Friday, January 27, 2012

Desire elevates simple country Cajun and city Creole food to new heights

Desire Oyster Bar and Bistro

At the Royal Sonesta Hotel

300 Bourbon Street

New Orleans, LA 70130


A restaurant named Desire

Story and photos by Dwight Casimere

-Chef Peter Page with Dwight The Wine Doctor

-succulent Shrimp 'N Grits

-Chef Page at the Desire oyster bar

-an humongous fried Soft Shell Crab

-Arbita "root beer" float with Pecan Pie

New Orleans—All oyster bars are not created equal. Desire Oyster Bar and Bistro in the French Quarter at the storied Royal Sonesta Hotel is the perfect example of an establishment that looks like a typical oyster bar on the surface, but turns out to be something much more.

I entered Desire on a balmy, mid-winter night (by Chicago standards), with revelers “getting their weekend on” (in New Orleans, the weekend starts on Wednesday night), walking traffic-blocked, cobble-stoned Bourbon Street with plastic Hurricane and Daiquiri glasses held high. The sounds of New Orleans jazz and blues from the nearby open-windowed bars and clubs faded as I entered the cool confines of the restaurant, the comforting sound of oysters being shucked and the gentle swipe of the ceiling fans overhead said this is the real thing. Executive Chef Peter Page’s warm smile and breezy manner let me know that I was in good hands.

“What we serve here is a classic blend of Creole and Cajun. It has elements of both cuisines. Creole is more urban. It’s the cuisine of the city. It’s the cuisine that essentially grew up in New Orleans. Then we have the Arcadian, sort of single-pot dishes.

“The first course you had was the gumbo. You know it’s a city style gumbo, because it has tomatoes in it. In the country, they don’t use tomatoes. It’s a crab-based gumbo. We use Louisiana crab as the base for our stock. It has a lighter roux. We don’t believe in a mahogany roux. The second dish here is our Louisiana Shrimp ‘N Grits, which is actually our version of a classic Carolina Shrimp ‘N Grits. In the Carolinas, they use bacon; here we use Tasso ham (a local spiced smoked ham) that has a lot more heat to it. We also use a really good, hearty local stone ground grits that’s almost like a polenta. Its completely different than what you normally think of as grits.

It’s nice and creamy. Of course, it’s got our Gulf Shrimp in it. It really melts in your mouth.”

Of everything Chef Page served that night, the Shrimp ‘N Grits was the most outstanding. It’s a perfect example of how something really simple can become the most exquisite dish imaginable, because of its sheer simplicity and elegance of execution. Arbita India Pale Ale was the choice of beverage. All of the dishes were accompanied by a variety of locally brewed Arbita beers, which were as finely crafted as any of the craft beers I had in England last summer, during the London International Wine Fair.

Next, came a parade of dishes, each more succulent than the last, a humongous Seafood Platter with crawfish, oysters and the single largest Soft Shell Crab I’d ever seen, all fried in a gossamer-light batter that melted in your mouth. Jambalaya, consisting of giant Golf Shrimp and spicy Alligator Andouille sausage had the aforementioned mahogany-colored gravy that simply danced in your mouth. I kept going back to it for bites here and there as I explored the other menu items.

Desserts started with an Arbita beer 'root beer float' accompanied by Pecan pie. The coup de gras (cut of grace) was the house-made Bread Pudding, which featured fresh white peaches and raisins with a white chocolate sauce laced with Frangelico. It was a real food-gasm!

Hats off to Chef Page and his Desire. A restaurant could not have been more aptly named!

New Orleans Royal House puts Oysters on culinary throne

Story and photos by Dwight Casimere

Executive Chef Steve Young

Sauteed Crab Claws

Raw Oysters on the Half Shell

General Manager Shad Stearns

More Oysters

Oyster Master Nairobi Lowe

Executive Chef Steve Young with Chef de Cuisine Jeffrey Latimer

Steve Sintes delivers the “goods”

The historic Tortorici sign

A sweet finish

New Orleans—Oysters are king in New Orleans and anyone who loves them will find them in abundance. Now that the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico of two years ago has faded into history, the succulent bivalves are available in abundance.

Although the preferred method of eating oysters is in the natural state, raw, a behind-the-scenes look revealed that they can come dressed up in their formal tuxedo best as a fancy entrée or show up in down-home jeans as a barefoot bayou delicacy.

Royal House Oyster Bar on Royal Street in the French Quarter attracted my attention because it reminded me so much of the oyster bars I used to visit in the San Francisco Marina where I lived for several years. The long mahogany bar with the sound of oysters being shucked with abandon by Oyster Master Nairobi Lowe and the smell of local draft beer on tap was too intoxicating to pass up. The heady aroma caused my mind to drift back to my carefree days as a cub reporter, wandering my old haunts on North Beach and Fisherman’s Wharf. Sidling up to the bar for a dozen raw oysters and tall, frosty Arbita Amber Ale, I was not disappointed.

“Authentic is the word I like to use whenever I describe this place to anyone,” General Manager Shad Stearns declared as he set down a steaming plate of his signature Sautéed Crab Claws, an aromatic mix of fresh Louisiana claw tips, simmered in a lemon butter sauce with green onions, and Cajun blackened seasoning. “It’s our most popular non-oyster dish,” he declared. Sopping up the sauce with a huge hunk of crunchy Sourdough French Bread put me right at home before diving into the meaty claws. “What sets us apart from the other oyster bars in the ‘Quarter’ is our specialty seafood items like Snow Crab, fresh Lobster from our own tank and our Peel ‘N Eat jumbo Shrimp, which gives diners an exciting mix of options.”

Executive Chef Steve Young, whose been with the restaurant group three years and Chef de Cuisine Jeremy Latimer began whipping up a culinary ‘line’ parade of dishes that showed their mastery of the art of cooking seafood.

Royal House is the only oyster bar on Royal Street and has the distinction of being located in an historic 100 year-old landmarked building, which was once the home of the Tortorici family, which operated a flourishing café and restaurant on the main floor. The popular restaurant became a hub for New Orleans’ Italian American community and a hangout for celebrities of the day, including Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, who were regulars whenever the Rat Pack hit town. In 2005, the devastation of Katrina forced the restaurant to shut down. Fortunately, the historic landmark survived and reopened three years later as the new Royal House Restaurant.

The original Tortorici sign still hangs just below the famous balcony, where diners can enjoy and unobstructed view of the flagstone streets and elegant European gabled rooftops of the French Quarter.

A fresh batch of oysters from American Seafood, wheeled in by regular deliveryman Steve Sintes aid the case for the freshness of the oysters served at Royal House. “We get these in fresh everyday,” Stearns assured me. “Sometimes twice a day when we’re busy.” The arrival of fresh oysters prompted an exploration of the restaurant’s complete oyster menu and its myriad variations on the oyster theme; classic Oysters Rockefeller, topped with spinach, bacon and drowned in Sambucca (a licorice-flavored Italian liqueur) and then baked, Oysters Royale, topped with seafood stuffing and then baked, and baked Pepperino Oysters topped with roasted red peppers, green onions and Parmesan cheese.

It turns out that was just a warm-up for the entrees to follow. Char-grilled Oysters arrived with great fanfare. “This is a 21st Century take on a popular classic,” Stearns explained. The tangy lemon and garlic butter sauce that bathed the oysters could just as easily have been used as a sauce for a delicious pasta dish. The combination of butter and liquid margarine with horseradish, olive oil and the requisite side of crusty Sourdough bread made this a meal to die for! Of course, copious amounts of locally brewed Arbita Ale to wash it down made for a match made in Heaven!

Thick and creamy Bananas Foster cheesecake drizzled with caramel and cinnamon with a glass of Frangelico made for a “royal” finish.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

First-ever Slow Wine Guide debuts in New York, Chicago

Slow Wine Guide an eco-friendly way to look at wine

By Dwight Casimere

Wine tasting photos by Dwight Casimere

1- 3, A recent Italian wine tasting at the Metropolitan Pavilion, New York

4-5 Tasting Italian wines at Vinitaly 2011

6-Spiaggia, Chicago

7-The kitchens at Spiaggia

8-The beach at Fort di Marmi, Italy

9-10 Monsanto estate in Tuscany

11-Planeta vineyards in southeastern Sicily

12-13 Planeta winery in Sicily

Wine lovers will have two unique opportunities to indulge in their passion for wine and be exposed to a new philosophy of winemaking that encompasses a concern for the environment while engaging in methods that improve wine quality.

Slow Wine, an English guide to Italian wines, will be unveiled in New York at the Metropolitan Pavilion, 125 West 18th St. #804 in Manhattan, Monday, January 30 from 6:30pm to 9pm and at Chicago’s prestigious Spiaggia restaurant on the Magnificent Mile, at 980 North Avenue, Thursday, February 2, from 6pm-8pm.

More than 140 wines from 60+ slow Wine producers will be presented at the Slow Wine Guide Publication Party in New York. Tickets are $35 for members of Slow Food NYC/$40 for general admission. A portion of the proceeds will benefit Slow Food NYC. Admission includes a complimentary copt of the Slow Wine Gjuide and a commemorative wine glass. Tickets are available at

Over 100 wines from 44 winemakers and 12 regions will be featured at the Chicago launch. A complimentary copy of the Slow Wine guide, published in the U.S. by Chelsea Green, will be given to each participant as part of their entry ticket for the event, which costs $35. To register, please visit

The Slow Wine guide is a completely new approach to wine criticism because it evaluates wine in its entirety, taking into account wine quality, its type, faithfulness to terroir, its value to price quotient and the sensitivity of its producers to the environment through the use of sustainable viticulture practices.

Slow Wine gives a realistic snapshot of the current Italian wine landscape. The guide contains reviews of 400 different wineries that were personally visited by Slow Food experts.

“We’ve changed the way of reviewing wine,” said Marco Bolasco, CEO of Slow Food Editore. “We want to create new ways of discussing and exchanging contents, ideas and projects among producers, readers and Slow Food members with this international version of the guide.”

Slow wine is a philosophy of winemaking that emphasizes techniques which make the best wine for a given region rather than using technique which are optimal for bring wine to the marketplace, such as pumping, filtering and fining. These methods may speed up the winemaking process, but the ultimately have a negative impact on the wine and the environment.

Slow Wine is a parallel to the Slow Food movement, which emphasizes a way of living and eating that links the pleasure of food with a commitment to the community and the environment. This community of eco-gastronomy extends worldwide with a network of 100,000 members in 1,300 local chapters, called convivia, in 153 countries.

Among the Italian wines participants will have the opportunity to taste are San Lorenzo Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Antares 2008, Isole Olena Chianti Classico 2009 from Tuscany, and Planeta Chardonnay 2009 from Sicily. For the complete wine list, visit

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Warming up for Mardi Gras: the "Super Bowl" of eating and partying

Dwight The Wine Doctor

Warming up for Mardi Gras; the “Super Bowl” of gastronomy

Story and photo gallery by Dwight Casimere

-A friendly greeting at Pierre Maspero's

-Daybreak over the French Quarter

-Dwight The Wine Doctor with Chef Richard Tyler (r)

-Barbeque Shrimp

-Fettuccini Corn Maque Choux

-Crescent City Combo of Jambalaya, Red Beans & Rice, Chicken & Andouille Sausage Gumbo, Crawfish Etouffee

-Chef Richard Tyler

New Orleans—Before the coin toss at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 5 at Super Bowl XLVI, another important event of national significance will step off in the Crescent City, the start of Mardi Gras season. Before Fat Tuesday, February 21, revelers here will have participated in dozens of parades, Krewe Balls and celebrations. Once the Twelfth Night Revelers hold their Bal Masque and Phunny Phorty Phellows take their annual ride along St. Charles Avenue, the crescendo of parties begin. The single largest activity that units them is indulging in all manner of food and drink.

Eating is practically a religion in New Orleans. “We wake up in the morning talking about what we’re planning to have for dinner,” said Carol Miller, Director of Training for Creole Cuisine, the parent company to several restaurants located in the French Quarter. That fact was borne out in a behind-the-scenes look at several iconic restaurants in the French Quarter and the burgeoning Warehouse District. A chefs-eye view proved that not only is eating a religion, but food is this city’s Holy Grail and its restaurants are its Temples of Gastronomy, especially during Mardi Gras Season.

“Dieting is not in our culture,” said Chef Richard Tyler of The Original Pierre Maspero’s restaurant on Chartres Street. “We love butter too much.” The combination of copious amounts of butter and that “holy trilogy” of seasonings, garlic, onion and celery and a mix of homemade spices that probably date back to the restaurant’s inception in 1788, may account for the heady mix of flavors and textures that distinguishes such signature dishes as New Orleans Barbeque Shrimp ($9.95) and Seafood Stuffed Pistollettes ($8.95), a creamy mélange of crawfish, shrimp and crabmeat stuffed inside a miniature baguette of crusty French bread with a mixture of onions, peppers and cheese. The sandwich is then flash fried and served piping hot. “”It’s very decadent,” chef Tyler, warned, “but very delicious.

Another house specialty, Cochon De Lait ($11.95) prompted a return visit. A pork roast is marinated overnight and stuffed with jalapeño peppers and garlic and then slow-roasted for 24 hours. It’s then served Po’Boy style, on a crunchy French roll with pickles and lettuce. A healthy dollop of mayonnaise rounds it out for a messy, but mouth-watering treat. A Sausage Trio of alligator, andouille and smoked hot sausage, grilled with Cajun seasonings and With Creole mustard for dipping ($9.95), made for a hearty meal, but local would only consider this a starter!

Moving into the entrees, Fettuccini Corn Maque Choux ($16.95), “we just love to put ‘o-u-x’ after every other word!” Miller exclaimed, proved to be the star of the afternoon. A pasta dished that harkens back to the days of New Orleans earliest settlers, the Arcadians, or “Cajuns” as they were later dubbed, the dish combines sautéed corn, peppers and Tasso, a spicy, local cured ham, in a rich sauce made with heavy cream and, of course, butter, tossed with pasta and then topped with blacked chicken. Whew! I get full just writing about it!

Alternate glasses of Main Street Cabernet and a new arrival, a Pinot Grigio from Italy, from the restaurant’s compact, but well thought out wine list helped the flavors bounce along the palette.

A pre-prandial Bloody Mary ($10) proved a revelation. Made with a house-infused vodka that is marinated with cocktail onion, olives, spicy pickled green beans and sundried tomatoes for 24-48 hours is then combined with a Homemade spice blend (no secrets divulged here), horseradish, Tabasco, Worsteshire, pepper and Zing Zang Bloody Mary Mix is shaken and poured in a tall Hurricane glass over ice and garnished with olives, cocktail onions and a piece of pickled green bean. It’s a nice way to get your veggies in and a hefty buzz at the same time.

Pierre Maspero’s was only the first stop of the day, for lunch. Dinner would be another adventure. As they say in the Vieux Carre, “Laissez les bon temps rouler,” Let the good times roll!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

LaMarca Prosecco toasts the rebirth of a Chicago legend

LaMarca Prosecco celebrates rebirth of a Chicago legend

Story and photos by Dwight Casimere

Food photos by Max Herman

CHICAGO—LaMarca Prosecco flowed in the Library of the Pump Room at Public Chicago, the incarnation of the historic Ambassador East Hotel and its historic Pump Room. The Italian sparkler proved that it is a great, inexpensive alternative to Champagne and brightens any celebration with its bright, clean taste and easy drinkability. It goes easily with most foods, especially light appetizers and small plates, as demonstrated in the Library at the newly reincarnated Pump Room.

Celebrity Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the Alsatian culinary who took New York and ABC-TV by storm, is now breathing new life into a dormant legend. The Pump Room, until it was shuttered several years ago, was once the place for celebrities to see and be seen and has been the subject of landmark songs, including 1939’s Chicago (That Toddlin’ Town) in which it was the setting for the lyric, popularized by Frank Sinatra, a frequent Pump Room habitué, “I saw a man, he danced with his wife” and served as the inspiration for Phil Collin’s 1985 Grammy © Award winning album, “No Jacket Required,” the result of his being barred from the restaurant for not observing its then, Dress Code.

Enter Studio 54 co-founder and entrepreneur Ian Schrager and Chef Jean-Georges. The Pump Room has been completely reimagined and has reopened within what is now Public Chicago hotel, with a new, sleek image and a contemporized, slimmed down menu.

“What we’ve done is keep some of the old favorites on the menu, while updating it with some new items that reflect my background, but with a twist to it. There are flavors of chilies, a bit of ginger, an Asian influence in some of the menu items, but you can still get something as basic as ago good burger or a pizza. There’s something for everyone,” according to Chef Jean-Georges, taking a break from signing copies of his new book “Home Cooking with Jean-Georges, My favorite simple recipes ($23-Crown Publishing Group).

The word ‘simple’ may seem like a contradiction in terms when used in the same sentence as the name Jean-Georges Vongerichten, but the ‘great toque” assured me that the recipes inside are just that. “A few years ago, my wife Marja and I decided to get a family retreat in the country, a few hours outside New York (In Waccabuc, N.Y.). I decided to give myself a treat that most people take for granted, a two-day weekend. What I would do was have friends over and cook very simple dishes that made use of the local produce. I’ve also incorporated some of that idea in the restaurant here. We use locally sourced produce and food items produced by local artisans, so what we’re really promoting is the idea of farm to table.”

Everything I tasted bore out Chef Jean-Georges’ claims. The Crab Salad with Lemon Aioli on thin slices of Sourdough baguette tasted as good as anything I’d had at Fisherman’s Wharf. Fresh Salmon Lox served on a tiny Fried Rice cakes with a spicy Ginger aioli and a porcelain spoon of delectable Roasted Beets with Homemade Yogurt and killer whole wheat Spinach pizza.

LaMarca Prosecco ($12) is a fresh sparkling Italian wine from the north of Italy in Veneto. It was rated 90 points by the Wine Spectator and was awarded one of the publications highest honors. It has a crisp, delicate flavor, which blends the flavors of baked apple pie and grapefruit with a pleasant finish of tart lemons. It’s a great drink to have with small plates, like those served at the Pump Room and in the new Library, where small plates, like those sampled at the book-signing party, will be served in the lounge and at the sleek bar. Executive Chef Bradford Phillips is in charge of cuisine.