So yeah. Somewhere between the chicken & waffles Steuben’s Brandon Biederman rustled up for the Mixed Tastes lecture at the MCA last Friday night—where my pal Adrian Miller gave a fascinating talk on the history of the dish—& the midnight pizza I’m pleading the Liz Lemon 5th on (more about that when I recover from the shame), I hit Lou’s Food Bar for dinner with Mo & Beth. My 1st impression was that my worst nightmare had come true (or 2nd worst, after the one about sleepeating)—that exec chef–owner Frank Bonanno was finally spreading himself too thin. After all, I figured, it had to happen sometime (with the specter of Boston’s Todd English, who began to lose his mojo not long after branching out beyond his first 2 restaurants, ever looming). If not at Osteria Marco, or Bones, or Green Russell, all of which I wholly heart, then when?
Well, I feared, with the 1st bite of the rillettes du jour—in this case pork. Even granting that, at their most basic, rillettes are nothing but the meat in question, the fat of the meat in question, water & salt (more complex recipes may include other spices, wine &/or garlic/onion/shallots), these were way too salty. Though the texture was gorgeous—as smooth as the cream you’d have applied to your face in circular motions after your evening bath if you were a starlet in the golden age of cinema, or that crazy cousin of my father’s who used to dab butter pats on her cheeks at Furr’s Cafeteria—we had to ask for extra pickled onions to balance out the salt. There’s a thin line between enhancement & compensation; accompaniments should offer the former, not the latter.
By that logic, however, I could justify the equally extreme saltiness of the duck confit under the egg in the salade Lyonnaise, tempered as part of a whole with bitter greens & more pickled onions. (On that score, however, I was outnumbered by my companions, who still found it too salty.)
Things got better, if not mind-blowingly awesome, from there. First of all, as a wink-wink gesture, garlic bread is nonetheless fuckin’ heartfelt! Second, as a serious gesture, the selection of 6 housemade sausages is solid. Bursts of cheddar accentuated the otherwise only subtly gamey aspects of venison—& I like it wild, so those were the best bites for me (though for non-game lovers the mildness will be a plus). And, as I’ve already noted in my most recent Dish of the Week post, the sour-meets-unctuous notes of the accompanying bacon sauerkraut really tied the room together (see: compensation vs. enhancement). Same went for the green-curried potatoes with the Thai pork-&-duck sausage (top left, below), which didn’t taste very Thai but did taste very rich. I like rich as much as I like wild. (That’s not, by the way, a double entrendre—I like my men to mostly watch movies & order takeout with me on an old couch.)
Then there was dessert. Given that the pie was from Bonanno’s own Wednesday’s Pie, we had to have a slice, right? Except that it was Friday. The chocolate–peanut butter filling was great—silky & fully suffused with nutty tang rather than merely swirled here & there, so that it was just sweet enough. But the crust was kinda…I hope I’ll never again have to use this word in the same post in which Bonanno’s name appears: hard, perhaps even stale, not flaky in the least. Finally, a quick glimpse (this description will matter later) at the cocktail list made me go huh? Yes, the offerings were clearly craft, containing quality ingredients, but they all swung fruity.
Anywhere else, I would’ve considered a mixed first-time experience a decent experience, a hopeful one. But in the same post in which Bonanno’s name appears, a mixed experience is a disappointment. So I had to go back pronto to determine whether it was a fluke on their part, a matter of excessive crankiness on mine—or whether Lou’s would, in fact, be the dent in Frank’s thus-far-shining armor.
OK, enough drama. My 2nd impression, in the company of none other than the aforementioned Adrian Miller, amounts to this: all’s well that ends really, really well.
Even if the rillettes, chunky with salmon this time, were still awfully salty, they weren’t quite too salty, enriched with housemade cream cheese. This time, then, the accompanying pickle—including super-garlicky julienned carrots & pearl onions, which I’m always happy to see—acted as a proper complement rather than a needed supplement.
Now, of course the mahi mahi on my fish sandwich was salty—it was blackened. Even so, the presence of the moist, sweet filet wasn’t lost in the mix of contrasts beneath its spicy coating: fresh, chewy, butter-toasted country bread; lots of crisp lettuce; ripe sliced tomatoes despite the season; & a generous smear of remoulade (which didn’t taste distinctly of the celery root it contains, but garlicky creaminess is garlicky creaminess; I had no complaints).
Speaking of Furr’s Cafeteria—this Oklahoman couldn’t help but be touched by the homely appearance of plate of Adrian’s fried chicken & whipped potatoes, as deliberate, I’m sure, as the wing & 2 legs were textbook: tender & juicy, the batter crunchy, virtually greaseless & judiciously seasoned (i.e. not too salty). Adrian—who is, after all, writing a book that may well turn out to be the book on soul food—observed that he actually likes his breading slightly less crunchy, a bit more “cohesive,” but he also explained that that was a personal preference, not an objective judgment call.
And then, again, there was dessert—warm brownie bread pudding awash in crème anglaise. And finally, my mind was blown.
So simple, yet so profoundly memorable—it was served with forks, but spoons would have sufficed. In a word, it was pure—of egg, of chocolate, of cream & vanilla, with a texture so soft it nearly disappeared on contact.
In the afterglow, I took a second glance at the drink list—& while the signature cocktails still didn’t do much for me, the list of house-infused spirits & syrups caused a double take: lavender, tarragon & black pepper, coffee…Now that’s more like it!
I should note in closing that even as I moved from doubter to potential devotee, I wasn’t once skeptical about the service—I got the same guy both times, & he was an unerring pro: cheerful, knowledgable, attentive, helpful. What I didn’t get was his name—but I discovered that he’s an aficionado of North Carolina barbecue, so there’s a clue to resting assured you’re in very good hands.