Weekly Column

For the Love of Cheese

Posted by on Sep 12, 2017

I defend America’s reputation at every turn. I have encountered rude Europeans over the years who have made snide remarks against our country. Nothing gets my blood boiling more than that. I am a very non-confrontational person, but if you criticize my family, my hometown, my home state, or my country, I usually take passionate, vocal exception.   Most of the criticism is unfounded or based on false information or misrepresentations. Though one area where we earn the criticism is with our cheese.   There is a scene in the outtakes of the movie Borat where Sacha Baron Cohen, in his Borat character, is talking to a grocery store manager in the cheese section. He is moving slowly, item by item, asking, “What is this?”   Each time the store manager replies, “Cheese.” This continues, over and over, for probably three dozen times. Maybe more. That is the current state of the American grocery store cheese section— a lot of very mediocre and subpar cheese, pre-shredded in plastic bags, with a couple of quality products scattered throughout.   We Americans love cheese, we just don’t love the good cheese enough.   I don’t eat a lot of fast food these days, and when I do, I do my best to make it slightly healthy and leave off the cheese. I’ll issue a challenge to the reader that will be a prime exhibit in my case that we have gone cheese crazy in this country. Try ordering a burger in a fast food drive through and have them leave off the cheese. They can’t do it. It’s so ingrained in them that every burger must be a cheeseburger. It’s been my experience that almost 50% of the time, they are going to put cheese on your sandwich even if you stressed over and over, “NO CHEESE, PLEASE!”   It doesn’t matter if it’s a burger place or Taco Bell. Some have an innate need to use cheese. That’s why I take 90% my occasional fast food business to Popeye’s— awesome dark meat spicy chicken, 0% chance that they are going to put cheese on anything I order.   I am a HUGE fan of nachos, seriously, I really, really love nachos. Though I only like real cheese on nachos. Not that stadium chemistry experiment, gloppy, yellow stuff they call “nacho cheese,” and not even— pause for a Deep South Cardinal sin food comment— Velveeta. Nope. Given my choice, I like individual chip nachos with some type of protein (preferably beef or steak), jalapenos, a little pico de gallo, and melted sharp cheddar cheese or some type of Mexican cheese like Manchego or Oaxaca.   I am not a cheese snob. I’ll occasionally have a burger, or a grilled cheese sandwich, with American cheese. But that is usually for nostalgic reasons. They remind me of my childhood.   I like my cheese to come from a cow, goat, sheep or an Italian Water Buffalo, not a chemistry lab. Remember: Real cheese doesn’t squeeze.   My editor in New York has a simple rule to maintain a healthy and fit lifestyle. He says, “I only eat meat, bread, or cheese that is of the best quality.” That might sound like Upper East Side snobbery, but it’s not. I get it. It’s sound reasoning. What he’s basically saying is that if he is going to indulge and spend calories on meat, bread, or cheese, he’s not going to waste those calories on cheap processed foods. I get that, and I can appreciate that. He eats freshly baked breads from bakeries and not sliced...

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Janusz of 3000 Days— A Bakery Like A Sitcom

Posted by on Sep 12, 2017

It’s the end of an era and a sorrow-filled day for many in my hometown of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Chef Janusz at C’est la Vie Bakery closed his doors for the final time last week. It’s certainly a sad day for this columnist and the dozen or so other regulars who visited that place almost every morning.   I ate breakfast at C’est la Vie at least three times a week, sometimes more, sometimes less. There are many who were once-a-weekers, and a lot came in for freshly baked croissants and pastries once a month. There were also the hard-core devotees who were there every morning.   My son and I ate there every Friday morning before last season’s football games— same table, same seats, same order, at the same time— and made it through an undefeated regular season slate. I ate at C’est la Vie every Saturday morning with my mother, again same table, same seats, same order, at the same time, 7a.m.   It wasn’t a typical business. It was run by a French chef in the French style with a French business sensibility. He might close shop for a week and go to visit his daughter in Florida, or pack it up for 10 days and head back over to France to see his family. He never took credit cards, and closed at odd times. Some people said, “He was swamped and doing all of the business he could.” Others stated, “He was doing more business than he wanted.” Whatever their opinion might be, they stated it with their mouths full of some of the best baked goods this side of Lille.   When the bakery opened 10 years ago I wrote about how lucky I was to be 127 steps away from a French pastry chef who baked fresh croissants and pastries on a daily basis. I have written several columns about the C’est la Vie Bakery since. That small shop was a huge part of many people’s lives. I ate over 1,000 breakfasts there. Others ate more.   The pastries were first rate. I have stated countless times that I have eaten pastries and breads all over France, and none— seriously— none have been better than the ones I ate here in Hattiesburg, Mississippi across the street from my office. Some as good, none better.   I’ll miss those pastries and the morning comradery that was shared in that cramped space. But I have also lost one of my go-to Hattiesburg bragging points. Often in New York or Los Angeles in book meetings or marketing sessions, I have been able to shut down haughty individuals who base their opinions on broad stereotypes who sought to denigrate Mississippi, and the town from which I hail, by making snide comments such as, “Hattiesburg, Mississippi? Hmm. What is there to do in in Hattiesburg, Mississippi?” I always mention seeing YoYo Ma and Itzhak Perlman, each perform with our local orchestra, several other select highlights, and end with world-class pastries from a classically trained French pastry chef 127 steps from my office. C’est la Vie gave me bragging rights, but it also was a quality of life thing for me.   The Area Development Partnership (our local chamber of commerce) would serve the community well if they took a few weeks off from recruiting manufacturing plants and focused all efforts on recruiting a real French pastry chef to set up shop in town (ADP, if you’re reading, please make it within the 127-step office radius). We have other bakeries, and they are good. Though this place checked all of...

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RSJ’s Top 10 New Orleans Brunch Spots

Posted by on Sep 12, 2017

The following is the final installment in the four-part summer-column series covering my top-10 dining experiences for breakfast, lunch, dinner and brunch in New Orleans. There are a few items to note: This list purely subjective. Everyone has varying tastes and preferences. This is not a ranking of overall quality from a critical/review standpoint. This is my personal list. These are my personal favorites. Everyone has personal connections to restaurants. These happen to be mine. According to the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, there are more than 1,400 restaurants operating in New Orleans today. That’s an impressive number for a city with a population of only 390,000. There are obviously hundreds of restaurants I have yet to visit, though there are dozens of others in each category that I have dined in, that didn’t make the list. The primary guideline I followed while making this top-10 list was that I had to have visited the restaurant at least once in the past five months. Most restaurants that are listed involved three or more visits. I keep a lot of food notes in my phone. Restaurants continually move up and down in the order of my personal rankings. Those listings are always a snapshot in time. There are no “musts” that are required to be on the RSJ brunch list. Ultimately, a top-10 brunch restaurant must be one that I would gladly visit again and again, and one which would be highly recommended to friends who might be visiting New Orleans. A quick review the previous lists (which can be found in detail at www.robertstjohn.com). Breakfast: 10.) Gracious Bakery and Café 9.) New Orleans Cake Café and Bakery 8.) Elizabeth’s 7.) Horn’s 6.) The Ruby Slipper Café 5.) Biscuits and Buns on Banks 4.) Surrey’s Juice Bar 3.) Willa Jean 2.) La Boulangerie 1.) Toast Lunch: 10.) Verti Marte 9.) El Gato Negro 8.) Cameillia Grill 7.) Bon Ton 6.) The Company Burger 5.) Juan’s Flying Burrito 4.) Central City BBQ 3.) Casamento’s 2.) Tartine 1.) Stein’s Market and Deli Dinner: 10.) Ming’s Chinese 9.) Pizza Delicious 8.) Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse 7.) Coquette 6.) Italian Barrel 5.) Lilette 4.) La Petite Grocery 3.) The Franklin 2.) August 1.) Brightsen’s Half of the breakfast list would probably be on my brunch list, too. But for the sake of this column, I won’t repeat any restaurant. Narrowing a list to 10 is tougher than one might think. Again, this is NOT a list based on critical analysis and professional evaluation standards. It’s personal. I look at the list this way: If I only had 10 brunches left to eat in New Orleans, where would I go? 10.) Cavan— 3607 Magazine Street. My family and I spent our Mother’s Day brunch, here. Along with August, the dining room at Cavan is one of my wife’s favorites. Rooms have certain “feels” to me. Balthazar on Spring Street in SoHo “feels” like New York to me. The dining room at Cavan feels like Uptown New Orleans. Brunch was solid. 9.) Peche— 800 Magazine Street. Any and all discussions at Donald Link’s Peche should begin and end with the whole fish. Just order it. The smoked tuna dip and shrimp toast apps are solid, but the whole roasted fish is probably the best fish dish in town (possibly in the entire state). 8.) Luke— 333 St. Charles Avenue. John Besh introduced me to Allan Benton 15 years ago. I’ve been a fan and friend of both ever since. Benton’s bacon makes several appearances on the menu. You won’t go wrong with any dish that uses...

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RSJ’s Top 10 New Orleans Dinner Spots

Posted by on Aug 15, 2017

The following is the third in a four-installment summer-column series covering my top 10 dining experiences for breakfast, lunch, dinner and brunch in New Orleans. There are a few items to note: This list purely subjective. Everyone has varying tastes and preferences. This is not a ranking of overall quality from a critical/review standpoint. This is my personal list. These are my personal favorites. Everyone has personal connections to restaurants. These happen to be mine. According to the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, there are more than 1,400 restaurants operating in New Orleans today. That’s an impressive number for a city with a population of only 390,000. There are obviously hundreds of restaurants I have yet to visit, though there are dozens of others in each category that I have dined in, that didn’t make the list. The primary guideline I followed while making this top-10 list was that I had to have visited the restaurant at least once in the past five months. Most restaurants that are listed involved three or more visits. I keep a lot of food notes in my phone. Restaurants continually move up and down in the order of my personal rankings. Those listings are always a snapshot in time. There are no “musts” that are required to be on the RSJ dinner list. Ultimately, a top-10 dinner restaurant must be one that I would gladly visit again and again, and one which would be highly recommended to friends who might be visiting New Orleans. Again, this is my personal list, today. It’s a snapshot in time. Shaya— one of the hottest restaurants in town for the past couple of years— is not on the list. That’s not because I don’t like Shaya. Save the email. Carrollton Market is on my to-do list, everything I have heard is excellent, and a former chef from one of our restaurants is Chef de Cuisine, but I have yet to visit. Narrowing a list to 10 is tougher than one might think. Again, this is not a list based on critical analysis and professional evaluation standards. It’s personal. I look at the list this way: If I only had 10 dinners left to eat in New Orleans, where would I go? 10.) Ming’s Chinese— I love Chinese food. For years, Five Happiness was my go-to in this segment. If we’re on the North Shore we eat at Trey Yuen. I could have easily put the uber hip Red’s Chinese in this slot based on the Kung Pao Pastrami, alone. But ultimately the shrimp toast at Ming’s won the day. This place doesn’t have the atmosphere of Trey Yuen, the local tradition and menu size of Five Happiness, or the hipster vibe of Red’s Chinese. But it has good, solid, Americanized Chinese food, and the absolute best shrimp toast I have ever eaten from New York to San Francisco. 9.) Pizza Delicious— I love a restaurant that appears to have started on a shoestring. Turkey and the Wolf is hot right now for a lot of reasons. One of the things that impresses me the most at Turkey and the Wolf is that they seemed to have opened the place on the cheap, seemingly out of a thrift shop. I love that. The opening of a restaurant is typically an expensive proposition. Like Turkey and the Wolf, the Pizza Delicious guys opened in, what looks like, a converted garage with concrete block walls, concrete floors, and the best pizza in town. Pizza Delicious is the embodiment of the American dream— two college roommates began making pizzas and selling...

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RSJ’s Top 10 New Orleans Lunch Spots

Posted by on Aug 9, 2017

The following is the second in a four-installment summer-column series covering my top 10 dining experiences for breakfast, lunch, dinner and brunch in New Orleans. There are a few items to note: This list purely subjective. Everyone has varying tastes and preferences. This is not a ranking of overall quality from a critical/review standpoint. This is my personal list. These are my personal favorites. Everyone has personal connections to restaurants. These happen to be mine. According to the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, there are more than 1,400 restaurants operating in New Orleans today. That’s an impressive number for a city with a population of only 390,000. There are obviously hundreds of restaurants I have yet to visit, though there are dozens of others in each category that I have dined in, that didn’t make the list. The primary guideline I followed while making this top 10 list was that I had to have visited the restaurant at least once in the past five months. Most restaurants that are listed involved three or more visits. It wasn’t a requirement, but after finishing the list, I noticed that all of the places are casual, which is certainly no surprise to those who know me. I have never held a lot of love for formal lunches. I keep a lot of food notes in my phone. Restaurants continually move up and down in the order of my personal rankings. Those listings are always a snapshot in time. There are no “musts” that are required to be on the RSJ lunch list. Ultimately, a top 10 lunch restaurant must be one that I would gladly visit again and again, and one which would be highly recommended to friends who might be visiting New Orleans. Again, this is my personal list, today. Galitoire’s— one of the most classic lunch spots in the country— is not on the list. That’s not because I don’t like Galitoire’s. I have great memories of dining in that restaurant from the time I was five-years old. Friday lunches in Galitoire’s are the ultimate New Orleans’ dining experience. I know that. Save the email. I look at the list this way: If I only had 10 lunches left to eat in New Orleans, where would I go? 10.) Verdi Marte— So to respond the above question posed, “where would I go?” The answer for #10 would be, “nowhere.” I would stay in my apartment and call Verdi Mart to deliver my lunch. Tourists might pass Verdi Mart a dozen times and never consider scoring a meal from the small, cramped and cluttered convenience store on Royal and Governor Nicholls. To me, Verdi Marte is 100% pure New Orleans. Where else can one get a can of cat food, a roll of toilet paper, killer gumbo, and a fried oyster po-boy? The place is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and the menu is massive. I’ve never been in the kitchen, but it has to be substantially larger than it looks from the outside to be able to support a menu that sizable. I first started eating at Verdi Marte in the early 1990s when the Soniat House was the go-to hotel for my wife and me. The Soniat cottage was one block away from Verdi Marte. Not much has changed since then. It burned and was rebuilt, but to me it looks— and tastes— the same as it always has, and that’s a good thing. 9.) El Gato Negro— One might ask, “What is a Mexican restaurant doing on a New Orleans dining list?” The answer would...

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RSJ’s Top 10 New Orleans Breakfasts

Posted by on Jul 31, 2017

The following is the first in a summer-column series that will cover dining in New Orleans. Over the next four weeks I’ll list my top 10 dining experiences for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and brunch in New Orleans, one of the nation’s top-three restaurant cities. There are a few items to note: This list purely subjective. Everyone has varying tastes and preferences. This is not a ranking of overall quality from a critical/review standpoint. This is my personal list. These are my personal favorites. According to the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, there are more than 1,400 restaurants operating in New Orleans, today. There are hundreds I have yet to visit. Though there are dozens of others in each category that I have dined in which didn’t make the list. The primary guideline I followed while making this top-10 list was that I had to have visited the restaurant at least once in the past five months. Most restaurants that are listed involved three or more visits. There a few “musts” that are required for a perfect RSJ breakfast joint. The place should know how to properly cook eggs (you’d be amazed at the number of places that overcook eggs), the bacon needs to be high quality, the orange juice should be fresh squeezed (substitute the word coffee for those who drink it), when pertinent the breads should be skillfully baked in house 10.) Gracious Bakery and Café— 2854 St. Charles Avenue. There are two locations, the second is in Mid City on the Jeff Davis Parkway. Looking at my notes, the counter experience was “awkward” and the interaction between the employees behind the counter and the guests was “hesitant.” But the breads were “excellent,” and if one is looking for a good egg white sandwich, this is the place to go. The freshly baked breads, alone, will bring me back, often. 9.) New Orleans Cake Cafe & Bakery— 2440 Chartres Street in the Marigny. This little jewel is just a few blocks from our apartment. I can walk there, grab a few hot biscuits to go, and be home while they are still warm. Their homemade jams and preserves are some of the best in town. The corned beef hash, salmon and eggs, and grits dishes are all winners. 8.) Elizabeth’s— 601 Gallier Street, I don’t know if the chefs at Elizabeth’s are responsible for inventing praline bacon, but this is the first place I ate it. When I first heard about it, my friend, Bill Kirby and I drove down to the Bywater, sometime in the early 2000s, ate breakfast at Elizabeth’s, and then drove back to Hattiesburg. There is almost always a line at Elizabeth’s. In my opinion, this was the first in the new wave of New Orleans breakfast joints. It’s funky and the energy level is high. Many places serve praline bacon these days, and to be honest, I am not a huge fan of the stuff. But people dig it, and it sells well all over town. 7.) Horn’s— 1940 Dauphine Street, in the Marigny. This is a good, solid breakfast joint. Horn’s probably has the best neighborhood feel and vibe of any restaurant on this list. The Crabby Wife— a crab cake with fried eggs, crawfish etouffee and a biscuit— is one of my main go-tos at Horn’s. It’s hard not to feel like a local when eating in that building. 6.) The Ruby Slipper Cafe— four locations. My favorite of the four is in the Marigny at 2001 Burgundy, just a block or so from Horn’s, in an old bank that Bonnie...

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