Louisiana raised John Besh is somewhat of a legend in these parts. A graduate from the Culinary Institute of America, Besh was named one of ‘Ten Best New Chefs in America’ by Food & Wine Magazine in 1999, and in 2006 he won the prestigious James Beard Foundation Award (The Oscars of Food) for the ‘Best Chef in the Southeast’ of Northern America. Before Hurricane Katrina John Besh was known around the states as a good chef with a fancy downtown restaurant that had a habit of showing up on many top 10 lists around his native country. In the aftermath of Katrina his status was elevated with tales of this ex-Marine riding into the flooded city by boat, with a gun and bags of rice and beans, feeding New Orleans until it could finally feed itself again. His post-Katrina actions have made him a spokesperson for the citys culinary recovery and Besh now owns nine restaurants (eight of which are in New Orleans) that showcase different aspects of his culinary past.
Such a highly regarded chef in the New Orleans food circuit definitely deserved a visit from the critical English Hippy. We chose Besh’s flagship restaurant, August. Open since 2001, serving contemporary French cuisine inspired by Besh’s domestic and European training, with emphasis on the use of local produce from no further than 100 miles afield. August is located in a historic 19th century French-Creole building in the Central Business District. The interior is rich with original architectural details, gleaming hardwood floors, soaring columns, mahogany paneling and antique mirrors. The main dining area is composed of three rooms; the elegant main dining room with its grand crystal chandeliers, the two-story wine room and the intimate Gravier room. Tables are dressed with precision, white table cloths and silver cutlery, homage indeed to any French fine-dining establishment.
The wine list at August is expansive allowing everyone to find a suitable bottle to accompany their meal, we chose a 2011 Chardonnay which was light and refreshing. As for food we opted for the lunch prix fixe menu which started with warm crusty rolls and an amuse bouche of curried oats topped with truffle whipped, roasted cauliflower sabayon, presented in a delicate egg shell. The curried oats married wonderfully with the richness of the sabayon which carried a smoked earthy flavour from the roasted cauliflower. Lunch was off to a good start.
Moving on to starters, Pâté of Local Pork. In my opinion this was move of a terrine than a pâté and a generous slice was given with each portion. The pâté was accompanied with a selection of house made pickles, chutneys and mustards, the pickled morel mushrooms and apple chutney were particularly nice, adding sour and sweet notes to offset the rich, fatty pork. Edible flowers, wafer thin slices of yellow beetroot and a variety of salad leaves completed the plate. Slices of slightly sweet, toasted brioche were served alongside the dish. An accomplished and aesthetically pleasing plate of food, although the addition of Dijon and whole grain mustards were unnecessary, proving once again that at times less is most certainly more.
Mains swiftly followed starters and I was a little sceptical from the menu description of Pork Belly and Kimchi Rice, as this sounded distinctively Asian for a contemporary French restaurant. Fears were quickly adverted once the delightful smells of the dish rose into my nostrils The pork belly had a lovely meat to fat ratio and was glazed with a sticky, sweet soy sauce and topped with chopped peanuts. The dish was served with a gently poached egg that provided yet more richness with the vibrant yellow yolk, and also acted as a tasty condiment for the pork. A savoury square of dried seaweed gave salty depth as well as texture, and the selection of kimchi vegetables including Chinese cabbage, courgettes and carrots dressed in a spicy, brown sugar vinaigrette cut through the fatty pork belly perfectly. Although distinctly Asian flavours I found this a welcome contrast to the normal dishes served on a European fine-dining menu. Saying that, I couldn’t help but wonder how the Gulf Sheepshead Poêlé (a fish that is indigenous to these waters) served with pumpkin custard, pearl barley, and brown butter would have tasted.
The first of our desserts was Dark Chocolate Hazelnut Parfait, which had dramatic presentation and was married with a burnt caramel ice cream. The parfait was luxurious and had a lovely chocolate flavour, this silky smooth desert melted in mouth and the cold ice cream provided contrasts in temperatures. The dish was garnished with a dark chocolate tuile that showcased the pastry chef’s skills, as well as crisp hazelnut biscuits.
The second dessert was comprised of locally grown strawberries (from neighbouring city Ponchatoula) served alongside spheres of delicate elderflower jelly and creole cream cheese. Once brought to the table, the waiter pours a vivid red strawberry consommé over the desert which imparts yet more strawberry flavour. The dish was the correct balance of zesty and sweet from the strawberries, with just the right amount of richness from the cream cheese. A lovely, light dessert that actually served as a great palate cleanser for the end of the meal.
As a final gesture a selection of confections were brought with our bill. White chocolate lollipops filled with lemon curd and a house made praline (there were two of each but I failed to get a photo before Lucy munched her praline). The French style praline of sliced almonds and sugar syrup is hugely popular in New Orleans. Both were delicious and ensured we left the restaurant suitably full and with only the sweetest memories of our lunch at August.
As mentioned August is only one of the restaurants in Besh’s New Orleans empire. Another is The American Sector, located inside The National WWII Museum in the Warehouse District. After a gentle afternoon stroll around the French Quarter and riding the historic streetcars that provide transport around the city we decided to have an afternoon tipple. As chance would have it The American Sector has one of the best happy hour deals in the city, everyday between 3pm and 6pm you can enjoy cheap drinks and a 75c bar menu. Draft beer is provided curtsy of local breweries Abita and NOLA, both of which boast interesting, great flavoured ales. I’m a particular fan of Abita Brown, Jockamo IPA and Restoration Pale Ale as well as NOLA Hopitoulas. Although you can’t really go wrong with any of these locally brews at $2.50 a pint. Despite lunch we still managed to sample the 75c bar menu which included Chappapella Farm Duck Wings in a Korean BBQ Sauce (finger licking deliciousness – photo below), Smoky Pulled Pork Sliders with Fried Onion Strings and Meat Pies (a crisp pastry filled with minced beef, vegetables and a spiced mayonnaise, not too dissimilar to the Brazilian empanadas).
New Orleans love chef John Besh, and from a single day spent dining in his restaurants I can certainly see why. John Besh, if you’re reading this, keep doing the same for the people of New Orleans. You legend.
August – 301 Tchoupitoulas St, New Orleans, Louisiana.
The American Sector @ The National WWII Museum – 945 Magazine St, New Orleans, Louisiana.