 20% as a tip, especially when the service was as  exceptional as it was, so for the first time ever I tipped 35%. Not bragging, well, at least not about me. It’s more a commentary on the excellence of our server. Southern hospitality at its finest.

But not to be outdone by the service, the chef made New Orleans proud, dropping Ultimates like they were going out of style. The best oysters (Rockefeller) I’ve ever had in my life, loaded with bacon and about 15 other ingredients. Followed by the best dessert I’ve ever had in my life- bananas foster bread pudding with drunken monkey ice cream. The ice cream alone is Ultimate within an Ultimate. Other dishes were also very good like the cedar plank salmon, but compared to the previous mentions it was a mere mortal.

Now if it’s one thing New Orleans is definitely not short on, it’s great restaurants, but do yourself a solid and put this one toward the top of your list. It’s WAY better than K. Paul’s and blows the Commander’s Palace out of the oil polluted water. A class act top to bottom and I meal I will never forget.

5 teeth