2.08.2014

Her Name Was NOLA

Actually, her name is JoAnn, and she is the owner of the Upperline Restaurant situated in the Lower Garden District of New Orleans, Louisiana, a city also known as NOLA. (I can't get Barry Manilow's "Copacabana" out of my head now...)

We love the Upperline - it has the kind of atmosphere we like in a restaurant. The rooms are small, but not crowded, the wall colors are rich and hung top to bottom with colorful local art, and the service is friendly and welcoming.

Of course, the food is exquisite.

Mark caught this great wedding shot on Bourbon Street.
JoAnn Clevenger, née Goodwin, opened the restaurant in 1983, and has been enjoying the year-long celebration of 30 years running a successful neighborhood restaurant.

JoAnn greets her guests at the door. (Photo: NOLA Online)
The Upperline is personal. When you call for a reservation, you cannot leave your name and number on a machine; you must call back and speak with a human. This is so rare in this day and age of immediate gratification. But I like it so much.

And, not only do you speak with a human when you call back, you speak with JoAnn. How many restaurant owners actually take your reservation? And, when you call back yet another time almost a full year later, she remembers you – and probably what you ate the last time you were there. The Upperline feels like family.

We dined in the room at the back. (Photo: NOLA Online)
This particular visit, we sat in the furthest room from the entry, wanting to try out a different atmosphere. The 12-foot high ceilings and tall windows of this one-time former-parlor made for an elegant setting, and, although every table was taken, not once did we feel crowded nor did we have to strain to hear one another.

We ordered cocktails (Sidecars) and perused the menus with not a single hint that we needed to order quickly so that the table could be turned.

After major deliberations and hearing descriptions of all the dishes offered, we both opted to start with the turtle soup laced with sherry. I had tasted my first turtle soup when I was a teenager. At that time, like many boys that age, I was drawn to trying the weirdest thing on the menu... more for boasting rights at school and as a badge of courage than for culinary curiosity. This time, it was culinary curiosity for sure. The soup - served in a small cup with a cruet of sherry on the side - was rich and complex, and I wanted to lick the cup when I was finished.

Mark, for his main course, decided not to have the shrimp and grits again, although he had enjoyed it so much on a previous visit he was sorely tempted. He did, however, want something that came with their incredible grits, so ordered the veal grillades with mushrooms and bell peppers over cheese grits.

I ordered the the "Drum Fish Piquant with Hot & Hot Shrimp." This is one of thee signature dishes and is not to be missed! In 2006 USA Today awarded this dish one of the top 25 new dishes in America. Chef Dave Bridges should be given a national medal of honor of this creation. It is spicy by itself and then comes with a small pitcher of habañero pepper sauce on the side. (I used almost all of it...)

This playful work by Wanda Teel graced the wall of our maisonette in the Garden District.
When the meals arrived we did as we always do - immediately tasted one another's dinners, probably to make sure we made the right decision! Both were excellent, but after a taste of Mark’s grits I was sad not to have any on my plate. I called our server aside and asked for a side order...

We finished with the honey-pecan bread pudding bathed in toffee sauce and Louisiana pecan pie, even though we were too full to finish either.

One of the sights on Jackson Square.
JoAnn came through quite often during the evening to chat with folks and to make sure all was well in the land of perfect gastronomy. It seemed to us as if she knew every customer personally. We chatted easily with her about her life as a restaurateur (restaurateuse?), and about New Orleans in general. She offered us great advice ranging from the best radio stations, to bookshops that just had to be visited, to off-beat sights to see.

We left the restaurant with a glow - from the food, the ambiance, and our memorable conversations with JoAnn. We also left with a hint as to how they make those amazing grits. And that, dear friends, is my offering to you today: my version of the Upperline's cheesy grits.

They are, as the kids used to say, "to die for!"

~ David

Cheesy Grits à la Upperline
Note: because all I could find were quick cooking grits, I had to make due with them. I have ordered some real grits from the South. When they arrive, I will revisit and repost this recipe - real grits need 20 minutes to cook!

Updated Version

5 cups whole milk
1 teaspoon chicken broth concentrate (optional)
1 cup stone ground grits
1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt
4 ounces grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
freshly ground black pepper  

Bring 4 cups of milk to a simmer with the chicken broth concentrate (if using) and slowly stir in the grits and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cook at a brisk simmer, stirring often, for 15 minutes. Check consistency, adding a little more if needed. Continue cooking for another 5 minutes, adding milk as needed, then add the grated cheese. Taste for seasoning and add more salt if needed. Add black pepper and serve, or cover and keep warm until you are ready to serve. 

Makes 4 servings.

Instant Grits Version 


2 to 2 1/2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup grits (I used Quaker Oats quick cooking grits)
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 ounces grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Bring 2 cups milk to a simmer I'm a heavy-bottomed sauce pan - do not let it boil. Slowly add the grits while stirring with a wooden spoon. Add the salt and cook at a low simmer for 4 minutes. At this point, it should be somewhat thick, and you might see the bottom of the pan when you drag the spoon across.

Add the cheese and cook for another 2-3 minutes, add milk as needed to create the right consistency.

Makes 2 servings. May be doubled, tripled or quadrupled.

30 comments:

  1. Not sure which is more interesting - your story or the photos. Must buy grits this week as I love them.

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    1. You are very sweet, Jill! Thanks, and I hope you like them!

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  2. I tried turtle soup for the first time in New Orleans last year. I absolutely love it. So packed with flavour! I also have a bit of a soft spot for good shrimp & grits, as well. I blame the South for gaining 6 kg (13 pounds)on our American travels!

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    1. John - as soon as I can get my hands on some turtle meat, I will be making the soup, too. Yes, I can see why you blame the South - they do have their culinary ways!

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  3. Love this post. And I especially love all of your beautiful ceramic bowls!

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    1. Thanks, Valentina! The ceramic bowls were made by my friend, Lila - the one with salt is actual a Japanese cast iron tea cup, the one with the cheese is from Turkey, and the one I served the polenta in came from Block Island Blue Pottery (Rhode Island). It's fun to have a nice variety of bowls to play with!

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  4. Sounds delicious! I have not tried turtle soup.

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    1. Liz - you have to try it. If you can find the meat, I can get you a really wonderful, authentic recipe.

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  5. We're headed to NOLA next Thursday. Your restaurant posts are timely. Thanks! You should go some year for Krewe de Vieux -- a local's ragtag kickoff to Mardi Gras, without the crowds.

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    1. The Krewe de Vieux would be the exact way that I'd like to experience Mardi Gras! Will look forward to your photos and report, Kirsten!

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  6. The only time I've been to New Orleans ( for a business conference) I had only three things on my mind...beignets, genuine red beans and rice, and cheese grits....Thank you for providing a recipe to relive one of my favorite humbly wonderful dishes!

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    1. Yes, Karin, cheese grits can be addictive! Oddly, I didn't even think of red beans and rice when I was there...

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  7. What a wonderful place! Lovely atmosphere, lovely hostess and great food! Perfect combination for a restaurant. Your dinners sounded wonderful and I can't wait for your true Southern grits!

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    1. The stone ground grits arrive today! Grits for dinner tomorrow? Thanks, Nazneen!

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  8. This will sound like a dumb question, I have heard of grits but have never had the opportunity to try them. I read that they are similar to polenta - is that correct? Loving the posts on NOLA, I really really want to visit now.

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    1. Karen - great questions, not dumb at all. Grits and polenta are both ground corn .The minor difference I have learned is that grits are from "dent corn" and polenta from "flint corn." These differences are minor but affect how they cook up in the end. If you look for stone ground cornmeal, you will be able to find a product that works either way.

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  9. Grits are not a dish I would ever have made--without your endorsement and recipe! Now I am excited to do so! Love your writing and photography--I felt like I had pulled up a chair to join you and Mark.

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    1. Susan - wish you had been there with us! And I think you will really enjoy the grits!

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  10. I', planning a post Mardi Gras trip to NOLA this year and this was very helpful. GREG

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    1. Greg - thanks for stopping by! I hope you have a great time in NOLA - in case you missed them, there were three earlier posts and one more to come!

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  11. Yum, David! I really must return to NOLA to follow in your culinary footsteps! I finally finished my Shutterfly book - I posted the link on FB if you're interested.

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    1. Thanks, Susan - I will be heading to FB in a few minutes to check out your book!

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  12. Michael Cochise YoungFebruary 11, 2014 at 3:27 AM

    Thrilled that Joanne C and the Upperline continue to thrive. I once asked if i could order the peach-and-port duck sauce for dessert. Since we were the last customers, Joanne's son, then the chef, obliged with a demitasse--the last spoonsful left after a very busy night. Now i must turn to my former home for your drum fish and shrimp. Thank you for sharing an account that so vividly recreated the magic of the Upperline...

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    1. Michael - I am so glad you already knew JoAnn and the Upperline! Truly a very special place in my culinary mind. Now we must go back and have the duck with the peach and port sauce! xox

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  13. Dear David, never had grits either but I have heard a lot about them and seen numerous recipes for them. I have always been curious about the taste - if it is similar to Italian polenta, I am sure I would really love to eat some. Your recipe sounds delightful and your photos and story about NOLA are simply wonderful!
    What a nice post - as always, I really enjoyed my virtual visit
    here!
    Ganz viele liebe Grüße aus Bonn - heute scheint die Sonne hier!
    Andrea

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    1. Dear Andrea - while, in theory, grits and polenta should be about the same, they are not. Yet I have to say they are equally good, and I know you would love them! You will have one more NOLA visit this week and then we are off doing lots of different things. So glad the sun is shining, and I do hope you are feeling better! Herzliche Grüße von immer sonnigem und warmem Tucson (32°C dieses Wochenende!).

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  14. Alright, these grits I have got to try.
    Love the gator. Another great read, D. xo

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    1. Thanks, Colette! We are having "real" grits on Friday with shrimp. I can't wait to try them! Glad you liked the gator - he was cute, eh?

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  15. I love cheese grits and am glad you were able to order "real" grits…I like their texture much better. I will definitely try the restaurant next time we are in NOLA…it sounds perfect from your description.

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    1. Karen - for my latest batch of grits, I used Manchego cheese and I have to say they were pretty fantastic! I love the Upperline - just one of those perfect neighborhood places!

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Thank you for taking the time to leave me a note - I really appreciate hearing from you and welcome any ideas you may have for future posts, too. Happy Cooking!

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