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Plush Life

August 19, 1993|JONATHAN GOLD

Slauson Avenue, as it courses toward Ladera Heights, is something of a late-'50s museum, with smart '50s flower shops and groovy '50s motels, spectacular '50s neon, and Sputnik-era churches that appear untouched by time. At the top of Slauson stands the boarded-up hulk of the Wich Stand, which was the apex of nutty '50s coffee-shop architecture when it opened as a drive-in 35 years ago, and whose javelin-through-roof look still seems at least as contemporary as "The Jetsons."

Across the street from the Wich Stand is the Jet Age building that houses the swank Creole restaurant La Louisanne, and to come in for dinner here might be one of the most profoundly nostalgic acts a native Angeleno can commit. La Louisanne might have good crawfish etoufee and the house band might play a little too much Grover Washington, Jr., but otherwise, this restaurant is a step back to Los Angeles 1959, when people dressed for dinner, sipped Tom Collinses instead of Chardonnay, the parking lot was filled with brand-new Buicks and appetizers at a fancy restaurant meant soup-or-salad instead of duck-sausage calzone.

When I was a 5-year-old living a few blocks south of here, the La Louisanne space was occupied by a restaurant called Poor Richard's, a musky, Shirley Temple-serving wonderland decked out with teddy bears, whizzing toy trains and giant pandas swinging on trapezes. Poor Richard's was the favorite special-occasion restaurant of just about everybody in kindergarten at 54th Street School. Several years later, the building became the site of the best reggae club in town, where dub poets ruled and deejays blasted Augustus Pablo records through a really good sound system.

Now the restaurant is plush and Continental, lit with a few dim spots and about a million tiny green lights, too dark to read the menu without holding it up to one of the globe candles that decorate every table. In a velvet coffin of a dining room in back, you settle into chairs that are a cross between plush CEO-model office chairs and the pods from the old Monsanto ride at Disneyland. You try to avoid staring at the mooning lovers that sometimes seem to occupy every single table. In the dining room closer to the bar, which is where you should be if you want to see the band, the music is very loud, and the tables are almost as close together as you'd expect them to be at a nightclub.

Early in the evening, the restaurant is packed with youngish African-Americans in prim dresses and three-piece-suits, in for a drink and an hour of jazz after a long day at the office. After nine comes the cocktail crowd, in elegant silk caftans and snap-brim hats, and R & B oldies work their way into the mix. A occasional sweat-shirted music exec works his way through a platter of fried seafood, but for the most part, all the men here wear suits.

Here comes the maitre d', looking diffidently at you over his shoulder as he leads you to a table near the front. He figures you for newcomers to the place, and as soon as you are seated he mumbles his recommendations: "Number one, the file gumbo. Number two, the jambalaya. Number three, the etoufee."

The gumbo, black and dangerous, thickened with file instead of the dread okra, is crammed full of sausage, crab and shrimp, and has a complex yet powerful spiciness that tails off with the file top note of newly mown hay. The jambalaya is a saucy thing, a tasty, soupy glop that seems to include at least as much spicy tomato sauce as rice, blanketed with chicken, shrimp, sliced hot sausage, smoky slivers of ham--distinctly an inelegant plate of food but basically a good one, and served in a portion that could probably sate the entire defensive line of the Rams. Crawfish etoufee involves a dozen or so crawfish, a mound of rice and a dark, peppery sauce that is the single most delicious thing in this restaurant.

With the dinners here comes salad--iceberg lettuce, shredded carrots, blue-cheese dressing on the side--or a decent bowl of clam chowder, the creamy kind, dotted with tender bits of clam.

After the big three dishes, the food can be hit or miss at La Louisanne--the Cajun-spiced grilled catfish with crab stuffing is terrific while the snapper is just OK, the tomato-y chicken Creole sort of boring while the Southern-fried chicken is crisp and tasty, the Cajun chicken has obviously been reheated, the stuffed crab--read, in the Creole manner, "crab stuffing"--not as interesting by itself as the same substance sandwiched between two juicy pork chops. La Louisanne is pretty good for Los Angeles Creole, which is not to say it would be a threat to the great Creole New Orleans restaurants Eddie's or Dooky Chase. But it's as close to New Orleans as you're going to get within five minutes of the Santa Monica Freeway.

* La Louisanne

5812 Overhill Drive (at Slauson), Los Angeles, (213) 293-5073. Dining room open Monday-Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday 11:30 a.m. to midnight, Saturday noon to midnight, Sunday noon to 10 p.m. All major credit cards accepted. Full bar. Jackets for men recommended. Guarded lot parking. Lunch for two, food only, $16-$20; dinner for two, food only, $28-$44.

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