Saturday, February 28, 2009

Bourbon Street Bar and Grille: A True Louisiana Disaster


It wasn’t long ago when I sat in my living room on a Sunday morning and exclaimed to my wife… “there is a Louisiana place opening up, and I think this one has a chance to be good.... the chef looks like he is from New Orleans!”

My wife responded, “Please don’t do this…. you know how this turns out. How many times have we been down this road?”

She was right. I had just read that Bourbon Street Bar and Grille (bad name) was opening on restaurant row, and that a chef from New Orleans was in the kitchen. But instead of racing down, I used amazing restraint… I waited for them to get their act together. And waited. And waited.

Until last week. Mardi Gras. I just couldn’t take it anymore. I needed to smell the smells, hear the music, drink the drinks. It was time to head to W. 46th Street and have my first experience at Bourbon Street. Their online ad said “Mardi Gras Celebration… Boiled Crawfish, Jambalaya, Music, etc….”

So I hopped in a cab and away I went, LSU attire and all. It was late afternoon.

Walking into this place, you think, “holy crap, look at this space.” I mean, it is massive… decorated with black iron and dark wood, a massive bar and great furnishings. Someone spent some serious coin on this buildout, which I was hoping meant that the same attention had been taken to the back of the house.

We sat down, and then…. it all went bad.

The music, well, no Neville Brothers. It was the Jonas Brothers.

I ordered a hurricane, which tasted like a batch of bad kool-aid with a shot of rum.

And I ordered the “crayfish”, which came to the table (7 of them, baby sized) swimming in a pool of nasty juice, with pieces of sausage, bay shrimp and corn on the cob that had been chopped into bite sized chunks.

My heart sank and my poor wife stared at me, her eyes welling with true compassion and the words “I told you so” tightly trapped behind her lips.

“Let me know how you like these,” said the server, who had problems pronouncing just about anything remotely Cajun on the menu. “We have a new chef who has never really cooked these, so he is interested to hear what you think.”

Having tasted one taste of these putrid, overcooked, nasty smelling crawfish, I told her politely, “if he’d like to know how to cook these, or anything else on this menu, have him grab a coke and some over to the table. I’d be happy to fill him in on how these are supposed to taste, as well as all of these other dishes.”

And it wasn’t just the crawfish. The menu had some bizarre items as well… and then, basically, just gave up. It was an array of dishes I would never see in Louisiana… or anywhere. When I asked for a shrimp poboy (listed on their website) I was informed they didn't make them anymore.

"I guess they were not very popular," she said. "Wow," I said.

So much for the New Orleans chef. I learned from our clueless server that he had left the restaurant, and was no longer affiliated with Bourbon Street, nor were his recipes. It was making perfect sense, as I could have had a more authentic experience eating the Cajun feast at TGIFridays.

But sitting in this fantastic space, I couldn’t help but think to myself…. what if this place really had great food. Forget the gimmicks and garbage on your menu… it is obvious that the bar business is your bread and butter. What if you had a menu like George’s in Baton Rouge…. amazing poboys, gumbos, red beans…. just solid staples. Or Mother’s in New Orleans. Killer sandwiches, simple blue plate specials. Make it authentic. God forbid you actually have a menu that could be compared to the legendary Uglesich's, that closed a few years ago, after nearly 80 years in the business.

I also wondered if the management knew that a menu like that would greatly reduce their labor cost and also give them a greater margin with their food cost. And oh yea, would give them great food.

I know, because I ran a restaurant with the exact same menu as a Mother's, and operated at a food cost of nearly 23%. And, we often had an hour wait to get a table.

So, friends at Bourbon Street…. before you are death-watched, before you begin stiffing your vendors, before you start looking for more money…. I am offering you this…. an OPEN INVITATION to let me help you fix your mess.

I will gladly come in, look at your kitchen, access your current menu (this I have already done, and it is a mess), and give you a tight, delicious, authentic menu that will resonate with any person who has ever traveled to Louisiana.

Having owned 2 restaurants and consulting on several others, this is an offer you should really consider before dismissing. I don’t want anything in return. I’m just sick and tired of watching people throw away this kind of investment because they didn’t know what the hell they were doing in the kitchen. So suck it up, realize your problem, and get some help. And it doesn’t have to be me…. just get someone who has operated a Louisiana kitchen… and rethink what your menu “has” to be. You’d be surprised at how simple a menu can be when authenticity is at the core of every bite. Keep it simple.

What will happen?

The word of mouth on the street will be that Bourbon Street has fantastic food. That the poboys taste like those at Domilise’s… or George’s…. or Maspero.

This isn’t hard food to prepare or serve to the masses. But if you want to really live up to your name…. you’ve got to quit pretending you know what you are doing and ask for some help.

So, another Mardi Gras passes, and I am left in the streets of Chelsea missing my Louisiana once again. I quietly wander into the kitchen, put on a pot of rice and contemplate what’s for dinner. Maybe some of this shrimp and okra gumbo in my freezer? Maybe some shrimp etouffee? Perhaps some grits and ham?

Whatever the choice, I am comfortable in the fact that in New York City…. the best creole or Cajun food to be found, is in my own kitchen. I just wish I had some competition.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Center Cut: An Explosion of Average

Expecting More, A Night That Resulted in Blah

Unlike other bloggers and food reviewers, I’ve never been a Jeffrey Chodorow hater. Sure, our favorite convicted felon has had a few bombs, but he has also had a few spots that remain popular in the city which in this day and age is an accomplishment. Not that I am a huge China Grill fan (my last visit uncovered one of the worst meals I have had since I moved to NYC), but I do adore the plantain fried rice at Asia de Cuba and have had many a fun night dancing away at Rum Jungle in Las Vegas.

So when I venture into a Chodorow spot these days, I enter with an open mind and neutral palate. My last experience at a China Grill Management store was the newish “Center Cut” at the Empire Hotel…. on Valentines Day.

Having owned 2 restaurants, I am big on details. Let’s start with a greeting and the girl at the door.

The week prior to my reservation, which was early (before 7), I was called not once, but twice to confirm I was coming, and that I WOULD BE ON TIME. Both times, I said “of course”, and sure enough, that evening, I arrived 5 minutes early for the rezo.


Once we did get a table, we encountered a friendly waitperson who was there physically, but not mentally. It was clear that she would rather be on a date herself on Valentine’s Day… so we got a strange vibe from her all evening. This was clearly a person who would rather be someplace else.

Regarding the food, I found all of our dishes average and sometimes a smidge better than average. The problem is, nothing was wow.

The problem with that, is NYC is wow. Restaurants with longevity in the city are wow. Wait staffs are wow. The food is wow. The night is wow.

Great food, staff and ambiance can often makeup for miscues at the door and long waits… but on this night, it was apparent that retribution on this level would not be mine.

I won’t describe each and every bite of the evening, but I will walk you through the following:

The Bread: Fresh Popovers… well prepared and quite good.

Salads: Heirloom Salad and Lobster Stuffed Mushroom Caps…. Salad was very average with somewhat mealy tomatoes and the mushroom caps were overpriced and average at best.

Side Dishes: The Creamed Spinach & Artichoke Pie is a gimmick…. and dominates the table. The Corn and Manchego gratin was well prepared and a solid dish.

Steaks: The Steak Oscar was average and included crabmeat that had a strong scent of the ocean…. This wasn’t fresh jumbo lump. Perhaps my days growing up in South Louisiana and dinners at Commander's Palace have jaded my view of all crabmeat? My companion had a steak from the ala carte menu that was prepared to her liking, but again, didn’t set the world on fire. I would say this flavor and grade of beef would rank a notch below craftsteak or Quality Meats.

Dessert: the menu looked decent (a lot of tableside flambé) but by this time, we wanted to bolt. It was an espresso and see ya later.

THE FINAL WORD: I love the Empire Hotel, the vibe, the rooftop bar, the locale. The addition of Center Cut is just bizarre. You can’t open a blah spot and think it can keep up with the hip vibe of the space that surrounds it. And oh yea, NYC doesn’t need more steakhouses. This could have been a real showcase spot for nearly any other type of store with a great menu…. So while I’m not putting it on Deathwatch, I would be shocked to see the store gain a loyal clientele when I can’t be seated within 30 minutes of a reservation I booked a month in advance. Additionally, as much as I like long meals, this night bordered on a hijacking. It was nearly 2.5 hours before the steak arrived, and so drawn out that I couldn’t wait to leave.

I'm still not a Chodorow hater.... I'd just like to go to dinner in New York at one of his restaurants and walk away saying.... wow.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

It's Time For King Cake

For Me, February Means Mardi Gras, Shrimp PoBoys and King Cake

Growing up in South Louisiana, I never knew how good I had it.

I mean I was already surrounded by great food and amazing culture, but Mardi Gras? Well, imagine an entire holiday centered around a dozen parties, 14 parades, 300 pounds of beads and all the food you can eat... and throw in a holiday from school (yes, Fat Tuesday is an official State holiday) and you have the world's greatest celebration.

And then there is the King Cakes.

King Cake and Mardi Gras go together like Red Beans and Rice. You simply can't get away from them during the Lenten season, and ever since I left my dear Louisiana, I've shipped them up to avoid withdrawals.

My very favorite King Cakes come from New Orleans... and an amazing bakery in Baton Rouge named Ambrosia. This bakery is arguably the best in Baton Rouge, and their King Cakes are out of this world.... and available for you to ship overnight.

What to Order?

I would highly recommend you order not one, but two. First, the fruit filled King Cake, with either Raspberry and Cream Cheese or Strawberry.... and last, the Pecan Praline which is sinful. Both come freshly shipped overnight and my guests devoured both last weekend, so I can attest – these are crowd pleasers.

To order your very own slice of heaven, click here. To learn even more about why we eat King Cakes, click here.

Happy Mardi Gras everyone...