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Diary For Sat., 03/02/2019. First Dinner In Lola Railcar Is Stunning, And The Food The Best We’ve Ever Had There.

About ten years ago, Keith Frentz and Nealy Crawford–both of them chefs in the kitchen of the old Brennan’s on Royal Street–left that gig for a new one in the heart of Covington.

There they found a large stretch of the old Illinois Central railroad terminal. The trains long since ceased to roll through here, but the building was so solid and the romance of the rails so intriguing that several restaurants had come and gone here.

The Frentzes (by now married to one another) took over the old depot after Chef Pat Gallagher moved on. Also on the program was an old, parked caboose as the restaurant’s walk-in cooler, adjacent to the kitchen.

Somewhere they found a 1920s-era passenger railroad car and had it delivered to the vicinity of Lola as it was then. After years of negotions with St. Tammany Parish, the Frentzes performed a small renovation of the car, painted it in the same colors that anyone who ever rode on the St. Charles Streetcar would recognize immediately, and opened the new dining room for service.

It could hardly have come out better. The tables and chairs are more like those of a restaurant than of a railcar. Indeed, it all looks a lot like the dining car on the Orient Express. Big windows line both sides, and a half-circle banquette in the very back Meanwhile, the main dining room and the outdoor tables still serve the many people who come from the St. Tammany courthouse across the street to Lola for lunch.

Lunch is a very different animal from dinner, requiring as it does quick service and a familiar menu. At dinner, the Frentzes have let themselves go. MA and I went through a great deal of the dinner menu in our first meal in Train 4 (the name by which the new railcar goes). The only thing missing is a sleeping car, but that would suggest slow service. Which is no problem.

I began with a featured cocktail, made with blackberry lacquer and large leaves of fresh basil. Mary Ann indulged in the crab claws–something she really loves–in a creamy sauce. I countered with my creamy oyster soup, an excellent version of that too-seldom-seen chowder. MA followed with arancini, the familiar ball of rice with red sauce and cheese, which really does look like an orange (arancini is the Italian word). That was an appetizer masquerading as an entree, but that’s what MA likes to do. Come to think of it, she also had Parmesan risotto as the other barrel of her entree.

My entree–the visiting fish of the day–was misnamed. How could speckled trout here be considered a guest from out of town? In fact, it must be noted, most specks now come from Virginia, the Carolinas, and Mississippi, so one-sided are the laws of Louisiana trout. It was pan-fried and topped with butter and almonds and the other familiar accoutrements. In other words, not just delicious but generous in portion.

By this time, I couldn’t add a dessert to the repast. But we were both well satisfied, and that was a sweet enough ending. The railroad car is going to make for a big hit. Where are all those former patrons of Victoria Station? Lola is incomparably nicer than the old boxcar at the 1960s version of the prime rib national chain, the last one of which disappeared in 2017.

Lola. Covington: 517 N New Hampshire. 985-892-4992.

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Commander’s Saute of Crawfish

The Louisiana crawfish crop has begun to appear. It promises to be a very good one this year, after the disaster we had last year. I can hardly wait for crawfish season so we can once again enjoy this superb, buttery dish. It’s equally good as an appetizer served with angel-hair pasta or as a main dish with rice. What makes the dish go is the green onion component: chop them fine, leave out the tough part, and don’t cook so long that they lose their crispness. Serve this over crawfish cakes, rice, pasta, or even inside an omelette.

  • 2 Tbs. butter
  • 1 lb. fresh boiled crawfish tails, peeled
  • 1 cup chopped green onions
  • 1 Tbs. salt-free Creole seasoning
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/2 cup crawfish stock
  • 2 sticks butter

1. Melt the 2 Tbs. butter in a skillet. To it add the crawfish tails, green onions, seafood seasoning, and Worcestershire sauce. Saute until heated through–about two minutes.

2. Add the crawfish stock and lower the heat to the lowest possible. Cut the remaining butter into the pan, and blend into the other ingredients by agitating the pan until completely combined and creamy-looking.

Serves four.

AlmanacSquare March 6, 2019

Upcoming Deliciousness

Today Is Ash Wednesday.
St. Patrick’s Day–March 17
St. Joseph’s Day–March 19
Easter–April 21

Restaurant Anniversaries

Brigtsen’s opened today in 1986. Frank and Marna Brigtsen worked together at K-Paul’s, after Paul Prudhomme had hired the young chef first at Commander’s Palace, then in his own restaurant. Then they went out on their own. The early Brigtsen’s showed many similarities to K-Paul’s: the menu that changed every day, the policy of sending food to the table as soon as it came off the stove (instead of waiting until for all the other dishes for the table were ready), the doctrine of serving fresh local product with a local flavor.

Frank Brigtsen.

Frank Brigtsen.

Brigtsen’s became a hard reservation to get immediately, and it’s still that way–although weekdays only require normal notice. It’s my favorite kind of restaurant: just reading the menu makes you hungry, because it perfectly blends the familiar with the innovative. The building is an old cottage, only slightly reconfigured from its residential days (although at least two restaurants used the place before Brigtsen’s), and making no pretenses to rich atmosphere. But that keeps the prices down, and the restaurant is as essential to the local dining scene as any other in town.

Food Calendar

This is National Frozen Food Day. That’s because on this day in 1930, the first frozen foods were put on sale in food stores. It bore the brand of the man credited with inventing the modern method of freezing food: Clarence Birdseye, whose work created the entire frozen-food industry. I’d say we paid a price in flavor there, but freezing did bring the price of food down while vastly improving the availability of certain edibles that would have been available only in season previously, or not at all. But you’ll never eat frozen food at Brigtsen’s, nor should any restaurant with pretensions to serving the best use freezers except for the likes of ice cream.

Of course, few of us can maintain perfect gourmet restaurant standards at home, and even the best chefs have a lot of stuff in their home freezers. That’s okay if you religiously follow the essential rule of frozen food:

Freeze food as rapidly as possible, and thaw it as slowly as possible.

The food industry uses a technique called IQF–individually quick frozen–to take the temperature of, say, fish or shrimp or chicken down to well below zero in just a few minutes. That prevents water from being frozen out of the food’s cells and then forming big ice crystals. When that happens, the textural integrity of the food is compromised, creating that mushy effect. It also leaves a lot of water inside the food–also a hallmark of badly frozen product. Thawing the food slowly prevents damage as well, since quick thawing causes the border between the frozen and unfrozen parts to stretch the cellular structure and, again, create an unpleasant softness.

The Old Kitchen Sage Sez:

I considered the fate of my surplus steaks.
Pulled out some foil in a thick wide sheet
Fast-conducting metal is all it takes
Quickly and sharply to reduce the heat.
Someday my children will gladly find
Dinners aplenty, enough to deplete
Ravenous hungers, or the nibbling kind.
And behind all that, this old, old meat.

Gourmet Gazetteer

Crawfish Creek winds through the beautiful wooded hills in the northeast corner of Alabama, growing larger as it flows north into Georgia, in the same valley that the I-59 follows on its way from Birmingham to Chattanooga. The most appealing restaurants are the Depot Diner and Lazy Bones BBQ, both in the rustic little town of Rising Fawn, GA.

Edible Dictionary

gafftopsail catfish, n.–An unusual but excellent member of the catfish family, this species has exaggerated fins compared with other catfish. The high dorsal fin for which it is named is its most distinguishing characteristic. It also differs from other catfish in that it’s not a full-time bottom feeder, but goes after anything it finds in the water, with a particular appetite for crabs and shrimp. The flavor is also more pronounced than it is for most catfish, almost as powerful as mackerel. It’s not caught as often as it might be, because the fish has many venomous spines, and the fisherman has to be very careful. I’ve never seen it in a restaurant, but it is commonly caught in our waters.

Annals Of Junk Food

Oreo, the world’s most popular cookie, was introduced by Nabisco a hundred years ago today. The first batch was baked in Manhattan and sold in Hoboken. It was as it is today: two dark chocolate cookies with a fake buttercream filling holding them together. The original ornate design on the cookie was very similar to today’s. The only major change over the years was to add the Nabisco colophon to the center. A few decades ago, Esquire magazine tried to discover who created the design and why. They didn’t find out, but they did learn one amazing, little-discussed fact about Oreo: it is a ripoff of the long-running but now extinct Hydrox, made by Sunshine Biscuits.

Annals Of Wine Marketing

Today in 2007, Ernest Gallo died, at 97. He was the sales half of the Gallo family wine team, with his brother Julio (who also lived to a ripe old age) being the production guy. “Can you sell as much wine as I can make?” Julio asked his brother when they set out on their winery venture in the 1930s. “Can you make as much wine as I can sell?” Ernest shot back. They both could, and did.

Big Eaters Born Today

Tom Arnold (1959), Ed McMahon (1923), Lou Costello (1906), Shaquille O’Neal (1972).

Food Namesakes

Cookie Rojas, all-star baseball player, was born today in 1939. . . Guy Kibbee, actor, was born today in 1882. . . Poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning was born today in 1806. . . Today is the feast day of St. Basil of Bologna, the bishop of that city in the Fourth Century. With his title, he had a rare double food name.

Words To Eat By

“I’ve known what it is to be hungry, but I always went right to a restaurant.”–Ring Lardner, American journalist and writer, who was born today in 1885.

“Is it progress if a cannibal uses a fork?”–Stanislaw Lec, Polish writer, born today in 1906.

Words To Drink By

“The prestige of government has undoubtedly been lowered considerably by the prohibition law. For nothing is more destructive of respect for the government and the law of the land than passing laws which cannot be enforced. It is an open secret that the dangerous increase of crime in this country is closely connected with this.”–Albert Einstein, My First Impression of the USA (1921).