NOLA

October rolled by quickly, but not before I gave a yearly check-up to one of my favorite food towns, New Orleans.  The climate in New York has been whacky, what with the lack of seasons.  October is just about the time NOLA is tolerable, warm, but not balmy or humid, sunny, appetizing, and thirstworthy.

I usually over plan, scheduling three solid meals, leaving room for street fare and oysters in between.  Upon Saturday arrival and an early Monteleone check-in, I made a b line for a new joint, Sylvain on Chartres St.  A quaint resto with outdoor seating, clearly a place where cocktails are taken seriously.  My eating companion Michelle and I tried the aviation, aunt rose, pressure drop, mojito, and bloody mary, all delicious and well concocted.  The menu, albeit limited for brunch, still stood up to the bar skill.  The meal started with an app of bright smoked salmon rillettes, pickled beets, and a warm potato soup.  We split a large plate of pan fried pork shoulder and grits, tender and crispy.  After watching the buttermilk fried chicken sandwich parading around the room, I had to order that too, overkill, but worth it.  I am certain the nightlife there must get hot and sweaty, and is duly noted for my next visit.

After an obligatory siesta at Café du Monde, and a few beignets, a walk through the French market was warranted along with a little shopping and enough time for a nap and a Ramos Gin Fizz at the Carousel.  We walked to my favorite street pronunciation, Tchoupitoulas, to have a grand meal at August, chef John Besh’s upscale financial district restaurant.  We had drinks at the bar, which serves as a rather gloomy waiting room dressed in dark wood sans any NOLA charm. Inside the dining area was another matter entirely.  High ceilings revealing towering bouquets and bright crystal chandeliers, solid brick set against soft hues, an inviting atmosphere indeed.  There is a connecting cellar room, which is extra cozy and romantically lit, juxtaposed to another room with tall banquettes.  We decided to sit surrounded by the steep and narrow wine staircase library above us.

It was difficult to make choices because many of the menu items sounded very tasty.  But the staff is very southernly hospitable, and the sommelier really knew her grapes. The focus of the menu was clearly farm to table with a foundation on Louisiana roots. First course a lemonfish crudo, bright with citrus and clean.  A consommé of gulf shrimp and bacon Ramen was next, surprising in its flavor profile versus everything else on the menu.  The noodles were tight, the yard egg a real zinger.  Crispy zucchini blossom filled with sweet corn and heirloom tomato was a satisfying winner.  The Pfeffingen 2006 riesling paired nicely throughout.  Apparently everyone orders the gnocchi and who could argue with accents of black truffle and bluecrab elevating the pillowy creamy clouds of gnocchi.  The topper was a Mangalitsa pork tenderloin, crispy and tender, accompanied by cheek raviolo, sweet corn, purple plums, and chanterelles.  For sweets, we had the exquisite banana rhum cake and the napoleon nougatine, a real treat, paired with a glass of Chateau Laribotte and macchiato, splendid way to end a great meal.

We had enough steam to grab late nite cocktails, but surprisingly, the Hermes Bar and French 75 Bar were winding down.  Maybe a sign to pack it in.  The next morning we ambitiously but foolishly tried to walk to City Park from the Quarter, when a streetcar ride on Canal would do.  Live and learn.  The brunch destination was Ralph’s on The Park, a convivial brunch place across from the park with a piano player (although he played in the adjoining room away from the diners).  Ralph’s offers various types of bloody maries, from mild to spicy with twists such as basil.  As turtle soup is not a standard in NYC, we had to share a bowl of that with the obligatory sherry, as sherry improves just about anything from a dish to a bad mood.  The biscuits were recommended and worth it, dense and flaky all at once.  Perhaps the unnecessary splurge was the pigs in the blanket, but I had A Confederacy of Dunces in my head.  Chicken and waffles did not disappoint, and neither did a very rich plate of slow cooked lamb and eggs, knocking us right on our NYC behinds.  The bonus was walking through City Park, with its majestic and stately trees, solemn air and various bridges, all the way to the NOMA (museum of modern art), nice if you have the time.  The real attraction is the sculpture garden, which is not to be missed.  Streetcar back to the Quarter in time for oysters and football game.  Alas, the Saints lost.

We took a long cab ride way out to Feret Street to try the libations at Cure.  We started with the classics, a Manhattan and a sidecar, bourbon (I prefer bourbon).  Proper and civilized,  we moved on to the punch and the Angel drink, got hungry (surprise) and noshed on the meat and cheese plate (lacking in ham), stuffed dates, Jamaican meat pie, and banana and black rice.  Pretty good, if not strangely eclectic.

I was anxiously anticipating Monday lunch at the famous Parkway Tavern.  Heaven in a Po’boy.  Roast beef, fried shrimp, lots of gravy, sweet potato fries, Barq’s in a bottle.  Picnic benches out back.  All walks of life setting there, enjoying the moment.  True NOLA.

More oysters, the JETS game, and Cochon for dinner.  Rabbit Livers with pepper jelly, alligator, wood fired oyster roast, gumbo, chow chow shrimp, smoked pork ribs with watermelon pickle, chicken thigh washed down with a Kurt Darting Riesling.  I know it’s a crime but no room for the cochon or smoked ham hock (at least I had it last year).  Room for upside down pineapple cake though.  Superb.  My kingdom for a Cochon in New York.  Some more cocktails at French 75 bar, followed by a great discovery of an upscale dive bar called Bar Tonique on N. Rampart St., which featured a $5. Pimm’s cup special, and five dollar specials every night.  Proper.

Breakfast Tuesday morning at Cake Café Bakery, a sleeper of a joint with great cupcakes but solid breakfast and lunch fare, such as shrimp and grits, or egg salad sandwich.  Serve and seat yourself, and this place grows on you by the cupcake.  Locals only it seems.  Try to dress the part.  Pre-flight drinks next on the list, but not before a stop at Central Grocery for a muffelata for the plane ride back and late nite snack.  We headed to the Roosevelt Hotel for another take on John Besh’s Italian fare at Domenica, which has a fabulous happy hour from 3 pm to 6 pm of half priced pizzas and wines by the glass.  Best deal in town, and we New Yorkers are pizza snobs/fanatics.  There some crazy large 900 degree oven churning out those bad boys with great crust, excellent toppings and serious wine program.  Leaving that bar was tough.

Back in NYC with NOLA blues, Spotted Cat still on the brain, great cooking still on the palate.  Until next year, adieu New Orleans.

Cash vs. Credit? An Owner’s Tale.

When I opened my business about four years ago, I had to make a decision that every restaurant/wine bar faces.  Cash or Credit?  The advantages to cash are obvious, total control over the money, instant access, and sales reporting.  The downside is that the majority of customers use credit cards, especially corporate expense accounts.

An analysis of my business shows about ten percent of transactions to be in cash, the rest credit.

The problem lies with the credit card processing company, the middle man if you will, who runs the service of processing all the credit card transactions for the business.  They make money by charging a percentage off of every transaction, anywhere from 1.5% to 3% MC/Visa or more for the privilege of using AMEX.  On top of that there are numerous associated fees as you could imagine.  Just compare it to your cell phone bill with monthly charges, taxes and hidden fees driving the bill up.   The rates fluctuate and are difficult to understand. Every swipe takes revenue out of my pocket. It may not seem like much, but trust me it adds up.   That’s why certain cab drivers will pretend their machines are not working.

You could argue this is a necessary part of doing business, and I agree to a certain extent.  One of my favorite mantras when I pay bills or unexpected costs is, “That’s the cost of doing business.”

Until of course I try to shop around for better rates, or even a more reputable company. Then all of the sudden I am not playing their game.  And that is gonna cost me.

A year ago, I was approached by reps from Chase bank who offered to be my credit card processor.  They compared the rates I was receiving and offered to lower each rate, as well as a few other fee dismissals.  Since I banked at Chase, the funds would be available to my account more quickly as well.  The problem was that I was still under contract with my present processor, ABC Global, for three years.

Now I will admit that when a new business owner such as myself started out, there are many mistakes to be made in the whirlwind of getting open and ready for business.  Things are overlooked and contracts are not fully read down to every detail in fine print.

There is a $495.00 early termination fee in my contract.  So I waited until the contract lapsed and decided to go with Chase.  When I informed ABC Global that I was intending to cancel, I was prompted to the fine print of the contract which stated that unless I submit in writing that I do not wish to renew 90 days ahead of time, that contract would renew for one year automatically and continue until I follow proper termination procedure.

I spoke to an account manager named Nathan who explained to me that Chase is a good bank, however not a good credit card processing company.  Nathan stated he would match all of the lower rates to stay with ABC Global.  I stated my reasons for wanting to switch, i.e. next day funds availability, lower rates, a cash reward bonus for signing, and most importantly no termination fee, meaning no cancellation fees ever.

Nathan became irate and stated Chase was flat out lying.

To which I responded, “Don’t you think it a little surreptitious, even deceitful the way the contract is structured so that these automatic renewals make it difficult to get out of the contract?”  Nathan replied, “Everyone does it.”  So I stated, “You are contending that your company is just a little less deceitful than others.”  He responded yes, and then stated that there was no way Chase would have a contract without an exorbitant termination fee.  In fact he wanted to see it in writing and initialed by a manager.

I thanked him for warning me about reading my contract with Chase more carefully.  As it turns out, there are no cancellation fees associated with my contract with Chase.  Further explained to me by my Chase rep, “We are concerned with your banking at Chase, therefore we would not do anything to jeopardize your banking with us, which is much more important than the fees we would earn from early cancellation.”

I explained to Nathan that I have had a good business relationship with ABC Global over the past three to four years, and that I had even recommended the company to other chefs and business people who I know who asked me for a credit card processor reference.  I explained to him that there are only three months remaining on the contract, and asked if he could waive the cancellation fee in good faith.  I explained to him that given the relationship, I could continue to recommend and perhaps even return if Chase turned out to be a bad switch.  Nathan stated if Chase wanted me so much they could pay the termination fee.  I told him that it was unfortunate that ABC Global would take that position, but I appreciated his honesty.

I may in fact have to eat the $495.00, but it would be worth it to extricate myself from the equivalent of a used car dealership, with shady contract practices.  If the rates were correct, and the services good, I would have no hesitation to renew, thus canceling the need for such fine print traps.  Some lessons are expensive, such as the NYS real estate tax increase – that’s a whole other story, and I chalk them up to the cost of doing business.  But I am starting to really warm up to the cash only business model.  Maybe people will spend less, tip less, reduce corporate expense account business, etc., but at least I’ll have one less hand in my pocket at the end of the day and one less shady contract to abide by.