NOTE: The current situation lends itself to so many April Fool’s possibilities. But it’s better to be safe than sorry, so to keep the tradition alive, we’ll just go with an old favorite of mine.
In my first year on the staff of my college campus newspaper The Driftwood, the editors published an April Fool edition. I thought it such a cool idea that I've used it again and again. At the Figaro weekly newspaper, we ran an April fool cover every year. But my best work in this regard has been my April 1 restaurant review. The theme is the same every year: the best food in the world, at the lowest price, on an all-you-can-eat basis. No matter how preposterous I make it, many people fall for it every year. Some get angry with me. Many listeners now expect it, and sometimes I catch even them.
Here is one that uses all the standard elements of my April Fool reviews, with a very local theme. It roped in an amazing number of people, including a major public official. Note that the rating is one star higher than my highest.
The Penwick Club
978 Canal (between O'Keefe and Dryades*), CBD.
Reservations essential: 524-0348**.
Payment arranged in advance by line of credit.
It is a moderately well-kept secret that the old-line, blueblood social clubs that once controlled Mardi Gras have, since the surcease of their parading a few years ago, felt a dramatic drop in their membership. This didn't affect most of the clubs very much since their endowments and trust funds allow them to exist without any members at all.
But one aspect of their operations has been hit hard: their dining rooms. If only seven or eight members take lunch, the kitchen becomes hard to maintain and good waiters impossible to attract.
I did not know any of this until I received a gilded invitation to dine at the Penwick Club a few weeks ago. The Penwick Club is, in case you didn't make the connection, the secret, closed organization whose members used to stage the parade of the Mistick Krewe of Cronus, the Greek god of time, on Mardi Gras.
The invitation was a surprise since I knew that the only possible means of entry into the club is to be born into it. I found this out in a most disconcerting way in my early twenties, when I thought that all it took was a certain amount of schmoozing, buying lunches for prominent members, and supporting club political candidates to be invited to join. When nothing happened and I pushed the issue, I was told in the most condescending terms that they certainly enjoyed my company, but nothing I could do would ever make me eligible for Penwick membership.
So I called to make the reservation and was shunted to a young woman who explained the new open-door policy for the Penwick Club's dining room. Basically, it goes like this: You and I still can't become members, but we will be allowed to have lunch or dinner at any of the tables in the center of the main dining room. (Tables against the walls and windows are all reserved long-term for specific members.) We are not allowed to dine with a member of the club, even at one of the center tables. (This doesn't apply to women, who have always been allowed as guests of the members.)
Finally, since no reckoning of bills takes place in the dining room, non-members are required to open a debit account with the club, placing on deposit a minimum of $500 to be drawn against for dining expenses.
If all of this sounds demeaning, haughty, or intolerable, you need to enter one further matter into consideration: the Penwick Club is, quite simply, serving the best food available anywhere in New Orleans right now. And they are doing it at prices that seem like crazy mistakes in your favor, with lagniappe offered at every turn.
The dinner I had there last week is a case in point. As soon as we were seated, we were brought a bottle of the club's house Champagne: a special Cuvee of Dom Ruinart, which has always been one of my favorites. When I demurred, saying that a glass would do me just fine, the waiter said, as he continued uncorking, "Well, just have as much as you want. It comes with the price of the dinner."
Then came a large platter holding oysters Rockefeller and Bienville, barbecue shrimp, crabmeat au gratin, and fried eggplant sticks. This treatment is familiar to me: it means that I've been spotted and the house is trying to suck up. But not here. "That's the complimentary appetizer assiette that all our diners get," said the waiter. How can they do this? Not only were all the particulars as delicious as any others I've run into, but the generosity of the platter was such that I felt no need to order a paid-for first course, soup, or salad.
As it turned out, I didn't have to. Just after I ordered the rack of lamb, out came the tureen of the day's soup. This was an intense fish soup in the direction of a bouillabaisse, but enriched with cream and full of local shellfish. The tureen was easily large enough to serve four diners; I liked the soup well enough to refill my bowl. On the side, there was a dish of Louisiana choupique caviar, sour cream, and toasted croutons. These were designed to be floated atop the soup, but I thought it was pretty good by itself. The soup was followed by a large bowl of interesting greens, brought to the table on a cart flanked by fresh dressings and a wide assortment of garnishes, including not only grated cheese, carrots, and broccoli, but shrimp, lobster meat, grilled chicken, and fried oysters. All of this, incredibly, is gratis with the entree.
For $12.95, after all that largesse, I expected the rack of lamb to be two chops at most. What arrived was a full eight-bone rack of American spring lamb. It was encrusted with fresh thyme, fresh garlic, Pommery mustard, and bread crumbs and smelled superb. The rack was cooked to the perfect rosy degree I'd specified, and the marinade in which it had been allowed to mellow for the previous two days lent a fascinating complexity to the incomparably tender lamb.
I don't know how I did it, but I managed to pack away the entire rack. I told the waiter that the lamb was so fine that I could almost eat another one. A long period then ensued--the only point in the evening during which any flaw in the service could be detected--before the waiter came out with another lamb rack. I told the waiter he'd misunderstood me, but he said it was all right: seconds of anything were on the house. Then he offered to wrap the second rack for me to take home. "Lots of people do that, especially with the lamb and the filet mignon," he said.
The signature dessert at the Penwick Club is Cronus' Cup. This is a huge golden bowl in which one finds no fewer than six different desserts: an intense chocolate mousse, two homemade ice creams, a fruit flan, a creme brulee, and a cube of great bread pudding. This, alas, is not included with the cost of the entree; one must pay $3 extra for it. It does, however, come with a choice of coffees, which in addition to regular and decaf also includes cappuccino, espresso, and coffees with liqueurs.
My tab for this, with the most generous tip (percentage-wise) of my life, was $25. I had eaten so much I could hardly move. I had not ordered wine since the Dom Ruinart had kept me going through the meal. I did take a look at the wine list, which apparently is priced at retail rather than restaurant level. Some of the older bottles appear not to have been marked up since they first arrived; I thought that $17 for the 1970 Chateau Lynch-Bages, for example, was something of a steal.
One more catch: you have to be invited before you can dine at the Penwick Club. But that's easy to make happen: just call and ask for an invitation. What results is totally unbelievable.
*Joke. O'Keefe and Dryades are the same street.
**My office number, so I could see how many people called. This one brought in hundreds of calls.