I was raised in a small town in a rural part of North Louisiana. My mother and grandmother were both exceptional cooks, and my dad always said they could make boot leather taste good—that was high praise indeed.
I'm only in my twenties, but it seems like such a long time ago that I tasted their wonderful, soulful food. To be honest, I wasn't sure I'd ever taste food like that again, but a recent meal at Mila brought it all back to me—and then some.
Mila opened about a month ago in the Renaissance Pere Marquette Hotel in downtown New Orleans in the same space that formerly housed the now defunct Rene Bistro. Bridget was eager to visit Mila, as she had always wanted to eat at Longbranch, the chefs' former restaurant that had opened in the months following Hurricane Katrina.
Although the chefs, Allison Vines-Rushing, a 2004 James Beard Foundation's "Rising Star Chef of the Year" award winner, and her husband Slade Rushing, were young, talented, and devotees of using local, organic fare, we could never make the forty mile trek out to rural Abita Springs. Needless to say, we were excited they had opened a new restaurant closer to home.
When we arrived at Mila, we were immediately seated in an intimate booth for two in the back of the restaurant. The decor was hip and chic with tones of cobalt blue throughout, but not overly trendy. Soft light from the large, drum shade light fixtures bathed everything in a warm honey glow. Tucked away in this cozy booth, Bridget and I spied on attentive servers as they greeted tables and delivered smile-inducing plates from the kitchen—the small, black dutch-ovens piqued my curiosity.
Our server, Beth, soon stepped into view with a smile and welcomed us warmly. She reminded us of the chefs' commitment to cooking with locally grown, organic ingredients and stated that MiLa was a play on Mississippi-Louisiana, the Rushings' home states. After studying the wine list (which I felt was priced slightly high with relatively few bottles under $70), we ordered a bottle of Trimbach 2002 Pinot Noir, which had a sweet fragrance and delicious, fruity flavor.
The amuse bouche of salmon rillets on a toast point came out shortly and set the tone of the meal. It was the perfect way to start - simple, clean and extremely tasty. After the amuse, Beth soon brought out a basket of corn bread triangles and a lima bean puree, a combination that was the chefs' spin on pita and hummus.
I decided to order both a Cold and Hot Starter, so my Smoked Pepper Dusted Tuna was up first. Bridget always says that I am a black pepper fiend, so I instantly devoured the dish. The tuna rested on a silky soybean puree that tamed the spicy pepper, and the molasses-soy sauce added a whisper of sweetness that made this combination harmonious.
Next out were the Hot Starters—the New Orleans Style Barbeque Lobster for me and the Pan Roasted Sweetbreads with Black Truffle Grits and Bacon Jus for her. The lobster was very tasty, but not really surprising. I didn't get much BBQ flavor as it mostly tasted like lobster and butter, but it's hard to find fault with perfectly cooked lobster in a succulent butter sauce.
Bridget's sweetbreads were the highlight of our meal and took me back to the rich, homey flavors of my grandmother's country cooking. The fried sweetbreads were crispy on the outside, yet tender and juicy on the inside. The greatness of the sweetbreads was second only to the black truffle grits whose soft granules suspended the truffles in creamy nirvana. The bacon jus filled the bowl with a smoky, vibrant hue, the inclusion of which made me want to lick the plate clean.
As an entree, I selected the Pig Cheeks and Langostines with Collards and Pepper Vinegar, and Bridget went with the Grilled New York Strip with Sweet Potato Truffle Gratin and a Red Wine Sauce (notice Bridget likes truffles...a lot). A beaming smile stretched across my face as my plate arrived. Sitting in front of me was one of the black dutch-ovens I had been eyeing all night. The server removed the lid and a plume of steam engulfed my face.
The pork was so tender that I could eat it with a spoon, and the shellfish added a delicious sweetness. Collard greens can have a tendency to get mushy and bitter, but these were perfectly prepared. I used my spoon to drink my pot dry.
After a few sips of coffee, dessert arrived for the finale. While it was delicious, I'm not sure that it lived up to the rest of the meal (again, the sweetbreads were tough to beat). I ordered the Red Velvet Financier, which was described by our server as a buttercake with elderberries for color and a side of cream cheese ice cream. I enjoyed the cake's cookie crust with a spongy interior, but Bridget felt it was kind of blah.
Bridget ordered the Mississippi Mud Tart filled with a sticky, chocolate pecan pie-like filling and a bronzed marshmallow fluff top. She loved the creaminess and richness of the dessert, but I thought it was a little heavy (maybe a little too muddy). Still, we both walked out very, very happy and quite full.
Bridget and I loved Mila because the flavors were familiar and approachable, yet allowed us to experience new techniques and textures. Although other diners might not get the "back home" experience I had, Mila is a very special place.
I got to go back to that rural kitchen of my childhood, and isn't that what great food is supposed to do? It takes us to a happy place where nothing else matters but what's on the plate.
We will definitely be back, and I'm really, really looking forward to it.
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