It is amazing what smart people with good intentions can do to increase tourism. A few years ago, New Orleans was discussed with sadness and tears and pity parties. We wondered how this formerly over-the-top tourist extravaganza could ever regain its footing. From Acts of God, to incredibly poor politics, it looked like the glory of New Orleans was going to be a historical study for academics. Culinary artists, gourmets, gourmands, and oenophiles were going to have to take their tastes elsewhere… New Orleans was no longer an option.
Fortunately the city that heralds “Let the Good Times Roll” did not hear the lamenting sounds of outsiders. Business people and political leaders picked themselves up from the debris of Katrina and developed an extravagant city that is flush with good food, good wines, great shopping, interesting museums, and a joie-de-vivre that is constantly in your face. Children running through the streets and hotel lobbies are happy; parents are jubilant; and seniors stroll blissfully along the streets, holding hands, kissing over drinks, and partying through to the following morning.
This second in a multi-part series, “My Take on New Orleans,” will, hopefully, capture some of the joyfulness that makes New Orleans a destination that is selected by choice and not by chance.
Chefs are the Attraction
Some people pick a restaurant by the menu, others make the decision based on location; however, the really savvy foodie makes the important dining decision based on the Executive Chef. Since “chefdom” is a moveable career, there is no telling where these talented guys are going to materialize in the next month or the next year, so it is imperative to visit their restaurants as quickly as possible – before they move to the next major locale.
Gottlieb Headlines the Red Fish Grill
Because the restaurant serves lots of people (think 1,000) every day, some foodies want to discount the quality of the dining experience at the Red Fish Grill. What they fail to note is that it takes a really savvy chef to provide a consistent quality product to large numbers of people, without ever sacrificing taste or appearance. It also takes a leader to direct 30 cooks, and over 35 kitchen staff for lunch and dinner.
Started by restaurant pioneer Ralph Brennan, this The Red Fish Grill rests comfortably in a 19th century building considered as one of the finest renovations in the history of the French Quarter. Located on Bourbon Street, it is the portal to a locale chockfull of incredible dining experiences. The Chef behind the restaurant façade is Michael Gottlieb. Born into a family of foodies, Gottliebs’ great-great grandfather started the Savannah bakery in 1884, and as a five-year-old he was tasked with handling dessert packaging; his job was to put cookies in baggies. It was a logical progression from packaging to production and then, at the age of 17, enrolling in the Johnson and Wales Senior Access Program in Providence, Rhode Island.
Gottliebs’ need for new experiences brought him through fine dining portals in Maryland (Eastern Shore), and back to Savannah, Georgia, to open a family restaurant with his brothers; then on to Jacksonville, Florida, and Beaufort, South Carolina… finally perching (for the moment) in New Orleans where he is able to combine his love for jazz with a community that is rich in history and culture, and where food is at the core of the economy. His first base in New Orleans was as Chef de Cuisine at Ralph’s on the Park until he was offered the position of Executive Chef at the Red Fish Grill. Having traded an elegant dining experience for casual eating, he is energized by the challenge.
Not only is the environment different (from elegant to casual), the menu also changed (from meat and potatoes to fish). He made the transition so successfully that he won first place at the United Way Gumbo Cook-off for his Surf and Turf gumbo. Proud of his grassroots contacts, he is able to source Coho salmon and have it on guests’ plates in one day. Bringing a southern soul to classical Creole-style dining gives diners the perfect Spiced Cream Cheese Encrusted Snapper with Wilted Spinach on Potato Rosti and Red/White Wine Butter Sauces and Whole Red Snapper with Peach Jam and Cane Vinegar Glaze with White Wine Butter Sauce served with Red Rice and French Beans.
For the New Orleans Wine and Food Festival, Gottlieb presented guests with a creative dining experience that featured the wines of Sonoma-Cutrer.
• Amuse Bouche
Blackened Redfish Croquettes with roasted tomato aioli
Paired with Piper Sonoma, Blanc de Blanc, Sonoma, California, NV
• First course
Jumbo Lump Crab and Creole Cream Cheese Soufflé
Paired with Sonoma – Cutrer, Chardonnay, Russian River Valley, California 2007
• Second course
Jumbo Lump Crab & Creole Cream Cheese Soufflé
Paired with Sonoma – Cutrer, Les Pierres, Chardonnay Sonoma Coast, California 2009
• Third course
Salad of local Chanterelles, Frisee, Crispy Pork Belly and Poached Fried Egg with Creole Mustard Vinaigrette
Paired with Sonoma – Cutrer, Russian River Ranches, Chardonnay, California 2010
• Main Course
BBQ Grouper with Braised local greens, Tomato Water, and Corn Custard
Paired with Sonoma – Cutrer, Pino Noir, Sonoma Coast, California 2008
Red Beans and Rice
Louisiana Rice Pudding with Red Bean Ice Cream
Paired with Korbel, Sweet Cuvee, Sonoma Country, California, NV
In preparing his menus, Gottlieb discussed the Cajun/Creole influence. Is there a difference between one and the other? The Cajun food experience includes red bell peppers, onions, and celery as a flavor base. Garlic, paprika, thyme, filé (ground sassafras roots), parsley, and green onions are also staples for chefs creating Cajun dining experiences. You will never find tomatoes in Cajun food – they are found only in Creole cuisine, which is a blend of New Orleans cultures that include Italian, Spanish, African, German, Caribbean, Native American, and Portuguese. This is considered the food for the aristocratic as opposed to Cajun that was consumed by the “country” folks – traditionally people who toiled in the kitchens of the rich.