Food Almanac

Annals Of Convenience Cuisine
The TV Dinner was introduced by Swanson Foods on this day in 1954. It was invented by Gerry Thomas, whose story can be found here. He was trying to figure out a use for leftover turkey from the preceding year's Thanksgiving supply. He and came up with a pre-cooked, packaged dinner with cornbread dressing, peas and sweet potatoes in a three-compartment aluminum tray that you could just warm up in the oven. It sold for ninety-eight cents. Swanson thought it would be a hit if they sold 5,000 the first year. By the end of 1954, ten million of them were snapped up. I remember we were excited by TV dinners when I was a kid, but we never liked the flavor. We always figured we were doing something wrong, otherwise it wouldn't taste so bad. The saddest fact what that this stuff we were so excited about could not possibly compare with my mother's home cooking.

Food Calendar
It is Citywide Calas Day here in New Orleans. Calas are Creole rice cakes, rolled into a ball with cinnamon and sugar and fried in a pan. They were very popular a hundred or more years ago in New Orleans. Then, guys with carts sold them on the streets. For years, the only restaurant that serves calas is the Coffee Pot on St. Peter Street, next to Pat O'Brien's; they still do, as a breakfast item. For about a year, the Calas Bistro in Kenner tried to revive and expand the scope of the dish. They had four different versions of calas on their menu. But it didn't take off, and the place closed in 2008. Thank goodness for the Coffee Pot!

Deft Dining Rule #708: If you're in a restaurant where they serve a dish you hardly ever see anymore, order it. You may be the last person ever to do so. Don't expect much from it.

Delicious-Sounding Places
Rice is in the northeast corner of Washington State, eighty-five miles north of Spokane. It's on the eastern shore of Franklin Roosevelt Lake, a reservoir created on the Columbia River by the Grand Coulee Dam. It was founded in 1883, when it had a population of sixty. It doesn't have a lot more than that now. It's an area of vacation homes. The nearest restaurant is sixteen miles north in Colville, The Crossroads Bar and Grill.

Music To Drink Martinis By 
This is the birthday, in 1960, of jazz guitarist, singer and composer John Pizzarelli. He's a terrific interpreter of standards, with a velvety sound I find I can listen to for hours. And he has (more or less) a food name! Readers of my on-hold serial fiction Back To The Wall may remember that the protagonist of the story dreams up the restaurant he would open during a nap with Pizzarelli playing in the background.

Edible Dictionary
suppli al telefono, Italian, n.--It translates literally as "telephone wires," a name that will puzzle anyone who's seen but not eaten the dish. These are balls of rice about the size of a golf ball, held together with eggs and sometimes with just enough tomato sauce to make the rice a pale orange. In the center is a cube of mozzarella cheese. The balls are rolled in bread crumbs and fried long enough that the interior is very hot. When you cut into it with a fork and lift the bite to your mouth, festoons of cheese stretch between the ball and the fork. These are supposed to resemble telephone wires. The dish is a common appetizer around Italy, especially in Rome.

The Old Kitchen Sage Sez: If you're making calas or rice pudding, use brown sugar. Rice needs a little caramel flavor to keep from being insipid as a dessert. Cinnamon wouldn't hurt, either.

Junk Food Through History
Twinkies were introduced on this day in 1930. James Dewar of the Continental Baking Company wanted to get more use from the pans used to bake strawberry shortcakes, which sold well only during strawberry season. The new product was a runaway success. A half-million hens are needed to lay all the eggs used in Twinkies in a year. What a way to make a living!

Food Inventions
Today in 1938 Roy Plunkett, a DuPont researcher, cut open a tank of a refrigerant gas he was working on. For some reason, it had no pressure. He found that the gas had polymerized into a slippery white powder which, to make a long story short, became Teflon. Teflon-coated cookware is handy for a couple of things. It's perfect for an omelette pan. Or a muffin-tin-like pan for making popovers. Otherwise, I avoid the stuff, because I like the juices and browned bits to stick to a pan a little. And ultimately non-stick coatings flake off. Which stands to reason: if nothing will stick to it, how do they get it to stay on the pan? Answer: Not very well.

Food Namesakes
Roger Cook, an investigative television journalist in England, was born today in 1943. . . Brown Sugar was the first hit for Rolling Stones Records, which was formed on this date in 1971 for the group of the same name. . . Sugar Ray Leonard won a fight with Marvin Hagler today in 1987. . . Early NASCAR race driver Herb Thomas was born today in 1923.

Words To Eat By
"There is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk. And that is my answer, when people ask me: Why do you write about hunger, and not wars or love?"--M.F.K. Fisher.

"Cutting stalks at noontime. Perspiration drips to the earth. Know you that your bowl of rice each grain from hardship comes?"--Chang Chan-Pao.

Words To Drink By
"To buy very good wine nowadays requires only money. To serve it to your guests is a sign of fatigue."--William F. Buckley, Jr.

Outside World

Designer Salt? On Potato Chips?
The people who make Lay's potato chips say they've figured out a way to use less salt on its potato chips, but with just as much of the salty flavor that people expect when they eat potato chips. It's all in the shape of the salt crystals. In their typical state, salt crystals are perfect cubes. The new shape allows much more of the salt to dissolve while you're chewing them, reducing the amount of salt needed. The details are secret, but one rumor has it that the redesigned crystals are shaped like potato chips. Hmm. Click here for the article.

Twenty Best German Restaurants In America.
German restaurants, once very popular across America, have become rarities on the dining landscape. That's true even of place with a deep German heritage. Here's a best-in-America list from a website specializing in German food--which is itself a nice find. Click here for the article.

Pear Cider?
Yep. It's a new craze in England, where not only are more producers fermenting pear juice and making this beery quaff (called "perry"), but people with pear trees are making it themselves at home. The article tells all about that, and even has a recipe. Click here for the article.


Food Funnies

Strange Restaurant Requests #769385
The server had a hell of a time finding the right container for this takeout. Click here for the cartoon.

Which Came First, Peep Or Egg?
I think it was the Peep. But this hatching is something I never imagined before. Click here for the cartoon.

Eliminating Offensive Diners, Technique #524057.
No, not every customer who walks in the door is right for the restaurant. Servers know how to keep them moving along. Click here for the cartoon.



Today's Menu

Dining Diary
A perfectly good Saturday is destroyed by a misreading of an invitation, but saved by a dozen grilled oysters. Then it's father-daughter restaurant reviewing at Macaroni Grill, which is better than the typical chain, but not a lot.

Restaurant Report
Bangkok Thai. The city's longest-running and least atmospheric Thai restaurant, with inconsistent food and a lot of fans.

Top Ten
Racks of lamb have become almost extinct in restaurants, but the chops from those racks are better than ever. Here's my list of favorites.

Lamb Lollipops. The idea is that you buy the small, inexpensive New Zealand racks of lamb, roast them whole, then slice them into little chops from which you get a couple of bites each. Yeah use your fingers.

And Leftovers

Food News From All Over
Food Funnies
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Join me this Wednesday for a live, on-location broadcast from Marchand Creative Kitchens, 3517 Division Street, Metairie (a block and a half lake side of Veterans). Chef Duke LoCicero from Cafe Giovanni will be there demonstrating some dishes and giving tastes of everything, free. We'll also give away an ASKO high-end dishwasher (valued over $1000) to someone who registers and who is in the showroom at 6 p.m., when the drawing occurs. Come by and say hello, and take a look at what can be done to improve your kitchen!

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About The Ratings

Menu's restaurant ratings are based mostly on the degree to which the food excites us, and a little on environment, service, and other considerations. I rate restaurants relative to all other restaurants in the New Orleans area. Here's what the stars mean to me:

Among the best locally.

Excellent and ambitious.

Worth crossing town for.



No star

Cost Ratings

Each dollar sign indicates a ten-dollar range, including a normal meal for the restaurant (dinner, if they serve other meals), not including drinks, or tips. So, for example. . .


. . . and so on, with no upper limit. While this may seem to have mathematical precision, it varies from diner to diner as much as the star ratings do. So consider this an estimate.


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Eating Around New Orleans Today

1075 Restaurants Open Around Town

Dine At Zea On Tuesdays, Help Haiti Recover
Zea has two pieces of good news. One is that their Lenten menu--which is no kind of penance, given the goodness of the sesame oysters, Thai mussels, and a few other new dishes--will remain in force for another month.

The other is more serious. Every Tuesday through April, ten percent of what you spend (before tax and tip) at either Zea or Semolina will be given to the recovery efforts in Haiti. The donations will be implemented by Associated Catholic Charities, one of the two or three biggest charitable organizations in the country. It provides direct assistance to many of the religious communities that operate schools, orphanages, and health care centers in Haiti. The contribution from Zea and Semolina will be combined with funds that were raised through the Archdiocese of New Orleans to provide assistance to the community in a direct, sustainable and measurable way.
Zea and Semolina in Louisiana
. Zea locations can be found here.
(Semolina is in the Clearview Mall.)

Dining Diary

Saturday, March 27. Attention Span. A Worthless Trip. Still operating within my bachelor routine, I went to the Courtyard for breakfast, then ran the rest of my errands. En route, I got a call from Mary Leigh saying that the Mu Alpha Theta gathering in Baton Rouge was ending today, not tomorrow as Mary Ann told me. She would be home in time for lunch. Great! I have no radio show today, allowing us to have lunch at the Acme. The usual array of grilled oysters, wedge salad, and the soup-and-fried oyster poor boy combo came and went.

I received an invitation from some friends of Richard Collin--my old history professor, mentor, and the New Orleans Underground Gourmet. He died last month, and they're holding a memorial gathering. I really must read e-mail messages more carefully. I thought the event was in Hammond. I discovered that it was in New Orleans when I attempted to Mapquest the address. When I arrived, nobody was home. I would discover another misreading: the memorial isn't until April 11. If there's anything I hate, it's a needless round trip across the lake. The only thing good about it was being able to listen to an entire Prairie Home Companion show for the first time in ages as I rolled along, wasting time and energy.

I thought about stopping somewhere for dinner on the way back. But still full from lunch, I just went home. Mary Leigh wasn't hungry either. End of day.

*** Acme Oyster House. Covington: 1202 US 190 (Causeway Blvd.) 985-246-6155. Seafood.


Sunday, March 28. Macaroni Grill. New Satsuma Tree. A letter from LSU for Mary Leigh--which I took as another one of the dozens of pitches from colleges around the country--proved much more exciting for her. It was a final grade of B on the third correspondence course she'd taken through LSU, to make up for studies she missed during the first half of her sophomore year. She was allegedly being home-schooled then, having decided that she couldn't stand to return to Sacred Heart after her freshman year. The home-schooling idea worked out as badly as it did the first time we tried that idea, in sixth grade. Her main achievement this time was memorizing all the scripts of all eleven seasons of Frasier.

This course with the B was the last one she needed to graduate from high school. "I'm free!" she said, jubilant.Macaroni Grill.

We celebrated with lunch at the Macaroni Grill. It was my idea, and it surprised her, given my animus towards chains. But there are some decent chains out there, and in recent months I've revisited a number of the better ones to flesh out my restaurant reviews online. People do want to know about the likes of this.

The Macaroni Grill is one of the decent chains. They've discovered that, for all its deliciousness, Italian food is neither a difficult cuisine nor one that requires expensive ingredients. That's the setup chains like to work with.

Panneed cheese.

A visit here a few months ago revealed that Macaroni Grill handles pizza, salads, some pasta dishes, steaks, and some seafoods rather well. We tested a lot of that again, beginning with the bruschetta with tomatoes. Mary Leigh loves that dish and this version of it. I had a fried version of a salad Caprese, with slabs of fresh-milk mozzarella covered with bread crumbs and panneed. I liked this; my daughter didn't. Neither of the Marys think fresh milk mozzarella is worth eating. They're also both Republicans, regardless of the enlightenment I've tried to impart to them on that subject, too.


She had pasta with red sauce--one of her staples. She ran out of hunger for it halfway through. It's not the equal of Bosco's, she said. On the other hand, the panneed sole before me wasn't bad at all. The fish was crusty and hot, cooked just about perfectly, topped with capers. The collection of orzo and parsley underneath was not much of a statement, and the fish was clearly not local and probably came in frozen--although it didn't come across that way. The price, in the mid-teens, was fair enough.

Sole at Macaroni Grill.

We left there to pick up some gardening stuff--time to fertilize my trees, and long past time to re-pot the spider plant on my bedroom windowsill. We made another stop at the fruit stand in Abita Springs. Local strawberries were still in good supply, but I must now face the fact that Louisiana oranges are finished for the year. I have about a two-week supply left. This means I was able to enjoy the juicy local navels for a full four months--the longest season ever in my twenty-five years of squeezing fresh oranges daily.

I thought I might get one more batch of navels when the man said he could sell me a whole crate of oranges. But these were from California. Pretty, but not as tasty. It was inevitable.

He did have something else interesting for me: a satsuma sapling from Louisiana stock. My one satsuma tree at home has struggled to grow a foot high, even though I was able to get eight satsumas from it one year. They must have grafted that one right before potting it. It survived the nights with temperatures in the teens this year. Maybe someday I'll have my own satsuma supply. Wish I could grow orange trees.

** Romano's Macaroni Grill. Mandeville: 3410 US Hwy 190 985-727-1998. Italian.

Exotic Cuisine


Bangkok Thai

Riverbend: 513 S. Carrollton. 504-861-3932. Map.
Lunch and dinner continuously seven days.

It's the city's longest-running Thai restaurant, originally opened by one of the more creative souls to purvey this cuisine. His food was always good, but his premises never were. To many people, however, minimal surroundings equates with authenticity, and so the place has a large number of loyal regulars who say this is the best Thai restaurant in town. It isn't. The menu is interesting and at its best the food is exciting, but it's inconsistent.

As Thai menus go, this one is offbeat enough to be worthy of notice. They do more with fish (they often serve pompano!) and duck than most other Thai places. Dishes not seen in any other local Thai place are sprinkled through the menu. Those who measure goodness of a restaurant by portion size may not be entirely pleased, but the prices seem fair enough.

The history of this place reaches back to the mid-1980s, when a Thai man whose name I have forgotten (it will come to me in the middle of the night someday and I'll install it here) opened a grubby but good restaurant on Canal Street. There was only one other Thai restaurant then. He moved it a couple of times before winding up at the foot of Carrollton Avenue in the early 1990s, where Bangkok Thai has been ever since. The restaurant has changed hands at least twice since then. It immediately attracted students and teachers from Tulane and Loyola, which still form a large percentage of the clientele.

The dark, well-worn dining room gets most of its decor from Thai travel posters and other wall hangings that should have been replaced a long time ago. The most often-heard comment about the premises is, "It's next door to Cooter Brown's."

Spring rolls.
Goong naree (spicy shrimp fried in rice paper).
Chicken or shrimp satay (grilled on skewers, with peanut sauce).
Fried calamari with red curry.
Coconut milk soup with chicken or shrimp.
Thai spicy-sour soup with shrimp.
Silver noodle salad with chicken.
Yellow Thai curry with vegetables.
Red curry with pork or beef.
Green curry with chicken or shrimp.
Panang curry with pork or shrimp.
Masaman curry with chicken.
Thai basil sautee with beef, duck or shrimp.
Thai garlic sautee with shrimp or chicken.
Thai ginger sautee with beef.
Honey-roasted duck.
Thai barbecue chicken.
Pad thai.
Wide noodles with shrimp or chicken.
Vegetarian noodles.
Pineapple fried rice with chicken and sausage.
Chili and garlic pompano.
Catfish with Thai basil.
Mango with sweet sticky rice.

The soups, seafood, and duck are the most exciting dishes. Make sure everything is too stove-hot to eat when it arrives. Be sure to tell the waiter how pepper-hot you want the food; the inclination is to back off the chilies, which makes the eating much less interesting.

I personally wish they'd close the place for a few weeks and give it a Katrina-style gutting and renovation.

Up to three points, positive or negative, for these characteristics. Absence of points denotes average performance in the matter.


Top Ten

Ten Best Rack-Of-Lamb Chops

The days of getting a rack of lamb seem to have come to an end around New Orleans, replaced by double-cut lamb chops, in twos and threes. It's the bone-in ribeye of lamb, and the most desirable cut in the entire animal. Here are the best examples of those in the city's restaurants, from the most expensive down to the bargains at Middle Eastern cafes.

The first four restaurants on this list buy their Colorado-raised lamb from the same source. It is a spectacular product, needing not much more that a skillful broiler chef. (And maybe some bearnaise.)

1. Commander’s Palace. Garden District: 1403 Washington Ave.. 504-899-8221. Spectacular Colorado chops, grilled over wood and sauced naturally.

2. Galatoire’s. French Quarter: 209 Bourbon. 504-525-2021. The best non-seafood entree on Galatoire's menu. Get it with bearnaise.

3. Antoine’s. French Quarter: 713 St. Louis. 504-581-4422. Striking quality, juicy and good. Get the chops, not the noisettes, with bearnaise or Alciatore sauce.

4. Emeril’s. Warehouse District: 800 Tchoupitoulas 504-528-9393. A crust of Creole mustard and bread crumbs and a light jus allow this superior lamb to shine.

5. Vizard's. Uptown: 5015 Magazine. 504-895-2246. Seared with a crust of pistachio, napped with lamb demi.

6. Bistro at Maison de Ville. French Quarter: 733 Toulouse. 504-528-9206. Panneed lamb chops with blueberries. Much better than it sounds.

7. Gallagher's Grill. Covington: 509 S Tyler. 985-892-9992. Pat Gallagher's greatest hit, in all his restaurants over the years, is a pairing of grilled lamb chops and quail. It's back again in his new place, sizzling in butter.

8. Lebanon’s Cafe. Riverbend: 1500 S. Carrollton Ave. 504-862-6200. Six or seven small New Zealand chops, grilled over charcoal--the best in the Middle Eastern restaurant segment.

9. Impastato's. Metairie: 3400 16th Street. 504-455-1545. A shade inconsistent, but usually thick, double-boned, and delicious at a very attractive price.

10. Clancy’s. Uptown: 6100 Annunciation. 504-895-1111. Nice-looking chops with either a natural jus or bearnaise.

Have I missed a good one? If you know of a great lamb chop that belongs on this list, post it on our messageboard.  (You'll also find other people's suggestions there.)


Rack of Lamb Lollipops

Although American lamb is meatier and better, the very inexpensive racks of baby lamb from New Zealand are hard to resist at the low prices they often go on sale for. You could serve each person a whole baby lamb rack for the price of a steak. The chops, once you cut them up, make one or two big, delicious bites each. It's perfectly proper to eat them with your fingers that way, and even the kids will be charmed by that. Lamb has a much more agreeable flavor than it had in the bad old days, so if it's been awhile, try it!

Preheat oven and broiling rack to 425 degrees, and position an oven shelf about in the center of the oven. Turn on the convection feature if you have it.

1. This first step may not be necessary, because most lamb racks are already trimmed and "frenched." Frenching a lamb rack means cutting most of the fat and meat away between the bones. Not only does this make it look nicer, but it keeps that part from burning. If the racks haven't been frenched, lay them bone side down and, starting about a half-inch above the lean with a sharp knife, carefully cut along one bone and then the opposite one. Repeat until finished. If there is excess fat along the top of the bones, cut this off too. But leave a thin layer of fat to enrich the flavors.

2. In a wide bowl large enough to fit a whole lamb rack, combine the honey, Creole mustard, Tabasco garlic marinade, and lemon juice. Stir to combine. Dip the racks in this mixture, and cover the meatiest part of the racks with it. Cover the racks but leave at room temperature for about an hour to marinate.

3. Sprinkle salt and pepper on the racks and place them bone side down on the slotted broiling pan. Put them into the oven and roast until a meat thermometer reads about 130 degrees (for medium rare)--about 20 minutes. Do not turn. Remove the lamb and let it rest for about five minutes.

4. Serve the lamb racks as they are, or slice them into chops and fan them out on the plate. Ultimate side dish: mushroom risotto.

Serves four to eight.