Happy birthday to me – now, let’s eat!

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 17, 2010

I was born in the heat of the summer and always like to find a way to make the most of my birthday. Last year I went to Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina, and it was pleasant but no great food. For me the food is the thing!

I decided I would go down to New Orleans this year, an easy drive, invite my friends from North Carolina and eat my way through my birthday weekend. All was well until my friend’s mother broke her hip, and they did not get to come. Oh well, the birthday was going to happen, and the party went on without them. I should have invited Tommy Gerlach, Andalusia’s lover of the NOLA restaurant scene, to take their place!!

We began our feast at Lilette, uptown on Magazine Street for a Thursday lunch. Lilette is a French aperitif wine from Bordeaux but the restaurant, I was told, was named for the chef’s landlady when he lived in France. I really like this restaurant. The chef, John Harris, was nominated for the best chef in the South by the James Beard Foundation this year. He did not win, but I bet his time will come. He worked under Susan Spicer before opening his own place. (We will talk about Susan Spicer’s restaurant later.)

The drink of the day was a refreshing chartreuse Pimm’s cup, but my husband had a Sazarac, of course (his long time favorite in NOLA). Our appetizers consisted of grilled beets with goat cheese and walnuts, and potato gnocchi with Parmesan cream, edamame and proscuitto. The beets were wonderful, and the potato gnocchi (which I had eaten before) was just delicious. We then had six cold oysters on the half shell, half were Malpeques from Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and the other half were Shijokus from Washington State.

Our main courses consisted of a chilled sweet corn soup, with a serving of crab and avocado in the middle, and a grilled eggplant sandwich with goat cheese, grilled tomatoes, with a garlic spread on grilled ciabatta bread. The sandwich came with a small arugula salad. It was all outstanding. We had no room for dessert but the special dessert of the day was a blueberry cobbler and vanilla ice cream or a cherry and almond financier (a small French cake similar to a sponge cake) with bing cherry ice cream and a cherry and red wine compote. Maybe this red, white and blue was a prelude to Bastille Day, July 14th, or a leftover from July 4th.

I was told at Lilette’s that people will come in just for the grilled beet salad. I think it is so simple. All it takes is slicing the beets and sprinkling a few drops of olive oil and grilling on medium heat for about 3 minutes on each side. Serve with crumbled goat cheese and toasted walnuts. Sprinkle some salt and pepper and olive oil over the composed salad.

I asked how the delicious corn soup was prepared. It is a good seasonal soup, which is pretty and tasty enough for company. Cook some fresh cut sweet corn with chopped onions and celery in chicken or vegetable broth, then strain. Salt and pepper to taste. Chill. Mix a soft avocado with lump crab and put a timbale or large dollop in the center of the soup bowl. Ladle in the soup, sprinkle with olive oil.

Day two was a celebration at Bayona’s, the restaurant owned by Susan Spicer. (When New Orleans was the capital of the Spanish Province of Louisiana, 1762-1803, this street bore the name Camino D Bayona.) This restaurant has been around a long time and Susan Spicer has won many awards and has a great cookbook which came out a few years ago. We celebrated this day with our son (who has a birthday on July 14th), and his wife (who works for Emeril). She told us that the service would not be as good today because Susan Spicer and Emeril were out on the west coast working on some project. (Bayona’s is better when Susan is in the kitchen). My daughter-in-law was right, because the service was off.

Now the reason to go to Bayona’s for lunch in the summer, is the $0.20 martini. Yes, I said $0.20. The restaurant does a promotional during the summer basing prices on their anniversary year and this is the 20th year. Twenty-cent martinis and a $20 three course lunch special. (You are limited to three martinis. My son said the rule was made after they carried out one patron who had 11 a few years ago!) A two-martini lunch is sufficient! My only complaint with the martini was that it was rather warm and not chilled as it should be. My husband said for $0.20, not to complain!! So in went a couple ice cubes from my water glass. The second martini was ordered on the rocks (I let them put in the ice cubes.)

Most of us did the lunch special starting with the Bayona salad, which is large and tasty with blue cheese and a nice dressing. I had seared sea scallops with rice and broccoli. It was a very small portion, but good. My husband had Susan Spicer’s grilled shrimp with a coriander bean cake, which I have prepared before. My daughter-in-law had a mushroom-Madeira sauté over goat cheese toast points. This is a signature dish of the restaurant. For dessert we had a cherry sorbet with a cookie. The food was good but the service as mentioned before was very slow between courses.

The best appetizer at Bayona’s was the Wild Mushrooms in Madeira Cream. The story goes there was an overabundance of mushrooms on one occasion and with some resourcefulness this dish was created. The recipe is taken from Susan Spicer’s Crescent City Cooking.

Goat Cheese Croutons with Wild Mushrooms in Madeira Cream

Serves 4

Goat Cheese Croutons

¼ cup fresh goat cheese, softened to room temperature

1 tablespoon butter, softened

4 slices 7-grain (or any whole grain) bread

In a small bowl, use a fork to combine the goat cheese and butter. Lightly toast the bread. Spread equal portions of the goat cheese mixture on the toast. Trim the crusts and cut the

squares in half. (The toasts will have a cleaner edge if you trim the crusts after spreading on the goat cheese.) Set aside.

Madeira Cream

2 tablespoons shallots, finely chopped

1 cup Madeira (such as Rainwater or Sercial)

1 cup heavy cream

In a small saucepan, simmer the shallots in Madeira until the liquid is reduced to ¼ cup. Add the cream, bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer 5-10 minutes, until the cream thickens slightly. Set aside.

Wild Mushrooms

½ pound wild mushrooms (preferably a mix of oyster mushrooms, shitakes, and/or chanterelles)

2 tablespoons butter

1 garlic clove, minced

Madeira Cream

Salt and pepper

2 teaspoons snipped fresh chives, plus extra for garnish

Goat Cheese Croutons

Turn on the broiler. Remove the tough stems from the mushrooms and discard. Slice or tear the mushrooms into pieces. Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. When the butter is bubbling but not browned, add the mushrooms and cook until they’re golden brown and crispy, about four to five minutes. Stir in the garlic and Madeira cream. Turn the heat to high and boil for about two minutes, until the mushrooms have absorbed most of the cream. Season with salt and pepper and fold in the 2 teaspoons chives.

Broil the goat cheese croutons until bubbly and lightly browned. Arrange the croutons on plates and spoon the mushroom mixture oven them. Garnish with chives.

Next week I will share the birthday itself and the rest of the weekend. I did not limit my birthday to just one meal!