When my husband and I were on our honeymoon in New Orleans more than a decade ago, we stumbled upon one of the best meals we’ve ever eaten outside of our own mothers’ kitchens.
Walking down Royal Street, we were drawn in by the open wrought iron gates that flanked the entrance to The Court of Two Sisters, and that revealed, through the dark restaurant and out a set of glass doors at the back, a garden oasis overflowing with exuberant live jazz music. As we were ushered past long buffet tables to our seats, we began mentally mapping out our plates, making room (in our minds, at least) for Creole jambalaya, Sweet Potato With Andouille Sausage, Cajun Pasta, Bananas Foster and other goodies that constitute brunch in the Big Easy.
We hardly said a word to each other during that meal, a true sign we were enjoying the food. And when we were done, we were … well, sleepy … but also happy knowing we had just experienced something really memorable and special. It was, for us, the way one of the judges of this year’s Clean Plate Awards (Page 32) describes a great meal: “Right after, you think ‘OK, I can die happy.’”
Toward the end of the meal, as I stood at the dessert table trying to decide between the pecan pie and banana pudding, one of the cooks came out of the kitchen and rescued me. He insisted I try the French vanilla ice cream; he had prepared it himself, and it was a personal favorite. As he heaped on a ladleful of praline sauce, he guaranteed I wouldn’t be disappointed, and if I was, to let him know immediately. This was personal. And it was spectacular.
Our enjoyment that day was as much about the service and the setting as it was about the food. The romantic courtyard, the heart-thumping New Orleans jazz and the staff—from the servers to that cook—treating you as if you were a guest in their home, and they had proudly cooked every dish on the buffet just for you.
The same is true for many of our Clean Plate Award entries in this issue. Several of our panelists—who, by the way, are a pretty impressive bunch of chefs, restaurateurs and industry experts—describe exceptional service and an eating experience that was as much a part of the greatness of the dish as the ingredients from which it was created. Certainly the hand rolls at Sushi Sasa in Denver, a favorite of chef Jennifer Jasinski, are all the more tasty because they’re prepared by her “favorite sushi chefs.” And it’s no coincidence that the way the server cracks open the stuffed sea bass at the Tel Aviv restaurant singled out by Sam Borghese, CEO of Max Brenner, colors his description of the dish like the salt the chef sprinkles on top before baking.
The other element that made that New Orleans meal we loved so great was the moment of discovery, when you recognize that you’re at the start of something that’s better than your expectations, and you truly settle in to savor it and be surprised.
As we put to bed the first full issue of Restaurant Business that I’ve had the pleasure of helping create, I can’t help but feel a tinge of that same awareness. There are great things ahead for this magazine and its online counterpart RestaurantBusinessOnline.com (for more on this, see Page 12), and as I sit here at the start of the experience that’s about to unfold, I plan to savor every second of the magic and surprises ahead.
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