When the James Beard Foundation announces the winners of its annual awards each year, legions of food-obsessed destination diners treat the list like an itinerary to a food-centric road trip.
I know, because I'm one of those food-obsessed destination diners. Is the Italian place in New York really as good as they say? What about the wild science projects being served in Chicago? Or the place you seemingly can't get into in Northern California? You can read all you want, but there is only one way to know.
But wouldn't it be fun to be proactive, instead of reactive?
The foundation named the finalists for its awards in February. About the same time, I found myself wanting to make a road trip. So a plan was hatched: Pick a region, and visit all the finalists there. Sort of like going to see all the candidates for the Best Picture before the Oscars. When the James Beard winner is announced Monday in New York, I'll already know if I agree, at least in the Best Chef: South category.
The Best Chef: South category considers chefs in Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi. This year's five finalists work in restaurants in Palm Beach, New Orleans (three of them!) and Birmingham, Ala.
So I set out on a day trip to Palm Beach across State Road 60 and back to eat at Café Boulud. A few days later, I drove U.S. 19 to Interstate 10 to New Orleans to sample the goods at Commander's Palace, Lilette and Cochon. Then I headed north on Interstate 59 to Birmingham and the Hot and Hot Fish Club. (Tornadoes devastated the state two weeks later, though the restaurant wasn't damaged.)
Is it crazy? Maybe. But I write about food. It's research.
Accommodations were simple. A Holiday Inn in New Orleans and a Townplace Suites in Birmingham, each booked through a discount website. I was saving my money for eats.
It took three cities, four days, 34 hours of driving, 2,000 miles and a lot of coffee to have these five meals. Here are the results:
Nominee: Chef Zach Bell
The experience of Café Boulud starts as you cross the bridge onto Palm Beach. The landscape becomes more lush, the streets narrow a bit and the stakes get higher as you share those streets with cars that represent a measurable portion of the national trade deficit. It doesn't help that the GPS can't seem to lock on to the address.
But then the Brazilian Court Hotel pops up among the bungalows. It's a low-profile hotel, and the windows facing the street frame diners at Café Boulud, one of two Florida outposts for famed New York chef Daniel Boulud.
The chef here is Zach Bell, and he has been a finalist for this award three times.
The menu is built for a splurge, with dinner entrees hovering around $40. Themed sections feature seasonal dishes, traditional, simple and global. It is in line with a place associated with a four-star New York icon. But at lunch, there is a three-course prix fixe with several options that offer an overview of the menu. For $25, that's a steal.
An appetizer of house-smoked whitefish comes with accoutrements that change regularly. Ours is a trio of Alsatian slaws. The upscale fish spread is smooth and smoky, and each of the slaws brings a nice acid bite.
Seafood is a star of the menu and options change often. Ours is a tall chunk of local cobia, a firm, white-meat fish, dusted with a sweet-smoky-spicy mix of seasonings and served over a bed of vegetables, starring fresh garbanzo beans. It is a dish that looks simple but delivers complex flavors without overwhelming the fish. A neat trick.
Florida representative in the book, it's on to New Orleans. That's 800 miles away.
Café Boulud at the Brazilian Court Hotel, 301 Australian Ave., Palm Beach; (561) 655-6060 or danielnyc.com/cafebouludPB.html
Nominee: Chef Stephen Stryjewski
A long day of driving serves as a fast to prepare for the darling of the trip. No restaurant on the list has more buzz than Cochon, and that buzz is generated on the Twitter feeds of any celebrity chefs that find themselves in New Orleans.
Cochon is French for pig, and pork is king among people in restaurant kitchens. That has turned this nouveau rustic spot in the warehouse district into a mandatory stop for any serious culinary tourist. Beignets at Cafe du Monde? Of course. A muffuletta at Central Grocery? Sure.
But at dinner time, there better be Cochon's boudin with pickled peppers on your itinerary, or you're just going to have to come back. In a city with as many iconic foods as parades, these fried balls of sausage and rice have achieved cult status.
The menu is a tribute to Cajun country, a rustic cuisine of southern Louisiana championed by restaurant co-owner Donald Link and adopted by Stephen Stryjewski, the chef and co-owner here. The room is a modern designer's take on a classic Cajun shack, with concrete floors and wooden furnishings. Older gentlemen in slacks, white shirts and suspenders add authenticity. Couples in shorts and T-shirts speaking with a degree of implied authority about dishes they are mispronouncing make it clear I'm not the only tourist in the room.
After the boudin, there was a bowl of the gumbo of the day, with the dark, rich stew featuring shrimp and a deviled egg that day. And for an entree, rabbit and dumplings come in a small cast-iron pan. It's a classic preparation with an unexpected protein.
Hype is a hard thing. It creates attention, but also expectation. Cochon met that expectation.
It's only 2 miles to tomorrow's lunch spot, so there's plenty of time to rest before I eat again.
Cochon, 930 Tchoupitoulas St., New Orleans; (504) 588-2123 or cochonrestaurant.com
Day 3 • lunch
Nominee: Chef Tory McPhail
Few restaurants carry the cachet of Commander's Palace, a landmark of the city's Garden District for more than 100 years. After all, this place launched Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse, outsized personalities that got famous for their work in the kitchen here, without overshadowing the institution.
Commander's announces its location with a bright, sky-blue paint job and striped awnings. The dining room — well, the dining room I saw; there are several — evokes antebellum opulence. The restaurant was closed for more than a year after Hurricane Katrina, and renovations reportedly cost $6 million.
The kitchen is now run by Tory McPhail, and the menu balances classics and creativity.
Logic and reputation dictate a start with the turtle soup, the sherry-spiked dish famous here. But that dish predates McPhail's tenure, so I go for the gumbo of the day, a duck and chicken variety. Gumbo allows for interpretation. The constants: rich, deep, dark flavor born from a cooked-down fat and flour base. The variable: the combination of meats and garnish. Here, the birds get a good shot of a local hot sauce.
The theme of heat continues in an appetizer of shrimp and tasso. Local white shrimp are skewered with strips of the regional peppery ham and tossed in a sauce of butter and hot pepper. It's gentrified Buffalo shrimp. Pickled vegetables are also spicy, as is a pool of pepper jelly, a clear gel dotted with tiny pieces of pepper. The waitstaff makes frequent visits with iced tea and offering more bread. They know it's hot.
For an entree, the special is seared hake, a flaky white fish, on top of a slaw. The slaw is spicy, and there is a red ring of hot sauce around the plate. It's all good, but my mouth is on fire.
Dinner is barely a mile away, but first a detour, jumping on the St. Charles line streetcar back toward the French Quarter to grab a frozen cafe au lait to reset my taste buds.
Commander's Palace, 1403 Washington Ave., New Orleans; (504) 899-8221 or commanders palace.com
Day 3 • Dinner
Nominee: Chef John Harris
If Commander's Palace shouts its presence, Lilette unassumingly calls with a "pssst" and a nod. It's in an unadorned corner spot on Magazine Street in Uptown, among galleries, jewelry stores and Pilates studios.
Walking in, the room has the feel of a bistro, with the wall-sized chalkboards. A long quasi-communal table runs down the center of the room, lending an osteria vibe. The booths that line the walls wouldn't be out of place in an upscale diner. In any language, it says comfortable.
Chef John Harris opened this spot a decade ago after working in France and around New Orleans. He was one of Food & Wine's best new chefs in 2002, and this is his second time as a Beard finalist. The menu merges Harris' Italian upbringing, French training and Gulf Coast locale.
To start, there is an appetizer of "sweet and sticky" fried beef short ribs on a tiled base of cucumber slices. The ribs are tender and beefy, though not really sweet or sticky. The vinaigrette dressing the cucumber is sweet and tart, and makes the meat more interesting.
The entree is a paneed black drum. The drum is a cousin to redfish and has a meaty texture similar to chicken, and panee is a method of pan frying. It's served on Israeli couscous and topped with mussels and a butter sauce spiked with verjus, a tangy juice of unripe grapes. It's the kind of dish spectacular enough to appreciate at a restaurant, and simple enough to inspire replication.
It has been a solid 24 hours of eating without driving. But in the morning, I'll start a 350-mile trek to dinner.
Lilette, 3637 Magazine St., New Orleans; (504) 895-1636 or liletterestaurant.com
Hot and Hot Fish Club
Nominee: Chef Christopher Hastings
It's a little weird to find — finally — the last restaurant on the itinerary in a basement.
Okay, not a basement, but in the bottom level of a building built into the side of a hill, and without any obvious frontage. But then, it's a "club." Maybe it isn't supposed to be easy to find.
Plenty of people had no problem finding the place. With no reservation, I tell the host I'm alone.
"I can seat you at the kitchen bar right now, if you don't mind a view of the kitchen."
I don't mind that at all.
The last seat at the bar is between a group of three who are celebrating a birthday, and a man who proclaims himself a regular. The waiter nearly immediately offers an amuse bouche of roasted beet with heart of palm. The bar is a quarter-round boundary to the otherwise open kitchen, and we are face-to-face with the garde manger, the cook in charge of cold dishes. It's her first day, but she moves confidently and quickly.
The woman to my right offers a glass of wine from the bottle her group won't finish. The man to my left interrupts his discussion with chef Christopher Hastings to make recommendations.
Hastings is a farm-to-table kind of guy, so the menu changes often. On this day, he got ramps, the uberseasonal garlicky green onion. They are grilled and included in an appetizer of crispy veal sweetbreads with organic grits.
As the entree arrives, the man next to me announces: "The Florida boy got the soft-shell crab!" Maybe it's humorous because there were tangerines among the artfully arranged fruits and vegetables in the presentation of three fried halves of crab? Not sure. But it was all in fun. And delicious.
My new friend starts suggesting dessert options, telling me the history of the doughnuts, and how the flavors change regularly. He laments that they used to be bigger. He suspects a conspiracy of the health-conscious worked to shrink them.
As I finish my doughnuts — with lemon curd — I think it's sort of funny this meal started with me telling the host I was alone.
Hot and Hot Fish Club, 2180 11th Court S, Birmingham, Ala.; (205) 933-5474 or hotandhotfishclub.com
During the 570-plus miles it takes to get back to where I started, I recount the meals I've had along this trip and determine two things:
• The dishes that I want to replicate are the boudin from Cochon and the drum with Israeli couscous from Lilette. Both of those dishes were memorable, and worth having again.
• The restaurants I want to go back to are Cochon and Hot and Hot Fish Club. Research suggested those might be the best places on the itinerary, and both surpassed expectations.
Now all that's left to do is see who wins Monday night.
Jim Webster can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8746.