Last week, I had the exciting honor of meeting with some of John Besh’s team for a late lunch at Borgne, Besh’s new restaurant in the fabulous Hyatt Regency downtown. I learned quite a bit about the industry–from the initiatives and successes of the John Besh Foundation, to the constant menu collaboration between Besh and his chefs–and it’s easy to see why his restaurants and his name have become so successful. After Katrina, Besh became well known for his generosity in offering free comfort food to survivors and early re-builders. Today, he displays that same generosity through his efforts to bring diversity and skill development to New Orleans kitchens with the ChefsMove! empowerment program. His efforts to reach out go beyond just putting great food on our plates; John Besh strives to change lives.
Unfortunately, I will never be a candidate for the Foundation Scholarship, so my life-changing experience relies solely on the food. Borgne, a celebration of coastal cuisine and the Isleño immigrants who helped influence it, strives to be the household name for great local seafood. Executive Chef Brian Landry (formerly of Galatoire’s) works wonders in the kitchen with a menu that is inventive enough to intrigue locals but traditional enough to please tourists. The casual decor is reminiscent of fish camps (sans the communal seating and stuffed raccoons), with lots of natural light, walls adorned with pictures of fisherman proudly displaying their catches, and columns comprised of shiny P&J oyster shells. A picture-perfect display of Louisiana’s lusty obsession with seafood.
We grabbed a table near the windows looking out onto Loyola (soon to have it’s own streetcar line!) and I began the painful process of having to choose only a few things from the menu to try (I wanted everything). Something light to start seemed like the right thing to do, so I opted against Duck Poppers with Jalapeno and Bacon and went with the Marinated Crab Fingers instead (see header picture). Cold, plump crab claws get bathed in a simple dressing of oil, lemon and chili flakes, then garnished with cherry tomatoes and lush greens. A bright and healthy start to an otherwise carb-heavy meal.
Once I saw Peter from Blackened Out’s post on the Rabbit Ragu with Orecchiette Pasta from the $10 Wednesday lunch special, I knew I absolutely had to have it. I make something similar at home from a recipe I got out of my Real Simple cookbook, and since this dish has almost the exact same ingredients and flavors, I wanted to see how much better it could taste coming from an expert chef. Needless to say, my version seems a bit bland in comparison to Borgne’s hunks of Italian rabbit sausage, thick homemade orecchiette, and shreds of nutty parmesan. I, like Peter, felt the urge to “lap up the bowl.”
The Oyster Spaghetti was the other pasta dish I just had to try. Ever since my first taste of bottarga, I have been searching menus for dishes that feature the flavorful cured fish roe. Borgne’s oyster spaghetti comes with a sauce of oyster liquor, cream and garlic, boiled LA oysters, and shaved bottarga poured over thick strands of spaghetti. The flavor of the oysters permeates every inch of this dish so beautifully that it’s like an oyster celebration in your mouth every time you take a bite. It will be hard not to order this every time I go.
Dessert came in the form of the Ponchatoula Strawberry Crumble with Buttermilk Ice Cream. The crumble topping is a simple, yet delicious, blend of flour, brown sugar, and butter. Beneath that, a bubbling layer of strawberry compote bursts with sweet local berries and a hefty scoop of creamy buttermilk ice cream melts slowly over the top. If you’re as ga-ga for strawberries as I am, then this is the dessert for you. Crunchy, tart, and creamy–consider this summer in a cast-iron gratin.
Just as our long lunch was coming to an end, Chef Brian Landry made his way from the kitchen to shake my hand and offer me a taste of their imported Honey Rum from the Canary Islands (syrupy sweet and oh, so addictive) and, in turn, I got to tell him how much I enjoyed everything. Between the friendly staff, gracious lunch hosts, and absolutely stellar food, I imagine that I will be frequenting Borgne time and time again. The idea of bringing fresh and flavorful Louisiana seafood to the table isn’t exactly a novel idea, but Borgne’s casual atmosphere and island influence make it stand out from the rest. Besides, where else can you get Caldo Nunez, a Spanish-style pork and bean soup with mint and Oysters Almandine in the same meal? During my memorable lunch at Borgne, I got a taste for the spirit of the Besh industry in addition to a chef’s lifelong passion for the food and culture of the coast. I can’t wait to dive back in.