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Creole Cuisine in Los Angeles

Yes indeed, you can get good Louisiana food in Los Angeles, but you have to be careful.

There’s my usual credo (with very few exceptions ever granted), in which I do not patronize a Louisiana restaurant outside of Louisiana unless someone from Louisiana is in the kitchen. Back during the 1980s “Cajun craze” there were a lot of places that switched to or offered menu items labelled as “Cajun” without knowing what the hell they were doing, and putting out a lot of really bad food. Primary among these sinners were the people who thought that Cajun food was regular food encased in red pepper. Then there were those who thought Cajun food came from New Orleans … the litany of offenses goes on and on.

But for years there have been solid, reliable places in L.A., driven by a black Creole community who’ve been out here since the 1940s. Old favorites like Harold and Belle’s (dress up and bring a fat wallet) or Stevie’s Creole Café (former owner of Stevie’s on the Strip, which closed in 2006) in Encino; late, lamented places like Sid’s Cafe (owned by the wonderful Mr. Jase, and almost a second home to me when it was open) and other places that have come and gone.

Apparently, though, another one popped up a couple of years ago, and I didn’t even notice until I got an email from a co-worker which included this appeal:

Click to embiggen

A New Orleans restaurant needed our help? Our help was to go there and eat? Well … I can do that! And so off to New Orleans Vieux Carré Creole Cuisine we went. (4317 Degnan Blvd., LA 90008 in Leimert Park.) The timing couldn’t have been better, either — the day we went was the 5th anniversary of the arrival of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, followed by the failure of the Federal levee and floodwall system, and I needed some New Orleans food in me that day.

Spacious, plenty of New Orleans-local decoration and appropriate music, very friendly and welcoming service … I felt right at home. The place was just shy of half-full on a Sunday afternoon, so they can most certainly use the business (although we may have missed out on the after-church crowd).

Let’s get right to business. Iced tea. I figured I didn’t have to do my usual L.A. move of asking whether the tea was real, regular iced tea or some kind of Tropical PassionBerry Explosion kind of abomination. Nope, real southern iced tea — thumbs up. (They kindly offer both unsweetened and “sweet tea,” the latter of which I usually avoid pretty much anywhere.) Next, the test of mettle of a Louisiana restaurant — the gumbo.

Filé gumbo

Dark roux, very flavorful, although a bit salty for me (I tend to be sensitive to it, however). Plenty of seafood (big chunk of blue crab and shrimp), plus smoked and fresh hot sausage. I didn’t need to add any hot sauce to it, either. All in all a fine gumbo.

Crawfish & Corn Chowder

This is what blew me away in the soup category, though. What the menu describes as their “famous” Crawfish and Corn Chowder came next, and it seems to me that whatever fame it has is more than justified. Thick, rich, lots of crawfish (Louisiana crawfish, I was assured), freshly cut corn, beautifully seasoned. Next time I’m getting a whole bowl of this.

Those of you who may know my taste know how much I love New Orleans’ beloved Creole hot sausage, and especially hot sausage po-boys. If I had to choose a last meal, it’d probably be a hot sausage po-boy with fries, and a big plate of red beans ‘n rice. I didn’t order the red beans — I don’t usually order that dish in a restaurant, because I make it at home all the time and because mine is, well … the best (*cough*cough* … okay, I really should try their red beans next time) — but I had to have a hot sausage po-boy, despite the massive amount of food we’d already ordered.

Hot sausage po-boy

My first question — links or patties? Patties are the way to go for me, but NOVC serves theirs with links. That’s fine, of course! It’s just my personal idiosyncracy, and it depends on the type and style of sausage, and these were hot links, perfectly seasoned and nicely grilled with crisp edges. Then there’s the question of the bread … sigh. It’s nearly impossible to get proper New Orleans po-boy bread out here — Vietnamese baguettes come the closest — even though Leidenheimer’s say they ship nationally. The bread was good, but it was the soft variety. Still, a very solid hot sausage po-boy, probably the only one you can get in Los Angeles that I know of, and for that reason it is to be celebrated. (The fries were good too.)

Next came their featured dish of the day:

Shrimp & Crawfish Étouffée

Shrimp and Crawfish Étouffée, loaded with seafood, big fat shrimp and a ton of crawfish, and easily enough food for two people (I took half mine home and had a wonderful leftover dinner the next night). A marvelous dish, and I’ve heard good things about it at this restaurant, but if anything that day it seemed a touch underseasoned. (I added a few sprinkles of Creole seasoning to my leftovers and that really did the trick.) I suspect that this was just an inconsistency of that day, though, given how well everything else was seasoned, and I’d most certainly order it again.

Stuffed Catfish

Wes got the Stuffed Catfish, beautifully fried and seasoned, and stuffed with a seafood and ham dressing. This is exactly the kind of dish I’d expect to get at Mandina’s back home, even down to the little dish of green beans (just like you get at Mandina’s, if you know what I mean. ;-) )

Desserts were offered, but we were more than stuffed. That will have to wait for next time, when we come back in force with the Fat Pack in tow, and tear our way through as much of that menu as we can (entire dishes ordered “for the table,” as we’re fond of saying). I’d prefer to have at least a couple more visits under my belt before writing an actual review, but we were happy enough eating there, and we want to help them enough as well, that I decided not to wait until I had tried more dishes. (Sheesh, it’s already been six weeks, with me being God Emperor of Procrastination and all.)

If you’re looking for very good, relatively inexpensive Creole food in Los Angeles, this is where you need to go, and go often.

 

Cocktail of the Day: Dirt ‘n Diesel

A couple of things have prompted this post, beginning with our trip to Seattle a couple of months ago. We’re very lucky to have great friends up there, several of whom are bartenders, so when in Seattle we drink really well. This trip was no exception, as our livers were given a vigorous workout and we FINALLY got to sit across the bar from Murray Stenson — a terrific guy, and a bartender’s bartender.

One of the places we hadn’t been to yet was Tavern Law, and as I’d heard and read so much about it I wanted to make it up at the top of the list along with Zig Zag. They have a spectacular cocktail menu and seriously talented bartenders, one of whom, Cale Green, took care of us that night. My memory-jogging notes from that evening are sadly somewhat liquor-sodden, so I don’t have names or proportions, but that evening Cale made us cocktails consisting of:

1) Rye whiskey, Amaro Montenegro, Punt E Mes, Angostura bitters
2) Bourbon whiskey, Amaro Ramazzotti, dry vermouth, Peychaud’s bitters
3) Laird’s bonded apple brandy, Swedish punsch, sweet vermouth, lime juice

These are EXACTLY the kinds of drinks I love, and Cale’s the kind of bartender who, after chatting with you for a bit about what you like, can come up with amazing drinks.

We had been hoping to get to the speakeasy-style bar above Tavern Law, a place called Needle and Thread, a hidden room which one enters by passing through a bank vault (gotta love existing architectural details in your building!). Cale also works up there, but alas, they were closed that evening. No worries, though — we’ll hit them next time, and that evening we had a wonderful time, had world-class drinks and made a new friend.

The other bit prompting this post was GQ magazine’s publication of its list of the The 25 Best Cocktail Bars in America (as they see it). Number One on that list is, unsurprisingly, The Zig Zag Café, where Murray works alongside Ben and Erik and Kacey the whole gang there who make it such a wonderful place. I was happy to see some of our local L.A. bars (Tiki-Ti and Cole’s Red Car Bar, plus a mention of The Varnish in the back of Cole’s), one of our New Orleans watering holes (Arnaud’s French 75 Bar, although I’d have thrown Cure and Bar UnCommon into that list, at least whenever Chris McMillian is behind the stick at the latter) plus one I frequent in Houston whenever I’m there visiting family (the wonderful Anvil).

And right there at Number 25 was not Tavern Law (although I think it deserves high mention in such a list) but Needle and Thread upstairs. GQ said:

“I spend all day on a tractor. Make me a drink that reminds me of the farm. You know, of dirt and diesel.” This is how an organic farmer from Portland ordered his drink here, because that is how they encourage drinks to be ordered. Get poetic about it; you’ll wind up with something like the Dirt ‘n Diesel.

I found out from Cale later on that the aforementioned bartender was himself, and the Dirt ‘n Diesel was his creation. It’s a cousin to the Corn ‘n Oil, with inky black Black Strap rum as its molasses-heavy base, with additional bitterness from the Cynar and plenty of dirt from Fernet. This is a terrific drink, and makes up for the fact that we never get out to the farm. Stop in at either of the two aforementioned bars where Cale works, and see what he’ll come up with for you.

DIRT AND DIESEL
(by Cale Green, Tavern Law and Needle & Thread, Seattle)

2 ounces Cruzan Black Strap Rum
1/2 ounce Fernet-Branca
1/2 ounce Demerara sugar syrup
1/4 ounce Cynar
1/4 ounce lime juice

Combine ingredients with ice in a cocktail shaker and shake for 10-12 seconds. Strain over ice into a rocks glass. Garnish with a lime wedge.

 

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