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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

The Journal

May 26, 2021

Last week I was in New Orleans enjoying a bowl of gumbo by Lake Pontchartrain— at my go-to place for gumbo— Station 6. They also have some mighty fine smoked fish dip. Actually, they probably have the best two examples of those starters in the city.

“Best gumbo” is a bold statement in a city that invented the dish. But I feel like I have eaten my share of gumbo all around town and the gumbo at Station 6 may not be your favorite, but it is most certainly my favorite.

Station 6 gumbo is served with the darkest of dark rouxs, never an easy task, as many places who try to get rouxs that dark go over the edge and burn it. And as any gumbo cooker knows, once the roux is burned that process is over, the flour and fat need to be thrown out, and the recipe should be started back at square one.

The station 6 gumbo, in addition to be very dark, comes out very hot. I’m not talking about spicy hot. I’m talking about “temperature hot” out of the kitchen. I have never eaten gumbo in Station 6 that wasn’t burn-the-roof-of-your-mouth hot on the first bite, and that’s a good thing. Pro tip: blow.

The smoked fish dip served at Station 6 is probably the best example of that appetizer served in the city as well. My all-time favorite smoked fish dip is served at Harbor Docks restaurant in Destin FL, though there is also a strong contender, though a little less flavorful, at Vessel in Mid-City, New Orleans.

Sitting there eating gumbo I thought to myself, “This is the absolute best gumbo I have ever eaten in my life. I can think of none better.” I have most certainly eaten thousands of bowls of gumbo over the course of the past 60 years but none have been more satisfying as the first time— and every time since— at Station 6.

My mother made great gumbo, and I’ve bragged on it for years. But my memory of her gumbo— as good as it was— doesn’t come close to Station 6 gumbo. I’m also a fan of the gumbo made at Herbsaint, and Frank Brigtsen has forgotten more about gumbo than any chef in New Orleans will ever know. But he agrees with me on the Station 6 gumbo. Years ago, when K-Paul’s was open, I felt like that gumbo was the gold standard. But I had yet to taste the gumbo at Station 6.

The Station 6 gumbo made me reflect back to the best things I’ve ever eaten. I keep running journal when dining out. It serves two purposes, I list my restaurant experiences, and whether I want to return, or why I would return, and I always list a highlight or two of the meal (if there was one). I will take extra notes in the journal if a special item was noteworthy. When I come across a gumbo as strong as the one at Station 6, it immediately goes on to the best-of all-time list. I enjoy pulling up the list and reflecting on my dining career.

“What was the best dish you’ve ever eaten?” It’s a question I answer often. Typically, I can remember certain dishes off of the top of my head, but sometimes— for an obscure item— I have to consult the journal which is kept in the notes feature on my phone.

Sometimes my favorite was not an item, but an entire meal. That has happened only three times. The first time I ate at Thomas Keller’s restaurant Per Se in New York, then six weeks later on my first visit to the French Laundry in Yountville, and at Paul Bocuse’s Sud in Lyon. Almost every item that came from the Keller experiences was stellar and perfect, but I prefer to think of those two meals as the best meals I have ever eaten, and not break out any since single individual item. Return trips have confirmed that opinion.

I can tell you that the absolute best applesauce I ever ate was in Rothenburg ob der Tauber in a German restaurant that made it fresh and brought it to the table at the beginning of the meal. I’m not sure what I ate the rest of the meal, but I do know I ordered more applesauce. When one is in the presence of perfection— and one doesn’t know if he or she will be in that place again— one must order seconds and sometimes skip entrees altogether.

The list is simple and can be as basic as the best orange I ever ate, which was on my father-in-law’s sailboat just South of ship island. It had been sitting in an ice chest mixed with ice slush and water. It was of the Naval variety (no pun intended), and it was perfectly cold and perfectly ripe. Certainly, the hot weather had something to do with the experience, but that’s no different than when dining in a restaurant and the environment— whether beautifully appointed or a dive joint— has an influence on how an overall meal is experienced. It was perfect

The best French fries I ever ate were in Aspen Co. It was over 30 years ago and they were the first fried potatoes I had ever eaten that had been sprinkled with truffle oil, kosher salt, and freshly shaved parmesan cheese. I have eaten that side dish many times since, but none can compare to that first experience at the base of Aspen Mountain.

At our breakfast joint we serve excellent sausage. It comes from a small country store called Hines Grocery just North of Yazoo City, Ms and is delivered to us every other week. Though the best breakfast sausage I ever ate was in a small cabin in Franklin TN on top of a mountain near the mouth of the Natchez trace when my friend Jim Leeson served a batch of spicy breakfast sausage that John Egerton, the legendary southern writer, had gifted him.

The best shrimp creole I ever ate was at K-Paul’s. Prudhomme was a master of stocks and whatever stock he put into his creole was excellent. It wasn’t always a menu item, you had to catch it on just the right day. I made the request several times and a few times they complied.

The best biscuit I ever ate was at my grandmother’s house growing up. But the Carriage House in Natchez serves some that taste exactly the same. So, we’ll give the best biscuits to the Carriage House and my grandmother will retain the title of best leg of lamb.

The absolute best soup I ever ate was at Paul Bocuse’s restaurant Sud in Lyon. It was a mushroom bisque, and it was so good that everyone in the family ordered seconds. My second favorite soup, and one that is served in America— actually one that is served in New Orleans— is Frank Brigtsen’s Butternut Squash and Shrimp Bisque. It is culinary perfection.

The best antipasto I have ever seen or eaten was in Santo Stefano di Sessanio, a small hill town of 113 people in a remote spot in Central Italy. It was a thing of beauty and prepared in an old-world kitchen with no electricity.

My favorite barbecue shrimp are served at Susan Spicer’s restaurant, Rosedale. The best paella I ever ate— and it isn’t even close—was at 7 Portes restaurant in Barcelona. It gets to the point on this list where I can tell you the best yeast roll ever ate was at Barbara’s Home Cooking in Franklin, TN, and the best pizza I have ever eaten is served in the Tuscan town of Barbarino Tavarnelle at Vecchia Piazza. I don’t have to go too far from home to eat the best ribs I’ve ever enjoyed which come from a dive bar South of my hometown called Donanelle’s. When in Florence I always try to eat at the birthplace of penne alla vodka, La Vecchia Bettola, and the best polenta I have ever tried is at Doris Metropolitan in New Orleans.

You may, or may not, be a foodie. The fact that you’re still reading this column though likely puts you in that category. If you’re not keeping a culinary journal, then it may be time to start. It’s easy. Just open the notes feature on your phone, title it “The Best Thing I Ever Ate,” and anytime you’re eating— whether at your house, a friend’s house, a relative’s house, or restaurant— and something strikes you as memorable, and especially something you would like to reflect on one day, just write it down.

I get a lot of joy out of my food journal. And I look forward to adding many new items as the years progress, but I especially like referring back to the old items and returning to those places that are still open so I can taste perfection once again.


This week’s recipe: The World’s Last Meatloaf

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