Jon Alexis Reports on New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

lobsters_5001-300x186Jon Alexis of TJ’ Market contacted me last week and told me he was going to eat his way through the recent  New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. I asked him to send a report. He did. I forgot to post it. Sorry Jon, you are not the only thing I’ve forgotten lately. Better late than never? I don’t know, I’ve run out of apologetic clichés. Here goes:

Food is music to the body, music is food to the heart.” — Gregory David Roberts

One could argue that food and music are two of life’s purist pleasures.  Agree? Then book your trip to next year’s New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (or Jazzfest as everyone calls it) today.

Obviously the festival is about music…not just jazz, but blues, gospel, zydeco, ragtime, world music and rock.  With approximately 100 festival concerts each day, and evening showcases that last until 5am every night, the jazzfest is a music lover’s dream. We saw Neil Young, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Tab Benoit, John Scofield, Doc Watson, The Funky Meters and many more.

But how does one have the energy to dance in the sun all day, and until it comes back up the next morning?  By stuffing one’s face the entire time with decadent New Orleans food.

One of my favorite restaurants is…in the back of a gas station. Genie at the Quick & Easy across from the airport is a hidden gem.  A former New Orleans resident on the rental car bus overhead me discussing and quickly agreed, so I’m not crazy.  Crawfish boudin, white beans & rice with ham hock and cornbread on a styrophoam plate?  Now THAT’S how you start off a weekend of eating.

After a fun day at the fairgrounds on Friday, we ate dinner at One Restaurant.  One is the type of place that can be lacking in Dallas…elegant but not over the top, refined but not formal.

We started off with char-gilled oysters with roquefort cheese & red wine vinaigrette.  Smokey and tart…isn’t it great when a dish tastes exactly as you expect? Seared scallops atop roasted acorn squash, with a honey paprika sauce were next.  Crispy on the outside, tender on the inside and the sweet sauce complimented the salty sear on the scallops. Spaghetti with fried oysters, rapini, cherry tomatoes and bacon for the main course…something about New Orleans and Italian cuisine just go perfectly together. New Orleans food can get saucy and complex, but not at One. Great ingredients showcased to perfection.

Usually you plan on eating lunch at the fairgrounds, but Saturday we needed a little snack while our friends slept in.  We checked out Butcher, the casual sister to Cochon. Cochon is Donald Link’s authentic Cajun place specializing in all things swine (except flu of course). Butcher is the sandwich shop next door that features the same artisan meats & sausages.  We started off with foie gras on toast with louisiana strawberry jam. That’s right…strawberry jam.  Again the contrast of the sweet & savory. The foie gras was creamy and spread on the toast! And then for two of the best sandwiches I’ve ever had.  A duck pastrami on rich buttery white bread with the crust cut off?  A Gambino with soprasetta, salami, chow chow & field greens?  With homemade chips and grilled peppers?  Wow.

A quick stop at Igor’s Bar on St. Charles for my vote for best bloody mary in the world.  The pickled green bean is a perfect garnish.

Off to the festival. Jazzfest recruits over a hundred restaurants from around the region to set up shop.  We aren’t talking hot dogs here…jambalaya, gumbo, gyros, even sushi.  I started off with crawfish monica, fusilli pasta with crawfish tails and a buttery spicy cream sauce.  Chicken & sausage gumbo was next…seriously there must be a dozen different gumbo’s to try.  Top if off with delicious strawberry lemonade (worth the long line) mixed with jack daniels (security is lax to say the least) and you’ve got yourself a nice mid afternoon snack.

Amazingly we were still hungry for dinner, and we visited Dante’s Kitchen.  Dante’s is cozy…typical uptown restaurant in an old house.  Casual as in the bathroom is in the kitchen.  The chef has a Commander’s Palace resume translated to a neighborhood hangout featuring local ingredients.  Dinner started off with spoon bread topped with melted butter. My girlfriend got mussels with garlic & charred green onions. I tasted some mint as I slopped up the sauce with home-baked bread.  I had escargot with house-made bacon, basil and goat cheese.  A fresh take on a dish usually drowning in butter, these snails were not greasy and popper with flavor.  I created my own entrée by combining two orders of appetizer barbeque shrimp with andouille sausage cornbread stuffing and boudin dirty rice.  For my money, Dante’s has the best New Orleans-style BBQ shrimp in town (Pascal’s Manale invented them and is worth the trip, but go for Dante’s).  Head on shrimp in buttery and spicy sauce with Worsctecher. This isn’t Texas BBQ sauce.  It has nothing to do with BBQing or BBQ pit. But it’s damn good.

We had to loosen our belt buckles for our final day at the fest.  We couldn’t leave without getting crawfish bread…French bread stuffed with crawfish and cheese and green onions.  Another favorite is the crawfish roll, like a pizza roll with the same ingredients.  And of course the fan favorite soft shell crab po’ boy with its mystery spicy sauce (some combination of oil and vinegar and chilis?).  My girlfriend, ever the veggie enthusiast, convinced the gyro stand to donate some lettuce and tomatoes to the po’ boy.  (Have you figured out the trend?  Carb + seafood = jazzfest food) But the highlight of the day was the white chocolate bread pudding.  No raisins, just sugary goodness.  Cliché warning…it melts in your mouth.

Dinner we were in for a treat. A friend had given us a gift certificate to August, one of the premier restaurants in the city. It wasn’t even close to being in our budget if we hadn’t been treated. Set in a gorgeous old New Orleans town home, August has one countless awards and recognitions. A seafood custard presented in an egg shell as an amuse bouche.  Foie gras three ways…one paired with marmalade, another with micro greens and a third in a roulade with something salty and delicious.  Their famous “P&J Oysters” also three ways: with caviar ranch dressing, pepper seared with truffle spoon bread and baked in horseradish?  I’m considering committing a horrific crime just to be able to request the horseradish oysters for my last meal.  I’m not a duck person, but the sugar & spice duckling with foie gras, candied quince and grits was a must have.  This is where the genius of Chef John Besh was evident…quite simply the best prepared duck I’ve ever head. We are talking heart-surgery precision here. Crispy but not too crispy skin. Gelatinous fat.  Medium rare flesh. And the seasoning?  Star of anise that didn’t overpower and a delightful mix of sweet spices.  And maybe the best foie gras of the weekend…lightly seared and begging to be dipped in the duck’s juices.  You can see why this guy actually defeated an Iron Chef (how many times have you seen that happen?)

Dessert was a napoleon of nougatine with valrhona chocolate and salted toffee ice cream.  I am LOVING this new trend of putting salt in desserts.  It perfectly compliments sweets…i’d fly back for that ice cream again.

Monday we left…not without filling up the rental car gas tank at the Quick and Easy and grabbing a fried pork and my favorite white beans & rice. The breakfast of champions!

Hope to see all of you SideDishers at Jazzfest next year!

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