POSTCARDS FROM THE LOW COUNTRY
With the passing of Labor Day, we are marking the start of many peoples’ school years this week. In San Francisco, however, the public school kids did the back-to-school drill a few weeks ago. I am turning in my report on our summer vacation based on the Labor Day model, though, because I’m just pretending here that anyone is standing over me with an assignment. I am hoping to be graded well on my photos, which stray into Food Porn territory. The pictures of plates below tell the story of some decadent and spectacular adventures in eating!
For my family vacation this summer we went to New Orleans and South Florida – the Keys and Miami. New Orleans was our prime destination because there was an important family wedding to attend. :-)
With a lot of personal Florida history – my mother was born in Miami and raised in Ocala and her grandmother was raised in Key West (!) – we gravitated toward spending some bonus time in South Florida after seeing the namesake of my mother’s father (the great Nate) wonderfully wed. Now a lot of people don’t go to these sub-tropical places in August because it’s so hot and humid. And we, as San Franciscans, are lightweights when it comes to heat. It’s very hard for us to take it. We followed a siesta-based schedule and had mellow afternoons in our air conditioned rooms and did more activities at night. It felt fun and kind of exotic.
The meals I ate in New Orleans were inventive and fresh. I’d go as far as to say they were uniformly mind-bogglingly delicious if such a thing is possible. The night we arrived in New Orleans, it was pouring rain and it seemed almost foolhardy to brave the elements just because it was going to be our one un-preplanned meal – but we were determined, and the bellman at the hotel gave us this over-under-across-and-down sneaky route that kept us out of the rain and into the lap of the best restaurant we came across in the city – and that is saying a lot because every one we went to got an A to an A+.
Grand Isle. The restaurant was not busy when we got there, but I think that’s because it was maybe 8:30 on a Wednesday night and it was just pouring buckets and buckets of rain – not like what we’re used to seeing in California (where people stay home in such a downpour, afraid they might melt).
We started out with onion rings and knew we were in good hands when this magnificent plate arrived. Chris ordered a bowl of gumbo and the Shrimp and Grits pictured below:
This dish, my choice at Grand Isle, was a classic, but it might be the best version of roast chicken with roasted vegetables I’ve ever had, and it came atop a Boudin Cake. (I did mention mind-bogglingly delicious, yes?)
We actually went back to Grand Isle a second time, for lunch, bringing more family and trying different things on the menu. All wonderful!
This restaurant in the French Quarter was an oasis from the heat for us when we were out during the day. We thought we’d get something really light and order just salads. What magnificent salads they were!
Louisiana Peach & Plum Salad
Mixed greens, spiced pecans, Danish bleu cheese and sweet tea vinaigrette
Chicken Panzanella Salad
Buttermilk fried chicken thigh, summer greens, basil, heirloom tomatoes, french bread croutons, charred onion, vinaigrette
This chicken panzanella salad was wondrously tasty – my daughter and I each got one and exclaimed at its greatness every few minutes. The chicken reminded each of us of a katsu cutlet – the Japanese syle dish. A Japanese-Italian mashup. That’s a new cuisine waiting to happen, eh?
RED FISH GRILL
This is the Red Fish grill’s appetizer platter. *SIGH* See that bowl in the back there? That’s the BBQ’d blue crab claws. They’re served in a bowl with a kind of gumbo sauce. At the bottom of this crabby bucket is a scallion cheddar biscuit. Really. Because you need buttery scallion cheddar biscuits soaking up the gumbo. If I ever ascend to Mount Olympus, this will be the ambrosia they hand me. O.M.G.
The other items on the platter are not so bad either, jalapeno hush puppies (not too spicy), creole grilled shrimp and a cheddar scallion biscuit in case you don’t want one that’s been drowned in gumbo and covered with crispy blue crab claws.
My brother’s favorite – these fried-barbecued oysters with a zippy buffalo wings kind of sauce and an elegant blue cheese dressing were soooo good. In the antique shops I saw a lot of these plates with many indentations and thought they were for deviled eggs but then I figured out it’s for all the oysters people eat in Louisiana.
I apologize to Florida because it’s getting short shrift here, but except for our dinner at Versailles in Miami, I didn’t take pictures of the food there for some reason. We found the food to be consistently, wonderfully good, though, and it was nice to try fish varieties we don’t get out on the west coast.
I did take a picture of one of my favorite haunts in Coral Gables from the days when I lived there for our brief 6 month soujourn there back in 2001 – the Books and Books near the Miracle Mile and within walking distance of our old apartment. We had a very nice, healthy lunch in the cafe one day and went back again the next day to show my sister and her kids the great bookstore. It had been sort of like a home away from home back then and it still during our lovely Coral gables weekend.
I ate wonderful Key Lime Pie(s) every chance I got. The best version hailed from the Marker 88 restaurant on Islamorada. They do their pie with a meringue. It’s awesome. Key limes are smaller than regular limes so the purists will say that it’s not key lime pies if you’re not using those limes specifically but I don’t know if it matters when they put a plate in front of you. But a friend of mine just recently bought a bag of key limes in a store in San Francisco so we have a shot at replicating the real thing thousands of miles away from the actual keys.
My best meal of the Florida portion of the trip was at the Lazy Days South where I had Yellowtail a la Gus. I don’t know who Gus is, but this is the description from the menu:
Okay – that’s unreadable. Here’s the translation: Yellowtail Encrusted with Italian bread crumbs and roasted almonds, sauteed and topped with fresh diced tomatoes, scallions and shredded parmesan cheese and topped with key lime butter.
It was truly a delight to eat so many dishes I’d never had before. As a way to hold onto what I discovered, I’d like to find some yellowtail to cook – a la Gus if I could figure that out. I’d also like to try my hand at shrimp and grits. Has anyone ever made it, or have a reliable recipe? It seems like there many different ways to make it.
I hope everybody had a great summer with wonderful food and atmosphere memories. And if your life rotates around anything school-related, I hope the new school year is off to a great start.
The pier at Marker 88, Islamorada Key, Florida.