Dining from the high-end to the low-brow
Dining in New Orleans runs the gamut from the high-end — Restaurant R’evolution, for instance, with its tiered teams of service and caviar staircases —to the low-brow, such as the much-beloved Dat Dog with its gourmet tube steaks. And it seems there’s everything between. But every so often, a restaurant transcends the typical conventions of formal and casual dining, inviting guests to focus their attention on a single, shared passion.
Enter Chef Isaac Toups and his wife, Amanda, owners of Mid-City’s Toups’ Meatery, a veritable playground for hungry carnivores.
Originally from Rayne, just outside of Lafayette, Chef Toups grew up hunting, fishing and cooking with his family in fine Cajun fashion before entering the restaurant world at age 20.
After honing his skills as a fine-dining cook at Emeril’s Delmonico and other restaurants under Emeril Lagasse’s umbrella for more than a decade, Isaac decided with Amanda — a French wine scholar — that it was time to open their own shop.
“I had to ask myself,” Isaac Toups said, “What could a Cajun cook, who has access to all the new (culinary) methods and amazing local ingredients, get himself into? I was trained in a high-end atmosphere, with all of the modern styles. So what does a coonass from Cajun country do with all of that in New Orleans?”
It didn’t take Toups long to arrive at an answer: meat. And lots of it.
“It’s about how I like to cook. When I go to the grocery store, I go immediately to the meat section or the seafood section (seafood is meat, too, if you think about it). I guess this restaurant could be called a ‘protein-ery,’ but we thought that’d be kind of weird.”
“For me,” the chef said, “everything about a dinner revolves around the meat. That’s what I go for. That’s how I think, and that’s what I love.
“ I maybe start with a nice piece of duck and go from there, try to find out what might go with it, what comes next. But lamb, beef, chicken, whatever it is, the meat always comes first for me.”
The Meatery’s menu is a showcase of both the country Cajun cookery that Toups grew up with as well as a display of everything he’d come to learn and love about nearly every way one could prepare protein.
Nothing sums up the chef’s passions more than the overgenerous meat board (“It’s more than just a simple charcuterie board,” Toups said.
While the board changes from week to week, certain staples will always be there, according to Toups, including offerings from the evolving pickle program, and especially his beloved pork cracklins.
On top of that is a vertiginous variety of carnivorous delights and accompaniments: a luscious torchon of foie gras, sweet and savory rillons (candied pork belly), cured lamb’s tongue, meatballs with ginger-lemon barbecue sauce, capicola, a crunchy three-nut pork terrine, chili-garlic sausage, chicken liver mousse on toast points, Benton’s country ham, fried boudin balls, queso blanco-stuffed chiles rellenos, and, for good measure, creamy deviled eggs with ghost chili caviar.
But the board is just for starters. If you’re looking to get your meat on, make sure you come to Toups’ hungry and ready for action. A gargantuan, perfectly grilled and tender double-cut pork chop with a cane-sugar gastrique and dirty rice would be perfectly suitable for, say, the dinner table at the Flintstone household. Not to mention more exotic cuts, like lamb’s neck.
Said Toups, “If you get people to order it, it’s so rewarding. I braise it down classical-style with red wine, a little tomato and mirepoix. After about five hours, it’s just like a braised lamb shank or an osso bucco, just falling right off the bone.”
Served with a black-eyed pea salad and mint chow chow (to cut through the richness of the dish), the lamb’s neck is not to be missed.
Don’t be fooled, however, by the chef’s display of gourmet skill. Toups hopes to accommodate diners looking for either a casual experience or an intimate one.
“You can get a big, blown-out four-course meal here, at a romantic table with a nice bottle of wine. Or you can sit at the bar with a beer and some cracklins and watch the game.”
Ultimately, Toups wanted to drop the pretenses of a fine-dining atmosphere, while preserving the careful attention to cuisine.
“Of course, I love the techniques and the quality of the food in those (fine-dining) restaurants. But man ... take off the white tablecloths! Take off the tie, put on a pair of flip-flops, come on in and get yourself some foie gras. I was actually thinking of having that as the Meatery’s unofficial slogan: Foie gras and flip-flops. Wouldn’t that be great?”
Toups’ Meatery, 845 N. Carrollton Ave., Mid-City. Phone: (504) 252-4999. Open for lunch and dinner.