Anyone who knows me, like really knows me, knows that I love food more than almost anything else in this world. Food never ceases to surprise me in new and exciting ways: the creativity and detail with which it is prepared; the potential for intricate flavour combinations; the beauty and style of a well plated dish are limitless. A good chef knows no bounds. My passion for these things sometimes comes at a cost. I am aware that I can be exasperating to others when the options for a meal are bland, boring or mundane. This is especially true when I find myself surrounded by those who don't share the same passion, for whom food is simply fuel for the body, rather than an adventure for the soul. Sometimes I have to tell myself to get a grip.
Given these personal truths, I have a confession to make. A dark, dirty confession. With the ease of access that the internet provides I have developed a serious addiction...to porn...
food porn (I know I'm not alone in this). Back in the old days, I could keep it under control; flipping through saliva inducing images in glossy magazines like the LCBO's Food and Drink (for those of you non-Canadians, the acronym stands for the Liquor CONTROL Board of Ontario) . Today, those racy images are everywhere; most dangerously, on Instagram, where I find myself spending far too much time these days. From the privacy of my 5" AMOLED screen, I can scroll through sweet temptation until my thumbs are sore and my eyes are blurry. Brightly coloured roasted vegetables glistening with olive oil and sparkling with Maldon salt; plump berries in dark jewel tones ready to burst the second you pop them into your mouth; dripping, juicy, perfectly pink steaks finished with herbed butter succumbing to the heat of the freshly charred flesh; the delicate curves and swirls of buttercream frosting piled atop tender, moist cupcakes.
More recently, my Instagram obsession has been a little more focused. Specifically, I've been closely following the artistic talents of Chef Mason Hereford, mastermind behind New Orleans' Turkey and the Wolf. Hereford and his playground of a restaurant shot to fame last year after Bon Appetit named Turkey and the Wolf the BEST RESTAURANT IN AMERICA in 2017. If you're a fellow foodie, Bon Appetit food publication is a household name. I've been following @turkeyandthewolf on Instagram for over a year, falling harder for the joint with every witty post and inappropriate hashtag. Their creations focus on (but do not limit themselves to) creative spins on childhood classics like the humble bologna sandwich, grilled cheeses, tacos and soft serve sundaes. However, like the swamps of Louisiana, nothing at Turkey and the Wolf is quite what it would seem. Perhaps this is a Louisiana trend.
Before embarking on a cross America road trip, I knew the year would be incomplete if I didn't go to Turkey and the Wolf while we were in New Orleans. It almost didn't happen. Like with our luck at Brenda's, our first attempt to go to Turkey and the Wolf ended with a closed sign on the door. They are only closed Tuesdays and as our luck would have it, that's the day we picked to wander over there (not to worry, we found lunch that day at Cochon Butcher and it was delicious, a highly recommended, albeit pricey, spot for a classic Muffuletta Sandwich).
We returned the following day around noon. I was so excited when I saw the familiar exterior (I've seen its brightly adorned facade nearly every day on Instagram for a year) I had to stop myself from sprinting the last two blocks to get in the door.
The outside is partially red painted brick, partially artsy graffiti that would make Banksy want to step up his game. Inside, Formica top tables are surrounded by mismatched chairs. Still-in-the-package 1980's Barbie fashions hang on the sage green walls as art.
When you order at the counter you are handed a table topper made from an assortment of action figures and rubber toy animals glued on to wooden dowels on a wooden base. As such, we weren't order number 32, we were table "red and green parrot". At the counter, I asked Braden if he didn't mind if I did all the ordering. He went and found us a window seat and I ordered us two sandwiches and a cocktail to share. When I got back to the table and told him I ordered the bologna sandwich and the collard greens melt he looked at me with overt suspicion. Could I blame him? If he told me he had ordered me a bologna sandwich I might have had to tell myself to, well, get a grip.
After ten or fifteen agonizing minutes that felt like at least as many hours our food hit the table. The collard melt looked like a gooey, souped up, triple-decker grilled cheese, stuffed with sauteed greens, crunchy coleslaw, and gooey Swiss cheese. Despite the three slices of bread, it looked dainty, like a sandwich made for "ladies who lunch". Conversely, the bologna sandwich looked like I might have to unhinge my jaw to eat it. This was not just because it looked massive next to the Collard Melt, but because it WAS massive. Made with their in-house, thick-cut slices of homemade white bread, it was piled high with bologna fried until its edges bubbled, melty American cheese, homemade ultra crispy kettle style potato chips and family secret hot mustard. Both looked amazing, but how did they TASTE?
One bite of the collard melt and the room seemed to drift out of focus. I forgot I was sitting in a restaurant surrounded by lunch-goers. I may just as easily have been on set in my own food porno. Those tasty little collards weren't just sauteed, they were marinated and sloooow cooked. Tangy and slightly sweet, a little garlicky and a hint of heat, the tender little greens are making my mouth water just remembering them. No wonder I spotted this sandwich on nearly every table in the vicinity. These folks knew what was up.
The bologna sandwich was not to be outshone. Once I was able to squish everything down into something that I could almost bite down on without embarrassing myself, I was enraptured both by the complexity of flavours and textures, and also by the ultimate simplicity of what I was eating, a fried bologna sandwich!
Now, I've eaten my fill of "Newfie steaks" as a child. Mom used to buy bologna by the tube, slice it nice and thick, and fry it up in margarine bubbling in a hot frying pan. She'd serve it along side our over easy eggs, toasted white bread slathered in salty margarine, peanut butter and grandma's strawberry jam. This sandwich brought me back to the comfort of home. The bologna, locally cured was salty, tangy and a little spicy as all good cured meat should be. Forget pastrami, Costanza, the bologna down at Turkey and the Wolf now reigns as the most sensual of all the cured meats. The iceberg lettuce, shredded Big Mac style, offered a fresh, slightly sweet contrast and allowed for big bites without the whole leaf sliding out from underneath the inch-thick slices of toasty, buttery white bread. I gotta say, if they made a breakfast sandwich version of this, with a fried egg on top, a little hot sauce, (and if I was a member of the opposite sex) I wouldn't have been able to stand up without making a scene and offending the ladies at the next table. This sandwich was that good.
Once the sandwiches were finished, the corner bits being used to sop up all the saucy goodness from my Batman plate (unless they have a Star Wars plate, this one had to be the coolest in the house), I shamelessly informed Braden that I was going to wait in the line, which at this point snaked out the door, to order an ice cream sundae. At the counter, I gleefully ordered the one with "Graham Cracker and Key Lime Crunk Chunks" AND rainbow sprinkles (hey, go big or go home, right?). This time, I was given a table marker with a large duck-billed dino and a black bear. When dessert arrived it was piled high; big enough for two! The crunchy graham bits tasted just like the bottom of your favourite cheesecake and the key lime curd that topped the graham chunks was a tart, not too sugary complement to the creamy vanilla soft serve that was slowly being dyed with the melting sprinkles adorning the whole confection. My only criticism *gasp* was that the graham pieces were so hard and large that they could neither fit in your mouth while you were stuffing it with ice cream, nor could they be broken down with a spoon, no matter how hard you tried. You had to pick them up with your hands and bite off chunks before spooning the ice cream in with it to get the full effect. Don't judge me; I warned you of my addiction.
Now, hard and large are not typically adjectives I complain about (after all, I like a long and taxing workout after I gorge...where was your mind going?), but we would have enjoyed being able to break these tasty morsels up and mix them into our ice cream with greater ease. A small caveat to the most indulgent and fun lunch I can ever remember eating.
If it's not already obvious, I thoroughly enjoyed my short time spent at Turkey and the Wolf in New Orleans' garden district. I love a place that offers exceptional, creative food, without taking itself too seriously. Even more, I love walking into a place where you can just tell that the staff is having fun. Each crew member smiled ear to ear, including Hereford himself who I spied working hard with the rest of them in the tiny kitchen behind the bar. I was too shy, and it was way too busy for me to play the groupie and introduce myself. When the staff is visibly having fun, you know they love what they do, and when they love what they do, you can be guaranteed a stellar meal. Passionate chefs and the staff who support them aren't creating masterpieces for themselves, but for you: the customer. The tide is turning, and it's time we shove aside the notion that you can't have a five-star meal at a place that doesn't offer you white cloth napkins and where the servers operate with robotic efficiency. While there is still a spot in the industry for places like that, room is being increasingly made for joints that offer more a more relaxed, more approachable, and more fun dining experience. Stuffy restaurants are steadily becoming a thing of the past. Chefs worth their salt don't get into the business for the accolades, they get into the business because they love the look on your face when you bite into something you really love (you know that eye-rolling-back-into-your-head look). The accolades come later, after they've made a critic make that same, climactic face. I'm convinced this is the real reason for the open-kitchen concept that has become so popular as of late. Finally, chefs are getting the chance to watch their food being enjoyed instead of waiting for second hand reviews.
Rest assured, you'll find your five-star meal at Turkey and the Wolf, and while you're at it, you'll also find some quality, five-star fun. Hereford and his team at Turkey and the Wolf are definitely worth their salt-y, cheesie, melty, crunchy, acclaim.