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.

 

Cocktail Racqueteering

This delicious cocktail, dating from 1893, was contributed to a recent Liquor.com article by David Wondrich.

This drink demonstrates how one small, simple addition can completely transform a cocktail. Remove the teaspoon of crème de cacao and it’s an old-school 2:1 Martini (which I frequently enjoy with orange bitters, as was the old method). Put it back in, though, and hat hint of sweetness, that subtle whisper of chocolate — an amount so small that it might take you a moment to realize what you’re tasting — and the perfect flavor combination of chocolate and orange … yum!

Use this old idea to fuel your own experimentation. What can you do to your favorite classic cocktails by the addition of just a barspoon of a liqueur or amaro? For instance, a Daiquiri made with Scarlet Ibis rum and with the addition of one barspoon of Averna is now one of my favorite cocktails, thanks to my friend John Coltharp, currently bartending at Copa d’Oro and The Tasting Kitchen. I have no idea what he calls it (I’ll have to ask him), but I’ve been calling it the Sicilian Daiquiri.

Now … it’s love-love, and it’s your serve.

THE RACQUET COCKTAIL

2 ounces Plymouth Gin
1 ounce Noilly Prat Dry Vermouth
1 teaspoon white crème de cacao (Marie Brizard, preferably)
2 dashes orange bitters

Stir with cracked ice for at least half a minute, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a thin slice of lemon peel, twisted over the top and dropped into the drink.

The Racquet Cocktail is a cousin of both the Martini and the Twentieth Century Cocktail (swap the vermouth for Lillet, add lemon juice and up the cacao a bit, roughly). If you haven’t tried the latter, please do so.

Speaking of Wondrich, he will soon regale us with another magnificent tome called Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl. (Pre-order at this link or, preferably, pick it up on its publication date of November 2 at your nearest independent bookseller.) You can now also harass follow him on Twitter and that monstrously big social network that’s having the movie made about it this year, not to mention his own shiny new website, The North Gowanus Institute for Cranial Distempers.

 

Cocktail of the Day: San Francisco

Last week gave us a really fun (and somewhat raucous) evening at Seven Grand, one of our favorite bars — they had a reunion night for the entire original opening crew from April of 2007. Well, nearly; unfortunately John Coltharp, busy at his new gigs at The Tasting Kitchen and Copa d’Oro, wasn’t able to make it. It was great to see friends like Marcos Tello and Damian Windsor behind the stick there once again, though.

They brought back the entire original 7G menu for that night, too. Well, nearly; the Ramos Gin Fizz was missing (perhaps a bit too labor-intensive for a night when they were going to be slammed two or three deep at the bar), and of course the Bartender’s Choice drinks came at us left and right.

When I asked Damian for something whiskey-bearing but not on the special menu for the night, he offered this tasty variation on the Old Fashioned, or the Manhattan, or the Monte Carlo … sort of like all three fused at the molecular-genetic level inside a telepod (and with no fly, fortunately).

For the base spirit Damian chose Bernheim’s, a wheat whiskey from Kentucky made by the folks at Heaven Hill. The primary grain here is soft winter wheat (at least 51%, differing from Bourbon and rye in that those spirits must be at least 51% corn or rye grain, respectively), with some corn in the mashbill for sweetness and a bit of barley as well. It’s dry and crisp although with a bit of sweetness in the nose, full-bodied and fruity-nutty. Really wonderful stuff, and works very well in this drink where Bourbon might work less well. “The syrup takes the edge off the whiskey,” Damian says, and makes this a very well-balanced drink.

There’s a classic cocktail called The San Francisco; this isn’t it. I’m not certain if this is one of Damian’s own creations, but until he corrects me let’s say that it is.

San Francisco Cocktail

2 ounces Bernheim Straight Wheat Whiskey
1/2 ounce Carpano Antica sweet vermouth
1/4 ounce simple syrup
1 dash orange bitters
Splash Bénédictine liqueur
Lemon twist

Rinse a rocks glass with the Bénédictine and pour out the excess. Combine the other ingredients with cracked ice in a mixing glass and stir for at least 30 seconds. Strain into the coated glass, add a large ice cube and twist the lemon peel over the drink. Garnish with the peel.

 

She blinded me with (cocktail) science!

Yes, I still live and breathe. I’ve been talking to Stella about how to get my groove back, and she’s got a handle on it.

This is a linky-goodness post, as there have been some fascinating articles of late on the subject of mixing cocktails — to wit, on sweetness, balance, dilution and temperature.

First off, Chicago bartender Todd Appel puts forward a good case for why we should stop using 1:1 simple syrup.

I never have been a fan of 1:1 simple; it’s always seemed watery and not sweet enough, and simple math makes one wonder how a teaspoon of granulated or “powdered” sugar, called for in so many classic recipes, can be justifiably substituted with a teaspoon of something that’s got so much water in it. I’m not a fan of overly sweet cocktails either, but you have to have balance — sweet with the sour or bitter or strong, and plain ol’ sugar water doesn’t cut it. Todd starts off his article with the same observations:

For years I have wondered why my taste buds seemed to be at odds with many of the classic and new cocktails being offered around the country in our modern cocktail world.

I realized something important many years ago

Syrup in cocktails should be sugar heavy, period.

The problem here is twofold. 1-1 syrup offers more water and less sugar. This leads to more dilution and/or overly acidic drinks.

This is a recognized issue, hence the discussion of what many call “rich” simple syrup, made 2:1 with double the amount of sugar as water. This helps a great deal, but is it enough?

He reminds us of David Embury as well — we may have thought some of his ratios a bit wonky, but it’s easy to gloss over the ratio of syrup to water in the simple syrup he made, which was basically liquid sugar. Embury, plus at least one book by William Terrington from 1870, call for a 3:1 syrup!

I’m at the point now where I only use 2:1 simple syrup, for the simple reason that 1:1 simple syrup is by no means a substitute for the same volume of granulated sugar. I’m going to try a small batch of the more concentrated syrup and see where that gets me … mmm, cocktail experimentation.

Moving on!

It killed me to have to miss the 2010 edition Tales of the Cocktail, especially because the quality of the seminars truly shone this year. One of the more talked-about sessions (and one of the ones I was most annoyed to have missed) was The Science of Stirring, taught by Dave Arnold (Director of Culinary Technology at the French Culinary Institute in New York), bartender/beverage director Eben Klemm and Death & Co. bartender Thomas Waugh.

Dave has written another pair of epic posts about the seminar and the cocktail-making science explored within. Part 1 deals with shaking, stirring, temperature and dilution, and Part 2 with temperature and dilution, texture, notes on batching drinks and an epilogue from Waugh about how all this science stuff affects a real live bartender. Here’s the brief introduction:

Cocktail shaking is a violent activity. If you shake for around 12-15 seconds (though shaking longer won’t hurt), and if you aren’t too lethargic, neither the type of ice you use nor your shaking style will appreciably affect the temperature or dilution of your drink. Shaking completely chills, dilutes and aerates a drink in around 15 seconds, after which the drink stops changing radically and reaches relative equilibrium. Shaking is basically insensitive to bartender-induced variables. See my post on The Science of Shaking. [Definitely read this if you haven't already. -- CT]

Stirring is different. Think of stirring as inefficient shaking. It can take over 2 minutes of constant stirring to do what shaking can accomplish in 15 seconds. No one stirs a drink for 2 minutes, so the drink never reaches an equilibrium point. All the bartender-induced variables – size of ice, speed of stirring, duration of stirring, etc. — make a difference in stirred cocktails, so bartender skill is very important in a stirred cocktail.

Because stirring doesn’t reach equilibrium, stirred drinks are warmer and less diluted than shaken cocktails. Stirred drinks, unlike shaken ones, are not aerated. Stirring does not alter the texture of a drink –it merely chills and dilutes. A properly diluted cocktail stored at -5 degrees Celsius in a freezer is indistinguishable from a properly stirred one.

There’s a lot of reading here, and it does get quite scientific (for those of you who might be scared away by such things, don’t — it’s really fascinating and worth the effort). If the science is too much you can always skip down to Waugh’s final list of things for the everyday bartender to remember, the first of which you can begin implementing right away (if you haven’t already copied it from seeing better bartenders do it when you go out):

1. Chill your mixing (stirring) glass — ice works, as does a fridge or freezer.

This is all fascinating stuff, and a must-read for everyone interested in executing a properly stirred cocktail.

 

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