Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Luke, New Orleans LA

…the Zulu parade went well – almost too well. I met some great folks, learned a ton about New Orleans culture and the Zulu parade…and being up front, tall, and mobile I caught (or was handed – thank God they don’t throw those things) ten coconuts and a boatload of beads. Having packed light and leaving the following morning I gave away most of the beads and two of the heavier hand-painted nuts to some of the smaller folks – elderly ladies in most cases since the little kids catch more than enough. All in all the Zulu parade was a blast and their costumes, music, and vibe plus the people in the crowd were alone worth the trip to New Orleans.

With the Zulu parade and its subsequent walking groups finishing up around 2:00pm I decided it was time for lunch and proceeded east with my coconuts packed in a large bag. Walking slowly through the crowds and piles of discarded beads I reached the Hilton St. Charles around 2:45 and approached the hostess stand at Luke sans reservations. Greeted by a rather downtrodden young lady I was told “well, there is seating at the bar” when I asked for a table – one of the 20+ that was open. Walking over to the bar and taking a seat I stared blankly at the space in front of me for 5 minutes without anyone addressing me before I stood up and went back to the hostess stand to find a much more pleasant young woman who said “a table for one? Right this way” and led me to a cozy little table near the middle of the restaurant. I really have no idea what to make of the initial interaction as I never saw the first hostess again but I can only assume she was at the end of her shift…or perhaps didn’t even work there?

Greeted almost immediately upon seating by my friendly server – a young man who managed what appeared to be the entire front room without difficulty and maintained the demeanor of someone trained under the Thomas Keller Empire – the service would be perfect throughout. Bread was timely, coffee and water refills spot on, plate descriptions accurate thorough, and all done with a friendly down-to-earth demeanor and a smile. Going over the daily special with me I was left to decide while he went to get my coffee.

Listening to the room – lively but not loud despite the parade going by in the street – I labored over the menu for some time because everything sounded quite good – essentially bistro fare with a southern twist. Returning with the coffee – a great thick blend with a bit of chicory but more prominently cocoa notes (I’m rather certain the same as that at August) I decided to go with the “express lunch” special – a $15 soup and main combo plus an added appetizer. Smiling my server told me I’d made a great choice and slipped away to serve his other tables.

Arriving shortly after my order was placed – yet another crispy and golden French loaf, this time served with a delightful and grassy salted butter. While the bread was not quite as delicious as that at Clancy’s it was my second favorite of the trip and the butter put it over the top – thankfully I limited myself to just the one loaf because it turns out Luke’s “deal” lunch is not for the faint of heart (or stomach.)

Arriving first, my soup – the daily special of crawfish bisque. Clearly tomato and cream based with heavy spicing and ample crawfish the dish was unlike any bisque I’ve ever tasted, but certainly not a gumbo either. Loaded with chunks of fresh crawfish and spicy without being “hot” I liked the bisque and as it would turn out (oddly) to be my only experience with crawfish on the trip I was glad I’d chosen it even though I likely would have preferred the daily gumbo.

My second dish, an addition to the prix fixe, was the Foie Gras – quite frankly, if a place is offering a terrine of Foie I’m probably going to order it. Presented elegantly this terrine proved not only good, but exemplary. Featuring a thick cut of slow cooked terrine painted on all sides with a Gewürztraminer reduction, topped with micro greens and a coarse sea salt, and drizzled with thick and sweet balsamic I can favorably compare this $16 preparation to the $30 supplemented version served at The French Laundry – though it wasn’t quite as airy or delicate. Served with toasted brioche (I was brought more on request) and beautifully textured I would strongly recommend any fan of cold foie to visit Luke for the experience.

Arriving next was the daily special – having looked at the menu I was surprised when it arrived because I expected a sandwich…but the surprise was the good kind…the really good kind. In describing their cochon du lait prep my server told me how the slow roast pork is reduced down similar to pulled pork and then “rehydrated” with a dairy, onion, and garlic reduction (plus the chef’s special spices) and then pan fried crispy on top. If that description doesn’t do it for you – try it…almost a sweet yet creamy pork meatloaf with a crispy and salty skin akin to pork belly. Accompanying the pork on the plate were not only the advertised stewed greens and vinegar laden cherry mustard, but also a hefty helping of cornbread dressing. Call it bistro food, call it soul food, call it comfort food – I call it one of the most unexpectedly delicious dishes I’ve had in some time.

Finishing my pork the server stopped by and since the place was less busy he stood and chatted for a bit – asking where I was from, how I’d heard about the restaurant, and just talking “food culture” in general – he also noted that this was the first Mardi Gras during which he was working and said he was disappointed to be missing the parades. Telling him about the Zulu parade he stated “I can’t believe it” when I told him about the coconuts and proceeded to tell me he’d only managed to catch one a year the previous two seasons. Feeling bad for him having to miss such a great parade I offered him a coconut – “consider it part of the tip” and he graciously accepted. Asking me if I was interested in dessert I told him I didn’t even need the menu – just bring the bread pudding.

Arriving about 15 minutes later as I read a complimentary copy of the New York Times the bread pudding was an absolute masterpiece – the best traditional bread pudding I’ve ever tasted. Described simply as cinnamon raisin bread pudding with vanilla bean ice cream and hot buttered pecan sauce the complexities of the dish were astounding for a bread pudding – piping hot with the smooth and creamy ice cream slowly melting the bread pudding itself was marvelous in custard/bread ratio and the sauce had minimal alcoholic kick while instead focusing on notes of caramel, pecan, cinnamon, and what may have even been honey. Having had a whole lot of bread pudding in my time this was undoubtedly my favorite non-chocolate version to date.

Settling the bargain of a bill and offering me a refill of my coffee to go my server asked where I planned to watch the rest of the parades and I told him I’d likely head back to the Garden District. At this point he informed me that if I walked out the side doors (presumably to the restroom) I’d have full access to the Hilton balcony overlooking St. Charles Avenue. Thanking him greatly for the tip I made my way out and soon found myself standing with less than 20 other people far above the crowds on St. Charles to watch the end of Rex and most of Elks before I bid farewell to the friendly people with me (mostly tourists) and making my way back to the streets.

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