Bar owner Neal Bodenheimer is an intrepid trailblazer. It takes courage and nerve to go into an uncharted New Orleans neighborhood devoid of restaurants, taverns, retail and foot traffic and open a new business. The fact that he opened one of the premier cocktail bars in the country is even more impressive.
In 2009, in a Crescent City neighborhood still trying to recover from Hurricane Katrina, Bodenheimer opened the groundbreaking cocktail bar Cure on Freret Street. The timing was perfect as there was a resurgence of the cocktail culture across America led by The Violet Hour in Chicago and a handful of others from Brooklyn to San Francisco.
Possibly more impressive than a national bar trend’s revival was the resurgence of a neighborhood — and a comeback of epic proportions — that should be a textbook model for other neighborhoods and other cities to follow for decades to come. Actually, when one breaks it down, the neighborhood didn’t “come back” from anything. Bodenheimer and his partners Matt Kohnke and Kirk Estopinal created a destination business with Cure, and other restaurateurs, retailers and operators followed.
I have followed the resurrection of Freret Street in the stretch just west of Napoleon for several years. As someone who has been clean and sober since 1983, Cure doesn’t have a solid customer in me. However, when Company Burger opened two blocks down the street, I began to frequent that area and was impressed that a complete and total revitalization of the neighborhood was underway.
To my tastes, Company Burger is the best hamburger in the Crescent City, and I visited often on research and development trips as I was developing Ed’s Burger Joint. All of the internet guides, travel shows and tourist publications tout the burger at Port of Call on Esplanade as the city’s best. It’s good, but one can get the same exact burger at Snug Harbor (when it’s open) and skip the hour-long lines. I hold up the burger at Company Burger to be one of the best in the country and in the same league with Au Cheval in Chicago.
Freret Street is supported by mostly locals and offers several levels of dining options. In an eight-block stretch from Napoleon Avenue to Jefferson Avenue there are a couple of casual cafes, several sandwich shops, three coffee shops, a couple of pizza joints, a Vietnamese spot, an ice cream shop, a bagel shop, a sushi shop, several other random concepts (like the aforementioned cocktail bar), a new Rouse’s grocery store currently under construction and Bodenheimer’s newest concept, Val’s — an excellent Tex-Mex concept with a lot of outdoor seating — in a refurbished gas station that serves tacos and margaritas.
All of those places are stellar options and offer a wide variety for those who live in the Freret neighborhood. But the place that has captured my attention lately is Windowsill Pies.
Windowsill Pies is a tiny shop on Freret Street sandwiched between a coffee house and a bagel shop. It couldn’t occupy more than 500 square feet of retail space, but the pies that are made in that small space are some of the finest I have ever eaten anywhere, anytime.
Partners Marielle Dupre and Nicole Eiden started their business 10 years ago, but I just became aware of the tiny store several weeks ago when their neighbor Company Burger created a milkshake using the Windowsill Strawberry Cream Pie and posted it on their Instagram account. I am and always have been a target market for advertisers and marketing executives. I’m the guy who sees the pizza commercial during a football game and calls for delivery immediately. If a morning NPR radio broadcast is covering the history of the club sandwich, there’s no doubt what I’ll be eating for lunch that day.
I am a suggestive seller’s dream.
I had never heard of Windowsill Pies when I saw Company Burger’s Instagram post, but the photograph of the strawberry pie looked so good, I made a mental note to stop by the pie shop the next time I was in town. Luckily, that was going to be the next day.
The quaint little pie shop is exactly what one would expect in a 500-square-foot bakery. The pies that come from that kitchen are attractive, original and delicious.
In the cake versus pie discussion, I almost always come down on the side of cake.
Cake can be baked with varying textures and can be decorated and adorned with all manner of creative touches, though I am not sure any cake I have ever tasted has given me such satisfaction as the Strawberry and Cream Pie served at Windowsill Pies. They offer sweet and savory pies that come in large, small and bite-sized choices. They also make hand pies.
Presentation doesn’t hinder the flavor profiles of their pies. The Strawberry and Cream Pie is beautiful but also delicious. One must get to the Windowsill Pies shop early before the selection is picked over. In rare moments of foresight, I have ordered over the phone a day in advance and been extremely happy with the service and outcome.
The pies aren’t all sweet. One of the more creative pies I have ever tasted was a savory Crawfish Boil Pie which included exactly what one would think would be included in a Crawfish Boil Pie — corn, sausage, small-dice potatoes and crawfish. The quiche was on point and didn’t last long at my house.
When it comes to cake, the layered dessert wins or fails on the moistness and lightness of the cake. With pies it is all about the crust. A flaky, light and buttery crust is a prerequisite for pie excellence. The Windowsill ladies have perfected their crust. The crust-making process can be seen from the street in a small front-display window of the shop. Windowsill, in addition to having the best name in the history of pie-shop names, has passed the level of good crust and moved squarely into the rare-air realm of excellent pie crust, which is not an easy feat.
On a visit this past weekend, I picked up a Brandied Cherry Pie mainly because I was late getting there after lunch and it was all they had left.
My wife is a huge cherry pie fan and quickly claimed it was the best version she had ever tasted. I am not a fan of cherry pie — more precisely, I wasn’t a fan of cherry pie until I tried the Windowsill version.
Every town needs a good pie shop, and every challenged neighborhood needs a champion like Neal Bodenheimer. The world needs more of both.
Hattiesburg native Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author. He has written a syndicated weekly newspaper column for more than 20 years.
YIELD: 8 SLICES
• 1 cup + 2 tablespoons sugar.
• 3/4 cups heavy cream.
• 3/4 cups buttermilk.
• 3 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch.
• 1 pinch salt.
• 4 egg yolks; reserve whites for meringue.
• 3 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, high quality.
• 1 tablespoon butter.
• 3/4 teaspoon vanilla.
• 1 9-inch homemade pie crust, baked.
• In a small saucepan, combine the sugar, heavy cream, buttermilk, cornstarch and salt; whisk until smooth. Place over medium-high heat and bring to a boil, whisking from time to time and allowing the sugar and cornstarch to dissolve and the mixture to thicken (about five minutes). Continue cooking at a low boil for an additional five minutes, whisking constantly.
• In a mixing bowl, beat egg yolks lightly. Pour 1/2 cup of the hot mixture into the egg yolks; whisk thoroughly. Pour the egg yolk mixture into the saucepan; whisk over the heat until thoroughly combined (about 30 seconds).
• Pour mixture into a mixing bowl, and whisk in the chocolate, butter and vanilla. Continue whisking until thoroughly combined (mixture will be very thick). Pour the chocolate batter into the prepared pie crust. Prepare the meringue; spread over the pie.
• Bake at 350 degrees until golden (about eight to 10 minutes). Allow pie to cool completely before serving by refrigerating for at least four hours.
• 4 egg whites
• 6 tablespoons sugar.
• 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar.
• Beat the egg whites with an electric mixer. When they start to increase in volume, add in the sugar and cream of tartar. Continue to beat until stiff peaks form.