Fat is where it's at

NorthSouth's taste suffers from weight loss

A recent Wall Street Journal article explored the debauchery throbbing through New Orleans, a phenomenon illustrated by the Mardi Gras Marathon. Before the race, runners carbo-load on deep-fried globs of sugary dough. They then smoke and drink over the entire 26-mile course. No one runs races in New Orleans for exercise. Rather, these events are just another excuse to eat, drink, and party.

It's a town that clearly is in love with certain vices. Street vendors dispense potent cocktails dubbed tooters. Chunks of fat are a staple ingredient in many dishes, and virtually everything edible is eligible for deep-frying, including corn on the cob and pickles. Paul Prudhomme, the city's most famous chef, is so obese that he often hauls himself around on an electric scooter.

All this adds up to some pretty dismal health statistics. New Orleans is the home of the fattest people in America, the highest cancer rates, and an average life span comparable to those of North Korea and Uzbekistan.

This isn't to say that strenuous efforts to prolong life through diet and exercise necessarily work. Recent studies indicate that low-fat diets at most tack on a few months to the lives of those who don't suffer from serious heart ailments. (The abysmal stats for New Orleans are due to a combination of a lack of primary and preventive health care and a host of lifestyle choices beyond diet.) And when you consider the pleasure you must surrender in a lifetime of avoiding fat, the trade-off hardly seems worth it. Think of the people you know who go into shock at the sight of a Ruffles potato chip, and ask yourself if you would willingly walk a mile in their loafers.

The value of life span-extension is relative, anyway. As poet, radio commentator, and New Orleans resident Andrei Codrescu explained in the WSJ piece while sipping whiskey and puffing cigarettes at 3 a.m.: "You have to allow for one fact. We're awake 20 hours a day, so really we live much longer even if we drop dead at 64."

NorthSouth seems to have partly absorbed this message--that living well is arguably better than living healthy and marginally longer. When it opened in 1996, NorthSouth's menu featured low-fat "North" (as in Larry, the Dallas fitness maven) and traditional southern items. This structure has been scrapped in favor of "an entirely new arrangement of cutting-edge global cuisine" speckled with low-fat items marked by arrows, according to the press release.

Perhaps NorthSouth has awakened to the fact that most no- and low-fat cuisine tastes little better than Bondo. Not that this is universally true. Cuisines of scarcity, such as those in many Asian countries, are largely void of meats and their fat. Richness and flavor intensity are attained through a skillful use of herbs and spices. The difference is that these cuisines are driven by the unavailability of some ingredients--not trendy fat-gram consciousness--and they evolved with stunning depth because flavor and the pleasures of eating were always paramount.

Fat must be paid its due reverence and not simply be dismissed as a sin to be eradicated. When it is limited or removed because of health or other concerns, the food demands clever formulations to bring it up to gustatory snuff, because in addition to fat's role as a basic nutrient and crucial component of cell structure, it adds richness and texture to foods. These are some pretty serious culinary considerations for which to compensate.

Unfortunately, the incipient NorthSouth fat-as-vice mentality continues to suffuse the new menu--even in its "south" preparations--scattering attention in every direction but flavor and precision.

Examples abound. Appetizers such as the grilled Thai sausage tasted hollow. Made with ground chicken and seasoned with ginger, red curry paste, cilantro, shallots, red bell pepper, and garlic with a rice and mashed-potato binder, the sausage's meat crumbled and potent flavorings aggressively strutted without an offsetting richness.

Crisp shiitake mushroom polenta with pickled sashimi and wasabi soy buerre blanc was a contradiction in terms. Far from sashimi--sliced raw fish--the dish was more like ceviche. The trio of chopped and pickled shrimp, ahi tuna, and sea bass was soft and fishy, not cleanly silky and resilient as is the best sashimi. The wasabi soy buerre blanc--a butter-based shallot-wine reduction with a hint of balsamic--had an odd gelatinous texture.

The entrees weren't much of an improvement. Mushroom-dusted Chilean sea bass with diced yellow tomato queso was good, though not compelling. Dusted with dried shiitakes ground into a powder, the fish seemed to need some herbal breath to better marry the fish with the dust. Plus, sections of the flesh were a little fishy and texturally inconsistent. A side of cannelloni--mashed potatoes and spinach logs swaddled in spring-roll wrappers--was soggy with no compelling flavor to break out of its bland starch chokehold.

Sliced sugar- and chili-cured hanger steak, a hanging tenderloin similar to a flank steak, was a flavorful, juicy cut of meat with just a hint of sweetness from the curing. It was slathered in a wild mushroom guajillo sauce that was surprisingly tame given the ferocity of guajillo chilies. But the steak was served cold, and a side of delmonico potato gratin was bland and pasty.

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