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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Friday, June 14, 2019

Review: St. James Cheese Company, New Orleans, Louisiana


Move Over Emeril's, Brennan's, et.al

Brennan's, Commander's Palace, Antoine's, K-Paul's, Dooky Chase's, and, of course, Emeril's. These and other iconic eateries are the places for which New Orleans is justifiably famous. And with just a short time in town, I didn't get to go to any of them. I can see Archie Manning's eponymous place, “Manning's,” from my hotel window. Ditto for Mulate's, the establishment that bills itself as “the original Cajun restaurant.” But I didn't go there either, mostly because half of the Crescent City seemed to have gotten there ahead me. Everywhere I looked I saw three and four dollar sign restaurants, most of which had only one name and none of which offered the simple, affordable lunch I was seeking. Until I Googled nearby restaurants and saw the St. James Cheese Company just a couple of blocks away.

The menu was right up my alley: a simple and straightforward selection of sandwiches and salads along with cheese and charcuterie boards, an English “Ploughman's Lunch,” and “Cheesemonger's Mac & Cheese.” How can you go wrong with choices like those? So off to St. James my wife and I went on a sunny early summer afternoon.

Located in the Warehouse District, St. James Cheese Company occupies space in an old renovated building on Tchoupitoulas street that could be described as “hole-in-the-wall.” Now, that's not at all a bad thing: some of the best restaurants you'll ever find are holes-in-walls. It was evident as you walked through the door that the place was bright, vibrant, scrupulously clean and well-kept, and nicely appointed. It was also quite loud. Bare floors, exposed brick walls, and high ceilings may be chic and trendy, but there's a lot to be said for the good old days of heavy fabric and other sound-deadening elements that allow for conversation without the need to say, “What?” and “Huh?” every other word. Oh, well. I'm old. So sue me.

The sign at the door requested we order up front during peak times and this was definitely such a time. My wife looked at the menu, made her selection, and scampered off to snag one of the last remaining tables while I stood waiting in line. It wasn't too bad; the line moved quickly and within a couple of minutes I had ordered our sandwiches and taken a seat.

In addition to being a sandwich shop, St. James Cheese Company is also a bona fide cheese shop, replete with a familiar wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano on display as well as an impressive selection of other delicious cheeses, both common and somewhat exotic. St. James Cheese Company was started up post-K (after Katrina) by Richard and Danielle Sutton, transplants from the London neighborhood of St. James, who decided in 2006 that they wanted to bring artisanal and farmhouse cheeses to New Orleans. The Suttons began their “life in cheese,” as they call it, at London's Paxton & Whitfield, one of the oldest cheesemongers in England. Holders of two royal warrants, one from the Prince of Wales in 1997 and one from Queen Elizabeth II in 2001, you could say P&W knows something about cheese. And the Suttons have brought that level of quality, knowledge, and sophistication to the Big Easy.

I noticed bagged loaves of fresh artisanal bread for sale in a basket at the front counter. And there was a nice variety of “gourmet” foods on offer as well. I was pleasantly surprised to see both carnaroli and vialone nano rice for sale. Everybody has arborio these days, even Walmart. Carnaroli and vialone nano? Not so much. St. James' mission statement proclaims, “We aim to provide our guests with a meticulously selected and unexpectedly diverse assortment of perfectly ripe cheeses, charcuterie, and gourmet grocery items.” Mission accomplished.

After a wait of no more than five minutes the food arrived. And we were absolutely transported. Move over Emeril's, Brennan's, et.al. Give St. James Cheese Company some elbow room. There aren't enough “o”s in “gooooooood” to describe what we had.

I opted for a basic grilled cheese sandwich, what they billed as a “Rustic Grilled Cheese.” It starts with white cheddar from world champion Wisconsin cheesemaker Tony Hook. Add some unidentified but undeniably delicious smoky bacon and sandwich it between slices of fresh country sourdough bread from New Orleans' own Bellegarde Bakery, throw some kettle-cooked potato chips on the side, and you have a simple sandwich that is simply divine.

My wife chose the “Smokey Blue,” a magical combination of roast beef, house smoked blue Mycella cheese, lettuce, tomato and Worcestershire mayo on toasted multigrain bread sourced from another local bakery, WildFlour. With apologies to Louisiana's own Justin Wilson, I guar-ron-TEE she will be talking about that sandwich for days to come. Her comment after the first bite said it all: “Chefs always talk about 'layers of flavor.' That's exactly what this sandwich has; layers of flavor. Nothing is muddled together. Each element stands on its own and contributes a distinct layer of flavor to the overall sandwich. It's just remarkable.” And that's from somebody whose palate I respect immensely.

The staff at St. James is friendly, knowledgeable, and efficient. It's not a very big place, but it's light and airy and clean, both in terms of decor and of physical condition. The menu is small; fewer than a dozen sandwiches, a handful of salads, and a couple of specialties like the aforementioned cheese and charcuterie board and the ploughman's lunch. They have a kids menu and a great beverage selection, including the usual soft drinks as well as a rotating selection of craft beers on draft, ciders and wines, and some specialty cocktails. Obviously, we couldn't sample everything, but based on our experience with the wonderful plates we had, we give the place four thumbs up and just wish we had more thumbs.

The location we visited is in the Warehouse District at 641 Tchoupitoulas Street. I understand there is also an uptown location. The downtown store is open Monday through Wednesday from 11am to 6pm, and on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday from 11am to 8pm. Closed Sundays. Prices are reasonable and parking is.....well, it is the Warehouse District, okay? Don't get your hopes up. There's limited onstreet parking and a number of nearby lots and garages, but the location is also within easy walking distance of some of the district's major hotels. Call them at (504) 304-1485 or check out their website at https://stjamescheese.com

Emeril's, with its “Andouille Crusted Gulf Drum” and its “Pressed Pickled Ham & Cheese,” is only a couple of blocks down the street. But for my money – and for a lot less of it – you can't ask for better than the humble but outstanding fare at St. James Cheese Company. Laisser les bons fromages rouler!

Friday, June 7, 2019

Let's Stop Constantly Yanking The Flag Down To Half-Staff


We Have Lowered Our Standards On The Lowering Of Our Standard

Even as I write this I know I'm swimming against the tide and shouting into the wind, but I'm old so indulge me.

I went into a McDonald's the other day, noticing as I entered that the flag was flying at half-staff in front of the restaurant but not at any of the neighboring businesses. Pretty sure of the response I'd get, I nevertheless asked the teenage counter person why. I was not disappointed: she had no idea. “Let me ask my manager.” When the manager came forward she was similarly clueless. “I don't know,” she said. “I just got an email from corporate telling me to lower it.”

Traditionally, lowering the nation's flag to half-staff (or half-mast if aboard a naval vessel) is a mark of honor and a symbolic gesture of solidarity in mourning. But how can you have a gesture of solidarity when no one knows anymore what that gesture symbolizes? In this modern day and age of nearly weekly bombings, mass shootings, and other insane acts of violence, we find ourselves hauling Old Glory halfway down the pole on a frighteningly regular basis. And unfortunately, at some point it becomes meaningless.

The first time I actually remember seeing the Stars and Stripes flying at half-staff was in the thirty days after November 22, 1963. I'm sure it was similarly lowered for the death of former Vice-President Alben W. Barkley in 1956, but I was far too young to remember that. The point is, it used to be that when you saw the flag flying at half-staff, you knew why: a president, vice-president, senator, governor, or some other highly-placed and highly-regarded government figure had died.

Or maybe it was Memorial Day. That was the McDonald's manager's guess: it must have had something to do with Memorial Day. Except, as I pointed out to her, Memorial Day was last week and in any event, the flag is only supposed to fly at half-staff on that day until noon. When I suggested that perhaps it was in reaction to a recent mass shooting in Virginia, she agreed that that was likely the reason. Except we weren't in Virginia.

But that doesn't seem to matter anymore. Nowadays if somebody dies – if anybody dies – anywhere in the country, especially if they do it en masse, down comes the national banner. Think I'm exaggerating? Uh-uh. Remember the flag being lowered when singer Whitney Houston was found dead in her bathtub? Or when baseball great Yogi Berra passed? Or how about upon the death of that great American statesman, Nelson Mandela? Oh......wait. My favorite instance was when the honor was afforded to a recently deceased Ohio police dog. Or maybe it was the Oklahoma road worker who died while helping to fill a sinkhole.

The United States Flag Code, as adopted by the National Flag Conference held in Washington, D.C. on June 14-15, 1923, and revised numerous times over the years, has this to say about flying the flag at half-staff:

The flag, when flown at half-staff, should be first hoisted to the peak for an instant and then lowered to the half-staff position. The flag should be again raised to the peak before it is lowered for the day.

On Memorial Day the flag should be displayed at half-staff until noon only, then raised to the top of the staff.

By order of the President, the flag shall be flown at half-staff upon the death of principal figures of the United States Government and the Governor of a State, territory, or possession, as a mark of respect to their memory. In the event of the death of other officials or foreign dignitaries, the flag is to be displayed at half-staff according to Presidential instructions or orders, or in accordance with recognized customs or practices not inconsistent with law.

In the event of the death of a present or former official of the government of any State, territory, or possession of the United States or the death of a member of the Armed Forces from any State, territory, or possession who dies while serving on active duty, the Governor of that State, territory, or possession may proclaim that the National flag shall be flown at half-staff and the same authority is provided to the Mayor of the District of Columbia with respect to present or former officials of the District of Columbia and members of the Armed Forces from the District of Columbia. When the Governor of a State, territory, or possession, or the Mayor of the District of Columbia, issues a proclamation under the preceding sentence that the National flag be flown at half-staff in that State, territory, or possession or in the District of Columbia because of the death of a member of the Armed Forces, the National flag flown at any Federal installation or facility in the area covered by that proclamation shall be flown at half-staff consistent with that proclamation.

The flag shall be flown at half-staff 30 days from the death of the President or a former President; 10 days from the day of death of the Vice President, the Chief Justice or a retired Chief Justice of the United States, or the Speaker of the House of Representatives; from the day of death until interment of an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, a Secretary of an executive or military department, a former Vice President, or the Governor of a State, territory, or possession; and on the day of death and the following day for a Member of Congress. The flag shall be flown at half-staff on Peace Officers Memorial Day, unless that day is also Armed Forces Day.

Did you see anything in there about celebrities or dogs? Or even victims of mass murders? I suppose the “in accordance with recognized customs or practices not inconsistent with law” provides the loophole there.

Anyway, after the questions raised at McDonald's, I looked it up: yes, indeed, a Presidential Proclamation was issued “honoring the victims of the tragedy in Virginia Beach” and directing the flag to be lowered from June 1 until sunset on June 4. But where do you draw the line? As I have only somewhat facetiously opined, considering the nearly constant state of mourning in which we find ourselves today, perhaps half-staff should become the default position and we could then celebratorily raise the flag to the top of the pole to note the increasingly rare occasion in which somebody or some group of somebodies didn't die violently or tragically.

And then there's the matter of participation. Okay, so McDonald's corporate got the memo and passed it along. But the hotel next door and the auto parts store across the street didn't get said memo and so their flags remained at the top of the staff. The flag at the post office is down but the flag at the gas station is up. The flag at the bank is lowered but the one at the funeral home is not. And if anybody ever tried to lower that massive banner that flies proudly over the automobile dealership out by the interstate they would likely create a traffic hazard, so that flag stays all the way up regardless of circumstance. It definitely makes for a mixed message. And what about you folks at home and the flag you fly on your front porch? Yes, there are ways to rig it to fly at an approximation of half-staff, but do you bother?

And at what point does the gesture become meaningless? According to an Associated Press analysis, in 2015, the flag of the United States flew at half-staff somewhere in the country for 328 of 365 days. At what juncture does the “honor” become so commonplace as to lose its significance? The short answer to that question is when nobody knows why the flag is at half-staff on a given day to begin with and I think we've already reached that point.

The problem is jerky knees. Somebody dies heroically or tragically and the immediate emotional knee-jerk reaction is to “honor” them. And the quickest, cheapest, and most expedient way to do that is to drop the flag a few feet down the pole. There. All nice and neatly honored and we can move on to the next tragedy. Which will likely occur next week. Unless the local dogcatcher – “who served our community proudly for fifty-seven years” – dies in the interim. Down goes the flag.

I say all this because I am an admitted flag-nazi. (Oxymoron? Perhaps.) I'm the guy who calls your business and demands that you remove that tattered pink, beige, and periwinkle remnant of what was once a proud flag from the pole in front of your store and replace it. I'm the guy who sicced the American Legion on a little group of Bible-thumpers who flew the so-called “Christian flag” above the American flag on the pole in front of their church. I'm the guy who stopped in a driving rainstorm to lower a flag that had torn away from one of its grommets and was unceremoniously and disrespectfully streaming loose in the wind in front of a local store. I'm the guy that will let you know if your state or business flag is an inch bigger than your American flag and if it's flying a quarter of an inch higher. I don't care that the flag code was long ago revised to allow a flag to be displayed in the rain as long as it is an “all weather flag.” Poppycock! You'll never catch my flag out in the rain. Or in the dark, either. My flag means something to me beyond being an ostentatious bit of pseudo-patriotic d├ęcor that I tack up and forget about. I respect it and what it stands for and that's why I refuse to support the current politically correct and emotionally driven trend toward turning it into a red, white, and blue yo-yo.

And by the way, did you know that Flag Day is next week? And do you care? Or is it just an irrelevant leftover from a bygone day when the flag, its origins, and its meaning truly mattered? My flag will be out and at full-staff, thank you, unless there is a recognized, legitimate reason for it to be otherwise. (Death of a president, vice-president, governor, etc.) And if some brownie-point-seeking politician tells me to lower my flag to “honor” the passing of a Nigerian dwarf goat at the National Zoo or something, I think I'll just bring it in instead.

The flag is often referred to as our “national standard.” I think perhaps we have lowered our standards on the lowering of our standard just a bit too much.