Thursday, March 28, 2013

Hogs- Tasting and Judgement



WHOSE CUISINE WILL REIGN SUPREME?

Last year I had a terrific time attending Hogs For the Cause as a member of the media. When I emailed about getting a media pass this year, I got an application to be a judge! Very super awesome and cool, and I hope that I can be one again next year.



Judges were requested to check in to the judges' tent at noon (it was the same tent that held the gala, so I knew where to go.) Upon arriving, I saw one of my favorite bbq purveyors, Neil McClure. I guess he had planned to be out of town this weekend, so he didn't enter to compete, but asked to judge when his plans changed. I also saw Max Ortiz and Chef Phillip Lopez from Root. The judging coordinator, Melzie, called us to attention and let us know the scale we'd be judging on (from 5-10, ranging from no sample provided at 5 to wanna have seconds 10), let us know that each table would have a certified judging expert, and sent us out to the holding tent to get ready.

While waiting, I introduced myself to Chef Adolfo Garcia and Poppy Tooker. The editor of Louisina Cookin' magazine stuck up a conversation. For the first round, I sat with Chef Lopez and Judy Walker (from the Times-Picayune) and we did BBQ sauce. It's tricky, really, judging sauce without any other context. We figured out the intricacies of comparative scoring and started to get the hang of it.



After that, we moved to Whole Hog, which was challenging because it involved several cuts of the pig.

"Pecan wood smoked whole hog"




Our expert was really helpful at sharing ways to judge criteria and how you can tell if something was overcooked or cooked improperly. Or the opposite, if it was cooked well with a good technique.

Between judging rounds, I spoke to Chef Garcia about craft beer in restaurants - very interesting!

Next up was the pork shoulder, most commonly used for pulled pork. For this round I was with the same BBQ judging expert from the previous round and Chef Tariq Hanna, owner of Sucre. There was one pulled pork that was just head and shoulders (uh, so to speak) above the others. I dearly hope they placed.

That one! There in the center with the smoke ring and delicious bark OH MAMA.
OK, I may have had too much sampling because going into the 4th round, I was getting full, and a bit apprehensive about the category - Porkpourri. It didn't help that one of my fellow judges (local food writer Robert Peyton) had done that category last year (in a different format, so he had a lot more than 6 samples to try) and said that while some entries were great, many were... not so much. But! I was sitting with a couple other local writers/bloggers, Mary Ehret (Local Palate) and the He Said (aka Steve Smith) from He Said She Said blog, in addition to Robert, veteran blogger and Porkpourri judge. So we chatted about writing and eating while we awaited all the various porkpourri to be delivered to our table. We ended up with: a cast iron seared pork meatball poboy with a pork belly sauce, a sticky pig tail, fried and coated with sauce, a pickled pork tongue and crispy pig ear bao, a red curry ground pork taco, and a pork belly yakatori with crispy kale.

Poboys

Pigtails

Bao

tacos

Yakatori (I think?)

We actually enjoyed all our items, but my personal favorite was the bao. It was amaaaazing. The poboy was right behind it.  On a related tangent, some competitors were serious about presentation - this box was delivered to the table next to us:



I don't know what the verdict on its taste was, but we were all gathered around taking pictures and listening to the elaborate accompanying story.

I am ashamed to say, I couldn't hang for the last round of judging ribs. I was just so full and uncomfortable I had to leave. I was punished for my weakness as well, since the Grand Champion of the competition came from the ribs category and had chefs I knew! (including Nathanial Zimet and Bart Bell.) Ah, well. Next year, I'll be better at pacing myself, if I'm lucky enough to be asked to return.

You can check out the Hogs For The Cause website for the winning results. Also, Judy Walker, my co-judge for the first round of judging - BBQ sauce - did a great overview of the event and recipes and judges' quotes and everything. The one about geometry I was present for - Joe was judging with both of us during that category.

In conclusion: even though I felt like I would explode at the end of it, the important thing is that I didn't. But I DID meet lots of awesome food people, learned a lot, had fun, and ate delicious pork all day. One of my best days ever!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Salu

As I mentioned in my previous post about Byblos, I'd been convinced by a determined (and super nice, it turns out) PR lady named Emily to come out and check out Byblos and Salu. Emily and I had lunch at Byblos one afternoon, and she spoke about her "passion project," which was the rebranding and communication of Salu. She really believes in the owner's vision and the chef's talent, and the potential for the restaurant to be a great neighborhood place where good food is celebrated with family and friends.

So I was quite intrigued for my dinner with Emily and the one of the owners, Tarek Tay, the following night. Tom and I strolled up on a lovely spring evening and met Emily, Tarek, and Gaby Saliba, one of Tarek's partners at the bar. (Tarek, Gaby, and one more partner make up the 3 of a Kind Restaurant Group.) Happy hour was in full swing and we saw bowls of (half price) mussels and pitchers of mojitos being served and enjoyed. Now, their mussels were a huge draw for me getting Tom out to have dinner with two people he didn't know. He loves him some mussels and having potential bivalve proximity was very intriguing for him.

Tarek is very warm and engaging, proud of his restaurants, and loves to eat, laugh and share stories and food with friends (both new and old). We were welcomed and the food started coming. First some hot puffy pocket bread, and then several orders of mussels - we got the classic, parmesan, chorizo, and dijon. Also frites, of course. Followed by a prosciutto and fig flatbread.

Puffy pocket bread with salt, olive oil, herbs.

OK, obviously I was too excited to start eating the mussels to take a picture of them all pretty

Prosciutto! Figs! Goat cheese! Arugula.
After that, the food just kept coming out. Bacon wrapped medjool dates. Mushroom risotto. Fried oysters. House made mozzarella. Stuffed chicken. Crab ravioli.

Wild mushroom risotto with white truffle oil, pecorino, thyme in the foreground,
fried Gulf oysters with housemade bacon, chive, lobster essence in the background 

Housemade mozzarella infused with cinnamon, vanilla, and sugar

Stuffed chicken with boursin, mascarpone, basil, sun dried tomatoes, sherry cream, crispy spinach
Homemade crab ravioli with green onion gremolata and lemon cream
They have fewer beers on tap, but three of them are NOLA taps - Brown, Blonde, and Seventh Street Wheat. Also they have all sorts of flavors of mojitos, caipirinhas, sangrias, and margaritas. Get your girl drink drunk on!

A very cool part of the night was meeting some of the talent in the kitchen. First, the Culinary Director Chef Michael Ruoss came and enjoyed a couple of beers before leaving to receive his whole hog from North (or South?) Carolina for Hogs For the Cause. His team, Mazant National Golf Club, took third in the Whole Hog category a few days later. We talked about beer and Hogs before he had to obey the sweet siren song of his team's whole hog delivery.

A little later, Executive Chef Dustin Brien came out to say hello, bring us housemade cheese, and chat about how he found himself moving from Boston to New Orleans (fell in love with a displaced New Orleans native and they returned together.) He's been streamlining the menu, keeping what worked, replacing what didn't.

After eating what seemed like all the food and chatting with the chefs, several desserts came out to really put things over the top. We had a classic tiramisu, creme brulee, and their dessert flatbread which involves nutella and bananas. I couldn't eat more than a bite or 2 of each, but they were pretty good. Nice crisp sugar top on the creme brulee.

Really, a great night with people who are passionate about food and want everyone to know that. We'll definitely be back for the happy hour mussels (because they were delicious and during happy hour, half price) and I am also intrigued by their monthly (starting on May 25) pig roasts. They do wine dinners as well, but I'm trying to convince them to do a beer dinner one month too!

FYI, they will be doing a fundraising day on April 16, where they will be donating 20% of all proceeds to St. Michael Special School. It's a cause close to many New Orleanians' hearts, so think about checking out Salu, some mussels, a cocktail, and support the kids at St. Michael!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Hogs For The Cause - Southern Asado Gala Dinner

A couple months ago, at the Hogs For the Cause press conference, I was eating some amazing pork products and talking to Rene Loupre (co-founder of Hogs) about the gala dinner that some of the finest chefs in the region (known as the Fatback Collective) would be putting together an Argentinean-style asado dinner of MANY meats and fishes. It would be EPIC, I was assured. Emphatically.

However, it was $300 per person, which... was too rich for my blood, even for charity. And I didn't want to go alone, so it would be $600 to attend. No matter how epic, I would be sitting this one out. (I'm not sure why I am not being paid to attend these things due to my general awesomeness on a daily basis.)

Happily, toward the end of February, I was alerted by Rene that the ticket prices for folks under 40 (YES! Just squeaked by!) were half price for a limited time. That appeared to be just rich enough for my blood, and I got 2 tickets. A bit of a splurge, but it was for a good cause and I had good reason to believe it would be worth it.

Come Friday night, I was ready to eat some delicious meat!

Porcelain Porcine Greeter

Festive party goers

The gala table

There were also auctions!

Animals on a spit over an open flame
Once we got to our table, we were greeted by delicious hors d'oerves like pimento cheese, charcuterie, chicken livers

Magic Table 23

Snacks - IT'S A TRAP! (I know now after all the food in the near future.)

Ham in aspic

stuffed burlap pig & Tom, sitting in a tree...

Adorbs!
Ended up sitting with the vinter and distributors of the wines (Neat Wines) which was fun. The first course was fish - it was on the bone and freaking delicious. There was tarragon and general awesomeness. After that the chicken arrived.

Feasting!

Cochon wine!
Beer (from NOLA Brewing), wine, and general merriment
OK, the fish looks a bit picked over here, but it was super delicious and served whole

Smoked/roasted chicken and delicious Brussels sprouts
Then came the meat!

Goat! Goat cheese! Beets!

Beef shortribs

Some of the best lamb I've ever had

Pulled pork and coleslaw
Everything was incredibly delicious, tender, and flavorful. It was so good that I wished I could add another stomach or take home a doggy bag or something. As it was, I filled up way too fast. But then dessert came: fruit handpies and... Jello shots?


Both were DELICIOUS.

I took a little walk and laid eyes on the most beautiful sight:


Flasks of to-go cocktails! Provided by Cure (who also created the pre-dinner "Hogtails") called "One For My Piggy & One For the Road" with bourbon, rye, and deliciousness. Salut!


In conclusion, it was as epic as promised. And I had to go to sleep and get up and go judge several categories of pork the next day. To be continued...

Monday, March 25, 2013

Taking a new look at Byblos

So, I'm on a few PR firms' email lists, probably from being affiliated as media with Hogs For The Cause last year. I get updates about area places and requests to cover stuff in my blog. For the most part, it's stuff I'm not interested in enough to spend the time on. However, I have gotten a few emails from a woman with Bond PR (local PR firm on Magazine Street) regarding Salu and Byblos - two restaurants within a block of each other on Magazine that are owned by the same folks. I'd been to both Salu and Byblos before, and hadn't been too impressed. Everything was fine, but it wasn't anything to really write home about. But Emily spoke so passionately about the changes that were happening with both restaurants' kitchens and overall concepts, I couldn't help it. I was very curious and decided to give them a try.

First up, Byblos for lunch. I met Emily in front of the restaurant's new location where the old Nacho Mama's was next to the Bulldog. The space was more intimate than at the previous location, and the decor was simple but with deep reds and golds that set the stage for our meal.




We ordered a little bit of everything, it seemed- the vegetarian platter (with the special request to include a meat stuffed grape leaf alongside the vegetarian one) and one of each kabob they offer. So I was able to get a sense of the traditional dishes as well as their grill work. Also, the Mediterranean hummus which came with feta, olives, roasted red peppers, and general awesomeness.


Mediterranean hummus. It was gooooood.

Vegetarian platter: grape leaves, hummus, baba ganoush, tabbouli, falafel,
and, incongruously (but delicious) fried cheese

Kabobs: shrimp, chicken, beef, lamb, fish with rice


The hummus was really nice, as was the baba ganoush. I really loved the grape leaves- they were obviously made in house, and were delicate and delicious. Apparently the secret ingredient is pomegranate molasses, which adds a slight sweet element to the spicy and savory. The kabobs were tasty - I enjoyed the shrimp especially. When asked how to cook the beef and lamb, the medium rare request yielded more well done pieces of meat. However, they were still tasty and tender, so I wasn't fussed. Simple, flavorful.

At the end of the meal- still so much uneaten but bellies so full - Emily ordered up her favorite dessert, ashta. It's a traditional custard with a twist - covered with phyllo dough, baked up piping hot, and served drizzled in honey and crushed pistachios. Very satisfying- sweet but not too sweet, with contrasting textures.


I'd like to return to really delve into the menu more, but I'm glad I had the opportunity to start out with the standards and basics. The vegetarian platter and the kabobs gave the opportunity for the ingredients to shine - the flavor profiles of Mediterranean cuisine were well represented here.

If it's been a while since you stopped by Byblos, I encourage you to give it another try. The space is much more welcoming and comfortable, and the food is really great.  Also, they have a pretty decent draft beer list, which I go into in more detail on my other blog.