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Robert St. John Column

A Taste from the South By Robert St. John

Spring Break sandwiched between great food destinations

I just finished the second half of a spring break sandwich that started in the South Louisiana swamps of Cajun country and ended in the French Quarter of New Orleans.

My wife, son, daughter, and I had fun during the first leg of the vacation, but the trip to New Orleans might be my best visit to the city in 46 years.

The cottage at The Soniat House provided the perfect home base to make quick jaunts into the city with the kids in tow. The weather was perfect and we were able to keep the French doors that led into the private courtyard open during the entire visit. It was certainly a departure from the hot and stifling summers we have spent walking and dining below sea level in the French Quarter.

The Soniat House is perfect. It feels like New Orleans ought to feel. No other hotel in the city provides as much authenticity and service while, at the same time, exceeding their guest’s expectations at every turn. And it’s all done in a very low-key and understated manner. I can only think of one other hotel in the country that I have enjoyed more than The Soniat House.

The culinary leg of this New Orleans weekend can be split into three chapters:

Chapter One: The Cajun Master- During the previous weekend we spent three days in Cajun country, but never once ate anything that came close to the dinner we enjoyed at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen on our first night in New Orleans. Paul Prudhomme is the master of rich and complex stocks, and as all cooks know, ground zero for superior cooking is in the quality of the stock. No one makes better stocks, period. The sauces and soups that are served from the K-Paul’s kitchens are unmatched in their depth of flavor.

Make no mistake; Paul Prudhomme is still the master. He might not be as visible as he was in the early 1980s, but he is still the man.

Chapter Two: Oyster Heaven- For the last several years I have answered the what-would-your-last meal-be question with the answer, “My grandmother’s leg of lamb.” I haven’t changed that answer, but I have modified the meal after this weekend. I would still request my grandmother’s leg of lamb, but I would have Drago’s charbroiled oysters as a last-meal appetizer.

For 20 years friends and acquaintances have urged me to visit Drago’s in Metairie. It has been on my culinary to-do list for a long time, but I never found myself in the suburbs during recent visits.

One year ago Drago’s opened at the Hilton Riverside. We stopped by the restaurant after an Audubon Aquarium of the Americas and adjoining IMAX Theatre visit. I ordered a dozen charbroiled oysters. They were devoured in a matter of minutes. I ordered another half dozen and soon they, too, were gone. I ordered another half dozen and could have kept going if my kids hadn’t gotten bored watching me make a pig out of myself.

Drago’s invented the charbroiled oyster and they do it better than anyone.

The oysters are placed on the grill, doused with pepper and garlic-spiked butter, then topped with a mixture of parmesan and romano cheese, and doused with the butter again. The flames of the grill rise up and surround the oysters every time the butter is applied. The shells become charred and the oysters, smoky. Simple. Flavorful. Excellent.

Charbroiled oysters from Drago’s are my favorite seafood dish. Period. End of discussion.

Chapter Three: North Shore Authenticity- Last year Chef John Besh bought his former mentor’s- Chris Kerageorgiou- North Shore mainstay, La Provence. It was the perfect place to spend Easter lunch. Windsor Court Grill Room veteran chef Rene Bajeaux is manning the stoves and overseeing the kitchen garden and hog and chicken-raising operation out back.

Besh is the leader of the locally grown movement in Louisiana and, along with Restaurant August, La Provence is reaping the results. It takes a lot of time and effort to forge relationships with local farmers and ranchers. It takes even more time and effort to raise hogs and chickens on your own.

Luckily for us, La Provence believes in making that extra effort.

If you don’t have the time and resources to travel to France at the moment, don’t worry. Head down Highway 190 in Lacombe, Louisiana the next time you’re within 90 miles of the area and you’ll get to experience the flavors and ambiance without the jetlag.

We drove home with renewed spirits and full stomachs, dreaming of charbroiled oysters and spring lamb. A few miles across the state line, I noticed my wife thumbing through her pocket calendar. I can’t be sure, but I’ll bet she was beginning to schedule our next Louisiana culinary adventure. I can only hope.

For this week’s recipe, Grilled Leg of Lamb with Raspberry Mint Sauce, go to the blog on www.robertstjohn.com.