In my life, I have had my share of wonderful meals, but there are some that really stick out in my mind: Escada in New York City (I licked the fork after eating an amazing roast chicken…and the hazelnut torte) and now Irene’s Cuisine in New Orleans. I had heard it was hard to get into Irene’s without a reservation, so the plan was to be there as soon as it opened. And considering neither Daphne nor I had managed to eat lunch that day, we were more than eager to start chowing down. So it was very convenient that Irene’s was only a few blocks from the Kitchen Witch…and that we’d spent so long in said Kitchen Witch that it was now dinner time…WARNING: this entry contains lots of pictures…most of which will make you drool.
Let me point out right away that we got lucky. There were only three other pairs of diners in the restaurant, so we were seated right away. Even better, it didn’t really start to get busy until right before we left. So I have a feeling we didn’t get the jostled service some other reviewers of Irene’s discussed in their (still very glowing) write ups.
When we first walked into Irene’s, several servers and the maitre d greeted us, along with Irene DiPietro herself. She could easily be your grandmother because she has a warm smile and is immediately trying to give you food. Irene’s has three dining rooms: the light and airy front room, the more intimate formal dining room and the barrel room. We had our choice since it was still fairly empty, so we opted for the front room. Along the walls are pictures of diners (both famous – including Harry Connick, Jr. and his family – and us regular folks who just love good food) and various other knick knacks, giving the room a really cozy feel.
Our server was Joseph and he was an absolute delight. I should also point out that Felix’s Seafood’s wait staff was an anomaly in New Orleans. Every other place I went, I was greeted with some of the nicest people I have ever met. And Joseph was no exception. I asked him if it was okay to take pictures and he said of course. He then offered to take us on a tour of the restaurant so I could get even more shots.
There is an elegance about the place, no question. And the menu brims with dishes that would fit right in at any Michelin Five Star restaurant. However, Irene’s isn’t the least bit pretentious and the staff strives to make you feel at home. Once we got back to our table, Joseph brought out a small dish of bruschetta with tomato and basil. He told us the bread was freshly baked and it was, in fact, still warm…and delicious. The crust had a nice crunch and the middle was soft, but could still stand up to the juices from the tomato. But this was only the beginning. When Joseph returned with our drinks, he also brought a basket of fresh sesame bread. This bread was heavenly: great crust, soft inside and a sprinkling of sesame seeds on top (which tasted like they had been toasted slightly).
For the first course, we opted for the crabmeat gratin. As for the entrees, Daphne decided on the Cannelloni Al Forno (cannelloni stuffed with pork, veal, Parmigiano, ricotta and roasted eggplant) and I had pretty much decided on the Duck St. Philip…that is until I heard the specials. Apparently every Thursday they serve their famous Osso Buco and you can just guess what day we visited. I didn’t even listen to the side dishes that accompanied the veal shank dish…I just wanted it in front of me…now.
We were still tackling our bread when the crabmeat gratin came out. Biting into it, I could taste the freshness of the (generous) crab. And it helped that there were 2 (count them TWO) cheeses: swiss and brie. There was also some broccoli and something else, but really, isn’t it all about the crab and cheese?
Before bringing out the next course, Joseph asked us what brought us to New Orleans and where we were from originally. When Daphne said she lived in a particular state in the Midwest, he mentioned that another server was from the same state. The other server, Chris, came over soon afterwards and started talking to us. From that point on, it was almost like we had two waiters. Chris, just as friendly as Joseph, kept coming by to make sure we were happy and offering suggestions for where we could go to after dinner. But when our entrees came out, I lost all interest in conversation. I could try to describe how amazingly tender the veal shank was…or how the sauce had an incredibly rich and full bodied taste, with a hint of sweetness…or how the accompanying risotto was cheesetastic. But no mere words can fully convey the wonder of this meal. Trust me, it was better than a lot of the sex I have had in my adult life (which either tells you how fantastic the food was or how sad my love life has been…I’ll choose the former).
Daphne, being as big a foodie as myself, patiently waited for me to photograph her meal before digging into it. But when she did, the look on her face said it all: the cannelloni was orgasmic (uhmmm, wait that sounds too much like that scene in When Harry Met Sally…Just for the record, Daphne was not making loud moaning noises at our table). We had agreed to share our meals, so I got to have some of the cannelloni as well and it was divine. It was hands down the best pasta I had ever had in my life and the meats inside were cooked and seasoned perfectly. And there were 2 (count them TWO) cheeses stuffed inside as well!
You would think after all this, we wouldn’t have room for anymore food. Well, you’d be half right. Daphne was about to burst, so I ate the rest of the cannelloni. Yet somehow I talked her into dessert. Before I go any further, I must say that Daphne and I think alike…eerily so. When we got the dessert menus, I saw the chocolate hazelnut truffle and said in my head, “Mmmmm, that sounds good.” Almost immediately after that thought passed, Daphne said aloud, “The chocolate hazelnut truffle sounds good.” But this isn’t the eerie part. After agreeing we would both order different desserts and share like we did the entrees, I looked back at the menu to see what else I was interested in eating. When I saw the flaming baked Alaska, I thought “Sweet, I like fire! And I’d never had baked Alaska…that sounds good!”. And again, not a minute after my random love of fire popped into my head, Daphne said, “The baked Alaska sounds good.” Yup, eerie…
Like the rest of the meal, both desserts were excellent, although the baked Alaska had what was tantamount to a brandy shot as the sauce on the plate. Seriously, I felt quite giggly after eating it. But the crumb crust on the top and bottom of the baked alaska was firm enough to rest against the ice cream without getting soggy, but still flaky enough to be delicious. And the chocolate hazelnut truffle? Fan-fuckin’-tastic!
You would think that this wonderful meal would really put a crimp in our wallets. I was actually bracing for sticker shock when Joseph laid down the check. Daphne picked it up first, looked at it and did a double take. I was immediately frightened to look at it, but knew whatever it was, the food we had just consumed was well worth it. Imagine my utter shock when I saw that the meal only cost a total of $72! Since we were splitting the check, that meant the second best meal of my ENTIRE life, only cost $36! Unfucking believable! I have plunked down a lot more for meals that weren’t even in the same universe as what I had just gorged myself on at Irene’s. I have absolutely no complaints about this place: the service was impeccable, the food was phenomenal and I walked away having paid only $12 per course. Yes…yes…I can definitely die a happy woman as I have just experienced culinary nirvana.