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Thu February 10, 2011
The Belly of the Beast at Feast
By Ian McNulty
New Orleans, La. –
Fielding a few menu questions might seem like a perfunctory step for waiters at some restaurants. Not so at Feast, a new place in the Warehouse District. Here, that same exercise can prompt a string of ardent inquires from wide-eyed customers. What's bubble and squeak? How about Bath chaps? And is cock-a-leekie an appetizer, an entr e or a diagnosis?
Fans of BBC television exports may have an advantage at Feast. But for most, the menu of traditional - and often archival -- English cooking may seem deeply exotic. With its nose-to-tail aesthetic and its unvarnished use of offal and lard, eating at Feast always feels like an adventure, even if the bedrock flavors are often familiar, and sometimes downright homey.
Bubble and squeak, the kitchen's favorite side dish, is a griddled hash of potatoes strung with Brussels sprouts and cabbage that tastes like comfort food incarnate. A bit more challenging, Bath chaps are essentially slices from a loaf of pork cheek and pork tongue, insulated with plenty of fat, wrapped in pig skin and brined forever. Crisp at the edges, salty, fatty, sinfully rich and just as gratifying, it's a meaty enigma wrapped in a meaty mystery. Cock-a-leekie is the traditional Scottish chicken and leek soup, here served with plums and bacon and tasting like winter's remedy in a bowl.
Feast is the second incarnation of a Houston restaurant with the same name opened just two years ago by the English-born chefs Richard Knight and James Silk, and Silk's wife Meagan. The Silks moved to New Orleans last year, and together with Knight they continue to run both restaurants by shuttling between the two cities.
James Silk describes his menu as the sort of food he and Knight grew up eating in England, plus some rustic favorites from France and Spain and a few recipes pulled from archival English cookbooks. The result is a long and ever-changing list that always includes a few savory pies with golden crusts and stew-like fillings and some enormous joints of pork or lamb, which seethe with juicy flavor and are portioned as though for a Tudor banquet.
Juggling the two Feast restaurants requires a lot of driving between cities, though it's also helped the chefs supply each of their kitchens with foods sourced around either locale. In New Orleans, that often means animals from Mississippi farmer Justin Pitts, a regular vendor at local farmers markets.
Meat comes from small producers, and the chefs butcher the animals in house to make prolific use of their various parts. One extreme example is a fried rabbit skeleton, which offers crisp ridges of meat along the bones and represents equal parts appetizer and anatomy lesson.
Beyond the challenge of introducing such oddities, this restaurant will eventually have to answer the question of how such hearty food will fare during our hot seasons. Feast in Houston serves this same style year-round. The chefs say that's their plan here too, though they acknowledge they're open to changing things up as they learn more about their new city.
That's an approach I'd advise for diners curious about Feast too. Come with an open mind - and a ravenous appetite - and you'll experience a showcase of Old World, nose-to-tail cookery quite unlike anything else in New Orleans right now.
200 Julia St., New Orleans