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Diary For Tuesday, 1/8/2019: Avo, Where I Order The Wrong Things.

My littlest sister Lynn Fleetwood is near enough my age that we have conversations about retiring. Neither of us is contemplating immediacy, but the question always lingers. My wife Mary Ann encourages me to have dinner with LF as often as possible, because Lynn enjoys restaurants that MA can’t stand.

There is a parallel: MA is a red meat fan. LF has been a vegetarian most of her adult life. That limits the list of restaurants that she might be interested in. LF and I have the same opinions about a lot of other matters in which MA and I are at wide distances apart. Both women have said that it would have been nice if LF and I had been the married couple in this trio. But almost every married couple we know says the same sort of things about their situations. As Sinatra said, that’s life.

LF called me about something else (how could it not be?) today, and we wound up making plans for dinner. I suggested that we go to Avo, the most prominent new Italian restaurant in 2016. It has been some time since the last time I dined there. In those dinners, both MA and I agreed that we thought Avo was terrific, particularly in the service department.

The service this night was as good as ever. The eating, however, wasn’t what I remember from past dinners at Avo. The feeling both LF and I held about tonight’s culinary performance broke down into three explanations, all of which call for another visit in the near future. Either. . .

1. This was a bad day in the kitchen. A slow Tuesday night, the dining rooms nearly empty. Add the deep darkness in the evening ths time of year, and the need to park at least a block away down a side street, and the customer-provided enthusiasm was lacking. Or. . .

B. I ordered the wrong things. I admit that I had some of the most unusual dishes on the menu, the kinds of things that neither MA or LF would probably not consider trying. Or.

iii. The current menu isn’t as good as it could be. The dishes I had made strong statements, none of which I hope to hear again. The best dishes tonight hewed most closely to the Sicilian palate that the owners of Avo inherited from several generations of evolution. But they didn’t have nearly enough of those dishes tonight.

As dinner began, the waitresses were in their usual chipper attitude, picking up my jokes and throwing them back at me. (My favorite demeanor for a server.) We had a lot to ask about the menu, particularly the offbeat items. Only one special was on the board: spaghetti with an olive-oil-and-herbs sauce. We had that split as an appetizer. Before that arrived, I took in a sweetbreads appetizer, made with a Marsala-based sauce with mushrooms and grits made not from corn but rice. I am a lover of sweetbreads, but these didn’t resemble any other version of these little organs in my experience. I just didn’t like the taste.

Next came the aforementioned spaghetti dish, which was everything we expected, enjoyable and generous. LF applied her vegetarian status by ordering an entree of wild mushrooms. These were turned into a pâté, which went well with the classic fruit-and-mustard sauce popular in northern Italy. This would have been quite good as an appetizer.

LF was through by then. I went on with an entree entitled branzino with Umbrian lentils, a sauce made with Prosecco-flavored zabaglione (Italian custard, but made without sugar), radishes and herbs. Branzino is a fish very popular in Italy, but rarely seen in our part of the world. Local fish would have been much better, just as the result of trying to cook Des Allemands catfish in Palermo would be. But perhaps I didn’t get enough tastes of the fish. After two bites, I couldn’t find any bigger than a shred. It was a bad deal at $31.

Looking over the more conventional dishes, I’m sure that if I had ordered the lasagna, the chicken made with ricotta gnudi, the veal short ribs, the beef carpaccio, the meatballs, and even the grilled octopus, I would have had a better evening. As I will have when I drop in and have Mary Ann pick the menu. No way would she have had so much as thought about sweetbreads.

I repeat: this was not a good sample of what Avo is capable of doing. We’ve enjoyed that several times, and the memory of it tells me that tonight’s dissatisfaction was irregular.

Avo. Uptown: 5908 Magazine. 504-509-6550.


Lasagna With Beef

The first step is to make a tomato sauce with a good deal of garlic, basil, and pepper in it. The pasta component also needs attention. The best possible would be to use fresh pasta, which will obviate the need to cook the pasta in advance. Although there are people who make lasagna with dried, uncooked noodles, I don’t feel good about that, although I can’t explain why. If I have to use dried, I cook it just long enough to take the stiffness out of them. The most expensive part of a good lasagna is the cheese. Don’t stint on either the quality or the quantity of cheese you use.

  • Sauce:
  • 2 Tbs. olive oil
  • 2 tsp. chopped garlic
  • 1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. dried basil
  • 1/4 tsp. dried oregano
  • 2 28-oz. cans Italian plum tomatoes, whole
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • Other ingredients:
  • 1/2 lb. ground round
  • 1/2 lb. Italian sausage
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 8 oz. lasagna noodles
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 10 oz. fresh spinach, picked and well washed
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 4 oz. Fontina cheese
  • 4 oz. mozzarella cheese, grated
  • 8 oz. ricotta cheese
  • 4 oz. Provolone cheese (shredded)
  • 3/4 cup finely grated Romano cheese
  • 1/2 pint heavy whipping cream


1. Make the sauce first. Drain the tomatoes (reserve the juice) and put them into a food processor; chop to a rough puree. (You can also do this with your fingers in a bowl.)

2. Heat the olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat till the oil shimmers. Saute the garlic and crushed red pepper for about a minute–until you can smell the garlic.

3. Add the tomatoes, 1/2 cup of the reserved juice, basil, oregano, and salt. Bring to a boil, and lower the heat to medium-low. Simmer for about an hour, uncovered, stirring now and then.

4. Remove the Italian sausage from casing and blend with ground round and chopped onions in a skillet over medium heat. Add 1/4 cup water. Cook while breaking the meat up with a kitchen fork to avoid clumping. Drain to remove excess fat and set aside. Preheat the oven to 250 degrees.

5. If using dried noodles, bring a large pot of water to the boil with 1 Tbs. salt and 1 Tbs. olive oil. Add the lasagna noodles and boil for about two minutes, or until the noodles are no longer stiff. Remove to a bowl of cold water for a moment, then remove and drain. (If using fresh pasta, omit this step.)

6. Cook the spinach in the same water you used to cook the pasta, just for a minute. Remove with a slotted spoon, drain, and spread out.

7. In a glass or ceramic baking dish (about 9″x13″x4″), pour about 1/4 cup of olive oil on the bottom and spread it up the sides. Make the following layers:

1/3 cup sauce.
Fontina cheese.
1/4 cup Romano cheese.
1/4 cup cream.
Pasta (turn noodles 90 degrees to the first layer, and continue alternating throughout the remainder of the setup).
1/3 cup sauce.
Meat mixture.
1/3 cup sauce.
1/3 cup sauce.
1/3 cup sauce.
Remaining sauce.
Remaining Romano.

8. After removing from the oven, let the lasagna rest for at least 15 minutes before attempting to slice. Use a sharp knife to slice, then remove pieces starting from the center with a metal spatula.

Serves about eight.

AlmanacSquare January 10, 2017

Upcoming Deliciousness

Mardi Gras March 5.
Got Gumbo Competition Feb. 7.
Valentine’s Day: Feb. 14.

Today’s Flavor

Today is National Bittersweet Chocolate Day. Bittersweet chocolate is really more for cooking than for eating, although some like it. It’s less sweet than semi-sweet. Great for making chocolate mousse, or for chocolate sauce to go over something that’s already very sweet.

Here in New Orleans, you are encouraged to celebrate Fancy Creole Chicken Day. A number of dishes, all developed about a century ago, are mainstay in local restaurant, particularly the older ones. All of them amount to a half chicken, baked or sometimes grilled, topped or surrounded with some kind of hash. The most popular are:

Chicken bonne femme. “Good woman’s chicken” is covered with cubed potatoes, garlic, parsley, and other savory bits. The famous version is cooked at Tujague’s, where it’s the best dish in the house.

Chicken Clemenceau. Named for the Premier of France during World War I, its garnish is mushrooms, peas, butter, onions, and a good deal of garlic. Galatoire’s makes the definitive version.

Chicken Pontalba. This is what I think is the best of all. The roasted chicken is topped with fried potato cubes, grilled ham, green onions, and bearnaise sauce. Chef Paul Blange, the first chef at Brennan’s, created it in the 1940s. The Palace Cafe makes the killer Pontalba.

All of these are wonderful Creole classics, and not all that hard to make at home. The most time-consuming part is cooking the chicken.

Kitchen Innovations

Today is the birthday (1949) of George Foreman, the former heavyweight boxing champ. After retiring from the ring, he began a new career after of devising and selling countertop grills. It’s a brilliant product: it seems like something you need, even though it’s probably going to be one appliance too many. Its primary merit is that it grills both sides of something at the same time. They need that capability in fast-food restaurants, but I can’t say I’ve ever wished I could do that. Still, lots of people like Foreman grills.

The Physiology Of Taste

Neils Stensen, born today in 1683 (and also known as Nicolaus Steno), discovered Stensen’s duct. That’s what moves saliva from the gland that makes it to the mouth. We don’t think of saliva too much (with good reason), but it plays a more important role in eating than most people know. Aside from making it easier to swallow food, it actually begins the digestion process. If you put a cracker in you mouth, chew it up, but don’t swallow it, you can taste the starches begin to turn to sugars, by the action of enzymes in saliva.

Edible Dictionary

pulla, Finnish, n.–A slightly sweet yeast bread made in Finland, particularly around the holidays. It has a few things in common with New Orlealns king cake, but without the frosting. It’s also a little like challah, but not as eggy. Most of the time a loaf of pulla is braided and contains cardamom seeds and raisins.

The Old Kitchen Sage Sez:

If you’re going to go through the trouble of deboning a leg of lamb, you may as well stuff the place where the bone was it with something. Think lamb sausage, bread crumbs, and garlic.

Gourmet Gazetteer

Eaton Creek carries water–sometimes a lot of it–four miles down the west slope of Cannibal Plateau, a wilderness area in west central Colorado. This is the heart of the Rocky Mountains, and in its four-mile run it drops some 3600 feet. It flows into the Gunnison River three miles north of Lake City, a small resort town with some of the most spectacular scenery on earth. The Tic Toc Diner is probably where you’ll be eatin’.

This is the second in a series of Gourmet Gazetteer entries beginning with “Eat.”

Deft Dining Rule #214:

In case you haven’t heard, the old rule requiring lamb to be served with mint jelly has been repealed. It never was a good idea.

Annals Of Tea

Today in 1839, tea from India arrived in markets in London and the rest of England. It was much less expensive than the tea from China–enough so that a critical mass of people were able to afford to drink tea routinely for the first time. It was the beginning of the mass popularity that tea still enjoys in Britain, where they like the stuff so much that they even drink it on hot weather. They say it cools them off.

Annals Of Inedible Mushrooms

Today is the birthday (1911) of Norman Heatley, who develop effective methods of extracting penicillin from bread mold. Its healing ability had already been discovered, but getting the active ingredient out of the mold was challenging until Heatley figured out how to grow it. He used kitchen equipment: cookie tins, pie pans, butter churns, and roasting pans. His work allowed enough penicillin to treat sick and wounded soldiers in World War II, especially on and after D-Day.

Food Namesakes

Wallace Berry, composer and author of books on music theory, was born today in 1928. . . Chandra Cheesborough, born today in 1959, was a gold-medal Olympic runner in 1984. . . British broadcaster Alistair Cooke began the job that would make him most famous today in 1971, as host of Masterpiece Theatre.

Words To Eat By

“Today the biggest decisions I make aren’t related to the heavyweight title. They are whether I visit McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, or Jack-in-the-Box.”–George Foreman, whose birthday it is today.

“Chicken may be eaten constantly without becoming nauseating.”–Andre Simon.

Words To Drink By

“Be wary of strong drink. It can make you shoot at tax collectors, and miss.”–Robert Heinlein.