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Asian Accents 

Exotic produce adds flavor to a new bistro.

Never visit the grocery store on an empty stomach -- especiallyif you happen to be trailing Ian Schnoebelen and the grocery in question is Hong Kong Market, the Asian food superstore in Gretna. I did, and my hungry eyes left me with a basket of intriguing foodstuffs and no clue what to do with them.

But Schnoebelen is the chef at Iris and he knows what to do with most of the exotic produce he brings back from his frequent visits to Hong Kong Market. In the cases where he doesn't know for sure, he can just wing it and usually end up with something delicious anyway. That's why, on the day I followed him, he picked up some Persian cucumbers that don't need to be seeded or peeled, mint that tastes more like lemon than spearmint, and leafy greens no one in the store could name but which pair beautifully with Schnoebelen's seared scallops and grapefruit butter.

Though I normally try to conceal my identity as a food critic from restaurant people, my cover was blown with Schnoebelen long ago. This is the man, after all, who hosted a barbecue for 10 consecutive evenings on the sidewalk outside his Bywater house back in the dark days of October when a smoking hibachi and a stocked cooler were the warmest symbols of hospitality among people who had returned to New Orleans. A month later, Schnoebelen and his partner, Laurie Casebonne, took over Mango House, the Caribbean restaurant their friend Anne Lloyd had run before the storm. They closed briefly in January, remodeled the petite dining room and bar of the one-time cottage, wrote a new menu and reopened as Iris.

From the start, Iris has served an ever-changing menu that defies classification. The intimate restaurant itself exudes the relaxed professionalism of a neighborhood bistro, and there are a few classic French dishes -- like duck confit, an appetizer large and rich enough to stand in for an entrŽe. But then there are plenty of Italian influences -- like ravioli stuffed with meltingly tender veal cheek meat or the perfectly toothsome gnocchi with white truffle oil and shaved Parmesan. Seafood is a major focus (five of the eight entrees on a recent menu centered on fish or shellfish), but not to the exclusion of dishes like steak with green chile butter, short ribs braised with fennel, and duck breast roasted with honey and spicy Spanish chorizo.

So when Schnoebelen invited me along for one of his kitchen-provisioning missions to Hong Kong Market, I jumped at the chance to see how a chef shops at an Asian grocery for a restaurant that is not at all Asian. What I witnessed, though, was akin to watching the proverbial kid in a candy shop -- and one with a credit card at that.

"It's like a wonderland in here," Schnoebelen says, maneuvering his shopping cart around a produce section that looks like an edible Asian garden under fluorescent lights.

To give a sense of scale, Hong Kong Market's space was previously occupied by a Wal-Mart. The market opened last summer at 925 Behrman Hwy. as the sister store to a similarly huge grocery in Houston, and it also has a Vietnamese restaurant, a bubble tea shop and a nail salon all under the same roof. It stocks hundreds of jarred sauces, countless varieties of noodles, whole and butchered fish by the boatload, baked goods, woks and cleavers, herbal remedies and everything from pints of pig blood to tubs of fresh tofu.

But Schnoebelen comes for the produce. Plenty of local chefs and restaurant owners shop for their kitchens at Asian markets in the area because of the variety and the savings over purveyors' rates for delivery to their doors. At Iris, the treasures Schnoebelen brings back from the market dance all over the menu, elevating side dishes from simple plate fillers to indispensable accomplices to the meat and fish and adding unexpected pleasure at every turn.

Part of that has to do with the serendipity Schnoebelen relies upon to guide his menu selection. Some of his haul comes from a scribbled list, but much of it is a result of that kid-in-the-candy-shop dynamic. Product labels are hard to come by at the store and many are written only in Vietnamese. So Schnoebelen picks up whatever grabs him, puts his imagination into gear and experiments back at the kitchen.

"I just get the greens that look good, I go for different colors, I taste a little bit and see what it's got," he says, handing me a tatter torn from some kind of peppery stalk the color of a red cabbage and the size of a bridal bouquet.

Schnoebelen tries to get something new on each visit, and the options seem endless. On one visit, he had his pick of seven different types of mint at 49 cents per bunch. A few of them ended up in a salad made with those versatile Persian cucumbers that he shredded into noodles along with a few other fresh greens.

Some choices are more straightforward and their appeal comes merely from freshness and a careful hand preparing them. For instance, baby bok choy, not much bigger than broccoli florets, are grilled with a pleasing char at the edges to abet both the lean, firm red grouper and the meaty wild salmon, which is further laced with lemon oil.

This pantry of Asian produce offers a particularly satisfying bounty for vegetarians and those who dine with them. Though not listed on the menu, Iris turns out meatless sampler platters with a smattering of whatever the kitchen has on hand.

click to enlarge Ian Schnoebelen picks through the fresh produce at Hong - Kong Market in Gretna. - IAN MCNULTY
  • Ian McNulty
  • Ian Schnoebelen picks through the fresh produce at Hong Kong Market in Gretna.
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