Thursday, April 1, 2010
I have mentioned before, but it bears repeating; I come from a good gene pool. It's a total lottery win for me. Nothing I deserve or earn, but pure grace. Most of my relatives are amazing cooks. They all appreciate great food.
So, it's in my DNA to be a food enthusiast. As a child, I was never forced to settle for McDonald's or sub-par school lunches. I've never considered paper napkins suitable for a sit-down meal at my table. And, by god, you will have bread with my meals AND finish with something sweet.
All of these little bits are often attributed to my "Southerness," and that is likely part of it. And being here in New Orleans, and smelling the smells that have been familiar to me from the time I can even think about eating and drinking (I was drinking coffee-milk from a blue willow teacup at about 2 years old) I'm certainly wanting to know how I can bring all this good food back with me, to Chicago.
Tonight I dined at Iris, which is located on Peter Street, in this wonderful little cottage-like venue. The walls are a pale green and all the wonderful moldings are stark white. I can't imagine a better spot to have a spring meal than Iris.
When I viewed the menu online I was once again saddened to go to another hot New Orleans restaurant with no vegan options. What would I do if I wanted to go out with omnivore clients and friends? But, I made my reservation and put notes that I was vegan and would appreciate whatever they had or could come up with. This wasn't going to be a weekend-night dinner, and I gave them fair warning.
There actually were quite a few things on the current menu that were vegetarian, and the hostess/co-owner, Laurie Casebonne told me they could do any of the side dishes as a meal, or the chef could create a 3-part tasting entree for $18! Wow...sign me up.
I started with perfect puffs of gnocchi, tossed with braised baby bok choy, sugar snap peas, grape tomatoes and what I believe were tiny-baby turnips. This was all tossed with white truffle oil. It was amazing and very filling and I wish I'd only eaten half so I could have gone for dessert, but it was too delicious, so I ate almost all of it.
Next came my chef's trio. The first dish was more baby bok choy, mixed with kale. The braising liquid tasted a bit like ale, but may have been some kind of wine redux. It was paired by smokey beet slices, and drizzled with a yellow pepper vinaigrette (I think).
The second dish was almost a vegetable hash. It was very small chunks of crispy-potatoes, tossed with fava beans, English peas and leeks. I believe he added a little chervil to the mix as well. The potatoes were a bit crispy, like hash, which worked perfectly with the sweet peas and fava beans. I could have honestly said English peas were the only veg I didn't like until tonight.
Last was the most amazing thing. It was small bits of very roasted cauliflower and spring onions. And I swear, I thought they'd put bacon bits in, but realized it was VERY caramelized shallots, which took on this salty-sweet-almost-smokey flavor. The whole business was drizzled in smoked-tomato vinaigrette.
Any one of these dishes would have been perfect with the gnocchi. All three was hedonistic, and is currently causing my ribs to hurt. But I will survive, and I will try my hand at copying Chef Ian Schnoebelen's culinary creations. I hope you are inspired as well.
Bottom line with southern cooking: lots of vegetables, paired with starches. They need fat, which can easily come from healthy sources such as olive oil and nuts. You also want to consider flavor profiles, and pair salt with sweet. I think of Cafe du Monde, and the non-vegan breakfast I'll have in the morning which will mix bitter chicory coffee against sweet, puffy beignets. Have you ever had pepper jelly? Sublime. Eaten a bit of bacon with your bite of blue-berry pancake? This is what I'm talking about.
Now, let me back up a minute and tell you: if you come to Iris for no other reason than to have a cocktail, you'll be hooked. To say mixologist, Alan Walter's drinks are a culinary work of art just seems silly. They are crafted. The drinks at Iris are craft. So I had two. And I would have had more, but they wouldn't fit in my belly, nor did I want a hangover.
The first libation was named Twin Span, and featured lillet blanc, chartreuse, rose, tangerine and lime. The taste was sweet and citrus, and a bit more like dessert than what I should have had before my meal. But really just as lovely as you'd imagine.
My second drink was called "Jolene." Though I know I'm not getting all the ingredients right, it consists of things like pisco (a Peruvian liqueur), cynar (an Italian liqueur, made with artichokes and many herbs), tangelo syrup and homemade pecan bitters. This, to my tongue, was a perfect cocktail. It was fresh, and had a very distinct citrus core, but the aftertaste was more like biting into an entire tangelo....peel and all. It had that bitter bite, mixed with some kind of creaminess, but not rich. It was really pretty perfect. I want it again. Soon.
Please go to New Orleans. And when you do, make your reservations and tell them you would prefer vegan fare. As long as it's not in the middle of Mardi Gras, most chefs are glad to whip something up. And I promise, you'll be so happy you did and so inspired by their new perspective.
I'm going to drift off to sleep now...with visions of river boats, street performers, and elaborate Mardi Gras masques dancing in my head. À bientôt!