New Orleans in Melbourne – this is real

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Girl With The Gris Gris, 18 Market Lane, Melbourne. Phone: 9514 4577

Bennie and I pause midway along Market Lane.

I’ve said nothing about our destination or the variety of food we will be eating once we arrive.

Gesturing to an eatery with a rather anonymous but extremely large doorway, I say: “That is Australia’s most famous Chinese restaurant!”

But then, pointing to the smaller doorway more-or-less directly opposite, I say: “But that is where we’re going!”

Up the stairs we go into what is a typically Melbourne sort of scene – a live music venue with a funky eatery attached.

In this case, the food being served is, by all reports, purebred New Orleans.

And I’m all a-tingle with excitement, as the restaurant’s tucker is being cooked by a real live New Orleans cook.

Most readers will be aware that the diversity and depth of food deriving from the American South available in Melbourne has bloomed in recent years. Indeed, several such joints have been written about right here at Consider The Sauce.

I’ve enjoyed trying these places out.

But I have had to keep a firm grip of any notions about authenticity based my own experiences travelling to the US, and to New Orleans in particular.

 

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Let me put it this way …

Gumbo is a soup, not a stew.

Thanks to the roux used in making it, gumbo should be almost dark as night.

It should not be poured over a stack of rice; the rice should be just a part of the soup – maybe a quarter of a cup, or better still a tablespoon.

Unless their names are celery, capsicum or onion, vegetables have no business being in gumbo.

And finally, while seafood gumbos of various kinds are revered in some quarters, the king of gumbos – the benchmark – is chicken and sausage gumbo.

Will I find such a beastie right here at Girl With The Gris Gris?

Will be it be as fantastic as I’m hoping?

We do and it is!

Our chicken and sausage gumbo costs $14 for a bowl ($8 for a cup).

It’s easily the best gumbo I’ve had in the southern hemisphere – and the includes those I’ve made myself (though it’s been a while now …).

The restaurant is dimly lit, so while I secure good lighting for our other dishes, I wuss it for the gumbo – this is as good as I snap:

 

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Our gumbo is magnificently dark, full of well cooked sausage discs and shredded chicken.

It has strong flavour of roux, oregano and other gumbo goodies. It has a nice spice glow on, too.

It IS fantastic.

 

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In some ways, this photo is more revealing.

One sure sign of a good gumbo is that the roux remnants will leave “tide marks” down the side of the bowl as the volume of soup decreases.

If your gumbo does not leave such signs, you’ve been had.

I very much wish we’d ordered a bowl of this stuff each.

But we love everything else we have.

 

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Onion rings ($8) are superb in their fat, deep-fried decadence, and are wonderful dunked in the tangy (remoulade?) sauce.

 

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Roast beef po’ boy ($15) also sets a high water mark (thinking tidal again!) for New Orleans sandwiches we’ve had in Melbourne.

The bread is a just-right, scooped-out French loaf.

The beef is plentiful and plenty juicy without completely overwhelming the bread.

And the dressings are wonderful and zesty.

 

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At this point, I really am seriously suggesting to Bennie that we order more gumbo – but he gets a bit stroppy about wanting one of the dessert items he has clapped eyes upon.

Ice-cream sandwich ($12) is a fantasia of “housemade peanut butter banana ice-cream between graham crackers, caramel, caramelised bananas, honey”.

Wow – it, too, is so very New Orleans.

It’s gone, shared by the two of us, in seeming seconds.

There’s no degrees of separation between Consider The Sauce and Girl With The Gris Gris.

The restaurant and the Ding Dong Lounge that adjoins it are both run by Bill Walsh, formerly of crazed rockers the Cosmic Psychos and a former long-time colleague of mine at PBS-FM.

I’d spied that fine bloke, sitting at the bar, on arrival.

But as he didn’t seem to recognise me – perhaps it was the dimness, perhaps it was the moustache – I let it pass so Bennie and I could enjoy our dinner and I could play the role of “anonymous food blogger”.

But as we’re paying, Bill does recognise me – or rather, recognises my voice!

It’s swell chatting with him about the restaurant, his endeavours in employing New Orleans chef Chris Weysham and their menu.

Bill even recalls the story I wrote about his band in the now long defunct afternoon Herald newspaper at the very start of my Melbourne music-writing career.

 

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From the old broadsheet Herald of February 2, 1987 … when yours truly had yet to become Kenny!

 

I reckon the menu (see below) is superb.

I love that it’s minus any high-falutin’, high-priced slabs of meat or extravagant seafood, instead focussing on a tight list of affordable New Orleans classics.

They’re the sorts of things found at bars and neighbourhood joints right across the Crescent City, such as the most fondly remembered by me Liuzza’s.

Hey, Chris! How about some deep-fried pickles?

The phrase “can’t wait” mostly strikes me as nonsense.

But, frankly, I “can’t wait” to return to Girl With The Gris Gris.

Check out Girl With The Gris Gris stories in The Age and the Herald Sun.

 

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Book review: Hungry Town

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Hmmmm, I wonder if this would work ….

Hungry Town – A Culinary History of New Orleans, A City Where Food Is Almost Everything – Tom Fitzmorris (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

Given the not insignificant role New Orleans has played in my life for the past 30 years or so – visiting, writing, reading about, broadcasting and, of course, listening – I shouldn’t be surprised that occasionally a bout of Crescent City fever hits me.

Nevertheless, I’m a little surprised that my latest and ongoing pre-occupation with the city has seemingly bubbled up out of sort-of nowhere.

Perhaps it surprises because I am so very, very content with Melbourne in general and its western suburbs foodiness in particular.

As well, circumstances dictate that a return visit to Louisiana remains some unknowable distance in the future.

Yet I recently finished reading John McCusker’s fine biography of trombonist Kid Ory, which directly led to the purchasing of six Ory CDs to join the one I already possessed under his own name.

Those albums have been joined by 2012 buys of music by Chief John Burnious, Paul Barbarin, Emile Barbes, Thomas Jefferson, Kid Rena, Kid Howard, Big Eye Louis Nelson, Fess Manetta, Johnny Dodds, the Young Tuxedo Brass Band and more.

I have yet to succumb to the attraction of once more firing up in the kitchen for the purposes of cooking New Orleans dishes, though I did this week make chicken stock with a view to some time soon getting some gumbo or jambalaya happening.

But having bought and enjoyed very much Tom Fitzmorris’ Lost Restaurants of New Orleans and the recipes that made them famous, I happily broke out the credit card to buy Hungry Town.

And a good, if brief, read it turned out to be, too.

In my opinion, part of the book’s title – “A Culinary History Of New Orleans” – goes close to being an outright lie.

“A History of Tom Fitzmorris’ Involvement In The New Orleans Scene” would be more accurate. There is some detail about the overall history of eating out in New Orleans, but most of the book covers the author’s experiences – and I’m cool with that.

Fitzmorris covers his early days and how he found himself, seemingly more by accident than ambition, becoming a central pillar of the city’s food scene.

There are heaps of fascinating anecdotes and stories about great meals and the people who make them and eat them.

Fitzmorris naturally gravitates towards the more formal and expensive aspects of New Orleans’ food culture, and I’m cool with that, too, even though my own experiences at that end of the city’s food spectrum have been limited by both budget and inclination.

He sometimes seem to give only grudging acknowledgement to the more blue-collar and rough and tumble aspects of New Orleans’ eating.

The book really comes into its own with the arrival of Hurricane Katrina and city’s subsequent ongoing fight for survival.

The stories are moving, and I was quite shaken up to discover that quite a few people who had served me marvellous food perished in the storm or as the direct result of its aftermath.

The stories include great yarns about restaurant folk – some of them at the very top end of New Orleans dining – cooking and providing food for all comers during those desperate days.

While exiled in another part of country, Fitzmorris started a list of New Orleans restaurants open for business on any given day – a list he continues to update.

By his own assessment, it’s probably the most significant thing he’ll ever do.

To that extent, while the book seems a tad on the self-serving side, the author’s assertion that food would be just not a key to New Orleans’ survival but THE key is heart-warming.

Along with the music, of course.

I’m not at all sure how I’d go in post-Katrina New Orleans. There’s still parts of the city that will never be more than wasteland.

I yearn for the food, and I’m quietly determined to take Bennie there one day.

But while New Orleans has “ethnic food”, it just doesn’t have the depth or quality to match Melbourne.

But, by God, the city continues to live on in my heart.

Chicken and sausage gumbo, anyone?

For interest’s sake, I’m including a scathing review of the book on Amazon and the author’s response:

Review by “wmgood39648”: “For those who know Tom F. and his ever thinning skin, Hungry Town is not really all about the food scene in New Orleans. Its really about the author. Read the book carefully and you will find that Fitzmorris has let himself get far too close to certain New Orleans restaurantuers to be objective. This would be fine if he would just admit that he is not a critic, but rather an apologist for the industry. He allowed himself to be feed very expensive meals by one restaurant dynasty for decades and then refuses to point out their flaws. Fitting in is very important to Fitzmorris. He might be the only man in New Orleans who actually benefited from hurricane Katrina. By his own admission, he could not get a publisher for his books until the storm. The book is not well written and has no depth. Wait for this book until its in the $3.00 section.”

Rebuttal by Tom Fitzmorris: “The comment is made by a persistent crank who reads everything I write and listens to every minute of my radio show, then attacks every bit of it without exception. I have reason to believe he is the owner of a restaurant that I gave a negative review. I thank him for buying the book and for making me such a central part of his life. Tastefully yours, Tom Fitzmorris.”

Book review: Lost Restaurants of New Orleans and the recipes that made them famous

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Lost Restaurants of New Orleans and the recipes that made them famous – by Peggy Scott Laborde and Tom Fitzmorris (Pelican)

Tom Fitzmorris remains very active on the New Orleans food scene, but I am unsure about just what form – if any – his Crescent City food guide takes these days.

The books listed on his website are, one, a history of New Orleans food culture, and two, a recipe book.

For many of my visits to New Orleans, his restaurant guide was toted all over the city and I found it indispensable, although in the end so frequent did my visits become that I was able to move beyond it as I discovered gems – through friends and familiarity with the city – that were not included in the book.

Nevertheless, I was excited about getting my hands on this book on “lost” New Orleans restaurants.

It’s not quite as comprehensive as the title suggest.

As Fitzmorris points out in his introduction, to be comprehensive the book would have to unfeasibly weighty. Besides which, as with any other locale, many restaurants have closed because they don’t deserve to be remembered.

Instead, the book focuses on 100 eateries of many different kinds that are remembered by “a fair number of New Orleanians still living as of 2011, when we composed it” and are worthy of being celebrated.

Given that sort of timeframe and timing of my own visits to that city, I was unsurprised to find restaurants I was familiar with – in some cases very familiar with – featured in the book.

I spotted three right off.

Looking a little closer, I noticed another half-dozen or so.

A profound sense of deja vu leads me to think there’s maybe another 20 or so that I set foot in at one time or another.

(I’d have to dust off and unearth the detailed diaries I maintained of those trips to be sure. A former partner once stumbled upon this trove, and was excited because she thought she was going to get the inside story of my sordid behaviour while in New Orleans. She was thus very disappointed to find every meal eaten, every record bought and every gig attended described in minute detail … but very little else!)

The hardcover book is beautifully presented, and is stuffed with fantastic vintage photos, menus, matchbooks and other memorabilia.

The individual restaurant entries are likewise full of stories not just about food and recipes and dishes, but also the colourful characters and history and stories that made these places legends.

Lost Restaurants of New Orleans is very highly recommended to anyone even remotely interested New Orleans, its history and/or its food and cooking.

Here’s some of the places included the book that I remember most fondly, with appropriate quotes from the book:

Hummingbird Grill, St Charles Ave (1946-2001)

A fabulous 24-hour diner-style place run as an adjunct of an equally seedy hotel.

Good for very good – and ridiculously cheap – burgers, breakfasts and red beans-and-rice.

“People who would spend their last dollar, then had to find a place to sleep that night, were at the Hummer’s counter. But so were men and women in formal wear, en route home from an underfed, oversloshed high-society party … Those who could not be dragged into the Hummingbird Grill had problems with the neighborhood. Those who did like the place pointed out that the lunch counter was always full of uniformed New Orleans policemen on their meal breaks. Only an idiot would try to start a rumble there.”

Barrow’s Shady Inn, Hollygrove (1943-2005)

You could get anything you wanted at Barrow’s – as long as it was catfish!

“When the fish came to the table, it was the definitive golden brown and so hot you shouldn’t have eaten straight away. But there was no way to keep from diving in. It was so good and light, with that background glow of red pepper, that you wanted to inhale it.”

Uglesich’s, Lee Circle area (1924-2005)

A ramshackle and truly legendary (mostly seafood) place – no menu, just notices pinned all over the walls. Super cheap!

“The ventilation system was so ineffective that when your returned from lunch there, nobody had to ask where you’d dined. You smelled as if you’d fried fish all day … A host of unique characters … hung around the place all day long. The most famous of them was Ding Ding the Singing Bird, who delivered sandwiches on a bicycle to the area and sold peanuts at Tulane Stadium.”

Kolb’s, St Charles Ave, CBD (1899-1995)

A very Germanic place with whacko Teutonic decor and lots of German dishes on the menu – although the only thing I can recall eating during my frequent visits are oysters and gumbo.

I loved it there – despite its central location near Canal St, it was always cool and dark-ish.

According to the book, the famous sign is still in place.

” …When I finally got to Kolb’s, in the mid-1970s, it was in decline … the German food was not all that good … by this time, most people who went to Kolb’s at not the German food but the creole cooking. During a couple of years during which my office was two blocks away, I ate there once or twice a month and remember eating turtle soup, barbecue shrimp, baked oysters with crabmeat and hollandaise, roast chicken, and bread pudding … All of this was actually pretty good.”

T.Pittari’s dining room in the 1950s.

(This post written while listening to Bunk Johnson.)